I think one of the rummiest affairs I was ever mixed up with, in the course of a lifetime devoted to butting into other people’s business, was that affair of George Lattaker at Monte Carlo. I wouldn’t bore you, don’t you know, for the world, but I think you ought to hear about it.
We had come to Monte Carlo on the yacht Circe, belonging to an old sportsman of the name of Marshall. Among those present were myself, my man Voules, a Mrs. Vanderley, her daughter Stella, Mrs. Vanderley’s maid Pilbeam and George.
George was a dear old pal of mine. In fact, it was I who had worked him into the party. You see, George was due to meet his Uncle Augustus, who was scheduled, George having just reached his twenty-fifth birthday, to hand over to him a legacy left by one of George’s aunts, for which he had been trustee. The aunt had died when George was quite a kid. It was a date that George had been looking forward to; for, though he had a sort of income—an income, after-all, is only an income, whereas a chunk of o’ goblins is a pile. George’s uncle was in Monte Carlo, and had written George that he would come to London and unbelt; but it struck me that a far better plan was for George to go to his uncle at Monte Carlo instead. Kill two birds with one stone, don’t you know. Fix up his affairs and have a pleasant holiday simultaneously. So George had tagged along, and at the time when the trouble started we were anchored in Monaco Harbour, and Uncle Augustus was due next day.
Looking back, I may say that, so far as I was mixed up in it, the thing began at seven o’clock in the morning, when I was aroused from a dreamless sleep by the dickens of a scrap in progress outside my state-room door. The chief ingredients were a female voice that sobbed and said: “Oh, Harold!” and a male voice “raised in anger,” as they say, which after considerable difficulty, I identified as Voules’s. I hardly recognized it. In his official capacity Voules talks exactly like you’d expect a statue to talk, if it could. In private, however, he evidently relaxed to some extent, and to have that sort of thing going on in my midst at that hour was too much for me.
“Voules!” I yelled.
Spion Kop ceased with a jerk. There was silence, then sobs diminishing in the distance, and finally a tap at the door. Voules entered with that impressive, my-lord-the-carriage-waits look which is what I pay him for. You wouldn’t have believed he had a drop of any sort of emotion in him.
“Voules,” I said, “are you under the delusion that I’m going to be Queen of the May? You’ve called me early all right. It’s only just seven.”
“I understood you to summon me, sir.”
“I summoned you to find out why you were making that infernal noise outside.”
“I owe you an apology, sir. I am afraid that in the heat of the moment I raised my voice.”
“It’s a wonder you didn’t raise the roof. Who was that with you?”
“Miss Pilbeam, sir; Mrs. Vanderley’s maid.”
“What was all the trouble about?”
“I was breaking our engagement, sir.”
I couldn’t help gaping. Somehow one didn’t associate Voules with engagements. Then it struck me that I’d no right to butt in on his secret sorrows, so I switched the conversation.
“I think I’ll get up,” I said.
“I can’t wait to breakfast with the rest. Can you get me some right away?”
So I had a solitary breakfast and went up on deck to smoke. It was a lovely morning. Blue sea, gleaming Casino, cloudless sky, and all the rest of the hippodrome. Presently the others began to trickle up. Stella Vanderley was one of the first. I thought she looked a bit pale and tired. She said she hadn’t slept well. That accounted for it. Unless you get your eight hours, where are you?
“Seen George?” I asked.
I couldn’t help thinking the name seemed to freeze her a bit. Which was queer, because all the voyage she and George had been particularly close pals. In fact, at any moment I expected George to come to me and slip his little hand in mine, and whisper: “I’ve done it, old scout; she loves muh!”
“I have not seen Mr. Lattaker,” she said.
I didn’t pursue the subject. George’s stock was apparently low that a.m.
The next item in the day’s programme occurred a few minutes later when the morning papers arrived.
Mrs. Vanderley opened hers and gave a scream.
“The poor, dear Prince!” she said.
“What a shocking thing!” said old Marshall.
“I knew him in Vienna,” said Mrs. Vanderley. “He waltzed divinely.”
Then I got at mine and saw what they were talking about. The paper was full of it. It seemed that late the night before His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxburg-Leignitz (I always wonder why they call these chaps “Serene”) had been murderously assaulted in a dark street on his way back from the Casino to his yacht. Apparently he had developed the habit of going about without an escort, and some rough-neck, taking advantage of this, had laid for him and slugged him with considerable vim. The Prince had been found lying pretty well beaten up and insensible in the street by a passing pedestrian, and had been taken back to his yacht, where he still lay unconscious.
“This is going to do somebody no good,” I said. “What do you get for slugging a Serene Highness? I wonder if they’ll catch the fellow?”
“‘Later,'” read old Marshall, “‘the pedestrian who discovered His Serene Highness proves to have been Mr. Denman Sturgis, the eminent private investigator. Mr. Sturgis has offered his services to the police, and is understood to be in possession of a most important clue.’ That’s the fellow who had charge of that kidnapping case in Chicago. If anyone can catch the man, he can.”
About five minutes later, just as the rest of them were going to move off to breakfast, a boat hailed us and came alongside. A tall, thin man came up the gangway. He looked round the group, and fixed on old Marshall as the probable owner of the yacht.
“Good morning,” he said. “I believe you have a Mr. Lattaker on board—Mr. George Lattaker?”
“Yes,” said Marshall. “He’s down below. Want to see him? Whom shall I say?”
“He would not know my name. I should like to see him for a moment on somewhat urgent business.”
“Take a seat. He’ll be up in a moment. Reggie, my boy, go and hurry him up.”
I went down to George’s state-room.
“George, old man!” I shouted.
No answer. I opened the door and went in. The room was empty. What’s more, the bunk hadn’t been slept in. I don’t know when I’ve been more surprised. I went on deck.
“He isn’t there,” I said.
“Not there!” said old Marshall. “Where is he, then? Perhaps he’s gone for a stroll ashore. But he’ll be back soon for breakfast. You’d better wait for him. Have you breakfasted? No? Then will you join us?”
The man said he would, and just then the gong went and they trooped down, leaving me alone on deck.
I sat smoking and thinking, and then smoking a bit more, when I thought I heard somebody call my name in a sort of hoarse whisper. I looked over my shoulder, and, by Jove, there at the top of the gangway in evening dress, dusty to the eyebrows and without a hat, was dear old George.
“Great Scot!” I cried.
“‘Sh!” he whispered. “Anyone about?”
“They’re all down at breakfast.”
He gave a sigh of relief, sank into my chair, and closed his eyes. I regarded him with pity. The poor old boy looked a wreck.
“I say!” I said, touching him on the shoulder.
He leaped out of the chair with a smothered yell.
“Did you do that? What did you do it for? What’s the sense of it? How do you suppose you can ever make yourself popular if you go about touching people on the shoulder? My nerves are sticking a yard out of my body this morning, Reggie!”
“Yes, old boy?”
“I did a murder last night.”
“It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody. Directly Stella Vanderley broke off our engagement I——”
“Broke off your engagement? How long were you engaged?”
“About two minutes. It may have been less. I hadn’t a stop-watch. I proposed to her at ten last night in the saloon. She accepted me. I was just going to kiss her when we heard someone coming. I went out. Coming along the corridor was that infernal what’s-her-name—Mrs. Vanderley’s maid—Pilbeam. Have you ever been accepted by the girl you love, Reggie?”
“Never. I’ve been refused dozens——”
“Then you won’t understand how I felt. I was off my head with joy. I hardly knew what I was doing. I just felt I had to kiss the nearest thing handy. I couldn’t wait. It might have been the ship’s cat. It wasn’t. It was Pilbeam.”
“You kissed her?”
“I kissed her. And just at that moment the door of the saloon opened and out came Stella.”
“Exactly what I said. It flashed across me that to Stella, dear girl, not knowing the circumstances, the thing might seem a little odd. It did. She broke off the engagement, and I got out the dinghy and rowed off. I was mad. I didn’t care what became of me. I simply wanted to forget. I went ashore. I—It’s just on the cards that I may have drowned my sorrows a bit. Anyhow, I don’t remember a thing, except that I can recollect having the deuce of a scrap with somebody in a dark street and somebody falling, and myself falling, and myself legging it for all I was worth. I woke up this morning in the Casino gardens. I’ve lost my hat.”
I dived for the paper.
“Read,” I said. “It’s all there.”
“Good heavens!” he said.
“You didn’t do a thing to His Serene Nibs, did you?”
“Reggie, this is awful.”
“Cheer up. They say he’ll recover.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It does to him.”
He read the paper again.
“It says they’ve a clue.”
“They always say that.”
“My hat. I must have dropped it during the scrap. This man, Denman Sturgis, must have found it. It had my name in it!”
“George,” I said, “you mustn’t waste time. Oh!”
He jumped a foot in the air.
“Don’t do it!” he said, irritably. “Don’t bark like that. What’s the matter?”
“A tall, thin man with an eye like a gimlet. He arrived just before you did. He’s down in the saloon now, having breakfast. He said he wanted to see you on business, and wouldn’t give his name. I didn’t like the look of him from the first. It’s this fellow Sturgis. It must be.”
“I feel it. I’m sure of it.”
“Had he a hat?”
“Of course he had a hat.”
“Fool! I mean mine. Was he carrying a hat?”
“By Jove, he was carrying a parcel. George, old scout, you must get a move on. You must light out if you want to spend the rest of your life out of prison. Slugging a Serene Highness is lèse-majesté. It’s worse than hitting a policeman. You haven’t got a moment to waste.”
“But I haven’t any money. Reggie, old man, lend me a tenner or something. I must get over the frontier into Italy at once. I’ll wire my uncle to meet me in——”
“Look out,” I cried; “there’s someone coming!”
He dived out of sight just as Voules came up the companion-way, carrying a letter on a tray.
“What’s the matter!” I said. “What do you want?”
“I beg your pardon, sir. I thought I heard Mr. Lattaker’s voice. A letter has arrived for him.”
“He isn’t here.”
“No, sir. Shall I remove the letter?”
“No; give it to me. I’ll give it to him when he comes.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Oh, Voules! Are they all still at breakfast? The gentleman who came to see Mr. Lattaker? Still hard at it?”
“He is at present occupied with a kippered herring, sir.”
“Ah! That’s all, Voules.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He retired. I called to George, and he came out.
“Who was it?”
“Only Voules. He brought a letter for you. They’re all at breakfast still. The sleuth’s eating kippers.”
“That’ll hold him for a bit. Full of bones.” He began to read his letter. He gave a kind of grunt of surprise at the first paragraph.
“Well, I’m hanged!” he said, as he finished.
“Reggie, this is a queer thing.”
He handed me the letter, and directly I started in on it I saw why he had grunted. This is how it ran:
“My dear George—I shall be seeing you to-morrow, I hope; but I think it is better, before we meet, to prepare you for a curious situation that has arisen in connection with the legacy which your father inherited from your Aunt Emily, and which you are expecting me, as trustee, to hand over to you, now that you have reached your twenty-fifth birthday. You have doubtless heard your father speak of your twin-brother Alfred, who was lost or kidnapped—which, was never ascertained—when you were both babies. When no news was received of him for so many years, it was supposed that he was dead. Yesterday, however, I received a letter purporting that he had been living all this time in Buenos Ayres as the adopted son of a wealthy South American, and has only recently discovered his identity. He states that he is on his way to meet me, and will arrive any day now. Of course, like other claimants, he may prove to be an impostor, but meanwhile his intervention will, I fear, cause a certain delay before I can hand over your money to you. It will be necessary to go into a thorough examination of credentials, etc., and this will take some time. But I will go fully into the matter with you when we meet.—Your affectionate uncle,
I read it through twice, and the second time I had one of those ideas I do sometimes get, though admittedly a chump of the premier class. I have seldom had such a thoroughly corking brain-wave.
“Why, old top,” I said, “this lets you out.”
“Lets me out of half the darned money, if that’s what you mean. If this chap’s not an imposter—and there’s no earthly reason to suppose he is, though I’ve never heard my father say a word about him—we shall have to split the money. Aunt Emily’s will left the money to my father, or, failing him, his ‘offspring.’ I thought that meant me, but apparently there are a crowd of us. I call it rotten work, springing unexpected offspring on a fellow at the eleventh hour like this.”
“Why, you chump,” I said, “it’s going to save you. This lets you out of your spectacular dash across the frontier. All you’ve got to do is to stay here and be your brother Alfred. It came to me in a flash.”
He looked at me in a kind of dazed way.
“You ought to be in some sort of a home, Reggie.”
“Ass!” I cried. “Don’t you understand? Have you ever heard of twin-brothers who weren’t exactly alike? Who’s to say you aren’t Alfred if you swear you are? Your uncle will be there to back you up that you have a brother Alfred.”
“And Alfred will be there to call me a liar.”
“He won’t. It’s not as if you had to keep it up for the rest of your life. It’s only for an hour or two, till we can get this detective off the yacht. We sail for England to-morrow morning.”
At last the thing seemed to sink into him. His face brightened.
“Why, I really do believe it would work,” he said.
“Of course it would work. If they want proof, show them your mole. I’ll swear George hadn’t one.”
“And as Alfred I should get a chance of talking to Stella and making things all right for George. Reggie, old top, you’re a genius.”