A certain Mr. Rudolf Muller, a German, has come to London to find the missing heiress of a recently dead German millionaire. The girl he seeks is a monopede with a heart-shaped birthmark. Muller thinks he has discovered the missing heiress when he meets Elaine Hammond and her fiance, Guy Saville, but he learns that Elaine has no such birthmark. Elaine is, however, in very great fear of the so-called Muller. She has realised from the outset that she is actually the girl he is seeking. She knows, too, that the man's story is a lying one, as her father was not a German, nor a millionaire, and died years ago.
There is a mystery about Elaine of which Guy is ignorant. She is a member of the Society of Black Butterflies, all of whom have lost on or more limbs. Their headquarters are the 'Phenomene' Club, Mayfair.
Unknown to everyone but Tina Nicholas, Elaine has hidden the Purple Heart birthmark under a Black Butterfly transfer. Tina, to help Elaine, hoodwinks Muller and gives him the impression that she is the girl he is looking for, as she is a cripple of a similar type to Elaine.
Muller is introduced to a mysterious woman called Princess Ottilie, who was entirely without limbs, but beautiful, fascinating, and speaking several languages. While talking perfect German to Muller, she spoke some sentences in an unknown language, which Muller said he did not understand. Ottilie was obviously interested, and invited Muller to visit her at her flat and tell her the facts about the missing girl. After listening to his story, she hurled a bombshell.
"And now, my dear Colonel Von Strelnitz," she said very quietly, "suppose you tell me the real story - not the fairy tale about the missing heiress?"
Now read on.
The man who had called himself Adolf Muller had no time to ward off that knock-out blow. The thing had been so utterly unexpected that in spite of a no doubt well-exercised control, he collapsed completely and sat back in his chair visibly shaken.
"You - you knew me all the time?" he stammered at last, not attempting to bluff the thing out.
"I knew who you were," corrected Ottilie, "I knew where you came from. I have never seen you before, but I keep pretty closely in touch with European affairs, and I once saw your photograph. That was why I tried a little Illurian on you last night. You come from Illuria, don't you?"
Von Strelnitz nodded slowly; and then, after a while he sat up, something of the old confidence returned to his manner. After all, things were not altogether hopeless. This woman might easily be persuaded to became an ally, if he was careful to tell the true story in his own way.
He smiled ruefully.
"Well," he said, "you certainly scored that time, highness. But though you hit me pretty hard, there isn't really anything to feel guilty about. I came to London on a secret mission, and naturally I couldn't broadcast the real story to all and sundry."
Ottilie nodded smilingly, but her eyes were still wary.
"And so," she asked, "who exactly is the girl you are seeking?"
"Her Royal Highness Princess Illeana of Illuria," said Von Strelnitz, simply.
Ottilie's big eyes became bigger and her lips were pursed in a soundless whistle.
"Princess Illeana of Illuria!" she repeated. "I begin to understand a little."
"Yes," went on Von Strelnitz, "and if you know anything about the present situation in Illuria, you will understand the necessity for complete secrecy. Illuria has been a republic since the revolution of nearly eighteen years ago, which resulted in the death of the king."
"And now the hated Communists are in power!" Ottilie breathed the words with an extraordinary venom.
Von Strelnitz's eyes glinted strangely for a moment, and then became normal.
"Yes," he agreed, shaking his head mournfully. "That is so though I am being terribly indiscreet even to discuss such a thing, as I am, of course, to discuss this matter at all. however, the king was killed in the fighting, and the queen, who was an English lady of high rank, fled to England with her little daughter, the Princess Illeana. The child was hit by a stray bullet, which injury resulted in the amputation of the little girl's left leg. And it is the girl, Princess Illeana, whom I am now seeking."
"With what object?" asked Ottilie, watching the other keenly.
Von Strelnitz looked about him with every appearance of nervousness.
"If you were to make inquiries about me in Illuria," he said at last, "you would discover that I am high on the councils of the government. I have given the Government every reason to believe in my complete loyalty. But I have never been with them at heart. I remain loyal to my late revered King. I am here on behalf of Illuria's growing Royalist Party, the object of which is to oust the present Communist rabble and place Princes Illeana on the throne as Queen. I have to proceed very carefully and secretly for two reasons. Firstly and obviously, I must not allow an inkling of my mission to get back to the authorities in Illuria. Secondly, Princess Illeana, if she is alive, will naturally try to defeat any attempts to discover her whereabouts. She can have only the most terrible memories of Illuria, and will have no desire at all to go back there. I have to use cunning to find her, and then to persuade her that everything will be well if she decides to return."
Ottilie nodded, her eyes shining. Then her gaze narrowed and became speculative again.
"I am disposed to believe you, Colonel", she said quietly. "But I should be sorry ever to discover that you were deceiving me. I am not greatly concerned with Illuria or its affairs, nor in the project of restoring its Queen to the throne. But to circumvent the hated Communists, to destroy utterly all the Bolshevists in Europe - I should go to any lengths in my power - "
"You do not like the Communists, Highness?" Von Strelnitz asked, curiously.
Ottilie glared at her questioner with an almost insane ferocity.
"You see me as I am now," she said, "a fragment of a woman without a limb, a trunk! That is how the Communist comrades of our beloved Russia left me. It was remembered against me that I had kicked my unruly servants, that I had slapped their impudent faces, as they certainly had deserved to be kicked and slapped. After the Bolshevists came into power, a bench of peasant judges thought it humorous to have my offending limbs removed, and I was eventually carried out of Russia. Later I was able to employ a famous French plastic surgeon to render my limbless body as shapely as it is now. I have long since become reconciled, but I can never forget my hatred of my persecutors. And I remember that a number of Communists are now members of the Illuria Government. In fact the Illurian revolution was fomented by these scum. So, if your aim is truly to drive this rabble out of the country, I shall help you; and, what is more, I can help you."
Von Strelnitz, whose eyes had been, as it were, veiled all through this astounding and revelatory harangue, now regarded the Princess hopefully.
"How do you mean - you can help me?" he asked.
"Simply that I happen to be in possession of certain information of which you cannot be aware. And I think I know exactly how we can trick the Princess into revealing her identity."
"You know where she is?"
"Not altogether. But, all the same, I am pretty sure we shall locate her. There is just one little matter that I think worth discussing before proceeding further."
Ottilie regarded the other cynically.
"I will be entirely frank with you," she went on. "I have the reputation of being a wealthy woman, and I am vain enough, and I suppose silly enough, to do all I can to foster that idea among my friends. But, unfortunately, I am not as well endowed as I appear to be, and I am not averse to welcoming any little additions to my fortunes. So - "
Von Strelnitz nodded understandingly and with apparent good humour.
"My dear Princess," he said, "you can rely on me to be suitably grateful for services rendered. If you can lead me to our beloved Princess Illeana, then I can assure you that you will not be disappointed with the manner in which our organisation will assess our gratitude. More than adequate funds have been placed at my disposal in a bank here."
"Excellent, my dear Colonel," said Ottilie, sweetly. "But I hope I may be pardoned if I ask for, shall I say, perhaps a little more explicitness on your part."
The Colonel bowed and spread his hands. Then from an inside pocket he took a cheque book and, tearing out a cheque, rapidly filled in a figure. He stood up and held the cheque so that the lady could study it. Even Ottilie's eyes widened at the sum represented, and she smiled the smile of the gourmand sitting down to a resplendent banquet.
"You will observe, dear lady," Von Strelnitz said, "that I have not yet dated the cheque. I propose to present it to you to hold and upon the day you introduce me to the girl who is her beloved highness the Princess Illeana of Illuria, I shall have the utmost pleasure in dating the cheque and returning it to you. In the mean time, you are at perfect liberty to make all inquiries at the bank in question and assure yourself that my account there is more than adequate to cover the amount shown on the cheque."
Ottilie bowed graciously.
"That, I think, is perfectly satisfactory," she said. "If you will be so very obliging as to slip the cheque into my corsage, I shall be most graceful. You will, I am sure, accept my lack of limbs as sufficient reason for what might ordinarily be considered an unusual request."
Von Strelnitz with characteristic bow performed the strange little ceremony and, stepping back with military precision, bowed again.
"Within a few days," Ottilie went on, "I hope to send you a formal invitation to a little function I propose arranging. And at that function, unless I am very much mistaken, I shall have the great pleasure of presenting to you your Princess. Until then, my dear colonel, adieu."
Adieu, my dear Princess," responded Von Strelnitz, with a manner that was almost gay. "And auf wiedersehen. Here's to our next meeting - and the discovery of Princess Illeana of Illuria "
"And confusion to all Communists," added Ottilie, with a grim smile.
"Amen," concluded Von Strelnitz with an odd little glance over his shoulder as if he were afraid of being overheard.
Von Strelnitz made his ceremonious adieu and in the wake of the dainty handmaid, bowed himself out of the room.
* * *
It was just a week later that Elaine rang up her friend Tina in great excitement.
"I suppose you got your invitation card from Ottilie?" she asked.
"Naturally," replied Tina. "And a very ornate card it is. very Ottilian, if I may so. All gilt and gingerbread."
"It looks to me like the setting of a trap." said Elaine apprehensively.
"I've a strong suspicion that way myself," agreed Tina. I should say Ottilie invited the whole of the 'Butterflies' - 'and friends' - to the party. You notice that the invitation card says, 'Dancing and swimming. Fancy dress - but don't forget your swim suits'. I don't particularly like that swimming stunt; though its true, of course, that we've attended quite a few of Ottilie's swimming parties before this. I have a feeling that there is something more in it than meets the eye. And we can't very well refuse the invitation, or Ottilie might smell a rat. Still we are prepared for emergencies, and our worthy president doesn't know that. So keep up your courage, darling. All we be well."
"I sincerely hope so," said Elaine in tones that expressed he doubt. Then, with a change of tone, "do forgive me, darling, for being such a little coward," she went on. "I must sound terribly ungrateful to you. But really, I don't know what I should do without you, and I'm going to pluck up my courage and face the thing out. I'll run over to see you in a day or so, and we can discuss ways and means and also the not unimportant matter of costumes for the party."
"Well, at any rate, you haven't forgotten you're a daughter of Eve, in spite of your troubles," laughed Tina. "And that's all the good. Let's decide to enjoy the party, and if there happens to be any excitement, well, let's enjoy that, too, particularly if we can manage to put one across the honoured and revered Ottilie, Princess of the late Holy Russian Empire, and her partner in crime, Muller, if that is the real name of that nasty piece of work - which I very much doubt. Cheerio, darling. I'll be seeing you."
Princess Ottilie's mansion looked imposing enough, with its noble pillared frontage and great double doors; but even that frontage was deceptive. Like so may big West End houses of the kind, it was in reality a good deal more spacious than even it appeared to be. In addition to its many smaller salons, there was one very large room, known as the 'Grand Salon', running the whole length of the house, which was more like one of the large entertaining rooms in a big hotel than a room in a private house.
It was because the house possessed such a room that Ottilie was able to give those tremendous parties for which she was famous and which naturally sapped her resources in a way that dismayed her.
Below this great chamber, actually in the basement, but of a like size and breath, was the magnificent swimming pool, which was another notable feature of the house, and in which the hostess gave her famous swimming parties. The pool, a beautiful affair carried out in variegated marbles, did not occupy the whole of the floor space. At one end and down one side there were charmingly furnished lounges, from which guests could watch the swimmers. Hanging galleries, from which spectators could also watch the sport below, ran round the walls. And the amenities also included a railed rostrum from which, on the Princess's gala nights, a dance band discoursed appropriate music.
The other end and side of the pool were given up to prettily designed and appointed dressing cubicles and a most realistic imitation of a sandy beach, with wicker tables and chairs, big multicolored sun umbrellas and all complete. This beach was the swimmers' special preserve, were they could disport themselves, without inconveniencing the ordinarily attired non-swimming guests.
On the night of Ottilie's special party given to the 'Black Butterflies' and their friends, the 'Great Salon' was certainly the scene of an astounding and colourful spectacle. A stranger gazing on the glittering show, with its crowd of dancers in every variety of fancy costumer gyrating to the strains of a famous dance band, would first of all have been charmed by the glamour and kaleidoscopic beauty of the scene.
Apparently every beautiful women in the room, swinging past in her partner's arms was minus a limb, but dancing skilfully and gracefully.
And so the gay crowd swept on - richly attired kings and queens, musical comedy shepherds and shepherdesses, cardinals and nuns, herdsman and convicts, ballet dancers, Robin Hoods, Cinderellas, principal boys, Egyptian queens, cowboys and cowgirls, pierrots and pierrettes, artists' models in every variety of undress - all representative, colourful figures that are to be met with at every big fancy dress carnival.
There was nothing either startling or bizarre about the costumes of Elaine and her party which, though charming, were conventional enough. Elaine was a very lovely Columbine in short spreading skirts of pure white tulle, with nude silk tights which displayed her slender single leg to advantage. She was supported, when necessary, by only a single crutch, a beautifully made, very slender affair in white enamel with silver fittings. Escorting her was Guy Saville, a splendid figure in the gay patchwork of a Harlequin's tights.
Tina, as a Naiad, was a delicately exquisite dream figure, lithesome ethereal unfinished goddess from a bizarre fairy story. her filmy, daringly scanty costume, of the thinnest delicate green ninon, floated airily about her lovely monolimbed body like translucent waves, revealing, rather than concealing, the beautiful single limb, veiled in frail, cobweb tights of green silk. From out the skin-tight, very low-cut bodice, as from a green wave, there emerged in all their purity of their white nudity, the peerless, satin-smooth, armless shoulders, unencumbered by shoulder straps.
Of the many lovely women there that night, none drew more admiring glances than this amazing beauty whose incomplete charms were so skilfully set off by the revealing costume she wore. And nobody enjoyed her success more than the smiling girl herself. With her was the devoted and attentive Marcel Duval, very attractively attired in the white ruffles, black satin knee breeches and black silk stockings of a French pierrot.
Dolores, the beautiful armless girl friend of both Elaine and Tina, who was also one of the party, had had the perhaps obvious but none the less very effective idea of appearing as the Venus de Milo. She achieved the truncated effect of the statue's lopped-off arms by wearing specially made papier mache attachments fitted over the shoulders, concealed and kept in position by the nude silk fleshings that clothed the upper part of her beautiful body. Below, she wore the traditional draperies of the statue, and attracted interest every now and then by pausing and adopting the famous Venus de Milo's pose.
The revels proceeded gaily, the floor being generally thronged with the beautiful women dancers and their handsome partners. And threading its way slowly through the maze, there move a strange yet imposing cortege. Four stalwart men, made up as Nubian slaves, in loin cloths and little else, carried, supported by poles resting on their shoulders, a flat, square platform, or dais, ornately decorated in cloth of gold. And upon this, resting on a square, be-tasselled, richly brocaded cushion, was perched the lovely Princess Ottilie.
She was not actually in fancy dress, though she appeared exotic enough. She wore, with that appearance of having been "poured" into it, a skin-tight sheath of pure white velvet, fitting her truncated body with unwrinkled perfection and leaving the whole magnificent, swelling bust and smoothly rounded shoulders daringly and attractively bare.
She was literally loaded with a glittering regalia of jewels, heavy necklaces of pearls hanging in graduated ropes from throat to waist; long, swinging, diamond-studded earrings; a gleaming tiara in the hair; and on the smooth skin of her right shoulder was imprinted the emblem of the society of which she was president.
And so, bowing and smiling to her guests, with a gracious word of welcome every now and then to her special friends, she made her slow triumphal progress through the throng. By the side of her swaying throne, looking slightly self-conscious in spite of an effort to appear unconcerned, walked Von Strelnitz, the man who had called himself Muller, making a not ineffective show as an Elizabethan gallant in doublet and hose, his left hand resting or the jewelled hilt of the long, slender rapier slung at his side. With him and following the "throne" were other gallants, forming an imposing retinue; and bringing up the rear, strutted a trumpeter gaily attired in the emblazoned tabard and Satin knee breeches of a herald.
After a protracted tour of the room, the Princess was eventually carried to a specially prepared dais at one end, and there ensconced in a big chair where, with her gallants and a group of special friends, she held court. At intervals the herald, after a preliminary fanfare on his trumpet, made whatever announcements that were necessary, including the various items in a well-chosen and well-staged cabaret.
Then, at last, came the announcement, Tina and Elaine had been awaiting with mixed feelings.
"Ladies and gentlemen," cried the herald in sonorous tones, "the grand swimming carnival is now about to begin. Will everybody kindly make their way to the pool, and will those ladies and gentlemen taking part in the various events please make the necessary change in their costume as soon as possible?"
"Now for it!" said Tina, in a rapid undertone to Elaine who sat at her side. "I've a feeling in my bones that this is the high spot of Ottilie's show to-night. Now, darling, if anything happens, please don't do anything foolish. Act as if you know nothing at all about it. Understand?"
"I understand all right. I'll do my best to play my part." About half an hour later the brilliance, gaiety and colour that had filled the Grand Salon was transferred to the great pool and its surroundings. The non-swimmers, still in their fancy costumes, thronged the spacious lounges and galleries. Ottilie, surrounded by her court, with Von Strelnitz by her side, occupying a raised throne at the end facing the bathing beach, with the band a little distance away on her right.
If the imaginary stranger, already referred to, had thought the scene in the Grand Salon fantastic and unusual, he must assuredly have regarded the present scene as still more extraordinary.
The male swimmers, in their ordinary costumes of 'Varsity' type, or just plain trunks, were normal enough; but the girl swimmers certainly presented a spectacle undreamt of in the ordinary man's philosophy. Clad in wonderful creations of glowing colour and of the scantiest proportions, some of them consisting only of a wisp of diaphanous brassiere and the merest apology for trunks, the throng of alluring beauties revealed their incomplete charms in the frankest possible manner.
The lovelies had all left their crutches in their dressing cubicles and, when not in the water, hopped about, each on her soft-slippered single foot, with that ease and grace that they all had acquired as a sort of second nature accomplishment.
But all the beautiful swimmers shared one thing in common. In every case the tiny trunks of the scanty swimming suit left prominently displayed on the smooth white flesh of the dainty ovals was the neat emblem of the society, the little black tatttooed butterfly.
For a spell, only general swimming and diving was indulged in by the swimmers, while the band played popular dance tunes. Elaine and Tina, with Guy and Marcel, joined in the fun, the two girls in similar costumes.
Tina, the amazing monolimbed beauty, obviously added to her other accomplishments that of being able to swim with astonishing ease, despite her deficiency. She did not dive, but slid head foremost into the pool from a lower step and, propelling herself strongly with her flexible, agile leg, more than held her own with Elaine and most of the other crippled girl swimmers who delighted in challenging her prowess. Marcel Duval, however, always escorted her during her swims, and she graciously allowed him to help her out of the water whenever she left it. Though once out, she insisted in being completely independent again, hopping effortlessly - and it must be admitted with full consciousness of admiring eyes - on her single little foot.
"Noticed anything?" she asked of Elaine in lowered tones as they lounged together for an interval and smoked a cigarette.
"How do you mean?" asked Elaine, wondering a little.
"I know Ottilie always had the pool specially warmed for these occasions and, of course, highly perfumed - too highly perfumed for my taste. But it strikes me to-night as being very much warmer than usual."
"I believe it is," agreed Elaine, "now you mention it."
"H'm! wonder if that is part of Ottilie's little game? I think I begin to have an idea of what she may be driving at. But we'll see the thing through."
Tina did not offer any explanation of her cryptic remarks; and in any case, their discussion was cut short by a sudden fanfare on the trumpet. The herald announced a series of events for which valuable prizes were offered, and there ensued the chatter and bustle consequent upon such an announcement - the entry and assembly of the competitors, discussion of the prospects by friends and the like.
Neither Elaine nor Tina took part in the events preferring the role of spectator to that of performer. But at the conclusion of the series and the presentation of prizes, another fanfare was blown, and this time the announcement was made by Ottilie herself.
Tina who was sharing a wicker couch with Elaine, suddenly turned to her, and her flexible, bare toes closed over her friend's fingers.
"Hold everything," she whispered. "Don't lose your head. Here it is at last, or I'm a Dutchman!"
"My very dear friends," Ottilie was saying, in clear, ringing tones, "as many of you will know, we are honoured to-night by the presence of a notable foreign visitor, and I may say, admirer, a famous gentleman - Mr. Adolf Muller."
Von Strelnitz, in his role of Muller, bowed stiffly to the outbreak of applause.
"Mr. Muller," continued the Princess, "had made to me a proposition which I am sure you will all regard as original and very acceptable, and one which reveals his interest and admiration for our society and its aims. Briefly, he has empowered us to offer on his behalf a very handsome and valuable prize - to be revealed at the proper moment - for the lady, who in his opinion, possess the most perfect and beautiful remainder of her lost limb - ."
"I thought so, "interpreted Tina in a rapid whisper. "Simple and obvious, when you come to think it over. And, of course, friend Muller has had as much to do with the proposition as my foot. It bears the stamp of Ottilie all over it - ."
"As this is a swimming gala," Ottilie continued, "each competitor will enter the pool from the bathing beach end, swim one length, and then present herself before Mr. Muller and myself for examination of her qualifications. will those ladies who are entering please assemble to the bathing beach? A specially selected committee of gentlemen stewards will be in charge of the arrangements at the beach, and will decide the order in which the competitors will take part. That is all, ladies and gentlemen, thank you."
There was a prolonged outburst of applause, followed by a buzz of animated chatter. Then, with the assistance of the stewards, the business of choosing and lining up the excited competitors began.
"Ottilie is slick," said Tina, unemotionally. "I must say that for her. It's a good job we fixed up our little counter-plot."
"But we need not enter," urged Elaine. "I don't like the business one little bit, and I'm sure you will be in danger, darling. Let's slip away and leave them to it."
"And give Ottilie and Muller the information they require. They'll guess perfectly well why we've shirked the issue. Besides, I want to see this thing through. I'd hate now to miss the chance to trick Ottilie and her partner in crime."
"I'm glad you think it's fun," said Elaine, with a sigh. "All right, let's get on with it. I'll be thankful when the whole wretched business is over."
Amid a continued buzz of talk and sporadic applause, the competitors were assembled, a bevy of beautiful, laughing, excited one-limbed girls.
One by one each lovely dived into the pool, swam the required length and then, dripping with the warm, perfumed water, appeared before the two judges and presented herself for inspection.
Both Ottilie and Von Strelnitz played their parts admirably. They set aside four of five as possible finalists. And Elaine, to Tina's grim amusement, was one of those selected.
When at last Tina, in her turn, slid gracefully into the pool, she was at once conscious of one very significant fact. The water was very much warmer than ever it had been. In fact it could at most have been described as hot! And when, after being helped out at the other end, she presented herself before the judges, she saw that what Ottilie had cleverly schemed to bring about had indeed come to pass.
The over-warm water of the pool had not only loosened the little 'transfer' butterfly, it had washed it away completely! and there, on the gleaming whiteness of the soft flesh was revealed the tiny, purple, heart-shaped birthmark - a clever forgery, of course, but realistic enough to deceive at the moment both Ottilie and Muller.
To do them justice, neither gave a sign of triumph that must have filled them both. Perhaps Tina detected a momentary glint in the eyes of Von Strelnitz; but if there was anything, it was gone in the moment. Apparently the judges regarded the birthmark as a tattooed butterfly, the details of which had become somewhat blurred by the passage of time. With a gracious word of commendation, Tina was set aside with the other chosen beauties as a possible finalist. And after the whole of the competitors had carried out the required conditions, the final judging began.
At last, amid prolonged and tremendous applause, Tina was declared the winner. And, as Tina was one of the most popular members, the choice was obviously very much to the liking of the enthusiastic crowd.
A further outburst of applause greeted Von Strelnitz when he came forward bearing in his hands a glittering, expanding circlet, apparently of platinum and encrusted with jewels, but, as Tina shrewdly guessed, really an attractive fake made specially for the present occasion.
A chair was drawn forward, and in it Tina was seated. With a courtly bow, Von Strelnitz knelt before her and, after the presentation, midst laughter and cheers, he took the little bare foot in his hand and, lifting it to his lips, pressed a kiss upon the long, slender toes.
Speeches of congratulation were made by Ottilie, very maternal and indulgent in her praise of "our darling Tina," by Von Strelnitz, who expressed himself very well in his grave, formal manner, and finally by the heroine of the occasion herself, characteristically light-hearted and debonair as she stood in a perfect balance.
Finally, Von Strelnitz again came forward, this time holding a silver goblet of wine. This he first of all gallantly touched with his lips and then held to Tina's lips for her to drink from.
Without thinking, excited and thirsty, Tina drank deep. Then, for the first time, a sudden misgiving shot through her. The wine had a bitter, acrid taste. She tried to tell herself that it was the natural, dry tartness of the vintage. But already she was feeling dreamy and full of sleep. She tried desperately to keep her balance on her one little foot, but she was now swaying perilously. Then, with her drugged brain trying to tell her that she had indeed been tricked, she slid forward into the waiting arms of Von Strelnitz and, went down into deep and engulfing darkness.
"Poor darling," cried Ottilie, to those about her, "the ordeal has been to much for her. She is not as strong as she thinks she is, and puts too much upon that one little limb of hers."
And amid a general buzz of sympathy, Von Strelnitz gathered the lovely body in his arms and went swiftly from the room.
There was no reassurance for Elaine, as she dressed herself in her cubicle preparatory to leaving, in Princess Ottilie's explanation of Tina's sudden collapse. She was sure that her friend had been tricked, and her heart was full of dread. Unconscious and helpless, Tina was in the hands of the enemy, and heaven alone knew where she had been taken. And Elaine, at any rate for the moment, could do nothing. Tina had warned her not to interfere - in fact had ordered to disappear and leave the working out of the business to herself. But at least she could question Ottilie. That was a perfectly natural proceeding in the circumstances.
The guests were rapidly departing, chattering excitedly over the events of the night, with its thrilling denouement. Ottilie still rested upon her throne, bidding good-night to her guests and offering, as was her habit, a shoulder to be kissed by her special friends. At last only a few intimates remained and, with Guy and Marcel, Elaine approached the regal, limbless beauty.
"Ottilie," she asked urgently, "what has become of Tina? Where did Mr. Muller take her?"
"Home, I expect, you little goose," replied Ottilie, with a cheerful laugh. You don't think he has abducted her, do you? He is a charming man, and courteous to show interest in ourselves and our society. He is something of a doctor, I understand, and Tina will be quite safe in his hands."
"Oh, thank you," Elaine stammered, and wondered if Ottilie was really telling the truth and if all their fears had been groundless.
The two hurried away to Tina's flat. There all Elaine's misgivings returned a thousand-fold. Tina had not returned. They rang up Muller's hotel. But he, too, had not yet returned.
"It will be all right," said Guy, reassuringly, knowing nothing of the play of plot and counter-plot that had been going on during the past few weeks. "Muller's bit of a blister, but he wouldn't dare to run away with a girl in London like that. No doubt he's having her looked after somewhere. We'll learn all about it in the morning."
But the morning brought no news of Tina; and Elaine, despite her friend's express orders, decided that she could not possibly leave things as they were. She made an early call on Ottilie and found that lady, abominably light-hearted and cheerful, ensconced in her gay, airy morning room, the wide French windows of which, now flung wide open, afforded a view of a pleasant, formal garden.
"Ottilie," Elaine began without preface, "Tina has disappeared. She hasn't returned to her flat, and Muller has not returned to his hotel. What in heaven's name can have happened?"
"My dear!" Ottilie was suddenly gravely sympathetic. "What an extraordinary thing! I simply haven't an idea what can have happened. Amazing! What can Mr. Muller have been up to?"
Elaine, in her sudden exasperation, might easily have revealed all she knew; but at that moment one of the pretty maids hopped effortlessly in.
"Mr. Muller, your highness," she announced. "Shall I show him in?"
For a moment, even the resourceful Princess was nonplussed. Then she quickly recovered herself.
"Elaine, darling," she said, "leave this to me. I'll find out what this Muller person is after. Nadine," she continued, addressing the maid, "please take Miss Hammond upstairs and make her comfortable." Then again to Elaine, I'll let you know about it all, darling, after Muller has gone. In the meantime, don't worry."
Elaine, with mixed feelings, swung gracefully out on her crutches.
A few minutes later Von Strelnitz was ushered in, bowed formally and stood stiffly to attention.
"My dear Mr. Muller," Ottilie greeted him with friendly raillery, "I should say, of course, my dear Colonel Von Strelnitz. And how was everything gone? Perfectly, I hope."
Von Strelnitz bowed again and in a queer, grating voice, asked;
"Have you the cheque I left with you, Highness?"
"Certainly," said Ottilie, with a smile. "you will find it where you placed it. You have only to append the date, and our little deal will be satisfactorily concluded?"
Von Strelnitz approached and took the cheque from the limbless beauty's corsage. Then, to her sudden consternation, he tore the oblong piece of paper in half, tore it across again and again, and flung the pieces into a bowl on a nearby table.
"So you hoped to trick me, Highness," he stormed. "You foist upon me what you would call a fake. You imagined that the poor little forgery of the birthmark, painted - yes, painted, upon your accomplice's stump would deceive me. I may have done so last night, but to-day I discovered the poor little trick."
"I don't know what you mean," said Ottilie, with dangerous calm, though she had suddenly guessed the truth. This was Tina's doing. Just the sort of trick Tina delighted in. She would have something to say to her 'darling Tina'.
"Don't you?" Von Strelnitz was saying raspingly. "Well, then, I'll talk a little more plainly. You'll be delighted to hear that I, too, have tricked you. I came over here to find the Princess Illeana, yes; but not for the reasons I gave you. You lecture me on your hatred of Communism. You tell me how the Communists lopped off all your limbs. How I laugh inwardly! How I gloat! How I should like to see a good Communist comrade lop off your cursed head! I came over here in the Communist cause. There is a movement in Illuria among the cursed loyalists, to put the missing Princess on the throne. I was sent here secretly to find the Princess - and put her out of the way! Do you hear that, Highness? And now, in spite of your treachery, I think I know who exactly the missing Princess is. I shall find her - and I shall put her out of the way. And now good-bye. I thank you, at least, for putting me on the trail, in spite of yourself. Please do not summon a maid. I shall let myself out through the garden. Good-bye."
He bowed with exaggerated politeness and, with a grin of triumph, swaggered towards the French windows.
He just stepped over the low sill when suddenly he threw up his arms and, with a shrill, strangled cry, slumped in a heap on the pathway.
Ottilie screamed in a high-pitched, penetrating screech. Maids came hopping in on their single legs, consternation on their faces. Elaine hurried in, also hopping, with skirts lifted, her crutches left behind in her sudden alarm.
"Look!" cried Ottilie, and nodded towards the window.
The man who had called himself Muller lay dead on the pathway, a slim-bladed, razor-like knife buried in his throat.
The case was a nine day's mystery. Nothing was ever discovered by the police of Von Strelnitz's attacker or attackers. They had to be content with the theory that he had been shadowed all the time he was in London, by members of the rival faction in Illuria, and that at an opportune moment one of the enemy had struck and then fled with his fellow conspirators out of the country.
But Tina advanced a theory that had a good deal to be said for it, though she was careful not to take the police into her confidence. She had been discovered a prisoner in a house on the outskirts of London, and very soon recovered from her unnerving experience. And it was some days later that she and Elaine paid a visit to Princess Ottilie in her great London mansion.
Tina did not mince words in her direct attack upon the Princess.
"We have to thank you, my very dear Ottilie," she said grimly, "for a great deal of what we both have gone through. No doubt for a consideration - a pretty big consideration, unless I'm mistaken - you conspired with this rat Von Strelnitz to put Elaine in his power."
"I had better ring for a maid to show you both out, I think." said Ottilie, in cold wrath.
"I don't think you'd better," returned Tina coolly. "You see, I know too much."
Ottilie regarded the other steadily, but could not quite keep the uneasiness out of her eyes.
"Do you realise," she said, "that I know who Elaine Hammond really is, and that I could, if I wished, reveal that knowledge to certain parties in Illuria?"
"But of course, you won't, my dear Princess," said Tina, sweetly. "Because, you see, if you ever even dream of doing such a thing, I might suggest to the police an amazing, but feasible theory of how exactly Von Strelnitz was murdered!"
"What do you mean?" Ottilie was now visibly shaken.
"Listen," said Tina. "And after you've heard, please decide to forget all you know or have ever heard about Elaine. It will be healthier for you. Personally, I'm overjoyed the reptile was destroyed, and I haven't the slightest grudge against the killer. But we are not standing any nonsense about Elaine.
On the face of it, a woman entirely without limbs could not possibly have killed a man eight or nine yards away particularly with such a weapon as a knife. But a woman without limbs is not the entirely helpless individual ordinary people might think her. She still has her mouth and lips, for instance, and can teach herself during the years to use them in an astonishing variety of ways. For instance, you, my dear Ottilie can write as easily and legibly as anybody else, with the pen held between teeth and lips- you can paint and draw in just the same way. You can even thread needles with your lips and tongue and do plain and fancy sewing if you wish to. All miracles in their way, but miracles that limbless wonders on show all are able to perform.
But particularly, you can pick up an object in your teeth and throw it with an accuracy that has amazed your friends when you have performed the little trick before them. I know - I've seen you doing it. And the knife that killed Von Strelnitz - that belonged to you. I recognised it from its description in the papers. Von Strelnitz, I have no doubt, tricked you in some way. Perhaps he refused to part with the money he had promised. At any rate, you picked up the knife in your teeth, threw it, and it got home in his throat."
Fury suddenly got the better of the Princess, she lost what little control she now possessed. She bent her head swiftly and flexibly, picked up in her teeth a cup that stood on a tray near by, and hurled it with deadly accuracy straight at Tina's head. Tina dodged just in time, and the cup crashed to pieces against the opposite wall.
"Voila!" she said with a gay laugh. "I don't think we need say any more. Good-bye, my very dear Princess, and remember - mum's the word!"
She raised her beautiful leg flexibly and pressed with her toes the bell push by Ottilie's head. A one-legged maid hopped in and was asked to summon Guy and Marcel, who had been waiting in another room.
Then in Marcel's arms, with Elaine swinging easily on her crutches by her side, she went out smilingly, with all the honours of war.
So it was that Elaine's secret remained inviolate. And when, some months later, Guy Saville laid his beautiful bride to the altar - attended by a lovely bridesmaid who, though carried into the church, insisted on standing entirely unsupported when necessary during the ceremony - he was still unaware that he was marrying a girl who was in reality Princess Illeana of Illuria.
Elaine wished it so, happier to be an Englishman's bride than a queen of an unhappy country - and that was that.
EDITOR'S NOTE. This concludes a remarkable monopede story that we regret has had to be considerably "cut" in order to bring it within the limits of our available space. We hope it will one day be published in book form, as it will then be available as a "classic" on the subject to which it is devoted.