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Chapter 27


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« on: February 20, 2023, 10:43:34 am »

THE actual moments that passed before the door was flung open must have been almost negligible, yet to Patricia they seemed interminable. To the man who stood now covered by his own revolver they might have been a lifetime. There was no doubt but that it was not so much cowardice as blank and complete astonishment which robbed him temporarily of the power of speech or movement. He only recovered himself when he heard the babel of voices in the hall and found the room invaded. An officer in field-grey uniform crossed the threshold. A sergeant and a dozen privates pressed after him. Then for the first time the Count found his voice.

“Who the mischief are you?” he demanded.

“Major Huber—Swiss Infantry,” was the prompt reply. “Arrest that man, sergeant!”

The sergeant and two privates seized hold of the Count just a little too late. He was recovering himself. He sent the first private sprawling. His place was taken by another, however. All the time Charles’s gun was perfectly steady.

“I can shoot him if you give the word,” he declared.

“So could I,” the officer, who had withdrawn his revolver from its holster, replied. “My job is to arrest him, though.”

The Count was himself again but a few seconds too late. The first private was still on the floor, the sergeant, who had staggered back after a fierce blow on the cheek, had recovered himself and was holding his prisoner’s arm. Two other privates obeyed the word of command. At least a half-dozen men had their grip upon him. He ceased to struggle.

“What is the charge, Major?” he asked.

The officer turned towards the entrance. He made a sign to the man who was standing on duty there. The door was flung open. Beatrice von Ballinstrode, with a soldier on either side, entered.

“Baroness,” the Major said, “are you able to identify this man?”

She advanced into the full light of the room. Charles very nearly dropped his revolver. She was probably the calmest person there. She looked him in the face, then turned back to the Major.

“Certainly,” she answered. “I was unfortunately married to him eighteen years ago under the name of Schrafft—Paul Schrafft.”

“You are positively able to identify him, Baroness?”

“Absolutely,” she said.

“The charge is, then,” the Major said, “that you have been for fifteen years, Paul Schrafft, a deserter from the Swiss Army. Have you anything to say about that?”

“It is you who identify me?” he asked, looking across the room at Beatrice.

“It is I. Do you know why I do it? I see that you do. Major, I spent the night at a little village not far from here at the château of my cousins. This man here, still my husband, I suppose, sent one of his company of thieves all the way there to steal my passport. He was afraid that it was my intention to interfere in a little business he was engaged upon. He was quite right, but I arrived here all the same and, I should imagine,” she continued, her eyes sweeping the room, “just in time.”

The Major saluted.

“We are obliged, Baroness,” he said.

“Is my presence required further?” she asked.

“Certainly not. Sergeant, you may remove the prisoner. Allow me to see you to your car, Baroness. Which of you gentlemen is Mr. Mildenhall?”

Charles stepped forward.

“I’m here.”

The Major smiled.

“I shall be returning directly,” he said, “for the favour of a few minutes’ conversation with you.”

There was a tramping of feet. In a moment or two the room was empty except for Patricia, Blute and Charles. Marius Blute was smoothing his hair before a mirror after a hurried glance down the avenue. Patricia had thrown herself into a chair. Her own hair was in wild disorder and she had torn her skirt in the convulsive leap forward when she had snatched the revolver from the arrested man. Charles was on his knees by her side. Nevertheless, although she was very pale, her eyes were open and she forced a smile as she felt the pressure of his fingers.

“If I could have some water,” she murmured.

“Look round the room—there’s a good fellow,” Charles asked Blute.

The latter looked round the room in vain, then he stepped out into the hall. He returned, followed by a chauffeur and a plump lady dressed in black. Charles welcomed them gladly.

“That’s you, is it, Holmes?” he exclaimed. “Thank heavens! And you, Madame Renouf!”

“We’re here, sir,” the chauffeur said, “but it’s been a funny business!”

“It has indeed,” Madame Renouf assented. “Allow me, sir.”

She poured some water from the carafe which she was carrying into a tumbler.

“The poor young lady,” she murmured sympathetically. “She’s had a nasty shock and no mistake.”

“I shall be all right in a minute,” Patricia declared.

“Tim’s gone, sir,” the chauffeur announced gloomily. “He smelt a rat, Tim did, and he let on to the Count. The Count shot him down just as you or I would brush away a fly. Thank God he’s off the premises, sir. He came here and said he’d leased the château from you for six months. If it hadn’t been your own voice I heard on the phone last night, sir, I should have been off to-night. They made me answer the phone and wouldn’t let me say a word on my own.”

“Plane all right?” Charles asked.

“Going like a humming bird, sir.”

“Johnson there? That’s his name, isn’t it? The pilot.”

“He’s around all right, sir, but again he isn’t, so to speak. The Count told him he might want the plane this morning. Never said a word about your coming. Johnson’s off in hiding, he is, but I can put my hand on him in a minute.”

Patricia sat up.

“I’m absolutely all right,” she announced. “Charles, do you realize what has happened?”

She threw her arms round his neck. The housekeeper glanced discreetly away.

“And me, I think,” Mr. Blute suggested.

Patricia embraced him without hesitation.

“That,” he remarked as he withdrew himself a little awkwardly, “is the first time I have kissed a lady for twelve years.”

“It’s been worth while waiting, hasn’t it, dear?” she laughed.

“Don’t you try your tricks on me!” he warned her. “Remember, you’re as good as a married woman!”

“There is nothing that could go wrong, now, is there?” she asked, a great relief shining out of her eyes.

Blute escorted her to the window.

“Our four guards are there smoking cigarettes and guarding the treasure. The Count is seated in the middle of that lorry which has just passed out through the gate, two soldiers either side of him and two behind. I never thought I’d see the end of the Three G’s crowd. Whichever way our plans lie now we are safe and when opportunity arises I shall most certainly drink the health of that brave lady who has got us out of this mess.”

“We are returning to earth again,” Charles said.

“It’s a mercy, sir,” the housekeeper declared, “because I’m hoping you’ll fancy some luncheon, even if it is late.”

“The Count’s been sort of funny all this morning,” Madame Renouf remarked. “I could never get him to tell me how many to cook for but there’s enough for ten or twelve anyhow and something over if you’ve men to feed.”

“Who’s looking after my cellar here?” Charles asked.

“Mr. Needham’s been doing it until the last few days, sir,” she declared. “He felt like I did about the Count and he refused to give up the keys. There was a sort of scramble and Needham didn’t get the best of it. He’d have liked to have got away, but this place has been like one of them fortresses, sir. There have been men watching at every door. You weren’t very fond of strangers in your day, Mr. Mildenhall, sir,” she remarked, “but the Count, he was a lot worse.”

“What I want to know now,” Charles said patiently, “is—where are the cellar keys?”

“I have them here, sir,” she announced, producing them. “I made that other man—the Count’s valet, he was really—hand them over every night. I’ve a couple of maids in the kitchen. They weren’t in with the rough lot at all—they’re Swiss girls I found myself. They can be getting on with the luncheon and you’d better let me be seeing what there is I can bring you up from the cellar. I know where everything is. I’m thinking it’s a cocktail that the young lady and you gentlemen will be wanting—and no wonder with the morning you’ve been through.”

“I’d come with you, Madame Renouf,” Charles declared, “but I want to speak to the Major before he slips away. Bring us up vermouth, gin, Cointreau, lemons, champagne and white wine—all you can carry.”

“There’s a cellar boy with a wine basket,” she confided. “The Count was a terrible man but he knew the way the gentry did things. We’re all very curious down below but I’ll be asking questions a little later on.”

“And ice, Madame Renouf,” Charles called out.

The housekeeper looked round in mild reproof.

“As though I’d be forgetting such a thing!” she exclaimed reproachfully. “I’ll go and see Mr. Needham at once. He’ll perhaps be able to look after you now he knows the others have gone. In three-quarters of an hour’s time, sir, I shall be able to serve lunch and if those are your men in the park, sir, with the luggage, they can come in and have a bite in the servants’ hall when they’ve a mind for it.”

“What a heavenly person!” Patricia breathed as Madame Renouf left the room.

“She’s a character,” Charles grinned. “She comes from Geneva and is really more French than Swiss. My head seems to be going round still,” he went on after a moment’s pause. “I’ll never forget the shock when that fellow Strauss met us in the hall. I felt there was something wrong.”

Blute lit a cigarette. Charles rose to his feet.

“Patricia,” he said, “I think I ought to go and speak to the Baroness.”

“I should think so,” the girl declared. “Charles, she was absolutely splendid. She faced that man, who looked as though he was dying to kill her, like a lioness!”

The Major made his appearance. Charles went forward to meet him.

“Major,” he said, “I hope you’re not in a hurry. You’ll stay and have lunch with us?”

“That’s very kind of you. Are you sure it won’t be inconvenient?”

“Not in the least,” Charles assured him. “This prize criminal you’ve laid by the heels seems to have kept most of my staff. My housekeeper tells me that luncheon for as many people as we like will be ready in three-quarters of an hour. That should give us almost time enough to drink as many cocktails as the occasion demands.”

The Major smiled.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, “that delightful American and English custom! The cocktails—yes. Delightful.”

Needham and the chauffeur appeared with a tray and the cellar boy with the bottles. One of the maids brought glasses and the ice.

“We were in a hole here,” Charles admitted. “We walked in expecting nothing of this sort and I suppose we were a little foolish, but anyhow the Count got our revolvers. He brought us over to the window to see a massacre. He was holding his weapon all the time and I think he’d made up his mind to shoot me. He saw the lorry full of soldiers turning in at the gate and for a moment he relaxed. Miss Grey gave one jump, snatched his revolver from his fingers while he was staring out of the window and threw it over to me. We haven’t had time to say a word about it yet and however long we live I don’t suppose we shall ever forget it. I’ve been in a few tight corners in my time but I shall never forget this one.”

“If you are Major Mildenhall of the British Intelligence, sir,” the Major declared, “you certainly have. We knew all about your having this château unofficially, but of course we couldn’t approach you in any way.”

“Yes, I’m Mildenhall, but I should have been a dead Mildenhall instead of a live one if it hadn’t been for this girl,” Charles confided as he escorted her to the table.

It was a very cheerful little cocktail party. Afterwards the Major drew Charles on one side.

“I know so little of what has occurred yet,” he confessed, “that you must forgive me if I make a faux pas, but I speak for a moment, with your permission, of the Baroness von Ballinstrode, that poor woman who was deceived into marrying Paul Schrafft—”

“I was on my way out to talk to her when you entered,” Charles interrupted, feeling a sudden qualm. “I feel rather ashamed that she would have left without a single word.”

“My dear fellow,” the Major said earnestly, “she wished it. She was perfectly honest but her one idea was to get away. She was in a highly emotional state, she had braced herself for a great effort. I thought she played her part magnificently. She wishes to drop right out of everything. I have given her a card to the Chef de la Gare at Zürich and also a note on the back of one of my cards to the passport authorities. She will be perfectly all right now. There was not a thing she wanted but to get away. She had everything necessary for the voyage, plenty of money, Letter of Credit, everything. She will probably catch the last train that runs into Monte Carlo and there she assures me that she will find one of her oldest friends. If I say one thing you will not think it an impertinence?”

“How could I?” Charles protested.

“She did not want to see you again. There, I do not mind telling you that, Major Mildenhall, because you know which way to take it. I felt a lump in my throat when she found the words to tell me not to let you come out. You see, I am a man of sentiment. I understood.”

He held out his hand. Mildenhall gripped it warmly. They all clamoured for another cocktail. The Major raised his glass.

“To a brave woman!” he said softly.

They drank the toast in rapt silence. They put down their glasses empty. The door was opened. They seemed suddenly transported into another country. Needham, the typical grey-haired English butler, stood upon the threshold.

“Luncheon is served, sir,” he announced.

“Had a pretty rough time, I’m afraid, Needham,” he remarked, pausing for a moment to shake hands with his servant.

“An exceedingly uncomfortable period of great anxiety, sir,” the man admitted. “Will you drink white wine or red, sir, with your luncheon?”

“The white wine to start with and then champagne.”

“It is indeed a festival day,” the Major, who loved champagne, declared as he unfolded his napkin.

Fortunately for the plans of the host the Major was obliged to be back in barracks at three o’clock. Immediately after his departure Blute drew his two young companions back into the reception room.

“My young friends,” he said, “I have a proposition to make to you. Thanks to our host’s marvellous telephone service I have already received the best of news. Mr. Benjamin is at Meurice’s hotel in Paris. He is in the best of health, his wife is with him and also one daughter. I shall never forget his amazement at hearing my voice. The situation is exactly as I feared with regard to our correspondence. Not one line has he received from me. One hundred communications of various sorts has his secretary addressed to me. The main line is still open to Paris. I with my guards and baggage propose to leave at five o’clock. With regard to Miss Grey, Mr. Benjamin desired me to say that no one in the world would be more welcome if she chose to accompany me. He wished me to add that her post awaits her and that her salary has accumulated. I told him that I believed she had found a more suitable engagement.”

“Excellent!” Charles declared. “There really is nothing more that either I or Miss Grey could do for you?”

“Not a thing,” Blute assured them. “I’m not much for the other sex myself, Mr. Mildenhall, but I think you’re to be envied.”

The two men shook hands warmly.

“And I’ve just one thing to say to you in reply, Blute,” Charles said with his hand on the other’s shoulder. “You never said a word when I nearly let you down, you never even looked what you must have felt. That was the action and the reserve of a great gentleman.”

“Ah, well,” Blute said, “you knew.”

Half-an-hour later he watched their plane pass westwards—a glittering speck in the sky.

THE END

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