It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.
“I beg your pardon.”
A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.
She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!
“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.
He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.
“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”
“A patriotic one?”
The girl flushed.
“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”
“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”
“Because of ‘women and children first.’” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have got to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”
The girl held out her hand.
“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”
The girl smiled.
“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”
“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”
“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.
Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.
The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.
CHAPTER I. THE YOUNG ADVENTURERS, LTD.
“TOMMY, old thing!”
“Tuppence, old bean!”
The two young people greeted each other affectionately, and momentarily blocked the Dover Street Tube exit in doing so. The adjective “old” was misleading. Their united ages would certainly not have totalled forty-five.
“Not seen you for simply centuries,” continued the young man. “Where are you off to? Come and chew a bun with me. We’re getting a bit unpopular here—blocking the gangway as it were. Let’s get out of it.”
The girl assenting, they started walking down Dover Street towards Piccadilly.
“Now then,” said Tommy, “where shall we go?”
The very faint anxiety which underlay his tone did not escape the astute ears of Miss Prudence Cowley, known to her intimate friends for some mysterious reason as “Tuppence.” She pounced at once.
“Tommy, you’re stony!”
“Not a bit of it,” declared Tommy unconvincingly. “Rolling in cash.”
“You always were a shocking liar,” said Tuppence severely, “though you did once persuade Sister Greenbank that the doctor had ordered you beer as a tonic, but forgotten to write it on the chart. Do you remember?”
“I should think I did! Wasn’t the old cat in a rage when she found out? Not that she was a bad sort really, old Mother Greenbank! Good old hospital—demobbed like everything else, I suppose?”
“Yes. You too?”
“Two months ago.”
“Gratuity?” hinted Tuppence.
“No, old thing, not in riotous dissipation. No such luck! The cost of living—ordinary plain, or garden living nowadays is, I assure you, if you do not know——”
“My dear child,” interrupted Tuppence, “there is nothing I do not know about the cost of living. Here we are at Lyons’, and we will each of us pay for our own. That’s it!” And Tuppence led the way upstairs.
The place was full, and they wandered about looking for a table, catching odds and ends of conversation as they did so.
“And—do you know, she sat down and cried when I told her she couldn’t have the flat after all.” “It was simply a bargain, my dear! Just like the one Mabel Lewis brought from Paris——”
“Funny scraps one does overhear,” murmured Tommy. “I passed two Johnnies in the street to-day talking about some one called Jane Finn. Did you ever hear such a name?”
But at that moment two elderly ladies rose and collected parcels, and Tuppence deftly ensconced herself in one of the vacant seats.
Tommy ordered tea and buns. Tuppence ordered tea and buttered toast.
“And mind the tea comes in separate teapots,” she added severely.
Tommy sat down opposite her. His bared head revealed a shock of exquisitely slicked-back red hair. His face was pleasantly ugly—nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and a sportsman. His brown suit was well cut, but perilously near the end of its tether.
They were an essentially modern-looking couple as they sat there. Tuppence had no claim to beauty, but there was character and charm in the elfin lines of her little face, with its determined chin and large, wide-apart grey eyes that looked mistily out from under straight, black brows. She wore a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair, and her extremely short and rather shabby skirt revealed a pair of uncommonly dainty ankles. Her appearance presented a valiant attempt at smartness.
The tea came at last, and Tuppence, rousing herself from a fit of meditation, poured it out.
“Now then,” said Tommy, taking a large bite of bun, “let’s get up-to-date. Remember, I haven’t seen you since that time in hospital in 1916.”
“Very well.” Tuppence helped herself liberally to buttered toast. “Abridged biography of Miss Prudence Cowley, fifth daughter of Archdeacon Cowley of Little Missendell, Suffolk. Miss Cowley left the delights (and drudgeries) of her home life early in the war and came up to London, where she entered an officers’ hospital. First month: Washed up six hundred and forty-eight plates every day. Second month: Promoted to drying aforesaid plates. Third month: Promoted to peeling potatoes. Fourth month: Promoted to cutting bread and butter. Fifth month: Promoted one floor up to duties of wardmaid with mop and pail. Sixth month: Promoted to waiting at table. Seventh month: Pleasing appearance and nice manners so striking that am promoted to waiting on the Sisters! Eighth month: Slight check in career. Sister Bond ate Sister Westhaven’s egg! Grand row! Wardmaid clearly to blame! Inattention in such important matters cannot be too highly censured. Mop and pail again! How are the mighty fallen! Ninth month: Promoted to sweeping out wards, where I found a friend of my childhood in Lieutenant Thomas Beresford (bow, Tommy!), whom I had not seen for five long years. The meeting was affecting! Tenth month: Reproved by matron for visiting the pictures in company with one of the patients, namely: the aforementioned Lieutenant Thomas Beresford. Eleventh and twelfth months: Parlourmaid duties resumed with entire success. At the end of the year left hospital in a blaze of glory. After that, the talented Miss Cowley drove successively a trade delivery van, a motor-lorry and a general! The last was the pleasantest. He was quite a young general!”
“What blighter was that?” inquired Tommy. “Perfectly sickening the way those brass hats drove from the War Office to the Savoy, and from the Savoy to the War Office!”
“I’ve forgotten his name now,” confessed Tuppence. “To resume, that was in a way the apex of my career. I next entered a Government office. We had several very enjoyable tea parties. I had intended to become a land girl, a postwoman, and a bus conductress by way of rounding off my career—but the Armistice intervened! I clung to the office with the true limpet touch for many long months, but, alas, I was combed out at last. Since then I’ve been looking for a job. Now then—your turn.”
“There’s not so much promotion in mine,” said Tommy regretfully, “and a great deal less variety. I went out to France again, as you know. Then they sent me to Mesopotamia, and I got wounded for the second time, and went into hospital out there. Then I got stuck in Egypt till the Armistice happened, kicked my heels there some time longer, and, as I told you, finally got demobbed. And, for ten long, weary months I’ve been job hunting! There aren’t any jobs! And, if there were, they wouldn’t give ‘em to me. What good am I? What do I know about business? Nothing.”
Tuppence nodded gloomily.
“What about the colonies?” she suggested.
Tommy shook his head.
“I shouldn’t like the colonies—and I’m perfectly certain they wouldn’t like me!”
Again Tommy shook his head.
“Oh, Tommy, not even a great-aunt?”
“I’ve got an old uncle who’s more or less rolling, but he’s no good.”
“Wanted to adopt me once. I refused.”
“I think I remember hearing about it,” said Tuppence slowly. “You refused because of your mother——”
“Yes, it would have been a bit rough on the mater. As you know, I was all she had. Old boy hated her—wanted to get me away from her. Just a bit of spite.”
“Your mother’s dead, isn’t she?” said Tuppence gently.
Tuppence’s large grey eyes looked misty.
“You’re a good sort, Tommy. I always knew it.”
“Rot!” said Tommy hastily. “Well, that’s my position. I’m just about desperate.”
“So am I! I’ve hung out as long as I could. I’ve touted round. I’ve answered advertisements. I’ve tried every mortal blessed thing. I’ve screwed and saved and pinched! But it’s no good. I shall have to go home!”
“Don’t you want to?”
“Of course I don’t want to! What’s the good of being sentimental? Father’s a dear—I’m awfully fond of him—but you’ve no idea how I worry him! He has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts and smoking are immoral. You can imagine what a thorn in the flesh I am to him! He just heaved a sigh of relief when the war took me off. You see, there are seven of us at home. It’s awful! All housework and mothers’ meetings! I have always been the changeling. I don’t want to go back, but—oh, Tommy, what else is there to do?”
Tommy shook his head sadly. There was a silence, and then Tuppence burst out:
“Money, money, money! I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is!”
“Same here,” agreed Tommy with feeling.
“I’ve thought over every imaginable way of getting it too,” continued Tuppence. “There are only three! To be left it, to marry it, or to make it. First is ruled out. I haven’t got any rich elderly relatives. Any relatives I have are in homes for decayed gentlewomen! I always help old ladies over crossings, and pick up parcels for old gentlemen, in case they should turn out to be eccentric millionaires. But not one of them has ever asked me my name—and quite a lot never said ‘Thank you.’”
There was a pause.
“Of course,” resumed Tuppence, “marriage is my best chance. I made up my mind to marry money when I was quite young. Any thinking girl would! I’m not sentimental, you know.” She paused. “Come now, you can’t say I’m sentimental,” she added sharply.
“Certainly not,” agreed Tommy hastily. “No one would ever think of sentiment in connection with you.”
“That’s not very polite,” replied Tuppence. “But I dare say you mean it all right. Well, there it is! I’m ready and willing—but I never meet any rich men! All the boys I know are about as hard up as I am.”
“What about the general?” inquired Tommy.
“I fancy he keeps a bicycle shop in time of peace,” explained Tuppence. “No, there it is! Now you could marry a rich girl.”
“I’m like you. I don’t know any.”
“That doesn’t matter. You can always get to know one. Now, if I see a man in a fur coat come out of the Ritz I can’t rush up to him and say: ‘Look here, you’re rich. I’d like to know you.’”
“Do you suggest that I should do that to a similarly garbed female?”
“Don’t be silly. You tread on her foot, or pick up her handkerchief, or something like that. If she thinks you want to know her she’s flattered, and will manage it for you somehow.”
“You overrate my manly charms,” murmured Tommy.
“On the other hand,” proceeded Tuppence, “my millionaire would probably run for his life! No—marriage is fraught with difficulties. Remains—to make money!”
“We’ve tried that, and failed,” Tommy reminded her.
“We’ve tried all the orthodox ways, yes. But suppose we try the unorthodox. Tommy, let’s be adventurers!”
“Certainly,” replied Tommy cheerfully. “How do we begin?”
“That’s the difficulty. If we could make ourselves known, people might hire us to commit crimes for them.”
“Delightful,” commented Tommy. “Especially coming from a clergyman’s daughter!”
“The moral guilt,” Tuppence pointed out, “would be theirs—not mine. You must admit that there’s a difference between stealing a diamond necklace for yourself and being hired to steal it.”
“There wouldn’t be the least difference if you were caught!”
“Perhaps not. But I shouldn’t be caught. I’m so clever.”
“Modesty always was your besetting sin,” remarked Tommy.
“Don’t rag. Look here, Tommy, shall we really? Shall we form a business partnership?”
“Form a company for the stealing of diamond necklaces?”
“That was only an illustration. Let’s have a—what do you call it in book-keeping?”
“Don’t know. Never did any.”
“I have—but I always got mixed up, and used to put credit entries on the debit side, and vice versa—so they fired me out. Oh, I know—a joint venture! It struck me as such a romantic phrase to come across in the middle of musty old figures. It’s got an Elizabethan flavour about it—makes one think of galleons and doubloons. A joint venture!”
“Trading under the name of the Young Adventurers, Ltd.? Is that your idea, Tuppence?”
“It’s all very well to laugh, but I feel there might be something in it.”
“How do you propose to get in touch with your would-be employers?”
“Advertisement,” replied Tuppence promptly. “Have you got a bit of paper and a pencil? Men usually seem to have. Just like we have hairpins and powder-puffs.”
Tommy handed over a rather shabby green notebook, and Tuppence began writing busily.
“Shall we begin: ‘Young officer, twice wounded in the war——‘”
“Oh, very well, my dear boy. But I can assure you that that sort of thing might touch the heart of an elderly spinster, and she might adopt you, and then there would be no need for you to be a young adventurer at all.”
“I don’t want to be adopted.”
“I forgot you had a prejudice against it. I was only ragging you! The papers are full up to the brim with that type of thing. Now listen—how’s this? ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good.’ (We might as well make that clear from the start.) Then we might add: ‘No reasonable offer refused’—like flats and furniture.”
“I should think any offer we get in answer to that would be a pretty unreasonable one!”
“Tommy! You’re a genius! That’s ever so much more chic. ‘No unreasonable offer refused—if pay is good.’ How’s that?”
“I shouldn’t mention pay again. It looks rather eager.”
“It couldn’t look as eager as I feel! But perhaps you are right. Now I’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”
“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”
“It’s not half so insane as a thing I read this morning beginning ‘Petunia’ and signed ‘Best Boy.’” She tore out the leaf and handed it to Tommy. “There you are. Times, I think. Reply to Box so-and-so. I expect it will be about five shillings. Here’s half a crown for my share.”
Tommy was holding the paper thoughtfully. His faced burned a deeper red.
“Shall we really try it?” he said at last. “Shall we, Tuppence? Just for the fun of the thing?”
“Tommy, you’re a sport! I knew you would be! Let’s drink to success.” She poured some cold dregs of tea into the two cups.
“Here’s to our joint venture, and may it prosper!”
“The Young Adventurers, Ltd.!” responded Tommy.
They put down the cups and laughed rather uncertainly. Tuppence rose.
“I must return to my palatial suite at the hostel.”
“Perhaps it is time I strolled round to the Ritz,” agreed Tommy with a grin. “Where shall we meet? And when?”
“Twelve o’clock to-morrow. Piccadilly Tube station. Will that suit you?”
“My time is my own,” replied Mr. Beresford magnificently.
“So long, then.”
“Good-bye, old thing.”
The two young people went off in opposite directions. Tuppence’s hostel was situated in what was charitably called Southern Belgravia. For reasons of economy she did not take a bus.
She was half-way across St. James’s Park, when a man’s voice behind her made her start.
“Excuse me,” it said. “But may I speak to you for a moment?”
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The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie, 1922