A Bold Coup
Some time in the golden afternoon of a perfect tropic day the Queen Ann weighed anchor and with a swaggering, carefree air steamed out of the harbor of the Piraeus, nose in the wind, pointed to the open sea.
From a position on the starboard rail on the broad promenade deck, Captain Valentine, as he called himself, stared back at the far shore-line. With each sturdy pulsation of the ship’s powerful engines Athens grew smaller, more toylike in size and shape. A smile of something not unlike relief touched the thin lips oi the adventurer. A bold coup which concerned the office of the British Embassy, a window in the building, a new Terrington safe and an oxy-acetylene blow-pipe with water-rheostat had made it necessary he leave the city without delay.
So he packed his booty, English gold and silver coin, in the false bottom of one of his three kit bags and departed. And now he was safely aboard the Queen Ann, adrift on Aegean Seas, bound for Alexandria; any of the ports in the Grecian Archipelago where fancy might bid him to disembark.
Some twelve days later the Queen Ann swung into the Western Harbor, finding an anchorage in the let of a great breakwater amongst a throng of Egyptian coasters, canal-boats, and the usual busy water-craft that ply both the harbor of Alexandria and the Mediterranean.
Again at the rail on the promenade deck, Captain Valentine regarded the city across the spread of waters. The customs officials had come and gone; there was nothing to prevent him going ashore when it was his pleasure.
Yet he idled at the rail, brooding eyes on the city.
In the gathering dusk, the light of Pharaohs hung like a silver star between earth and sky; to the east the Mohammedan quarter of the city, set squarely upon the peninsula that separates the harbor, was cloaked with purple draperies — over it a new moon, slender as the scimitar of a Turkish brigand, threw a wan reflection on the oil-stained waters.
To the south lay the city, baking in the breath of the forty-day khamsin sweeping down from the deserts.
Captain Valentine drew himself up, tapped the ashes from his pipe and turned to confront the purser.
”Beg pardon, sir, but the last tender is just going ashore.”
Some fifteen minutes later, curled up in the stern of the motorboat, the odor of the East keen in his nostrils, Captain Valentine watched the city as it sprang up to meet him. And again the old question presented itself.
What lay ahead — mystery, adventure, the lure of the unknown — plunder?
Back to Top
It was when he had pushed aside his demitasse, in the splendid grill of the Hotel Marina, that Captain Valentine first perceived the girl. She occupied a table set well back from the center aisle, under the sheltering arms of a royal palm. And she dined leisurely, now and again laughing merrily at something her companion was saying.
In his quick, trained glance Captain Valentine observed the beauty of her piquant face, the dusky languor of her eyes, the lustrous glint of hair that was neither gold nor red, but yet a blending of both, the scarlet of Japanese- rose lips and the unstudied grace and charm of a slim, beautifully made body, draped in some cool, thin, white silk.
The adventurer transferred his gaze to the man opposite her; a tall, handsome, well-made individual whose nervous fingers played with the stem of a champagne glass. The adventurer frowned slightly. The face of the man was familiar; so much so that he sat still and allowed memory to creep back into the corridors of Yesterday.
At once he remembered the deserter from the French Condemned Corps; the caravan route to Timbuctoo — Port Said and that same handsome face.
The man was one Armel Touchet, a French crook and associate of the Apaches of Paris, until the long arm of the Government had snatched him up and sent him to Africa.
Clipping the end carefully from a cigar, Captain Valentine struck a match, encountering the eyes of the man. He still frowned as the other looked casually away. Who was the girl? What her status that she should dine so openly with one who, if in Paris, would immediately be pounced upon and hustled off to prison?
And Touchet himself? What was he doing here in Alexandria; what ill- omened quest was responsible for his presence — what crime did he contemplate?
As if to find an answer to his questions, Captain Valentine surveyed the other diners in the grill. A swarthy Egyptian prince with his staff officers; a Jewish merchant; a party of Greek youths and a very old French woman, be-wigged in the fashion of the Empire, with a maid who danced in constant attendance — all these the roving eye of Captain Valentine rested briefly upon but found no answer to the riddle of Touchet’s presence.
To a waiter who came to remove coffee-cup and finger-bowl, he spoke: “Can you tell me the name of the young lady in white — yonder?”
The waiter bowed, after a glance across the room.
”But certainly,” he replied in French. “She is a Mademoiselle Bowen. The gentleman with her,” he added, “is a Monsieur Sasson from Algiers.”
Captain Valentine smiled a trifle.
”Thank you. You are familiar with the elderly lady with the maid?”
The waiter lifted his brows.
”Monsieur does not know her? Surely then monsieur is a stranger. She is Madame Regnier, the wealthy, who but yesterday only purchased the famous Necklace of the Pharaohs from Yestini, the jeweler! A half million dollars, it is said, was the price!”
Captain Valentine felt a thrill leap through him, he was perfectly familiar with the identity of Madame Regnier, the richest woman in France, as she was sometimes called. He was equally familiar with the marvelous emerald necklace that had been given the title of the Necklace of the Pharaohs, through the fact it had been discovered in an Egyptian tomb centuries old.
The smile bit deeper into the thin lips of the adventurer. It was not difficult now to link the presence of Touchet with Alexandria.
Leaving the table after a time. Captain Valentine made his way out and into a spacious lobby, where buzzing electric fans sought to combat the sweltering heat of the early evening. Excitement like an intoxicating draught ran warm within his blood. The Necklace of the Pharaohs! Chance had not led him from Athens to Alexandria without fixed and definite purpose. Loot worth the ransom of a king! And, seeking it, a dangerous scoundrel who dined with a girl he himself meant to know before the night grew haggard!
He had kindled a cigarette when Touchet and the girl in white emerged from the grill. They parted after a minute of conversation, the girl stepping out through the hotel’s main entrance, the French crook turning to the elevators, where, after a minute, he swung about on his heel and crossed directly to the lounging adventurer.
”We have met before, I believe,” Touchet said grimly. “Unless I am greatly mistaken, you are one who calls himself Captain Valentine.”
The adventurer flipped his cigarette.
”And you,” he said coolly, “are Touchet, a deserter from the quarters of the French Condemned Corps of Biskra. When we last encountered you were engaged in the profession of plundering caravans. We also ran across each other at Port Said. There you — “
Touchet thrust his face close to the one who eyed him indolently.
”A warning, Monsieur the Captain,” he said, controlling his voice with an effort. “Alexandria is not large or comfortable enough to hold us both at the same time. You understand?”
Captain Valentine laughed pleasantly.
”I understand you perfectly,” he replied carelessly. “But,” he murmured, turning away, “your words to me resemble only the sighing of a breeze.”
When the elevator had engulfed the figure of the French crook, Captain Valentine made his way out of doors.
On the southerly side of the hotel were gloom-filled gardens. Had the girl taken one of its many paths? Moving forward through the dusk, Captain Valentine picked a way among the shrubbery. All was quiet save for the roaring of the khamsin overhead.
For a minute he thought the girl in white had stepped into Quick Street. Then, suddenly, as he was about to retrace his steps, he caught sight of a moving blur in the shrubbery.
In another minute he was at the girl’s side.
”Your pardon, mademoiselle,” he said, employing a quiet, courteous tone. “Believe me to be no Don Juan when I crave a moment’s speech.”
In the darkness her eyes glowed.
”What,” she inquired colorlessly, “is it you wish to say?”
He took a step toward her, thoughts flashing like drawn swords through his mind. Better, he decided, to come to the point at once without fencing.
”I saw you at dinner in the grill,” he explained. “Your companion, a gentleman who calls himself Monsieur Sasson, I have reason to know is Touchet, a notorious French criminal. I thought you might be interested in knowing this — if you do not.”
A long silence followed his words.
”Thank you,” she said after a time. “It — it is very kind of you to interest yourself. And now if you will leave … I wish to think over what you have said.”
Back in his hotel room Captain Valentine, some hours later, made ready to retire. He had ascertained that Touchet’s room was directly over his; that the apartments of Natalie Bowen (as the hotel register read) were somewhere on the floor below — that Madame Regnier’s luxurious suite was on the fifth floor, overlooking the gardens.
He went to his window and looked out. No balcony was before it; it was forty feet from the ground below.
The door of his room locked and a chair placed under its knob, Captain Valentine looked to the chambers of his service revolver before slipping it under his pillow.
For all of the weariness inspired by the heat, slumber was delinquent in arriving. His mind was filled with myriad thoughts of the Necklace of the Pharaohs, of the girl, Natalie Bowen, and of the meeting in the gardens. Had she been aware of Touchet’s identity? Was she an accomplice? Her voice had betrayed no emotion; it was impossible to reason, as slumber came at last, either one way or the other.
In all corners of the world Captain Valentine had slept, and under all conditions. Years of training, the training of necessity, had presented him with the gift of awakening at the slightest sound.
Thus it was that some time between midnight and dawn his eyes opened with a jerk and his hand crept under the pillow and gripped his revolver. Motionless and breathing heavily, he strained his ears.
Silence for a time, save for inconsiderable night sounds — then a footfall not three feet distant from him; the glimmer of a knife as a bar of intruding moonlight fell full upon it.
Sweeping up the bedclothes with his left hand and gripping his revolver with his right, Captain Valentine launched himself at the muffled figure of his would-be assassin.
The sheets and unused blankets parried the flashing thrust of the knife. In another minute, dropping them and closing in, he had his fingers about the throat of his unbidden guest, with difficulty repressing the cry of astonishment that surged to his lips.
The throat his fingers dug into was the throat of a woman!
She fought with tigerish ferocity, but the combat was of short duration.
Catching the arm that held the wildly stabbing dagger, the adventurer bent it double and forced her up against the wall. A groan fell from pain-twisted lips. He increased his pressure until a cycle of minutes sped past.
Then the knife clattered to the floor and the woman fell limply into his arms.
Holding her to him with an arm of steel, the adventurer reached for the light switch and snapped on the electricity. He found himself looking down into the face of the small maid he had perceived waiting upon Madame Regnier in the grill at dinner.
”I will give you your choice,” he said, thrusting her off from him. “You will answer the questions I put to you, frankly and fully, or I will hand you over to the authorities on a charge of attempted murder! Take your choice.”
The girl, a pretty brunette, nursed her twisted arm, glaring at him.
”Speak quickly!” Captain Valentine commanded.
”I will answer you,” she said sullenly.
”First, how did you get in here?” She indicated the window.
”Down a rope.”
”From the room of Monsieur Touchet?”
”Yes; from the room of Monsieur Touchet.”
”You are in his employ, of course. You were instructed to knife me?”
A slow smile haunted her lips. “Oui.”
Captain Valentine twirled his revolver. He might have expected Touchet would not be tardy in striking.
”Futile 1” he murmured. “Now for another question. Your gallant employer is planning to steal the necklace of the lady in whose employ I presume he placed you. I am interested to know in what manner the necklace is to be obtained. Tell me.”
The girl shook her dark head. “Never! You cannot make me. If you touch me again I will scream for assistance! When it comes I will say you enticed me into this room and attacked me! My word is as good as yours!”
The adventurer twirled his gun again, amused at her assurance.
”No,” he differed pleasantly, “you will not do that for two reasons. One, that I will immediately lay before the authorities here in Alexandria a complete and authentic history of who Monsieur Touchet happens to be. I fancy the French Embassy will thank me for turning over a deserter. The other reason,” he went on placidly, “is that I will shoot you down without hesitation if you so much as open your mouth! Now will you tell me?”
She looked at him for a long minute.
”I do not know much,” she said finally, with a shrug. “Monsieur intends to take the necklace at a supper party Madame is giving to-morrow evening. It is during the meal the emeralds are to be stolen. How or in what manner, I do not know. That is al …peak the truth.”
Captain Valentine pursed his lips.
”One more question and .you may go. Who is Mademoiselle Natalie Bowen?”
She presented a blank face to him.
”You refer to the young lady in white — Monsieur’s partner at dinner tonight? I do not know he …ever saw her until last Tuesday — the day I arrived from Paris with Madame.”
Captain Valentine walked to the door, unlocked it, drew the protecting chair away and looked into the corridor.
When he saw it was deserted he motioned to the girl.
”That is all. You may go!”
Back to Top
An Odd Impatience
Warily watchful through the following day, Captain Valentine saw nothing of the Bowen girl or of Touchet. Madame Regnier was in evidence during the early afternoon in the lounge room of the hostelry, the girl who had visited the adventurer the previous morning close beside her.
Captain Valentine felt, despite the absence of Natalie Bowen and the French crook, that several things were becoming clear to him. Since learning that Madame Regnier’s maid was a creature of Touchet’s, he had speculated as to why the maid had not herself lifted the emeralds. He found an answer to this when the day clerk at the hotel allowed the adventurer to artfully draw him out. The necklace, it appeared, was kept safe under lock and key in the vault of the hotel, beyond the grasp of reaching fingers.
In no small way satisfied by the in- • formation, Captain Valentine kept to the point and learned that the supper party the French woman was giving the same evening was to be held in one of the dining-rooms on the second floor, and that the guests invited included, besides Touchet and Natalie Bowen, several English port officials, their wives, and a wealthy Greek tobacco merchant.
When the clerk mentioned the name of the girl in white the adventurer raised quizzical brows.
”Mademoiselle Bowen? You mean, of course, the young lady in white? A very pretty and charming young person, indeed. I wonder who she is.”
The clerk, bursting with information, leaned confidentially forward.
”Very pretty and charming,” he agreed enthusiastically, “and so young to travel alone. She has conic from London and is going to Bombay, so I understand, to join her father, an army major. Two more days,” he added, “and she will be gone.”
As the afternoon waned. Captain Valentine felt himself beset by an odd impatience. Before many more hours elapsed he must outwit Touchet and obtain the necklace. The affair of the British Embassy office in Athens must even now be in the hands of the secret agents; the menace creeping toward him with the slow but certain rapidity of a gathering monsoon. For him the long trail; never the luxury of rest at any one particular point — danger, like his own shadow, hung at his heels, driving him on and ever on. To linger in Alexandria might be fatal to all hopes of a future … .
Learning the exact location of the private dining-room Madame Regnier had engaged, he made his way to the second floor and pushed open its unlatched door. Investigation proved it more than suited his purpose. It was a chamber of no great dimensions, yet one ample enough to accommodate a party of twelve or more. It contained a long center-table over which was suspended a low hanging chandelier.
But these things Captain Valentine considered last.
His quick eye focused on a small ante-chamber adjoining the room, at once a part of it but separated and shut off by heavy, woven-grass portieres, making the room a private place, used no doubt by waiters to store empty dishes or cool champagne.
Making sure the corridor in which he stood was free from spying eyes, Valentine admitted himself and crossed to the ante-chamber, drawing back the curtains. A smile sprang to his lips.
It could not have been better adapted to his purpose. A single, wide window protected by a wire mesh screen opened directly upon a narrow iron balcony that ran the length of the hotel.
Back again in the lobby, where the twilight was seeping in from Quick Street outside, Captain Valentine caught sight of the girl who called herself Natalie Bowen. She stood in the doorway of the lounge room, her red- gold hair glimmering with fairy fire in the reflection of the recently kindled wall sconces, a proudly poised youthful figure, fascinating, almost unreal in the blue Egyptian twilight of the old gods.
She saw him even as he saw her, and came toward him.
”May I speak with you — outside?”
Captain Valentine nodded, his gaze on her beautiful face.
”I shall be honored.”
They made their way to the gardens where he had sought her the previous night.
”I am so frightened,” she said, in a hushed voice. “ …m sure now you must be correct about Monsieur Sasson. I have done very wrong in accepting his hospitality, but I didn’t know. I met him on a Royal Mail steamer coming in from Algiers, and he told me he knew my father, was a friend of his. He seemed to be so certain — “
She halted, fingers twisting together.
”If there is any service I can render,” Captain Valentine said earnestly, “please command me.”
She dropped a hand to his arm.
”Oh, if you will! I could never thank you enough! This is my plan. I wish to go tonight without his knowledge … think I am afraid of him since you spoke. I have been invited to the supper party of a dear old lady … . Madame Regnier, but afterwards — one of the coast steamers sails at two- thirty in the morning — he would never imagine I would take that — “
Captain Valentine fingered his chin.
”You wish me to put you aboard her? An excellent idea. I shall consider myself fortunate that I may aid you if only in this small way. Please leave the matter of obtaining reservations entirely in my hands. I will see to it that a stateroom is had. And I will have a conveyance ready to pick you up at — “ he thought a minute … he side entrance of the hotel, to the east, at, say, fifteen minutes of two. If you can slip out by that exit no one, I am sure, will be the wiser.”
She drew closer to him and lifted her face to his. In the gloom, at that moment, she was very desirable and appealing. It was only with an effort that Captain Valentine resisted the temptation to take her in his arms.
”Thank you,” she breathed. “I knew I would not need to ask in vain!”
Shortly before dinner the adventurer purchased an outside stateroom on the coast vessel the girl had mentioned.
Back in his room at the hotel again, he became busy with his preparations for the impending work of the night that lay confronting him. Donning a serviceable tweed suit, he slung his revolver on its silken cradle under his left armpit, transferred the plunder in the false bottom of a kit bag to two money-belts about his waist, and consigned all of his luggage to one of the native boys employed at the hotel.
Full instructions he voiced and, to make doubly sure there was no chance of mistake, had the youth repeat them three times before he was satisfied.
After dinner in the grill — a meal consumed without sign of either Touchet or the girl — he idled away an hour in the lobby and then sought his room.
Restless and impatient by turn, for he was never one cut out to play a waiting game, the adventurer paced the length of the rug underfoot, smoked countless cigarettes and let his mind throng with speculative fancies.
Again he asked himself if Natalie Bowen was as guiltless as she appeared; if she was, in reality, a tool of Touchet’s — as much so as his intruder of the previous morning. There had been minutes when he was certain she was merely a bright-faced English girl traveling to join a military father; other, moments when he was not so sure — when he was almost positive she was a pawn pushed about by the sensitive, cunning fingers of the French criminal.
Only the night in its passing might give him the answer to the riddle.
Back to Top
The Theft of the Necklace
At midnight Captain Valentine extinguished the lights, closed the door of his room for the last time, and made his way down to the gardens.
Skirting the bulk of the sprawling hotel, he arrived at length at its easterly termination — where the iron balcony that ran down and past the private dining-rooms had its beginning.
It was an inconsiderable feat for him to leap up, catch the lowest iron bar and draw himself up and onto the balcony proper. He did this without hesitation, keeping well to the shadows.
In no great space of time he crouched before the wire-mesh screen of the window of the ante-chamber to the room in which Madame Regnier was holding court — a room brilliant with light and noisy with gusty laughter.
With the utmost caution Captain Valentine removed the screen and lowered himself across the sill. On noiseless feet he stepped to the grass portieres — this after first darting the beam of a pocket torch about and making sure no waiter lurked in the half gloom.
Holding the curtains so they might betray no movement, the adventurer inserted an eye to their slit.
In the next room Madame Regnier sat at a table sparkling with glass and silver. She was at its head, wonderfully gowned. About her withered throat, like coals of living green fire, the splendid Necklace of the Pharaohs hung, each irradiant stone winking and glimmering in the glare of the chandelier.
At the woman’s right sat Natalie Bowen, beautiful in a simple evening frock that displayed her charms to the fullest. Opposite her was the rotund figure of a man whose profile bespoke Greek blood.
Touchet, sleek and smiling in perfectly tailored evening clothes, occupied a place at the foot of the table: the remainder of the chairs were filled with people the adventurer had never before seen, nor, in any likelihood, would ever see again.
Switching his gaze from the face of Natalie Bowen to the green stones about the throat of Madame Regnier, he felt a slow fire begin to burn deep within him. A king’s ransom I With the necklace for his own he might return to London or Paris, buy an estate and settle down to the life of country gentleman. He could barter it for all those things he had never known — love, the joyous high notes in the serenade of life, luxurious ease and the freedom from the carking fear of the long, apprehending arm of the law!
Composing himself to wait the next move in the drama unfolding on the stage before him, Valentine eyed the two swarthy waiters moving quietly about the table. Were they, too, in the employ of the French criminal? Now and then he saw one of the men exchange a secret glance with the handsome man at the end of the table.
A long hour passed.
At half after the hour of one the supper showed signs of drawing to a conclusion. Cordials and liqueurs having made their appearance, conversation became general, then men consulting watches, the ladies pushing chairs hack.
Stiffly still behind the curtains, Valentine waited. It was a matter of minutes now before Touchet would strike; before the blow would fall … .
It came as the thought flickered through his mind.
From the foot of the table Touchet caught the eye of the waiter who had exchanged the glances with him, half lifted his hand as if to brush back his hair.
Followed almost immediately a sharp, distinct click — absolute darkness as the chandelier was snuffed out!
Exclamations broke out, a babbling dissonance of voices laughing and inquiringly raised.
Then a sharp scream in the voice of Madame Regnier:
Before the echoes of her voice had merged in the rising confusion, the chandelier blossomed with light again, revealing the elderly French woman standing in her place, both hands pressed to her bare throat, eyes distended with fear and horror.
”My necklace!” she screamed. “It has been stolen!”
In her excitement in the dark she had knocked over her glass of crème de menthe — the liqueur lay in a puddle on the white cloth, dripping over the table edge onto the skirt of the wonderful evening gown.
All present were standing. Touchet, unruffled, leaning a little forward.
”Your necklace, Madame?” he said, as if perplexed. “Stolen? Have the doors locked then at once 1 Let no one leave until it is found!”
A waiter sprang to the corridor door and turned the key.
As fie did so, the stout Greek opposite Natalie Bowen gave vent to a startled exclamation, staring fixedly down before him.
”Your necklace 1 Behold — “
Leaning forward he dipped a hand into the puddle of creme de menthe and lifted from it the emerald string, sticky, but still scintillating under their covering of the fluid, fire-eyes that glowed as they lay coiled in the hand of the Greek, open pendant drooping from between his fingers.
The tense silence was abruptly shattered by a universal sigh.
”Oh, Mon Diou!” Madame Regnier wailed, catching up a napkin and seizing her necklace. “I thought I felt it cut away! And it fell — it was my own fault! Ah — may I beg you to excuse the accusation — I was overcome — “
Waiting to hear no more, Captain Valentine, a coldness stealing into the heat within his blood, moved back to the window, stepped out of it, replaced the screen and traversed the balcony.
Dropping down from it where he had jumped up, he lowered himself to the ground and made his way rapidly to the side entrance of the hotel. The taxi he had engaged earlier in the evening chugged quietly some little distance from the small porte-cochère.
With a glance at the luminous dial of the watch strapped to his wrist, Captain Valentine spoke to the chauffeur and threw open the door.
It lacked fifteen minutes only of the hour of two.
The soft thud of a closing door whirled him around. A shape glided out of the darkness and the girl joined him, a cloak over her evening gown, a small leather bag in one hand.
”You did not fail me, M’sieu,” she said almost gaily. “Come — let us hurry. I left him in the lobby — ”
Captain Valentine assisted her into the vehicle, jumped in beside her and dosed the door.
The cab rattled into Quick Street and turned toward the harbor.
”You have my ticket?” the girl questioned. “Do please tell me how much I owe you — “
Time, the adventurer felt, was precious. The thing must be done with without delay. Leaning close to her he dropped a hand to her arm.
”I’ll trouble you,” he said in a voice as cold as polished steel, “for the necklace you stole from Madame Regnier!”
She fell back against the upholstery, gasping.
”The — the necklace — “
He shook her arm impatiently.
”The necklace you removed from the neck of Madame Regnier before you dropped the substitute Touchet supplied you with into the creme de menthe. The necklace Monsieur allowed you to retain so as to make the trail more baffling! Come — hand it over!”
The harbor loomed up, streaked with the lights of anchored shipping, like broken ribbons of many hues.
”I think you are the devil himself!” the girl said, her voice quivering. “Ah, M’sieu, would you take it from me? True, I stole it — but — but failure to hand it over to Touchet means death — for me!”
She inclined her head toward him, eyes dim with unshed tears.
Captain Valentine sensed the subtle fragrance of a delicate perfume that clung to her — an odor like incense.
”Come!” he ordered roughly. “None of that! I’m as desperate as you or your charming partner in crime! The necklace, and at once! I should dislike intensely to use force — “
With a strangled sob she slipped a hand into an inner pocket of her cloak. It came out clutching the Necklace of the Pharaohs. The adventurer snatched it from her, dropped it into his coat pocket and opened the side door of the tonneau.
”The ticket I purchased,” he said whimsically, “I will make no charge for. I intend using it myself. And so — adieu!”
Before the quay the taxi had wheeled up to stood the boy from the Hotel Marina, the adventurer’s luggage at his feet; beyond him the tender of the coast steamer waited …
Valentine’s last impression, as the craft put out into the harbor, was of the girl’s pale face, the eyes wet with unshed tears, the delicate perfume that seemed to follow him … unforgetful.
~ The End ~