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Authors: John Creasey

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BOOK: A Sword For the Baron
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2
THE GIRL

 

“Are you proposing to leave the sword in the office for long, sir?” inquired Larraby.

His quiet voice carried a warning: that anything so valuable should not be left out, but should be quickly locked away. Larraby, a man of medium height, had a gentle face, a gentle expression and a great love of jewels.

“Not for long,” Mannering said. “Just for long enough.”

“I don't understand you, sir.”

“I think we're going to have another visitor,” Mannering told him.

“The young lady?”

Mannering chuckled. “So you spotted her.”

“She passed a few minutes after his lordship came, and has been walking up and down or looking in that shop ever since,” Larraby reported. “Would you like me to send one of the assistants to try to find out who she is?”

“Not yet,” Mannering said. “If she comes, keep her waiting for a few minutes.”

“Very good,” said Larraby.

He had closed the door of the office, and when he opened it Mannering saw the fiery mass of jewels inset upon the sword. It was the first time he had seen it quite like this. Gentian had brought it out of a leather sheath, so that the beauty had been revealed inch by inch. Now it lay on the desk, the point towards Mannering's portrait, the jewelled handle towards him as he went in. He stood still. Every inch of that handle and scabbard was encrusted with precious stones, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, pearls, those and a dozen lesser known stones, each with a colour and a lambent fire that made the rest of the room seem dull.

Larraby spoke, as if awed: “I have never seen anything like it, sir.”

“Very few people have,” said Mannering. “Do you recognise it from the books?”

“Isn't it a Mogul sword? Wasn't it Baber who had
two
of them made when he captured Agra?”

“Josh,” said Mannering, turning round, “you haven't got a mind, you have a photographic cell. Yes, that's it – one of the symbols of the fact that he owned most of northern India. Isn't there a story that—”

The shop door opened; the loud speaker made this sound very clear at the back of the shop. Mannering went inside. Larraby moved to his desk, and one of the new assistants approached the caller. Mannering heard a footfall or two, was almost sure that it was a woman, felt almost as certain that it was the girl who had been looking in the hat shop. He picked the sword up almost reverently, narrowing his eyes against the brilliance. Suddenly he moved it, thrusting; it was as if a river of diamonds was cascading before him. He balanced it for a few seconds, blade on one hand, hilt on the other, then took it to a smaller table in a corner. It overlapped at both ends. The jewels lost a little of their brilliance because the light was not so good there. He sat down at his desk, and switched on the talking box, which enabled him to hear anything being said by Larraby's desk. He caught the tail end of something Larraby said, and it was followed by the visitor's answer.

“Sara Gentian.”

“I will tell Mr Mannering, and I am sure that as soon as he is free he will see you.”

Sara Gentian, Mannering knew, was in a young, modern, modish set, a creature of a gossip column age. He had heard a great deal about her but never seen her.

There were a lot of personable young women in her particular group who would react badly to being told to wait. This girl simply said: “Thank you,” and waited for Larraby to speak into the talking box.

“I shall probably be ten or fifteen minutes,” Mannering told him, knowing that the girl could hear. She made no comment when Larraby passed the message on.

“If you would like to look round while you wait you will be most welcome,” Larraby invited.

Mannering took a thick leather-bound book down from a bookcase; the spine was engraved:
Great Collections.
This was for private circulation only, and there were probably only a thousand in existence. He thumbed the thin India paper, and the thicker paper of the plates until he came to
Mogul
; there were several entries. Then he came to
Mogul Victory Swords: – The.
He spent five minutes refreshing his memory about the history of the swords. After the withdrawal of the Moguls they had passed to an Indian prince, whom one of the Gentian family had once helped – and they had been a gift of gratitude treasured by the Gentians. No loss had ever been reported.

Mannering closed the book and was about to tell Larraby to bring Sara Gentian in when his telephone bell rang. He picked it up.

“Is that Quinns?” a man asked.

“Yes.”

“I want to speak to Mr Mannering.” The speaker had a deep, deliberate voice. “The matter is extremely urgent.”

“This is John Mannering.”

The speaker paused, surprised, then went on in a more urgent voice: “Mr Mannering, forgive this if it seems impertinent, but is a young lady with you? A Miss Sara Gentian.”

“No,” said Mannering.

“She isn't?”

“That is what I said,” said Mannering coldly. “Who are you and what do you want?”

After another pause, the man went on: “Mr Mannering, Miss Gentian will believe everything she says, but she is not in possession of all the facts. However persuasive she might be, will you please—”

“Who
are
you?”

“It won't help you to know who I am,” the man said. “Will you please refuse to do whatever she asks? It is extremely important. It might even be a matter of life and death. I am not exaggerating, Mr Mannering. I beg you to take me seriously.”

“If you will tell me who—” Mannering began, but stopped when he felt the line go dead. He put the receiver down very slowly, and turned to look at the sword. He got up, went to a small built-in cupboard and took out a raincoat. He draped this over the sword so that it looked as if it had been thrown down casually, and it hid the sword completely. He moved back to his desk, the bow-fronted Queen Anne piece which set the tone to the whole room. A Persian carpet of lovely but subdued colouring was flush with two walls, and showed narrow, dark oak boards at the others; there were oak panels which reached to ceiling height, and the ceiling was beautifully ornate.

He went to the door, and opened it. Larraby and the girl were halfway along the passage which led to the front door. On either side of the deep but narrow shop there were antiques, some almost priceless, all of them of great value. A light glowed, here and there, upon a painting by an old master. Other lights glowed on pieces of jewellery in small showcases. The atmosphere was exactly right for old objects – and the girl looked incongruous against it.

She could not have been more modern, more alert, more alive, more young.

The first thing Mannering noticed was her eyes; eyes the colour of gentians, so like Lord Gentian's that it was startling. Her fair hair was swept back from a broad forehead in a way that seemed careless but was undoubtedly carefully studied. She had on comparatively little make-up except at her lips, where scarlet seemed to slash. Her lips were parted as she came forward. She wore a closely knitted two-piece suit of a powder blue. Something put stars into her eyes, even in this shadowy place. Were they
too
bright?

“Mr Mannering, how good of you to see me!”

“I'm glad to,” Mannering murmured.

She didn't offer to shake hands.

“My name is Gentian – Sara Gentian.” She seemed to expect him to show surprise. “My uncle came in to see you a little while ago, I believe.”

“He did,” said Mannering.

Larraby stood just behind the girl, obviously thinking it better to allow her to make the running; and she seemed quite capable of it. Warning stirred in Mannering's mind. This girl was as full of vitality as she was of charm, and it could be a seductive vitality. She was accustomed to getting what she wanted and she used her looks to help her. She was slim, some would think almost too thin, and she made no attempt to exaggerate her figure. But he had already seen how well she moved, and how expressive her hands were.

She stood quite close to him.

“Can you spare me a little time?”

“Of course.” Mannering stood aside for her to go into the office.

Although he was behind her, he could see from the way she turned her head that she was looking for something; no doubt for the sword. Her gaze did not appear to linger on the raincoat, so perhaps that had fooled her. He pulled back the chair in which Gentian had sat, and she flashed a smile as she sat down.

Larraby closed the door.

“Mr Mannering,” Sara said, leaning forward with her hands resting lightly on the desk, “did my uncle leave something with you?”

Mannering answered mildly: “Would you ask a lawyer or a doctor to tell you what he had said to a client or a patient?”

“No. But surely this is different.”

“I don't think it's at all different,” Mannering replied. “Unless I had any reason to think that you were involved in something illegal, or—” he paused, to judge the expression in her eyes, and had no doubt that they became shadowed when he used the word “illegal” but it was not enough to make him sure that the word had any great significance – “or unless I thought it would have some harmful effect, I wouldn't tell your uncle anything about this conversation.”

“It wouldn't matter if you did.” She leaned still further towards him. Her hands moved, too, and her fingers rested lightly on the back of Mannering's hand. “Please tell me.”

“Convince me that I ought to,” Mannering said.

She drew back. Perhaps she realised that the storming tactics had failed, that new ones were necessary. She paused for some time, her eyes narrowing; she was summing him up.

Suddenly she laughed. “I suppose it isn't very important. He brought you the sword, didn't he?”

“The sword?”

“The Mogul Sword.”

“Did he?”

“As I know what he brought there isn't much point in denying it, is there?”

Mannering laughed. “Nor any point in your asking.”

She frowned. He suspected that she was becoming angry, and wondered how far anger would disturb her composure; he sensed that she was fighting quite a battle with herself. Her eyes seemed to change colour with her mood; they were darker now, as the sky darkened at the approach of a storm.

At last she said: “I'm not really sure. I know he brought the leather sheath. I'm not sure whether the sword was in it. Was it?”

Mannering didn't answer.

“I suppose it must have been,” she said. “There wouldn't be any point in bringing the empty sheath, just to fool me, would there?” When Mannering made no comment, she went on: “He knew I was watching him, you see – I expect he knew that I followed him. I may hate him intensely, but he's no fool. He's certainly no
fool.
Mr Mannering – did he come to
sell
the sword?”

Mannering was so surprised that he must have shown it; and that told him that it was a clever trick question, for she was watching intently, and he felt sure that she read the answer in his eyes.

“If he did, he had no right to,” she announced. “It isn't his.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I'm sure. It's a family possession – an heirloom, I suppose, just as much as some of the old masters and the furniture, half of the things in Gentian House. It would be quite wrong of him to sell it.”

Did she think that was the reason for Gentian's call? If so, she hadn't read the truth in Mannering's eyes.

“No right at all,” she went on, positively. “Mr Mannering, how much is it worth?”

He smiled. “How do you expect me to assess it?”

She frowned again, but good humour lurked in her eyes; it was surprising how like her uncle she was in a lot of ways. She leaned back in her chair, raising her hands if she felt the situation was helpless, and her voice was husky.

“I give up,” she said. “Obviously I'm not going to get any information from you, and perhaps that's a good thing. But there's nothing to prevent me from assuming that my uncle brought the sword here, and that he asked you to sell it. And if he did, Mr Mannering, you will be making a very big mistake if you do what he wants. The sword isn't his to sell. He had no right to bring it away from the house. Will you send it back?” Now she was pleading again, and leaning forward; those glistening red lips with the white teeth parted, had a quality of seductive appeal that a great many men would not have resisted.
“Please
, Mr Mannering – will you send it or take it back? Surely that isn't asking too much.” When Mannering didn't answer, she went on in a low-pitched, urgent voice: “It belongs to the house. He has no moral right to offer it for sale. You must at least believe that – or at the
very
least, make him prove his right to it before you do anything. Won't you take it back to the house until he
can
prove that right?”

 

3
DANGEROUS REQUEST

 

The man on the telephone had urged Mannering not to do what this girl asked; Mannering could almost hear his deep voice saying that it might be a matter of life and death. Even on the telephone, coming out of the blue, he had made Mannering feel that there was danger.

Now the girl spoke with the same passionate intensity – almost as if it would be a matter of life and death to her if the Mogul Sword of Victory was
not
taken back to Lord Gentian's house.

If he could make the girl talk freely, he would learn a great deal about motives and fears; and he wanted to know.

“Mr Mannering, please answer me,” Sara Gentian said sharply. “It is so very important.”

“I can see it is,” Mannering said.

“Very important indeed.”

“That a sword you think Lord Gentian brought here should be back in his house tonight.”

“I have an awful feeling that if it isn't returned quickly it never will be. Once you refuse to sell it he isn't likely to try again, because he knows you are the most likely man to find a buyer. Isn't there a way of restraining him from selling?”

“I don't know,” said Mannering. “I shouldn't think so. Are you simply frightened in case he sells it? If his idea was to bring it from his house to a safer place – a strongroom, for instance – I can't see why anyone should want to stop him.”

She sat there, frowning. “
That
isn't what he told you, is it? That he didn't want to keep it at the house because he didn't think it safe.
Is
that it?” When Mannering didn't answer, she pushed her chair back and jumped up. For a moment he thought it was in annoyance or exasperation; instead, she darted towards the small table in the corner, plucked up the coat and tossed it to one side, and stood with her right hand resting on the jewelled splendour of the hilt. Mannering, already half out of his chair, wondered whether she had known all the time that the sword was there, and had pretended not to so as to make him talk.

She twisted round, to look at him. A glint of triumph put the stars back into her eyes. The slender body, the gentle curves at the breast, the slim waist, the lift of the chin, all told of triumph.

“Is that what he told you, Mr Mannering? That he was afraid that this one would be stolen, too?”

He had to decide, very quickly, how far he could go. Gentian had not made any condition of silence or discretion, and it might do more harm than good to let this young woman feel that she had outwitted him – as, in a way, she had. To be stubborn and reticent might seem like obstinacy for its own sake.

He laughed. “At least I tried to hold out on you,” he said. “I can't pretend any longer that he didn't bring it, can I? Do you mind if I make a telephone call?” When she turned round, to face him squarely, he lifted the receiver and dialled a number. She watched, as she would if she were trying to judge from the movement of the dial what number he was calling. He thought he heard her catch her breath when he finished dialling
MAY 97531.
The ringing sound came at once, very clear. Sara moved to the desk but did not sit down; Mannering looked up at her, the back of his head touching the wall behind him.

The ringing sound stopped, and a woman said in a frail voice: “This is Lord Gentian's residence.”

“Is Lord Gentian in, please?”

“Just a moment, sir, and I will see.” The receiver went down quietly. Mannering met the girl's eyes, and could not tell whether she was angry or resentful – or simply tense with impatience. The
tick-tock-tick-tock
of the clock was very clear; it was twenty minutes to four.

Gentian said: “This is Lord Gentian.”

“It's Mannering here,” Mannering said. “I've had a visitor since you left, a young lady who claims to be—” he broke off as Gentian interrupted, smiling at the girl. He went on: “Yes, that's right. Your niece, Sara . . . She would like me to tell her why you came to me and what you want me to do. May I?” He broke off, and the girl stretched out her hands, as if to touch him again. “Thank you.” He put the receiver down, leaned back, and smiled at the girl. “He doesn't mind if I tell you,” he said. “Does that surprise you?”

She said huskily: “Nothing he does really surprises me. And if he can make a good impression on anyone, if he can make it look as if he's the saint and others are the devils, he will.” She lowered herself into her chair. “Tell me, please.” That was like a command.

Mannering told her everything. She listened with close attention, moving only her right hand, twice, to push a few tendrils of the fair hair out of her eyes. He could hear her breathing. The telling took two or three minutes. When he had finished he was sure that he had left nothing important out.

She didn't respond at once; it was almost as if she was going over the details of the story in her mind, to make sure that she had them right. She looked younger. There was a great simplicity about her face, and a look of—virginity? Yes, that seemed the right word for her. She looked so young and fresh and
clean,
despite the reputation of her gossip column friends.

“Does it make any sense to you?” he asked.

She closed her eyes.

“Sense,” she echoed, so that he could only just hear the word. “Yes, it makes sense – damnable sense. So he's pretending that the other sword was stolen, so that he—” she broke off.

She had great simplicity, he reminded himself, and that air of virginity, and honesty. But – was he being fooled? Was he allowing himself to be? Lorna, whom many called the greatest portrait painter in the country now that Augustus John was dead, would scoff at him.

“The sweetest look of innocence can hide a Delilah, darling. Aren't you old enough to realise that yet?”

No one knew faces and expressions better than Lorna; she captured the person and put it on the canvas. There were some people whom she would not paint because she did not like what she saw and was convinced that if it came out, through her art and her near magic touch, they would resent it, too. What would she think of Sara Gentian?

“You think your uncle is only pretending that the sword was stolen,” he prompted.

She nodded.

“Why should he do that?”

She didn't answer.

“I've told you everything he told me, at least you ought to tell me what you really think,” Mannering said, as if he were appealing to a child's sense of honour. “Why should he pretend that it was stolen?”

She said: “To cover up the fact that he sold it, but did not want his relatives to know. Now do you understand?”

 

There was a long gap between understanding and believing. Mannering could not convince himself that Sara meant what she said, although she appeared to. It was not so much the way she said it, but the obvious change that had come over her. She was more anxious. He thought that in the brightness of her eyes there was a spark of fear. She glanced at the sword, full of colour and beauty even in the shadows, and moistened her lips.
Yes,
he thought,
she's frightened.
She looked back at him, but did not speak.

“Sara,” he said, “I don't think that makes sense.”

She did not seem to notice that he had used her first name.

“Doesn't it?”

“It doesn't make sense because your uncle is a very rich man.”

“Is he?” she asked.

The feeling had gone out of her voice, and he felt more sure than ever that the story had frightened her; it was too early yet to begin to ask himself why. He had to remind himself of the man who had telephoned and asked him not to do what the girl wanted, a matter of life and death.

“You know very well that he's wealthy,” Mannering said sharply.

She looked at him, her eyes quite dull.

“I know that he's supposed to be.”

“Can you prove that he isn't?” demanded Mannering. “Listen to me, Sara. I could telephone a dozen different people and ask if they would accept Lord Gentian's note of hand for any given sum, and they would all say that they would take it without limit. In London you don't win a reputation like that unless you are really rich. A name, a title, a tradition, a past – none of these things is important. Your uncle is known to be one of the wealthiest private individuals in the country. By going to Somerset House you can see how much he inherited, and by studying the increase in land values in London in the past twenty years, you will be able to judge how much the value of his London estates is today. Don't try to tell me, and above all don't try to tell anyone else outside this room that your uncle isn't financially sound. Don't even suggest that he stole the Sword, or stole anything at all. Because if you do suggest that and it's spread around, you'll be guilty of serious slander.” When the girl didn't respond, Mannering went on flatly: “And if the slander was spread around, your uncle would have to challenge you. You would have to withdraw the charges, or you might find yourself in court. Do you understand that?”

All the time she had been listening, she had watched his eyes. He still felt sure she was frightened by the recital of her uncle's story, and he doubted whether she took in what he had been saying. She was at once so old and so young; so full of vitality and yet so still.

“Yes,” she said at last. “I understand. You mean that you—you won't tell him what I've said.”

“I will not.”

“Thank you, Mr Mannering. I'm afraid I let my tongue run away with me. I feel it so strongly, you see.” She stood up, quite slowly. “I think he did steal the other sword, and I think he is in serious financial difficulties. If he isn't, why should he steal—” she broke off.

“Sara,” said Mannering, “where have you been living for the past few years?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Where have you been?”

“In London, part of the time. In France, in Switzerland – what makes you ask?”

“You sound rather as if you've been living in a convent.”

That startled her into unexpected laughter. With her head thrown back and her mouth open and those red lips, it seemed to be a ridiculous thing for Mannering to have said; it might help her to see what he meant.

“I assure you I have
not!
I've been with friends – what my uncle calls living the life of a licentious butterfly. He seems to think that if you are young, you must be emotionally disturbed and sexually abnormal, and that only the old can be good or wise.” When Mannering didn't respond, she went on: “I suppose I've been doing what you might call the modern version of huntin', shootin', and fishin'. I've been flyin', drivin', and ski-in'.” There was an edge of defiance in her manner.

“With the smart set?”

“With a set which is called smart by the gossip columnists. But you must know this – you
do
read the newspapers, don't you?”

“I don't believe all I read in them,” said Mannering drily. “You don't seem to have any knowledge at all of comparative values, in spite of all this. Your uncle inherited a fortune of four million pounds which is probably worth twenty million today. The value of the Mogul Swords of Victory might possibly be a hundred thousand pounds – a lot of the stones are very small, and there are many semi-precious stones among them. Perhaps a hundred thousand, then if the pair were offered together, you would have a little over twice as much as for one by itself. The money for one of the swords can't be of vital importance to a man whose fortune runs into millions.”

Her eyes were very clear.

“A penny matters to a miser,” she said. “That sword belongs to the family, not to him.”

“Can you prove that, legally?”

“Oh,
legally.
I think he pretended it had been stolen, and sold it. He certainly had no moral right to.” Sara Gentian moved quickly towards the door, as if determined to reach it before Mannering. At the door she turned and looked at him accusingly. “You sold the other one for him, didn't you? Just as you're going to sell this one.”

She had the door ajar as she spoke, and her voice was carried outside. Mannering saw a movement – possibly Larraby, but he thought he saw a splash of colour. The girl stared at him with a curious mixture of nervousness and defiance.

“I neither saw nor touched the first sword, and I've told you why your uncle brought this one to me,” Mannering said. “Don't keep telling yourself that the truth is false. You'll get all twisted up in your mind if you do.”

She pulled the door wider open and stepped out. Mannering saw Larraby, near the door, and Lorna just behind the manager, wearing a vivid red suit.

Sara Gentian did not appear to see Lorna, but walked with long, anxious – angry? – strides towards the door.

 

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