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The Black Bag Part 50

Again he put a hand upon the bell-pull. Simultaneously Dorothy and Kirkwood rose.

"Mr. Brentwick," said the girl, her eyes starred with tears of gratitude, "I don't, I really don't know how--"

"My dear," said the old gentleman, "you will thank me most appropriately by continuing, to the best of your ability, to resemble your mother more remarkably every minute."

"But I," began Kirkwood----.

"You, my dear Philip, can thank me best by permitting me to enjoy myself; which I am doing thoroughly at the present moment. My pleasure in being invited to interfere in your young affairs is more keen than you can well surmise. Moreover," said Mr. Brentwick, "so long have I been an amateur adventurer that I esteem it the rarest privilege to find myself thus on the point of graduating into professional ranks." He rubbed his hands, beaming upon them. "And," he added, as a maid appeared at the door, "I have already schemed me a scheme for the discomfiture of our friends the enemy: a scheme which we will discuss with our dinner, while the heathen rage and imagine a vain thing, in the outer darkness."

Kirkwood would have lingered, but of such inflexible temper was his host that he bowed him into the hands of a man servant without permitting him another word.

"Not a syllable," he insisted. "I protest I am devoured with curiosity, my dear boy, but I have also bowels of compassion. When we are well on with our meal, when you are strengthened with food and drink, then you may begin. But now--Dickie," to the valet, "do your duty!"

Kirkwood, laughing with exasperation, retired at discretion, leaving Brentwick the master of the situation: a charming gentleman with a will of his own and a way that went with it.

He heard the young man's footsteps diminish on the stairway; and again he smiled the indulgent, melancholy smile of mellow years. "Youth!" he whispered softly. "Romance!... And now," with a brisk change of tone as he closed the study door, "now we are ready for this interesting Mr.

Calendar."

Sitting down at his desk, he found and consulted a telephone directory; but its leaves, at first rustling briskly at the touch of the slender and delicate fingers, were presently permitted to lie unturned,--the book resting open on his knees the while he stared wistfully into the fire.

A suspicion of moisture glimmered in his eyes. "Dorothy!" he whispered huskily. And a little later, rising, he proceeded to the telephone....

An hour and a half later Kirkwood, his self-respect something restored by a bath, a shave, and a resumption of clothes which had been hastily but thoroughly cleansed and pressed by Brentwick's valet; his confidence and courage mounting high under the combined influence of generous wine, substantial food, the presence of his heart's mistress and the admiration--which was unconcealed--of his friend, concluded at the dinner-table, his narration.

"And that," he said, looking up from his savory, "is about all."

"Bravo!" applauded Brentwick; eyes shining with delight.

"All," interposed Dorothy in warm reproach, "but what he hasn't told--"

"Which, my dear, is to be accounted for wholly by a very creditable modesty, rarely encountered in the young men of the present day. It was, of course, altogether different with those of my younger years. Yes, Wotton?"

Brentwick sat back in his chair, inclining an attentive ear to a communication murmured by the butler.

Kirkwood's gaze met Dorothy's across the expanse of shining cloth; he deprecated her interruption with a whimsical twist of his eyebrows.

"Really, you shouldn't," he assured her in an undertone. "I've done nothing to deserve..." But under the spell of her serious sweet eyes, he fell silent, and presently looked down, strangely abashed; and contemplated the vast enormity of his unworthiness.

Coffee was set before them by Wotton, the impassive, Brentwick refusing it with a little sigh. "It is one of the things, as Philip knows," he explained to the girl, "denied me by the physician who makes his life happy by making mine a waste. I am allowed but three luxuries; cigars, travel in moderation, and the privilege of imposing on my friends. The first I propose presently, to enjoy, by your indulgence; and the second I shall this evening undertake by virtue of the third, of which I have just availed myself."

Smiling at the involution, he rested his head against the back of the chair, eyes roving from the girl's face to Kirkwood's. "Inspiration to do which," he proceeded gravely, "came to me from the seafaring picaroon (Stryker did you name him?) via the excellent Wotton. While you were preparing for dinner, Wotton returned from his constitutional with the news that, leaving the corpulent person on watch at the corner, Captain Stryker had temporarily, made himself scarce. However, we need feel no anxiety concerning his whereabouts, for he reappeared in good time and a motor-car. From which it becomes evident that you have not overrated their pertinacity; the fiasco of the cab-chase is not to be reenacted."

Resolutely the girl repressed a gasp of dismay. Kirkwood stared moodily into his cup.

"These men bore me fearfully," he commented at last.

"And so," continued Brentwick, "I bethought me of a counter-stroke. It is my good fortune to have a friend whose whim it is to support a touring-car, chiefly in innocuous idleness. Accordingly I have telephoned him and commandeered the use of this machine--mechanician, too.... Though not a betting man, I am willing to risk recklessly a few pence in support of my contention, that of the two, Captain Stryker's car and ours, the latter will prove considerably the most speedy....

"In short, I suggest," he concluded, thoughtfully lacing his long white fingers, "that, avoiding the hazards of cab and railway carriage, we motor to Chiltern: the night being fine and the road, I am told, exceptionally good. Miss Dorothy, what do you think?"

Instinctively the girl looked to Kirkwood; then shifted her glance to their host. "I think you are wonderfully thoughtful and kind," she said simply.

"And you, Philip?"

"It's an inspiration," the younger man declared. "I can't think of anything better calculated to throw them off, than to distance them by motor-car. It would be always possible to trace our journey by rail."

"Then," announced Brentwick, making as if to rise, "we had best go. If neither my hearing nor Captain Stryker's car deceives me, our fiery chariot is panting at the door."

A little sobered from the confident spirit of quiet gaiety in which they had dined, they left the table. Not that, in their hearts, either greatly questioned their ultimate triumph; but they were allowing for the element of error so apt to set at naught human calculations. Calendar himself had already been proved fallible. Within the bounds of possibility, their turn to stumble might now be imminent.

When he let himself dwell upon it, their utter helplessness to give Calendar pause by commonplace methods, maddened Kirkwood. With another scoundrel it had been so simple a matter to put a period to his activities by a word to the police. But he was her father; for that reason he must continually be spared ... Even though, in desperate extremity, she should give consent to the arrest of the adventurers, retaliation would follow, swift and sure. For they might not overlook nor gloze the fact that hers had been the hands responsible for the theft of the jewels; innocent though she had been in committing that larceny, a cat's-paw guided by an intelligence unscrupulous and malign, the law would not hold her guiltless were she once brought within its cognizance. Nor, possibly, would the Hallams, mother and son.

Upon their knowledge and their fear of this, undoubtedly Calendar was reckoning: witness the barefaced effrontery with which he operated against them. His fear of the police might be genuine enough, but he was never for an instant disturbed by any doubt lest his daughter should turn against him. She would never dare that.

Before they left the house, while Dorothy was above stairs resuming her hat and coat, Kirkwood and Brentwick reconnoitered from the drawing-room windows, themselves screened from observation by the absence of light in the room behind.

Before the door a motor-car waited, engines humming impatiently, mechanician ready in his seat, an uncouth shape in goggles and leather garments that shone like oilskins under the street lights.

At one corner another and a smaller car stood in waiting, its lamps like baleful eyes glaring through the night.

In the shadows across the way, a lengthy shadow lurked: Stryker, beyond reasonable question. Otherwise the street was deserted. Not even that adventitous bobby of the early evening was now in evidence.

Dorothy presently joining them, Brentwick led the way to the door.

Wotton, apparently nerveless beneath his absolute immobility, let them out--and slammed the door behind them with such promptitude as to give cause for the suspicion that he was a fraud, a sham, beneath his icy exterior desperately afraid lest the house be stormed by the adventurers.

Kirkwood to the right, Brentwick to the left of Dorothy, the former carrying the treasure bag, they hastened down the walk and through the gate to the car.

The watcher across the way was moved to whistle shrilly; the other car lunged forward nervously.

Brentwick taking the front seat, beside the mechanician, left the tonneau to Kirkwood and Dorothy. As the American slammed the door, the car swept smoothly out into the middle of the way, while the pursuing car swerved in to the other curb, slowing down to let Stryker jump aboard.

Kirkwood put himself in the seat by the girl's side and for a few moments was occupied with the arrangement of the robes. Then, sitting back, he found her eyes fixed upon him, pools of inscrutable night in the shadow of her hat.

"You aren't afraid, Dorothy?"

She answered quietly: "I am with you, Philip."

Beneath the robe their hands met...

Exalted, excited, he turned and looked back. A hundred yards to the rear four unwinking eyes trailed them, like some modern Nemesis in monstrous guise.

XIX

I----THE UXBRIDGE ROAD

At a steady gait, now and again checked in deference to the street traffic, Brentwick's motor-car rolled, with resonant humming of the engine, down the Cromwell Road, swerved into Warwick Road and swung northward through Kensington to Shepherd's Bush. Behind it Calendar's car clung as if towed by an invisible cable, never gaining, never losing, mutely testifying to the adventurer's unrelenting, grim determination to leave them no instant's freedom from surveillance, to keep for ever at their shoulders, watching his chance, biding his time with sinister patience until the moment when, wearied, their vigilance should relax....

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