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The Black Bag Part 21

"Yes, sir; thank you, sir," mumbled the man unhappily; and took instant advantage of the implied permission to go.

Intensely diverted by the recollection of Eccles' abortive attempt to stop him at the door of Number 9, and wondering--now that he came to think of it--why, precisely, young Hallam had deemed it necessary to travel with a body-guard and adopt such furtive methods to enter into as well as to obtain what was asserted to be his own property, Kirkwood turned active attention to the lunch.

Thoughtfully he poured himself a cup of coffee, swallowing it hot and black as it came from the silver pot; then munched the sandwiches.

It _was_ kindly thought of, this early morning repast; Mrs. Hallam seemed more and more a remarkable woman with each phase of her character that she chose to disclose. At odds with him, she yet took time to think of his creature needs!

What could be her motive,--not in feeding him, but in involving her name and fortune in an affair so strangely flavored?... This opened up a desert waste of barren speculation. "What's anybody's motive, who figures in this thundering dime-novel?" demanded the American, almost contemptuously.

And--for the hundredth time--gave it up; the day should declare it, if so hap he lived to see that day: a distant one, he made no doubt. The only clear fact in his befogged and bemused mentality was that he was at once "broke" and in this business up to his ears. Well, he'd see it through; he'd nothing better to do, and--there was the girl:

Dorothy, whose eyes and lips he had but to close his own eyes to see again as vividly as though she stood before him; Dorothy, whose unspoiled sweetness stood out in vivid relief against this moil and toil of conspiracy, like a star of evening shining clear in a stormy sky.

"Poetic simile: I'm going fast," conceded Kirkwood; but he did not smile.

It was becoming quite too serious a matter for laughter. For her sake, he was in the game "for keeps"; especially in view of the fact that everything--his own heart's inclination included--seemed to conspire to keep him in it. Of course he hoped for nothing in return; a pauper who turns squire-of-dames with matrimonial intent is open to the designation, "penniless adventurer." No; whatever service he might be to the girl would be ample recompense to him for his labors. And afterwards, he'd go his way in peace; she'd soon forget him--if she hadn't already. Women (he propounded gravely) are queer: there's no telling anything about them!

One of the most unreadable specimens of the sex on which he pronounced this highly original dictum, entered the room just then; and he found himself at once out of his chair and his dream, bowing.

"Mrs. Hallam."

The woman nodded and smiled graciously. "Eccles has attended to your needs, I hope? Please don't stop smoking." She sank into an arm-chair on the other side of the hearth and, probably by accident, out of the radius of illumination from the lamp; sitting sidewise, one knee above the other, her white arms immaculate against the somber background of shadowed crimson.

She was very handsome indeed, just then; though a keener light might have proved less flattering.

"Now, Mr. Kirkwood?" she opened briskly, with a second intimate and friendly nod; and paused, her pose receptive.

Kirkwood sat down again, smiling good-natured appreciation of her unprejudiced attitude.

"Your son, Mrs. Hallam--?"

"Oh, Freddie's doing well enough.... Freddie," she explained, "has a delicate constitution and has seen little of the world. Such melodrama as to-night's is apt to shock him severely. We must make allowances, Mr.

Kirkwood."

Kirkwood grinned again, a trace unsympathetically; he was unable to simulate any enthusiasm on the subject of poor Freddie, whom he had sized up with passable acumen as a spoiled and coddled child completely under the thumb of an extremely clever mother.

"Yes," he responded vaguely; "he'll be quite fit after a night's sleep, I dare say."

The woman was watching him keenly, beneath her lowered lashes. "I think,"

she said deliberately, "that it is time we came to an understanding."

Kirkwood agreed--"Yes?" affably.

"I purpose being perfectly straightforward. To begin with, I don't place you, Mr. Kirkwood. You are an unknown quantity, a new factor. Won't you please tell me what you are and.... Are you a friend of Mr. Calendar's?"

"I think I may lay claim to that honor, though"--to Kirkwood's way of seeing things some little frankness on his own part would be essential if they were to get on--"I hardly know him, Mrs. Hallam. I had the pleasure of meeting him only this afternoon."

She knitted her brows over this statement.

"That, I assure you, is the truth," he laughed.

"But ... I really don't understand."

"Nor I, Mrs. Hallam. Calendar aside, I am Philip Kirkwood, American, resident abroad for some years, a native of San Francisco, of a certain age, unmarried, by profession a poor painter."

"And--?"

"Beyond that? I presume I must tell you, though I confess I'm in doubt...."

He hesitated, weighing candor in the balance with discretion.

"But who are you for? Are you in George Calendar's pay?"

"Heaven forfend!"--piously. "My sole interest at the present moment is to unravel a most entrancing mystery--"

"Entitled 'Dorothy Calendar'! Of course. You've known her long?"

"Eight hours, I believe," he admitted gravely; "less than that, in fact."

"Miss Calendar's interests will not suffer through anything you may tell me."

"Whether they will or no, I see I must swing a looser tongue, or you'll be showing me the door."

The woman shook her head, amused, "Not until," she told him significantly.

"Very well, then." And he launched into an abridged narrative of the night's events, as he understood them, touching lightly on his own circumstances, the real poverty which had brought him back to Craven Street by way of Frognall. "And there you have it all, Mrs. Hallam."

She sat in silent musing. Now and again he caught the glint of her eyes and knew that he was being appraised with such trained acumen as only long knowledge of men can give to women. He wondered if he were found wanting.... Her dark head bended, elbow on knee, chin resting lightly in the cradle of her slender, parted fingers, the woman thought profoundly, her reverie ending with a brief, curt laugh, musical and mirthless as the sound of breaking glass.

"It is so like Calendar!" she exclaimed: "so like him that one sees how foolish it was to trust--no, not to trust, but to believe that he could ever be thrown off the scent, once he got nose to ground. So, if we suffer, my son and I, I shall have only myself to thank!"

Kirkwood waited in patient attention till she chose to continue. When she did "Now for my side of the case!" cried Mrs. Hallam; and rising, began to pace the room, her slender and rounded figure swaying gracefully, the while she talked.

"George Calendar is a scoundrel," she said: "a swindler, gambler,--what I believe you Americans call a confidence-man. He is also my late husband's first cousin. Some years since he found it convenient to leave England, likewise his wife and daughter. Mrs. Calendar, a country-woman of yours, by the bye, died shortly afterwards. Dorothy, by the merest accident, obtained a situation as private secretary in the household of the late Colonel Burgoyne, of The Cliffs, Cornwall. You follow me?"

"Yes, perfectly."

"Colonel Burgoyne died, leaving his estates to my son, some time ago.

Shortly afterwards Dorothy Calendar disappeared. We know now that her father took her away, but then the disappearance seemed inexplicable, especially since with her vanished a great deal of valuable information.

She alone knew of the location of certain of the old colonel's personal effects."

"He was an eccentric. One of his peculiarities involved the secreting of valuables in odd places; he had no faith in banks. Among these valuables were the Burgoyne family jewels--quite a treasure, believe me, Mr.

Kirkwood. We found no note of them among the colonel's papers, and without Dorothy were powerless to pursue a search for them. We advertised and employed detectives, with no result. It seems that father and daughter were at Monte Carlo at the time."

"Beautifully circumstantial, my dear lady," commented Kirkwood--to his inner consciousness. Outwardly he maintained consistently a pose of impassive gullibility.

"This afternoon, for the first time, we received news of the Calendars.

Calendar himself called upon me, to beg a loan. I explained our difficulty and he promised that Dorothy should send us the information by the morning's post. When I insisted, he agreed to bring it himself, after dinner, this evening.... I make it quite clear?" she interrupted, a little anxious.

"Quite clear, I assure you," he assented encouragingly.

Chapter end

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