The Honourable Algernon Knox, Detective - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Honourable Algernon Knox, Detective ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



This is a very clever collection of linked stories by E. Phillips Oppenheim written in 1913. Algernon Knox, pretty young, dapper, seemingly silly, has failed at everything. Although wealthy, he fails when he stands for parliament. By chance he becomes involved in a blackmail against his uncle, who is a diplomat. Knox foils the plot, and a new career is born, the gentleman detective. In some ways, the young man carries out increasingly dangerous and cleaver missions against criminals and foreign spies. Haunted by the beautiful but foreign Adele de Hagon, Knox finds his career and fortunes on the rise. An enjoyable read!

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THE Honourable Algernon Knox strolled from his uncle’s house in Grosvenor Square to Piccadilly, and entered his club in a very bad temper. He summoned one of his friends to join him at the small luncheon-table which he had selected, with a gesture which was almost peremptory.

“Hullo, Algy!” his friend remarked, as he seated himself. “What’s wrong? I perceive a cloud upon your seraphic countenance.”

The Honourable Algernon laid down the menu which he had been studying. “Everything is wrong,” he declared firmly. “Look at me.”

His friend obeyed him literally. An expression of gentle sympathy overspread his features. “I am doing it, old chap,” he said. “Tell me when I can leave off. What is it you want to know?”

“Do I or do I not look like a fool?” the Honourable Algernon Knox demanded portentously.

His vis-à-vis sighed. “Without going so far as to make a definite statement, Algy,” he said, “I would yet feel inclined to swear upon my oath–that you’re not such a fool as you look.”

Algernon Knox rose deliberately to his feet and walked to a mirror at the further end of the room, where he stood for a moment as though his object were to rearrange his tie. He was a young man of not uncommon type–tall, inclined to be pale, with rather large, blue eyes, a budding brown mustache, and a forehead which certainly did recede a little, an effect which was perhaps heightened by his carefully brushed-back hair. His features might have been called pleasant, but they might also have been called vapid. There was nothing about him which denoted intellectuality.

He returned to his seat.

“Sammy,” he announced, “I am about sick of it!”

His friend, who was hungry and whose mouth was full, nodded sympathetically.

“We all feel like that sometimes,” he remarked, as soon as circumstances permitted him.

“Every one of my asinine relatives,” Algernon Knox continued, “seems to have his knife into me. I begin to think that it must be my unfortunate appearance. I have been down, as you know, into Staffordshire. Tried to get into Parliament. Not an earthly chance! Got the knock from the first start.”

“Had to read a newspaper one day in the train,” Sammy Forde confessed. “I read you weren’t exactly a hit there.”

“Nature,” Algernon Knox insisted firmly, “never meant me to stand up and address a lot of yokels and tradespeople. It never gave me the knack of explaining to them things I don’t understand myself, nor any other fellow. I suppose I made a mull of it. But what knocked me was that the newspapers on the other side, instead of attacking my politics, all the time made fun of me. They ridiculed my clothes, although I tried them in everything except my pyjamas and evening kit. They ridiculed my speeches, although I never said a word that the agent hadn’t written out for me. Then when I came back, my venerated uncle goes for me. I’ve just had it out with him. ‘In our younger days,’ he said pompously, ‘the fool of the family entered the Church. Nowadays, we can’t even get him into Parliament!’”

“Oh, that was nasty!” his friend admitted, shaking his head. “Cheerful old bluffer, your uncle.”

“I have made up my mind,” Algernon Knox declared firmly, “to treat my family–for the present, at any rate–coolly. I will take no more advice from any of them. I will not enter Parliament; I shall think no more of the diplomatic service, and if I am a fool, I am not bally fool enough to go among the sharks on the stock exchange. I will not sell wine or cigarettes, nor will I engage myself out as a gentleman chauffeur.”

Sammy Forde nodded sympathetically.

“Quite right to take a firm stand, Algy,” he agreed, “but what about your allowance? Isn’t that in your uncle’s hands until you are twenty-five?”

“It is,” Algernon Knox assented. “Furthermore, the silly old ass declared his intention this morning of reducing it by half.”

“Then what will you do?” Sammy Forde asked.

“If we should happen to meet this evening,” Algernon Knox replied, “I may tell you. I am going a little way into the country, and I am going to think.”

Samuel Forde whistled softly.

“Milan Grill-Room for supper, I suppose?”

“I am not sure,” Algernon Knox answered. “Some of these habits of ours become almost a tyranny. I may go to Imano’s.”

His friend stared at him blankly. “By Jove, Algy,” he remarked, “you are in earnest! New leaf altogether, eh?”

“You wait!” was the significant reply. . . .

“HALF an hour later, in his small one-seated motor-car, shaped like a torpedo, grey, and close-hung to the ground, Algernon Knox sped off into the country. Mile after mile the machine seemed to eat up, and all the time he sat with the steering-wheel in his hand, thinking.

“Damned hard luck on anyone,” he muttered more than once, “to have all these silly professions shoved down one’s throat because one happens to have an uncle who’s an earl and a cabinet minister, and a father who led the House of Lords! I hate politics, anyway.”

The remainder of his reflections were obscured by an incident for which he was scarcely to blame. It was on his homeward way, when he was still about thirty-five miles from London and the light was beginning to fail, that he crashed into a motor-car emerging from an avenue on the wrong side of the road. His next recollection was of coming to himself in a most charmingly furnished sitting-room, with the strangest-looking woman he had ever seen in his life bending over the easy-chair in which he was reclining.

“You are better?” she asked anxiously, speaking very slowly and with a distinctly foreign accent.

He sat up and looked around him in dazed fashion.

“You ran into my motor-car,” she explained. “My man admits that he was on the wrong side. Please do not worry. Sit here quietly for a little time. If you would like to let your friends know, there is the telephone.”

“Awfully good of you,” he said. “I don’t think I’m hurt at all.”

“I do not think that you are,” she agreed. “Perhaps–do you think that in half an hour you would be well enough to go? Your car is uninjured.”

It was not only her words but a strange sort of anxiety, traces of which he seemed to see in her face, which puzzled him. He looked at her more closely. She was intensely pale, with eyes which at first had seemed black, but which now he saw to be blue. Her eyelashes were very long, her eyebrows black and silky. Her hair was arranged in an unusual manner. At first he had thought her too thin. Now, as she bent over the easy-chair a little, he found her figure perfection. But her face puzzled him. It was like a painting he had seen somewhere.

“I’m awfully sorry if I’m in the way at all,” he faltered. “I am quite sure I’ll be able to leave in half an hour.”

"I’m awfully sorry if I’m in the way at all,” Knox faltered.”

She seemed a little troubled.

“It isn’t that I don’t want you to stop,” she murmured softly. “It’s really only for your own sake. I have some people coming down shortly. The house will be full–they might make a noise. You ought to be quiet.”

“Say the word,” he begged, “and I’ll go. Queer thing how my head buzzes. Could I have a brandy and soda, do you think?”

She pointed to a table. “You see, I had heaps of things brought in. I will mix one for you.”

He watched her at her task. Her fingers were slim and white, but, to his mind, overmanicured and overloaded with rings. As she handed him the tumbler, he suddenly changed his mind about her, as many others in the world had done before him. She was beautiful. Her lips, even if they were thin, were scarlet and shapely. Yet he knew that she was no ordinary woman. She was either very cruel or–she caught him looking at her and smiled. He decided that she was not cruel at all, and rose to his feet.

“You would like to telephone?” she asked, pointing to the instrument.

He shook his head. “May I ask your name?” he suggested.

She hesitated. “Tell me yours first?” she suggested.

“Knox–Algernon Knox. By the bye,” he added suddenly, “do you think that I look like a fool?”

She was a little startled. Then she laughed at him. When she laughed, she was charming. “Why do you ask me so foolish a question?”

“It’s like this,” he explained, sitting up. “My uncle’s got some clever sons and he’s awfully proud of them–bar, army, and Parliament, you know–all doing well. I’ve just tried to get into Parliament, and failed. They said I couldn’t speak and that I lacked intelligence. When I tried for the diplomatic service, it was about the same. They told me my appearance was against me. Seems to me there’s nothing you can do in this world unless you’ve got what they call a thoughtful face and piercing eyes.”

She laughed heartily.

“If only you had brains,” she remarked, “you could certainly make your fortune as a diplomatist. Those beautiful eyes of yours, and that gently inquiring expression....”

“Then you do think I look a fool?” he interrupted.

“To be candid,” she declared, “you do not look as though you were over-burdened with brains. You look as though you could ride and shoot, and make love to theatrical young ladies like a great many other young English gentlemen. But–”

“You needn’t go on,” he interrupted again, this time a little huffily. “By the bye, I’ve told you my name. What about yours?”

She had drawn a little back. She raised her hands suddenly above her head, her lips parted. Her poise seemed suddenly familiar. She glanced at him expectantly.

“Vera Custeneiff!” he exclaimed.

“The Princess Vera Custeneiff,” she corrected.

He made her a little bow. “Madame,” he said, “I have worshiped from a distance for a long time. I offer you my homage. Every opera-goer in London is your slave.”

She smiled. “For a foolish young man,” she murmured, “you express yourself rather well. Hush!”

Her fingers had suddenly gripped his arm. There was the sound of a motor-horn in the avenue. Something very much like fear blanched her face.

“It is my uncle, Baron Ernstoff!” she exclaimed. “He is bringing a friend down with him.”

“You wish me to go?” he suggested.

“Do you mind?” she begged. “My uncle is very sensitive about my being on the stage. He visits here only occasionally. He would dislike very much to be seen here.”

“Tell me exactly what you would like me to do and I will do it,” he promised.

There was a loud ringing at the front-door bell. Her fingers tightened upon his arm. Her agitation was unmistakable.

“Wait here, please,” she begged. “Wait here until you hear us all in the next room. Then leave the house by the front door. You will find your car in the stable-yard. And farewell!”

“It is permitted, then, never to return?” he asked, a little ruefully.

She shook her head. “I do not receive visitors, sir!”

She flashed a farewell glance at him from the door. Then she passed out into the hall. The young man steadied himself for a moment against a piece of furniture. He was still feeling a little shaken and giddy. He heard a deep voice welcoming Vera Custeneiff, a few words in a language which was strange to him, and then some reference, apparently, to a Mr. Smith, who seemed also to be present. Knox was scarcely conscious of listening. It was simply that standing there, waiting for his opportunity to depart, it was almost impossible to avoid having his attention attracted by the voices in the hall. Then suddenly he received what was certainly one of the greatest surprises he had ever had in his life. Mr. Smith spoke, and his voice was the voice of the Earl of Tamworth, cabinet minister, who, among many other social and religious distinctions, enjoyed also the privilege of being the uncle and guardian of the Honourable Algernon Knox! He was for a moment stupefied. The sense of the words he heard failed to reach him. And then, only a few feet away, the telephone bell began to ring. Almost unconsciously he took off the receiver. He had scarcely raised it to his ear, however, before the door was hastily pushed open and Vera Custeneiff entered. She reached his side with what seemed to be a single movement. She snatched the receiver from his hand.

“What do you mean?” she demanded, her eyes flashing. “How dare you!”

Knox felt the back of his head. He was still a little dizzy.

“I’m awfully sorry,” he said, “if I’ve done wrong. The beastly thing was ringing, and I was just going to answer it as though I were a servant–say I’d fetch you and that sort of thing.”

She looked at him fixedly, and her face relaxed. She smiled–he seemed so like a frightened boy.

“Close the door,” she directed. “I was an idiot.”

He obeyed promptly. It was quite impossible to avoid overhearing her conversation. After the first sentence she spoke in French, but although his accomplishments were few indeed. French had always been one of the necessities of his existence.

“Ah, yes!... At Dover, then.... Yes, I understand. You are at Dover.... No, you must not come! It is impossible.... To-night? Dear friend, how could I?”

She was silent for a moment.

“But, dear,” she said, “this is not Paris. Whom could I ask? Whom, indeed, could I trust to perform such a service? There is no one–”

She broke off in the middle of her sentence. Her eyes were fixed upon the young man, who was vainly endeavouring to appear unconscious. She looked at him fixedly, her lips parted, her eyes bright. Compared with the men whom she had in her mind, he represented the typical nincompoop. Perhaps, after all, heaven had been kind to her!

“Supposing I can,” she went on, “supposing it were possible–how could you reach Paris?... Yes?... Ah!”

She nodded several times. Once more she looked at Knox as though fascinated by something in his expression.

“Very well,” she said at last, “I will do my best.... Yes, I understand. Not the Lord Warden; the George the Third, High Street.... Very well. If it can be done, it shall be.”

She replaced the receiver. Then she turned to Knox. “Do you understand French?” she asked.

He sighed. “Jolly little,” he replied. “Queer thing, I never seemed to be any good at languages at school, and they’re no use afterwards, nowadays. One never speaks anything but English abroad.”

She laughed softly. Then she stood, for a moment, listening. She moved across the room and held open the door. From the other side of the hall came the sound of a piano.

“I have sent them into the music-room,” she whispered. “Mr. Knox, I am going to ask you a great thing. Dare I, I wonder? She looked at him strangely. Knox was conscious that her demeanor toward him had changed. She was leaning a little forward. It was the alluring Vera Custeneiff, première danseuse in the great ballet, who smiled upon him. He played swiftly up to her altered attitude.

“Dear lady,” he declared, “there isn’t anything–upon my word, there isn’t anything in the world I wouldn’t do for you. I have admired you since the first moment–”

“Yes, yes!” she interrupted. “But listen. Are you just one of these empty-headed young men who admire a woman because she has gifts; because, perhaps, she is beautiful; because she is, in her way, a personage? Or have you more character? Would you do something? Would you really do something–not easy, not pleasant–for my sake?”

“Try me,” he begged.

Once more she held open the door, for a moment, and listened. The music was still audible. “I have a friend at Dover,” she continued quickly, “a friend who, not for criminal but for political reasons, is in hiding. There is a package I want to send to him. I want him to get it to-night–or rather during the night–before morning. I want a messenger.”

“I’m your man,” he declared.

“But are you strong enough? I want some one to go quite independently, some one to go alone.”

“If my car’s all right,” he assured her, “I’ll do it.”

She held out her hands. “You mean it?”

“Upon my honour,” he promised. “When shall I start?”

“Not yet,” she whispered. “It isn’t ready yet. You must stay here and rest–not in this room. Hush!”

Once more she held open the door. The piano was silent. They could hear distinctly the voices of two men talking.

“Perhaps you had better stay here,” she decided, a little reluctantly. “There are all sorts of things to drink on the table, and cigarettes. Before you start, I will give you some dinner.”

“Couldn’t be getting along now, could I?” he suggested.

“Impossible!” she declared. “The packet isn’t ready. I want you to stay here. If you don’t mind, I want to lock the door.”

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