The two were in close conversation, a conversation that occasionally gave every evidence of bordering upon heated argument.
“I tell you,” said the man, “that I do not see what we need of the others. Why should they share with us—why divide into six portions that which you and I might have alone?”
“It takes money to carry the plan through,” she replied, “and neither you nor I have any money. They have it and they will back us with it—me for my knowledge and you for your appearance and your strength. They searched for you, Esteban, for two years, and, now that they have found you, I should not care to be in your shoes if you betrayed them. They would just as soon slit your throat as not, Esteban, if they no more than thought they couldn’t use you, now that you have all the details of their plan. But if you should try to take all the profit from them—”
She paused, shrugging her shoulders. “No, my dear, I love life too well to join you in any such conspiracy as that.”
“But I tell you, Flora, we ought to get more out of it than they want to give. You furnish all the knowledge and I take all the risk—why shouldn’t we have more than a sixth apiece?”
“Talk to them yourself, then, Esteban,” said the girl, with a shrug, “but if you will take my advice you will be satisfied with what you are offered. Not only have I the information, without which they can do nothing, but I found you into the bargain, yet I do not ask it all—I shall be perfectly satisfied with one-sixth, and I can assure you that if you do not muddle the thing, one-sixth of what you bring out will be enough for any one of us for the rest of his natural life.”
The man did not seem convinced, and the young woman had a feeling that he would bear watching. Really, she knew very little about him, and had seen him in person only a few times since her first discovery of him some two months before. upon the screen of a London cinema house in a spectacular feature in which he bad played the role of a Roman soldier of the Pretorian Guard.
Here his heroic size and perfect physique had alone entitled him to consideration, for his part was a minor one, and doubtless of all the thousands who saw him upon the silver sheet Flora Hawkes was the only one who took more than a passing interest in him, and her interest was aroused, not by his histrionic ability, but rather because for some two years she and her confederates had been searching for such a type as Esteban Miranda so admirably represented. To find him in the flesh bade fair to prove difficult of accomplishment, but after a month of seemingly fruitless searching she finally discovered him among a score of extra men at the studio of one of London’s lesser producing companies. She needed no other credentials than her good looks to form his acquaintance, and while that was ripening into intimacy she made no mention to him of the real purpose of her association with him.
That he was a Spaniard and apparently of good family was evident to her, and that he was unscrupulous was to be guessed by the celerity with which he agreed to take part in the shady transaction that had been conceived in the mind of Flora Hawkes, and the details of which had been perfected by her and her four confederates. So, therefore, knowing that he was unscrupulous, she was aware that every precaution must be taken to prevent him taking advantage of the knowledge of their plan that he must one day have in detail, the key to which she, up to the present moment, had kept entirely to herself, not even confiding it to any one of her four other confederates.
They sat for a moment in silence, toying with the empty glasses from which they had been drinking. Presently she looked up to find his gaze fixed upon her and an expression in his eyes that even a less sophisticated Woman than Flora Hawkes might readily have interpreted.
“You can make me do anything you want, Flora,” he said, “for when I am with you I forget the gold, and think only of that other reward which you continually deny me, but which one day I shall win.”
“Love and business do not mix well,” replied the girl. “Wait until you have succeeded in this work, Esteban, and then we may talk of love.”
“You do not love me,” he whispered, hoarsely. “I know—I have seen—that each of the others loves you. That is why I could hate them. And if I thought that you loved one of them, I could cut his heart out. Sometimes I have thought that you did—first one of them and then another. You are too familiar with them, Flora. I have seen John Peebles squeeze your hand when he thought no one was looking, and when you dance with Dick Throck he holds you too close and you dance cheek to cheek. I tell you I do not like it, Flora, and one of these days I shall forget all about the gold and think only of you, and then something will happen and there will not be so many to divide the ingots that I shall bring back from Africa. And Bluber and Kraski are almost as bad; perhaps Kraski is the worst of all, for he is a good-looking devil and I do not like the way in which you cast sheep’s eyes at him.”
The fire of growing anger was leaping to the girl’s eyes. With an angry gesture she silenced him.
“What business is it of yours, Senor Miranda, who I choose for my friends, or how I treat them or how they treat me? I will have you understand that I have known these men for years, while I have known you for but a few weeks, and if any has a right to dictate my behavior, which, thank God, none has, it would be one of them rather than you.”
His eyes blazed angrily.
“It is as I thought!” he cried. “You love one of them.” He half rose from the table and leaned across it toward her, menacingly. “Just let me find out which one it is and I will cut him into pieces!”
He ran his fingers through his long, black hair until it stood up on end like the mane of an angry lion. His eyes were blazing with a light that sent a chill of dread through the girl’s heart. He appeared a man temporarily bereft of reason—if he were not a maniac he most certainly looked one, and the girl was afraid and realized that she must placate him.
“Come, come, Esteban,” she whispered softly, “there is no need for working yourself into a towering rage over nothing. I have not said that I loved one of these, nor have I said that I do not love you, but I am not used to being wooed in such fashion. Perhaps your Spanish senoritas like it, but I am an English girl and if you love me treat me as an English lover would treat me.”
“You have not said that you loved one of these others—no, but on the other hand you have not said that you do not love one of them—tell me, Flora, which one of them is it that you love?”
His eyes were still blazing, and his great frame trembling with suppressed passion.
“I do not love any of them, Esteban,” she replied, “nor, as yet, do I love you. But I could, Esteban, that much I will tell you. I could love you, Esteban, as I could never love another, but I shall not permit myself to do so until after you have returned and we are free to live where and how we like. Then, maybe—but, even so, I do not promise.”
“You had better promise,” he said, sullenly, though evidently somewhat mollified. “You had better promise, Flora, for I care nothing for the gold if I may not have you also.”
“Hush,” she cautioned, “here they come now, and it is about time; they are fully a half-hour late.”
The man turned his eyes in the direction of her gaze, and the two sat watching the approach of four men who had just entered the chop-house. Two of them were evidently Englishmen—big, meaty fellows of the middle class, who looked what they really were, former pugilists; the third, Adolph Bluber, was a short, fat German, with a round, red face and a bull neck; the other, the youngest of the four, was by far the best looking. His smooth face, clear complexion, and large dark eyes might of themselves have proven sufficient grounds for Miranda’s jealousy, but supplementing these were a mop of wavy, brown hair, the figure of a Greek god and the grace of a Russian dancer, which, in truth, was what Carl Kraski was when he chose to be other than a rogue.
The girl greeted the four pleasantly, while the Spaniard vouchsafed them but a single, surly nod, as they found chairs and seated themselves at the table.
“Hale!” cried Peebles, pounding the table to attract the attention of a waiter, “let us ’ave hale.”
The suggestion met with unanimous approval, and as they waited for their drink they spoke casually of unimportant things; the heat, the circumstance that had delayed them, the trivial occurrences since they had last met; throughout which Esteban sat in sullen silence, but after the waiter had returned and they drank to Flora, with which ceremony it had long been their custom to signalize each gathering, they got down to business.
“Now,” cried Peebles, pounding the table with his meaty fist, “’ere we are, and that’s that! We ’ave everything, Flora—the plans, the money, Senor Miranda—and are jolly well ready, old dear, for your part of it.”
“How much money have you?” asked Flora. “It is going to take a lot of money, and there is no use starting unless you have plenty to carry on with.”
Peebles turned to Bluber. “There,” he said, pointing a pudgy finger at him, “is the bloomin’ treasurer. ’E can tell you ’ow much we ’ave, the fat rascal of a Dutchman.”
Bluber smiled an oily smile and rubbed his fat palms together. “Vell,” he said, “how much you t’ink, Miss Flora, ve should have?”
“Not less than two thousand pounds to be on the safe side,” she replied quickly.
“Oi! Oi!” exclaimed Bluber. “But dot is a lot of money—two t’ousand pounds. Oi! Oi!”
The girl made a gesture of disgust. “I told you in the first place that I wouldn’t have anything to do with a bunch of cheap screws, and that until you had enough money to carry the thing out properly I would not give you the maps and directions, without which you cannot hope to reach the vaults, where there is stored enough gold to buy this whole, tight, little island if half that what I have heard them say about it is true. You can go along and spend your own money, but you’ve got to show me that you have at least two thousand pounds to spend before I give up the information that will make you the richest men in the world.”
“The blighter’s got the money,” growled Throck. “Blime if I know what he’s beefin’ about.”
“He can’t help it,” growled the Russian, “it’s a racial characteristic; Bluber would try to jew down the marriage license clerk if he were going to get married.”
“Oh, vell,” sighed Bluber, “for vy should we spend more money than is necessary? If ve can do it for vone t’ousand pounds so much the better.”
“Certainly,” snapped the girl, “and if it don’t take but one thousand, that is all that you will have to spend, but you’ve got to have the two thousand in case of emergencies, and from what I have seen of that country you are likely to run up against more emergencies than anything else.”
“Oi! Oi!” cried Bluber.
“’E’s got the money all right,” said Peebles, “now let’s get busy.”
“He may have it, but I want to see it first,” replied the girl.
“Vat you t’ink; I carry all dot money around in my pocket?” cried Bluber.
“Can’t you take our word for it?” grumbled Throck.
“You’re a nice bunch of crooks to ask me that,” she replied, laughing in the face of the burly ruffians. “I’ll take Carl’s word for it, though; if he tells me that you have it, and that it is in such shape that it can, and will, be used to pay all the necessary expenses of our expedition, I will believe him.”
Peebles and Throck scowled angrily, and Miranda’s eyes closed to two narrow, nasty slits, as he directed his gaze upon the Russian. Bluber, on the contrary, was affected not at all; the more he was insulted, the better, apparently, he liked it. Toward one who treated him with consideration. or respect he would have become arrogant, while he fawned upon the hand that struck him. Kraski, alone, smiled a self-satisfied smile that set the blood of the Spaniard boiling.
“Bluber has the money, Flora,” he said; “each of us has contributed his share. We’ll make Bluber treasurer, because we know that he will squeeze the last farthing until it shrieks before he will let it escape him. It is our plan now to set out from London in pairs.”
He drew a map from his pocket, and unfolding it, spread it out upon the table before them. With his finger he indicated a point marked X. “Here we will meet and here we will equip our expedition. Bluber and Miranda will go first; then Peebles and Throck. By the time that you and I arrive everything will be in shape for moving immediately into the interior, where we shall establish a permanent camp, off the beaten track and as near our objective as possible. Miranda will disport himself behind his whiskers until he is ready to set out upon the final stage of his long journey. I understand that he is well schooled in the part that he is to play and that he can depict the character to perfection. As he will have only ignorant natives and wild beasts to deceive it should not tax his histrionic ability too greatly.” There was a veiled note of sarcasm in the soft, drawling tone that caused the black eyes of the Spaniard to gleam wickedly.
“Do I understand,” asked Miranda, his soft tone belying his angry scowl, “that you and Miss Hawkes travel alone to X?”
“You do, unless your understanding is poor,” replied the Russian.
The Spaniard half rose from the table and leaned across it menacingly toward Kraski. The girl, who was sitting next to him, seized his coat.
“None of that!” she said, dragging him back into his chair. “There has been too much of it among you already, and if there is any more I shall cut you all and seek more congenial companions for my expedition.”
“Yes, cut it out; ’ere we are, and that’s that!” exclaimed Peebles belligerently.
“John’s right,” rumbled Throck, in his deep bass, “and I’m here to back him up. Flora’s right, and I’m here to back her up. And if there is any more of it, blime if I don’t bash a couple of you pretty ’uns,” and he looked first at Miranda and then at Kraski.
“Now,” soothed Bluber, “let’s all shake hands and be good friends.”
“Right-o,” cried Peebles, “that’s the talk. Give ’im your ’and, Esteban. Come, Carl, bury the ’atchet. We can’t start in on this thing with no hanimosities, and ’ere we are, and that’s that.”
The Russian, feeling secure in his position with Flora, and therefore in a magnanimous mood, extended his hand across the table toward the Spaniard. For a moment Esteban hesitated.
“Come, man, shake!” growled Throck, “or you can go back to your job as an extra man, blime, and we’ll find someone else to do your work and divvy the swag with.”
Suddenly the dark countenance of the Spaniard was lighted by a pleasant smile. He extended his hand quickly and clasped Kraski’s. “Forgive me,” he said, “I am hot-tempered, but I mean nothing. Miss Hawkes is right, we must all be friends, and here’s my hand on it, Kraski, as far as I am concerned.”
“Good,” said Kraski, “and I am sorry if I offended you;” but he forgot that the other was an actor, and if he could have seen into the depths of that dark soul he would have shuddered.
“Und now, dot ve are all good friends,” said Bluber, rubbing his hands together unctuously, “vy not arrange for vhen ve shall commence starting to finish up everyt’ings? Miss Flora, she gives me the map und der directions und we start commencing immediately.”
“Loan me a pencil, Carl,” said the girl, and when the man had handed her one she searched out a spot upon the map some distance into the interior from X, where she drew a tiny circle. “This is O,” she said. “When we all reach here you shall have the final directions and not before.”
Bluber threw up his hands. “Oi! Miss Flora, vhat you t’ink, ve spend two t’ousand pounds to buy a pig in a poke? Oi! Oi! you vouldn’t ask us to do dot? Ve must see everyt’ing, ve must know everyt’ing, before ve spend vun farthing.”
“Yes, and ’ere we are, and that’s that!” roared John Peebles, striking the table with his fist.
The girl rose leisurely from her seat. “Oh, very well,” she said with a shrug. “If you feel that way about it we might as well call it all off.”
“Oh, vait, vait, Miss Flora,” cried Bluber, rising hurriedly. “Don’t be ogcited. But can’t you see vere ve are? Two t’ousand pounds is a lot of money, and ve are good business men. Ve shouldn’t be spending it all vit’out getting not’ings for it.”
“I am not asking you to spend it and get nothing for it,” replied the girl, tartly; “but if anyone has got to trust anyone else in this outfit, it is you who are going to trust me. If I give you all the information I have, there is nothing in the world that could prevent you from going ahead and leaving me out in the cold, and I don’t intend that that shall happen.”
“But we are not gonoffs, Miss Flora,” insisted the Jew. “Ve vould not t’ink for vun minute of cheating you.”
“You’re not angels, either, Bluber, any of you,” retorted the girl. “If you want to go ahead with this you’ve got to do it in my way, and I am going to be there at the finish to see that I get what is coming to me. You’ve taken my word for it, up to the present time, that I had the dope, and now you’ve got to take it the rest of the way or all bets are off. What good would it do me to go over into a bally jungle and suffer all the hardships that we are bound to suffer, dragging you along with me, if I were not going to be able to deliver the goods when I got there? And I am not such a softy as to think I could get away with it with a bunch of bandits like you if I tried to put anything of that kind over on you. And as long as I do play straight I feel perfectly safe, for I know that either Esteban or Carl will look after me, and I don’t know but what the rest of you would, too. Is it a go or isn’t it?”
“Vell, John, vot do you und Dick t’ink?” asked Bluber, addressing the two ex-prize-fighters. “Carl, I know he vill t’ink vhatever Flora t’inks. Hey? V’at?”
“Blime,” said Throck, “I never was much of a hand at trusting nobody unless I had to, but it looks now as though we had to trust Flora.”
“Same ’ere,” said John Peebles. “If you try any funny work, Flora—” He made a significant movement with his finger across his throat.
“I understand, John,” said the girl with a smile, “and I know that you would do it as quickly for two pounds as you would for two thousand. But you are all agreed, then, to carry on according to my plans? You too, Carl?”
The Russian nodded. “Whatever the rest say goes with me,” he remarked.
And so the gentle little coterie discussed their plans in so far as they could—each minutest detail that would be necessary to place them all at the O which the girl had drawn upon the map.