Read CHAPTER XV of The Slave of Silence , free online book, by Fred M. White, on ReadCentral.com.

Used as he was to quick scenes and dramatic changes, Berrington was surprised for the moment. The thing was like some bewildering Eastern vision. A moment ago the place had been dull and dark, and now like a flash, warmth and light were there, to say nothing of the tasteful extravagance of the supper-table. Berrington could see the fruit and the flowers, the dainty confections and the costly wines. How had the thing been managed?

But it was no moment to speculate about that. So far it merely tended to prove the almost diabolical cleverness of the people with whom the police had to deal. The Rajah himself could be seen standing moodily in the doorway chewing a cigar between his strong, yellow teeth. Berrington observed him very carefully.

As one who knew India, Berrington was in a position to judge the man fairly well. As a matter of fact, the newcomer did not look in the least like an Eastern potentate. True, his skin was dark, but not more sallow than that of many a European. His hair was thick, but his eyes were dark blue, and his dress was eminently that of a man about town. With his public school and University education, the Rajah had passed for an Englishman.

“What sort of a reputation does he bear?” Berrington asked in a whisper.

“Shady,” Field replied briefly. “What you call a renegade, I should say. Has all the vices of both hemispheres, without the redeeming features of either. Low-class music halls, ballet dancers, prize-fighters and the like. At the same time he’s got the good sense not to flaunt these vices before the public, and he knows how to conduct himself with dignity when there is any necessity for it. Despite his handsome income, he is frequently in dire need of money. Still, I should never have identified him with this business had I not seen him here. I had no idea that he even knew Sir Charles Darryll and Mr. Richford.”

The Rajah stood there biting his nails impatiently, as if waiting for somebody. He crossed over to the table and opened a bottle of champagne to which he helped himself liberally. The fizz of the wine could be distinctly heard in the drawing-room.

“I’d give half my pension to know how that thing is worked,” said Berrington. “A moment ago there was nothing on that table, and now look at it! It would have taken the staff of a large hotel half an hour to arrange a meal like that. The flowers alone would have occupied the time. The servants here ”

“You may bet your life that the servants know nothing about it,” Field said. “They have been sent away right enough. I feel quite sure that they are innocent of everything. It would never do to let domestics talk of these matters.”

The Rajah was pacing up and down the dining-room talking to himself. A moment later there was a rattle of a latchkey and two people came in. The first was a young man with the unmistakable stamp of the actor on him, smart, well groomed, clean shaven, the society actor of to-day. He was followed by an exceedingly pretty, fair-haired woman, who might have belonged to the same profession. Just for the moment it occurred to Field that these were ordinary guests who knew nothing of the mystery of the house. There was nothing about either of them to connect them with crime or mystery.

They pitched their wraps carelessly on the hall table as if they had been there before, and made their way to the dining-room. The Rajah’s face grew eager.

“Well, my children,” he said in excellent English, “have you had any luck? Cora, dear, tell me that you have succeeded in our little counterplot.”

The woman’s pretty face grew hard. She pulled a chair up to the table and sat down.

“Give me some of that pate and open a bottle of champagne,” she said. “What with this doubling about and covering up one’s tracks, I’ve had no time to think of food. The same remark applies to poor Reggie here. Haven’t we succeeded well enough for you?”

“Well, yes, you managed the big thing all right, but that’s not everything. You managed the big thing so well that the police are utterly baffled and don’t know which way to look. But the stones, carissima, the sparkling stones. What of them?”

The woman gave a shrug of her ivory shoulders. She could be plainly seen by the watchers lost in the darkness of the drawing-room.

“The deplorable luck was against us,” she said. “I actually had my hands upon the stones and nearly snatched them away under the very eyes of the adorable Richford. I said to myself we are not going to do his work for nothing. He followed me to the room where the stones were and we talked. You see I had business in the room as you know. And Reggie here was downstairs, making himself agreeable to the fair owner of the stones, so that I had a free hand in the matter. If Reggie had not been so indiscreet as to leave the poor child ”

“But what could I do?” the man called Reggie protested. “Never was so cruel a piece of bad luck in the history of war. Who should come down but Langford?”

“But you were so carefully disguised that Langford could not possibly have known you,” the woman said.

“I admit it. I positively had forgotten the fact for the moment. The sight of Langford was such a shock to me. On the spur of the moment I made my excuses and departed.”

“Leaving the little girl uneasy and suspicious,” said the woman, “so that she came up to her room where I was and walked off with the gems. I was very near to taking her by the throat and half strangling her. But there were greater issues at stake and I had to restrain my feelings. I had to smile and nod and play my part whilst the little lady was sending the jewels off to the safe custody of the hotel clerk. I could have danced with fury, I could have wept with rage. But what was the good?”

The Rajah swore roundly and passionately. He could be seen from the drawing-room, striding about the place and muttering as he went.

“It is more than unfortunate,” he said. “If we could have got hold of those jewels we should have had a fortune in our grasp. We were quite justified in robbing Richford, who only serves me for his own ends. He is a bully and a coward and he must pay the price. He says that he has no ready money, that his affairs are more desperate than we imagine. And yet he could find the cash to buy those diamonds.”

“They always mean cash,” the woman said. “It is a good thing for the wife of a speculator to be in possession of a lot of fine diamonds. It would have been a precious good thing for us, too, if Reggie had not lost his nerve last night.”

“Have you any idea who those people are?” asked Berrington of his companion.

“Not personally,” Field replied, “but I have a pretty shrewd idea. It is very good of them to come here, just as nature made them, and without disguises. Surely you know what they are talking about? The discussion is over Mrs. Richford’s diamonds which she nearly lost, as she told me. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we are listening to a confession of the way in which that robbery had been planned. Stripped of their very clever disguises, these two people yonder are no other than Countess de la Moray and General Gastang.”

Berrington nodded, wondering why he had not found them out before. From the dining-room came the sound of a match, as the Rajah lighted another cigar.

“We shall have to go back to our original scheme,” he was saying. “There was never anything better. We must get the other man into this. He must be frightened. Send him the salt.”

There was another rattle of the latchkey, and the watchers were not in the least surprised to see Richford come in, with the air of a man who is quite at home. He was looking white and anxious and a little annoyed as he took off his coat and entered the dining-room. Unhappily he closed the door behind him, so that no more conversation could be heard.

“That’s unlucky,” Field said in a vexed tone. “What does that salt allusion mean? You recollect telling me that Richford was frightened by finding that salt on his plate?”

“It’s a kind of Indian dodge,” Berrington proceeded to explain. “It has to do with caste and religious observances and all that sort of thing. Don’t be deceived with the idea that you are on the track of an Anarchist society or anything of that kind.”

“Is it something more or less on the line of freemasonry, then?” Field asked.

“Well, yes, you can put it that way if you like,” Berrington said thoughtfully. “I made a special study of that kind of thing in India, though I only came across the salt fetich a few times. It seemed to me to be more religious than anything else, though in one or two instances it was attended by tragedy. There was a young native prince who was a great friend of mine and he was about to be married to a princess who was as bright and intelligent as himself. She had been educated like himself in Europe, so that they were free from a deal of superstition and prejudice. The prince was dining at my bungalow one night when I noticed a little bullet of salt on his plate. It was useless to ask him how it got there for one could never have elicited the truth from any of the native servants. My friend got dreadfully pale for a moment, but he turned it off and he thought no more about the matter. But the next day the prince was found dead in his bed; he had shot himself with a revolver.”

“And you never got to the bottom of it?” Field asked with pardonable curiosity.

“Never. There are mysteries in India that puzzle us as much as they did in the good old days of John Company. What’s that noise?”

There was a sound like the rumble of wheels along the hall, and presently appeared a kind of invalid chair, self-propelled by its occupant, a little man with a pale face and dark eyes. He paused before the dining-room door and rattled the handle.

“Evidently the master of the house,” Berrington suggested. “The lame man who can’t walk. It was he who sent the message to Richford.”

“Sure enough,” Field exclaimed. “Must have been in the abduction business. Evidently the same gentleman who was waiting in the black cab outside the Royal Palace. Rather a nice looking man, with by no means unpleasant face. Hope they won’t shut the door upon him.”

Somebody opened the dining-room door at this moment and the lame man steered himself in. Where he had come from was a mystery, as the house had appeared to be quite empty when Berrington and his companion entered it. Clearly the man could not have come from the upper part of the premises, for his physical condition disposed of that suggestion.

“Well, my friends,” the newcomer cried gaily, “very glad to see you all safe and sound again. So our little scheme has not been a failure. Richford, judging from the gloom on your brow, you have not had the luck you desire. You must be content with the knowledge that virtue brings its own reward. And yet if you only knew it you are the most fortunate of men. For your sweet sake we have undertaken difficulties and dangers that ”

“Oh, shut up,” Richford growled. “I don’t understand what you are driving at. Anybody would think that you were no more than a silly child who had nothing to do but to attend to your flowers and stick your postage stamps in your album. And yet ”

“And yet I can give my attention to more serious matters,” the cripple said with a sudden stern expression and in a voice that had a metallic ring in it. “You are right. And if you two have eaten and drunk enough we will get to business.”

There was a little stir amongst the listeners, the Rajah pitching his cigar into the grate and coming forward eagerly. Evidently something was going to happen.