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17: On the Track

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Author Topic: 17: On the Track  (Read 40 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 10:53:01 am »

"Le vrai moyen d'être trompé c'est de se croire plus fin que les autres."

I stole out of the house before daybreak the next morning, and riding to Yarmouth, took a very early and (with perhaps a subtle appropriateness) a very fishy train to London.

So ill equipped was I to contend with a financier of Miste's force that I did not even know the hour at which the London banks opened for business. A general idea, however, that half-past ten would make quite a long enough day for such work made me hope to be in time to frustrate or perchance to catch red-handed this clever miscreant.

The train was due to arrive at Liverpool Street station at ten o'clock, and ten minutes after that hour I stepped from a cab at the door of the great bank in Lombard Street.

"The manager," I said, hurriedly, to an individual in brass buttons and greased hair, whose presence in the building was evidently for a purely ornamental purpose. I was shown into a small glass room like a green-house, where sat two managers, as under a microscope---a living example of frock-coated respectability and industry to half a hundred clerks who were ever peeping that way as they turned the pages of their ledgers and circulated in an undertone the latest chop-house tale.

"Mr. Howard," said the manager, with his watch in his hand. "I was waiting for you."

"Have you cashed the draft?"

"Yes---at ten o'clock. The payee was waiting on the doorstep for us to open. The clerk delayed as long as possible, but we could not refuse payment. Hundred-pound notes as usual. Never trust a man who takes it in hundred-pound notes. Here are the numbers. As hard as you can to the Bank of England and stop them! You may catch him there."

He pushed me out of the room, sending with me the impression that inside the frock-coat, behind the bland gold-rimmed spectacles, there was yet something left of manhood and that vague quality called fight, which is surely hard put to live long between four glass walls.

The cabman, who perhaps scented sport, was waiting for me though I had paid him, and as I drove along Lombard Street I thought affectionately of Miste's long thin neck, and wondered whether there would be room for the two of us in the Bank of England.

The high-born reader doubtless has money in the Funds, and knows without the advice of a penniless country squire that the approach to the Bank of England consists of a porch through which may be discerned a small courtyard. Opening on this yard are three doors, and that immediately opposite to the porch gives entrance to the department where gold and silver are exchanged for notes.

As I descended from the cab I looked through the porch, and there, across the courtyard, I saw the back of a man who was pushing his way through the swing doors. Charles Miste again! I paid the cabman, and noting the inches of the two porters in their gorgeous livery, reflected with some satisfaction that Monsieur Miste would have to reckon with three fairly heavy men before he got out of the courtyard.

There are two swing doors leading into the bank, and the man passing in there glanced back as he crossed the second threshold, giving me, however, naught but the momentary gleam of a white face. Arrived in the large room I looked quickly around it. Two men were changing money, a third bent over the table to sign a note. None of these could be Charles Miste. There was another exit leading to the body of the building.

"Has a gentleman passed through here?" I asked a clerk, whose occupation seemed to consist in piling sovereigns one upon another.

"Yes," he said, through his counting.

"Ah!" thought I. "Now I have him like a rat in a trap."

"He cannot get through?" I said.

"Can't he---you bet," said the young man with much humour.

I hurried on, and at last found the exit to Lothbury.

"Has a gentleman just passed out this way?" I inquired of a porter, who looked sleepy and dignified.

"Three have passed out this five minutes---old gent with a squint, belongs to Coutts's---tall fair man---tall dark man."

"The dark one is mine," I said. "Which way?"

"Turned to the left."

I hurried on with a mental note that sleepy men may see more than they appear to do. Standing on the crowded pavement of Lothbury, I realised that Madame de Clericy was right, and I little better than a fool. For it was evident that I had been tricked, and that quite easily by Charles Miste. To seek him in the throng of the city was futile, and an attempt predestined to failure. I went back, however, to the bank, and handed in the numbers of the stolen notes. Here again I learnt that to refuse payment was impossible, and that all I could hope was that each note changed would give me a clue as to the whereabouts of the thief. Each forward step in the matter showed me more plainly the difficulties of the task I had undertaken, and my own incapacity for such work. Nothing is so good for a man's vanity as contact with a clever scoundrel.

I resolved to engage the entire services of some one who, without being a professed thief-catcher, could at all events meet Charles Miste on his own slippery ground. With the help of the bank manager, I found one, named Sander, an accountant, who made an especial study of the shadier walks of finance, and this man set to work the same afternoon. It was his opinion that Miste had been confined in Paris by the siege, and had only just effected his escape, probably with one of the many permits obtained from the American Minister at this time by persons passing themselves as foreigners.

The same evening I received information from an official source that a man answering to my description of Miste had taken a ticket at Waterloo station for Southampton. The temptation was again too strong for one who had been brought up in an atmosphere and culture of sport. I set off by the mail train for Southampton, and amused myself by studying the faces of the passengers on the Jersey and Cherbourg boats. There was no sailing for Havre that night. At Radley's Hotel, where I had secured a room, I learnt that an old gentleman and lady with their daughter had arrived by the earlier train, and no one else. At the railway station I could hear of none answering to my description.

If Charles Miste had entered the train at Waterloo station, he had disappeared in his shadowy way en route.

During the stirring months of the close of 1870, men awoke each morning with a certain glad expectancy. For myself---even in my declining years---the stir of events in the outer world and near at home is preferable to a life of that monotony which I am sure ages quickly those that live it. Circumstances over which I exercised but a nominal control---a description of human life it appears to me---had thrown my lot into close connection with France, that "light-hearted heroine of tragic story"; and at this time I watched with even a greater eagerness than other Englishmen the grim tragedy slowly working to its close in Paris.

It makes an old man of me to think that some of those who watched the stupendous events of '70 are now getting almost too old to preserve the keenest remembrance of their emotions, while many of the actors on that great stage have passed beyond earthly shame or glory. Keen enough is my own memory of the thrill with which I opened my newspaper, morning after morning, and read that Paris still held out.

Before quitting London, I had heard that the French had recaptured the small town of Le Bourget, in the neighborhood of Paris, and were holding it successfully against the Prussian attack. Telegraphic communication with Paris itself had long been suspended, and we, watchers on the hither side, only heard vague rumours of the doings within the ramparts. It appeared that each day saw an advance in the organisation of the defence. The distribution of food was now carried out with more system, and the defenders of the capital were confident alike of being able to repel assault and withstand a siege.

The Empress had long been in England, whither, indeed, she had fled, with the assistance of a worthy and courageous gentleman, her American dentist, within a few hours of our departure from Fécamp. The Emperor, a broken man bearing the seed of death, had been allowed to join her at Chiselhurst, thus returning to the land where he had found asylum in his early adversity. It is strange how the Buonapartes, from the beginning to the close of their wondrous dynasty, had to deal with England.

The first of that great line died a captive to English arms, the last perished fighting our foes.

"Paris has not fallen yet, has it, sir?" the waiter asked me when he brought my breakfast on the following day---and I think the world talked of little else than Paris that rainy morning. For the siege had now lasted six weeks, and the ring of steel and iron was closing around the doomed city.

The London newspapers had not arrived, so the morning news was passed from mouth to mouth with that eagerness which is no respecter of persons. Strangers spoke to each other in the coffee-room, and no man hesitated to ask a question of his neighbour---the whole world seemed akin. In those days Southampton was the port of discharge for the Indian liners, and the hotel was full, every table being occupied. I looked over the bronzed faces of these administrators, by sword and pen, of our great empire, and soon decided that Charles Miste was not among them. The wisdom that cometh in the morning had, in fact, forced me to conclude that the search for the miscreant was better left in the hands of Mr. Sander and his professional assistants.

At the breakfast table I received a telegram from Sander informing me that Paris still held out. He wired me this advice according to arrangement; for he had decided that Miste, feeling, like all Frenchmen, ill at ease abroad, was only awaiting the surrender to return to Paris, and there begin more active measures to realise his wealth. As soon, therefore, as the city fell I was to hasten thither and there meet Sander.

The arrival of my message occasioned a small stir in the room, and many keen glances were directed towards me as I read it. I handed it to my nearest neighbour, explaining that he in turn was at liberty to pass the paper on. It was not long before the waiter came to me with the request that he might make known to a young French lady travelling alone any news that would interest one of her nationality.

"Certainly," answered I. "Take the telegram to her that she may read it for herself."

"But, sir, she knows no English, and although I understand a little French, I cannot speak it."

"Then bring me the telegram, and point out to me the lady."

"It is the lady who arrived yesterday," answered the waiter. "She came, as I understand, with an old lady and gentleman, but they have left this morning for the Isle of Wight, and she remains alone."

He indicated the fair traveller, and I might have guessed her nationality from the fact that, unlike the Englishwomen present, she was breakfasting in her hat. She was a pretty woman---no longer quite young---with a pale oval face and deep brown hair. As I approached she, having breakfasted, was drawing her veil down over her face, and subsequently attended to her hat with pretty, studied movements of the hands and arms which were essentially French.

She returned my bow with quiet self-possession, and graciously looked to me to speak.

"The waiter tells me," I said in French, "that I am fortunate enough to possess some news which may be of interest to you."

"If it is news of France, Monsieur, I am sur des épingles until I hear it."

I laid the telegram before her, and she looked at it with a pretty shake of the head which wafted to me some faint and pleasant scent.

"Translate, if you please," she said. "I blush for an ignorance of which you might have spared me the confession."

It was a pretty profile that bent over the telegram, and I wished that I had arrived sooner, before she had lowered her veil. She followed my translation with a nod of the head, but did not raise her eyes.

"And this word?" pointing out the name of my agent with so keen an interest that she touched my hand with her gloved fingers. "This word 'Sander,' what is that?"

"That," I answered, "is the name of my agent, 'Sander,' the sender of the telegram."

"Ah---yes, and he is in London?"

"Yes."

"And is he reliable?---excuse my pertinacity, Monsieur---you know, for a Frenchwoman---who has friends at the front----" she gave a little shiver. "Mon Dieu! it is killing."

She gave a momentary glance with wonderful eyes, which made me wish she would look up again. I wondered whom she had at the front.

"Yes, he is reliable," I answered. "You may take this news, Mademoiselle, as absolutely true."

And then, seeing that she was traveling alone, I made so bold as to place my poor services at her disposal. She answered very prettily, in a low voice, and declined with infinite tact. She had no reason, she said, at the moment to trespass on my valuable time, but if I would tell my name she would not fail to avail herself of my offer should occasion arise during her stay in England. I gave her my card, and as her attitude betokened dismissal, returned to my table, accompanied thither by the scowls of some of the young military gentlemen present.

Had I been a younger fellow, open to the fire of any dark eyes, I might have surrendered at discretion to the glance that accompanied her parting bow. As it was, I left her, desiring strongly that she might have need of my service. For reasons which the reader knows, all Frenchwomen were of special interest in my eyes, and this young lady wielded a strong and lively charm, to which I was fully alive so soon as she raised her deep eyes to mine.

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