"These are German bon-bons," remarked Griesbach, his grey eyes beaming through his spectacles. "I get them each Christmas from my home in Stuttgart."
The conversation had again turned upon the splendid investment about to be offered to the British public, whereupon I half suggested that I was ready to go into the affair myself. Griesbach jumped at the idea, just as I expected, and handed round the box of crackers. Each of us took one, in celebration of Christmas, and on their being pulled we discovered small but really acceptable articles of masculine jewellery within. My "surprise" was a pair of plain gold sleeve-links, worth fully three or four pounds, while Ray, with whom I pulled, received a nice turquoise scarf-pin, an incident which quite reassured him.
Our host refused to take one.
"No," he declared, "they are for you, my dear fellows--all for you."
So again the box was passed round, and four more crackers were taken.
That time Ray's bon-bon contained a tiny gold match-box, while within mine I found a small charm in the form of a gold enamelled doll to hang upon one's watch-chain.
As Ray and I pulled my cracker, I had suddenly raised my eyes and caught sight of the expression upon the face of my friend Engler. It struck me as very curious. His sallow cheeks were pale, and his dark eyes seemed starting out of his head with excitement.
"Now, gentlemen," said our genial host, after he had passed the box for the third time, first to his two compatriots, who handed the remaining two bon-bons across the table to us, "you have each a final bon-bon. In one of them there will be found a twenty-mark piece--our German custom.
I suggest, in order to mark this festive occasion, that whoever of you four obtains the coin shall receive, free of any obligation, five shares in our new syndicate."
"A most generous proposal!" declared my friend Engler, a sentiment with which we all agreed.
The two Germans pulled their bon-bons, but were unsuccessful. The prize--certainly a prize worth winning--now lay between Ray and myself.
At that instant, however, Griesbach rose from the table suddenly, saying:
"You two gentlemen must settle between yourselves. It lies between you."
And before we were aware of his intention he had passed into the adjoining room, followed by his two friends.
"Well," I laughed to Ray when we were alone, "here goes. Let's decide it!" And we both gripped the long green-and-gold cracker. If the coin were within, then I should receive a very handsome present, worth a little later on, perhaps, several thousand pounds.
At that instant, however, we were both startled by a loud smashing of glass in the next room, curses in German and loud shouts in English, followed by the dull report of a revolver.
We both sprang into the room, and there, to our surprise, found that six men had entered through the broken French window and were struggling fiercely with our host and his friends.
"What in the name of Fate does this mean?" I cried, startled and amazed at that sudden termination to our cosy Christmas dinner.
"All right, Mr. Raymond," answered a big brown-bearded man. "You know me--Pelham of Scotland Yard! Keep an eye on those bon-bons in the next room. Don't touch them at peril of your life!"
"Why?" I asked.
Then, when our host and our two friends had been secured--not, however, before the room had been wrecked in a most desperate struggle--Inspector Pelham came forward to where Ray was standing with me, and said:
"My God, Mr. Raymond! You two have had a very narrow escape, and no mistake! Where are those bon-bons?"
We took him into the dining-room, showed him the remaining two, and told him we had been about to pull them.
"I know. We were watching you through the window. Those men were flying from the house when they ran into our arms!"
"Because they are a dangerous trio whom we want on several charges. In addition, all three, and also the two servants, are ingenious spies in the service of the German General Staff. They've been busy this last two years. They intended to wreak upon both of you a terrible revenge for your recent exposures of the German system of espionage in England and your constant prosecution of their spies."
"Revenge!" I gasped. "What revenge?"
"Well," replied the detective-inspector, "both these bon-bons contain powerful bombs, and had you pulled either of them you'd both have been blown to atoms. That was their dastardly intention. But fortunately we got wind of it, and were in time to watch and prevent it."
"And only just in the nick of time, too!" gasped Ray, pale-faced at thought of our narrow escape. "I somehow felt all along some vague presage that evil was intended."
The three spies were conveyed to Barnes police-station in cabs, and that was the last we ever saw of them. The Government again hushed up the matter in order to avoid international complications, I suppose, but a week later the interesting trio were deported by the police to Hamburg as undesirable aliens.
And to-day, with Ray Raymond, I am wondering what is to be the outcome of all this organised espionage in England.
What will happen? When will Germany strike?