“Well, it’s only sometimes. I can’t keep it up.”
And just then there was a gentle cough behind us. We spun round.
“What the devil are you doing here, Voules,” I said.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I have heard all.”
I looked at George. George looked at me.
“Voules is all right,” I said. “Decent Voules! Voules wouldn’t give us away, would you, Voules?”
“But, Voules, old man,” I said, “be sensible. What would you gain by it?”
“Financially, sir, nothing.”
“Whereas, by keeping quiet”—I tapped him on the chest—”by holding your tongue, Voules, by saying nothing about it to anybody, Voules, old fellow, you might gain a considerable sum.”
“Am I to understand, sir, that, because you are rich and I am poor, you think that you can buy my self-respect?”
“Oh, come!” I said.
“How much?” said Voules.
So we switched to terms. You wouldn’t believe the way the man haggled. You’d have thought a decent, faithful servant would have been delighted to oblige one in a little matter like that for a fiver. But not Voules. By no means. It was a hundred down, and the promise of another hundred when we had got safely away, before he was satisfied. But we fixed it up at last, and poor old George got down to his state-room and changed his clothes.
He’d hardly gone when the breakfast-party came on deck.
“Did you meet him?” I asked.
“Meet whom?” said old Marshall.
“George’s twin-brother Alfred.”
“I didn’t know George had a brother.”
“Nor did he till yesterday. It’s a long story. He was kidnapped in infancy, and everyone thought he was dead. George had a letter from his uncle about him yesterday. I shouldn’t wonder if that’s where George has gone, to see his uncle and find out about it. In the meantime, Alfred has arrived. He’s down in George’s state-room now, having a brush-up. It’ll amaze you, the likeness between them. You’ll think it is George at first. Look! Here he comes.”
And up came George, brushed and clean, in an ordinary yachting suit.
They were rattled. There was no doubt about that. They stood looking at him, as if they thought there was a catch somewhere, but weren’t quite certain where it was. I introduced him, and still they looked doubtful.
“Mr. Pepper tells me my brother is not on board,” said George.
“It’s an amazing likeness,” said old Marshall.
“Is my brother like me?” asked George amiably.
“No one could tell you apart,” I said.
“I suppose twins always are alike,” said George. “But if it ever came to a question of identification, there would be one way of distinguishing us. Do you know George well, Mr. Pepper?”
“He’s a dear old pal of mine.”
“You’ve been swimming with him perhaps?”
“Every day last August.”
“Well, then, you would have noticed it if he had had a mole like this on the back of his neck, wouldn’t you?” He turned his back and stooped and showed the mole. His collar hid it at ordinary times. I had seen it often when we were bathing together.
“Has George a mole like that?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Oh, no.”
“You would have noticed it if he had?”
“Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes.”
“I’m glad of that,” said George. “It would be a nuisance not to be able to prove one’s own identity.”
That seemed to satisfy them all. They couldn’t get away from it. It seemed to me that from now on the thing was a walk-over. And I think George felt the same, for, when old Marshall asked him if he had had breakfast, he said he had not, went below, and pitched in as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
Everything went right till lunch-time. George sat in the shade on the foredeck talking to Stella most of the time. When the gong went and the rest had started to go below, he drew me back. He was beaming.
“It’s all right,” he said. “What did I tell you?”
“What did you tell me?”
“Why, about Stella. Didn’t I say that Alfred would fix things for George? I told her she looked worried, and got her to tell me what the trouble was. And then——”
“You must have shown a flash of speed if you got her to confide in you after knowing you for about two hours.”
“Perhaps I did,” said George modestly, “I had no notion, till I became him, what a persuasive sort of chap my brother Alfred was. Anyway, she told me all about it, and I started in to show her that George was a pretty good sort of fellow on the whole, who oughtn’t to be turned down for what was evidently merely temporary insanity. She saw my point.”
“And it’s all right?”
“Absolutely, if only we can produce George. How much longer does that infernal sleuth intend to stay here? He seems to have taken root.”
“I fancy he thinks that you’re bound to come back sooner or later, and is waiting for you.”
“He’s an absolute nuisance,” said George.
We were moving towards the companion way, to go below for lunch, when a boat hailed us. We went to the side and looked over.
“It’s my uncle,” said George.
A stout man came up the gangway.
“Halloa, George!” he said. “Get my letter?”
“I think you are mistaking me for my brother,” said George. “My name is Alfred Lattaker.”
“I am George’s brother Alfred. Are you my Uncle Augustus?”
The stout man stared at him.
“You’re very like George,” he said.
“So everyone tells me.”
“And you’re really Alfred?”
“I’d like to talk business with you for a moment.”
He cocked his eye at me. I sidled off and went below.
At the foot of the companion-steps I met Voules.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said Voules. “If it would be convenient I should be glad to have the afternoon off.”
I’m bound to say I rather liked his manner. Absolutely normal. Not a trace of the fellow-conspirator about it. I gave him the afternoon off.
I had lunch—George didn’t show up—and as I was going out I was waylaid by the girl Pilbeam. She had been crying.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but did Mr. Voules ask you for the afternoon?”
I didn’t see what business if was of hers, but she seemed all worked up about it, so I told her.
“Yes, I have given him the afternoon off.”
She broke down—absolutely collapsed. Devilish unpleasant it was. I’m hopeless in a situation like this. After I’d said, “There, there!” which didn’t seem to help much, I hadn’t any remarks to make.
“He s-said he was going to the tables to gamble away all his savings and then shoot himself, because he had nothing left to live for.”
I suddenly remembered the scrap in the small hours outside my state-room door. I hate mysteries. I meant to get to the bottom of this. I couldn’t have a really first-class valet like Voules going about the place shooting himself up. Evidently the girl Pilbeam was at the bottom of the thing. I questioned her. She sobbed.
I questioned her more. I was firm. And eventually she yielded up the facts. Voules had seen George kiss her the night before; that was the trouble.
Things began to piece themselves together. I went up to interview George. There was going to be another job for persuasive Alfred. Voules’s mind had got to be eased as Stella’s had been. I couldn’t afford to lose a fellow with his genius for preserving a trouser-crease.
I found George on the foredeck. What is it Shakespeare or somebody says about some fellow’s face being sicklied o’er with the pale cast of care? George’s was like that. He looked green.
“Finished with your uncle?” I said.
He grinned a ghostly grin.
“There isn’t any uncle,” he said. “There isn’t any Alfred. And there isn’t any money.”
“Explain yourself, old top,” I said.
“It won’t take long. The old crook has spent every penny of the trust money. He’s been at it for years, ever since I was a kid. When the time came to cough up, and I was due to see that he did it, he went to the tables in the hope of a run of luck, and lost the last remnant of the stuff. He had to find a way of holding me for a while and postponing the squaring of accounts while he got away, and he invented this twin-brother business. He knew I should find out sooner or later, but meanwhile he would be able to get off to South America, which he has done. He’s on his way now.”
“You let him go?”
“What could I do? I can’t afford to make a fuss with that man Sturgis around. I can’t prove there’s no Alfred when my only chance of avoiding prison is to be Alfred.”
“Well, you’ve made things right for yourself with Stella Vanderley, anyway,” I said, to cheer him up.
“What’s the good of that now? I’ve hardly any money and no prospects. How can I marry her?”
“It looks to me, old top,” I said at last, “as if things were in a bit of a mess.”
“You’ve guessed it,” said poor old George.
I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean. At any moment you may be strolling peacefully along, and all the time Life’s waiting around the corner to fetch you one. You can’t tell when you may be going to get it. It’s all dashed puzzling. Here was poor old George, as well-meaning a fellow as ever stepped, getting swatted all over the ring by the hand of Fate. Why? That’s what I asked myself. Just Life, don’t you know. That’s all there was about it.
It was close on six o’clock when our third visitor of the day arrived. We were sitting on the afterdeck in the cool of the evening—old Marshall, Denman Sturgis, Mrs. Vanderley, Stella, George, and I—when he came up. We had been talking of George, and old Marshall was suggesting the advisability of sending out search-parties. He was worried. So was Stella Vanderley. So, for that matter, were George and I, only not for the same reason.
We were just arguing the thing out when the visitor appeared. He was a well-built, stiff sort of fellow. He spoke with a German accent.
“Mr. Marshall?” he said. “I am Count Fritz von Cöslin, equerry to His Serene Highness”—he clicked his heels together and saluted—”the Prince of Saxburg-Leignitz.”
Mrs. Vanderley jumped up.
“Why, Count,” she said, “what ages since we met in Vienna! You remember?”
“Could I ever forget? And the charming Miss Stella, she is well, I suppose not?”
“Stella, you remember Count Fritz?”
Stella shook hands with him.
“And how is the poor, dear Prince?” asked Mrs. Vanderley. “What a terrible thing to have happened!”
“I rejoice to say that my high-born master is better. He has regained consciousness and is sitting up and taking nourishment.”
“That’s good,” said old Marshall.
“In a spoon only,” sighed the Count. “Mr. Marshall, with your permission I should like a word with Mr. Sturgis.”
The gimlet-eyed sportsman came forward.
“I am Denman Sturgis, at your service.”
“The deuce you are! What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Sturgis,” explained the Count, “graciously volunteered his services——”
“I know. But what’s he doing here?”
“I am waiting for Mr. George Lattaker, Mr. Marshall.”
“You have not found him?” asked the Count anxiously.
“Not yet, Count; but I hope to do so shortly. I know what he looks like now. This gentleman is his twin-brother. They are doubles.”
“You are sure this gentleman is not Mr. George Lattaker?”
George put his foot down firmly on the suggestion.
“Don’t go mixing me up with my brother,” he said. “I am Alfred. You can tell me by my mole.”
He exhibited the mole. He was taking no risks.
The Count clicked his tongue regretfully.
“I am sorry,” he said.
George didn’t offer to console him,
“Don’t worry,” said Sturgis. “He won’t escape me. I shall find him.”
“Do, Mr. Sturgis, do. And quickly. Find swiftly that noble young man.”
“What?” shouted George.
“That noble young man, George Lattaker, who, at the risk of his life, saved my high-born master from the assassin.”
George sat down suddenly.
“I don’t understand,” he said feebly.
“We were wrong, Mr. Sturgis,” went on the Count. “We leaped to the conclusion—was it not so?—that the owner of the hat you found was also the assailant of my high-born master. We were wrong. I have heard the story from His Serene Highness’s own lips. He was passing down a dark street when a ruffian in a mask sprang out upon him. Doubtless he had been followed from the Casino, where he had been winning heavily. My high-born master was taken by surprise. He was felled. But before he lost consciousness he perceived a young man in evening dress, wearing the hat you found, running swiftly towards him. The hero engaged the assassin in combat, and my high-born master remembers no more. His Serene Highness asks repeatedly, ‘Where is my brave preserver?’ His gratitude is princely. He seeks for this young man to reward him. Ah, you should be proud of your brother, sir!”
“Thanks,” said George limply.
“And you, Mr. Sturgis, you must redouble your efforts. You must search the land; you must scour the sea to find George Lattaker.”
“He needn’t take all that trouble,” said a voice from the gangway.
It was Voules. His face was flushed, his hat was on the back of his head, and he was smoking a fat cigar.
“I’ll tell you where to find George Lattaker!” he shouted.
He glared at George, who was staring at him.
“Yes, look at me,” he yelled. “Look at me. You won’t be the first this afternoon who’s stared at the mysterious stranger who won for two hours without a break. I’ll be even with you now, Mr. Blooming Lattaker. I’ll learn you to break a poor man’s heart. Mr. Marshall and gents, this morning I was on deck, and I over’eard ‘im plotting to put up a game on you. They’d spotted that gent there as a detective, and they arranged that blooming Lattaker was to pass himself off as his own twin-brother. And if you wanted proof, blooming Pepper tells him to show them his mole and he’d swear George hadn’t one. Those were his very words. That man there is George Lattaker, Hesquire, and let him deny it if he can.”
George got up.
“I haven’t the least desire to deny it, Voules.”
“Mr. Voules, if you please.”
“It’s true,” said George, turning to the Count. “The fact is, I had rather a foggy recollection of what happened last night. I only remembered knocking some one down, and, like you, I jumped to the conclusion that I must have assaulted His Serene Highness.”
“Then you are really George Lattaker?” asked the Count.
“‘Ere, what does all this mean?” demanded Voules.
“Merely that I saved the life of His Serene Highness the Prince of Saxburg-Leignitz, Mr. Voules.”
“It’s a swindle!” began Voules, when there was a sudden rush and the girl Pilbeam cannoned into the crowd, sending me into old Marshall’s chair, and flung herself into the arms of Voules.
“Oh, Harold!” she cried. “I thought you were dead. I thought you’d shot yourself.”
He sort of braced himself together to fling her off, and then he seemed to think better of it and fell into the clinch.
It was all dashed romantic, don’t you know, but there are limits.
“Voules, you’re sacked,” I said.
“Who cares?” he said. “Think I was going to stop on now I’m a gentleman of property? Come along, Emma, my dear. Give a month’s notice and get your ‘at, and I’ll take you to dinner at Ciro’s.”
“And you, Mr. Lattaker,” said the Count, “may I conduct you to the presence of my high-born master? He wishes to show his gratitude to his preserver.”
“You may,” said George. “May I have my hat, Mr. Sturgis?”
There’s just one bit more. After dinner that night I came up for a smoke, and, strolling on to the foredeck, almost bumped into George and Stella. They seemed to be having an argument.
“I’m not sure,” she was saying, “that I believe that a man can be so happy that he wants to kiss the nearest thing in sight, as you put it.”
“Don’t you?” said George. “Well, as it happens, I’m feeling just that way now.”
I coughed and he turned round.
“Halloa, Reggie!” he said.
“Halloa, George!” I said. “Lovely night.”
“Beautiful,” said Stella.
“The moon,” I said.
“Ripping,” said George.
“Lovely,” said Stella.
“And look at the reflection of the stars on the——”
George caught my eye. “Pop off,” he said.