A LOCKED DOOR
Your only obligation to us, Mr. Vartan, will be to deliver to me a shovelful, say four pounds, of the soil in which this larkspur grows in the wild state. Provided, of course, that you succeed in discovering a specimen in bloom. If you find none of this variety, the loss is ours."
It was Charles Brassey, President of the famous seed firm, speaking in his private office of the London establishment. The interview had been brief in the extreme.
Brassey, a stoutish, clean shaven man slightly past middle age, more like a prime minister than a business man in appearance and manner, had gone to the root of the matter in the first thirty seconds.
"We have enquired about you," he began, "and find your record as an oil explorer and later as an associate of the Geological Exploration Society of America satisfactory. Your work in Ecuador and Chile, particularly in the Andes, will be sufficient preparation, we hope, for our own undertaking. You have read Miss Driscott's articles, and doubtless you have guessed that she is our publicity agent. This plant," he indicated the superb specimen growing in a bamboo tub on a low table at his left, "is the delphinium of which she wrote."
These preliminaries disposed of, Brassey at once stated what the firm wanted of Vartan.
Rather overwhelmed by the abrupt success of the first stage of his adventure, Vartan glanced at the flower mechanically, did not see it, pushed back his chair and, without a word, strolled over to the bleak north window, and stood staring down at the string of busses and motor cabs cutting their lugubrious way through the cheesy drizzle. The prospect was as depressing as the weather. Although the seed firm's great headquarters had come through the blitz with nothing more serious than shattered glass, the building across the street had taken a direct hit, and now loomed up black and gaunt.
It was less than six hours since he had got off the boat at Liverpool. Used to reasonable efficiency in business matters, and quite unprepared for super-American methods in a London business house, he was swept off his balance by the dizzy speed of it all. He vaguely wondered whether Brassey had not carefully rehearsed the scene in order to impress a New Yorker. The Marjorie Driscott incident, now boldly revealed in its true colors as a piece of bald advertising, strengthened his suspicions. On arriving at Paddington, he had taken a cab at once to Brassey House--as the firm somewhat audaciously styled their establishment 'founded in I776'. He did not lose his head.
"Before looking into this further," he announced, wheeling about and facing Brassey, "I should like to talk to a friend."
"May we call him for you?"
"If it is not too much trouble. Pardon me, but I presume we may confer in private?"
"Certainly. Your friend's name and address?"
"William Shane, 16 Adelaide Square, Bloomsbury. The same Shane as you quoted in your cablegram.'
Brassey permitted a smile to flicker over his diplomatic lips. He pressed a button.
"I anticipated your request, Mr. Vartan. In fact I suggested that Mr. Shane meet your boat, but he was too busy."
"He is associated with you?"
"Temporarily. We hope to induce him to stay permanently as a member of our scientific staff."
"But what on earth?" Shane is a paleobotanist."
"Precisely," Brassey confirmed. "An expert in fossil plants."
"You can't sell fossil seeds," Vartan blurted out before he realized what he was saying. Brassey relaxed for a moment.
"Have you never heard of the resurrection of the dead, Mr. Vartan?" he asked with an enigmatic smile.
"No, and neither have you," Vartan retorted, "because it hasn't happened yet. If this?"
His expostulations were cut short by the entrance of a prim secretary.
"Please ask Mr. Shane to join us as soon as convenient to him, Miss West. You may tell him that Mr. Vartan is here."
Miss West withdrew, and Brassey rose to follow her.
"You may talk here," he said. "I shall have some light refreshments sent in. Do you care for port? Sherry?"
The bewildered Vartan absently shook his head, and Brassey, with a stiff bow, withdrew. The door had all but closed when an afterthought opened it again. "May I suggest, while you are waiting for Mr. Shane, that you inspect that delphinium? It is unique. And, I may say," he added with a faint recurrence of his diplomatic smile, it has not risen from the dead."
Dazed for a moment, Vartan quickly recovered his equilibrium.
"Brassey must be crazy," he muttered, running his hand through his flaming hair. To his surprise he discovered that he was perspiring. Ashamed of his repressed excitement, he walked resolutely over to the low table with its bamboo tub.
Vartan was by no means of a poetical nature. Yet, as his eyes took in for the first time the perfect beauty of the growing thing before him, an involuntary ejaculation burst from his lips. It meant nothing, and it meant everything. It was a distant echo of the shrill cry of astonishment, uttered by the low-browed brute that fathered our human kind, when first it recognized that the blotches of crimson and yellow, of purple and gold in the steaming jungles were something better than fruit to fill its belly--flowers, to feed its eyes.
To perhaps eighty out of a hundred human beings, the living thing in the bamboo tub would have been only so much vegetable matter with a purplish blue spike growing out of its indistinct green middle. To Vartan, who had trained himself to recognize beauty in at least one of nature's many kingdoms, it blazed forth as a vision of the perfect flower.
He did not hear the door open, or Miss West's crisp announcement, "Mr. Shane." Not until Shane had repeated his amused query did Vartan realize that he was not alone.
"Pretty good, isn't it?" he repeated, shaking his fellow adventurer's hand. "Just like you, I thought Brassey was crazy when I first talked to him. Oh, yes; I'm hired, whether I go with you or not. The stuff at this end is pretty interesting as it is. I'll show you what I'm doing after we've had lunch. Did Brassey tell you what he wants?"
"A shovelful of dirt. And you say he isn't crazy. All right; I'll take your word for it, pro tem."
"Crazy? No more than you are. Look at that plant! What's it worth? Commercially, I mean? Why, man, if that strain were propagated for the market, it would net this firm a cool million. Pounds, not dollars. Did you ever see anything like it? This beats an azure blue rose, if you get what I mean. It's rarer, much. Even a blind man would want one of these in his garden."
Shane's enthusiasm was partly aesthetic, partly professional. As a specialist in fossil plants, he had mastered a considerable range of living botany, in order to give his stone seeds and sandy fern spores--dusted out a grain at a time from singularly stubborn rocks--their true perspectives in the limitless vistas of life. By nature he was an enthusiast of the explosive type, wiry, lean as a whippet, dark as a Celt, and always eager to be off somewhere, provided it was indeed somewhere and not a mere nowhere not worth going to.
"Well, what about it?" he repeated, impatient at the lingering doubt on the less easily fired Vartan's perplexed features.
"Of course," Vartan hesitated. "That's why I came, isn't it?"
"You don't seem too enthusiastic," Shane remarked acidly. "Wait till you've seen my slides."
"Slides? Of what?"
"Ah," Shane responded mysteriously, "don't you wish you knew? Millions--billions--of them, and they all came out of a speck of dust I whiffed off a seed no bigger than a grain of mustard. Teeming with them, I tell you. Alive with them, positively alive! Only," he added as an afterthought, "they're all dead. Unless," he flung out half defiantly, "you believe with Brassey that they can rise from the dead."
Vartan shot his excited friend an appraising glance.
"You seem to be affected, too," he remarked. "By the way, you haven't said what all these miraculous 'they' and 'them' are."
"Wait and see," Shane snapped. "Here's lunch. Don't overdo it, even if they do go out of their way to do one rather well in this clattering old fog hole. Better sit with your back to that flower. You won't feel decent eating steak and kidney pudding right in its face. I know. Brassey fed me in here the morning I applied for a job. Sit down. Damn it! That pest's back again. He's always forgetting something."
The nondescript servitor who had brought in the 'light refreshments' and laid them out on the teak table by the window, humbly deposited a jar of chutney beside the steaming steak and kidney pudding and withdrew, this time permanently. The incident seemed to throw a wet blanket over Shane's blazing enthusiasm'
"I don't like that broken down old white horse," Shane muttered under his breath. "He looks like a fool, and isn't. No man who isn't an idiot has a right to look like one. Sometimes?"
"Sometimes what?" Vartan encouraged.
"Oh, nothing. Only I sometimes wish I were back in Ecuador, with nothing to worry about except those red mites that get under your toe nails and gnaw your leg off to the hip. Have some stout? No? Then neither will I. Brassey is all right, of course, but I prefer to talk business on a comparatively empty stomach. This pie must have been designed for the Lord Mayor of London. I wouldn't take too much of it, if I were you. They'll want you to meet Marjorie after lunch."
"What has she to do with it?"
"Everything. You probably will think she's a raving beauty. Better not be drowsy when you meet her."
"Why not? What is more beautiful than a lovely woman seen through a haze?"
"Don't try to be epigrammatic on steak and kidney pudding plus stout. You'll be sick, if you do. Marjorie? She is publicity, plus brains, plus looks. Her facile pen is to finance this little jaunt to the back of beyond. You didn't suppose a conservative business house like Brassey's would fling away a small fortune for nothing, did you? Why spend your own money to finance your business when the public is clamoring for the chance to do it for you?"
"I see," said Vartan. "Brassey is out to make this expedition pay on publicity. Marjorie will come along as press agent?"
"Just that. They have already sold the exclusive press and movie rights to Northfield's news agency to be syndicated in the British Empire and the United States. Brassey remarked that the firm will stand the loss if you come back empty handed? I thought so. Just what he told me. Loss? There won't be any loss. Brasseys' Limited stand to make a fortune out of this whichever way it goes. We'll take along a high powered radio outfit. The excited public will know before we do when we are about to be executed, or buried by an avalanche, or whatnot. Then they'll organize a relief expedition and make more publicity. Snowball effect."
"So you have really made up your mind to leave your slides and come along?"
"Oh, I suppose so. Fresh air, intimate insects, mountain blizzards, blistered feet, bleeding hands, and all that sort of thing. I need them again."
Vartan sighed his relief.
"Then you can take care of the charming Marjorie."
"Don't you believe it," Shane retorted. "Wait till you've chatted with her for fifteen minutes. She'll take care of me. And of you too. Marjorie wants copy, and lots of it. Unless one of us breaks his neck at least every other day, she will see to it that we do something more exciting. Had enough? What about dessert?"
"I don't believe I care for any," Vartan began, and stopped abruptly. The colorless waiter, or whatever he was, had materialized from empty space.
"Will you try this jam tart, Sir?" he humbly suggested, proffering an enormous thick circular disk of crimson, crisscrossed by stout bars of undercooked pastry. Shane took the situation in hand.
"How the devil did you get in here?" he demanded.
"By the door, Sir," the tart-bearer replied with exasperating meekness.
"Then you get to hell out of here by the door," Shane snapped, " and take that damned carbuncle with you."
Vartan waited till the door had closed noiselessly behind the old white horse and his rejected tart.
"Better keep your temper, Bill, " he advised, "no matter what you suspect."
"I know, " Shane admitted grudgingly. "It's the Irish in me, I suppose."
"You do suspect something?" Vartan queried.
Shane filled his pipe--a short, ancient clay--and lit it before replying.
"As I said," he began, "that old horse is no fool. He's Mr. Brassey's personal bodyguard, or something of the sort. Probably a retired butler who has been with the family since 1776. Does all Brassey's chores for him. General factotum about the offices and seed laboratories. Always sticking his long bald nose in where and when it's least expected. Seems to have taken a particular fancy to me and my high powered ultra microscope.
"Spying, as it were?"
"It looks that way. The long and the short of it is this. Brassey's know they can be trusted, but believe nobody else can. I'm watched every move I make, as if they thought I was going to steal the safe."
"Pardon me, Sir," a humble voice suggested from behind the stately delphinium, "but would you and your friend care for after lunch cigars? Mr. Brassey suggests that you try these. They are made from specially selected leaf grown on the firm's Sumatra seed plantation."
In grim silence Shane selected one of the almost blood red cigars, and motioned Vartan to help himself. With something like a leer of triumph on his long, equine features, the pest faded from the room.
"There you are," Shane exclaimed. "He arrived with these infernal cigars just in time to hear me say I am going to steal the safe. I beg that old plug's pardon. He's no ex-butler. Scotland Yard is his home stable. No man who isn't a born porch climber can enter a room as that pest does. Well, do you want to take it on, now that you've seen what they think of us?"
"All the more," Vartan asserted firmly. "If Brassey's choose to suspect us, it's their privilege, as they are putting up the money. Personally, I think they are within their rights. Wouldn't you make sure of your men before you hired them?"
"But they have hired us," Shane pointed out. "Practically, that is. They've taken me on, and Brassey all but got down on his knees to you. I don't like this being spied on."
"That's just your Irish again," Vartan laughed. "As for me, I enjoy it. Doesn't it prove that this shovelful of dirt we are after must be worth its weight in big diamonds?"
"If it actually is dirt they want," Shane retorted gloomily. "How do you know it is?"
"Brassey said so. He looks like a man who knows his own mind. I honestly believe that he craves that dirt, although for the life of me I can't guess why. If he wants something else, why doesn't he say so?"
"Ever hear of sealed orders?" Shane hinted significantly.
"Sure. So have you."
"In Ecuador, wasn't it?" Shane went on. "When we left Guayaquil we thought we were going to look for oil only. Then the boss of our party opened his orders. Incidentally, I found out why an oil company hired me, a paleobotanist, to go on an oil survey.
"But it was all innocent enough," Vartan protested. "Our sealed orders were simply to make a thorough geological survey of certain sectors of the Andes. Oil shales and the rest were to be merely incidental."
"Exactly," Shane cut in. "Ever hear of uranium deposits? More valuable than oil. That's what our astute friends in Washington really wanted to find out about. They took me on as a blind to the rest of you."
"Why not?" Vartan objected. "They paid us well, and no harm has come of what we reported."
"You wait," Shane replied darkly. "Well, we can't stop it now. About our own business. Brassey will spring the trap on us when we're hopelessly bogged somewhere in the Himalayas, with no earthly chance of getting back to civilization until we do his job for him."
"Perhaps so," Vartan agreed. His jaw set, and his red hair seemed to grow a shade redder. "If that is Brassey's game," he declared, "I'm in it stronger than ever. He can spring all the traps he likes, for anything I care. As for sealed orders, I've already got mine."
"Where?" Shane demanded.
"Here," Vartan tapped his forehead. "And nothing short of a bullet will break the seal till I've carried out my orders."
He stopped abruptly, aware of the acute distaste on Shane's mobile features. Glancing behind him, he saw the cause. The factotum head reappeared, this time with a rich silver coffee service.
"Mr. Brassey," be almost neighed, "thought you would appreciate a demitasse from the firm's own coffee. He asked me to inform you that this was grown on our own experimental seed farms in Brazil. It is much superior to the commercial product."
They accepted the miraculous coffee in dumb disgust. The factotum's hand was already on the doorknob when Shane called him back.
"Would you mind explaining how you got into the room this time?"
A mask of resigned obstinacy settled on the pest's meek features.
"Through the service door, sir," he replied in an injured tone. "If you will look behind the delphinium by Mr. Brassey's desk, you will see it. The kitchenette is through that door." With mulish effrontery he now addressed an obsequious inquiry to Vartan. "Kitchenette is the correct American term for pantry, is it not?"
"No," Vartan answered shortly. "We shan't need finger bowls. Please don't bring us anything more."
"Not even if it were grown in the Garden of Eden," Shane added.
"Very well sir. Will you please ring the bell when you wish to see Mr. Brassey?"
"Yes!" Shane snapped. "Now go to the devil."
"Yes, sir; thank you sir."
"If that man's a fool," Shane remarked when the door was really closed, "I'm a cretin imbecile. Do you grasp what he overheard on this raid?"
"The tail end of a perfectly innocent remark."
"Innocent? If you call 'sealed orders' innocent talk for an employee who is only half hired, I don't. Wait till old Horse Face tells Brassey."
"Perhaps we had better not," Vartan suggested. "Press the button, will you?"
In answer to the bell, Miss West appeared with surprising alacrity. From the scowl on Shane's face be evidently suspected her of listening at the keyhole. As she entered by the kitchenette door, the suspicion may not have been wholly groundless. For the first time Vartan had an uneasy feeling that all was not so open and aboveboard as Brassey had tried to make it appear.
Vartan's method in dealing with a delicate situation was redheaded. It was simple and extremely direct. As a matter of principle he invariably kicked over the pan and spilled all the fat into the fire at once. Ignoring the too efficient Miss West for a moment, he rather insultingly turned his back on her and addressed Shane.
"We had better watch our step here," he admonished sharply. "This young lady evidently does her typing on the kitchen sink--if there is one behind that door." Miss West gasped, and went pale. Vartan wheeled about and faced her. "Is there?" he demanded.
Miss West kept her head. She was highly paid for that very faculty.
"Did you wish to see Mr. Brassey?" she inquired in a businesslike tone.
"Presently," Vartan retorted evenly. "First, Mr. Shane and I would like to know whether the kitchenette or pantry is behind that door?"
For a fraction of a second she hesitated, and was lost. Before she could either reply or retreat, Vartan had beaten her to the suspected door. Miss West was unused to direct methods. Those of her employer were peaceable and diplomatic. Under the stress of a totally new stimulus, she temporarily lost her wits and foolishly attempted to cut off Vartan's assault on the door. They collided in the immediate vicinity of the priceless delphinium. Miss West, being the lighter body, was hurled with considerable violence against the low table on which the superb plant stood. There was a faint metallic tinkle.
"Ah!" Vartan exclaimed. "You don't want us in your kitchenette. Give up bridge, Miss West, and learn poker. Then you won't show the whole world your hand when you have only a pair of deuces. Well, Shane, what about it? Shall we do a little exploring here before we start for the Himalayas?"
"I'm on," Shane snapped. "Open that door."
Vartan turned the handle. The door was locked. Miss West permitted herself the luxury of a slight smile, not unlike her employer's.
"I shall stick to bridge," she remarked to the delphinium.
Shane let the blushing Vartan fight it out. For a moment Vartan was nonplussed. Then he calmly let his scientific training assert itself, and critically reconstructed the entire incident, from Miss West's entrance to his own apparently futile assault on the locked door. For fully a minute there was an intense silence in the room. Miss West stood indifferently regarding the peerless delphinium. Shane furtively studied the secretary's face, striving to find some clue to what she was thinking. Vartan coldly analysed himself in the light of what had happened.
Why had he bolted for the door? To beat the secretary to it. Therefore she must have shown an impulse to prevent him from opening it. He had acted instinctively, with his muscles. But muscles, in a crisis, are mind. So far he must be right. She had tried to keep him away from the door. But, if it was locked, probably by a night latch that would permit entrance from the supposed kitchenette, but not exit into it, Miss West must have known the fact before she tried to intercept him. Her action therefore was a decoy, unless she had indeed lost her head in the stress of a sudden and new fear. Dismissing the possibility of a decoy, as he could find no rational grounds for it, Vartan decided that Miss West's panicky impulse to protect her employer had momentarily betrayed her. The cool unconcern with which she now studied the azure flower before her was merely a natural expression of relief.
"Why did you try to prevent me from opening this door if you knew it was locked from the inside?"
Miss West stifled a yawn.
"Because you nearly blundered into this plant," she elucidated briefly. "It is worth a hundred thousand pounds."
Vartan made no reply. Shane, still watching the secretary narrowly, caught the question in Vartan's eyes, and nodded. There was a splintering crash as Vartan lunged with his full weight against the door and tumbled into the room beyond. Shane was after him in a flash, leaving the unfortunate Miss West to shriek or faint as she saw fit.
* * * *
At first glance the room in which Shane and Vartan found themselves was precisely what old Horseface had asserted it to be, a kitchenette and nothing more. The meal they had just enjoyed had not been cooked there; it had been carried in from the nearest cook shop. Only the used plates and cutlery, with the extensive remains of the steak and kidney pudding, reposed untidily on the tiny gas stove. It was clear that nothing more substantial than tea had ever been prepared in the alleged kitchenette.
Vartan began to wish he had believed Miss West. Shane, more experienced in the underground life of the Brasseys' great establishment, used his eyes. His intuition of double dealing was too strong to be all fantasy. Presently his eyes fixed on the service table. An unfinished game of solitaire decorated the white oilcloth. Half a dozen cards, scattered roughly in the general shape of an open fan, but in loose disorder, told their own story. The player had abandoned his game in a hurry.
"Look at those," Shane directed, calling Vartan's attention to the scattered cards.
"I saw them," Vartan answered quietly. "Go and see what has happened to Miss West. Don't let her get away. You know the layout better than I do."
Shane darted into the other room, only to find that the secretary had departed.
"She's gone!" he called back.
"Follow her, and bring her here. If you see Brassey, send him in. Call the police. These people may be double crossing Brassey. Take a chance on it, anyway."
If Shane had used his eyes, Vartan had used his ears. The metallic tinkle when Miss West all but capsized the priceless delphinium had not escaped his sharp attention. The instant he heard it, he suspected the cause. Otherwise he would not have burst open the door so blithely. The unfinished game of solitaire confirmed his suspicions of an unauthorized listener all but caught in the act.
The rest was a mere matter of easy, systematic searching. The speaking end of the rather crudely concealed dictaphone was discovered in the drawer of the table; the receiving end in the dense lower foliage of the delphinium in Brassey's office. As Brassey could have no reason for having his own conversations overheard, one of two things must be true. Either the dictaphone had been installed on Brassey's orders to record what took place between Shane and Vartan, or certain of his employees had been bribed to spy on him. It remained to be seen which solution was correct. In any event, Vartan felt, he was justified in getting to the bottom of things at once. If Brassey's employees were betraying him, the police would be welcome; if Brassey was playing a double game with a couple of prospective employees for a highly dangerous mission, then the police would be doubly welcome--to Shane and Vartan.
Shane must have worked fast. Brassey arrived in the wrecked kitchenette within forty seconds, the police within eighty. If actions count as evidence, Brassey's acquitted him. At a glance he took in the dictaphone and evaluated Vartan's questioning glance. He turned to one of the three bobbies who had answered Shane's summons.
"Telephone these names and descriptions at once to Scotland Yard: William Arbold, Annetta West." He proceeded to give brief, accurate descriptions, which the officer jotted down on his pad, of the factotum and of the secretary. "The names," he concluded, "are probably fictitious. It will be useless to look for either of these persons at their lodgings. Advise the police to watch all air and steamship lines to the Continent. I do not believe it will be necessary to watch the transatlantic steamers or airliners. The police must use their own judgment about that."
"What is the charge, sir?" the officer inquired.
"Leave it open."
"You will have to swear out a warrant, sir, before we can arrest the parties."
"I know." Brassey produced a card. "Hand that to Inspector Ransome. He will understand. And here is something for yourselves."
"Thank you, sir."
They left, impressed but not crushed by the five pound tip.
"How did you discover it?" Brassey demanded of Vartan when they were alone.
Vartan explained. I must apologize," he concluded, "for taking liberties with your door."
"The apology is all the other way," Brassey protested. "What will you and Mr. Shane think of us now?"
"I can't answer for Shane. As for myself, I shall continue to think exactly as I did when you told me this morning what you want. A shovelful of dirt, wasn't it?"
"From a certain locality. Or rather, from the soil in which that delphinium flourishes in its native state."
"So I understood you to say. But what exactly do you mean?"
"What I said, Mr. Vartan. Nothing more, nothing less. And, if you fail, we stand the loss."
"Is that all you care to say?"
"Until you agree to my terms unreservedly, it is."
"Very well. I accept."
"Yes, or with only one that won't amount to anything. Shane must accept too. Here he is now."
Before Shane could speak, Brassey had put his question.
"Will you accept my offer if Mr. Vartan does?"
"Then it is settled. You can take passage for Bombay tomorrow morning. The details of your outfit are all arranged as far as is possible in England. For the rest, our agents will attend to you in Bombay. I shall see that berths are reserved for you. Excuse me a moment, while I ask a clerk to take a message to the P and O office. Miss West, unfortunately, has deserted me."
"Is she coming back?" Shane called after him.
"I think not," Brassey replied. "And I doubt whether she will send for her luggage."
"Well?" Shane queried. "What now?"
"Same as ever," Vartan laughed. "Old Horse Face footed us properly. All that elaborate materializing and vanishing act of his was staged to make us suspect Brassey of spying on us. The old plug listened at his end till one of us was about to make some compromising remark, and then sneaked in with the dessert, or the cigars, or the coffee."
"You really believe," Shane hinted darkly, "that he was trying to turn suspicion of himself onto Brassey? How do you know that Brassey didn't pay him to do it? The police won't find either him or Miss West, because Brassey has spirited them away. He has learned all he wanted to know. Luckily we said nothing. At least I said nothing; you said a lot. Brassey knows all about your 'sealed orders' now. And isn't it slick the way he has covered up his spying?"
At first Vartan was inclined to pooh-pooh his imaginative friend's diabolical insinuations. But, the more he reflected on them, the uneasier he became.
"As for my sealed orders," he protested, "they are perfectly innocent and won't do this firm a bit of harm. They are my personal affair only. And what is more, I shan't make a cent out of them, even if I succeed in carrying them through. I hear Brassey coming," he concluded hurriedly.
"Guilty, eh?" Shane grinned. "All right, I won't give you away.
"You will take the boat train tomorrow morning at 10:45," Brassey announced. "You sail at three o'clock."
The two adventurers exchanged glances. Brassey's manner had changed. They now were employees, and therefore under orders. Neither was used to excessive bossing, even while working for wages.
"Has it occurred to you, Mr. Brassey," Shane drawled, "that you have not yet said a word about compensation?"
"It has, Mr. Shane. The firm thinks that one hundred pounds a month each will be liberal compensation. We, of course, will pay all expenses."
"How long do you expect us to be gone?" Shane pursued.
"Twelve months at least. Not more than twenty four at the most."
"It strikes me, Mr. Brassey," Shane remarked drily, "that you know a lot about this expedition that you haven't told us. You call four hundred dollars a month liberal?"
"The firm considers it not only liberal, Mr. Shane, but generous.
"Then I'm damned if I do!" Shane flashed. "If Northfields can pay you seventy five thousand pounds for the press, movie and radio rights, and you stand to lose only nineteen thousand dollars at the worst on Vartan and me, I call it pretty small."
"The expenses," Brassey reminded him with a show of dignity, "will be high."
"There s something in that, Bill," Vartan remarked ironically.
"A lot, I admit. But not over three hundred thousand dollars worth. Now, Mr. Brassey, we are willing to meet you half way. Vartan," he snapped, "keep out of this. I'm business manager of our trip. We agree to go, and to work for you exactly two years, beginning tomorrow morning at 10:45, for the sum of one hundred thousand dollars?"
Shane's audacity was the outcome of several weeks' close observation. He knew that the firm was at the end of its rope in its efforts to induce experienced plant explorers to take up its project. Why these men should have refused, as most probably they had, remained a mystery. To the intense surprise of both men, Brassey capitulated without a fight. Indeed, he went farther than either would have dared to suggest.
"Gentlemen," he replied, "you have me at an obvious disadvantage. Circumstances force me to accept your terms. You, Mr. Shane, seem to be a man of some acuteness. I have not known Mr. Vartan long enough to form a correct opinion of him. But," he continued, turning to Vartan, "your friend has had an advantage. He has been with us long enough to guess the humiliating truth. Not one competent seed collector whom we could trust would have anything to do with this expedition when its ultimate object was explained to him. Now, gentlemen, you must admit that I could not be much franker. Could I?"
"You could," Vartan retorted bluntly.
"How, Mr. Vartan?"
"By enlightening us as to the real object of our expedition."
"But I have done so. You are to bring back to me approximately four pounds of the native soil in which that delphinium flourishes. The probable region in which you may begin to search for growing specimens will be confided to you when you reach Bombay."
"If this is all, why did the others turn down your offer?"
Because, Mr. Vartan," Brassey replied with bland candor, " they either thought I was insane or, like you, they imagined I was concealing some preposterous danger behind my straightforward business proposal."
Vartan smiled appreciatively. "What you call turning the tables, I suppose. Would it be impertinent to ask why a shovelful of this dirt is so precious?"
"Not impertinent, merely irrelevant. I have agreed to Mr. Shane's demand. The purpose for which I wish to use that soil is of interest only to the firm."
"That's fair enough," Shane cut in. "The firm has given us what we asked. It's up to us to do our damdest to give it what it wants, and ask no questions."
"Exactly, Mr. Shane," Brassey commented with a touch of severity. "As a matter of fact," he continued with an enigmatic smile, "I was on the point of offering you gentlemen a more attractive opportunity than that of merely earning your salaries. I was about to draw up an agreement to hand over to you the entire residue of what Northfields are paying us on your return to London. But, as you yourselves have suggested the alternative, I am only too happy to oblige you. Shall we go into my office?"
And forthwith he proceeded to write out in triplicate a concise statement of Shane's terms, in the form of a contract stripped of all verbiage. While he was writing, Shane winked at the somewhat crestfallen Vartan. The wink seemed to credit Brassey with more diplomacy than veracity. Having blotted the last copy, Brassey rang for two clerks to witness the signatures.
"Now, gentlemen," he said, when the witnesses had left, my afternoon is at your disposal. Perhaps Mr. Vartan would like to see some of our scientific work?"
Vartan expressed his half-hearted eagerness to inspect the laboratories. He would greatly have preferred to discuss the expedition, or even the delphinium. Nor did Brassey's silence on the hurried departure of Miss West and the factotum altogether please him. He, like Shane, was suffering acutely from curiosity. Brassey simply ignored the whole incident.
"Shall we have a look at what you have been doing, Mr. Shane?" Brassey suggested. "I imagine Mr. Vartan would find that more interesting than our experiments on germination."
Shane nodded. "I was going to show him anyway."
They were about to follow Brassey from the office, when he paused, as if struck by an afterthought.
"By the way, Mr. Vartan," he remarked casually, "these may interest you."
Something in his manner instantly roused their suspicions. Taking a slim key from his watchchain--Brassey was solid and conservative in his dress and personal adornment--he proceeded to unlock a small wall safe behind his desk.
"It is said in the Scriptures, I believe," he remarked as he rummaged through the contents of the safe, "that no man can serve two masters. And I seem to recall that the passage referred specifically to God and Mammon. Now, which may be the one, and which the other in your philosophy, Mr. Vartan, I do not venture to guess.
Somewhat taken aback, Vartan sensed what was coming. In some as yet unexplained way, Brassey had heard of his secret intention of making a side trip, on the firm's time, to verify his so-called 'preposterous hypothesis' regarding the origin of certain Central Asiatic fossil beds. He decided to forestall the awkward showdown.
"Mr. Brassey," he declared, "if I have a private purpose in this undertaking, I give you my word that it will not cost your firm a cent. I shall pay for it out of my own pocket. Nor will it interfere in any way with your business."
Brassey had found what he was looking for, a fat bundle of cablegrams.
"I quite agree," Brassey replied; "your private project will not cost us a penny. Nor will it interfere in any way with the fulfillment of your contract with us. In fact," he continued, smiling faintly, "I am overjoyed in finding at last a man as mad as myself who is willing to spend his own money on a preposterous hypothesis"
What! Who told you that?"
"Your former Chief, Mr. Grimsby. If you care to glance through those cablegrams, you will see the facts. While you were crossing the Atlantic, I corresponded by cable, through my agents and directly, quite extensively with your Chief." His half bantering tone suddenly hardened. "Mr. Vartan, I make it my personal concern to know my men before I entrust them with important business. This expedition on which you and Mr. Shane are going is of the supremest importance, not only to this firm, but to many others. How many, I shall not venture to say. Nearly fifty times have I been on the point of engaging men for this enterprise, only to reject them at the last moment on receipt of an unfavorable report. In many instances the final cause of rejection would seem trivial to an outsider. I take no chance that can be foreseen and avoided. During Mr. Shane's stay with us, I had his past minutely investigated by the best detective agencies in the United States and South America. I did not take for granted that your F.B.I. was to be trusted without an independent check. Perhaps better than either of you could know, I knew why your expedition was given top priority at a critical period of the war."
"Oh, Lord!" Shane groaned.
"There were irregularities, of course, Mr. Shane," Brassey continued, "such as any intelligent employer would expect to find in the life of a normal young man, but nothing of any consequence for the present purpose. So," he continued, turning to Vartan, "when Mr. Shane mentioned you as being a likely man for our undertaking, we at once cabled to you."
"But how?" Vartan began.
"Easily. A good detective agency, not a mere police bureau, has opportunities for making contacts with even the most exclusive people. Mr. Grimsby is almost in that class. It seemed rather strange to us, Mr. Vartan, that you should be abandoning a high-grade position as paleontologist to the Geological Exploration Society of America, to accept one with us whose value is at best doubtful. Therefore we investigated. The right contacts were easily made. The grave importance of our undertaking was explained to Mr. Grimsby, and we begged him, in the name of science, to tell us your true motive for accepting our proposal. As you must know, Mr. Grimsby's ethics are such that he was powerless before an appeal of this kind."
"Pardon me," Vartan interrupted, "but did he tell your representative the nature of my hypothesis?"
"Surely you know Mr. Grimsby better than we do. Is he the man to betray a confidence? He told us all that it was necessary for us to know, without in any way hinting at what you hope to discover. He stated merely that you wished either to prove or disprove a certain 'preposterous hypothesis' of your own. Is that a satisfactory answer?"
Vartan nodded. "There's nothing disgraceful about my hypothesis," he laughed, "only it is so crazy."
Brassey's eyes gleamed.
"Would it apply to plants?"
"You have guessed, then?"
"I have been on the same track for twenty years! If I hadn't been obliged to take over this business when I was twenty-five, I would have shown the whole world years ago that I'm not a madman."
"You are both wrong," Shane cut in, quietly and decisively. "I know what Vartan hopes to explain--the richness of certain fossil beds somewhere in Asia. And I can guess, Mr. Brassey, what you are after. That delphinium. You both have theories. And, as I said, you're both wrong; at best only half right. I have evidence that neither of you has ever imagined."
"Where?" Brassey demanded.
"On my slides. That is, if you are like me, imaginative enough to believe the incredible. Oh, I know," he hurried on, "what Grimsby reported to you about me. He said I was discharged from his Society--it is really his--because I was long on imagination and short on facts."
"Precisely," Brassey confirmed. "And that is why I first became seriously interested in you. But go on. This evidence you speak of. What is its nature?"
"Come and see. Vartan doesn't give a whoop about those cablegrams. His reputation can't be in it with mine. That Aztec girl in Quito--oh Lord!"
They followed him down a dingy corridor to his cubby hole of a laboratory, a tiny room arranged to take advantage of whatever clean daylight the London smudge might afford. On a bare bench by the north window a microscope and its accessories stood out in severe isolation. Shane halted abruptly with a sharp exclamation.
"Are you sure?" Brassey asked in a level voice. "You may have put the boxes away before going to lunch. Look in the drawers."
"Very well. But it's no use. The boxes were at the right of the window when I left."
A thorough search confirmed the complete disappearance of the slides. Brassey wasted no time in further futile searching.
"How much could experts discover from your slides?" he demanded of Shane.
"Depends upon the experts. The right men could guess a lot."
Would they know where the dust was obtained?"
"Not likely, except in a general way. They would have to search the whole earth. Without something more to go on, they might suppose you collected the stuff on the roof of this building."
"You will be followed," Brassey prophesied, "as soon as the experts decipher your slides."
"They mustn't get that far. Stop the slides before they fall into competent hands."
"What's your famous Scotland Yard good for?"
"Nothing, in a case like this. They have not caught a single one of the spies that have pilfered from these laboratories for the past thirteen years. William Arbold and Annetta West will get clean away like the others. And they are more dangerous than any of them. They must know that you two have finally been engaged. Still, I shall try to start the wheels at once. Excuse me if I do not see you off tomorrow morning. Get your tickets and money from the cashier."
"Is Miss Driscott coming with us?" Shane called after the vanishing Brassey.
"Miss Driscott will meet you in Bombay. She left last week to make the necessary press arrangements."
That was the last of Brassey they saw for many a day. They spent the afternoon and most of the night talking endlessly. In the morning they were off.