"That's a weird contrivance you have, Zeberlieff!"
Martin Hubbard, immaculately dressed, stood looking over the shoulder of his unconscious friend.
Hermann swung round with an oath. "How did you get in?" he asked roughly.
"Through the door. I was coming in when your man was going out to the post."
Hermann get up from the table at which he had been experimenting.
"Come down into the dining-room," he said shortly. "I hate people sneaking in behind me: it gives me the creeps!"
"But," said the other humorously, "you don't mind your future brother-in-law, surely "—a remark which restored the good humour of the other, for he chuckled as he led the way downstairs.
"Future brother-in-law—yes," he said.
"What was that funny old machine?" persisted Hubbard. "Never knew you were a dabbler in science. You're quite a Louis the Fourteenth with your passion for applied mechanics.''
"It is an invention sent to me by a man," said Hermann carelessly; "did you notice it very closely?"
Hubbard shook his head.
"Only what looked like an alarm clock and a bit of wadding and some stuff that looked like a cinematograph film."
"It's a new kind of—er—cinema projector," explained Zeberlieff readily. "It's automatic—wakes you up with pictures on the ceiling."
"And what were the matches for?"
"Matches!" Zeberlieff eyed him narrowly. "There were no matches."
"I must have been mistaken." Hubbard was not sufficiently interested to pursue the subject, and went on: "I suppose you know I've come by appointment?"
"The devil you have?"
"You told me to call," said the other a little irritated, "with the idea of meeting your sister."
"Did I?" Hermann favoured him with a thoughtful stare. "So I did—that's rather awkward for both of us, because she won't see you."
"Won't see me?"
The chagrin and the wounded pride in the man's voice was laughable.
"She won't see you—she won't see me, that is all; here's a letter, if it will interest!"
Mr. Hubbard opened the grey note slowly, and read—
"I cannot receive you nor your beautiful friend. If you come anywhere near me I send for the police.—V."
"What do you think of that?" asked the calm Hermann.
"It's monstrous!" gasped Hubbard. "How dare she—she—"
"Call you beautiful? Oh, well, there's every excuse for her," soothed Hermann. "And really I'm not worrying now."
"Listen!" said Mr. Hubbard, "I want to ask you something. What chance have I of raising a monkey?"
"All depends upon the care you give it," replied Hermann, wilfully dense. "In this climate—"
"I want to borrow five hundred pounds," said Mr. Hubbard more explicitly.
"Borrow it, by all means!" suggested Zeberlieff unmoved.
"Could you let me have it?"
"No," he said, "I could not. Of course," he went on; "if I thought there was any chance of your marrying my sister I would hang little wads of banknotes round your throat: but I fancy your chance is down around the zero mark."
"In fact," said the indignant Hubbard, "you think I am no more use to you."
"What a mind you have!" admired Hermann. "You grasp these things so quickly."
Martin Hubbard bit at his golden moustache.
"Suppose I went to your sister and told her your proposition," he suggested.
"She would be bored to tears," replied Hermann with his smile. "You see, I've already told her. The fact is, Hubbard, she's in love with a young man, the son of poor but honest parents. It's working out rather like a story. I'm afraid she's going to marry him. The only hope for you is that you and she should be cast ashore on some desert island. At the end of five years you might like one another—and anyway, the marriage would be convenient for the sake of the proprieties. If you could arrange for the shipwreck, and could guarantee that only you and she would be saved, I might fix up the passage and the island."
He was in his most flippant mood, but his good humour touched no responsive chord in the breast of Mr. Hubbard.
"It is all very well for you," he said miserably; "you're a jolly rich man—but I'm broke to the wide world."
"As I shall be next week," said Hermann cheerfully. "Another week's trading like last week, and Goulding's goes to the devil."
"Are you in it?" asked the interested Mr. Hubbard.
"Up to the neck," said Hermann shortly. "Leete got me in to the extent of two hundred thousand. I've lost another two hundred thousand in the slump in American rails. What are you envying me for, you silly ass?"
"When is this cut-throat sale going to stop?" demanded Hubbard.
Hermann shook his head.
"He has a warehouse filled with stuff in South London—a year's supply. Otherwise we could have brought pressure to bear upon the manufacturers. But he bought his stock in advance, and he's selling exactly six times the amount of goods that any other house in Oxford Street has sold in its biggest sale week—and he's losing practically nothing. There's a big margin of profit on soft goods. He can sell at cost price and ruin the other stores. So long as he's got the goods to sell, he'll sell 'em, and, as I say, his warehouses in South London are chock-full."
"What about that five hundred?" asked Hubbard abruptly.
"Not here, my child," said Hermann. "When you come down to fifty, I'll be listening to you—because I think you might be worth fifty—and besides, you're on the Federated board, and I can stop it from your director's fees."
Five minutes later he was back in his study, working at his little machine. He took the precaution this time to lock the door.
It was now a month since the beginning of the Kerry sale, and the queues so far from diminishing had increased. As every week passed and the fame of the Kerry bargain "extended, the all-night shopping house attracted even greater numbers than in the day of its novelty. Then Modelson's fell into the Kerry combination, and promptly changed its name and its methods. Hastily remodelled on the lines of the original Store, it ended the rush on Kerry's.
"The same price, the same system, the same name," said a flamboyant advertisement announcing the change. It gave Kerry's a breathing space; but the queues came back, only now there were two—one to Kerry's, and the other to what had been Modelson's. Between the two stores, a howling desert, with customers as scarce as December flies, was Goulding's—Goulding's, the once busy hive of industry, now almost deserted.
In vain were prices reduced, in vain were enticing bargains placed in the window. Customers went after them, it is true, but discovered that they were already sold. "The only model of that kind we have in stock, madam!" and came away wrathful at the trick which had been played upon them, refusing to see "something else just as good."
Kerry had to undergo the trial of a press campaign. A savage attack on his methods appeared in a weekly journal. Scarcely was the paper in print and on the street, when the "King's" own journal, the Evening Herald, replied. It was not a polite reply. It was personal and overpoweringly informative. It gave the relationship of the attacking weekly with Leete, printed a list of shareholders and a list of Leete's directorships. Said unpleasant things about the editor of the weekly, and concluded with a promise of revelations concerning "a moving spirit in this conspiracy who hatches in Park Lane the plots which are executed in Whitechapel."
"Stop it!" was Hermann Zeberlieff's order, and the next issue of the Weekly Discovery was notable for its dignified silence on the subject of Kerry and his ways.
Nothing helped Goulding's. A window dressed with enticing bargains produced a notice on the next window (which happened to be Kerry's end show window)—
"All the 'bargains' there can be purchased in this Store at exactly half the price demanded by our competitor."
The hand pointed remorselessly to Goulding's last hope.
Manufacturers were wavering. They could afford to be sympathetic with the affected houses because, for the moment, they were not being called upon to supply Kerry.
Kerry paid cash, and when another journal hinted that he was able to sell so cheaply only because the articles he supplied were made by sweated labour, he published a list of the manufacturers, and thus forced them to take action for libel.
Then the Daily Courier took a hand in support of Kerry baiting, but here the Evening Herald was careful and mild, for the Courier is a powerful daily.
"It has been asked," said the Herald, "what association there is between the sale in Oxford Street and Mr. Kerry's operations in land. The answer may be supplied in a few words. Mr. Kerry desires to beautify London, and at the same time secure a modest return from investment in land. To secure both ends it is necessary that certain stores fall into his hands. He has offered an equitable price and has received exorbitant demands. It is now his business to weaken opposition, and this he intends doing." (Here followed a list of the properties he had offered to buy; the prices he had tendered; the profits and dividends paid by the various concerns, and the prices demanded.) "Thus it will be seen," the journal continued, "that the prices tendered were reasonable. We are authorized to say that though the conditions have changed, Mr. King Kerry is willing to pay the sums he originally tendered for these properties—this offer being open till midday to-morrow."
Leete came to Hermann with the newspaper still wet from the press, and he was pardonably excited.
"Look here, Zeberlieff," he said, "I'm selling!"
Hermann took the paper and read.
"I'm selling before a worse thing happens," Leete went on.
Hermann's smile was one of quiet contempt. "If you must sell—sell to me," he said.
"Why not? I hold a big block of shares, and you or your nominees hold the rest."
"And you'll give Kerry's price?"
Leete looked at the other.
"It's a bargain," he said. "I'm glad to be rid of it,"
"You may have lost a million," said Hermann, and went back to his study.
Elsie Marion had gone home from her office with a headache, with strict injunction from King Kerry not to return whilst any vestige of the malady remained. She had reached her flat a little after twelve, and with the comfort of a cup of tea and an aspirin, had lain down on her bed with the intention of rising at two to have a lunch. When she awoke it was nearly dark, and she came to consciousness with that feeling of panic which is born of a sense of wasted time and a complete ignorance of the amount of time so wasted. She looked at her watch. It was nearly nine o'clock. She rose and dined—her patient maid had a chop ready for her by the time she had dressed.
It was ten o'clock before she had finished dinner. Her headache had gone, and she felt immensely energetic. There was some work at the office which she would bring away with her—she never liked working at the office at night. King Kerry had a trick of working at unconscionable hours, and she felt that on these occasions he liked to be alone.
She indulged in the luxury of a taxi to the office, and passing the guard and the commissionaire in his little box, she unlocked the office door and went in. She bundled her work together and put it in her bag. Then she noticed a note on King Kerry's desk written in pencil and addressed to her.
"I have gone to the warehouse: come down if you are feeling fit.—K. K."
"When did Mr. Kerry go out?" she asked the commissionaire.
The man shook his head.
"I didn't come on duty till nine, miss," he said. "He hasn't been here since then."
It might have been written early in the afternoon; but he would have been back and destroyed it if that were so.
She was feeling very much awake and rested. The spin over the water to the big riverside warehouse would do her good. Another taxi was requisitioned, and deposited her in the great courtyard of Kerry's Storage. It was formed of three tall buildings so arranged to form the three sides of a square. The ends of two of the stores were flush with the edge of the wharf, and the third was pierced with a great gateway through which laden wagons were coming and going.
It was a scene of extraordinary bustle and activity. The windows blazed with lights, for a large number of workmen were now employed in unpacking and sorting the goods prior to delivery in Oxford Street.
"Mr. Kerry is somewhere in the building, I think, miss," said the timekeeper, "but nobody has seen him during the past hour."
"Never mind!" said the girl. "I will find him presently!"
She had the entree to all the departments and passed an amusing half-hour watching the men and girls at work. The great packing-cases and baskets came to the first floor and were stripped of their lids, their zinc covers expeditiously and deftly cut, and the contents thrown upon a broad sorting table. Here they were counted and laid on an endless belt and conveyed to the next floor. Here they were counted again and deposited in huge zinc-lined presses to await the requisitions from Oxford Street.
Hundreds of cases were waiting in the big storage space on the ground floor and in the basement. Here, too, were kept huge quantities of stuffs, satins, cottons, silks, delaines, and linens.
"Goods are arriving every day, miss," said one of the foremen. "These "— he indicated a chaos of yellow and wood cases and dull brown bales—"will be here a month before we handle 'em."
"I suppose they are coming from the manufacturers all the time?" she asked.
"All the time—there's a package just arrived," he pointed to a man in the leather apron of the carrier, a box on his shoulder.
"What would that be?" asked Elsie.
"Looks like gloves—they come in those small cases."
She waited till the package had been deposited on the weigh-bridge just inside the entrance gate, and examined it. "Yes, miss, 'Gants Cracroix—Lyons,'" he read.
The carter took his delivery sheet and made his way out of the building and a man caught the case with a practised hand and sent it sliding down the slipway.
"Are you learning something?"
She heard the deep, rich note of King Kerry, and turned, smiling.
"Headache better?" he asked.
"Quite all right, I feel awfully guilty—I've only just got up."
He led the way down to the end of the warehouse where the men were working with that fervour which is equally induced by piecework and the proximity of the employer.
"There's a case of wonderful lace being unpacked over there," he said; "you ought to see it."
"I should love to!" she said, and picked her way through the cases to where a number of women were lifting the narrow trays from the big cabinet.
In her eagerness she failed to notice a rope that lay on the ground: her toe caught, and she went sprawling and would have injured herself but for her presence of mind to catch at the edges of a small case that lay in her path.
Her arms took the strain, and her face just touched the top of the case.
"My God, she's hurt!" King Kerry leapt nimbly over the packages toward her. He was justified in his mistake, for she lay for some time with her head on the box where she had fallen.
But it was a smiling face she turned to him as she rose unassisted to her feet.
"Are you sure you aren't hurt?" he asked.
She shook her head.
A man came to move the little packing-case upon which she had rested. It was the case of gloves which she had seen arrive.
"Don't touch that, please!" she said quickly.
"What is it?"
King Kerry looked at her in amazement.
"Ask the men to lift that case on to the wharf," she said, "and tell them to be very careful with it." Wonderingly, he turned to give the order, and followed the men to the wharf without.
"Whatever is wrong?" he asked.
"I don't know quite," she said, "but put your ear to that box, and listen!"
He obeyed, and rose up with a frown. He put his nose to the box, and sniffed.
"Open the box carefully!" he said.
For he heard the loud tick-tick-tick, as plainly as she.
"It may be an infernal machine," she said; but he shook his head.
"I think I know what it is," he said quietly.
Under a powerful arc light, lowered from its standard to afford a better view, the box was opened. On the top was a layer of paper carefully folded, but under that the case seemed to be packed tightly with shavings of some transparent material.
"Celluloid!" said King Kerry briefly, "an old cinema film cut up in short lengths."
They cleared this out before they came to the machine itself.
It was screwed to the bottom of the case, and enclosed in a wicker-work cage of flimsy material. It consisted of a clock, a small electric battery, and few shavings.
"Set for two o'clock," said King Kerry; "the hour our men finish. The alarm key soldered to a piece of metal so that when the alarm goes off the strip of metal turns with the key, a contact is made, and a spark sets the celluloid ablaze—highly ingenious! I'll show you how it is done!" He carried the machine to the edge of the water, where there was no danger of the fire spreading, placed it upon a steel plate, and buried the machine in the celluloid shavings after manipulating the alarm hand.
They waited, and in a minute they heard the whirr of the alarm as it spun; then there was a tiny flicker of light amongst the celluloid shavings, a sudden roar of flame, and the wharf was illuminated with a tongue of fire that leapt up from the blazing film.
They watched it in silence until it died down to the molten red of something which had been a clock.
"I could have kept that clock for evidence," said King Kerry, "but he will have covered his tracks. How can I thank you, Elsie?" he asked. He turned and faced her; they stood in the shadow of a great stack of cases piled in the centre of the wharf.
"Thank me?" she said tremulously. "Why, it is I who have to thank you."
He laid both his hands on her shoulders and looked down into her face. She met his gaze fearlessly.
"Once there was a girl like you," he said softly, "and I loved her as a man may love a child—too young to be shadowed with the thing we men call love. And the thing I loved was a husk—just an outward mask, and when she lifted the mask it nearly killed me. And here is Elsie Marion with the face and laughing eyes—and the heart of a woman behind the face, and the brain of a comrade behind the eyes—"
He dropped his hands suddenly, and he fell forward as though weighted with infinite weariness.
"What is the matter?" she asked in alarm.
"Nothing!" his voice was hard. "Only I wish I hadn't been a fool—once."
She waited with a beating heart; she knew something dreadful was coming.
"I am married to the worst woman in the world. God help me!" he said brokenly.
"What the dickens do you want to go to the City for?" grumbled John Leete, "at this hour?"
He looked at his watch. It wanted a quarter to two o'clock in the morning, and the club was an inviting place, for Leete was an inveterate gossip.
"I love the City at this hour," said Hermann calmly. "Let us come along and see the enemy's stronghold."
"Fat lot of good that will do," growled Leete.
"Sometimes your vulgarity appals me," said Zeberlieff with a little smile, "and I think of all vulgarity there is none quite so hopelessly appalling as the English variety."
His car was waiting outside, and Leete, still grumbling, allowed himself to be led to its interior.
"It is better to breathe good fresh air than fill your lungs with the poison of a beastly smoke-room," he said as the car went its noiseless way eastward.
Mr. Leete made a noise of dissent. "I never do things that are unnecessary," he said.
"It is necessary to propitiate the new proprietor of Goulding's," said Hermann softly.
Leete grinned in the darkness. He regarded himself as "well out" of that concern. Let Zeberlieff make his million and welcome—if he could.
"I'll send you the papers to-morrow," he said as a thought struck him. "By the way, you might give me a line to-night to the effect that you agree—"
"Certainly!" said the other easily. He stopped the car in King William Street. "Walk across London Bridge and pay homage to the genius of King Kerry," he said.
Leete grunted disrespectfully, and let himself down from the car. "Well?"
They had stopped in one of the stone recesses on the bridge, and were gazing intently across the river. A passing policeman, walking on noiseless soles, eyed them, and stopped at Hermann's friendly nod.
"I suppose, constable, that big building with the lights is Mr. Kerry's famous warehouse?"
"Yes, sir," said the man, stretching himself from the belt upward in the manner of policemen, "that is the King of London's magazine, so to speak."
A ghost of a smile nickered over the features of Zeberlieff. "A rare fright he gave my mate to-night," the policeman went on, "he was on the bridge between ten and eleven and suddenly the whole of the wharf seemed burning."
"Burning?" Zeberlieff's voice expressed interest.
"It was only a packing case—something was wrong with it, and Mr. Kerry himself touched it off. My mate is serving a summons on him to-morrow; it's against the law to light bonfires on a wharf."
"So he found something was wrong with it and touched it off, did he?" repeated Hermann, without a tremor of voice; "How like Kerry to be there when something was wrong." He offered the constable a tip, and was a little surprised when it was courteously refused.
"Queer people these City police," said Leete.
"Not so queer as Kingy," said the other cryptically.
Not a word was spoken as they drove back westward.
Nearing Piccadilly, Leete seized the opportunity to make his bargain solid.
"Come in, and we'll fix up that agreement," he said as the car stopped, and he stepped heavily to the pavement.
"Which agreement?" asked Hermann coolly.
"The sale of Goulding's," said the other.
He caught the flash of Zeberlieff's white teeth as he smiled. "Don't be silly!" he said good-naturedly. "I was joking."
To say that Leete was staggered is to express in a relatively mild phrase a most tremendous emotion.
"But—but—" he stammered.
"Good night!" said Hermann as he slammed the door of the car and pressed the electric signal to his driver.
He left Mr. Leete, a helpless figure, standing on the kerb, and looking stupidly after the fast-vanishing car.