THE weakest part of a man's armour is the strongest, otherwise ordinar_ortals would lack the gratifying knowledge that even great men are guilty o_oing foolish things. Without doubt Prince Abdul Agiz was one of the astutes_ubjects of the Ruler of Turkey, but Gryde, who had already formed hi_cquaintance, had discovered the weak. spot and laid his plans accordingly.
The poetic vein in Abdul Agiz' nature rendered him extremely susceptible wher_he fair sex were concerned. On a previous occasion he had enjoyed th_dvantage of a two years' residence in England, so that he was no stranger t_ur language and customs. Nor had he been here on his present mission lon_efore Cora Coventry had caught his critical eye. And when Gryde offered a_ntroduction, he accepted the offer eagerly.
The evening appointed, Gryde called round at the hotel for his friend. Severa_imes already had he been in the Prince's private room. He knew where th_recious robe lay concealed and how jealously it was guarded by Abdul Agiz'
suite. The latter received Gryde with effusion.
"You promised to tell me something about a certain charming lady," he said.
"O, yes—about Mrs. Coventry. She is not a widow, as you seem to imagine. He_usband is a distinguished Oriental scholar and diplomatist who is now on hi_ay home from the East; indeed, he may arrive at any time. Next week I coul_ardly have promised you the privilege I have managed to secure for you to- night."
"Then the lady probably is acquainted with the East as well."
"By no means," Gryde replied. "For some reason or another she detests al_ention of it. And yet, strange to say, her favourite servant is a Persia_ith only a limited knowledge of English. You may get a chance to convers_ith her. There she is."
By this time the cab had been dismissed, and Gryde and his companion wer_tanding amongst the flowers and ferns in Cora Coventry's vestibule. At th_ame moment a typical Eastern figure crossed the floor and disappeared.
"It makes one feel quite homely," Abdul Agiz muttered.
In the dimly-lighted drawing-room Cora received them. Abdul was conscious o_ome white dazzling dream floating around a pair of great liquid eyes tha_eemed to set him gasping and helpless for the time. Cora took possession o_is soul and played with it like a toy. Gryde said little—his chair was _tall, he was watching a play of his own writing. This snake and bird busines_leased him.
Then they went into dinner. It is, perhaps, sufficient to say that when Abdu_as pressed to take wine he did so. Subsequently he had no recollection o_oing anything of the kind. It was all part of the same poetic dream.
Cora rose at length. Abdul's dark eyes followed her rapturously. He remaine_n a kind of daze, till Gryde suggested a move to the drawing-room. Her_igarettes and coffee after Abdul's own heart awaited them. There was only on_rease in the glorious roseleaf; it seemed to the Oriental that Gryde wa_uperfluous.
Almost before Abdul could formulate this thought a servant entered bearin_pon a tray a telegram, which he handed to Gryde. The latter read with _esture of annoyance.
"I am afraid I shall have to leave you," he said. "My message is mos_eremptory."
Figments of the condemnatory side of the Koran came to Abdul's lips. Then h_olled in the lap of Paradise again as Cora bade him stay. Why should he g_ecause Gryde was called away? she asked. Gryde echoed the sentiment.
Then followed the most dreamy, delightful hour Abdul Agiz had ever passed i_is life. He made no attempt to stem the stream of fascination; on th_ontrary, he lay down and allowed it to flow over him.
Cora put forth all her powers. Her claims were silken; but then beauty lead_s by a single hair. Abdul never quite realised himself till he felt the coo_ight breeze on his face as he turned homeward.
He had promised to do something. What was it? The dream began to slowl_isentangle itself from its rosy intricate folds. How wonderfully seductiv_he music had been! What marvellous eyes Cora had!
O, yes, Abdul had it at last. He promised to aid and abet Cora in a delightfu_scapade. She was going alone and incognito on Thursday to a fancy dress bal_t Covent Garden. Abdul had received minute instructions as to what she wa_oing to wear. She would go unmasked, and then—
A look from the luminous eyes filled the hiatus. Would Abdul try and be there?
Might dogs defile the grave of his revered grandmother if he failed. To put i_lainly, no lunatic on the right side of Bedlam was ever more helplessly los_n love than Abdul at that moment. There was a lightness in his head, _trange elasticity of limb. The stars seem to bend and whisper of Cora to him.
A day with her was worth a cycle of Cathay—or any other place for the matte_f that. Constantinople and the Sultan's wrath, the doom of failure receded i_he roseate mist.
"Will I not be there!" Abdul murmured. "Will I not! Surely such a creatur_ever drew the breath of life… and I am not without experience. To kiss thos_ips… I suppose they have been kissed. Who knows but what I—but that i_onsense. I exist merely till Thursday—till then a clod, a vegetable."
All of which goes to prove that Abdul Agiz was very far gone indeed.
* * * * *
A thousand lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men. Very seldom had Coven_arden presented a more brilliant and attractive appearance—a trifle shoddy, perhaps, if analysed, but it does not do to be hypercritical in such matters.
Nathless, the band was perfection, a great proportion of the dresses strikin_nd original. Well-known faces looked from the boxes, a few society people o_he floor leavened the lump. Half in shadow, a tall, graceful figure in black, with startling white splashes on her dress, stood as if waiting for someone.
Her features were partially concealed in a lace shawl. A vivid smile gav_xpression to the scarlet lips.
Presently there passed by her a slightly almond-eyed foreigner. He, too, seemed on the look-out for someone. He started as he saw the magpie figure.
Despite his outward calm he thrilled to his finger tips.
"You?" he whispered, tentatively.
Cora laughed. With a caressing gesture she slipped her fingers under Abdul'_rm.
"I thought you had forsaken me," she whispered. "Shall we dance?"
But, alas! in this respect Abdul's education had been neglected. Still, s_ong as Cora graciously inclined to palmy seclusion and tender confidence, i_attered little. Abdul was annoyed presently to find it supper-time. He begge_or another few minutes, but Cora was obdurate.
"I am mortal," she said, flashing her teeth in a brilliant smile, "and you ar_nsatiable. Come! I will give you a little time afterwards, and perhaps—"
Abdul understood, or thought he did, which came to the same thing. The honie_reasure of the scarlet lips might yet be his. As for the supper, it was _ere frittering away of golden moments. Cora chattered idly, Abdul listening.
"Is not this delightful?" she said. "Gather your- Ah!"
The words seemed to be frozen on her lips, her eyes filled with terror. Som_erson or thing there seemed to fascinate Cora.
"What is it?" Abdul asked.
"Ah! You see that man, the big man with the stern face supping alone by th_ide of that oleander, yonder? Don't stare, _look_."
"I see the man. Why should you be afraid of him?"
"For the best of all possible reasons. He is my husband."
Abdul started. The climax bid fair to be a dramatic one.
"Your husband has returned unexpectedly," he said lamely.
"O, yes. That is one of his virtues, you understand. If Jasper was to discove_ had visited a place like this alone he would kill me. And yet he mus_uspect something. You cannot possibly imagine how jealous he is. And he know_his dress."
"We can escape by yonder door. Then I could get you a conveyance of—"
"And perhaps meet one of his spies in the entrance. One never knows. Jealous_mounts to a disease with my husband. But we must get out of this."
Trembling in every limb, Cora rose and hurried from the supper room, Abdu_ollowing. A brief backward glance proved the fact that the jealous one ha_oticed nothing. In a secluded corner, the darker for the contrast with th_rilliant arcs beyond, Cora sat shivering.
"What can I do for you?" Abdul asked.
"Hush!" Cora replied sharply, "I am thinking. I begin to see a way. You have _ervant somewhere. I know you never go far without one."
"My faithful Assan is even now down in the portico."
"Then bring him up at once. There will be no attempt made to prevent you, an_hen I can show you a way to save me. Go!"
Abdul turned away. He came back presently, Assan following behind.
"I am going to send your servant for a disguise," Cora explained, "only h_nderstands no English and I can write no Turkish. Is it not providential tha_ou can do it for me? You have a pencil and tablet? Good! Now write."
Cora proceeded to dictate as follows:
"There is a plot on foot to deprive me of my most valued possession. Yo_nderstand. Ask no questions, but give bearer _the_ case at once. It is on th_econd shelf in the safe in my room. I shall be with you as soon as I can."
"That is all?" Abdul asked.
"It is quite sufficient," Cora said significantly. "Had I not you to do thi_or me I know not what might have happened. Give me the paper, quick!"
She snatched it from Abdul's hands and placed it in those of the messenger.
Then she bent and whispered a word or two in the latter's ear in his ow_anguage. They were all the Turkish she knew, but they had been carefull_ehearsed
"To jour master's hotel, to Ben Ali at once," she said. "Go, slave!"
Abdul did not catch the words. He did not seek to detain his servant, bu_uffered him to go instanter. He was to return to the same spot.
"You are no longer frightened?" Abdul asked.
"Not now. You understand that I see my way clear. My husband may deem me to b_ere, but when my disguise comes I could pass him boldly if I saw hi_earching for me as I passed. And but for you, there would have been n_scape."
"What are you going to give me for a reward?" Abdul asked.
Cora held her head back with a caressing smile. Three-quarters of an hour ha_assed, and it was high time the messenger returned. Then Cora's eyes lighte_s she detected Assan threading his way through the glittering kaleidoscope.
"We are a commercial people," she said, "and pay by results. You can send i_our bill, and then—call for payment. Ah, here he is!"
Assan came forward, carrying a flat, shabby-looking case in his hand. Cor_natched the case from the messenger and bade him begone. A minute later th_ase was open, and the tiny recess filled with yards of some wonderfu_iaphanous fabric.
"This is not mine," Cora cried. "What has the fool done?"
Abdul was not slow to grasp the mystery.
"I know," he said, in thick, agitated tones. "He made a mistake; he did no_nderstand the address from you. He took the letter written by me to m_ubordinate, and the latter has sent me—Cleopatra's Robe. After all, th_istake was a natural one. Give it me; give it up at once, I say."
Cora laughed defiantly. She had already wound the priceless stuff around he_n sinuous folds like that of a snake.
"I will not," she said. "Touch me and I will bring the hoard down upon you.
You dare to threaten me when my very life, my reputation, is in danger!"
"But my master, the Sultan!"
"A fig for your master. O, I know what this is—-I read the papers. Personally, I would not give a penny a yard for it. All the same, it is going to keep m_afe till I reach the portico. You fool, follow me and all will be well."
Abdul followed hopelessly. Like a flash of light, Cora made her way to th_ortico.
"Call me a cab," she said to Abdul; "then take one yourself, and drive of_irst. Tell the man to put you down by the corner near my house. I will do th_ame, and then I will return your gaudy rag. Give me the case."
Abdul obeyed. The next twenty minutes were singularly unhappy ones He woul_ave been more unhappy still could he have been in the same cab with Cora an_atched her movements.
First of all she took from the bosom of her dress the facsimile of th_leopatra Robe as supplied to her by Gryde. This she proceeded to place in th_ase. Then the real treasure was folded up and securely hidden where the cop_ad come from. When Abdul joined Cora she handed the box to him with a smile.
"There!" she said, "nothing to make such a fuss about, after all. I have t_hank you for a perfect disguise, despite yourself. And I shall be obliged i_ou will open the box under this lamp, and make sure I have not robbed you."
One glance satisfied Abdul. When he looked up again Cora was a fleetin_hadow.
"Stop!" he cried. "When shall I see you again? I cannot—"
But the dull bang of a street-door was the one chilly response.
* * * * *
"There!" Cora was remarking a little later, as she sat opposite Gryde. "Wh_hall say I have not fulfilled your instructions to the letter? You have tha_riceless relic, and Abdul has gone off quite easy in his mind. If it is foun_ut?"
"It will not be found out," Gryde said calmly. "The imitation is to_arvellous for anyone but an expert. Abdul will return home to be bowstrung i_onsequence of the failure of his mission, and the robe will be placed in th_reasury for perhaps the next century to come. And, after all, the trick was _ery simple one."
"But the triumph of the Persian Government in the recovery of—"
"There will be no triumph. The Oriental nature is not like ours. The mer_ossession of the thing will suffice, without boasting of it. There is a dea_f miserly secretiveness in your Eastern type of man."
"You will make a deal of money out of it?" Cora asked.
"About half a million," Gryde responded, "unless those people save unnecessar_rouble by cutting my throat as a settlement in full. But they will find m_uite prepared for that kind of thing."
"You are a wonderful man," Cora said, admiringly.
Gryde smiled as he rose to go.
"Really I am," he said. "And now I must take myself off, for fear of coming i_ontact with the jealous husband. Good-night, Cora!"
"Good-night! But I shall see you again to-morrow?"
"I fear not," said Gryde. "I start early on my way for Teheran. But before _o I shall not fail to send you your share of the plunder."