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«Published: 1897 Categorie(s): Fiction, Mystery & Detective Source: About Allen: Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen ...»

-- [ Page 8 ] --

But Amelia stuck to it. More than that, she sent out emissaries to inquire diligently from the London lawyers, whose name had been mentioned to us by the ancestral firm in Unter den Lauben as their English agents, as to the whereabouts of our friend; and her emissaries learned in effect that the Count was in town and stopping at Morley's.

"I see through it," Charles exclaimed. "He finds he's made a mistake; and now he's come over here to reopen negotiations."

I was all for waiting prudently till the Count made the first move. "Don't let him see your eagerness," I said. But Amelia's ardour could not now be restrained. She insisted that Charles should call on the Graf as a mere return of his politeness in the Tyrol.

He was as charming as ever. He talked to us with delight about the quaintness of London. He would be ravished to dine next evening with Sir Charles. He desired his respectful salutations meanwhile to Miladi Vandrift and Madame Ventvorth.

He dined with us, almost en famille. Amelia's cook did wonders. In the billiard-room, about midnight, Charles reopened the subject. The Count was really touched. It pleased him that still, amid the distractions of the City of Five Million Souls, we should remember with affection his beloved Lebenstein.

"Come to my lawyers," he said, "to-morrow, and I will talk it all over with you."

We went—a most respectable firm in Southampton Row;

old family solicitors. They had done business for years for the late Count, who had inherited from his grandmother estates in Ireland; and they were glad to be honoured with the confidence of his successor. Glad, too, to make the acquaintance of a prince of finance like Sir Charles Vandrift. Anxious (rubbing their hands) to arrange matters satisfactorily all round for everybody. (Two capital families with which to be mixed up, you see.) Sir Charles named a price, and referred them to his solicitors. The Count named a higher, but still a little comedown, and left the matter to be settled between the lawyers.

He was a soldier and a gentleman, he said, with a Tyrolese toss of his high-born head; he would abandon details to men of business.

As I was really anxious to oblige Amelia, I met the Count accidentally next day on the steps of Morley's. (Accidentally, that is to say, so far as he was concerned, though I had been hanging about in Trafalgar Square for half an hour to see him.) I explained, in guarded terms, that I had a great deal of influence in my way with Sir Charles; and that a word from me— I broke off. He stared at me blankly.

"Commission?" he inquired, at last, with a queer little smile.

"Well, not exactly commission," I answered, wincing.

"Still, a friendly word, you know. One good turn deserves another."

He looked at me from head to foot with a curious scrutiny. For one moment I feared the Tyrolese nobleman in him was going to raise its foot and take active measures.

But the next, I saw that Sir Charles was right after all, and that pristine innocence has removed from this planet to other quarters.

He named his lowest price. "M. Ventvorth," he said, "I am a Tyrolese seigneur; I do not dabble, myself, in commissions and percentages. But if your influence with Sir Charles—we understand each other, do we not?—as between gentlemen—a little friendly present—no money, of course—but the equivalent of say 5 per cent in jewellery, on whatever sum above his bid to-day you induce him to offer —eh?—c'est convenu?" "Ten per cent is more usual," I murmured.

He was the Austrian hussar again. "Five, monsieur—or nothing!" I bowed and withdrew. "Well, five then," I answered, "just to oblige your Serenity."

A secretary, after all, can do a great deal. When it came to the scratch, I had but little difficulty in persuading Sir Charles, with Amelia's aid, backed up on either side by Isabel and Césarine, to accede to the Count's more reasonable proposal. The Southampton Row people had possession of certain facts as to the value of the wines in the Bordeaux market which clinched the matter. In a week or two all was settled; Charles and I met the Count by appointment in Southampton Row, and saw him sign, seal, and deliver the title-deeds of Schloss Lebenstein. My brother-in-law paid the purchase-money into the Count's own hands, by cheque, crossed on a first-class London firm where the Count kept an account to his high well-born order. Then he went away with the proud knowledge that he was owner of Schloss Lebenstein. And what to me was more important still, I received next morning by post a cheque for the five per cent, unfortunately drawn, by some misapprehension, to my order on the self-same bankers, and with the Count's signature. He explained in the accompanying note that the matter being now quite satisfactorily concluded, he saw no reason of delicacy why the amount he had promised should not be paid to me forthwith direct in money.

I cashed the cheque at once, and said nothing about the affair, not even to Isabel. My experience is that women are not to be trusted with intricate matters of commission and brokerage.

Though it was now late in March, and the House was sitting, Charles insisted that we must all run over at once to take possession of our magnificent Tyrolese castle. Amelia was almost equally burning with eagerness. She gave herself the airs of a Countess already. We took the Orient Express as far as Munich; then the Brenner to Meran, and put up for the night at the Erzherzog Johann. Though we had telegraphed our arrival, and expected some fuss, there was no demonstration. Next morning we drove out in state to the schloss, to enter into enjoyment of our vines and figtrees.





We were met at the door by the surly steward. "I shall dismiss that man," Charles muttered, as Lord of Lebenstein. "He's too sour-looking for my taste. Never saw such a brute. Not a smile of welcome!" He mounted the steps. The surly man stepped forward and murmured a few morose words in German. Charles brushed him aside and strode on. Then there followed a curious scene of mutual misunderstanding. The surly man called lustily for his servants to eject us. It was some time before we began to catch at the truth. The surly man was the real Graf von Lebenstein.

And the Count with the moustache? It dawned upon us now. Colonel Clay again! More audacious than ever!

Bit by bit it all came out. He had ridden behind us the first day we viewed the place, and, giving himself out to the servants as one of our party, had joined us in the receptionroom. We asked the real Count why he had spoken to the intruder. The Count explained in French that the man with the moustache had introduced my brother-in-law as the great South African millionaire, while he described himself as our courier and interpreter. As such he had had frequent interviews with the real Graf and his lawyers in Meran, and had driven almost daily across to the castle. The owner of the estate had named one price from the first, and had stuck to it manfully. He stuck to it still; and if Sir Charles chose to buy Schloss Lebenstein over again he was welcome to have it. How the London lawyers had been duped the Count had not really the slightest idea. He regretted the incident, and (coldly) wished us a very good morning.

There was nothing for it but to return as best we might to the Erzherzog Johann, crestfallen, and telegraph particulars to the police in London.

Charles and I ran across post-haste to England to track down the villain. At Southampton Row we found the legal firm by no means penitent; on the contrary, they were indignant at the way we had deceived them. An impostor had written to them on Lebenstein paper from Meran to say that he was coming to London to negotiate the sale of the schloss and surrounding property with the famous millionaire, Sir Charles Vandrift; and Sir Charles had demonstratively recognised him at sight as the real Count von Lebenstein. The firm had never seen the present Graf at all, and had swallowed the impostor whole, so to speak, on the strength of Sir Charles's obvious recognition. He had brought over as documents some most excellent forgeries —facsimiles of the originals—which, as our courier and interpreter, he had every opportunity of examining and inspecting at the Meran lawyers'. It was a deeply-laid plot, and it had succeeded to a marvel. Y all of it depended et, upon the one small fact that we had accepted the man with the long moustache in the hall of the schloss as the Count von Lebenstein on his own representation.

He held our cards in his hands when he came in; and the servant had not given them to him, but to the genuine Count. That was the one unsolved mystery in the whole adventure.

By the evening's post two letters arrived for us at Sir Charles's house: one for myself, and one for my employer.

Sir Charles's ran thus:— "HIGH WELL-BORN INCOMPETENCE,— "I only just pulled through! A very small slip nearly lost me everything. I believed you were going to Schloss Planta that day, not to Schloss Lebenstein. You changed your mind en route. That might have spoiled all. Happily I perceived it, rode up by the short cut, and arrived somewhat hurriedly and hotly at the gate before you. Then I introduced myself. I had one more bad moment when the rival claimant to my name and title

intruded into the room. But fortune favours the brave:

your utter ignorance of German saved me. The rest was pap. It went by itself almost.

"Allow me, now, as some small return for your various welcome cheques, to offer you a useful and valuable present—a German dictionary, grammar, and phrasebook!

"I kiss your hand.

"No longer "VON LEBENSTEIN."

The other note was to me. It was as follows:— "DEAR GOOD MR. VENTVORTH,— "Ha, ha, ha; just a W misplaced sufficed to take you in, then! And I risked the TH, though anybody with a head on his shoulders would surely have known our TH is by far more difficult than our W for foreigners! However, all's well that ends well; and now I've got you. The Lord has delivered you into my hands, dear friend—on your own initiative. I hold my cheque, endorsed by you, and cashed at my banker's, as a hostage, so to speak, for your future good behaviour. If ever you recognise me, and betray me to that solemn old ass, your employer, remember, I expose it, and you with it to him. So now we understand each other. I had not thought of this little dodge; it was you who suggested it. However, I jumped at it. Was it not well worth my while paying you that slight commission in return for a guarantee of your future silence? Your mouth is now closed. And cheap too at the price.—Yours, dear Comrade, in the great confraternity of rogues, "CUTHBERT CLAY, Colonel."

Charles laid his note down, and grizzled. "What's yours, Sey?" he asked.

"From a lady," I answered.

He gazed at me suspiciously. "Oh, I thought it was the same hand," he said. His eye looked through me.

"No," I answered. "Mrs. Mortimer's." But I confess I trembled.

He paused a moment. "Y made all inquiries at this ou fellow's bank?" he went on, after a deep sigh.

"Oh, yes," I put in quickly. (I had taken good care about that, you may be sure, lest he should spot the commission.) "They say the self-styled Count von Lebenstein was introduced to them by the Southampton Row folks, and drew, as usual, on the Lebenstein account: so they were quite unsuspicious. A rascal who goes about the world on that scale, you know, and arrives with such credentials as theirs and yours, naturally imposes on anybody. The bank didn't even require to have him formally identified. The firm was enough. He came to pay money in, not to draw it out.

And he withdrew his balance just two days later, saying he was in a hurry to get back to Vienna."

Would he ask for items? I confess I felt it was an awkward moment. Charles, however, was too full of regrets to bother about the account. He leaned back in his easy chair, stuck his hands in his pockets, held his legs straight out on the fender before him, and looked the very picture of hopeless despondency.

"Sey," he began, after a minute or two, poking the fire, reflectively, "what a genius that man has! 'Pon my soul, I admire him. I sometimes wish—" He broke off and hesitated.

"Yes, Charles?" I answered.

"I sometimes wish … we had got him on the Board of the Cloetedorp Golcondas. Mag—nificent combinations he would make in the City!" I rose from my seat and stared solemnly at my misguided brother-in-law.

"Charles," I said, "you are beside yourself. Too much Colonel Clay has told upon your clear and splendid intellect.

There are certain remarks which, however true they may be, no self-respecting financier should permit himself to make, even in the privacy of his own room, to his most intimate friend and trusted adviser."

Charles fairly broke down. "Y are right, Sey," he ou sobbed out. "Quite right. Forgive this outburst. At moments of emotion the truth will sometimes out, in spite of everything."

I respected his feebleness. I did not even make it a fitting occasion to ask for a trifling increase of salary.

Chapter

THE EPISODE OF THE DRAWN

GAME The twelfth of August saw us, as usual, at Seldon Castle, Ross-shire. It is part of Charles's restless, roving temperament that, on the morning of the eleventh, wet or fine, he must set out from London, whether the House is sitting or not, in defiance of the most urgent three-line whips; and at dawn on the twelfth he must be at work on his moors, shooting down the young birds with might and main, at the earliest possible legal moment.

He goes on like Saul, slaying his thousands, or, like David, his tens of thousands, with all the guns in the house to help him, till the keepers warn him he has killed as many grouse as they consider desirable; and then, having done his duty, as he thinks, in this respect, he retires precipitately with flying colours to Brighton, Nice, Monte Carlo, or elsewhere. He must be always "on the trek"; when he is

buried, I believe he will not be able to rest quiet in his grave:

his ghost will walk the world to terrify old ladies.

"At Seldon, at least," he said to me, with a sigh, as he stepped into his Pullman, "I shall be safe from that impostor!" And indeed, as soon as he had begun to tire a little of counting up his hundreds of brace per diem, he found a trifling piece of financial work cut ready to his hand, which amply distracted his mind for the moment from Colonel Clay, his accomplices, and his villainies.

Sir Charles, I ought to say, had secured during that summer a very advantageous option in a part of Africa on the Transvaal frontier, rumoured to be auriferous. Now, whether it was auriferous or not before, the mere fact that Charles had secured some claim on it naturally made it so;

for no man had ever the genuine Midas-touch to a greater degree than Charles Vandrift: whatever he handles turns at once to gold, if not to diamonds. Therefore, as soon as my brother-in-law had obtained this option from the native vendor (a most respected chief, by name Montsioa), and promoted a company of his own to develop it, his great rival in that region, Lord Craig-Ellachie (formerly Sir David Alexander Granton), immediately secured a similar option of an adjacent track, the larger part of which had pretty much the same geological conditions as that covered by Sir Charles's right of pre-emption.

We were not wholly disappointed, as it turned out, in the result. A month or two later, while we were still at Seldon, we received a long and encouraging letter from our prospectors on the spot, who had been hunting over the ground in search of gold-reefs. They reported that they had found a good auriferous vein in a corner of the tract, approachable by adit-levels; but, unfortunately, only a few yards of the lode lay within the limits of Sir Charles's area.

The remainder ran on at once into what was locally known as Craig-Ellachie's section.

However, our prospectors had been canny, they said;

though young Mr. Granton was prospecting at the same time, in the self-same ridge, not very far from them, his miners had failed to discover the auriferous quartz; so our men had held their tongues about it, wisely leaving it for Charles to govern himself accordingly.

"Can you dispute the boundary?" I asked.



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