“Horrible!” Nigel muttered.
“Sidwell was one of those unnatural people, as you know,” Lord Dorminster went on, “who never touched wine or spirits and who hated women. To continue. Atcheson was a friend of yours, wasn’t he?”
“Of course! He was at Eton with me. It was I who first brought him here to dine. Don’t tell me that anything has happened to Jim Atcheson!”
“This dispatch is from him,” Lord Dorminster replied, indicating the pile of manuscript upon the table,—“a dispatch which came into my hands in a most marvellous fashion. He died last week in a nursing home in—well, let us say a foreign capital. The professor in charge of the hospital sends a long report as to the unhappy disease from which he suffered. As a matter of fact, he was poisoned.”
Nigel Kingley had been a soldier in his youth and he was a brave man. Nevertheless, the horror of these things struck a cold chill to his heart. He seemed suddenly to be looking into the faces of spectres, to hear the birth of the winds of destruction.
“That is all I have to say to you for the moment,” his uncle concluded gravely. “In an hour I shall have finished decoding this dispatch, and I propose then to take you into my entire confidence. In the meantime, I want you to go and talk for a few minutes to the cleverest woman in England, the woman who, in the face of a whole army of policemen and detectives, crossed the North Sea yesterday afternoon with this in her pocket.”
“You don’t mean Maggie?” Nigel exclaimed eagerly.
His uncle nodded.
“You will find her in the boudoir,” he said. “I told her that you were coming. In an hour’s time, return here.”
Lord Dorminster rose to his feet as his nephew turned to depart. He laid his hand upon the latter’s shoulder, and Nigel always remembered the grave kindliness of his tone and expression.
“Nigel,” he sighed, “I am afraid I shall be putting upon your shoulders a terrible burden, but there is no one else to whom I can turn.”
“There is no one else to whom you ought to turn, sir,” the young man replied simply. “I shall be back in an hour.”
Lady Maggie Trent, a stepdaughter of the Earl of Dorminster, was one of those young women who had baffled description for some years before she had commenced to take life seriously. She was neither fair nor dark, petite nor tall. No one could ever have called her nondescript, or have extolled any particular grace of form or feature. Her complexion had defied the ravages of sun and wind and that moderate indulgence in cigarettes and cocktails which the youth of her day affected. Her nose was inclined to be retrousse, her mouth tender but impudent, her grey eyes mostly veiled in expression but capable of wonderful changes. She was curled up in a chair when Nigel entered, immersed in a fashion paper. She held out her left hand, which he raised to his lips.