DONOVAN stood at the foot of the stairs leading to the third floor until after the lights had been extinguished, then he quietly removed his shoes, placed them at one side of the stairway, and crept noiselessly upward through the darkness and the silence of the deserted upper stories.
Occasionally he paused to listen, then resumed his upward way until he came to the top floor, along the hallway of which he groped until his hands touched the thing he sought—the ladder leading to the scuttle in the roof. He climbed the ladder, feeling above him with one hand. The lid was on and still fastened upon the inside. He was glad of that, since it indicated that those he sought made no practice of using the scuttle in their comings and goings—a fact favorable to his plans, because it suggested that the conspirators would be less likely to think that he might use the scuttle.
Unlocking it—it was fastened with two ordinary hooks-and-eyes—he gently removed the lid, revealing the starry heavens of a summer night above, and clambered out upon the roof. Then he returned the lid to its place and crossed to a similar scuttle in the roof of the adjoining house. Just for an instant he hesitated beside it. Would it be locked? He prayed that it would not, then he stooped and tried it, gently at first, later with more force. Yes, it was fastened.
There was but a single way to overcome the difficulty—he kneeled and grasped the lower edge of the lid with both hands. Then, with all the strength of his legs and back he gave a mighty upward heave. There was just a momentary sound of tearing wood as the screw-eyes pulled from their seats and the lid came up in his hands—the scuttle lay open below him.
He stooped and listened at the yawning aperture, but no sound from below suggested that the noise he had made in removing the lid had aroused the inmates of the house. It had been necessary to take the chance, though he had not done so without weighing the possibilities of detection which it involved. He knew the noise that he would have to make might be loud, but it would be brief. If those he sought were in the house below, as he fully believed them to be, the chances were that they were on the second floor and if they heard the noise at all it was unreasonable to believe that they could locate it, or that they would locate it within the house. It would come down to them but very faintly, if at all—they would not attribute it to its real source, unless the upper floor was occupied, or he had been followed. Either of these were possibilities that he must face.
With a slight shrug he lowered himself through the small opening, groped with his feet for a ladder, found it, and descended to the floor below. Again he paused—listening. It was very dark—he could see nothing. He had learned this night that he was pitted against resourceful enemies who had all the advantage of knowing the ground thoroughly. That very instant someone might be watching him—in the next the flash of a pistol in the dark might put a period to his existence.
He stepped boldly forward to where he knew the stairs should be, for he surmised that this house was, more or less, a duplicate of the Thorn House next door, in which he was correct. He found the stairs and descended them to the next floor, stopping occasionally to listen, but on the whole moving rapidly. He came at last to the stairway leading to the second floor. Here he moved with greater caution—creeping downward slowly and with the utmost stealth. Below him, on the second floor, was a dimly diffused light and the subdued murmur of voices. Almost at the foot of the stairs he paused again, listening. Cautiously he leaned forward that he might gain a glimpse of the hallway to his right. Upon the opposite side of the hall, only a few feet away, a door stood slightly ajar. The room beyond was lighted and from its interior came the murmur of voices that he had heard.
Straining his ears he sought to catch the words themselves, but there came to him only a jumble of sounds. He must move closer. He wondered how long it would be before one of the occupants of the room emerged from it, or an absent one returned. In either event he would be immediately discovered, and he did not relish being discovered until he had learned what he wished to know. Drawing his pistol, he crossed the hall and stood close to the door, which was ajar about an inch. Now he could hear.
A man was speaking—the voice was coarse and uncultured. He spoke in the Assurian tongue. Young Donovan understood it well, and he was glad now that his father had insisted upon his learning it. He had never understood why so much stress had been laid upon languages in his education—he did not understand now. He merely was glad that he had learned Assurian as well as French, Spanish and German. There had been other things in his education that had seemed in a way bizarre—fencing, for example, and riding; two accomplishments that his father had insisted upon his gaining proficiency in. He had always thought it merely a strange fancy on the part of the elder Donovan that he should be master of such things, and have a better knowledge of the history of the Old World than of his own. He did not think these thoughts now—he was too intent upon listening.
“There is a traitor among us,” the man was saying.
“Or Thorn divulged the secrets of the house to others,” suggested a second voice; “that, you know, is very possible and would explain much.” At the sound of the second voice Donovan raised his eyebrows, for he recognized the tones—they belonged to Goertz.
There was some grumbling, as though of dissent from the suggestion, and then the first voice spoke again. “This girl—how long have you known her, Saranov? There is something about her that reminds me of someone else. Are you very sure of her?”
“You ought to be sure of me—I have been working with you for more than a year,” said a feminine voice. It was Nariva!
“The Committee recommended her,” came a man’s voice—Saranov’s. “Beyond that I know nothing of her. Until tonight I have had no reason to mistrust her; but now! By God, someone is double-crossing us—someone tried to kill me. She is the only one who could have had a motive.”
“What motive?” demanded the gruff voice of the first speaker.
“The fool is in love with him.”
There was a long silence and then, suddenly an exclamation from him of the coarse voice. There was the scraping of a chair on bare boards and other sounds indicative of a seated man rising excitedly to his feet. Donovan kneeled and placed an eye close to the keyhole, revealing, in the thus circumscribed range of his vision, three of the occupants of the room. Seated at a table, her back partially toward him, Nariva Saranov was nearest the door beyond which he knelt; upon the opposite side of the table from her he could see two men. One of them was Saranov, who, seated, was looking up at the man at his right—the one whom Donovan had heard rise from his chair. The latter, a coarse, heavily-bearded foreigner, leaned forward across the table and shook a trembling finger in the face of Nariva Saranov. The fellow appeared inarticulate with rage.
Donovan could not see Goertz, nor the other occupants of the room, if there were others, except a man’s hand and part of a coat sleeve resting on the table to the right of the bearded figure that faced Nariva. There might be a dozen men in the room, for aught that Macklin Donovan knew to the contrary, and he sincerely hoped that however many constituted the gang, they were all in that room—it would have been most embarrassing to have had one of them come up behind him at that moment.
He wondered what it was all about—the obviously overmastering excitement and anger of the man facing Nariva Saranov—the trembling, accusing finger—the tense silence of the others in the room. Presently the bearded one found his voice. “Spy!” he screamed. “I know you now.” He turned excitedly to the right and left toward the others in the room. “You are fools!” he cried. “We are all fools, dupes. The monarchists have tricked us nicely. Do you not know who she is? Do you not know who she is?”—his voice rose almost to a shriek, as he turned upon the girl again. He leaned so far forward that his pudgy finger almost touched her face as he pointed it at her.
“You are Semepovski’s daughter!” he cried, accusingly. “Think of it,” he exhorted the others, “the daughter of Prince Michael Semepovski, the acknowledged leader of the monarchists, admitted for more than a year to our inner circle.” He turned upon the girl again. “You deny it?” he demanded.
“Have I denied it?” she asked. Her voice was level, her mien dignified; but Donovan could see that her cheek was pale.
“You know the fate of spies?” the man continued.
The girl nodded. The man faced Saranov. “The responsibility for this is more yours than another’s,” he said. “Is it possible that there are two spies among us?”
“There may be two, Drovoff, but I am not one of them,” replied Saranov, whose facial muscles were working in nervous anger. “She tricked me, as she did all of you; but she did not try to kill any of you. She tried to kill me, the——,” he applied a foul name to her. “For the safety of the cause, she must die. Let me, then, be her executioner.”
Drovoff held up a restraining hand. “Let this thing be carried out in order,” he said. “Have you anything to say, Princess?”
“What could I say to you, Drovoff, betrayer of your emperor’s trust, murderer, exploiter of your fellow countrymen, traitor, that would influence you from the decision that you reached the instant that you recognized me? I am ready tonight, as I have always been, to die for Assuria and the empire.”
“Then die!” cried Drovoff, flushing angrily, and nodded to Saranov.
The latter rose and as he did so he drew a pistol from his pocket. The girl rose too, and stood facing them haughtily, her head high. At the same instant Macklin Donovan pushed the door aside and stepped into the room just as Saranov raised his weapon. The secret-service man fired first. Saranov grasped at his breast, slumped forward upon the table, and then slipped to the floor.
The other occupants of the room turned surprised eyes upon the intruder—there were five men and the girl. What followed happened so quickly that it could have made but a confused impression of excited words, shots, darkness and the sound of running footsteps, upon those who participated in the rapid action of the ensuing seconds.
Drovoff uttered an exclamation of surprise as his eyes fell upon Donovan.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, exultantly, “it is he!”
“Who?” demanded another—“not—?”
“Yes,” cried Drovoff—“the prince!” and then: “For Assuria! For the Republic!” he screamed, and leveled his pistol.
Donovan raised his own weapon and pulled the trigger—with no result, for the empty shell had jammed after he had shot Saranov. Simultaneously Goertz drew a gun and fired, dropping Drovoff in his tracks. Nariva leaped past Macklin to the switch beside the door and plunged the room into darkness. Someone grasped him by an arm on one side and an instant later he was seized by a second person upon the other. Drovoff was groaning. Someone cried: “Stop them! Kill them!” There was the sound of heavy shoes on bare boards, and furniture pushed about and overturned. Nariva’s voice sounded in Donovan’s ear. “Come quickly!” she urged in a whisper. “You can trust me—you must trust me!” He felt himself rushed along through the darkness, turning first this way and then that.
Suddenly he felt hands seize him from out of the darkness before, as he collided with an invisible form.
“Halt!” commanded a deep voice, and then, “I got ’em; give a hand here.” Heavy footsteps sounded, running. Then someone switched on lights and the astonished Donovan found himself in the second-floor hallway of the Thorn house, a burly policeman grappling with him, while two more came running to the assistance of the first, and on one side of him was Nariva Saranov and on the other, Goertz.
The officer who held him looked hurt. “Why didn’t ye give the countersign?” he demanded.
Terrance Donovan, leaping up the stairs from the library three at a time, came down the hall at a run. “Hang on to those two,” he ordered, indicating Goertz and the girl. “Good boy, Mackie, you got ’em! That’s the boy!”
“I didn’t get them, though,” replied young Donovan, ruefully; “they got me.”
Goertz was smiling. “You needn’t worry about us now, Lieutenant Donovan,” he said. “We won’t elude you again—there’s no more need for it.”
“I’ll say you won’t!” exclaimed Terrance Donovan; “not if I know myself, you won’t. I’ve got you, now, and I’m goin’ to keep you.”
“There’s something about this, Dad, that we don’t understand,” said Macklin. “Goertz and Miss Saranov just saved my life. But before we go into it any farther we’ve got to get the gang next door.” He turned to Goertz. “Will you show us how you get back and forth between these houses so easily and so quickly?”
“Certainly, sir,” said Goertz; “but I doubt if you will find your men now. We got the ones who counted. The other three, Petroff, Kubosk and Salitch do not count for much—they were only tools working for hire, and, as far as I know, they have committed no crimes.”
“Who in hell are you, anyway?” demanded Macklin Donovan of the butler.
“Wait until we come back from next door and I will tell you everything,” replied Goertz.
“Go ahead, then,” commanded Lieutenant Donovan, “but I’ll go with you, an’ keep a good hold on you into the bargain—you may be all right but you’re too damned slippery to suit me.”
Goertz laughed. “All right, Lieutenant, I don’t know that I can blame you,” he replied.
“Mac, you stay here and see that this woman don’t get away again,” Terrance Donovan instructed McGroarty; “the rest of you come along with us.”
Goertz led them into the room formerly occupied by Macklin. The closet door that had been locked now stood open, as the lights revealed after Goertz had switched them on. Stepping into the closet the butler took hold of a clothes-hook at the end of the closet and pushed up on it—a panel swung silently inward. Passing through the opening they found themselves in another closet, the door of which Goertz opened, leading them into a chamber corresponding with the one they had left. Here he switched on the lights, crossed the room to a door which he opened and pointed to a darkened room across the hall.
“There’s where they were,” he said. “We are in the house next door to Mr. Thorn’s.”
The police crossed the hall, entered the room and switched on the lights. Saranov’s dead body lay upon the floor, where it had fallen. With the exception of a few pieces of furniture, some of which was overturned, the room was vacant and unoccupied. Goertz appeared puzzled. He turned to Macklin Donovan.
“I thought Drovoff was mortally wounded,” he said. “I expected to find him dead.”
Donovan nodded. “The others must have helped him to get away; but they can’t be far. You’d better search the house, Dad.”
“You’ll find a trap door in the rear room of the basement,” Goertz told them, “that opens into a tunnel leading to the garage. They’ve gotten away by this time. It’s too bad we lost Drovoff—he’s the man you want.”
“Why?” demanded Lieutenant Donovan.
“It was Drovoff who murdered Mr. Thorn.”
“You boys follow up as far as the garage and then report back to the library,” the police officer instructed his men. “Mackie, we’ll take Goertz to the library now and hear his story.”