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THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT
Nadina, the Russian dancer who had taken Paris by storm, swayed to the sound of the applause, bowed and bowed again. Her narrow black eyes narrowed themselves still more, the long line of her scarlet mouth curved faintly upwards. Enthusiastic Frenchmen continued to beat the ground appreciatively as the curtain fell with a swish, hiding the reds and blues and magentas of the bizarre décors. In a swirl of blue and orange draperies the dancer left the stage. A bearded gentleman received her enthusiastically in his arms. It was the Manager.
“Magnificent, petite, magnificent,” he cried. “To-night you have surpassed yourself.” He kissed her gallantly on both cheeks in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner.
Madame Nadina accepted the tribute with the ease of long habit and passed on to her dressing-room, where bouquets were heaped carelessly everywhere, marvellous garments of futuristic design hung on pegs, and the air was hot and sweet with the scent of the massed blossoms and with more sophisticated perfumes and essences. Jeanne, the dresser, ministered to her mistress, talking incessantly and pouring out a stream of fulsome compliment.
A knock at the door interrupted the flow. Jeanne went to answer it, and returned with a card in her hand.
“Madame will receive?”
“Let me see.”
The dancer stretched out a languid hand, but at the sight of the name on the card, “Count Sergius Paulovitch,” a sudden flicker of interest came into her eyes.
“I will see him. The maize peignoir, Jeanne, and quickly. And when the Count comes you may go.”
Jeanne brought the peignoir, an exquisite wisp of corn-coloured chiffon and ermine. Nadina slipped into it, and sat smiling to herself, whilst one long white hand beat a slow tattoo on the glass of the dressing-table.
The Count was prompt to avail himself of the privilege accorded to him—a man of medium height, very slim, very elegant, very pale, extraordinarily weary. In feature, little to take hold of, a man difficult to recognize again if one left his mannerisms out of account. He bowed over the dancer’s hand with exaggerated courtliness.
“Madame, this is a pleasure indeed.”
So much Jeanne heard before she went out closing the door behind her. Alone with her visitor, a subtle change came over Nadina’s smile.
“Compatriots though we are, we will not speak Russian, I think,” she observed.
“Since we neither of us know a word of the language, it might be as well,” agreed her guest.
By common consent, they dropped into English, and nobody, now that the Count’s mannerisms had dropped from him, could doubt that it was his native language. He had, indeed, started life as a quick-change music-hall artiste in London.
“You had a great success to-night,” he remarked. “I congratulate you.”
“All the same,” said the woman, “I am disturbed. My position is not what it was. The suspicions aroused during the War have never died down. I am continually watched and spied upon.”
“But no charge of espionage was ever brought against you?”
“Our chief lays his plans too carefully for that.”
“Long life to the ‘Colonel,’” said the Count, smiling. “Amazing news, is it not, that he means to retire? To retire! Just like a doctor, or a butcher, or a plumber——”
“Or any other business man,” finished Nadina. “It should not surprise us. That is what the ‘Colonel’ has always been—an excellent man of business. He has organized crime as another man might organize a boot factory. Without committing himself, he has planned and directed a series of stupendous coups, embracing every branch of what we might call his ‘profession.’ Jewel robberies, forgery, espionage (the latter very profitable in war-time), sabotage, discreet assassination, there is hardly anything he has not touched. Wisest of all, he knows when to stop. The game begins to be dangerous? —he retires gracefully—with an enormous fortune!”
“H’m!” said the Count doubtfully. “It is rather—upsetting for all of us. We are at a loose end, as it were.”
“But we are being paid off—on a most generous scale!” Something, some undercurrent of mockery in her tone, made the man look at her sharply. She was smiling to herself, and the quality of her smile aroused his curiosity. But he proceeded diplomatically:
“Yes, the ‘Colonel’ has always been a generous paymaster. I attribute much of his success to that—and to his invariable plan of providing a suitable scapegoat. A great brain, undoubtedly a great brain! And an apostle of the maxim, ‘If you want a thing done safely, do not do it yourself!’ Here are we, every one of us incriminated up to the hilt and absolutely in his power, and not one of us has anything on him.”
He paused, almost as though he were expecting her to disagree with him, but she remained silent, smiling to herself as before.
“Not one of us,” he mused. “Still, you know, he is superstitious, the old man. Years ago, I believe, he went to one of these fortune-telling people. She prophesied a lifetime of success, but declared that his downfall would be brought about through a woman.”
He had interested her now. She looked up eagerly.
“That is strange, very strange! Through a woman, you say?”
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“Doubtless, now that he has—retired, he will marry. Some young society beauty, who will disperse his millions faster than he acquired them.”
Nadina shook her head.
“No, no, that is not the way of it. Listen, my friend, to-morrow I go to London.”
“But your contract here?”
“I shall be away only one night. And I go incognito, like Royalty. No one will ever know that I have left France. And why do you think that I go?”
“Hardly for pleasure at this time of year. January, a detestable foggy month! It must be for profit, eh?”
“Exactly.” She rose and stood in front of him, every graceful line of her arrogant with pride. “You said just now that none of us had anything on the chief. You were wrong. I have. I, a woman, have had the wit and, yes, the courage—for it needs courage—to double-cross him. You remember the De Beer diamonds?”
“Yes, I remember. At Kimberley, just before the war broke out? I had nothing to do with it, and I never heard the details, the case was hushed up for some reason, was it not? A fine haul too.”
“A hundred thousand pounds worth of stones. Two of us worked it—under the ‘Colonel’s’ orders, of course. And it was then that I saw my chance. You see, the plan was to substitute some of the De Beer diamonds for some sample diamonds brought from South America by two young prospectors who happened to be in Kimberley at the time. Suspicion was then bound to fall on them.”
“Very clever,” interpolated the Count approvingly.
“The ‘Colonel’ is always clever. Well, I did my part—but I also did one thing which the ‘Colonel’ had not foreseen. I kept back some of the South American stones—one or two are unique and could easily be proved never to have passed through De Beer’s hands. With these diamonds in my possession, I have the whip-hand of my esteemed chief. Once the two young men are cleared, his part in the matter is bound to be suspected. I have said nothing all these years, I have been content to know that I had this weapon in reserve, but now matters are different. I want my price—and it will be a big, I might almost say a staggering price.”
“Extraordinary,” said the Count. “And doubtless you carry these diamonds about with you everywhere?”
His eyes roamed gently round the disordered room.
Nadina laughed softly. “You need suppose nothing of the sort. I am not a fool. The diamonds are in a safe place where no one will dream of looking for them.”
“I never thought you a fool, my dear lady, but may I venture to suggest that you are somewhat foolhardy? The ‘Colonel’ is not the type of man to take kindly to being blackmailed, you know.”
“I am not afraid of him,” she laughed. “There is only one man I have ever feared—and he is dead.”
The man looked at her curiously.
“Let us hope that he will not come to life again, then,” he remarked lightly.
“What do you mean?” cried the dancer sharply.
The Count looked slightly surprised.
“I only meant that a resurrection would be awkward for you,” he explained. “A foolish joke.”
She gave a sigh of relief.
“Oh, no, he is dead all right. Killed in the war. He was a man who once—loved me.”
“In South Africa?” asked the Count negligently.
“Yes, since you ask it, in South Africa.”
“That is your native country, is it not?”
She nodded. Her visitor rose and reached for his hat.
“Well,” he remarked, “you know your own business best, but, if I were you, I should fear the ‘Colonel’ far more than any disillusioned lover. He is a man whom it is particularly easy to—underestimate.”
She laughed scornfully.
“As if I did not know him after all these years!”
“I wonder if you do?” he said softly. “I very much wonder if you do.”
“Oh, I am not a fool! And I am not alone in this. The South African mail-boat docks at Southampton to-morrow, and on board her is a man who has come specially from Africa at my request and who has carried out certain orders of mine. The ‘Colonel’ will have not one of us to deal with, but two.”
“Is that wise?”
“It is necessary.”
“You are sure of this man?”
A rather peculiar smile played over the dancer’s face.
“I am quite sure of him. He is inefficient, but perfectly trustworthy.” She paused, and then added in an indifferent tone of voice: “As a matter of fact, he happens to be my husband.”