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Chapter 32

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« on: March 15, 2023, 09:54:45 am »

THERE were five men seated at the round table In the magnificent dining room of the Château de Lusigny, an ancient palace in the heart of the rich wine-growing county near Bordeaux. The windows were wide open and the sun shone upon the worn tapestries with their mellowed colouring, upon the glass and silver on the table, and upon the drawn and anxious faces of the men who had just finished their luncheon. There was a pleasant caress of the sea in the soft wind that drifted across the plain of vineyards into the room. In the far distance the masts and spires of Bordeaux gleamed through the faint mist.

“What time does the boat sail?” Van Pleyden asked a little abruptly.

“At any hour you wish, my friend,” his host, the Marquis de Lusigny replied. “All is prepared. It is not luxury that one can offer, but it is at least safety. Also, there is three million dollars’ worth of the finest cargo on board that ever left the port.”

“Badly wanted, to judge from my cable advices,” Lord Edward Keynsham remarked, with a smile.

“Let’s get down to hard facts on this matter,” a middle-aged man, with the square jaw and keen eyes of an American, remarked from De Lusigny’s side. “We have met here, I take it, for a final conference.”

“That is so,” Keynsham agreed. “We have to come to a decision. We can’t play about with the matter any longer. Marquis, and you all, gentlemen, have I your permission as chairman of our syndicate to run over the facts once more before I make my appeal to you?”

“It would be a gracious act,” the Marquis said politely. “We, at any rate, have time to spare.”

“Not sure we don’t talk too much,” the American, whose name was Bowman, muttered. “We wasted most of our time in London talking. Will Meadows was the only one who went for the goods.”

“Precisely,” Keynsham interrupted, “and Will Meadows found out that American methods don’t go over here. Dick Van Pleyden, although he had a narrow escape, is beginning to realise that too. That’s why I want you all to listen to me so carefully. I can show you the only way to safety. If you take my advice---and remember, after all, I am the head of our organisation---we will pull through. If you insist upon hiring more of these outside ruffians and going back yourselves to London to start a riot, I tell you frankly you are going to lose. There is no question of one of us going against the others. I and any one else who might disapprove will simply stay idle and wait for what is coming, but we shall know all the time that we are done for.”

“Gentlemen,” the Marquis pleaded, “I am an original member of the organisation. I consider that it was Lord Edward and I who started our wonderful syndicate. I claim therefore to speak with authority. I have never hesitated to use any means to gain my end, and I have stood shoulder to shoulder with all of you, when the time came to fight, but this I say is not the time. Let us listen attentively to our chief.”

A man who was seated by Van Pleyden’s side yawned. He was dressed in rough tweeds, good-looking, although his tired eyes rather contradicted his air of youth. His name was Sam Clowes, and it was only a few years since he had been the most favoured bachelor in New York society.

“Let’s hear what Keynsham proposes,” he suggested. “We all want the same thing, so that we can sleep at night in our heels. If Keynsham can show us how to get it, that’s all we want.”

“I may be a little retrospective,” Keynsham began. “That I cannot help. I want to remind you of the time when Lusigny and I, Sam Clowes and Bowman here, came together in New York the year after the war.”

“If we speak of those days,” the Marquis interrupted, “we will drink my Château Mouton Rothschild 1906. A flask is awaiting us.”

He clapped his hands. A maître d’hôtel appeared almost immediately. In response to a whispered order he swept the glasses from the table, replaced them with fresh ones, and produced a curiously shaped decanter, from which he poured a wine which seemed to have the faint perfume and colour of violets. The Marquis smelt his glass anxiously and nodded approval. Lord Edward continued.

“We were all practically on the lookout for adventure. The spirit of the war was still in our blood. We wanted to fight. I am studying how to make my résumé as brief as possible and I need not go into details. We four---Bowman, you, Marquis and you, Sam---started one of the first---I hate the other word, so I shall call it---illegal wine and spirit merchant’s businesses in the States. Sam found most of the capital. I was able to give something which was even more important---the clientele and procedure of one of the oldest established wine merchants in the world, with steamers of their own, which had been used to carry wine and bring back dried fruits, and a far-reaching connection. Presently Van Pleyden joined us---we needed more fighting men in those days---and later on Will Meadows and his brother Tom. Bowman here was with us from the first, but he did not sign on as one of the organisation until later. I won’t dwell upon our success. It has been fabulous. But---there’s always a but---we had to fight for it.”

“Nothing arrives in this world without fighting,” the Marquis murmured.

“I am not attempting an apologia,” Keynsham went on. “We all understand one another. We had to fight and sometimes we had to kill, but there’s not one of us until this visit to England who ever killed in cold blood. What I want to point out, gentlemen, is that every one of these fights---and we had many others in which extremes did not happen---were honest-to-God fights, with as much right on one side as the other. The only time we were really trapped by the police without any dirty work, and the police came without guns, we parted with the stuff without a blow. The world can call us what they like---pirates, freebooters, anything you please, but we played the game.”

“I interrupt our dear friend for one moment,” the Marquis said, holding his glass in his hand, “to beg your appreciation of this marvellous wine. I want you, while you drink, to think about it. Presently there is a Léoville of even more ancient vintage. That, I am afraid, for those who sail to-night may be our stirrup cup.”

There was a little murmur of praise for the wine, which they sipped almost reverently. They all loved the Marquis and they knew his one hobby in life.

“Some years after we had started,” Lord Edward went on, “Brandt joined us, and the two Meadows. Brandt had not been with us a month before he was up against Commissioner Dane. We have to take Brandt’s word for what happened. According to him, he had stuffed the Commissioner’s pockets three times, but the man got more rapacious every month. Very well. I agree, if that was so, that Dane had to go---and Dane went. The Meadows, as you know, joined the organisation while I was yachting in the East, and I know less about them than any one. This I do know, however, they were hot-headed and nervous at the same time. They refused advice and very often disobeyed actual instructions. They were impossible to handle in London, and they did the most foolish thing they could possibly have attempted, when they tried to raid Grimmett’s and killed the manager. That was a crime in cold blood, differing from any we have ever committed. It may have been that they were more anxious to get at our records than we have been. They certainly had more cause, but they were always killers. Anyhow, it seemed to dawn on them at the last minute that London was not New York, and they dropped out. They must be back in the States by now, and safe I should think.”

Van Pleyden fidgeted nervously in his chair.

“Well,” he intervened, “this is an interesting chat of yours, Keynsham, but what’s it leading to? You have got us all down here. That’s all right. You seem to be in the know, and I daresay they were getting wise to us in London, but you don’t suppose Sam here and I---or Bowman either, for the matter of that---are very anxious to board this steamer to-night and go back to New York, leaving that safe of ours to be opened by an English Cabinet Minister.”

“We are all in the same boat,” Keynsham said gravely, “and let me tell you this---because it is the truth---I never liked Brandt and he never liked me. He was not a man to be trusted. He didn’t understand our code of honour. He didn’t understand my personal code. He knew that for years I have admired his wife. I don’t need to tell you that he had no cause for real jealousy in that. No woman could have lived with Brandt and have continued to feel any affection for him. On the other hand, she and I, though we met sometimes, met absolutely as friends and nothing more. For some reason or other, Brandt believed that he would find me in his house that Sunday he returned. He didn’t. There was never any question of my being there. He found that poor little actor fellow, engaged in a perfectly harmless discussion with his wife on business matters, and he killed him. He was a foul-tempered, evil-thinking fellow, and I say that, although he’s dead. . . . You know what that meant to us---Brandt being locked up. It was his year for taking charge of our safe---we had taken it in turn for years, and there had never been any trouble. Three times I tried to obtain an interview with Brandt to get the key: He refused to see me. Three days before he was hung, with all the influence I could command, I did everything I could to approach him. He still refused to see me. His dying act was the most sinister, the most unsportsmanlike, the most vicious thing possible. He sent that key to the Home Secretary, on pretence of making him executor for his wife. That’s how the key came into Sir Humphrey’s possession. That is where, for the first time since we started the most amazing enterprise this generation has known, we find ourselves in danger---in real and terrible danger.”

“I had my hands on the fellow’s throat once,” Van Pleyden muttered. “If we hadn’t been interrupted, he would have told the truth.”

“Probabilities or possibilities are off,” Keynsham pointed out. “That key is now beyond our reach. The only way of attempting even to gain possession of it would be by means of a series of cold-blooded murders. That does not come into our scheme. It never has come into our scheme. It never shall.”

“What are we to do, then?” Sam Clowes drawled. “Sit down and wait for what’s coming to us?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Keynsham rejoined. “What you have got to do is to accept the inevitable and trust in me. I want you, Bowman and you, Sam and you, Van Pleyden, to clear off by that boat to-night. I want the Marquis to remain here quietly, where he spends most of his time, on his own estates. I have a plane at the aerodrome here, and I shall leave to-night for Le Bourget and cross over, if I can, at dawn. I shall be in London to-morrow, and I promise you that if there are any means in this world, short of murder, of obtaining that key or of getting our records back, I will adopt them. I have ideas. I have something to go on, because Katherine Brandt, when she knows the whole truth, will be on our side. All that we have to do is to see that the Home Secretary does not turn that key. If it can be done, I shall do it.”

The Marquis clapped his hands. There were more glasses, and a strange little silence, during which the butler served wine from another flask thick with dust and cobwebs. They sipped it thoughtfully---the Marquis’ head thrown back, his eyes closed, his rather prominent Adam’s apple protruding, his expression that of a man indulging in a reverent orgy of appreciation.

“It is divine,” he pronounced. “There is nothing else like it in the world. The Mouton Rothschild was a wine for the gods; this is a wine for us. . . . Gentlemen, I propose that we leave our business in the hands of Lord Edward Keynsham. He has been the presiding genius of our organisation, he has seen us all restored to fortune and great wealth under his beneficent guidance. Now that trouble has come, we should be fools indeed if we did not trust in him.”

“I’m with you,” Van Pleyden assented. “We will abandon any further campaign in London and leave the matter in your hands. I will sail to-night with Sam and Bowman. This fruit-carrying craft of ours, Marquis, I presume has wireless?”

“Naturally,” the latter agreed. “The best and finest installation.”

“We leave then,” Van Pleyden continued, “on the understanding that if Keynsham should fail, we are permitted to alter the destination of the steamer. I know a place where we should be safe for a time, until we could hear from England and know how to make our plans.”

“It is agreed,” Keynsham declared. “I shall leave for England myself in an hour or so. I only regret,” he added, “our forthcoming disruption. Against treachery from any living person we were prepared and insured. Against the dead, ours must be a more subtle fight. If the Marquis will lend me a car, I will go and see how my mechanic is getting on. The sooner I am back in London, the better.”

They all trooped out to see him off, wrung his hand and watched the car depart down the long ribbon of road, a straight line through the far-reaching plain of vines.

“A great leader of a mighty enterprise,” the Marquis murmured, a note of admiration in his tone. “He kept the spirit of warfare alight in us and filled our pockets.”

“A fine fellow,” Van Pleyden agreed. “All the same, I’m glad that it is he who is going back to beard that old Johnny and not I!”
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