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Chapter 21

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« on: March 14, 2023, 12:03:40 pm »

THE conference seemed doomed to an indefinite prolongation. Even as Pank was speaking, there was a knock at the door and the orderly presented himself.

“Sir Henry Topps to see you, sir,” he announced.

“Show him in,” Matterson enjoined. “Now we shall see, Pank, whether there is any truth in that amazing statement of yours.”

“Who is Sir Henry Topps?” Inspector Smithers asked.

“Senior partner in Lord Edward’s firm,” was the brief reply.

Sir Henry Topps was duly ushered in. He was a very personable, rather elderly gentleman of military appearance, wearing an eyeglass, a fob and a four-in-hand tie with the distinction of one to whom such things are part of their everyday life. He was warmly welcomed by Colonel Matterson, with whom he had some slight acquaintance, introduced to Smithers and Pank, whose presence he seemed to realise with mild surprise, and invited to seat himself in the easy-chair reserved for visitors of distinction.

“May I?” he enquired, drawing a thin platinum and gold cigarette case from his pocket. “I see that you gentlemen have been indulging.”

“Certainly,” Matterson acquiesced courteously. “I would offer you my box, but I am quite sure that yours are better.”

Sir Henry waived the point, and presently the perfume of fine Turkish tobacco was mingled with the odour of very ordinary gaspers.

“Delighted to pay a visit to Scotland Yard,” Sir Henry observed, looking around him with interest. “First time I’ve ever had the pleasure, although General Moore has invited me more than once. What can I do for you, Colonel? A summons to Police Headquarters is somewhat a shock in my quiet life. Is it a poison case? Not an arrest for selling bad stuff or anything of that sort?”

“No, nor ever likely to be, so far as my experience goes,” was the smiling reply. “Such small things don’t come under your notice, I suppose, but you stocked my poor cellar, such as it is, and I never want better stuff. . . . It isn’t a serious matter at all, naturally, Sir Henry, but a slight complication has cropped up, and we would be awfully obliged if you would put us in touch with Lord Edward. We made enquiries but we can’t seem to learn anything definite about his whereabouts.”

“Well, that’s quaint,” Sir Henry declared. “That’s very quaint indeed. I can tell you one thing right away,” he went on, after a moment’s pause---“he’s not exactly where he’s supposed to be.”

There was a little murmur of interest. Sir Henry looked at his cigarette for a moment or two and appeared to develop a new surprise.

“The queerest thing of all,” he observed, “is why you should want to know. There are at least a hundred people in the City of London who, I am quite sure, would give a great deal for the information you are asking for, but where the mischief do the police come in? These two gentlemen too,” he added, indicating Smithers and Pank. “What have they got to do with it?”

“It isn’t exactly easy to explain, for the moment,” Colonel Matterson acknowledged. “If you can let us know where to get hold of Lord Edward, the whole thing will fall into shape at once.”

Sir Henry nodded.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t think Scotland Yard is going into the wine trade just yet, and in any case, we have always to make a clean sweep of it to the police. Lord Edward left with some friends in his yacht for Monaco, but we sent him a wireless which he probably got somewhere near Gibraltar, and he slipped off at Marseilles. The yacht went on to Monaco without him, and I am afraid he had to cancel that luncheon party you may have read about in the Times.”

“At Marseilles,” the Subcommissioner repeated thoughtfully. “Would it be trespassing too much on your good nature, Sir Henry, if I asked you the reason for Lord Edward’s change of plans?”

“Not a bit, my dear fellow,” Sir Henry assured him. “We received a long despatch from our agent in Bordeaux, only a day or two after Keysham had started off for his holiday. Here I can’t mention any names, but it would not interest you, anyhow. Seven of the biggest growers of wine in the Bordeaux district are badly in need of cash. They have enormous stocks, owing to the wonderful vintages of the last few years, and naturally they don’t want to throw them upon the market. We---I think I may say it without boasting---are probably the richest firm of wine merchants in the world. That sounds a little egotistical, but you only have to go to Stubbs and I think they will confirm what I tell you. To support the market, for our own sake as well as theirs, this syndicate want us to do an enormous deal in clarets and brandies, and they begged for a member of the firm to see them at once. Well, there’s the story. Keynsham left his yacht, like the good fellow he is, at Marseilles, and he has gone to Bordeaux to see them.”

Colonel Matterson leaned back in his chair.

“Sounds quite like a romance,” he remarked pleasantly. “It means, I suppose, that we shall have some cheap wine soon.”

“Not necessarily,” Sir Henry assured him. “That’s how we have made our money---having the capital to put down and hold on. We are going to keep that wine, if we buy it, just as long as we would if it were an ordinary purchase, and we are going to sell it at just the same price as we should if we had bought it in the ordinary way. . . . A case or two to a friend, perhaps, Colonel,” he added, with a smile, “but in return you must keep what I have told you secret. If the deal comes off, we want to make our profit.”

“Well, that’s all very interesting,” the Subcommissioner acknowledged. “So Lord Edward is at Bordeaux at the present moment? Would you know where to communicate with him?”

“Certainly,” Sir Henry replied. “Care of our agents there. He may not be actually in the town. He may be at the château of any one of the Syndicate, or they may even have moved up to Paris to complete the deal after the wines have been tasted. Any letters would be forwarded, of course, but the point is this. We want it thought that Keynsham is on the Riviera holiday-making, so naturally there is not much doing in the way of correspondence.”

Rather to Sir Henry’s surprise, the smaller and more insignificant looking of the two men, whose presence in the room had been puzzling him all the time, rose respectfully in his place.

“Might I ask, Sir Henry,” he enquired, “whether you have had any communication from Lord Edward Keynsham during the last few days?”

“Not a line,” was the emphatic reply; “neither do we wish for it. His is a secret mission.”

“You are sure that Lord Edward really undertook it?” the Subcommissioner asked.

“As sure as any one can be humanly sure of anything,” was the somewhat surprised answer.

“But you have heard nothing whatever from him?” Pank repeated.

Sir Henry crossed his legs, tapped another cigarette on the arm of the chair and looked at the questioner through his eyeglass.

“I did not say that,” he objected. “No, we had a reply to our wireless. It was in code and contained one single word, a word which, decoded, meant---‘Will attend to the business mentioned.’ That was despatched from---well, my geography is not very good---but it was within fifty miles of Gibraltar.”

Pank, full of apologies, rose once more to his feet.

“Sir Henry,” he begged, “it might help towards the solution of a little trouble we are in, if you could tell us the names of the guests accompanying Lord Edward.”

“I am beginning to wonder,” Sir Henry said, with a dignified chill in his tone, “whether I have found my way by mistake into the bureau of a society newspaper. However, your question is quickly answered, sir---I have not the slightest idea.”

Pank resumed his seat and the Subcommissioner leaned forward with a deprecatory gesture.

“It was very good of you to come up, Sir Henry,” he acknowledged. “I thought perhaps you might have sent a clerk or your secretary, but to come yourself is a compliment we all appreciate very much.”

“You won’t mind,” Sir Henry observed, as he rose to his feet, “if I confess to some slight curiosity. What is this all about? What has poor Edward done?”

“Nothing whatever, I’m sure,” the Subcommissioner declared hastily. “The only thing was that we thought he might have been able to help us with information concerning a little matter---can’t talk about it just yet---sub judice you see---but if he’s so difficult to get hold of, we must let it be for a time.”

“And meanwhile I must bottle up my curiosity, I suppose,” Sir Henry remarked, with a little grimace. “Good thing I’m not a woman. All I can say is, Colonel, I shall be delighted to give you any further information I can, but come and see me next time. Come and have lunch with us in the cellars. You shall have your information, and if you get home with it a sober man, you’ll be lucky. . . . If I’m writing Edward, shall I let him know the police are after him?”

“I don’t think that would disturb him very much,” Matterson said, smiling, as he walked to the door with his guest.


The Subcommissioner, after exchanging final amenities with his departing visitor, closed the door and returned to his place.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “there doesn’t seem to be any mystery about Keynsham’s disappearance, at any rate. Sir Henry Topps, who has just gone out, is a sheriff of the City of London, the one ambition of whose life it is to become Lord Mayor. He is a family man with a mansion at Esher, and he grows orchids. I feel sure he will do his best to get into touch with Keynsham. In the meantime---what?”

“Is there any news from Chestow Square, sir?” Smithers enquired.

“None whatever. Sir Humphrey’s secretary is in residence there. He reports an increasing pile of letters every morning, but no word whatever from Sir Humphrey.”

“And what about the Savoy, sir?”

“I had a report from them this morning. They have locked up Mrs. Brandt’s rooms, and everything remains exactly as it was. The maid has been through all the trunks carefully and reports that nothing is missing. She has repacked and the door is sealed up.”

“I think,” Pank decided, picking up his hat and smoothing it absently, “that I shall make another attempt to discover something more about Lord Edward’s companions on that night. The connection between him personally and Brandt seems absolutely nonexistent. They are men of an utterly different outlook and they never appear to have come into contact. If we knew more about those companions of Lord Edward’s who were with him that night, it might be helpful. I think that I must pay another visit to Norwich.”

“The matter is in your own hands, Pank,” the Subcommissioner reminded him gloomily. “The only thing I should like to impress upon you both is that none of this is helping directly towards getting Sir Humphrey back.”

“Direct means don’t seem to lead us anywhere,” Pank remarked.

“I think,” Colonel Matterson went on, “that the terror of the Chief’s life at the present moment is that some morning one of the sensational papers will discover the truth.”

“Might come at any moment,” Inspector Smithers commented.

“There’s another danger too,” the Subcommissioner confided. “Sir Humphrey has a sister who is a great believer in the Press and apparently thinks very little of us. She has promised to keep quiet for one more week and no longer. Supposing nothing happens and she goes, for instance, to the Daily Thunderer—can’t you imagine the headlines in the paper the next morning?


That’s the sort of thing we shall have to put up with.”

“I believe,” Pank pronounced confidently, “that the solution of Sir Humphrey’s disappearance would come in five minutes, if we could have Lord Edward Keynsham in this room.”

“Why?” Colonel Matterson asked.

“Because, sir,” Pank pointed out, “in spite of appearances, there must have been something between him, Brandt and Sir Humphrey, which we haven’t got hold of yet. Why did Lord Edward Keynsham want Brandt reprieved? Why did Brandt, during his last few hours, when a doomed man as a rule jumps at any chance, refuse to see Lord Edward? Why did Lord Edward call upon Mrs. Brandt? And why, the next day, did she leave the Savoy Court to dine with Sir Humphrey and disappear from the face of the earth?”

“More important still,” Colonel Matterson put in, “why, after waiting for her for nearly two hours, did Sir Humphrey, left alone in the room for ten minutes, apparently walk out of the window and disappear?”

“All these things are connected, sir,” Pank insisted. “It is no good thinking of them in the concrete. There is a single motive underneath the whole business.”

“You are right, Pank,” the Subcommissioner declared, striking the table with the flat of his hand, “and, bear this in mind---it is a motive big enough to make one of the most popular young peers in the country, who is also a millionaire, risk his reputation, to lock the lips of a famous woman like Katherine Brandt, and to involve in its meshes a Cabinet Minister whose life has been one of entire discretion.”

“And I expect, when the truth comes out,” Inspector Smithers said bitterly, “it will all seem so easy. The amateurs in their easy-chairs will shake with laughter, and it won’t even make a plot for a writer of detective stories.”

Pank glanced at his watch and rose to his feet.

“If you will excuse me, sir,” he begged, “I think I will run down to Norwich again for a few hours. I’ll be back to-morrow. If not, I will telephone.”

The Subcommissioner nodded. There were lines underneath his eyes and he was really looking very worried indeed.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I pursue my usual custom. Go about your business your own way. But remember this. The honour of the department, perhaps its very existence in its present form, is in your hands. Sir Humphrey Rossiter must be back in Whitehall a week from to-day.”
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