The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Gray - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Adventures of Mr. Joseph P. Gray ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



Joseph P. Cray is an American manufacturer who has just completed a year serving coffee to the troops in France during World War 1. He is motivated by good will, and also to escape his American second wife who is the head of a temperance organization. With sybaritic glee, he returns to London, dons civilian garb, and enjoys his first cocktail. He is soon joined by his daughter, the beautiful Lady Sara Sittingbourne, who lives in London. Together the two seek „adventure” in the form of crimes foiled, jewels recovered, spies uncovered, and plots smashed. Edward Phillips Oppenheim was an English novelist, in his lifetime a major and successful writer of genre fiction including thrillers.

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I. The Donvers Case

The long Continental train drew slowly into Victoria Station, and through a long vista of wide-flung doors a heterogeneous stream of demobilised soldiers, nurses, “Wrafs,” and other of the picturesque accompaniments of a concluded war, flowed out on to the platform. The majority lingered about to exchange greetings with friends and to search for their luggage. Not so Mr. Joseph P. Cray. Before the train had come to a standstill, he was on his way to the barrier.

“Luggage, sir?” inquired a porter, attracted by the benevolent appearance of this robust-looking, middle-aged gentleman in the uniform of the American Y.M.C.A.

“Checked my baggage right through,” Mr. Cray replied, without slackening speed. “What I need is a taxi. What you need is five shillings. Let’s get together.”

Whether he was serving a lunatic or not, the five shillings was good money and the porter earned it. In exactly two minutes after the arrival of the train, Mr. Cray was on his way to the Milan Hotel. The streets were not overcrowded. The driver had seen the passing of that munificent tip and gathered that his fare was in a hurry. They reached the Milan in exactly nine minutes. Even then Mr. Cray had the strained appearance of a man looking into futurity.

He stopped the driver at the Court entrance, fulfilled the latter’s wildest dreams with regard to emolument, and presented himself eagerly before the little counter.

“Key of 89, Johnson,” he demanded. “Get a slither on.”

“Why, it’s Mr. Cray!” the hall-porter exclaimed, after a single startled gaze at the newcomer’s uniform. “Glad to see you back again, sir. Here’s your key, sent over half-an-hour ago.”

Mr. Cray snatched at it.

“Any packages?” he demanded over his shoulder, as he made for the lift.

“A whole heap of them, sir,” was the reassuring reply. “All in your room.”

Mr. Cray slipped half-a-crown into the lift-man’s hand, made pantomimic signs with his palm, and they shot upwards without reference to the slow approach of a little party of intended passengers. Out stepped Mr. Cray on the fourth floor, and his face beamed as he recognised the valet standing before number eighty-nine.

“Hot bath, James,” he shouted. “Set her going.”

“Certainly, Mr. Cray, sir,” the man replied, disappearing. “Glad to see you back again.”

“Gee, it’s good!” the new-comer exclaimed, dashing into the bedroom. “Off with the ornaments.”

No convict ever doffed his prison garb with more haste and greater joy than did Mr. Joseph P. Cray divest himself of the honourable though somewhat unsuitable garments for a man of his build which he had worn for the last two years. The absurd little tunic looked shorter still as it lay upon the bed, his cow-puncher hat more shapeless than ever, his ample breeches–they needed to be ample, for Mr. Cray’s figure was rotund–collapsed in strange fashion as they sank shamelessly upon the floor. Naked as the day on which he was born, Mr. Cray strode unabashed into the bathroom.

“Get me some clothes ready out of those packages, James,” he directed. “Bring a dressing-gown and underclothes in here. Get busy.”

Then for a quarter of an hour Mr. Cray steamed and gurgled, splashed and grunted. His ablutions completed, he dried himself, thrust his legs into some white silk pants, drew a vest to match over his chest, and trotted into the next room. He was still in a hurry.

“Dinner clothes, James,” he ordered. “Slip over a white shirt. Speed’s the one and only.”

“You’re in a hurry, Mr. Cray,” the man observed, smiling, as he handed him his garments.

“I’ve been in a hurry for twelve months,” was the feeling reply.

Ten minutes later, Mr. Cray left the room. The strained expression was still in his face. He rang for the lift, descended like a man absorbed with great thoughts, walked through the grill-room, climbed the stairs, passed through the smoke-room, and stood before the bar before he slackened speed.

“Why, it’s Mr. Cray!” one of the young ladies declared.

“Two dry Martinis in one glass,” Mr. Cray directed reverently. “Just a squeeze of lemon in, no absinthe, shake it till it froths.”

The young lady chatted as she obeyed instructions. Mr. Cray, though a polite man, appeared suddenly deaf. Presently the foaming glass was held out to him. He raised it to his lips, closed his eyes and swallowed. When he set it down, that look had passed from his face. In its place shone the light of an ineffable and beatific contentment.

“First drink in twelve months,” he explained. “Just mix up another kind of quietly, will you? I’ll sit around for a bit.”

“Mr. Cray! . . . Mr. Cray! . . . Mr. Joseph P. Cray!”

Mr. Cray, who was engaged in a lively conversation with a little group of old and new acquaintances, broke off suddenly in the midst of an animated chapter of reminiscences.

“Say, boy,” he called out, “who’s wanting me?”

The boy advanced.

“Lady to see you, sir, in the hall,” he announced.

“Have you got that right, my child?” Mr. Cray asked incredulously.

“Mr. Joseph P. Cray, to arrive from France this evening,” was the confident reply.

“That’s me, sure,” the person designated, admitted, rising to his feet and brushing the ash from his waistcoat. “See you later, boys. The next round is on me.”

Mr. Cray made his contented but wondering way into the lounge. A tall and very elegant-looking young woman rose to her feet and came to meet him. Mr. Cray’s eyes shone and his smile was wonderful.

“Sara!” he gasped. “Gee, this is great!”

“Dad!” she replied, saluting him on both cheeks. “You old dear!”

They went off arm in arm to a corner.

“To think of your being here to welcome me!” Mr. Cray murmured ecstatically.

“And why not?” the young lady replied. “If ever any one deserved a welcome home, it’s you. Twelve months’ work in a Y.M.C.A. hut in France is scarcely a holiday.”

“And never a single drink,” Mr. Cray interrupted solemnly.

“Marvellous!” she exclaimed. “But was that necessary, dad?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he admitted. “I guess they don’t all know how to use liquor as I do. Some of the lads out there get gay on nothing at all. So the day I put the uniform on, I went on the water waggon. I took it off,” he murmured, with a reminiscent smile of joy, “an hour and a half ago. . . . Where’s George?”

“Sailed for the States yesterday.”

“You don’t say!”

Sara nodded.

“He’s gone out to Washington on a Government commission. He’d have been here–sent all sorts of messages to you.”

“Not ashamed of his disreputable old father-in-law, eh?”

“Don’t be silly, dad. We’re all proud of you. George has said often that he thinks it fine of a man of your age and tastes to go and work like that. What are you going to do, dad, now?”

“Order dinner for us two, I hope, dear.”

“Just what I hoped for,” she declared. “I think it’s wonderful to have your first evening together. What are your plans dad–stay over here for a time?”

“Why, I should say so,” was the prompt reply. “You’ve heard what’s got the old country?”

“You mean about Wilson?”

“Gone dry!” Mr. Cray exclaimed, in a tone of horror. “All the bars selling soft drinks. Tea-fights at the saloons, and bad spirits at the chemist’s. That’s what the old women we left at home did while we were out fighting.”

“I’m afraid mother was one of them,” Sara observed.

“Your mother’s crazy about it,” Mr. Cray acknowledged. “She’s president of half-a-dozen prohibition societies. She’s now working the anti-tobacco stunt.”

“She doesn’t say anything about coming over, I suppose?” the young woman asked, a little timidly.

“I should say not,” Mr. Cray replied, with a little shiver. “She’s too busy over there.”

Sara slipped her hand through her father’s arm.

“We’ll have a lovely time for a month or two,” she said. “You know how happy I am with George, but this English life is just a little cramped. I suppose I must have some of your wandering spirit in me, dad. Anyhow, for just these few months let’s see a lot of one another. You’re just as fond of adventures as ever, aren’t you?”

A slow smile parted Mr. Cray’s lips, a fervid light shone in his eyes.

“Sara,” he whispered, “after the last twelve months I’m spoiling for some fun. But you, my dear–you’re Lady Sittingbourne, you know. Got your husband’s position to consider and all that.”

She laughed in his face.

“You can cut that out, dad, for a time,” she said. “Come along, now. We’ll talk over dinner. I’m nearly starving, and I want to know if you’ve forgotten how to order.”

As they took their places at a table in the corner of the restaurant, Sara exchanged friendly greetings with a girl a short distance away, who was dining alone with a man.

“Lydia Donvers,” she whispered to her father. “Lydia’s rather a dear. She was at that wonderful school you sent me to at Paris. She’s only been married a year.”

“They don’t seem to be living on a bed of roses exactly,” Mr. Cray commented, glancing at the young man. “Seems all on wires, doesn’t he? Has he had shell-shock?”

Sara shook her head.

“I don’t think he did any soldiering at all,” she replied. “He volunteered once or twice, I know, but he couldn’t pass the medical examination. He was in one of the Ministries at home.”

Cray’s interest in the couple evaporated. Without being a gourmand, he loved good cooking, civilisation, the thousand luxuries of a restaurant de luxe. He ordered his dinner as he ate it, slowly and with obvious enjoyment. Nevertheless, he happened to be looking across the room when a small page-boy in black livery approached the adjoining table and presented a note to Donvers. He saw the look in the young man’s face as he received the envelope, tore it open and glanced at the card inside. Mr. Cray forgot his dinner just then. It was as though tragedy had been brought into their midst. The young man spoke to the girl, hesitatingly, almost apologetically. She answered with pleading, at last almost with anger. Their dinner remained untasted. In the end, the man rose to his feet and followed the boy from the room. The girl stayed behind.

“Queer little scene, that,” Mr. Cray whispered.

Sara nodded.

“I can’t think what’s the matter with Lydia,” she said.

“Kind of annoyed at having their little feast broken into, I guess,” her father murmured soothingly.

Sara said nothing and for some moments her father sought and found oblivion in the slow consumption of a perfectly cooked sole colbert.

“Gee, this fellow is the goods!” he murmured appreciatively. “If you’d seen what they’ve been giving us over there, good solid tack enough, but after the first month everything tasted alike. Thought I’d got paralysis of the palate!”

“And nothing to drink, dad?”

“Not a spot,” declared Mr. Cray, with frenzied exaltation.

“I’m worried about Lydia,” Sara confided.

“She does look struck all of a heap,” Mr. Cray assented.

“I’m going across to speak to her, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure!” Mr. Cray assented, with his eye fixed almost reverently upon the grouse which the maître d’hôtel was tendering for his inspection.

“Don’t wait for me, dad,” she begged.

“I won’t,” Mr. Cray promised. . . .

Mr. Cray ate his grouse with the deliberate and fervid appreciation of the epicure, an appreciation unaffected by the fact that within a few yards his quick sensibility told him that words of tragedy were being spoken. It was obvious that Sara’s friend was confiding in her, and it was obvious that the confidence was of tragical interest. In the midst of it all, the young man who had been called away returned. He had the look of a man making a strong effort to control his feelings. Mr. Cray, who had seen much of life during the last two years, recognised the signs. Not a word was audible, but when Sara, after her friend’s husband had been presented to her, engaged him in earnest conversation, Mr. Cray began to understand.

“A little job for me,” he murmured to himself, as he sipped his champagne. “Pity about Sara’s grouse, though.”

She returned presently, and it was obvious that she had much to say. Mr. Cray was firm.

“Not a word, Sara,” he insisted, “until you have eaten your portion of grouse. Charles here has kept it hot for you. Not a word! I’m the stern father about that bird. What you’ve got to say will keep ten minutes.”

Sara obeyed. She generally obeyed when her father was in earnest. It was not until she found herself trifling with a soufflé, a dish for which her companion had no respect whatever, that she was permitted to unburden herself.

“Lydia is in great trouble, dad,” she confided. “There is something wrong with her husband. She doesn’t know what it is, but he came home, a fortnight ago, looking as though he had received a shock, and has never been the same since. This is the third time he has been fetched away from a restaurant by a page in that same livery.”

“I saw you talking to him when he came back.”

She nodded.

“I asked him right out what was the matter with him, and I told him about you, dad, told him how clever you were at getting people out of difficulties, and how you didn’t mind a little risk if there was an adventure at the back of it. I think I impressed him. He says he can promise you all the adventure you want, and they are coming here to take their coffee.”

“If this isn’t some little burg!” Mr. Cray murmured ecstatically. “Just two hours under the fogs and the wheel begins to turn!”

The arrival of Gerald Donvers and his wife, just as coffee was being served, did not seem likely to contribute in any way towards the gaiety of Mr. Cray’s evening. The young man at close quarters seemed more distraught than ever. He ignored his coffee, but drank two glasses of liqueur brandy quickly. His wife scarcely took her eyes off him, and Sara’s attempts to inaugurate a little general conversation were pitifully unsuccessful. Mr. Cray took the bull by the horns.

“Say, Mr. Donvers,” he began, “Sara here tells me that you’re up against a snag somewhere. If there’s any way I can be of service, just open out. You and I are strangers, but anything my daughter says goes, so you can count on me as though I were an old friend.”

“You are very good,” the young man replied without enthusiasm. “I am in a very terrible position–through my own fault, too. I am to attend a sort of investigation to-night, and I am invited to bring any friend I like who isn’t connected with any of the Services. If you’ll come along, I’ll be glad, but I tell you frankly that I don’t think the shrewdest man in the kingdom would be of any service to me.”

“That sounds hard,” Mr. Cray observed, “but if I’m not butting in I’ll come along, with pleasure. What time is this show down?”

“We shall have to leave in five minutes,” the young man answered, with a little shiver.

Mr. Cray withdrew the bottle from his companion’s reach.

“Take my advice and leave the strong stuff alone,” he said. “If it’s as bad as it sounds, you’ll want your head clear.”

Donvers became no more communicative in the taxicab which drove them presently to a gloomy house in one of the southern squares. They were admitted by a soldier manservant, who ushered them into a sombrely-furnished library on the ground floor. A man who was seated at a desk–a grim, soldierly-looking person in the uniform of a Colonel–glanced up at their entrance and nodded curtly. Seated in an arm-chair was a pale-faced young woman in widow’s weeds, who turned her head away at their entrance.

“You have brought a friend?” the Colonel inquired.

Donvers nodded in spiritless fashion.

“Mr. Joseph Cray–Colonel Haughton. Mr. Cray is an American and has not been in England for two years.”

Colonel Haughton touched a bell by his side.

“Show the young lady in,” he directed the soldier servant who answered it. “How much of this affair do you know, Mr. Cray?” he inquired coldly.

“Not a diddle,” was the emphatic reply. “I wanted Mr. Donvers to put me wise on the way down, but he said he’d rather leave it to you.”

Colonel Haughton made no reply. There was a knock at the door and a young woman was ushered in. She was fashionably dressed, and her face was familiar enough to any one studying the weekly papers. Mr. Cray recognised a compatriot at once. The woman in the chair glanced up at the girl and then away. Every now and then her shoulders shook. The Colonel pointed to a chair.

“Will you be seated, Miss Clare?” he said. “You gentlemen, please yourselves. I propose to recapitulate this unfortunate case for your benefit, Mr. Cray. I have my own ideas as to the course which Donvers should adopt.”

“Go right ahead,” Mr. Cray invited genially. “I’m kind of cramped in the legs with travelling to-day, so I’ll take an easy-chair if there’s no objection.”

“A year ago,” Colonel Haughton said, speaking in sentences of sharp, military brevity, “Donvers here held an appointment in a certain British Ministry. It was his duty frequently to bring dispatches of great importance to a certain branch of the War Office over which I presided. On one occasion, Donvers appears most improperly to have broken his journey at Miss Clare’s flat in Clarges Street.”

“There was no breaking the journey,” Donvers interrupted. “My instructions were to deliver the dispatches into your own hands, and when I got to the War Office you were out for an hour. I came up to have tea with Miss Clare instead of waiting in the Office.”

“Mr. Donvers left his wallet of dispatches hanging in Miss Clare’s hall,” Colonel Haughton continued, “a disgracefully careless proceeding. When he found me at the War Office that evening, he handed me two envelopes instead of three. He said nothing to me about the third, but, realising the loss, returned to Miss Clare’s and searched his own rooms. Miss Clare knew nothing about the possibly missing dispatch, Donvers could discover nothing in his rooms. In the meantime, a prisoner in the Tower was shot at midnight that night. The contents of the letter which never reached me, would have saved him.”

The woman in mourning began to sob. Donvers wiped the perspiration from his forehead.

“Say, that’s bad,” Mr. Cray admitted.

“Owing to information patriotically tendered by Miss Clare,” Colonel Haughton continued, “a constant visitor to her flat was arrested soon afterwards and dealt with in the usual way. He admitted having opened the dispatches which he found in Donvers’ wallet, and made use of their contents. The one which he could not open he took away, and finding it of no interest to his cause, destroyed it. The situation, therefore, amounts to this. Owing to the criminal carelessness of Donvers, a young American whose innocence was beyond doubt, was shot for a spy.”

The woman in mourning looked up. Her eyes flashed fiercely across the room.

“My husband!” she sobbed, “All that I had in the world!”

Donvers looked at Cray as though pleading for his intercession. Cray turned to the young woman.

“Madam,” he said, “may I ask your name?”

“Ellen Saunderson,” was the tearful reply. “My husband was Joe Saunderson. He was as innocent as you or I. The letter which never reached Colonel Haughton would have proved it.”

Mr. Cray fingered his chin thoughtfully.

“Shot for a spy, eh,” he ruminated, “and that letter contained reports which would have saved him. Say, that’s hard! Has any official notice been taken of this matter?” he continued, turning to the Colonel.

“Mr. Donvers came to me a few days later,” the Colonel said, “and confessed that he had not delivered to me one of the dispatches entrusted to him, and explained that he was not in a position to trace it. A few days later, the contents of that dispatch reached me officially. I advised Mr. Donvers to tender his resignation, which he did. Communications have passed in secrecy between a certain department of the American Secret Service and our own, concerning this unfortunate mistake. It has been decided, for obvious reasons, that it shall not be made a Press matter. The question we now have to discuss is the amount of compensation which shall be offered to Mrs. Saunderson.”

The woman turned away wearily.

“Compensation!” she murmured bitterly. “That won’t give me back Joe.”

“I regret to say,” Colonel Haughton continued, “that I am not able to procure for Mrs. Saunderson any official recompense. On the evidence presented, the shooting of Joseph Saunderson was amply justified, and it is the official view that, if recompense be tendered to the widow, a mistake is admitted which might later have serious consequences. Mr. Donvers has made an offer which Mrs. Saunderson rejected with scorn. I will be perfectly frank to all of you. My interest in this matter is to see Mrs. Saunderson receive adequate compensation, and further, in the interests of my Department, to see that this matter is forgotten. If Mrs. Saunderson is not satisfied, she will probably drag into light a matter which, not for Donvers’ sake, but for the sake of the Department, it is my wish to conceal. Mr. Donvers has offered–what was the sum, Donvers?”

“Five thousand pounds,” the young man replied. “It is half the spare money I have in the world.”

The woman turned around with a sudden burst of passion.

“You and your spare money!” she exclaimed. “Do you think your spare money, as you call will bring back Joe–the husband I lost while you stayed flirting with this hussy here?”

Miss Clare frowned, and her fingers twitched nervously.

“No shadow of blame can be attached to Miss Clare in this matter,” the Colonel intervened coldly.

“Or to any one, I suppose?” the woman scoffed. “Look here,” she went on, facing Donvers, “I don’t want your money–I’d rather work my fingers to the bone than touch a penny of it–but I want to punish you, and if you’re a poor man, so much the better. Ten thousand pounds I want from you by midday to-morrow, and if I don’t have it, my story goes to the newspapers for the world to read.”

There was a silence. Donvers turned towards his companion.

“How are you fixed financially?” Cray asked him.

“That five thousand pounds is my limit,” Donvers replied bitterly. “If I have to find the rest, it will break up the business I’ve just started and beggar me altogether.”

“And why shouldn’t you be beggared?” the woman demanded, her hands working convulsively and her eyes filled with hate. “That’s what I want. That’s why I say I’ll have ten thousand pounds to-morrow if it means your last sixpence.”

There was an uneasy silence. Mr. Cray gathered up the threads of the situation.

“It don’t seem like there’s any more to be said,” he declared. “If you’ll bring the lady along to my rooms at the Milan Court to-morrow at twelve o’clock, Colonel, I’ll go into this young man’s affairs in the meantime and give him the best advice I can.”

The colonel glanced at his engagement book.

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