The Illustrious Prince

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 7 - A Fatal Despatch


Mr. Coulson found his two visitors in the lounge of the hotel. He had removed all traces of his journey, and was attired in a Tuxedo dinner coat, a soft-fronted shirt, and a neatly arranged black tie. He wore broad-toed patent boots and double lines of braid down the outsides of his trousers. The page boy, who was on the lookout for him, conducted him to the corner where Miss Penelope Morse and her companion were sitting talking together. The latter rose at his approach, and Mr. Coulson summed him up quickly,--a well-bred, pleasant-mannered, exceedingly athletic young Englishman, who was probably not such a fool as he looked,--that is, from Mr. Coulson's standpoint, who was not used to the single eyeglass and somewhat drawling enunciation.

"Mr. Coulson, isn't it?" the young man asked, accepting the other's outstretched hand. "We are awfully sorry to disturb you, so soon after your arrival, too, but the fact is that this young lady, Miss Penelope Morse,"--Mr. Coulson bowed,--"was exceedingly anxious to make your acquaintance. You Americans are such birds of passage that she was afraid you might have moved on if she didn't look you up at once."

Penelope herself intervened.

"I'm afraid you're going to think me a terrible nuisance, Mr. Coulson!" she exclaimed. Mr. Coulson, although he did not call himself a lady's man, was nevertheless human enough to appreciate the fact that the young lady's face was piquant and her smile delightful. She was dressed with quiet but elegant simplicity. The perfume of the violets at her waistband seemed to remind him of his return to civilization.

"Well, I'll take my risks of that, Miss Morse," he declared. "If you'll only let me know what I can do for you--"

"It's about poor Mr. Hamilton Fynes," she explained. "I took up the evening paper only half an hour ago, and read your interview with the reporter. I simply couldn't help stopping to ask whether you could give me any further particulars about that horrible affair. I didn't dare to come here all alone, so I asked Sir Charles to come along with me."

Mr. Coulson, being invited to do so, seated himself on the lounge by the young lady's side. He leaned a little forward with a hand on either knee.

"I don't exactly know what I can tell you," he remarked. "I take it, then, that you were well acquainted with Mr. Fynes?"

"I used to know him quite well," Penelope answered, "and naturally I am very much upset. When I read in the paper an account of your interview with the reporter, I could see at once that you were not telling him everything. Why should you, indeed? A man does not want every detail of his life set out in the newspapers just because he has become connected with a terrible tragedy."

"You're a very sensible young lady, Miss Morse, if you will allow me to say so," Mr. Coulson declared. "You were expecting to see something of Mr. Fynes over here, then?"

"I had an appointment to lunch with him today," she answered. "He sent me a marconigram before he arrived at Queenstown."

"Is that so?" Mr. Coulson exclaimed. "Well, well!"

"I actually went to the restaurant," Penelope continued, "without knowing anything of this. I can't understand it at all, even now. Mr. Fynes always seemed to me such a harmless sort of person, so unlikely to have enemies, or anything of that sort. Don't you think so, Mr. Coulson?"

"Well," that gentleman answered, "to tell you the honest truth, Miss Morse, I'm afraid I am going to disappoint you a little. I wasn't over well acquainted with Mr. Fynes, although a good many people seemed to fancy that we were kind of bosom friends. That newspaper man, for instance, met me at the station and stuck to me like a leech; drove down here with me, and was willing to stand all the liquor I could drink. Then there was a gentleman from Scotland Yard, who was in such a hurry that he came to see me in my bedroom. HE had a sort of an idea that I had been brought up from infancy with Hamilton Fynes and could answer a sheaf of questions a yard long. As soon as I got rid of him, up comes that page boy and brings your card."

"It does seem too bad, Mr. Coulson," Penelope declared, raising her wonderful eyes to his and smiling sympathetically. "You have really brought it upon yourself, though, to some extent, haven't you, by answering so many questions for this Comet man?"

"Those newspaper fellows," Mr. Coulson remarked, "are wonders. Before that youngster had finished with me, I began to feel that poor old Fynes and I had been like brothers all our lives. As a matter of fact, Miss Morse, I expect you knew him at least as well as I did."

She nodded her head thoughtfully.

"Hamilton Fynes came from the village in Massachusetts where I was brought up. I've known him all my life."

Mr. Coulson seemed a little startled.

"I didn't understand," he said thoughtfully, "that Fynes had any very intimate friends over this side."

Penelope shook her head.

"I don't mean to imply that we have been intimate lately," she said. "I came to Europe nine years ago, and since then, of course, I have not seen him often. Perhaps it was the fact that he should have thought of me, and that I was actually expecting to have lunch with him today, which made me feel this thing so acutely."

"Why, that's quite natural," Mr. Coulson declared, leaning back a little and crossing his legs. "Somehow we seem to read about these things in the papers and they don't amount to such a lot, but when you know the man and were expecting to see him, as you were, why, then it comes right home to you. There's something about a murder," Mr. Coulson concluded, "which kind of takes hold of you if you've ever even shaken hands with either of the parties concerned in it."

"Did you see much of the poor fellow during the voyage?" Sir Charles asked.

"No, nor any one else," Mr. Coulson replied. "I don't think he was seasick, but he was miserably unsociable, and he seldom left his cabin. I doubt whether there were half a dozen people on board who would have recognized him afterwards as a fellow-passenger."

"He seems to have been a secretive sort of person," Sir Charles remarked.

"He was that," Mr. Coulson admitted. "Never seemed to care to talk about himself or his own business. Not that he had much to talk about," he added reflectively. "Dull sort of life, his. So many hours of work, so many hours of play; so many dollars a month, and after it's all over, so many dollars pension. Wouldn't suit all of us, Sir Charles, eh?"

"I fancy not," Somerfield admitted. "Perhaps he kicked over the traces a bit when he was over this side. You Americans generally seem to find your way about--in Paris, especially."

Mr. Coulson shook his head doubtfully.

"There wasn't much kicking over the traces with poor old Fynes," he said. "He hadn't got it in him."

Somerfield scratched his chin thoughtfully and looked at Penelope.

"Scarcely seems possible, does it," he remarked, "that a man leading such a quiet sort of life should make enemies."

"I don't believe he had any," Mr. Coulson asserted.

"He didn't seem nervous on the way over, did he?" Penelope asked,--"as though he were afraid of something happening?"

Mr. Coulson shook his head.

"No more than usual," he answered. "I guess your police over here aren't quite so smart as ours, or they'd have been on the track of this thing before now. But you can take it from me that when the truth comes out you'll find that our poor friend has paid the penalty of going about the world like a crank."

"A what?" Somerfield asked doubtfully.

"A crank," Mr. Coulson repeated vigorously. "It wasn't much I knew of Hamilton Fynes, but I knew that much. He was one of those nervous, stand-off sort of persons who hated to have people talk to him and yet was always doing things to make them talk about him. I was over in Europe with him not so long ago, and he went on in the same way. Took a special train to Dover when there wasn't any earthly reason for it; travelled with a valet and a courier, when he had no clothes for the valet to look after, and spoke every European language better than his courier. This time the poor fellow's paid for his bit of vanity. Naturally, any one would think he was a millionaire, travelling like that. I guess they boarded the train somehow, or lay hidden in it when it started, and relieved him of a good bit of his savings."

"But his money was found upon him," Somerfield objected.

"Some of it," Mr. Coulson answered,--"some of it. That's just about the only thing that I do know of my own. I happened to see him take his pocketbook back from the purser, and I guess he'd got a sight more money there than was found upon him. I told the smooth-spoken gentleman from Scotland Yard so--Mr. Inspector Jacks he called himself--when he came to see me an hour or so ago."

Penelope sighed gently. She found it hard to make up her mind concerning this quondam acquaintance of her deceased friend.

"Did you see much of Mr. Fynes on the other side, Mr. Coulson?" she asked him.

"Not I," Mr. Coulson answered. "He wasn't particularly anxious to make acquaintances over here, but he was even worse at home. The way he went on, you'd think he'd never had any friends and never wanted any. I met him once in the streets of Washington last year, and had a cocktail with him at the Atlantic House. I had to almost drag him in there. I was pretty well a stranger in Washington, but he didn't do a thing for me. Never asked me to look him up, or introduced me to his club. He just drank his cocktail, mumbled something about being in a hurry, and made off. I tell you, sir, " Mr. Coulson continued, turning to Somerfield, "that man hadn't a thing to say for himself. I guess his work had something to do with it. You must get kind of out of touch with things, shut up in an office from nine o'clock in the morning till five in the afternoon. Just saving up, he was, for his trip to Europe. Then we happened on the same steamer, but, bless you, he scarcely even shook hands when he saw me. He wouldn't play bridge, didn't care about chess, hadn't even a chair on the deck, and never came in to meals."

Penelope nodded her head thoughtfully.

"You are destroying all my illusions, Mr. Coulson," she said. "Do you know that I was building up quite a romance about poor Mr. Fynes' life? It seemed to me that he must have enemies; that there must have been something in his life, or his manner of living, which accounted for such a terrible crime."

"Why, sure not!" Mr. Coulson declared heartily. "It was a cleverly worked job, but there was no mystery about it. Some chap went for him because he got riding about like a millionaire. A more unromantic figure than Hamilton Fynes never breathed. Call him a crank and you've finished with him."

Penelope sighed once more and looked at the tips of her patent shoes.

"It has been so kind of you," she murmured, "to talk to us. And yet, do you know, I am a little disappointed. I was hoping that you might have been able to tell us something more about the poor fellow."

"He was no talker," Mr. Coulson declared. "It was little enough he had to say to me, and less to any one else."

"It seems strange," she remarked innocently, "that he should have been so shy. He didn't strike me that way when I knew him at home in Massachusetts, you know. He travelled about so much in later years, too, didn't he?"

Penelope's eyes were suddenly upraised. For the first time Mr. Coulson's ready answers failed him. Not a muscle of his face moved under the girl's scrutiny, but he hesitated for a short time before he answered her.

"Not that I know of," he said at length. "No, I shouldn't have called him much of a traveller."

Penelope rose to her feet and held out her hand.

"It has been very nice indeed of you to see us, Mr. Coulson," she said, "especially after all these other people have been bothering you. Of course, I am sorry that you haven't anything more to tell us than we knew already. Still, I felt that I couldn't rest until we had been."

"It's a sad affair, anyhow," Mr. Coulson declared, walking with them to the door. "Don't you get worrying your head, young lady, though, with any notion of his having had enemies, or anything of that sort. The poor fellow was no hero of romance. I don't fancy even your halfpenny papers could drag any out of his life. It was just a commonplace robbery, with a bad ending for poor Fynes. Good evening, miss! Good night, sir! Glad to have met you, Sir Charles."

Mr. Coulson's two visitors left and got into a small electric brougham which was waiting for them. Mr. Coulson himself watched them drive off and glanced at the clock. It was already a quarter past six. He went into the cafe and ordered a light dinner, which he consumed with much obvious enjoyment. Then he lit a cigar and went into the smoking room. Selecting a pile of newspapers, he drew up an easy chair to the fire and made himself comfortable.

"Seems to me I may have a longish wait," he said to himself.

As a matter of fact, he was disappointed. At precisely seven o'clock, Mr. Richard Vanderpole strolled into the room and, after a casual glance around, approached his chair and touched him on the shoulder. In his evening clothes the newcomer was no longer obtrusively American. He was dressed in severely English fashion, from the cut of his white waistcoat to the admirable poise of his white tie. He smiled as he patted Coulson upon the shoulder.

"This is Mr. Coulson, I'm sure," he declared,--"Mr. James B. Coulson from New York?"

"You're dead right," Mr. Coulson admitted, laying down his newspaper and favoring his visitor with a quick upward glance.

"This is great!" the young man continued. "Just off the boat, eh? Well, I am glad to see you,--very glad indeed to make your acquaintance, I should say."

Mr. Coulson replied in similar terms. A waiter who was passing through the room hesitated, for it was a greeting which generally ended in a summons for him.

"What shall it be?" the newcomer asked.

"I've just taken dinner," Mr. Coulson said. "Coffee and cognac'll do me all right."

"And a Martini cocktail for me," the young man ordered. "I am dining down in the restaurant with some friends later on. Come over to this corner, Mr. Coulson. Why, you're looking first-rate. Great boat, the Lusitania, isn't she? What sort of a trip did you have?"

So they talked till the drinks had been brought and paid for, till another little party had quitted the room and they sat in their lonely corner, secure from observation or from any possibility of eavesdropping. Then Mr. Richard Vanderpole leaned forward in his chair and dropped his voice.

"Coulson," he said, "the chief is anxious. We don't understand this affair. Do you know anything?"

"Not a d----d thing!" Coulson answered.

"Were you shadowed on the boat?" the young man asked.

"Not to my knowledge," Coulson answered. "Fynes was in his stateroom six hours before we started. I can't make head nor tail of it."

"He had the papers, of course?"

"Sewn in the lining of his coat," Coulson muttered. "You read about that in tonight's papers. The lining was torn and the space empty. He had them all right when he left the steamer."

The young man looked around; the room was still empty.

"I'm fresh in this," he said. "I got some information this afternoon, and the chief sent me over to see you on account of it. We had better not discuss possibilities, I suppose? The thing's too big. The chief's almost off his head. Is there any chance, do you think, Coulson, that this was an ordinary robbery? I am not sure that the special train wasn't a mistake."

"None whatever," Coulson declared.

"How do you know?" his companion asked quickly.

"Well, I've lied to those reporters and chaps," Coulson admitted,--"lied with a purpose, of course, as you people can understand. The money found upon Fynes was every penny he had when he left Liverpool."

The young man set his teeth.

"It's something to know this, at any rate," he declared. "You did right, Coulson, to put up that bluff. Now about the duplicates?"

"They are in my suitcase," Coulson answered, "and according to the way things are going, I shan't be over sorry to get rid of them. Will you take them with you?"

"Why, sure!" Vanderpole answered. "That's what I'm here for."

"You had better wait right here, then," Coulson said, "I'll fetch them."

He made his way up to his room, undid his dressing bag, which was fastened only with an ordinary lock, and from between two shirts drew out a small folded packet, no bigger than an ordinary letter. It was a curious circumstance that he used only one hand for the search and with the other gripped the butt of a small revolver. There was no one around, however, nor was he disturbed in any way. In a few minutes he returned to the bar smoking room, where the young man was still waiting, and handed him the letter.

"Tell me," the latter asked, "have you been shadowed at all?"

"Not that I know of," Coulson answered.

"Men with quick instincts," Vanderpole continued, "can always tell when they are being watched. Have you felt anything of the sort?"

Coulson hesitated for one moment.

"No," he said. "I had a caller whose manner I did not quite understand. She seemed to have something at the back of her head about me."

"She! Was it a woman?" the young man asked quickly.

Coulson nodded.

"A young lady," he said,--"Miss Penelope Morse, she called herself."

Mr. Richard Vanderpole stood quite still for a moment.

"Ah!" he said softly. "She might have been interested."

"Does the chief want me at all?" Coulson asked.

"No!" Vanderpole answered. "Go about your business as usual. Leave here for Paris, say, in ten days. There will probably be a letter for you at the Grand Hotel by that time."

They walked together toward the main exit. The young man's face had lost some of its grimness. Once more his features wore that look of pleasant and genial good-fellowship which seems characteristic of his race after business hours.

"Say, Mr. Coulson," he declared, as they passed across the hall, "you and I must have a night together. This isn't New York, by any manner of means, or Paris, but there's some fun to be had here, in a quiet way. I'll phone you tomorrow or the day after."

"Sure!" Mr. Coulson declared. "I'd like it above all things."

"I must find a taxicab," the young man remarked. "I've a busy hour before me. I've got to go down and see the chief, who is dining somewhere in Kensington, and get back again to dine here at half past seven in the restaurant."

"I guess you'll have to look sharp, then." Mr. Coulson remarked. "Do you see the time?"

Vanderpole glanced at the clock and whistled softly to himself.

"Tell you what!" he exclaimed, "I'll write a note to one of the friends I've got to meet, and leave it here. Boy," he added, turning to a page boy, "get me a taxi as quick as you can."

The boy ran out into the Strand, and Vanderpole, sitting down at the table, wrote a few lines, which he sealed and addressed and handed to one of the reception clerks. Then he shook hands with Coulson and threw himself into a corner of the cab which was waiting.

"Drive down the Brompton Road," he said to the man. "I'll direct you later."

It was a quarter past seven when he left the hotel. At half past a policeman held up his hand and stopped the taxi, to the driver's great astonishment, as he was driving slowly across Melbourne Square, Kensington.

"What's the matter?" the man asked. "You can't say I was exceeding my speed limit."

The policeman scarcely noticed him. His head was already through the cab window.

"Where did you take your fare up?" he asked quickly.

"Savoy Hotel," the man answered. "What's wrong with him?"

The policeman opened the door of the cab and stepped in.

"Never you mind about that," he said. "Drive to the South Kensington police station as quick as you can."