A moment later the Saint was on his knees beside Norman Kent, examining Norman’s wound expertly. Norman tried to delay him.
“Pat,” whispered Norman; “I left her hiding in your room.”
“All right. She’ll be safe there for a bit. And I’d just as soon have her out of the way while Tiny Tim’s beetling around. Let’s see what we can do for you first.”
He went on with the examination. The entrance was three inches above the knee, and it was much larger than the entrance of even a large-calibre automatic bullet should have been. There was no exit hole, and Norman let out an involuntary cry of agony at the Saint’s probing.
“That’s all, sonny boy,” said the Saint; and Norman loosened his teeth from his lips.
“Smashed the bone, hasn’t it?”
Simon stripped off his coat, and tore off the sleeve of his shirt to improvise a bandage.
“Smashed to bits, Norman, old boy,” he said. “The swine are using dum-dums. … A large whisky, Roger. . . . That’ll be a consolation for you, Norman, old warrior.”
“It’s something,” said Norman huskily.
He said nothing else about it, but he understood one thing very clearly.
No man can run very far or very fast with a thighbone splintered by an expanding bullet.
Strangely enough, Norman did not care. He drank the whisky they gave him gratefully, and submitted indifferently to the Saint’s ministrations. In the pallor of Norman Kent’s face was a strange calm.
Simon Templar also understood what that wound meant; but he did not think of it as Norman did.
He knew that Marius was standing in the window, but he did not look up until he had completed the rough dressing with practised hands that were as gentle as a woman’s. He wanted to start some hard thinking before he began to bait Marius. Once well under way, the thinking process could continue by itself underneath the inevitable froth of banter and backchat; but the Saint certainly wanted to get a stranglehold on the outstanding features of the situation first. And they were a pretty slimy set of features to have to pin down. What with Patricia on the premises to cramp his style, and Norman Kent crippled, and the British Secret Service, as represented by Captain Gerald Harding, a prisoner inside the fort on a very vague parole, and Chief Inspector Teal combing the district and liable to roll up on the scene at any moment, and Rayt Marius surrounding the bungalow with a young army corps that had already given proof enough that it wasn’t accumulated in Maidenhead for a Sunday afternoon bun-fight—well, even such an optimistic man as the Saint had to admit that the affair had begun to look distinctly sticky. There had been a time when the Saint was amused to call himself a professional trouble-hunter. He remembered that pleasant bravado now, and wondered if he had ever guessed that his prayers would be so abundantly answered. Verily, he had cast his bread upon the waters and hauled up a chain of steam bakeries. …
He rose at last to his feet with these meditations simmering down into the impenetrable depths of his mind; and his face had never been milder.
“Good-afternoon, little one,” he said softly. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you again. Life, for the last odd eighteen hours, has seemed very empty without you. But don’t let’s talk about that.”
The giant inclined his head.
“You know me,” he said.
“Yes,” said the Saint. “I think we’ve met before. I seem to know your face. Weren’t you the stern of the elephant in the circus my dear old grandmother took me to just before I went down with measles? Or were you the whatsit that stuck in the how’s-your-father and upset all our drains a couple of years ago?”
Marius shrugged. He was again wearing full morning dress, as he had been when the Saint first met him in Brook Street; but the combination of that costume with this new setting, together with the man’s colossal build and hideously rugged face, would have been laughably grotesque if it had not been subtly horrible.
He said: “I have already had some samples of your humour, Templar——”
“On a certain occasion which we all remember,” said the Saint gently. “Quite. But we don’t charge extra for an encore, so you might as well have your money’s worth.”
Marius’s little eyes took in the others—Roger Conway lounging against the bookcase swinging an automatic by the trigger-guard, Norman Kent propped up against the sofa with a glass in his hand, Gerald Harding on the other side of the window with his hands in his pockets and a faint flush on his boyish face.
“I have only just learnt that you are the gentleman who calls himself the Saint,” said Marius. “Inspector Teal was indiscreet enough to use a public telephone in the hearing of one of my men. The boxes provided are not very sound-proof. I presume this is your gang?”
“Not ‘gang,’ ” protested the Saint—”not ‘gang.’ I’m sure saints never go in gangs. But, yes—these are other wearers of the halo. . . .But I’m forgetting. You’ve never been formally introduced, have you? . . . Meet the boys. . . . On your left, for instance, Captain Acting Saint Gerald Harding, sometime Fellow of Clark’s College, canonised for many charitable works, including obtaining a miserly millionaire’s signature to a five-figure cheque for charity. The millionaire was quite annoyed when he heard about it. … Over there, Saint Roger Conway, winner of’ the Men’s Open Beauty Competition at Noahsville, Ark., in ’25, canonised for glorifying the American girl. At least, she told the judge it glorified her. . . . On the floor, Saint Norman Kent, champion beer-swiller at the last Licensed Victuallers’ and Allied Trades Centennial Jamboree, canonised for standing free drinks to a number of blind beggars on the Feast of Stephen. The beggars, by the way, were not blind until after they’d had the drinks. . . . Oh, and myself. I’m the Simple Simon who met a pieman coming through the rye. Or words to that effect. I can’t help feeling that if I’d been christened Sootlegger I should have met a bootlegger, which would have been much more exciting; but I suppose it’s too late to alter that now.”
Marius heard out this cataract of nonsense without a flicker of expression. At the end of it he said, patiently: “And Miss Holm?”
“Absent, I’m afraid,” said the Saint. “It’s my birthday, and she’s gone to Woolworth’s to buy me a present.”
“It is not of importance,” he said. “You know what I have come for?”
Simon appeared to ponder.
“Let’s see. . . . You might have come to tune the piano, only we haven’t got a piano. And if we had a mangle you might have come to mend the mangle. No—the only thing I can think of is that you’re travelling a line of straw hats and natty neckwear. Sorry, but we’re stocked for the season.”
Marius dusted his silk hat with a tenderly wielded handkerchief. His face, as always, was a mask.
Simon had to admire the nerve of the man. He still had a long score to settle with Marius, and Marius knew it; but here was Marius dispassionately dusting a silk hat in the very presence of a man who had promised to kill him. It was true that Marius came under a flag of truce, which he would justly expect a man like the Saint to respect; but still Marius gave no sign of recognising that he was in the delicate position of having to convey an ultimatum to a man who, given the flimsiest rag of excuse, would cheerfully shoot him through the stomach.
“You gain nothing by wasting time,” said Marius. “I have come in the hope of saving the lives of some of my men, for some will certainly be killed if we are forced to fight.”
“How touching!—as the actress said to the bishop. Is it possible that your conscience is haunted by the memory of the man you killed at Bures, ducky? Or is it just because funerals are so expensive these days?”
“That is my business,” he said. “Instead of considering that, you would do better to consider your own position. Every telephone line for ten miles has been cut—that was done as soon as we had definitely located you. Therefore there can be no quicker communication with London than by car. And the local police are not dangerous. Even Inspector Teal is now out of touch with his headquarters, and there is an ambush prepared for him into which he cannot help falling. In addition to that, at the nearest cross-roads on either side of this house, I have posted men in police uniforms, who will turn back any car which attempts to come this way, and who will explain away the noise of shooting to any inquisitive persons. It must be over an hour before any help can come to you—and then it can only end in your own arrest. That is, if you are still alive. And you cannot possibly hope to deceive me a second time with the bluff which you employed so successfully last night.”
“You’re sure it was a bluff?”
“If it had not been a bluff I should not have found you here. Do you really think me so ignorant of official methods as to believe that you could possibly have been released so quickly?”
“And yet,” said the Saint thoughtfully, “we might have been put here to bait a police trap—for you!”
Marius smiled. The Saint would never have believed that such a face could smile if he had not seen it smile once before. And it smiled with ghastly urbanity.
“Since Inspector Teal left London,” said Marius, “he has never been out of the sight of my agents. Therefore I have good reason to be convinced that he still does not know where you are. Shall we say, Templar, that this time you will have to think of something more tangible than—er—what was the phrase your friends used?—than breadcrumbs and breambait?”
“A charming phrase,” he murmured.
“So,” said Marius, “you may choose between surrendering Vargan or having him taken from you by force.”
The Saint smiled.
“Heads you win, tails I lose—what? . . . But suppose the coin falls on its blinkin’ edge? Suppose, sweet pet, you got pinched yourself? This isn’t Chicago, you know. You can’t run little wars of your own all over the English countryside. The farmers might get annoyed and start throwing broccoli at you. I’m not sure what broccoli is, but they might throw it.”
Again that ghastly grin flitted across the giant’s face.
“You have not understood me. My country requires Vargan and his invention. In order to obtain that, I will sacrifice as many lives as I may be forced to sacrifice; and my men will die here for their country as readily as they would die on any other battlefield.”
The Saint had been lighting a cigarette with a cool and steady hand; and for all that might have been read in the scene by an observer who could not hear the words, they might have been discussing nothing more than the terms of a not-too-friendly golf match—instead of a situation in which the fates of nations were involved. … At one moment. . . . And then the Saint split the thin crust of calm with those two electric words. The voice that spoke them was no longer the Saint’s gently mocking drawl. It was a voice of pure steel and rock and acid. It took those three simple syllables, ground and bonded a hundred knife-edges around them, fenced them about with a thousand stinging needle-points, and spoke them in a breath that might have whipped off the North Pole.
“That is what I said.”
“Has a man like you a country? Is there one acre of God’s earth that a man like you loves for no other reason than that it’s his home? Have you a loyalty to anything—except the bloated golden spiders whose webs you weave? Are there any people you can call your people—people you wouldn’t sacrifice without a qualm to put thirty pieces of silver into your pocket? Do you care for anything in the world but your own greasy god of money, Rayt Marius?”
For the first time Marius’s face changed.
“It is my country,” he said.
The Saint laughed shortly.
“Tell us any lie but that, Marius,” he said. “Because that one won’t get by.”
“But it is still my country. And the men outside lent to me by my country for this work—”
“Has it occurred to you,” said the Saint, “that we also might be prepared to die for our country—and that the certainty of being imprisoned if we were rescued might not influence us at all?”
“I have thought of that.”
“And don’t you place too great a reliance on our honesty? Is there anything to stop us forgetting the armistice and holding you as a hostage?”
Marius shook his head.
“What, then,” he said silkily, “was there to stop my coming here under a white flag to distract your attention while my men occupied the rest of the house from the other side? When the fortune of one’s country is at stake one has little time for conventional honesty. A white flag may be honoured on a battlefield, but this is more than a mere battlefield. It is all the battlefields of the war.”
Simon was teetering watchfully on his heels, his cigarette canted up between his lips. His hands hung loosely at his sides, but in each of them he held sudden death.
“You’d still be our hostage, loveliness,” he said. “And if there’s going to be any treachery——”
“My life is nothing,” said Marius. “There is a leader out there”—he gestured towards the road—”who would not hesitate to sacrifice me and many others.”
Simon Templar drew a deep breath.
“His Highness the Crown Prince Rudolf of——”
“Hell!” said the Saint.
“A short time ago you saved his life,” said Marius. “It is for that reason that His Highness has directed me to give you this chance. He also wished me to apologise for wounding you yesterday, although it happened before we knew that you were the Saint.”
“Sweetest lamb,” said the Saint, “I’ll bet you wouldn’t have obeyed His Highness if you hadn’t needed his men to do your dirty work!”
Marius spread his huge hands.
“That is immaterial. I have obeyed. And I await your decision. You may have one minute to consider it.”
Simon sent his cigarette spinning through the window with a reckless flourish.
“You have our decision now,” he said.
“If you will answer one question,” said the Saint.
“What do you want to know?”
“When you kidnapped Vargan, you couldn’t take his apparatus with you——”
“I follow your thoughts,” said the giant. “You are thinking that even if you surrender Vargan the British experts will still possess the apparatus, which they can copy even if they do not understand it. Let me disillusion you. While some of my men were taking Vargan, others were destroying his apparatus —very effectively. You may be sure that nothing was left which even Sir Roland Hale could make workable. I’m sorry to disappoint you—”
“But you don’t disappoint me, Angel Face,” said the Saint. “On the contrary, you bring me the best news I’ve had for a long time. If you weren’t so unspeakably repulsive, I believe I’d—I’d fling my arms round your bull neck, Angel Face, dear dewdrop! . . . I’d guessed I could rely on your efficiency, but it’s nice to know for certain. …”
Roger Conway interposed from the other side of the room.
He said: “Look here, Saint, if the Crown Prince is outside, we’ve only got to tell him the truth about Marius——”
“What truth?” he inquired suavely.
“Why—the truth about your septic patriotism! Tell him what we know. Tell him how you’re just leading him up the garden for your own poisonous ends——”
“And you think he would believe you?” sneered Marius. “You are too childish, Conway! Even you cannot deny that I am doing my best to place Vargan’s invention in His High-ness’s hands.”
The Saint shook his head.
“Angel Face is right, Roger,” he said. “The Crown Prince is getting his caviar, and he isn’t going to worry why the sturgeon died. No—I’ve got a much finer bead on the problem than that.”
And he faced Marius again.
“It’s really truly true, dear one, that Vargan is the key to the whole situation?” he asked softly, persuasively.
“Vargan is the really truly cream in your coffee?”
The giant twitched his shoulders.
“I do not understand all your idioms. But I think I have made myself plain.”
“I was wondering who did it,” said Roger sympathetically.
But a new smile was coming to Simon Templar’s lips—a mocking, devil-may-care, swashbuckling, Saintly smile. He set his hands on his hips and smiled.
“Then this is our answer,” smiled the Saint. “If you want Vargan, you can either come and fetch him or go home and suck jujubes. Take your choice, Angel Face!”
Marius stood still.
“Then His Highness wishes to say that he disclaims all responsibility for the consequences of your foolishness——”
It was Norman Kent, trying painfully to struggle up on to his sound leg. The Saint was beside him in a moment, with an arm about his shoulders.
“Easy, old Norman!”
Norman smiled faintly.
“I want to stand up, Simon.”
And he stood up, leaning on the Saint, and looked across at Marius. Very dark and stern and aloof he was.
“Suppose,” said Norman Kent—”suppose we said that we hadn’t got Vargan?”
“I should not believe you.”
Roger Conway cut in: “Why should we keep him? If we’d only wanted to take him away from you, he’d have been returned to the Government before now. You must know that he hasn’t been sent back. What use could we have for him?”
“You may have your own reasons. Ransom, perhaps. Your Government should be prepared to pay well for his safety——”
Norman Kent broke in with a clear, short laugh that shattered Marius’s theory more fatally than any of the words that followed could have done,
“Think again, Marius! You don’t understand us yet! . . . We took Vargan away for the sake of the peace of the world and the sparing of millions of good lives. We hoped to persuade him to turn back from the thing he proposed to do. But he was mad, and he would not listen. So this evening, for the peace of the world . . .”
He paused, and passed a hand across his eyes.
Then he drew himself erect, and his dark eyes gazed without fear into a great distance, and there was no flinching in the light in his eyes.
His voice came again, clear and strong.
“I shot him like a mad dog,” he said.
Harding started forward, but Roger Conway was barring his way in an instant.
“For the peace of the world,” Norman Kent repeated. “And—for the peace of my two dearest friends. You’ll understand, Saint. I knew at once that you’d never let Roger or me risk what that shot meant. So I took the law into my own hands. Because Pat loves you, Simon, as I do. I couldn’t let her spend the rest of her life with you under the shadow of the gallows. I love her, too, you see. I’m sorry. . . .”
“You killed Vargan?” said Marius incredulously.
Norman nodded. He was quite calm.
And, outside the window, the shadows of the trees were lengthening over the quiet garden.
“I found him writing in a notebook. He’d covered sheets and sheets. I don’t know what it was about, or whether there’s enough for an expert to work on. I’m not a scientist. But I brought them away to make sure. I’d have burnt them before, but I couldn’t find any matches. But I’ll burn them now before your eyes; and that’ll be the end of it all. Your lighter, Saint——”
He was fumbling in his pocket.
Roger Conway saw Marius’s right hand leap to his hip, and whirled round with his automatic levelled at the centre of the giant’s chest.
“Not just yet, Marius!” said Roger, through his teeth.
The Saint, when he went to support Norman, had dropped one gun into his coat pocket. Now, with one arm holding Norman, he had had to put his other gun down on the arm of the sofa while he searched for his petrol-lighter.
He had not realised that the grouping of the others had so fallen that Conway could not now cover both Harding and Marius. Just two simple movements had been enough to bring about that cataclysmic rearrangement—when Norman Kent stood up and Marius tried to draw. And Simon hadn’t noticed it. He’d confessed that he was as slow as a freight car that day, which may or may not have been true; but the fact remained that for a fraction of a second he’d allowed the razor-edge of his vigilance to be taken off. And he saw his mistake that fraction of a second too late.
Harding reached the gun on the arm of the sofa in two steps and a lightning dive; and then he had his back to the wall.
“Drop that gun, you! I give you three seconds.
Conway, moving only his head to look round, knew that the youngster could drop him in his tracks before he had time to more than begin to move his automatic. And he had no need to wonder whether the other would carry out his threat. Harding’s grim and desperate determination was sufficiently arrested by the mere fact that he had dared to make the gamble that gave him the gun and the strategic advantage at the same time. And Harding’s eyes were as set and stern as the eyes of a young man can be.
Suppose Roger chanced his arm? He’d be pipped, for a million. But would it give Simon time to draw? But Marius was ready to draw, also. . . .
Roger Conway released his gun, even as Harding had had to do not many minutes before; and he had all the sense of bitter humiliation that Harding must have had.
“Kick it over to me.”
Conway obeyed; and Harding picked up the gun, and swung two automatics in arcs that included everyone in the room.
“The honour of the British Secret Service!” drawled the Saint, with a mildness that only emphasised the biting sting of his contempt.
“The truce is over,” said Harding, dourly. “You’d do the same in my place. Bring me those papers!”
The Saint lowered Norman Kent gently; and Norman rested, half-standing, half-sitting, on the high arm of the settee. And Simon tensed himself to dice the last foolhardy throw.
Then a shadow fell on him; and he looked round and saw that the number of the congregation had been increased by one.
A tall, soldierly figure in grey stood in the opening of the window. A figure utterly immaculate and utterly at ease. . . . And- it is, of course, absurd to say that any accident of breeding makes a man stand out among his fellows; but this man could have been nothing but the man he was.
“Marius,” spoke the man in grey, and Marius turned.
“Back, Highness! For God’s sake——”
The warning was rapped out in another language, but the man in grey answered in English.
“There is no danger,” he said. “I came to see why you had overstayed your time limit.”
He walked calmly into the room, with no more than a careless glance and a lift of his fine eyebrows for Gerald Harding and Gerald Harding’s two circling guns.
And then the Saint heard a sound in the hall, beyond the door, which still stood ajar.
He reached the door in a reckless leap, and slammed it. Then he laid hold of the heavy bookcase that stood by the wall, and with a single titanic heave toppled it crashing over to fall like a great bolt across the doorway. An instant later the table from the centre of the room had followed to reinforce the bookcase.
And Simon Templar stood with his back to the pile, breathing deeply, with his head thrown back defiantly. He spoke.
“So you’re another man of honour—Highness!”
The Prince stroked his moustache with a beautifully manicured finger.
“I gave Marius a certain time in which to make my offer,” he said. “When that time was exceeded, I could only presume that you had broken the truce and detained him, and I ordered my men to enter the house. They were fortunate enough to capture a lady——”
The Saint went white.
“I say ‘fortunate’ because she was armed, and might have killed some of them, or at least raised an alarm, if they had not taken her by surprise. However, she has not been harmed. I mention the fact merely to let you see that my intrusion is not so improvident as you might otherwise think. Are you Simon Templar?”
The Prince held out his hand.
“I believe I owe you my life. I had hoped for an opportunity of making your acquaintance, but I did not expect that our meeting would be in such unpropitious circumstances. Nevertheless, Marius should have told you that I am not insensitive to the debt I owe you.”
Simon stood where he was.
“I saved your life, Prince Rudolf,” he answered, in a voice like a whip-lash, “because I had nothing against you. But now I have something against you, and I may take your life for it before the end of the day.”
The Prince shrugged delicately.
“At least,” he remarked, “while we are discussing that point, you might ask your friend to put away his weapons. They distress me.”
Captain Gerald Harding leaned comfortably against the wall, and devoted one of his distressing weapons entirely to the Prince.
“I’m not Templar’s friend,” he said. “I’m a humble member of the British Secret Service, and I was sent here to get Vargan. I didn’t arrive in time to save Vargan, but I seem to have got here in time to save something nearly as valuable. You’re late, Your Highness!”