“Hum!” said Harleston, and drummed thoughtfully on the table. Then he arose, said a word to Philippe as he passed, and went out to the elevator.
He got off at the ninth floor and walked down the corridor to No. 972. It was a corner and overlooked Pennsylvania Avenue and Fourteenth Street. He tapped lightly on the door; almost immediately it was opened by a maid—a very pretty maid, he noticed—who, without waiting for him to speak, addressed him as Monsieur Harleston and told him that Madame was expecting him.
Harleston handed the maid his hat, stick, and gloves, and crossed the private hall into the drawing-room.
As he passed the doorway, a heavy silk handkerchief was flung around his neck from behind, and instantly tightened over his larynx; at the same time his arms were pinioned to his side. He could neither make a sound nor raise a hand. He was being garroted. At his first struggle the garrote was twisted; it was be quiet or be strangled. And, queer as it may seem, his first thought was of the garroters of India and the instant helplessness of their victims. In fact, so immediate was his helplessness, that it sapped all will to be otherwise than quiescent.
“Two can play at this game, Mr. Harleston,” said a familiar voice, and Crenshaw stepped out in front. “I’m in a better humour now, and more my natural self; I was somewhat peeved in the Collingwood—due to late hours, I think. By the way, it isn’t an especially pleasant game for the fellow who is it, Mr. Harleston? I’ll take your answer for granted—or we’ll let my distinguished colleague answer for you—you know Mr. Sparrow, sir?” as the man with the garrote put his head over Harleston’s shoulder. “Answer for Mr. Harleston will you, Sparrow?”
“No, it is not, Mr. Crenshaw,” said Sparrow.
“I neglected to ask if you’re not surprised to see me, Mr. Harleston?”
“I am indeed,” said Sparrow.
“I regret that it was inconvenient for me to remain longer in your apartment, Mr. Harleston—and so I exchanged places with your detective,” Crenshaw explained.
“I’m quite content, Mr. Crenshaw,” Sparrow replied.
“Yes, certainly, and thank you, Mr. Harleston,” Crenshaw smiled. “And now, with your permission, sir, we shall inspect the contents of your pockets, to the end that we may find a certain letter that you wot of—also ourselves.”
After the first warning twist, the garrote had been relaxed just enough to permit Harleston breath sufficient for life, yet not sufficient for an outcry; moreover, he knew that at the first murmur of a yell the wrist behind him would turn and he would be throttled into unconsciousness.
There was nothing to do but be quiet and as complaisant as his captors wished, and await developments. And the irony of such a situation—happening in the most crowded and most popular hotel in the Capital, with hundreds of guests at hand, and scores of servants poised to obey one’s slightest nod—struck him with all the force of its supreme absurdity. It was but another proof of the proposition that one is never so alone as in the midst of a throng.