"This is the sort of puzzle we get every day," said Commissioner Teake to Simon Iff. The Head of the New York Police was doing the honours of the organization to the distinguished stranger. "Here's a shabby individual - speaks Hungarian, not a word of anything else - can't give any account of himself. Has lost his memory absolute."
"Oh!" said Simon Iff. "And where did you pick him up?"
"In a raid last night on a dive on Tenth Avenue. Possibly the shock of arrest - there was a little shooting practice, too - has destroyed his memory. He's a pretty tough guy, as you see; but I feel - well, traces of intelligence and refinement. We're holding him for observation, and to try to get in touch with some relatives."
They passed on. In the next room Simon Iff stopped the Commissioner. He put a hand on his shoulder, and said slowly: "If you get a puzzle of that sort every day, you must be a fairly busy man."
Teake was struck by the extreme significance of the mystic's tone. "Some funny business, eh?"
"Well," said Simon, "I perceive a certain Incongruity. Will you do me the favour to answer me just one question? What well-known man of high position in a foreign government did you find in that - dive, I think you called it?"
Teake was taken entirely aback. His eyes blazed. "What do you know?" he cried! "Is this a sample of this black magic of yours?"
"So the cap fits?"
"Why, Captain Nikko, naval attaché to the Cerisien Embassy, was there."
"In a dive on Tenth Avenue. Strike you as strange?"
"Not very. He was showing the sights of this little old burg to a compatriot, a Dr. Nagasaki, who has just come over from Cerisia. But how did you know?"
"I didn't know. I was only trying to find a reason for the presence of a member of one of the great imperial families of Europe. It might have been just curiosity or just vice, but the disguise was so very thorough."
"Didn't you notice his hands? Of course you did. But you didn't go on one step, as I did. Under that ten days' beard was a lip that only grows on one family face on the planet."
"And he's lost his memory?"
"If he remembers nothing else, he remembers me! I can't place him; but he knew me in a second."
"This is the most extraordinary dope!"
"So much so that I want you to tell the sergeant not to let him go; charge him straitly 'by his affection for the Archangel Michael', I think it is. Don't let him wash, or monkey with his clothes, or destroy anything. And come over with me to the Secret Service, and we'll talk."
"Well, there is a little thunder in the air, now you mention it, about the attitude of Cerisia."
"Especially in connexion with that country - not Hungary - where that - tough guy, I think you said - has his nails manicured every morning by a Duchess!"
"Aren't we taking a chance if we put any indignity on him? I've my job to think of. I don't want to catch a Tartar."
"My friend, you've caught a Tartar. And your one best bet is not to let go."
Teake gave some rather elaborate orders, and drove with Iff directly to the Headquarters of the Secret Service.
Colonel Blagden listened in silence to Iff's story. "It wouldn't do for England any more than it would for you," the magician concluded. "So I came round."
"Nikko - Nagasaki - man with a Brzoloff lip - Tenth Avenue. Hum. Washington. Excuse me." Blagden took the telephone. Ten minutes later his face was as white as his collar. "I'm coming round," he said, and called for his coat and hat.
Teake took the sergeant into a private room, but Blagden did the questioning.
"Pockets?" he snapped.
"Two hundred and three dollars, sir, four fifties and three ones; two quarters, a dime, six nickles and three pennies. An old envelope, addressed to Stefan Boluski, Hotel Tart, Cincinnati. Postmark, Boston, December twelve, noon. Hotel has no record of any such name. Pencilled accounts, in Hungarian, scribbled on back of envelope. Nothing else but a cheap pocket-knife."
"Not a thing, sir."
"Wait outside." Blagden turned to Simon Iff. "I feel we owe you a great deal; I should like to increase the debt. What do you make of it?"
"Are those accounts written in indelible pencil?"
Blagden called the sergeant, and sent him for the envelope.
"No," said he, "faint pencillings, almost rubbed out."
"May I see?" Blagden passed it over. "Done with a devilish hard pencil, about 8H, at a guess. I could rub the marks clean, and still read by the impression. He valued those accounts. An 8H pencil on a prince or a tramp strikes me as an Incongruity. Let's see. Room 25 = car 7. Where does one pay 7 cents for a carfare?"
"Nowhere - yet."
"Aha! Cigar 11. There's another funny figure. Those aren't accounts; it's the key to a cipher."
Blagden grunted angrily. "Mr. Iff," he said, "I must take you into the confidence of the Government of the United States. We have been expecting something serious in this direction for a month or more. I can't say exactly what, or how serious. But I think our man's Prince Theodor Brzoloff, who is supposed to be big game hunting in Central Asia, well out of touch with telegraphs."
"Yes, that's the man. I remember him perfectly now. I met him in the rest-house at Burzil, on the Gilgit road, ten years ago. A great traveller and a fine shot."
"A damned mischief-maker," growled Blagden. "Now there's only one reason why he should be here - to bring some kind of a paper to Nikko, a secret treaty of sorts. I see now why he's shamming amnesia. If by some impossible chance - just what's happened - he were recognized, he might be traced to his rooms, and the paper discovered."
"He's not going to take a second chance of being seen with Nikko if he can help it. He had that paper on him at the dive."
"What sort of a paper?"
"It would be a fairly long document, I imagine. Five thousand words or so, perhaps."
"It's on him. It must be on him. Suppose we have a look at those clothes ourselves?"
Blagden recalled the sergeant.
"Bring that Hungarian's clothes here. Tell him it's the regulation to have them disinfected."
The clothes arrived. Blagden began to turn them over.
"Please!" interjected Simon Iff. "The police have done all that can be done by touching them. Let us content ourselves with looking at them."
Blagden put his hands in his pockets with a smile. "Well, what do we see?"
"I see an Incongruity."
"Good. Reminds one of the personal disguise. Same trick."
"These clothes are very old, very worn, very ragged in places. They were orginally cheap but respectable. Nice dark blue. Where's the princely touch?"
'Simple Simon' tapped the lining of the coat. "The lining's new. Very high quality linen. Dark blue. Suggest litmus to me. Writing on litmus would be quite invisible. Suppose we brush it over with acid?"
"And read it in red?"
"In red - very likely." Simon Iff did not care to conceal his view of the menace implied by such extraordinary precautions.
Teake summoned an expert, who began to brush the blue lining with a pencil of soft camel's hair dipped in vinegar.
A faint rust red appeared upon the indigo of the linen. Blagden bent over.
"Good God! It's the Imperial holograph. His majesty's rescript! They've photo-lithographed the original and printed it in litmus. What perfectly beautiful work!"
Iff seemed lost in thought. "It's not in cipher, then?"
"Perfectly plain French, to begin, at least. It wouldn't be a cipher. They needed the holograph. This is an Authority; it has to be legible as his Majesty's own handwriting."
"This needs careful restoration," said the expert. "May I take it for half an hour?"
"Right," agreed Blagden. "Teake, could we have something to eat here? It may be my last chance for some time."
The Commissioner ordered a meal.
"I don't know how to thank you," said Blagden to Simon Iff, raising his cocktail, "for your miraculous solution of this mystery. My God! to think of getting on to a thing this size from - from - from literally nothing."
"You irritate me," replied Simon, in a burst of furious ill-temper, "you humiliate me. You rub it in. Oh go on! It will do me good. It will cure me of the sin of pride. Also," he added in a more reflective tone, "perhaps it may buck me up."
"I don't get you," returned Blagden, rather annoyed.
"Why, don't you see, it's all come out WRONG."
The last word was a shout. "It's too easy. There's an Incongruity - the worst kind of all the kinds - an apparent simplicity in what one knows to be most highly complex. Here, do you play chess?"
Blagden admitted it: Teake was silent.
"Well, take a chess problem by a good composer. I see - at a glance - what looks like a solution. Carefully concealed key - elegant line of play - neat mating position. But what's that Rook doing in the corner? It is not essential to our solution. Then why did the composer put it on the board? It's bad economy, and a good composer doesn't do that. Our supposed solution must be a mere 'try' - a false alarm."
"Yes," said Blagden, curiously disturbed. "Meaning what?"
"What's Nagasaki doing? He doesn't come into it at all. A man of his importance doesn't come over here to be a makeweight. Then, here's a key to a cipher which turns out not to be a cipher at all."
"I don't follow. There are plenty of explanations. An imperial rescript sent in this extraordinary form outweighs all the facts. The sun blots out the stars."
"Yes, but some of those stars are bigger than the sun."
The door opened, and the expert came back.
In his hands was the lining of the tough guy's jacket, pinned neatly to a board. The red writing showed out brilliantly. But the amazement was his face. It was one web of twinkling wrinkles; decorum was hard put to it to keep him from relapsing into the fits of laughter into which the perusal of the document had thrown him. "I'm afraid it's a hoax, sir," was all he could trust himself to say.
"What do you mean?" snapped Blagden, furious.
"It's a joke, sir. This is the production of a lunatic. I should say, sir, it's some stunt for advertising a sensational story."
His amusement overcame him for a moment; then he repressed himself with infinite embarrassment. Blagden took the board. He read with dropped jaw and eyes that seemed as if they would burst from their sockets.
The rescript began by expressing the Imperial sympathy for "the catastrophe which has recently overwhelmed the Government of the United States." It went on to say that in view of the state of anarchy prevailing in consequence of this catastrophe, of the collapse of the financial system of the country, of the revolt of the negroes in the South, and of certain lawless and disorderly elements of the population describing themselves as socialists, anarchists, working men's reform associations, and what not, his Majesty and his Government "would view without alarm any steps which might be advisably taken by the Dewan of Cerisia to restore the blessings of peace and order to the people of the United States of America."
"This," said Blagden, "is an authorization to Cerisia to invade this country - which is absurd - on the grounds of various events which haven't happened, and are not in the least likely."
"True," said Simple Simon, "to-day's the twentieth of May. We have some sixty days to stop it."
"What do you mean?"
"Nagasaki had slipped that envelope to the Prince. The figures give the date which he was to fill in when he signed it as witness to his Imperial nephew's signature. Room 25 Car 7 Cigar 11. That's July twenty-fifth. On that date those events would have occurred; but the Dewan had to have the rescript in his possession before he touched the button."
"That sounds reasonable - if you can use the word in the presence of such an atrocious plan. But, as to stopping it, it's stopped already. Wait till I pass this little document around the embassies!"
Simon Iff shook his head. "I'm afraid that would only mean war."
"It would be pretty bad," agreed Blagden. "One can't say how Cerisia would act, but the regular allies of - not Hungary - would stick to her. It would be hell."
"Hell's coming," replied Simon, "but we're not quite ready. And you are less so. Better hush this up, don't you think?"
"I must take it to the Secretary of State, in any case. He's in town; I have an appointment at three o'clock, as it happens."
"Well, sir, I must say that we are very grateful indeed to you. You have certainly done wonders."
"I never saw a puzzle solved so neatly and completely," put in Teake.
"Solved!" cried Simon Iff. "Why, the problem aroused by this incident hasn't even been stated!"
The two men stared. Blagden's tacturnity thawed into quick-firing speech.
"I don't understand! Surely, the whole thing is cleared up - the mystery explained, the villians baffled. What more do you want? Of course we shall indicate that Nikko is no more persona grata, and find a convenient reason for Nagasaki's return to his followers. Prince Theodor will get a quiet warning. Why, the whole bubble is burst."
"Ah, gentlemen," said Simple Simon, rather sadly, "I think I had better put in a little work on this matter. It is not quiet in shape to put before you; I will let you know when it is." He took a cordial farewell; but when the others left the building, they found him standing on the steps, gazing blankly into the Realm of Nowhere.
Teake thought that, as a stranger to New York, he did not know his way. "Can I help you?" he said. "What are you looking for?"
"Two men from the South in the North, and two men from the East in the West. I'm afraid you can't help me! What I really need is just brains. Do you think a fish diet would be any good?"
"What about Wale?"
Teake made a laughing retort, and passed on.
If our mystical friend Simple Simon, luckier than the great Sam Weller, had possessed a "pair of double million magnifying gas microscopes" instead of normal eyes, he might have been distracted - even he - from his concentration upon the problem by what was taking place at that moment directly in front of them, but shielded from their observation by the wall of a famous skyscraper. For in room 3715 of that building a perfectly senseless procedure was in course.
It was a very ordinary office, rented by the Society for the Relief of Indigent Immigrants. A portly and benevolent gentleman was leaning back in his chair, smoking an expensive cigar. His secretary, a Miss Wakefield, a tall woman of 40, plain and severe, was seated at her typwriter, taking the dictation of a little dried-up monkey of a man, obviously of Mongol type. He was bending toward the woman, intently. After a few minutes he rose, took his hat and coat, and left the room with a few casual words of farewell.
The fat man pulled out his watch and noted the time. He then told the woman to take some letters. Twenty minutes later her hands dropped suddenly to her lap; she turned a curious questioning gaze upon her employer. She gave a cough, then, with a sudden spasm, torrents of blood gushed from her lungs. She rose, then collalpsed upon the floor. The fat man telephoned excitedly for a doctor. As he did so he consulted his watch once more, and put it back in his pocket with a satisfied snap.
Nobody heard anything of this matter as it transpired, and Simon Iff would not have learnt even the published facts if he had not been exceedingly bored during his journey to Atlanta, Georgia. As it was, the paragraph caught his eye. It was entitled "A new disease?"
At the autopsy of Miss Wakefield one of the physicians had stated that he had never seen so complete and sudden a destruction of the tissues of the lungs. There was no trace of tuberculosis or any other known destructive agent, and the woman's health had always been perfect. On the other hand, no other possibility suggested itself. She had been in the service of the Society since its formation two years previously; she had no relatives or other enemies, and no love affairs. She enjoyed the full confidence of her employers in their very simple and very noble work, which, the writer continued, for he was hard put to it to fill his allotted space, was a perfume peculiarly grateful in the nostrils of the Great American Ideal. Its directing body was a living proof of the assimilation of diverse elements, and of their harmonious cooperation in helping to realize the Great Thought of America, the Home of the Homeless. Rakowsky, the famous Banker, was its President, a man who had landed penniless in New York twenty years before, and was now reported to be worth his two hundred millions; Broglio, the labour leader, who by tact and insight had done so much to foster friendly relations between employer and employed, and enjoyed the confidence of the working men more than any of his colleagues; and, perhaps above all, the Reverend Joshua Henderson, the emminent revivalist who stood in his own person as the symbol of the solution of the Problem of the South.
"Incongruous," mused Simon Iff; "but America is the land of incongruities."
He found further evidence to this effect on arrival at Atlanta. The friend whom he proposed to visit, a Colonel Boughey, greeted him with a stately courtesy equal to Iff's own. But his idea of after-dinner entertainment was of a kind rarely visible in those European circles where similar manners obtain. "You've run right into it," he said to his guest; "One of those damned buck niggers has been at it again, and they caught him this afternoon. To-night we'll show you how we fix things south of Mason and Dixon's line."
It was a starry night, cloudless, with a warm breeze from the south-west. Boughey, who drove his own car, pulled up on the outskirts of a village some twenty miles from Atlanta.
The scene will never fade from Simple Simon's mind. By the roadside stood a live oak, under which a bonfire was blazing. Children were gathering sticks and throwing them into the blaze. Several women were standing around, and the noise of their chatter was deafening. Masked men on horseback guarded every approach; they welcomed Boughey with sighs of delight manifest in every hearty boyish greeting. "Just in time, Colonel," cried one; "we were just getting down to business."
Simon Iff noticed of a sudden that from a bough of the great oak a naked negro was swinging by his thumbs, his feet a bare yard from the ground.
"Southern Justice, I gather?" he queried politely.
"Yes, sir, the real thing," replied Boughey.
"I am fortunate," smiled Iff; "we see none of this in Europe - or even in India."
"No, sir. I reckon this scene may be kind of painful for you," he added with strangely harmonious intuition, "but we've got to do it. I was a little squeamish myself when I first came South, forty years ago."
At this moment Iff perceived that the bonfire was full if iron bars, heated to whiteness.
"Stand back!" said a cool determined voice. "The man's my prisoner."
The speaker was a sturdy man, armed with two revolvers. With his left hand he turned back his coat, and a sheriff's badge gleamed in the light of the fire. One of the masked men approached him. "You're not sheriff in this county, are you?" he said, with equal formality.
"I protest," said the Sheriff.
"Overruled," replied the other. "Seize him, boys!"
Two other men came into the light, and laid hands on the sheriff, who drew his revolvers and emptied them into the air.
"Just a little necessary formality," explained Colonel Boughey. "He resisted desperately, see, but missed his assailants owing to the darkness, and he don't know 'em from Adam."
"Get busy!" ordered a stern voice, from somewhere in the dark. "Now, Mrs. Grant!"
A hag of fifty, bowed and wrinkled to seem eighty, leapt toward the fire. Her face was a picture of all the passions of the damned.
"The wronged woman," explained Boughey.
"Thank you," murmured Iff.
"See her avenge the honour of the Southern Woman!"
"Ah, yes. I've read about it, don't you know?"
Mrs. Grant deliberately plucked an iron bar from the furnace, and came dancing up to the tree. From her wried mouth poured a torrent of the filthiest abuse. The negro never moved or moaned. But for the light in his eyes one might have thought him already dead.
Mrs. Grant went up to him and spat upon him; then with her blazing bar she performed an unutterable mutilation.
The negro writhed. A shriek utterly ghastly and horrible burst from his throat.
Mrs. Grant, foaming at the mouth, fell upon the ground in a fit suggesting epilepsy.
"Poor woman!" said Boughey. "What she must have suffered!"
Several men ran to her aid, and carried her, now screaming and kicking, from the tree.
"Now, boys!" said the same voice as before. "First come, first serve!"
It was a scene wholly demoniacal. Even the children aped their elders, striking the negro with their fiery bars. In the lulls of the shouting one could hear the sizzling flesh. The breeze bore its reek into the nostrils of Simon Iff. For an hour the revel raged.
Suddenly a shrill whistle pierced the night.
"Beat it, boys!" cried the leader, and, emptying his Colt into the bowels of the negro, jumped into his car, and led the flight.
Boughey and his guest were a mile away from the scene when they encountered the posse sent, at a carefully calculated time, to prevent any violation of the law.
"If Josh Henderson had his way, all this would be stopped," said Boughey.
"Strange, indeed! Is the man right in his mind?"
"Well, he's a queer guy. Son of old Doc Henderson, of Memphis, Tennessee. Mother was a durned good-looking yellow girl; clever and educated and all that. Gosh! She had some pull with the doc! We had to rescue him; he was plumb crazy about her. And when Josh was born, he talked of going to Canada, and tying up to her. So, by Gosh, there was only one way out. We got her and the kid one night, and ran them over to a brothel in New Orleans. The old man went right off the handle; but when he tracked her, six months later, to a shack with 'Fanny. Come in boys' on the door, he came sane again."
"This is the Joshua Henderson who is so anxious to reconcile the negroes with their masters?"
"No masters here in America!" Boughey rebuked his guest with democratic earnestness. "The negro is a free man, sir, in these States."
"I understand," said Simon Iff, thoughtfully.
The next morning he was "Obliged to go on to St. Louis to see another friend, on his way to San Francisco;" but at the first station he changed trains, and went back to New York. He had wired Commissioner Teake to make a certain inquiry, and to meet him at the Chiliad Club for dinner, without fail, on the night of his arrival.
Commissioner Teake drank his cocktail. He then drew a slip of paper from his pocket, and pushed it over to Simon Iff. It read
"This morning," said Teake.
Iff burnt the paper in the ashtray by his chair.
"I'm utterly at a loss," remarked the Commissioner. "What do you know of these men, and why should you suspect any such transaction?"
"I have arranged for a special train to Washington," returned Iff. "We have not a moment to lose. Shall we drive down to the Pennsylvania Station? We can talk on the train."
Teake agreed; he had become an automaton. He had no idea what was going on, but he trusted Iff that it was something gigantic.
Dinner was served in the car, and Simon talked only of indifferent matters; but the waiter having withdrawn, he changed his whole manner. He became earnest, eloquent, electric; and as he proceeded, the Commissioner grew pale as death.
"I want to tell you the whole course of my investigation," said Iff. "Let me begin with my views on prophecy!" A touch of his normal lightness infected his tone for a moment.
"When a man prophesies, it is either a guess or a calculation of probabilities. Yes? Now the rulers of the world don't act on guesses. And calculations of probabilities have their limits of accuracy. Take the weather! 'It will be cold in December' is all right; nothing in that; but 'There will be a blizzard on December first which will destroy the Woolworth Building' is a specific prediction which, as it happens, nobody is in a position to make.
"Now the rescript was in the nature of such a prediction; and the question is how its author came to make it. He must have had what he thought to be absolute foreknowledge of events. Now, if I say to you, 'I shall have dinner with so-and-so next week,' you rightly judge that the matter is already arranged. The person in power has declared his will, and the event will come to pass. Now the author of the rescript has no power to cause the events which he prophesies; he must therefore have been assured that they would take place by people who have that power. Who, then, are they?
"You will remember that the rescript declares that four things have taken place.
"An anarchist outbreak. Who could arrange for that? Some leader of labour.
"A revolt among the negroes? Who has power over them as a class?
"A collapse of the financial system. Here we must look for some great banker.
"A man who could cause a 'catastrophe' to the Government of the United States. Note the word 'catastrophe'. It implies more than a mere political upheaval. I thought that it meant death. Now who is a master of death?
"I answered the fourth question easily. There was already such a man within the field of our vision. Dr. Nagasaki is the first chemist and bacteriologist in Cerisia. But the others? Evidently people already in power, in their various lines, over here.
"I had no clue. I took the hardest case first - the question of the negroes. I went South to make inquiries.
"As it happened, I was reading that murder of Miss Wakefield in the paper..."
"Murder?" gasped Teake.
"Murder. Wait a moment. I noticed - or rather, I did not notice - the name of Joshua Henderson. I went to a lynching bee on the night of my arrival in Atlanta, and - who should come up to talk but this same Joshua? My mind flew back to the Wakefield case. My friend from Georgia told me Henderson's story. He and his mother had been most foully treated by the Southern Gentlemen. Who then was this revivalist, 'the man who had awakened a million hearts,' as the paper called him? Who but a man whose whole soul must naturally be eaten up by hatred of the white man?
"And with whom is he associated in this Indigent Relief Show? With the banker and the labour leader, the very men who could fill the blanks in my equation!
"Instantly my mind began to reconstruct the situation. Prince Brzoloff is let out - without the lining of his jacket, which would tell him that the game was up. He will immediately communicate with Nikko and Nagasaki. They will have but two courses - either to throw up the sponge or advance the date of their action. I see them - in my mind's eye - desperate men in hasty conference. Nagasaki has made good on his 'mastery of death'. Miss Wakefield was merely the 'corpus vile' on whom they tried the experiment. They decide to trust Brzoloff's verbal account of the rescript or he has a copy. They decide to act. This is certain, for Rakowsky distributes the funds according to the prearranged plan, and probably sets in motion the machinery that he had prepared for causing a financial panic."
Simon Iff paused.
"But all that will take time," said Teake, with confidence. "We can arrest these men, and stop the whole business."
"Certainly," said Iff. "But our hurry is in the other matter. The efforts of these men would be in vain, and they would not take the final step unless the Government were first put out of the way. Nagasaki is probably in Washington at this moment. He had evidently some plan for wholesale murder in his mind. The date appointed proves that. Possibly the President and Cabinet dine together on July 4 or some such date. But if he can't get them together, he'll try to do it piecemeal. Remember, it's a 'new disease' - no suspicion attached to the murderer."
"I know Nagasaki's work fairly well. He did some wonderful research on leprosy. And on helium..." He suddenly rose and clapped his hand to his brow. "By Jupiter," he shouted, "I wonder if that could be it!"
He paced the car for five minutes; then returned, and sat down abruptly. "I believe I have it," he said shortly. "We must get Nagasaki without a moment's delay. But oh! if we could only catch him in the act! Can you think of an excuse to see him at once - without alarming him, you know, in case the shot misses?"
"Oh, I guess so," replied Teake after a moment's thought. "I can tell any third party that my wife's dying of beri-beri - she was in Japan, as a matter of fact, last year - and in view of his great reputation, and all that ... will that do?"
"I should think so," said Iff. "But we'll hope for the best of the luck. Heaven knows it's been with us so far! Better touch wood, I suppose."
In fact, Teake did not have to resort to any subterfuge. The servant at Captain Nikko's house, where they enquired first of all, informed them quite simply that his master had gone out with Dr. Nagasaki, only an hour before, to Mrs. Blebeney Bland's ball.
They hurried thither. A word from Teake to the hostess, whom he knew well, was enough. She led him and Iff to a curtained alcove, where, at a small occasional table, sat Nikko and Nagasaki with three ladies and the Secretary of the Navy.
Simon Iff motioned his friends back. Unperceived, he peeped through the screen.
"I am sure you do not take snuff, my Dear Mr. Secretary," Nagasaki was saying, as he held out a small jewelled box tentatively, "but no doubt you and these charming ladies will permit an old fossil his indulgence." He leaned back in his chair, and inhaled a pinch of light brown powder from between delicate finger and thumb.
"But what I should like to ask you confidentially," he went on, "is this." He leaned forward, and the Secretary unconsciously followed his example.
But Nagasaki did not speak. Simon Iff leaped on him like a terrier, wrenching his head by the hair.
"Quick, Teake!" he said, in a low intense voice. The Commissioner appeared. The Secretary had risen, intending to attack Simple Simon, whom he took for a madman. Nikko sat absolutely impassive. "Get the ladies away, sir," said Teake. "And have a few men whom you can trust to keep away intruders. Don't disturb the guests!"
"What's all this about?" said the Secretary angrily.
The Commissioner was taken aback. "My God, sir, I don't know!" he stammered at last. "But it's all right. It's a long story."
"Allow me!" said Simon. "Ah - yes! I think I can do it with a penknife." He took one from his pocket and opened it. The point of the thin blade moved gently and tentatively within the lobe of the doctor's nostril. Then Iff, with a smile, and light leverage, produced a small platinum tube.
"Let us try a little experiment," he said pleasantly. "A little of that powder, Mr. Teake, if you please, in the orifice. We then reinsert it, gentlemen, but with the valve opening in the other direction." Neither Nikko nor Nagasaki moved or spoke. "We shall now close the mouth firmly, and the free nostril."
A couple of minutes passed. When Iff perceived that the old man had drawn in his breath he released him entirely.
Nikko spoke calmly. "If this abominable farce is ended, we shall go home."
Simon Iff bowed, and stood aside. "No," said Nagasaki, still more calmly than his compatriot, "the curtain falls in fifteen minutes more. With your permission, gentlemen, let us wait in peace."
Again Simon Iff bowed. The Secretary of the Navy had been standing in annoyed and puzzled silence; now he resumed his chair.
"I have a weakness," said the doctor after a moment, "I have always wanted to know. (Very soon - perhaps - I shall know - many things.) How did you come to know, sir?"
"I did not know much," said Simon humbly and rather deferentially. "But I understood that Miss Wakefield had been murdered, probably as a mere experiment, to convince Rakowsky that you could do what you claimed. I felt that you were in that circle - owing to my analysis of a certain Imperial rescript. I looked for a means of death worthy of your genius. I needed some device sure, subtle, undetectable. I looked for some substance capable of destroying lung tissue in a swift, even a fulminating, manner. Then - I am a little ashamed - I began to imagine things. I imagined an odourless gas, intensely radioactive. Then I looked for a means of administration. That, too, must be without suspicion. Several suggestions came to me. But when I saw you take snuff, I knew the truth. You had a little muzzle-loading gun in your nostril. The warmth of the nose would volatilize the powder; all you had to do was to lean forward and breathe quietly on your victim. I interfered in the interest of Mr. Secretary here; in the interest of science, I made your experiment on yourself."
"You need not be ashamed, sir," said Nagasaki very quietly indeed; "yours is the scientific imagination." He rose and bowed; then, turning to Captain Nikko, he made a gesture of dignified farewell. "You will know," he said, "what must be done, and what report made in what quarter."
He turned to the Secretary. "This gentleman," he said with a smile, "has explained to you the causes; it is for me to demonstrate the effects."
With that he gave a slight cough. Torrents of blood gushed from his mouth; he collapsed upon the carpet.
The Secretary had risen to his feet, his face drawn and white.
"It seems, sir," he said to Simon Iff, "that I owe you my life."
"Not exactly to me, but to my very strong sense of incongruity."
Teake protested. "Mr. Iff is an incorrigible joker, sir, and this is no time for such matters. Mr. Iff has disclosed a plot of gigantic, of incredible proportions. The whole country would have been in flames, and in the hands of a remorseless invader, but for him. But excuse me - I have my duty to do, Captain Nikko. International law or no international law, you are my prisoner." Nikko bowed slightly, and followed the Commissioner.
"How - how - how - can we reward you, sir?" stammered the Secretary."
"By not connecting my name with the affair," answered Simon Iff. "I have saved your life - do you want me pilloried as a Meddlesome Matty in the next number of 'Life'?"