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HOME > Classical Novels > A Traitor in London > CHAPTER XVII. CHECKMATED.
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Strong man as he was, Van Zwieten reeled half-fainting against the wall. It was true--the box was gone! In a flash he realized his peril. For that box held little that was not of a highly compromising nature. Once its contents were seen by the authorities--as it would seem they must be--he would be arrested as a spy, imprisoned, perhaps hanged. No ingenuity or lying on his part could explain away the damning evidence of the papers. They spoke for themselves.

What a fool he had been not to have forwarded them to Leyds in the morning as he had intended to do. Now it was too late, and nothing remained but to fly to Pretoria and to throw in his lot openly with his employers. Useless now to think of going out as correspondent to an English newspaper, even were he able to manage his escape from London. Those in command at the front would surely be advised of his true character by the home authorities; and not only that, but he would be unmasked in a country under military law, where a spy such as he would receive but short shrift. Fly he must, and that at once. He must get to the Continent, and take ship for Delagoa Bay. The game was up in England; there remained now only the Transvaal.

After the first emotion of terror had passed, Van Zwieten collected his wits and set to work to find some way out of the difficulty. Had he been in Russia or France he would have given himself up to despair, for there the authorities were lynx-eyed and relentless. But here in England he was amongst a people so firmly wedded to their old-fashioned laws as to freedom and justice that they might fail to take the strong measures which the situation, so far as they were concerned, demanded. He would baffle these pig-headed islanders yet, and, with a courage born of despair, he set himself to the accomplishment of this design.

Mrs. Hicks, pale and tearful, had followed him into the room and had been witness of his despair. The poor woman was too much agitated to speak. This unexpected invasion of her quiet house by the police had been altogether too much for her. Van Zwieten made her sit down, and proceeded to question her. With many tears and lamentations that she had no husband to protect her, she gave him all the necessary details, and he listened with feverish anxiety to every word.

"It was about midday, Mr. Jones," said Mrs. Hicks; "yes, I will not deceive you, sir, the clock was just on twelve when I heard a ring at the door. I left Mary Anne in the kitchen and went to see who it was. There was a hansom at the door, sir, and standing on the mat there was a policeman and a lady."

"A lady?" put in Van Zwieten, looking rather puzzled, for he could not guess what woman could have interfered with his affairs. He had always kept himself clear of the sex. "What lady?"

"I don\'t rightly know her name, Mr. Jones, for, to be plain with you, she never gave it to me. She was a short lady, sir, with black hair and eyes--as black as your hat, sir."

"Dressed in mourning?" asked the Dutchman, with a sudden flash of intuition.

"As you say, sir--dressed in mourning, and beautifully made it was, too. She asked if Mr. Jones lived here, and if he was at home. I said you did lodge with me, sir, having no reason to hide it, but that you were out. The lady stepped into the passage then with the policeman."

"What was the policeman like?"

"Tall and handsome, with big black eyes and a black beard. He was something like the gentleman who came to see you last night. I beg pardon, did you speak, sir?"

But Van Zwieten had not spoken. He had uttered a groan rather of relief than otherwise. The thing was not so bad after all. In the lady he recognized the wife of Mr. Malet, though why she should have come to raid his rooms was more than he could understand. The policeman he had no difficulty in recognizing as Wilfred Burton in a new disguise. Without doubt it was he who had brought Lady Jenny Malet to the Westminster rooms. And Wilfred knew, too, of the existence of the box with its compromising contents, of which Van Zwieten himself had been foolish enough to tell him on the previous night, out of a sheer spirit of bravado--bravado which he bitterly regretted when it was too late. He swore now in his beard, at his own folly, and at Wilfred\'s daring.

However, now that he could feel tolerably sure that the authorities had nothing to do with the seizure of his papers, he felt more at ease. After all, these private enemies might be baffled, but of this he was not so sure as he had been. The several checks which had recently happened to him had made him feel less sure of himself.

"Well, Mrs. Hicks," he said, rousing himself from his meditations, "and what did these people do?"

Mrs. Hicks threw her apron over her head and moaned. "Oh, sir!" she said, in muffled tones, which came from under her apron, "they told me that you were a dangerous man, and that the Government had sent the policeman to search your rooms. The lady said she knew you well, and did not want to make a public scandal, so she had brought the policeman to do it quietly. She asked me for the key, and said if I did not give it up she would bring in a dozen more policemen--and that would have ruined me, sir!"

"And you believed her?" cried Van Zwieten, cursing her for a fool.

Mrs. Hicks whipped the apron off her head and looked at her lodger in wide-eyed amazement. "Of course I did," she said; "I\'m that afraid of the police as never was. Many a time have I feared when I saw poor Hicks--who is dead and gone--in the hands of the constables for being drunk, poor lamb! I wouldn\'t resist the police; would you, sir?

"Never mind," he said, seeing it was useless to argue with her. "You let them into my rooms, I suppose?"

"As you may guess, sir, me being a law-abiding woman, though the taxes are that heavy. Yes, sir, I took them up to your room and left them there."

"Ach! what did you do that for?"

"I could not help myself, sir. The policeman ordered me to go away, and it was not for me to disobey the law. I left them there for twenty minutes, and then I came up to see what they were doing. The policeman had gone and so had the cab, though I swear to you, Mr. Jones, that I never heard it drive away. The lady was sitting, cool as you like, at your desk there, writing."

"What was she writing?"

"That, sir, I don\'t rightly know, as she put her letter into an envelope, and here it is."

He snatched the letter Mrs. Hicks produced from her pocket, and said something not very complimentary to that good woman\'s brains. She was indignant, and would fain have argued with him, but he silenced her with a gesture, and hurriedly read the letter. As he had already guessed, the writer was Lady Jenny Malet; and she merely asked him to call at her house in Curzon Street for explanations. So she put it, somewhat ironically perhaps, and Van Zwieten swore once again--this time at the phrase. He put the letter in his pocket, determined to accept the invitation, and to have it out with this all too clever lady. Meanwhile Mrs. Hicks rose to make a speech.

"I have to give you notice, sir," she said in her most stately tones, "as I have not been in the habit of letting my rooms to folk as is wanted by the police. You will be pleased to leave this day week, which, I believe, was the agreement."

"I intend to leave this day," retorted her lodger. "I told you I was going, and I have not seen fit to alter my decision. I will send for my furniture this afternoon, and I will pay your account now."

"Thank you, sir. I shall be most obliged, and I think you should pay me extra for the disgrace you have brought on my house. Oh," wailed Mrs. Hicks, "to think I should have lodged murderers and forgers!"

Van Zwieten started at the word "murderer," but he recovered himself quickly. He dismissed her with a shrug. "Go down and make your account out," he said. "You have done mischief enough already."

"Oh, indeed!" cried the woman, shrilly. "I do like you, sir, disgracing my honest house, and then turning on me! I have been deceived in you, Mr. Jones; never again will I let my lodgings to mysterious gentlemen. And when they put you in the dock, sir, I\'ll come and see you hanged!" and with this incoherent speech Mrs. Hicks tottered out of the room.

Left alone, Van Zwieten lost no time in vain lamentation. He had been beaten by his enemies for the present; he could only wait to see if the tide of war would turn. It would be necessary to make terms with Lady Jenny and Wilfred, for they now possessed the evidences of his employment in England. But on his side he could use his knowledge of the murder and of Harold\'s connection with it--as witness the revolver--to keep them quiet. If they could bite, so could he.

Meanwhile he gathered together his personal belongings and packed them; he left the drawers of his desk empty, and he put the clothes of Mr. Jones into a large trunk. By the time Mrs. Hicks arrived with her bill he was quite ready. Nor had he left any evidence which would identify Mr. Jones of Westminster with Mr. van Zwieten of St. James\'s. Beaten he might be, but he would retreat in good order.

"This is my bill, sir," said Mrs. Hicks. "I have charged nothing for the disgrace to my house!"

"Just as well," retorted he. "You would gain nothing by that. There is the money--in cash.............
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