from Red Book
The 24th Figure
by Ellis Parker Butler
On the second floor of Roger Murchison's Fifth Avenue mansion the three rooms back of his study had been occupied for a time by stenographers, typists and others; in fact, the three rooms were outfitted as completely as any business offices and bore on their doors in gilt letters the names, respectively, of Miss Lind, Mr. Skink and Mr. Tubbel, the three members of Roger Murchison's private Graft Syndicate. It was from these rooms that they conducted their bunco operations against their employer in accordance with the contract he had made with them.
Men often find in a wife and family ample occupation for their talents and time, but Roger Murchison, being a bachelor and many times a millionaire -- he was worth over twenty-five million dollars -- had devoted his days to a study of ancient Greek vases. In this pursuit he had been happy enough until he fell a victim to the celebrated Markham Vase, equally well known as the ritual vase of the temple of Apollo at Corinth. The attempt to recreate the two missing dancing figures of this vase had well nigh wrecked his life.
It was for this reason Mr. Murchison had brought into being his private Graft Syndicate. The fact that Professors Gerking of Berlin and Pinzucci of Florence were also attempting to solve the mystery of the two missing dancing figures spurred Mr. Murchison too far, and he became the victim of the two missing dancing figures, and by night he lay awake thinking of them until he feared madness or suicide would be the final result, for no malady is so awful as insomnia in its worst form.
It was with the hope that he might turn his brain to other thoughts that Roger Murchison hit upon the idea of a private Graft Syndicate, as other men, in lesser straits, turn to other games. If he could secure three individuals to attempt, by any means they chose, to take from him any or all of his many dollars by guile or graft or any other dishonest means, he might, by trying to prevent them, give his thoughts a turn that would lead to a more gentle exhaustion and to sleep.
Mr. Murchison chose his three from among the horde of begging-letter writers who daily besieged him, and thus he found Rosa Lind, Carlo Doria Skink and the fat and short-winded Horace Tubbel. Of Mr. Tubbel and Mr. Skink it need only be said that they were no more than miserable Bowery panhandlers, earning their bed and bread by begging dimes on the streets. Rosa Lind, when she wrote the begging letter, was in as dire financial condition as these two men, but she had never stooped to street begging. Once a stenographer, she had given up that respectable calling to try stage dancing and had failed. In a moment of temporary distress she had written Mr. Murchison a begging letter.
The earlier attempts of these three to bunco Mr. Murchison under the terms of their contract with him had been childishly inefficient, but his watchfulness did direct his thoughts away from the two missing figures of the Markham Vase and brought him sleep.
It was well that Mr. Murchison was but an amateur himself and not a trained detective, for Rosa Lind had given him to understand that she was a genuine queen of the underworld -- Red-line Rose. Had Mr. Murchison been a professional detective, he would have laughed at this pretension, but as time went on, and Rosa Lind became accustomed to her strange new occupation, the success with which she conducted the affairs of the Graft Syndicate was ample to justify her in assuming the name of Red-line Rose, or any other name. In her last operation she had taken from Mr. Murchison a cool million dollars, which is no mean sum even in this day when even authors are able to have bread and butter nearly every day.
Nothing, however, had prevented Roger Murchison from falling deeply and ardently in love with Rosa Lind. Indeed, this is not surprising, for she was most truly a charming young woman, and not only propinquity but the fact that she was the only charming young female he met constantly, as his health returned to normal, made such an eventuality entirely logical.
An event, recently occurring, had given Roger Murchison an opportunity to compare Rosa Lind with the class of young females more fortunately situated; for his cousin Miss May Wiltson had recently come from California to spend some time in the city and was stopping at Roger Murchison's home, properly chaperoned by Roger's quaint elderly aunt Ann Warker, who had left her own upper Fifth Avenue mansion to do the honors for Roger.
The comparison of the two young women did not give Roger Murchison cause to admire Rosa Lind the less. Why one man likes one woman more than another, or thinks he does, is no longer a mystery, if we are to believe the admirable Freud; and Freud would have said Roger Murchison first loved Rosa Lind because of her remarkable resemblance to one of the dancing figures of the Markham Vase. Roger, at any rate, was sure of one thing -- he meant to marry Rosa Lind if she would be his wife.
This desire he confided frankly to May Wiltson as soon as their new acquaintanceship ripened to friendship, and May agreed that Rosa Lind was all that he said.
"She's nice," May said. "I'd marry her myself if she were a man."
This hearty Western approval of Rosa Lind was characteristic of May Wiltson. She was not only engagingly frank, but interested in whatever promised to be amusing; and she was both amused and interested by Mr. Murchison's remarkable Graft Syndicate and by the fact that it had been given rooms in Mr. Murchison's own home.
"I never, never knew a man like you," she told Roger. "Imagine hiring people to bunco you and letting them have offices in your own home! I call that original. I wish you had hired me."
"You think you would enjoy it?"
"Would I? It would be fascinating. Everyone loves graft stories, Cousin Roger, and just think how great it would be to be a real grafter and yet be perfectly safe all the while! I would enjoy it indeed. I wish I had been one of the Syndicate -- although I don't love your Mr. Tubbel."
"Great heavens!" exclaimed Roger Murchison. "You don't love Mr. Tubbel! You don't mean by that that you do love Mr. Skink, do you?"
As she saw the look of horror on Mr. Murchison's face May Wiltson drew herself up haughtily.
"I don't see why you should use that tone," she said. "I think Mr. Skink is a very nice man."
That evening after his grafters had gone and when their three offices were dark, Roger Murchison sat long in his study, worrying over the reply his chance remark to May Wiltson had brought forth. He was more than a little disturbed. He had the untraveled Easterner's belief that Western girls are of a distinctly different sort from their Eastern sisters and had a vague notion that the Western girl leaps into love as a trout leaps for a fly, and that instantaneous elopement is the usual marriage mode. He had a fear that if May Wiltson had indeed fallen in love with Mr. Skink, she might elope at any moment, thus breaking her father's heart, ruining her life and heaping Roger Murchison with lifelong self-reproach of the bitterest grade.
So annoying was this thought that when Roger Murchison sought his bed, he could not sleep. For hours he lay tossing on the hot sheets, his racing brain driven at a mad pace by the same brand of insomnia that had threatened him with madness, and at three o'clock in the morning he gave up the fight for sleep, dressed hastily and went to his study. He knew what had happened. The insomnia that had been cured by the Graft Syndicate had been brought back by the Graft Syndicate.
In his sleepless state Roger Murchison turned to his collection of Greek vases for relief. He opened the doors of the cabinets that covered the walls of his study, taking down the precious vases one by one and examining each with the same loving scrutiny that had been its portion when first it entered his hands, and thus he proceeded until he reached the replica of the Vase of Apollo. With this in his hands, he seated himself at his table.
The replica of the Vase of Apollo was not as it had been when Murchison last suffered from insomnia. Then the gash in its side showed two of the twenty-four dancing figures missing. Now it showed but one missing figure, for he had found one of the missing poses on an antique cameo, and he had had the replica of the vase mended so as to show this twenty-third dancing figure in its proper place on the vase.
He took down Professor Wilmarth's massive volume on "Rites and Mysteries" and began turning the pages.
In this volume Professor Wilmarth had gathered data of every rite and mystery of modern and ancient times, rites religious and secular, sacred and profane. It was complete but for two rites -- two of the rites of the worship of the Corinthian Apollo. It is not to be wondered that a distinguished amateur like Roger Murchison should feel the task of completing this wonderful volume well worth while. Now he placed the terra-cotta replica on the table before him and studied it, leaning forward with clasped hands and arms outstretched on the table. Daylight, some hours later, found him still in this position.
"Loving sakes!" exclaimed Miss Anna Warker when her nephew entered the breakfast room after his sleepless night. "My, loving sakes! What ails you, Roger?"
Murchison, his brown dressing gown hanging limply, slumped into his chair and closed his eyes.
Breakfast, since the coming of Aunt Ann and Miss May, had been a drawn-out affair in the house. Miss Warker was now finishing, and May Wiltson had not yet appeared.
"Nothing this morning, Miggs," said Roger Murchison to the butler. "I'm not hungry. I can't eat." And then, to his aunt: "It is the insomnia again. I did not sleep."
"My dear boy!"
"A nice egg, Mr. Roger?" begged the butler with concern, for he loved his master as he would have loved a son. "If you could take a bit of toast and part of an egg, sir, I am sure you would feel better for it."
"Nothing!" repeated Murchison with irritation.
He drew lines sulkily on the breakfast cloth with his thumbnail.
"I'm going to rid myself of those nonsensical grafters," he declared. "I'm going to turn them out of the house bag and baggage. I've been a fool."
"You always were one, my dear," said Ann Warker blandly, hiding her concern at this sad turn of Murchison's case. "All you men always are. It is nothing new to me to tell me that. And as for giving up three good rooms in this house and letting Miss Lind fill them with -- how many men and women has she? Twenty?"
"About that number, Miss Ann," said Miggs as Murchison did not answer.
"Twenty, then," said Miss Ann. "I do call that dire foolishness. I have said nothing while it brought you sleep, Roger, but --"
Miss Warker made an expressive gesture with her hands. Roger did not reply to this directly.
"It is no use," he said. "I'm going to get rid of them all. I'll pay them fifty thousand, one hundred thousand, whatever they want to pack up and get out and never let me hear from them again. Rosa Lind --"
"Ah!" said Ann Warker. "Rosalind! So that is it, is it? The sweet queen of the bunco world will not smile on you! Fiddle-dee-dee! If I were a man, Roger, I'd not let a snip of a girl from no one knows where make a fool of me. I'd marry her or know the reason why, and no nonsense about it!"
"I'm going to throw them out. I'm done with them," Roger said sullenly. "If I must go mad, I may as well go mad by way of the Vase of Apollo as any other way. Gerking of Berlin says, in his eighth monograph on the two missing figures --"
"Oh, spare me!" said Ann Warker in mock dismay and she threw down her napkin and fled. As she left the breakfast room, she passed May Wiltson.
"Look out for him," she said in a voice for Roger to overhear: "he is a bear with a sore ear this morning, my dear."
Fresh and happy after her night of perfect rest and her morning tub, May greeted her cousin and seated herself.
"I have something to say to you," said Roger abruptly. "I say it with all the earnestness of an angry man. You spoke of that cad Skink as if you thought him fit to wipe your feet on. He is not. He is a low, ill-bred, miserable hound. He goes out of this house today and he never enters it again."
"Mr. Murchison!" cried May Wiltson.
"I mean this," said Roger. "I don't know what there is between you and this Skink, but whatever it is, it must stop. You understand that? Your father sent you here, and while you are under my roof, I must protect you. That's my duty and I mean to do just that -- I tell you plainly."
May Wiltson's face was scarlet. She arose, her one thought to leave the room, but Roger Murchison arose also.
"Have your breakfast," he said, moving to the door. "Miggs, has Miss Lind come yet?"
"Not yet, Mr. Roger," said the butler.
"The two gentlemen bunco persons have arrived, and so have most of the assistant bunco ladies and gentlemen, but Miss Lind has not yet arrived."
"Thank you," said Murchison; and then to May: "You will not go into the rooms of the Graft Syndicate, or near them, if you please. I regret to have to put it so, but that is my order, as the master of this house!" He went out.
"Indeed!" said May Wiltson to the spot where he had stood. "I will do what I please and go where I please, my dear cousin Roger." And she ordered a breakfast suitable for a healthy and hungry young woman.
In his study Roger Murchison drew a sheet of paper before him and wrote with short, angry impulses of the pen. The letter was to Rosa Lind and was as crisp as it was short. It told her that the career of the Graft Syndicate was at an end, and asked her to name a figure that would be accepted as ending the contract. This he signed, enclosed and sealed and handed to the chief clerk in Rosa Lind's room on his way downstairs.
Reaching the street floor, he drew on his light coat and put on his hat and went out upon the Avenue. He hailed a passing taxicab and gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art as his destination.
The plan he had in mind was by no means complex. It was one that had occurred to him before the thought of a private Graft Syndicate had so much as entered his head, and had nothing to do with Rosa Lind, the fat Horace Tubbel or the odious Mr. Carlo Doria Skink. Employed by the museum, under the title of Sixth Assistant Curator of Greek Vases of the Seventh Ionic Period, was a young man with whom Mr. Murchison had often conversed.
"If that young man finishes his preliminary studies before I solve the mystery of the two missing figures, Gerking and Pinzucci and I will have to look to our laurels," Murchison had often thought; for Cecil Calthorpe was, in Murchison's opinion, destined to be, in time, the world's greatest authority on Greek vases.
Now, thrown again into his search for the missing dancing figure by the vagary of his restless mind, Roger Murchison proposed to do what he had once thought of doing. He would beg, steal or borrow Cecil Calthorpe from the museum, to assist him in his work until the missing figure was found. Better, far, to divide the credit with this young fellow who would some day be famous, and thus share in the honor and win it for America, than to allow Gerking of Berlin or Pinzucci of Florence to claim the triumph for Germany or Italy.
"Calthorpe?" said the Fourth Assistant Curator of Greek Vases of the Seventh Ionic Period, with surprise, when Murchison questioned him. "I'm sorry, Mr. Murchison, but Calthorpe is no longer here. I should say, rather, that he is temporarily absent. He has not been here for several months. Calthorpe was given a leave of absence in order that he might undertake some special investigation work."
With the jealous intuition of a specialist, Roger Murchison jumped to a conclusion.
"In the Markham Vase matter?" he asked tensely.
"Yes, Mr. Murchison," replied the Fourth Assistant Curator of Greek Vases of the Seventh Ionic Period.
"Dutton," asked Murchison, "why was I not told of this? You know, and all of you knew, that I was deeply -- most deeply -- interested in all that concerned the Vase of Apollo. I should have been told!"
The Fourth Assistant Curator looked at Roger Murchison curiously, noting his fever-bright eyes.
"Mad!" he said to himself. "Quite mad!" And he spoke his next words in a gently soothing tone: "You forget, Mr. Murchison, that it was on a request from you that Mr. Calthorpe was given the leave of absence."
"I asked that?" queried Murchison.
"In a letter that Calthorpe allowed me to read," said young Dutton. "In fact. Mr. Calthorpe asked me to be one of the party --"
"Party?" asked Murchison.
"The party you asked him to form to investigate the matter of the two missing dancing figures of the vase," said Dutton. "No doubt the details of your request will come back to you presently. It is not unusual for deep students to have these periods of forgetfulness, such as you now seem to have. The letter asked that as many as possible of the cleverest young men of the Grecian Section be given leave of absence under Mr. Calthorpe to aid him."
Murchison passed his hand across his brow like one who seeks to wipe away a cobweb. He could recollect nothing regarding such a letter as Dutton mentioned.
"And where is Calthorpe now?" he asked.
"That we do not know." said Fourth Assistant Curator Dutton. "He and eight of our most promising young men accepted leaves of absence and have not communicated with the museum authorities since then. Our belief -- but how correctly based we do not know -- is that, under Mr. Calthorpe's leadership, the party is probably at Corinth, doing excavation work on the site of the Temple of Apollo. But as I said, this is mere belief. We know nothing absolutely. Perfect secrecy seems to have been maintained."
"Ah. yes! Thank you." said Murchison; and he turned away.
The bright sun and fresh air of the Avenue, as Murchison stepped out into it. brought him suddenly out of the daze into which the words of the Fourth Assistant Curator had thrown him. A solution of the mystery came to him before he had reached the street level: all this was Rosa Lind's work!
"Clever!" he muttered, and a pedestrian turned and looked at him, wondering what ailed this tall, gaunt, studious man.
This, evidently, was to be the culminating effort of the Graft Syndicate. Knowing that the thing nearest his heart was the solution of the mystery of the twenty-fourth dancing figure. Rosa Lind was using young Calthorpe to solve the puzzle, hoping to get the answer in her own hands and hold it, so to speak, for a ransom. The amount of that ransom Murchison could roughly guess. No doubt it would touch a million dollars, at least.
"Clever!" he said again.
As Murchison walked toward his home, he turned one matter after another over in his mind. Again and again he laughed, as he seemed to see how cleverly Rosa Lind had befooled him. The twenty clerks in the three offices of the Graft Syndicate -- a plethora of help that had seemed ridiculous -- were not, of course, mere typists and stenographers. They were a staff working to solve the vase mystery. As for May Wiltson and her pretended liking for Mr. Skink -- Murchison laughed again -- that could be discounted. Had not Rosa Lind been able to enlist Aunt Ann Warker in one bunco scheme and the faithful Miggs in another?
It was all plain to Murchison as he walked briskly down the Avenue.
"Tonight I sleep well." he said, all his troubles seeming to fly from him. "I am as hungry as a bear. Miss Rosa, this time you are checkmated."
In this mood he entered his house, the door opening as he reached the top of the stoop. Miggs, bending low, held the door open.
"If you please, Mr. Roger," he said, "Miss Lind asks to see you immediately."
"I'll see her," said Murchison, smiling. Miggs seemed to hesitate.
"And Miss Wiltson, sir, is packing her trunks. I was to tell you, Mr. Roger, that she is leaving at the earliest possible moment."
Roger stopped short and stared at the butler.
"And I was to tell you, Mr. Roger, that Mr. Slunk is waiting for you in your study." said Miggs.
"Very well," said Murchison calmly. "He will see me quite soon enough. I have something to say to him."
"Yes, Mr. Roger," said Miggs; "and I trust you will pardon me, but Mr. Skink misled me to tell you that when he sees you, he means to thrash you within an inch of your life."
Roger Murchison leaped up the stairs three steps at a time, his hands knotted into hard fists, and threw open the door of his study, to find himself fare to face -- with Rosa Lind!
Instantly all his fury fled, and he stood surprised and not a little abashed, his fists still clenched, but the fine lines of his face softened into a smile.
"I had your letter," Rosa Lind said quietly.
"My letter -- yes" said Roger and added: "I wrote that this morning."
"It is still morning," said Rosa Lind. "The letter is still written."
"It was seriously meant -- when I wrote it." said Murchison.
"But not now?"
Rosa Lind was standing near the corner of the study table, and never had she seemed so charming and desirable. She wore the neat costume, businesslike in its simplicity, that she had adopted when her first winnings had permitted her to renew her wardrobe. She fell back a step now. seeing the glow of love in Murchison's eyes.
"Now?" Murchison repeated. "Now? Ah, now I am not thinking of morning or afternoon, of contracts or grafting, or of anything but you, Rosa Lind."
"Don't, please!" she begged. "Not --"
She stopped, confused.
"You were going to beg me not to say what you saw in my eyes," he said, "and since my eyes have said it, why need I repeat it with my tongue? Rosa, you know I love you."
The girl looked away and then looked down, not trusting her eyes to look into Murchison's again.
"When I first came here, into this room," she said, "you knew what I was, or thought you knew. I came as a begging-letter writer, in miserable garments, penniless --"
"And now I am asking you to be my wife," said Roger Murchison.
"And now, when I have the spirit of the game in my veins and you fear I am able to do the very thing you hired me to do," said Rosa Lind, "you try to beg off -- to buy me off."
"I am trying to ask you to be my wife," repeated Murchison. "I am asking you because I love you, and because you are the only woman I have ever loved or can ever love."
"You know nothing of me or of my past."
"And care less," said Murchison. "It is nothing to me that you are Red-line Rose, a queen of the underworld."
Rosa Lind smiled. "I am not Red-line Rose. That was a falsehood not meant for your ears. I have not even that distinction. I was a stenographer once, then a failure on the stage as a dancer. I am nothing -- was nothing, at least. Now I am a -- what shall I say? -- a bunco woman."
"I am asking you to marry me," repeated Murchison doggedly.
Rosa Lind turned toward the window to hide a smile.
"And you believe that one who came to you as a poverty-stricken unknown, with a begging letter as an introduction, and a brass watch in hand, and a cheap grafter's lie on lips, and with so little self-respect as to enter into a grafter's game, could be so soon worthy to marry into a proud and respectable family?"
"I do," declared Roger Murchison.
Rosa Lind turned her face toward him again.
"Then." she said, as if in all seriousness, "I cannot understand why you object to the attachment of May Wiltson and Mr. Skink. for it is Mr. Skink I have been describing.
"Mr. Skink is a different matter." he said almost angrily.
"I choose not to think so," Rosa Lind said. "I choose to be faithful to those who are faithful to me. You cannot make white of one of us and black of another. You ask me to marry you, but you rebel at the thought of Carlo Doria Skink marrying May. Very good! If you care for me as you try to make me believe, you can prove it as you know how."
Murchison put his hand on the girl's arm.
"Rosa," he said, "you do not mean this. Your lips say one thing, but your eyes say another. All this is mere play. You talk as you do as part of your duty -- as you see it -- to live up to the contract and bunco me, defraud me or blackmail me. I do not believe Skink has your sympathy. You mean to ask me to pay to be rid of Skink. It is all a part of the game."
Rosa Lind removed his hand gently. "That may be so," she said.
"It is so," said Murchison, "and I am ready for the game to end. I asked you to name a price for the cancellation of our contract."
"And I came here to name it," Rosa Lind said. "You must consider that if I do, I must think of the rights of Mr. Skink and Mr. Tubbel as my partners, and that I must consider also the amount we might win by carrying to a conclusion the schemes we have under way."
"Including," said Murchison. "the Calthorpe scheme."
Rosa Lind glanced at him quickly, for she had not expected this.
"Including the Calthorpe scheme." she said, however. "And the sum I have come to ask is --"
"Ten million dollars."
"That is preposterous! That is nonsense!" Murchison cried.
"You forget," she reminded him, "that you do not wish May Wiltson to marry Mr. Skink."
"And you forget." he reminded her, "that I am not helpless."
He pressed the call button on his desk.
"Miggs," he said, when his faithful butler appeared, "you will give Miss Lind all the assistance necessary to remove the contents of her three offices before this time tomorrow. Thereafter none of her assistants, nor Mr. Tubbel nor Mr. Skink, are to be allowed to enter this house. And now kindly ask Miss Wiltson to come here. If there is nothing else. Miss Lind --"
Rosa Lind accepted this dismissal and followed Miggs from the room.
Murchison's interview with May Wiltson was short, frank and stormy. The girl entered the room in a resentful mood and became passionately angry at Murchison's first dictatorial word. His first slighting mention of Mr. Skink drove her to fury and she raged from the room. Murchison was hardly less angry and ordered Miggs, in a tone he seldom used in speaking to the butler, to send Mr. Skink to him.
Carlo Doria Skink closed the door behind him gently, but made sure it was closed, and the smile with which he faced Roger Murchison indicated that he did not mean to quarrel if he could avoid it. While Murchison gazed at the overdressed fop, considering how to begin what he meant to say, Mr. Skink caressed his pointed beard and moistened his lips nervously.
"You know why I sent for you." Murchison began abruptly and harshly.
"Now, one minute. I beg of you!" pleaded Mr. Skink, stepping backward and letting his shifty eyes rest anywhere but on Murchison's face. "I do know why you have sent for me and I'm ready to bargain."
"I'll warrant you are, you rat!" said Murchison.
"And Mr. Tubbel is ready to bargain too," said Mr. Skink. "We'll be fair. Just send for Tubbel, and you'll see we'll be fair. Miss Lind." he added grinningly, "has gone out. Just send for Tubbel. I won't talk unless you send for Tubbel. He is in on this."
Murchison eyed the fellow a moment and then did what was necessary to bring Tubbel. When the door was closed again, the fat Mr. Tubbel and the thin Mr. Skink seated themselves, and Mr. Skink, leaning forward, spoke for them.
"We -- me and Tubby -- are ready to sell out," he said. "Ain't that so. Tubby?"
"If we get the price," said Mr. Tubbel.
"That's it -- if we get the price; ain't it. Skink?"
"That's right," said Mr. Skink. "Because we see how things are going. She's going to throw us down."
He turned his thumb toward the door, indicating that he meant Rosa Lind.
"We're no fools," puffed Mr. Tubbel. "And we're not dirt under her feet, either. We've got money now -- as much as she has. We're not dirt --"
Murchison folded his arms and gazed at the two miserables.
"I believe I understand you." he said, and he could not keep his scorn from his voice. "You are ready to betray Miss Lind into my hands -- to 'sell her out,' as the phrase is. You are willing to make a grand final clean-up for yourselves and get out and let her fare as she may."
"That's it!" exclaimed Mr. Tubbel, beaming. "I don't put things as clear as you do but that's it. She's going to dump us, so we're ready to dump her first -- for cash." he added.
"And clear out and never show yourselves again?"
"For cash, yes," agreed Mr. Skink,
"And for about how much cash?" asked Murchison.
Mr. Tubbel looked at Mr. Skink, and Mr. Skink looked at Mr. Tubbel.
"One hundred thousand dollars." said Mr. Tubbel with an intake of breath, and waited.
Roger Murchison drew his checkbook from his table drawer and wrote out a check.
"I am not sure whether you mean one hundred thousand for both, or one hundred thousand each," he said, "so I have made this check for two hundred thousand. Before I hand it to you. I want it understood that you are to agree. Mr. Skink, to disappear utterly for one year, without a final word to May Wiltson."
"That's all right," said Mr. Skink promptly. "I've never had a first word with her."
"What!" Murchison cried.
"And that's the way she treats me." whined Mr. Skink. "What am I to Rosa Lind? Nothing! Now I'm Skink, and now I ain't Skink -- just as she takes a notion. Now I have a nice office, and next it is: 'Get out and don't show your face here for a month!' And there sits that young pup in my chair, at my desk --"
"What young pup?"
"Calthorpe, his name is," said Skink.
"'You be scarce,' Rosa Lind orders me. 'Calthorpe is going to be Skink for a month --'"
A great light broke upon Roger Murchison. The "Skink" for whom May Wiltson had conceived such a sudden and violent liking was not Mr. Skink but young Calthorpe masquerading as Mr. Skink. He laughed with sudden carefree merriment.
"And what else is Calthorpe doing?" he asked a moment later.
"That's it!" said Mr. Tubbel angrily. "What is he there for? I know."
"You bet we know!" said Mr. Skink with disgust.
"Sure we know!" said Mr. Tubbel.
"We can see a thing or two. We can see Rosa Lind ain't with us any more, can't we, Skink?"
"Sure. She's getting ready to ditch us," agreed Mr. Skink. "She ain't for us: she's for you. She's lovesick; that's what she is -- lovesick and crazy."
"Lovesick?" queried Murchison.
"For you." said Mr. Skink. "And it makes me and Tubby just plain sick. Why wouldn't it? Take this business of the twenty-fourth dancing figure, for instance."
"Ah, yes!" said Murchison. "The twenty-fourth figure of the Vase of Apollo; what about it?"
"A chance for the biggest holdup in the world." said Skink. "What does she do? Gets this Calthorpe and the whole lot of he-experts and she-experts, and uses her money --"
"She didn't get ours, you bet!" interposed Mr. Tubbel.
"And sets them to finding the twenty-fourth figure." continued Mr. Skink, "and finds it --"
"Finds it?" cried Murchison, suddenly all excited interest. "Finds the missing figure?"
"Of course." said Mr. Skink disgustedly. "She could find anything, she could. And when she finds it. and we tell her it's a chance to hold you up for a million, or ten million, or twenty-five million, maybe, what does she say?"
"She says she ain't going to graft with it," said Mr. Tubbel. "She says she's going to give the secret to you -- free gratis, mind you!"
"And that means." said Mr. Skink, "she's going to ditch me and Tubby, the first chance she gets, and --"
"And marry me," said Murchison.
"That's it!" said Skink.
"So that's it, bless her!" said Murchison softly, and he handed the check to Mr. Skink.
Roger Murchison watched the two male members of his Graft Syndicate leave the room, and as he had no doubt, his life. Then he pushed his bell button.
"Miggs." he said, when the faithful fellow appeared, "kindly give Miss Wiltson my sincere apologies and ask her to come to this room. And stop at Mr. Skink's room and ask Mr. Calthorpe to come here."
"Yes. Mr. Roger." said Miggs.
"And Miggs." said Murchison softly, "when Miss Lind returns, tell her I am waiting for her here with an impatience that is almost greater than I can bear."
"Yes. Mr. Roger." said Miggs respectfully. He hesitated a moment. "And asking your pardon, sir, the thought occurs to me that you might wish a small glass of your fine old sherry in the meanwhile, sir."
"Sherry. Miggs? But I never drink sherry: what do you mean?"
"I am sure I mean no offense, sir," said Miggs, "but on a certain occasion before the late Mrs. Miggs became Mrs. Miggs, I found a glass of sherry of great assistance in encouraging me to ask her to become so."
"You may bring me a glass of sherry, Miggs," said Roger Murchison.