AN AMIABLE CHARLATAN
E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
(AUTHOR OF "MR. GREX OF MONTE CARLO," "THE DOUBLE TRAITOR", ETC.)
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY WILL GREF
I THE MAN AT STEPHANO'S
II THE COUP IN THE GAMBLING DEN
III CULLEN GIVES ADVICE
IV THE WOOING OF EVE
V MR. SAMUELSON
VI THE PARTY AT THE MILAN
VII "ONE OF US"
VIII AT THE ALHAMBRA
IX THE EXPOSURE
X A BROKEN PARTNERSHIP
XI MR. BUNDERCOMBE'S WINK
XII THE EMANCIPATION OF LOUIS
XIII "THE SHORN LAMB"
XIV MR. BUNDERCOMBE'S LOVE AFFAIR
XV LORD PORTHONING'S LESSON
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"No one can be more glad than Mrs. Delaporte and myself that this little affair has been concluded so amicably"
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you please! Nothing has happened"
"I haven't interrupted anything, have I—any little celebration, or anything of that sort?"
"Eve was one of the first to congratulate me"
AN AMIABLE CHARLATAN
CHAPTER I—THE MAN AT STEPHANO's
The thing happened so suddenly that I really had very little time to make up my mind what course to adopt under somewhat singular circumstances. I was seated at my favorite table against the wall on the right-hand side in Stephano's restaurant, with a newspaper propped up before me, a glass of hock by my side, and a portion of the plat du jour, which happened to be chicken en casserole, on the plate in front of me.
I was, in fact, halfway through dinner when, without a word of warning, a man who seemed to enter with a lightfooted speed that, considering his size, was almost incredible, drew a chair toward him and took the vacant place at my table. My glass of wine and my plate were moved with smooth and marvelous haste to his vicinity. Under cover of the tablecloth a packet—I could not tell what it contained—was thrust into my hand.
"Sir," he said, raising my glass of wine to his lips, "I am forced to take somewhat of a liberty. You can render me the service of a lifetime! Kindly accept the situation."
I stared at him for a moment quite blankly. Then I recognized him; and, transferring at once the packet to my trousers pocket, I drew another glass toward me and poured out the remainder of my half-bottle of hock. So much, at any rate, I felt I had saved!
"I shall offer you presently," my self-invited guest continued, with his mouth full of my chicken, "the fullest explanation. I shall also ask you to do me the honor of dining with me. I think I am right in saying that we are not altogether strangers?"
"I know you very well by sight," I told him. "I have seen you here several times before with a young lady."
"Exactly," he agreed. "My daughter, sir."
"Then for the sake of your daughter," I said, with an enthusiasm that was not in the least assumed, "I can assure you that, whether as host or guest, you are very welcome to sit at my table. As for this packet—"
"Keep it for a few moments, my young friend," the newcomer interrupted, "just while I recover my breath, that is all. Have confidence in me. Things may happen here very shortly. Sit tight and you will never regret it. My name, so far as you are concerned, is Joseph H. Parker. Tell me, you are facing the door, some one has just entered. Who is it?"
"A stranger," I replied; "a stranger to this place, I am sure. He is tall and dark; he is a little lantern-jawed—a hatchet-shaped face, I should call it."
"My man, right enough," Mr. Joseph H. Parker muttered. "Don't seem to notice him particularly," he added, "but tell me what he is doing."
"He seems to have entered in a hurry," I announced, "and is now taking off his overcoat. He is wearing, I perceive, a bowler hat, a dinner jacket, the wrong-shaped collar; and he appears to have forgotten to change his boots."
"That's Cullen, all right," Mr. Joseph H. Parker groaned. "You're a person of observation, sir. Well, I've been in tighter corners than this—thanks to you!"
"Who is Mr. Cullen and what does he want?" I asked.
"Mr. Cullen," my guest declared, sampling the fresh bottle of wine which had just been brought to him, "is one of those misguided individuals whose lack of faith in his fellows will bring him some time or other to a bad end. My young friend, sip that wine thoughtfully—don't hurry over it—and tell me whether my choice is not better than yours?"
"Possibly," I remarked, with a glance at the yellow seal, "your pocket is longer. By the by, your friend is coming toward us."
"It is not a question of pocket," Mr. Parker continued, disregarding my remark, "it is a question of taste and judgment; discrimination is perhaps the word I should use. Now in my younger days—Eh? What's that?"
The person named Cullen had paused at my table. His hand was resting gently upon the shoulder of my self-invited guest. Mr. Parker looked up and appeared to recognize him with much surprise.
"You, my dear fellow!" he exclaimed. "Say, I'm delighted to see you—I am sure! But would you mind—just a little lower with your fingers! Too professional a touch altogether!"
Mr. Cullen smiled, and from that moment I took a dislike to him—a dislike that did much toward determining the point of view from which I was inclined to consider various succeeding incidents. He was by no means a person of prepossessing appearance. His cheeks were colorless save for a sort of yellowish tinge. His mouth reminded me of the mouth of a horse; his teeth were irregular and poor.
Yet there was about the man a certain sense of power. His eyes were clear and bright. His manner was imbued with the reserve strength of a man who knows his own mind and does not fear to speak it.
"I am sorry to interrupt you at your dinner, Mr. Parker," he said, his eyes traveling all over the table as though taking in its appointments and condition.
"Of no consequence at all," Mr. Parker assured him; "in fact I have nearly finished. If you are thinking of dining here let me recommend this chicken en casserole. I have tasted nothing so good for days!"
Mr. Cullen thanked him mechanically. His mind, however, was obviously filled with other things. He was puzzled.
"You must have a double about this evening, I fancy," he remarked. "I could have sworn I saw you coming out of a certain little house in Adam Street not a couple of minutes ago. You know the little house I mean?"
Mr. Parker smiled.
"Seems as though that double were all right," he said. "I am halfway through my dinner, as you can see, and I'm a slow eater—especially in pleasant company. Shake hands with my friend—Mr. Paul Walmsley, Mr. Cullen."
My surprise at hearing my own name correctly given was only equaled by the admiration I also felt for my companion's complete and absolute assurance. Mr. Cullen and I exchanged a perfunctory handshake, which left me without any change in my feelings toward him.
"Another of my mistakes, I suppose," Mr. Cullen said quietly. "I am afraid on this occasion, however, that I must trouble you, Mr. Parker. An affair of a few moments only. I won't even suggest Bow Street—at present. If you could take a stroll with me—even into Luigi's office would do."
Mr. Parker put down his knife and fork with a little gesture of irritation. His broad, good-natured face was for the moment clouded. "Say, Cullen," he remonstrated, "don't you think you're carrying this a bit too far, you know? There isn't a man I enjoy a half-hour's chat with more than you; but in the middle of dinner—dinner with a friend too—"
"I try to do my duty," Mr. Cullen interrupted, "and I am afraid that I am not at liberty to study your comfort."
Mr. Parker sighed heavily.
"Do you mind, Walmsley, having my plate kept warm and reminding the man that I ordered asparagus to follow?" my new friend remarked, as he rose to his feet. "Mr. Cullen wants a word or two with me in private, and Mr. Cullen is a man who will have his own way."
I nodded as indifferently as possible and the two men walked off together toward the entrance. Then I summoned my waiter.
"Bring me," I ordered, "a fresh portion of chicken and order some asparagus to follow. Keep my friend's chicken warm and order him some asparagus also."
Leaning back in my chair I tried to puzzle out the probable meaning of this somewhat extraordinary happening. My acquiescence in the attitude that had been so suddenly forced upon me was owing entirely to one circumstance. Mr. Joseph H. Parker I had recognized at his first entrance as a regular habitue of the restaurant. He was usually accompanied by a young lady who, from the first moment I had seen her, had produced an effect upon my not too susceptible disposition for which I was wholly unable to account, but which was the sole reason why I had given up my club and all other restaurants and occupied that particular place for the last fortnight.
I had put the two down as an American and his daughter traveling in England for pleasure; and my continual presence at the restaurant was wholly inspired by the hope that some opportunity might arise by means of which I could make their acquaintance. Adventures, in the ordinary sense of the word, had never appealed to me. I was privileged to possess many charming acquaintances among the other sex, but not one of them had ever inspired me with anything save the most ordinary feelings of friendship and admiration.
The opportunity I desired had now apparently come. I had made the acquaintance of Mr. Joseph H. Parker—made it in an unceremonious manner, perhaps, but still under circumstances that would probably result in his being willing to acknowledge himself my debtor. I had a packet of something belonging to him in my pocket, which was presumably valuable. His friend, Mr. Cullen, I detested, and the reference to Bow Street puzzled me. However, I had no doubt that in a few minutes everything would be explained. Meantime I permitted myself to indulge in certain very pleasurable anticipations.
In the course of about a quarter of an hour Mr. Joseph H. Parker reappeared. He came down the room humming a tune and apparently quite pleased with himself. I took the opportunity of studying his personal appearance a little more closely. He was not tall, but he was distinctly fat. He had a large double chin, but a certain freshness of complexion and massiveness about his forehead relieved his face from any suspicion of grossness. He had a large and humorous mouth, delightful eyes and plentiful eyebrows. His iron-gray hair was brushed carefully back from his forehead. He gave one the idea of strength, notwithstanding the disabilities of his figure. He smiled contentedly as he seated himself once more at my table.
"Really," he began, "I scarcely know how to excuse myself, Mr. Walmsley. However, thanks to you, we can now dine in comfort. Until now I fear I have taken your good offices very much for granted; but I assure you it will give me the greatest pleasure to make your closer acquaintance and to impress upon you my extreme sense of obligation."
"You are very kind," I replied. "By the by, might I ask how you know my name?"
"My young friend," Mr. Parker said, eying with approval the fresh portion of chicken that had been brought him, "it is my business to know many things. I go about the world with my eyes and ears open. Things that escape other people interest me. Your name is Mr. Paul Walmsley. You are one of a class of men that practically doesn't exist in America. You have no particular occupation that I know of, save that you have a small estate in the country, which no doubt takes up some of your time. You have rooms in London, which you occupy occasionally. You probably write a little—I have noticed that you are fond of watching people."
"You really seem to know a good deal about me," I confessed, a little taken aback.
"I am not far from the mark, am I?"
"You are not," I admitted.
"As regards your lack of occupation," Mr. Parker went on, "I am not the man to blame you for it. There are very few things in life a man can settle down to nowadays. To a person of imagination the ordinary routine of the professions and the ordinary curriculum of business life is a species of slavery. We live in overcivilized times. There seems to be very little room anywhere for a man to gratify his natural instincts for change and adventure."
I murmured my acquiescence with his sentiments and my companion paused for a few minutes, his whole attention devoted to his dinner.
"Might one inquire," I asked, after a brief pause, "as to your own profession? You are an American, are you not?"
"I am most certainly an American," Mr. Parker assented.
"In business?" I asked.
Mr. Parker looked round. Our table was comparatively isolated.
"I am an adventurer," he replied mysteriously.
I stared at him and repeated the word. He beamed pleasantly upon me.
"An adventurer! My daughter, whom you have seen here with me, is an adventuress. We live by our wits and we do pretty well at it. Sometimes we live in luxury. Sometimes we are up against it good and hard. The Ritz one day, you know, and Bloomsbury the next; but lots of fun all the time."
I looked at him a little blankly.
"To a certain extent I suppose you are joking?" I asked.
"To no extent at all," he assured me. "By the by, as regards that packet; would you mind just slipping it under this newspaper?"
I withdrew it from my pocket and obeyed him at once. Mr. Parker's fingers seemed to play with it for a moment and I noticed at that moment what a strong and capable hand he seemed to have, with fingers of unusual length and suppleness.
A dark faced maitre d'hotel, who presided over our portion of the room, came up smiling, with an inquiry as to our coffee. He exchanged a casual sentence or two with Mr. Parker, bowed and passed on. Mr. Parker, a moment later, with a little smile lifted the newspaper. The packet had disappeared. He noticed my look of surprise and seemed gratified.
"A mere trifle, that!" he declared. "I can assure you that I could have taken it out of your pocket, if I had desired, without your feeling a thing."
"Wonderful!" I murmured, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
"Just a gift!" he continued modestly. "We all have our talents, you know. I have ordered some special coffee."
I was beginning to think rapidly now.
"By the by," I asked, "what is Mr. Cullen's profession?"
"He is a detective," Mr. Parker answered, without hesitation; "and, to my mind, a singularly bad one. For two months he has had what they call his eye on me. Between ourselves I think he will have his eye on me still in another two months' time. I am sure I hope so, for I frankly admit that half the savor of life would be gone if my friend, Mr. Cullen, were to finally give me up as a bad job and leave me alone."
I suppose that something of what I was feeling was reflected in my face. I had always considered myself a man of the world and I was interested enough in my fellows to enjoy mixing with all classes.
But there was the girl!
"You are thinking—!" my companion began softly.
"Your friend," I interrupted, "has just entered the restaurant. He is coming toward this table."
Mr. Parker's expression never changed. Not a muscle twitched. His tone was even careless.
"Just as well, perhaps," he remarked, "that we worked that little conjuring trick."
The detective stood once more at our table. My instinctive dislike of him was now an accomplished thing. I hated his smile of subdued triumph, and all my fundamental ideas as to law and order were seriously affected by it. I was distinctly on the side of my new acquaintance.
"I am sorry to interrupt this little feast," Mr. Cullen said, "but I shall have to trouble you both to come with me for a short time."
Mr. Parker carefully clipped the end of his cigar and leaned back in his chair while he lit it.
"My friend Cullen," he remonstrated, "I have no objection to offering myself up as a victim to your super-abundant energy and trotting about with you wherever you choose; but when it comes to dragging my friends into it, I just want to say right here that I think you are carrying things a little too far—just a little too far, sir."
"If either of you seriously object to my request," Mr. Cullen replied doggedly, "I can put the matter on a different basis."
"Who is this friend of yours and why should we go anywhere with him?" I asked.
Mr. Parker shook his head mournfully.
"You may well ask," he sighed. "You may not think it, to look at his ingenuous and honest expression, but the fact, nevertheless, remains that Mr. Cullen is a misguided but zealous member of the Sherlock Holmes fraternity: in short, a detective."
I rose to my feet with some alacrity.
"Anything in the shape of an adventure—" I began.
"Not much adventure about this," Mr. Parker interrupted gloomily, brushing the ashes from his waistcoat and also rising. "We are probably going to be searched for spoons. However if it must be—"
For the first time in my life I walked side by side with a detective. He led us to the far end of the restaurant, into an apartment usually used by the manager as a wine-tasting office, and carefully closed the door behind us. Outside I caught the glimmer of a policeman's helmet.
"Every precaution taken, you perceive," Mr. Parker remarked. "In case we should turn out to be desperate characters and, appalled by the fear of discovery, should be driven to make a personal attack upon Mr. Cullen, a myrmidon of the law is lurking near. Under those circumstances I shall eschew violence. I shall submit myself peaceably to a second examination."
I found the affair, on the whole, interesting. I divested myself only of my coat and waistcoat and Mr. Cullen's fingers did the rest. Only a single and momentary frown betrayed his disappointment as, ten minutes later, he unlocked the door.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I owe you my most profound apologies."
"That's all right, Cullen," Mr. Parker observed, patting him on the shoulder; "but let's have this thing straight now. Are we to be allowed to finish our dinner in peace or will you be turning up again with a new idea? And if I take a box for the Tivoli presently, shall we have the pleasure of seeing you bob in upon us?"
"So far as my present intentions are concerned," Mr. Cullen remarked grimly, "you may rely upon remaining undisturbed. I am sorry, Mr. Walmsley," he added, turning to me, "to have been the cause of any annoyance to you this evening. My advice to you is, if you wish to escape these inconveniences through life, to avoid the society of people whose character is known to the police."
"I shall get you for libel yet, Cullen!" Mr. Parker declared, pulling down his waistcoat.
"What I've done to annoy that man I can't imagine," he went on impersonally. "Mind, he practises on me—I'm convinced of it."
Mr. Cullen left us abruptly and quitted the restaurant. I returned to our table with my new friend.
"Really," he said, "I scarcely know how to apologize to you, Mr. Walmsley. This sort of thing amuses me, as a rule; but I must admit that Mr. Cullen is apt to get on one's nerves. A well-meaning man, mind, but unduly persistent!"
I resumed my seat at the table. I was feeling a little dazed. Opposite, talking to two ladies, was the smooth-faced maitre d'hotel into whose keeping I felt sure that packet had gone. Seated by my side was the gentleman who had assured me with the utmost self-possession that he was an adventurer. And standing in the doorway, looking at us, was the girl who for the last few weeks had monopolized all my thoughts; who had played havoc to such a complete extent with the principles of my life that, for her sake, I was at that moment perfectly willing to range myself even among the outcasts of the world.
CHAPTER II—THE COUP IN THE GAMBLING DEN
On seeing us the girl advanced into the room. I called Mr. Parker's attention to her and he rose at once to his feet. It was a cold evening in April and she was wearing a long coat trimmed with some dark-colored fur, and a hat also trimmed with fur, but with something blue in it. She was rather tall; she had masses of dark brown hair, a suspicion of a fringe, and deep blue eyes. She came toward us very deliberately, with the same grace of movement I had watched and admired night after night. She gave me a glance of the slightest possible curiosity as she approached. Then her father introduced us.
"This is Mr. Paul Walmsley, my dear," he said—"my daughter. Have you dined, Eve?"
She shook hands with me and smiled very charmingly.
"Hours ago," she replied. "I didn't mean to come out this evening, but I was so bored that I thought I would try and find you."
She accepted the chair I was holding and unbuttoned her cloak.
"You will have some coffee?" I begged.
"Why, that would be delightful," she agreed. "I am so glad to find you with my father, Mr. Walmsley," she continued. "I know he hates dining alone; but this evening I had an appointment with a dressmaker quite late —and I didn't feel a bit like dinner anyhow."
"You come here often, don't you?" I ventured.
"Very often indeed," she replied. "You see it is not in the least entertaining where we are staying and the cooking is abominable. Then father adores restaurants. Do tell me what you have been talking about— you two men—all the evening?"
"The truth!" Mr. Parker remarked, lighting another cigar. "My daughter knows that I speak nothing else. It is a weakness of mine. Mr. Walmsley and I were exchanging notes as to our relative professions. I told him frankly that I was an adventurer and you an adventuress. I think by now he is beginning to believe it."
She laughed very softly—almost under her breath; yet I fancied there was a note of mockery in her mirth.
"Confess that you were very much shocked, Mr. Walmsley!" she said.
"Not in the least," I assured her.
She raised her eyebrows ever so slightly.
"Confess, then," she went on, "confess, Mr. Walmsley, that in all your well-ordered life you have never heard such an admission made by two apparently respectable people before."
"How do you know," I asked, "that my life has been well-ordered?"
"Look at yourself in the glass," she begged.
Scarcely knowing what I did, I turned round in my seat and obeyed her. There is, perhaps, a certain preciseness about my appearance as well as my attire. I am tall enough—well over six feet—but my complexion still retains traces of my years in Africa and of my fondness for outdoor sports. My hair is straight and I have never grown beard or mustache. I felt, somehow, that I represented the things which in an Englishman are a little derided by young ladies on the other side of the water.
"I can't help my appearance," I said, a little crossly. "I can assure you that I am not a prig."
"Our young friend," Mr. Parker intervened, "has certainly earned his immunity from any such title. To tell you the truth, Eve, he has already been my accomplice this evening in a certain little matter. But for his help, who knows that I might not have found myself up against it? Between us we have even had a little fun out of Cullen."
Her expression changed. She seemed, for some reason, none too well pleased.
"What have you been doing?" she asked me.
"I, personally, have been doing very little indeed," I told her. "Your father entered the restaurant in a hurry about an hour ago and found it convenient to seat himself at my table and help himself to my dinner. He intrusted me, also, with a packet, which I subsequently returned to him."
"It is now," Mr. Parker declared, replying to his daughter's anxious glance, "in perfectly safe hands."
She sighed and shook her head at him.
"Daddy," she murmured plaintively, "why will you run such risks? Even Mr. Cullen isn't an absolute idiot, you know, and there might have been some one else watching."
Mr. Parker nodded.
"You are quite right, my dear," he admitted. "To tell you the truth, Cullen was really a little smarter than usual this evening. However, there's always the luck, you know—our luck! If Mr. Walmsley had turned out a different sort of man—but, then, I knew he wouldn't."
She turned her head and looked at me. She had a trick of contracting the corners of her eyes just a little, which was absolutely bewitching.
"Will you tell me why you helped my father in this way, Mr. Walmsley?"
I returned her regard steadfastly.
"It never occurred to me," I said, "to do anything else—after I had recognized him."
She smiled a little. My speech was obviously sincere. I think from that moment she began to realize why I had occupied the little table, opposite to the one where she so often sat, with such unfailing regularity.
"What about a music hall?" Mr. Parker suggested. "I hear there's a good show on right across the street here. Have you any engagement for this evening, Mr. Walmsley?"
"None at all," I hastened to assure him.
We left the place together a few minutes later and found a vacant box at the Tivoli. Arrived there, however, Mr. Parker soon became restless. He kept on seeing friends in the auditorium. We watched him, with his hat a little on the back of his head, going about shaking hands in various directions.
"How long have you been in England?" I asked my companion.
"Barely two months," she replied. "Do look at father! Wherever he goes it's the same. The one recreation of his life is making friends. The people he is speaking to to-night he has probably come across in a railroad train or an American bar. He makes lifelong friendships every time he drinks a cocktail, and he never forgets a face."
"Isn't that a little trying for you?" I asked.
She laughed outright.
"If you could only see some of the people he brings up and introduces to me!"
We talked for some time upon quite ordinary subjects. As the time passed on, however, and her father did not return, it seemed to me she became more silent. She told me very little about herself and the few personal things she said were always restrained. I was beginning to feel almost discouraged; she sat so long with a slight frown upon her forehead and her head turned away from me.
"Miss Parker," I ventured at last, "something seems to have displeased you."
"It has," she admitted.
"Will you please tell me what it is?" I asked humbly. "If I have said or done anything clumsy give me a chance, at any rate, to let you see how sorry I am."
She turned and faced me then.
"It is not your fault," she assured me; "only I am a little annoyed with my father."
"I think," she went on, "it is perfectly delightful that he should have made your acquaintance. It isn't that at all. But I do not think he should have made use of you in the way he did. He is utterly reckless sometimes and forgets what he is doing. It is all very well for himself, but he has no right to expose you to—to—"
"To what risk did he expose me?" I demanded. "Tell me, Miss Parker—was he absolutely honest when he told me he was an adventurer?"
"Was I, then, an accomplice in anything illegal to-night?"
"Worse than illegal—criminal!" she told me.
Now my father had been a judge and I had a brother who was a barrister; but the madness was upon me and I spoke quickly and convincingly.
"Then all I have to say about it is that I am glad!" I declared.
"Why?" she murmured, looking at me wonderingly.
"Because he is your father and I have helped him," I answered under my breath.
For a few moments she was silent. She looked at me however; and as I watched her eyes grow softer I suddenly held out my hand, and for a moment she suffered hers to rest in it. Then she drew away a little.
She was still looking at me steadfastly; but something that had seemed to me inimical had gone from her expression.
"Mr. Walmsley," she said slowly, "I want to tell you I think you are making a mistake. Please listen to me carefully. You do not belong to the order of people from whom the adventurers of the world are drawn. What you are is written in your face. I am perfectly certain you possess the ordinary conventional ideas as to right and wrong—the ideas in which you have been brought up and which have been instilled into you all your life. My father and I belong to a different class of society. There is nothing to be gained for you by mixing with us, and a great deal to be lost."
"May I not judge for myself?" I asked.
"I fear," she answered, looking me full in the face and smiling at me delightfully, "you are just a little prejudiced."
"Supposing," I whispered, "I have discovered something that seems to me better worth living for than anything else I have yet found in the world I know of—if that something belongs to a world in which I have not yet lived—do you blame me if for the sake of it I would be willing to climb down even into——"
She held out her finger warningly. I heard heavy footsteps outside and the rattle of the doorhandle.
"You are very foolish!" she murmured. "Please let my father in."
Mr. Parker returned in high good humor. He had met a host of acquaintances and declared that he had not had a dull moment. As for the performance he seemed to have forgotten there was one going on at all.
"I am for supper," he suggested. "I owe our friend here a supper in return for his interrupted dinner."
"Supper, by all means!" I agreed.
"Remember that I am wearing a hat," Eve said. "We must go to one of the smaller places."
In the end we went back to Stephano's. We sat at the table at which I had so often watched Eve and her father sitting alone, and by her side I listened to the music I had so often heard while I had watched her from what had seemed to me to be an impossible distance.
Mr. Parker talked wonderfully. He spoke of gigantic financial deals in Wall Street; of operations which had altered the policy of nations; of great robberies in New York, the details of which he discussed with amazing technical knowledge.
He played tricks with the knives and forks, balanced the glasses in extraordinary fashion, and reduced our waiters to a state of numbed and amazed incapacity. Every person who entered he seemed to have some slight acquaintance with. All the time he was acknowledging and returning greetings, and all the time he talked.
We spoke finally of gambling; and he laughed heartily when I made mild fun of the gambling scare that was just then being written up in all the papers and magazines.
"So you don't believe in baccarat tables in London!" he said. "Very good! We shall see. After we have supped we shall see!"
We stayed until long past closing time. Mr. Parker continued in the highest good humor, but Eve was subject at times to moods of either indifference or depression. The more intimate note which had once or twice crept into our conversation she seemed now inclined to deprecate. She avoided meeting my eyes. More than once she glanced toward the clock.
"Haven't you an appointment to-night, father?" she asked, almost in an undertone.
"Sure!" Mr. Parker answered readily. "I have an appointment, and I am going to take you and Mr. Walmsley along."
"I am delighted to hear it!" I exclaimed quickly.
"I'll teach you to make fun of the newspapers," Mr. Parker went on. "No gambling hells in London, eh? Well, we shall see!"
To my great relief Eve made no spoken objection to my inclusion in the party. When at last we left a large and handsome motor car was drawn up outside waiting for us.
"A taxicab," Mr. Parker explained, "is of no use to me—of no more use than a hansom cab. I have to keep a car in order to slip about quietly. Now in what part of London shall we look for a gambling hell, Mr. Walmsley? I know of eleven. Name your own street—somewhere in the West End."
I named one at random.
"The very place!" Mr. Parker declared; "the very place where I have already an appointment. Get in. Say, you Londoners have no idea what goes on in your own city!"
We drove to a quiet street not very far from the Ritz Hotel. Mr. Parker led us across the pavement and we entered a block of flats. The entrance hall was dimly lit and there seemed to be no one about. Mr. Parker, however, rang for a lift, which came promptly down.
"You two will stay here," he directed, "for two or three minutes. Then the lift will come down for you."
He ascended and left us there. I turned at once to Eve, who had scarcely spoken a word during the drive from the restaurant.
"I do wish you would tell me what is troubling you, Miss Parker," I begged. "If I am really in the way of course you have only to say the word and I'll be off at once."
She held my arm for a moment. The touch of her fingers gave me unreasonable pleasure.
"Please don't think me rude or unkind," she pleaded. "Don't even think that I don't like your coming along with us—because I do. It isn't that. Only, as I told my father before supper, you don't belong! You ought not to be seen at these places, and with us. For some absurd reason father seems to have taken a fancy to you. It isn't a very good thing for you. It very likely won't be a good thing for us."
"Do please change your opinion of me a little," I implored her. "I can't help my appearance; but let me assure you I am willing to play the Bohemian to any extent so long as I can be with you. There isn't a thing in your life I wouldn't be content to share," I ventured to add.
She sighed a little petulantly. She was half-convinced, but against her will.
"You are very obstinate," she declared; "but, of course, you're rather nice."
After that I was ready for anything that might happen. The lift had descended and the porter bade us enter. We stopped at the third floor. In the open doorway of one of the flats Mr. Parker was standing, solid and imposing. He beckoned us, with a broad smile, to follow him.
To my surprise there were no locked doors or burly doorkeepers. We hung up our things in the hall and passed into a long room, in which were some fifteen or twenty people. Most of them were sitting round a chemin de fer table; a few were standing at the sideboard eating sandwiches. A dark-haired, dark-eyed, sallow-faced man, a trifle corpulent, undeniably Semitic, who seemed to be in charge of the place, came up and shook hands with Mr. Parker.
"Glad to see you, sir—and your daughter," he said, glancing keenly at them both and then at me. "This gentleman is a friend of yours?"
"Certainly," Mr. Parker replied. "I won't introduce you, but I'll answer for him."
"You would like to play?"
"I will play, certainly," Mr. Parker answered cheerfully. "My friend will watch—for the present, at any rate."
He waved us away, himself taking a seat at the table. I led Eve to a divan at the farther corner of the room. We sat there and watched the people. There were many whose faces I knew—a sprinkling of stock-brokers, one or two actresses, and half a dozen or so men about town of a dubious type. On the whole the company was scarcely reputable. I looked at Eve and sighed.
"Well, what is it?" she asked.
"This is no sort of place for you, you know," I ventured.
"Here it comes," she laughed; "the real, hidebound, respectable Englishman! I tell you I like it. I like the life; I like the light and shade of it all. I should hate your stiff English country houses, your highly moral amusements, and your dull day-by-day life. Look at those people's faces as they bend over the table!"
"Well, I am looking at them," I told her. "I see nothing but greed. I see no face that has not already lost a great part of its attractiveness."
"Perhaps!" she replied indifferently. "I will grant you that greed is the keynote of this place; yet even that has its interesting side. Where else do you see it so developed? Where else could you see the same emotion actuating a number of very different people in an altogether different manner?"
"For an adventuress," I remarked, "you seem to notice things."
"No one in the world, except those who live by adventures, ever has any inducement to notice things," she retorted. "That is why amateurs are such failures. One never does anything so well as when one does it for one's living."
"The question is arguable," I submitted.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Every question is arguable if it is worth while," she agreed carelessly. "Look at all those people coming in!"
"I don't understand it," I confessed. "These places are against the law, yet there seems to be no concealment at all! Why aren't we raided?"
"Raids in this part of London only take place by arrangement," she assured me. "This place will reach its due date sometime, but every one will know all about it beforehand. They are making a clear profit here of about four hundred pounds a night and it has been running for two months now. When the raid comes Mr. Rubenstein—I think that is his name—can pay his five- hundred-pound fine and move on somewhere else. It's wicked—the money they make here some nights!"
"You seem to know a good deal about it," I remarked.
"The place interests father," she told me. "He comes here often."
"Sometimes. I am not always in the humor."
I looked at her long and thoughtfully. Her beauty was entirely the beauty of a young girl. There were no signs of late hours or anxiety in her face. She puzzled me more than ever.
"I wish I knew," I said, "exactly what you mean when you call yourself an adventuress."
"It means this," she explained: "To-night I have money in my purse, jewels on my fingers, a motor car to ride home in. In a week's time, if things went badly with us, I might have nothing. Then father or I, or both of us, would go out into the world to replenish, and from whomever had most of what we desired we should take as opportunity presented itself."
"Irrespective of the law?"
"Irrespective of your sense of right and wrong?"
"My sense of right and wrong, according to your standards, does not exist."
I gave it up. She seemed thoroughly in earnest, and yet every word she spoke seemed contrary to my instinctive judgment of her. She pointed to the table.
"Look!" she whispered. "These people don't seem as though they had all that money to gamble with, do they? Look! There must be at least a thousand or fifteen hundred pounds upon the table."
It was just as she said these words that the thing happened. From somewhere among the little crowd of people gathered round the table there came the sound of heavy stamping on the floor, and in less than a moment every light in the room went out. The place was in somber darkness. Then, breaking the momentary silence, there came from outside a shrill whistle. Again there was a silence—and then pandemonium! In a dozen different keys one heard the same shout:
Eve gripped my arm. My matchbox was out in a moment and I struck a match, holding it high over my head. As it burned a queer little halo of light seemed thrown over the table. The door was wide open and blocked with people rushing out. The banker was still sitting in his place. At first I seemed to have the idea that Mr. Parker was by his side. Then, to my astonishment, I saw him at the opposite end of the table, standing as though he had appeared from nowhere. A stentorian voice was heard from outside:
"Ladies and gentlemen, if you please! Nothing has happened. The lights will be on again immediately."
Almost as he spoke the place was flooded with light.
The faces of the people were ghastly. A babel of voices arose.
"Where are the police?"
"Where are they?"
"Who said the police?"
The little dark gentleman whose name was Rubenstein stood upon a chair.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he called out, "nothing whatever has happened— nothing! The electric lights went out owing to an accident, which I will investigate. It seems to have been a practical joke on the part of the lift man, who has disappeared. There are no police here. Please take your places. The game will proceed."
They came back a little reluctantly, as though still afraid. Then suddenly the banker's hoarse voice rang out through the room. All the time he had been sitting like an automaton. Now he was on his feet, swaying backward and forward, his eyes almost starting from his head.
"Lock the doors! The bank has been robbed! The notes have gone! Mr. Rubenstein, don't let any one go out! I tell you there was two thousand pounds upon the table. Some one has the notes!"
There was a little murmur of voices and a shriek from one of the women as she clutched her handbag. Mr. Parker, bland and benign, rose to his feet.
"My own stake has disappeared," he declared; "and the pile of notes I distinctly saw in front of the banker has gone. I fear, Mr. Rubenstein, there is a thief among us."
Mr. Rubenstein, white as a sheet, was standing at the door. He locked it and put the key in his pocket.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "play is over for to-night. We are, without a doubt, the victims of an attempted robbery. The lights were turned out from the controlling switch by the lift man, who has disappeared. I will ask you to leave the room one by one; and, for all our sakes, I beg that any unknown to us will submit themselves to be searched."
There was a little angry murmur. Mr. Rubenstein looked pleadingly round.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he begged, "you will not object, I am sure. I am a poor man. Two thousand pounds of my money has gone from that table—all the money I kept in reserve to make a bank for you. If any one will return it now nothing shall be said. But to lose it all—I tell you it would ruin me!"
The perspiration stood out on his forehead. He looked anxiously round, as though seeking for sympathy. Mr. Parker came over to his side.
"Say, Mr. Rubenstein," he declared, "there isn't any one here who wants you to lose a five-pound note—that's a sure thing! But there is just one difficulty about this searching business: How can you identify your notes? If I, for instance, were to insist that I had brought with me two thousand pounds in banknotes in my pocket—which, let me hasten to assure you, I didn't—how could you deny it?"
"My notes," Mr. Rubenstein replied feverishly, "all bear the stamp of Lloyd's Bank and to-day's date. They can all be recognized."
"In that case," Mr. Parker continued, "I recommend you, Mr. Rubenstein, to insist upon searching every person here not thoroughly known to you; and I recommend you, ladies and gentlemen," he added, looking round, "to submit to be searched. It will not be a very strenuous affair, because no one can have had time to conceal the notes very effectively. I think you will all agree with me that we cannot allow our friend, who has provided us with amusement for so many nights, to run the risk of a loss like this. Begin with me, Mr. Rubenstein. No—I insist upon it. You know me better than most of your clients, I think; but I submit myself voluntarily to be searched."
"I thank you very much indeed, sir," Mr. Rubenstein declared quickly. "It is very good of you to set the example," he continued, thrusting his hand into Mr. Parker's pockets. "Ah! I see nothing here—nothing! Notes in this pocket—ten, twenty, thirty. Not mine, I see—no Lloyd's stamp. Gold! A pleasant little handful of gold, that. Mr. Parker, I thank you, sir. If you will be so good as to pass into the next room."
I brought Eve up. We were recognized as having been sitting upon the divan and Mr. Rubenstein, with a bow and extended hand, motioned to us to pass on.
"You will visit us again, I trust," he said, "when we are not so disturbed."
"Most certainly!" Mr. Parker promised in our names. "Most certainly, Mr. Rubenstein. We will all come again. Good night!"
We walked out to the landing and, descending the stairs, reached the street and stepped into the motor car that was waiting for us. It rolled off and turned into Piccadilly.
"How much was it, father?" Eve asked suddenly, from her place in the corner.
"I am not sure," Mr. Parker answered. "There is a matter of eight hundred pounds in my right shoe, and a little more than that, I think, in my left. The note down my back was, I believe, a hundred-pound one. Quite a pleasant little evening and fairly remunerative! The lift man will cost me a hundred—but he was worth it."
I sat quite still. I felt that Eve's eyes were watching me. I set my teeth for a moment; and I turned toward her, my cigarette case in my hand.
"You don't mind?" I murmured as I lit a cigarette.
She shook her head. Her eyes were still fixed upon me.
"Where can we drop you?" Mr. Parker inquired.
"If the evening is really over and there are no more excitements to come, you might put me down at the Milan Court," I told him, "if that is anywhere on your way."
Mr. Parker lifted the speaking tube to his lips and gave an order. We glided up to the Milan a few minutes later.
"I have enjoyed my evening immensely," I assured Eve impressively, "every moment of it; and I do hope, Mr. Parker," I added as I shook hands, "that you and your daughter will give me the great pleasure of dining with me any night this week. If there are any other little adventures about here in which I could take a hand I can assure you I should be delighted. I might even be of some assistance."
They both of them looked at me steadfastly. Then Eve at last glanced away, with a little shrug of the shoulders, and Mr. Joseph H. Parker gripped my hand.
"Say, you're all right!" he pronounced. "You just ring up 3771A Gerrard to-morrow morning between ten and eleven."
CHAPTER III—CULLEN GIVES ADVICE
At ten o'clock the following morning my telephone bell rang and a visitor was announced. I did not catch the name given me, and it was only when I opened the door to him in response to his ring that I recognized Mr. Cullen. In morning clothes, which consisted in his case of a blue serge suit that needed brushing and a bowler hat of extinct shape, he seemed to me, if possible, a little more objectionable than I had found him the previous night. He presented himself, however, in a wholly non-aggressive spirit.
"Mr. Walmsley," he said, as he took the chair to which I motioned him, "I have called to see you very largely in your own interests."
I murmured something to the effect that I was extremely obliged.
"I have made inquiries concerning you," he went on, "and I find that you not only have a blameless record but that you are possessed of considerable means, and that you belong to a highly esteemed county family."
"And what of it, Mr. Cullen?" I asked.
"This," he answered, "that I feel it my duty to warn you against the companions with whom you spent a portion of last evening."
"You mean Mr. and Miss Parker?"
"I mean Mr. and Miss Parker."
"Are you making any definite charges against this young lady and gentleman?" I inquired after a moment's pause.
"Very definite charges indeed!" he replied. "I warn you, Mr. Walmsley, that this man and his daughter are in bad repute with us, and to be seen associated with them is to bring yourself under police surveillance. We had a special warning when they sailed from New York, and since their arrival in London they have already been concerned in two or three very shady transactions."
"If they break the law," I inquired, "why do you not arrest them?"
"Because I have had bad luck—rotten bad luck!" Mr. Cullen declared firmly. "I am perfectly convinced that this Mr. Parker, as he calls himself, has been financing one of the greatest artists in banknote counterfeits ever known to the police. I am perfectly convinced that Mr. Parker left this young man in Adam Street last night, with a packet of notes upon his person for which he had just paid two hundred pounds, and if I could have arrested him then the game would have been up. He dodged me by going into the Cecil, leaving by the back way and coming through the Savoy; but I picked him up again within two minutes of his reaching Stephano's.
"Obviously with your collusion—you'll pardon me, sir, but there the facts are—he was seated at your table as though in the middle of a dinner. I had him searched, but there wasn't a thing on him. I am not going to ask you what he did with the notes he had—whether he palmed them off on you or not—but I will simply say that between the time of his entering Stephano's and the time of my searching him he got rid of a thousand pounds' worth of counterfeit notes."
"Sounds very clever of him!" I remarked. "How do you know that he didn't get rid of them to some one in either the Cecil or the Savoy?"
"Because," Mr. Cullen explained, "he was followed by one of my men through both places and not lost sight of for a single second. You see, I made sure he would come to Stephano's and I was on the other side of the Strand, but I had left a man in case he went the other way. I tell you he was under the strictest surveillance the whole time, except during the few minutes—I might almost say seconds—when he disappeared in the restaurant."
"Anything else against him?" I asked.
"I am not inclined," Mr. Cullen continued slowly, "to mention specifically the various cases that have come under my notice and in which I believe him to be concerned; but, among other things, he is a frequenter of half the gambling houses in London and a tout for their owners. Trouble follows wherever he goes. But, Mr. Walmsley, mark my words! I am not a man given to idle speech and I assure you that within a few weeks—perhaps within a few days—I shall have him; aye, and the young lady, too! You don't want to be mixed up in this sort of business, sir. I am here to give you the advice to sheer off! They'll only rob you and bring you, too, under suspicion."
I lit a cigarette and stood on the hearthrug with my hands behind me.
"Mr. Cullen," I said, "it is, of course, very kind of you to come to me in this disinterested manner. You don't seem to have anything to gain by it, so I will accept your attitude as being a bona fide one. I will, if I may, be equally frank with you. I met both Mr. Parker and his daughter last night for the first time——"
"Then that dinner was a plant!" Mr. Cullen interrupted swiftly. "I knew it!"
I ignored the interruption.
"For the first time," I repeated; "and I find them both most delightful companions. As to how far our acquaintance may progress, that is entirely a matter for chance to decide. You have doubtless come here with very good motives, but I see no reason why I should accept your statements concerning Mr. Parker and his daughter. You understand? My suggestion is that you are mistaken. Until I have proved them to be other than they represent themselves to be," I added with infinite subtlety, "I shall continue to derive pleasure from their society."
Mr. Cullen rose at once to his feet.
"My warning has been given, sir," he said. "It only remains for me now to wish you good morning, and to assure you most regretfully that your name will be added to those whom Scotland Yard thinks it well to watch and that your movements from place to place will be noted."
"I trust that Scotland Yard will benefit," I replied politely, and showed him out.
At half past ten I rang up 3771A Gerrard. The telephone was answered almost immediately by a man, apparently a servant. I inquired for Mr. Parker and in a moment or two I heard his voice at the telephone.
"This is Joseph H. Parker speaking. Who are you?"
"I am Paul Walmsley. You told me I might ring up between ten and eleven."
"Sure!" was the prompt reply. "My dear fellow, I am delighted to hear from you. None the worse for our little adventure last night, I hope?"
"Not in the least," I assured him. "On the contrary I am looking forward to another."
"You shall have one," was the delighted answer.
"What about—What is it, Eve? Excuse me for one moment, Mr. Walmsley."
Mr. Parker was apparently dragged away from the telephone. I waited impatiently. He returned in a moment or two. His voice sounded as though he were a little irritated.
"Sorry," he said. "I was going to make a little suggestion to you for this evening, but my daughter here doesn't fall in with it. They will have their own way—these girls."
"It's very disappointing!" I said. "Don't you think you could prevail on her?"
"Look here!" Mr. Parker continued. "I'll tell you what: Let's meet accidentally at dinner tonight. I'll talk Eve round before then. You drop into Stephano's for dinner at about seven-thirty. Then, when you see us there, you can come over and join us."
"Thank you very much," I replied heartily. "By the by, I suppose you couldn't tell me your address? I should like to send Miss Parker some flowers."
Mr. Parker obviously hesitated.
"Better not," he decided regretfully—"not this morning, at any rate. Eve is a bit peculiar; and if you come into our little scheme and it goes wrong the less you know of us the better. See you later!"
I did see Mr. Parker later, but not quite so late as the time appointed. He was in the American bar at the Milan when I looked in there just before luncheon and was talking to two of the most ferocious and objectionable- looking ruffians I had ever seen in my life. He glanced at me blandly, but without any sign of recognition, save that I fancied I caught the slightest twitch of his left eyebrow. I took the hint and did not join him. My reward came presently; for, after leaving the room with his two acquaintances, Mr. Parker strolled back again, and coming straight over to me clapped me on the shoulder.
"This is capital!" he exclaimed. "We meet tonight?"
"Without a doubt," I assured him.
He drew me a little on one side.
"Say," he inquired, scratching the side of his chin, "have you any objection to a bit of a scrap?"
"Not the slightest," I replied, "so long as Miss Parker is out of it!"
"Good boy!" Mr. Parker pronounced. "Yes; we'll keep her out of it, all right. I shall count on you then. Just keep yourself in reserve. We'll talk it over at dinner time. You just stroll in casually and I'll call you over. By the by," he added, lowering his voice, "did you see those two fellows I was with?"
"I saw them!" I confessed. "They were just a trifle noticeable."
Mr. Parker came a little nearer to me. He accentuated his words by beating on the palm of his left hand with two fingers of his right.
"Absolutely, my dear Walmsley, two of the most unmitigated and desperate ruffians on either continent!"
"They looked it," I agreed heartily.
"Their record," Mr. Parker continued—"their police record, I mean—is one of the most wonderful things ever put on paper. The marvelous thing is how, even for a few minutes, they should be out of prison! Did you notice the one with the cast in his eye?"
"I did," I admitted.
"They used to call him Angel Jake," Mr. Parker proceeded confidentially. "He was sentenced to death once for shooting a policeman, but there was some technicality—he was tried in the wrong court—so he got off."
"A very interesting acquaintance," I remarked with utterly wasted sarcasm.
"They're fairly up to their necks in trouble, both of them, on the other side," Mr. Parker declared with relish; "and they're kind o' looking for it here."
I took him by the arm and led him out of the bar into a retired corner of the smoking room. We sat upon a divan and had the room almost to ourselves.
"How is Miss Parker this morning?" I asked.
"Fine!" her father replied. "I told her about the flowers and it made her quite homesick. Girls miss that sort of thing, you know; and over here, living under a sort of cloud, as it were, one can't risk making many friends."
It was a very good opening for me and I took advantage of it.
"Why do you choose to live under a cloud, Mr. Parker?" I asked.
"My dear fellow," he replied earnestly, "I don't altogether choose. I have been frank with you. It's my life."
"If it were only a question of money——" I began tentatively.
"A question of money!" Mr. Parker interrupted. "Isn't everything a question of money? Say, what do you mean exactly?"
"I mean that I admire your daughter, sir—I admire her immensely," I told him. "If she'd have me I'd marry her to-morrow, I am not what you would call a wealthy man, but I have enough money for all reasonable purposes."
Mr. Parker was clearly staggered. He stroked his waistcoat for a moment in an absent sort of way.
"This takes my breath away!" he exclaimed. "Let us understand exactly what it means."
"It means," I told him bluntly, "that I'll make a settlement upon your daughter and give you enough to live on."
He looked first at me and then at the carpet. He began to whistle softly.
"And they always told me," he murmured under his breath, "that you Britishers were so cautious! Why, you know nothing about us at all except what I've told you, and goodness knows that isn't much of a recommendation! Besides, I may not have told you half!"
"I am willing to take my risk," I declared. "I simply don't care. Once in a lifetime a man has that feeling for a woman. If he is wise he goes nap on it. I have never had it before and I am not going to let go. I feel that if I do I may regret it all my life. I don't want any other woman in this world except your daughter, and what I possess in life worth having I am willing to give to make sure of her."
Mr. Parker sat for several moments in profound silence. I could not make out what his mood was, He seemed neither unduly depressed nor elated. He was obviously puzzled, however—puzzled to know precisely what to do or what to say. He sat in the middle of the divan with one thumb in his waistcoat pocket and the other hand flat upon the table. His round face was innocent of smile or frown. Yet I knew he was taking what I had said seriously, though for some reason or other it did not seem to give him unqualified pleasure.
"Well, well!" he said at last. "You've spoken up like a man, anyway—and like a man who knows what he wants. I can't tell how to answer you. I have never lived on any one yet. Sponging's never been in my line. I have enjoyed living on my wits. And Eve—she's a little that way, too. Makes me kind of sorry I've let her go about with me so much. It's a wonderful cloak of respectability you'd throw over us; but I'm wondering whether it's large enough!"
"As my wife—" I began.
"Oh, yes! you'd gather her in all right to start with," he interrupted; "but there are other things," he added, turning a little toward me and looking me in the face. "Suppose she didn't turn out just as you thought! She's a wild, high-spirited sort of creature—is Eve. She loves the music and the rattle of life. I can't fancy her in one of those out-of-the-way, God-forsaken little mudholes you call an English village, sitting in an early-Victorian drawing-room all the afternoon, waiting for the vicar's wife to come to tea, and taking a walk before dinner for entertainment, with an umbrella and mackintosh."
"You've been reading Jane Austen," I told him.
"Never heard of her," he replied promptly. "I once—but never mind. Just keep this to yourself for a bit, my boy. If we come to any arrangement there are one or two things we've got on that we might have to drop. We'll think this over. So long until this evening."
He bustled away then, evidently anxious to escape any further conversation. I went about my business, which consisted of a visit to my lawyer's and a couple of rubbers of bridge at my club before dinner.
At half past seven precisely I strolled into Stephano's. I had scarcely taken my table before Mr. Parker and Eve entered. Contrary to his usual custom, Mr. Parker was wearing a dress coat, white waistcoat and white tie; and Eve looked exquisite in a low-necked gown of white silk. Mr. Parker, according to his promise, at once beckoned me over.
"My dear boy," he said, "I insist upon it that you sit down and dine with us. Last night I dined with you. To be literal, I ate off your plate. Tonight I return the compliment."
I had no idea of refusing, but I was watching Eve with some anxiety. Her attitude seemed a little negative. However, she welcomed me pleasantly.
"Well," she asked, "is your conscience beginning to prick yet?"
"My conscience," I replied, "is about as imaginary a thing as my early- Victorian drawing-room. I can assure you I have the most profound admiration for your father. I think he is one of the cleverest men I ever met."
She seemed a little taken aback. My tone, I felt quite sure, was convincing.
"Of course," she remarked, "it is possible I have formed a wrong idea of Englishmen. I have met only one or two."
"I should say it is highly probable," I agreed. "What scheme of villainy is before us to-night? I claim a share in it at any rate."
She shook her head.
"Not to-night, I am afraid."
Mr. Parker, with the menu in front of him, was busy with the waiter and a maitre d'hotel. I dropped my voice a little.
"Why not? Are you going to the theater?"
"To the opera."
"You love music?" I asked.
She leaned a little toward me. Her hair almost brushed my cheek as she whispered:
"We love jewelry!"
I flatter myself that not a muscle of my face moved.
"No place like the opera!" I remarked. "You should do well there with a little luck."
This time I certainly scored. She looked at me fixedly for a moment. Then she laughed softly.
"I want a pearl necklace," she said.
"What about the one you have on?"
She held it out toward me.
"Imitations, unfortunately," she sighed. "They may look very nice, but they don't feel like the real thing."
"Why can't I go to the opera with you?" I suggested.
"Because there are no vacant seats anywhere near ours," she replied. "You see we happen to know whom we are going to sit near."
"Anyhow, I think I shall go," I decided, "I may be able to come and talk to you between the acts at any rate."
Mr. Parker, having finished giving his orders, joined in the conversation, and we dined together quite cheerily. For educated Americans they seemed very ignorant of English life, and I was not surprised to hear that it was their first visit to Europe. They listened with interest to a great deal that I told them. It was only as we were preparing to leave the place that I asked Mr. Parker a definite question.
"Tell me," I whispered, "have you really any plans for to-night?"
He nodded. "Sure! We are in luck just now. There's nothing like backing it."
"Are those fellows I saw you with this morning at the Milan in it? If so I am going to take Miss Parker away. There are limits—"
He patted me on the back.
"That little affair is off for to-night at any rate. A lady we are very anxious to meet is going to the opera. The little girl wants a pearl necklace. Well, we shall see!"
"You've thought over what I said? Have you mentioned it to her?"
"Only kind of hinted at it. It's no good putting it too straight to her. She's got the bit between her teeth and she'll need to be humored."
Eve had gone to fetch her cloak and we were alone outside the door. I looked at him steadfastly—he was so very pink and white, so very cheerful, so utterly optimistic!
"You've never seen the inside of an English prison, have you, Mr. Parker?" I asked.
He stared at me blankly.
"I am not thinking about you or myself," I went on. "She's so dainty and sweet! She looks like a child who has never known an hour of rough usage in her life. They wouldn't leave her much of that, you know."
I had certainly succeeded in making an impression this time. Mr. Parker's smooth forehead was wrinkled; his face was clouded.
"You are right, Mr. Walmsley," he admitted. "I wish—I wish she would listen to reason. We'll have a talk together—the three of us—soon. You've no idea how difficult it is! She doesn't know fear—can't realize danger. Hush! Here she comes. It will only set her against you if she thinks you are trying to influence me behind her back."
Mr. Parker's car was waiting and we drove together to Covent Garden. I left them in the vestibule and went to call on some of my friends. My sister had a box in the second tier and I was fortunate enough to find her there and alone with her husband. Almost directly underneath us in the stalls Mr. Parker and Eve were sitting; and next Mr. Parker was a woman wearing a pearl necklace. I asked my sister her name. She raised her lorgnette and looked over the side of the box.
"Lady Orstline," she told me. "Her husband is a South African millionaire."
"Are those real pearls she is wearing?" I inquired.
"My dear Paul," she laughed, "why not? Her husband is enormously wealthy and they say that her jewels are wonderful. Unlike so many of those people, she really does select very fine stones, independent of size. Those pearls she is wearing now, for instance, are quite small, but their luster is exquisite. What an extraordinary fat man is sitting next her— and what a pretty girl!"
"Americans," I remarked.
"They look it," she agreed. "Quite the Gibson type of girl, isn't she?"
The curtain went up and we turned our attention to the stage. As a rule I find music soothing; but that night proved an exception—perhaps because my moderately well-ordered life had crumbled into pieces; because I was conscious of a new and overmastering passion—the music appealed to me in an altogether different way. My enjoyment was no longer impersonal—a matter of the brain and the judgment. I felt the excitement of it throbbing in my pulses. The gloomy, half-lit auditorium seemed full of strange suggestions. I felt in real and actual touch with the great things that throbbed beneath. I was no longer an auditor—a looker-on. I had become a participator.
The hours passed as though in a dream. I talked to my sister and her husband, and exchanged the usual gossip with their callers. I even paid a call or two on my own account; but I have no recollection of whom I went to see or what we talked about. I had no chance to visit either Mr. Parker or Eve, for neither of them left their places and they were in the middle of a row; but I took good care that we were close together in the vestibule toward the end. With a little shiver I saw that Lady Orstline was there too—next Mr. Parker. I was a few feet behind them both, with my sister. I found myself watching almost feverishly.
As usual there was a block outside, and the few yards between us and the door seemed interminable. I had none of the optimism of those others. I was filled with vague fears of some impending disaster. Suddenly, with a shiver, I recognized Cullen, scarcely a couple of yards away, also watching, wedged in among the throng. His lips were drawn closely together; his opera hat was well over his forehead; his eyes never left Mr. Parker. He looked to me there like a lean-faced rat preparing for its spring.
I followed the exact direction of his steadfast gaze and I became cold with apprehension. Lady Orstline was just in front of me; by her side was Eve, and immediately behind her Mr. Parker, I tried to lean over, but in the crush it was impossible.
"Some one you want to speak to, Paul?" my sister asked.
"There's a man there—if I can only get at him."
The little crowd in front of us was suddenly thrown into disorder by having to let through two people whose carriage had been called. We seemed to lose ground in the confusion, for a moment or two later I noticed Lady Orstline standing outside the door, and my heart sank as I realized that her neck was bare. Almost at the same instant I saw her hand fly up and heard her voice.
"My necklace!" she called out. "Policeman, don't let any one pass out! My necklace has been stolen—my pearls!"
The confusion that followed was indescribable. The doors were almost barricaded. My sister and her husband and I were allowed through easily enough, as we were known to be subscribers, but almost every one else seemed to be undergoing a sort of cross-examination. My brother-in-law was disposed to be irritable.
"Why can't the silly woman look after her jewels?" he exclaimed. "Another advertisement, I suppose."
"Can we drop you anywhere, Paul?" my sister inquired. "Or would you like to give us some supper?"
I had been staring out of the window. There was not a sign anywhere of Eve or her father; nor had I been able to catch a glimpse of Mr. Cullen.
"I am sorry," I replied; "but I am supping with some friends at Stephano's. Could you set me down there?"
My sister raised her eyebrows as she gave the order. We were already in the Strand.
"Really, Paul," she remonstrated, "at your time of life—you are thirty- four years old, mind—I think you might leave Stephano's to the other generation!"
"Second childhood!" I explained as I descended. "In any case I really have an appointment here. Give you supper any other night with pleasure. Many thanks!"
My first intention had been not to enter the place at all, but to return at once to Covent Garden. Some impulse, however, prompted me to glance round the room first. To my amazement Eve and her father were already seated at their usual table—Eve drawing off her gloves and her father with the wine list in his hand. I made my way toward them. I suppose my expression indicated a certain stupefaction, for directly I got there Eve began to laugh softly up into my face.
"We aren't ghosts!" she declared. "Did you think you were the only person who could leave the opera house in a hurry?"
"I saw you in the vestibule," I ventured. "I never saw you get away."
"No more did our friend Cullen," Mr. Parker remarked, smiling. "I really am beginning to feel sorry for that man. We were within a yard or two of him and he was watching us good and hard. I think he had an idea that Eve had a weakness for pearls."
"Oh, don't!" I exclaimed rather sharply. "Even in joke it isn't exactly wise, is it, with people passing all the time?"
"Joke!" Mr. Parker repeated. "Precious little joke about it, I can assure you. I dare say it looked simple enough to you, but it was really quite a complicated business. Never mind, Eve has her pearls—and that's the great thing."
Then he thrust his hand into his trousers pocket and, without the least attempt at concealment, produced and plumped upon the table in front of him the pearl necklace which only a few minutes before I had seen upon the neck of Lady Orstline.
"Look much better on Eve when they've been re-strung, won't they?" he observed. "Gee whiz! What lovely stones they are!"
"Put it away!" I gasped. "For Heaven's sake, put it away!"
"Why should I?" he asked coolly.
My heart suddenly seemed to stop beating. I felt as though the end of the world had come. With the light of triumph ablaze in his narrow black eyes, Mr. Cullen was standing by our table!
"Good evening, Mr. Parker!" he said in a tone from which he struggled to keep the note of triumph. "Good evening, young lady!"
The hand of Mr. Parker had suddenly covered the pearl necklace. Mr. Cullen was looking steadily toward it.
"I trust," he continued, "that my arrival was not inopportune. I haven't interrupted anything, have I—any little celebration, or anything of that sort?"
"On the contrary, we are always pleased to see you," Mr. Parker declared warmly. "Sit right down, Mr. Cullen! You'll join us, I trust? We were just thinking of ordering a little supper."
Mr. Cullen shook his head. "Perhaps," he advised, "it would be better to postpone that order."
"Postpone it?" Mr. Parker repeated, glancing at the clock. "Why, it's late enough now. Good Heavens, is that the time?"
Mr. Cullen and I both glanced at the clock at the other end of the room. It was twenty minutes to twelve. The detective looked back with a smile.
"You are a past master, Mr. Parker," he said, "in the accomplishment that, I believe, in your country goes by the name of bluff; but there are limits, you know. I shall have to ask you and your daughter and Mr. Walmsley here to accompany me at once to Bow Street. And," he added, suddenly leaning across the table, "move your right hand, please! Don't make a disturbance—for Luigi's sake! If you want trouble you can have it."
Mr. Parker raised his hand at once.
"Trouble?" he echoed. "That's the last thing I'm looking for."
Mr. Cullen smiled grimly.
"Ah! I thank you," he said. "A pearl necklace, I see! You must allow me to take charge of this, please."
Mr. Parker's look of surprise was admirably done.
"That is my daughter's necklace," he explained. "The fastening has become loose."
"Exactly!" Mr. Cullen sneered. "I am now going to ask you all three to come with me without any further delay to Bow Street."
"This man is mad!" Mr. Parker sighed, leaning back in his place—"stark, staring mad! His interference with my meals is becoming unwarrantable."
"If you take my advice you will avoid a scene," the detective said, leaning a little over the table. "Believe me, I am not to be trifled with. If you do not come willingly there are other means. I am simply trying to avoid a disturbance in a public restaurant."
Mr. Parker rose reluctantly to his feet.
"Eve, dear," he said, "I suppose we may as well obey this very autocratic person. The sooner we go the sooner we shall be back to supper. Mr. Walmsley, I owe you my most profound apologies. I had no idea when I asked you to join us that you would become involved in anything disagreeable."
"Don't mind me," I begged him. "I am glad to come. Perhaps we had better get it over as soon as possible."
"We shall be back," Mr. Parker explained to Luigi, who had strolled up to see what was happening, "in twenty minutes. Prepare, if you please, three oyster cocktails, some grilled cutlets, and saute potatoes. Thank you, Luigi. In twenty minutes, mind!"
We passed out toward the entrance. Mr. Cullen was walking with almost professional proximity to his companion. Eve and I were a few steps in the rear.
"Eve," I whispered, drawing her for a moment close to me, "remember that whatever comes of this—whatever happens—there is no word I have ever said to you, or to your father about you, which I do not mean and shall not always mean."
She looked at me a little curiously. From the first her own demeanor had been singularly unmoved. During the last few seconds, however, she had grown paler. She suddenly took my hand and gave it a little squeeze.
"You really are a little more than nice!" she said.
We drove to the police station and Mr. Cullen ushered us at once into a private room, where an inspector was seated at a table.
"Mr. Hennessey, sir," he began, "I have a charge of theft against this man and his daughter. I watched them at the opera house to-night. At the entrance they were both of them hustling Lady Orstline. As you may have heard, she cried out suddenly that her pearl necklace had been stolen. I rushed for these two, but by some means or other they got away. I followed them to Stephano's restaurant and discovered them with the necklace on the table in front of them; The man Parker was showing it to the other two. He attempted to conceal it, but I was just in time."
The inspector nodded.
"Very good, Mr. Cullen," he said. "Where is the necklace?"
The detective produced it proudly and laid it upon the table before him. The inspector dipped his pen in the ink.
"What is your name?" he asked Mr. Parker.
"Joseph H. Parker," was the reply. "I am an American citizen and this is my daughter. Mr. Cullen appears to be a person of observation. It is true we were at the opera. It is perfectly true we were within a few yards of Lady Orstline when she called out that her necklace was stolen. There's nothing remarkable about that, however, as we occupied adjacent stalls. What I want to point out to you is, though, if you'll allow me, that the necklace I had on the table before me at Stephano's when Mr. Cullen suddenly popped round the screen—the necklace you are now looking at, sir—is of imitation pearls, valued at about ten pounds. I bought it in the Burlington Arcade; it belongs to my daughter, and I was simply examining the clasp, which is scarcely safe."
There was a moment's breathless silence. To me Mr. Parker's statement seemed too good to be true; yet he had spoken with the easy confidence of a man who knows what he is about. Standing there, the personification of respectability, a trifle indignant, a trifle contemptuous, his words could not fail to carry with them a certain amount of conviction. The inspector rang a bell by his side.
"What are your daughter's initials?" he asked quickly.
"E.P.—Eve Parker," Mr. Parker replied. "Look at the back of the gold clasp. There you are," he pointed out—"E.P."
Mr. Cullen and the inspector both bent over the necklace. The inspector gave a brief order to a policeman.
"The initials on the clasp are certainly E.P.," the inspector admitted slowly. "I do not pretend to be a judge of jewelry myself. However, I have sent for some one who is."
A man in plain clothes entered the room. The inspector beckoned to him, showed him the necklace and whispered a question. The man examined the pearls for barely five seconds. Then he handed them back.
"Very nice imitation, sir," he pronounced. "There's a place in Bond Street where I should imagine these came from, and another in the Burlington Arcade. Their value is from seven to ten pounds."
The inspector dismissed him. He handed the necklace back to Mr. Parker and rose to his feet.
"I can only express my most profound regret, sir," he said, "on behalf, of the force. Such a mistake is inexcusable. Mr. Cullen will, I am sure, join in offering you every apology."
Mr. Cullen was standing a few yards back. He was biting his lip until it was absolutely colorless. There was a look in his face that was quite indescribable.
"If I have made a mistake this time," he muttered; "if I have been premature—I apologize; but—but—"
Mr. Parker turned to the inspector.
"You know," he said, "I fancy this young man's got what they call on this side a 'down' on me! He's got an idea that I'm a crook—follows me about; doesn't give me a moment's peace, in fact. Say, Mr. Inspector, can't I put this thing right somehow—take him to my banker's—"
"Banker's!" Mr. Cullen ejaculated softly. "The only use you have for a banker is to fleece him!"
"Mr. Cullen!" the inspector exclaimed, frowning.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I am sorry if I forgot myself." He turned abruptly toward the door. "I offer you my apologies, Mr. Parker," he said, looking back; "also the young lady. But—some day the luck may be on my side."
The door slammed behind him. Mr. Parker turned toward the inspector.
"That young man, Mr. Inspector," he said complainingly, "puts altogether too much feeling into his work. I may have been a bit sarcastic with him once or twice; but if it comes to a lifelong vendetta, or anything of that sort, why, he's beginning to look for trouble—that's all! I'm getting sick of the sight of him. If ever I lunch or dine out he's there. If I go to a theater he's about. Whatever harmless amusement I go in for he's there looking on. Just give him a word of caution, Mr. Inspector. I'm a good-tempered man, but this can't go on forever."
The inspector himself escorted us to the door.
"I beg, Mr. Parker," he said, "that you will take no more notice of Mr. Cullen's little fit of temper. As regards your complaint, I promise you that I will talk to him seriously. Allow me to send for a taxicab for you. Oh! I beg your pardon—that is your own car. I only regret that we should have wasted a few minutes of your evening. Good night, gentlemen! Good night, madam!"
We left Bow Street amid many manifestations of courtesy and good will.
"Where shall I tell him to go to, sir?" the policeman asked as he closed the door.
"Back to Stephano's!" Mr. Parker ordered.
We glided down into the Strand. Mr. Parker glanced at his watch.
"We shall just about make those grilled cutlets," he remarked. "Gives you kind of an appetite—this sort of thing! Say, what's the matter with you, Mr. Walmsley?"
"Oh, nothing particular!" I answered. "Only I was just wondering what in the name of all that's miraculous can have become of Lady Orstline's necklace!"
We descended at Stephano's and were ushered to our table, where the oyster cocktails were waiting. Mr. Parker took my arm.
"Perhaps," he murmured, "you may even know that before you go to sleep to-night."
* * * * *
I thought of Mr. Parker's words an hour or so later when I was preparing to undress. I emptied first the things from my trousers pockets. The feeling of something unfamiliar in one of them brought a puzzled exclamation to my lips. I dragged it out and held it in front of me. My heart gave a great leap, the perspiration broke out upon my forehead, My knees shook and I sat down on the bed. Without the slightest doubt in the world it was Lady Orstline's pearl necklace!
CHAPTER IV—THE WOOING OF EVE
I spent a very restless and disturbed night. I rose at six o'clock the following morning, and at ten o'clock I rang up 3771A Gerrard. My inquiry was answered almost at once by Mr. Parker himself.
"Is that you, Walmsley?"
"It is," I replied. "I have been waiting to ring you up since daylight! I want you to understand—"
"You come right round here!" Mr. Parker interrupted soothingly. "No good getting fussy over the telephone!"
"Where to?" I asked. "You forget I don't know your address. I should have been round hours ago if I had known where to find you."
"Bless my soul, no more you do! We are at Number 17, Banton Street—just off Oxford Street, you know."
"I am coming straightaway," I replied.
I was there within ten minutes. The place seemed to be a sort of private hotel, unostentatious and unprepossessing. A hall porter, whose uniform had seen better days and whose linen had seen cleaner ones, conducted me to the first floor. Mr. Parker himself met me on the landing.
"Come right in!" he invited. "I saw you drive up. Eve is in there."
He ushered me into a large sitting room of the type one would expect to find in such a place, but which, by dint of many cushions, flowers, and feminine knickknacks, had been made to look presentable. Eve was seated in an easy-chair by the fire. She turned round at my entrance and laughed.
"Where's my necklace, please?" she demanded.
"The necklace," I replied, as severely as I could, "is by this time on its way to Lady Orstline—if it is not actually in her hands."
"You mean to say you have sent it back?" Mr. Parker exclaimed incredulously.
"Certainly!" I replied. "I posted it to her early this morning."
Mr. Parker's expression was one of blank bewilderment.
"Say, do I understand you rightly?" he continued, coming up and laying his great hand upon my shoulder. "You mean to say that, after all we went through because of that miserable necklace, you've gone and chucked it? Do you know it was worth twenty-five thousand pounds?"
"I don't care whether it was worth twenty-five thousand pounds or twenty- five thousand pennies!" retorted I. "It belonged to Lady Orstline—not to you or your daughter or to me. I know that you are a skillful conjurer and I won't ask you how it found its way into my pocket. I am only glad I have had an opportunity of returning it to its owner."
Mr. Parker shook his head ponderously. He turned to Eve.
"This," he said solemnly, "is the young man who asked leave to join us! What do you think of him, Eve?"
"Nothing at all!" she replied flippantly. "He is absolutely useless!"
"If you think," Mr. Parker went on, "we are in this business for our health, I want you to understand right here that you are mistaken. I never deceived you. I told you the first few seconds we met that I was an adventurer. I am. I brought off a coup last night with that necklace, and you've gone and queered it! It isn't for myself I mind so much," he concluded, "but there's the child there, I was going to have the pearls restrung and let her wear them a bit—until the time came for selling them."
"Look here!" I said. "Let us understand one another. It's all very well to live by your wits; to make a little out of people not quite so smart as you are; to worry through life owing a little here and there, borrowing a bit where you can and taking good care to be on the right side when there's a bargain going. That, I take it, is more or less what is meant by being an adventurer. But when it comes to downright thieving I protest! The penalties are too severe. I beg you, Mr. Parker, to have nothing more to do with it!"
I went on, speaking as earnestly as I could and laying my hand upon his shoulder.
"I ask you now what I asked you yesterday: Give me your daughter! Or if I can't win her all at once let me at any rate have the opportunity of meeting her and trying to persuade her to be my wife. I promise you you shan't have to do any of these things for a living—either of you. Be sensible, Miss Parker—Eve!" I begged, turning to her; "and please be a little kind. I am in earnest about this. Come on my side and help me persuade your father. I am not wealthy, perhaps, as you people count money, but I am not a poor man. I'll buy you some pearls."
Eve threw down the book she had been reading and leaned over the side of her chair, looking at me. She seemed no longer angry. There was, indeed, a touch of that softness in her face which I had noticed once before and which had encouraged me to hope. Her forehead was a little puckered, her dear eyes a little wistful. She looked at me very earnestly; but when I would have moved toward her she held out her hand to keep me back.
"You know," she said, "I think you are quite nice, Mr. Walmsley. I rather like this outspoken sort of love-making. It's quite out of date, of course; but it reminds me of Mrs. Henry Wood and crinolines and woolwork, and all that sort of thing. Anyhow, I like it and—I rather like you, too. But, you see, it's how long?—a matter of thirty-six hours since I met you first! Now I couldn't make up my mind to settle down for life with a man I'd only known thirty-six hours, even if he is rash enough to offer to pension my father and remove me from a life of crime."
"The circumstances," I persisted, "are exceptional. You may laugh at it as much as you like; but there are very excellent reasons why you should be taken away from this sort of life."
She shrugged her shoulders a little dubiously.
"There again!" she protested. "I am not so sure that I want to be taken away from it. I like adventures—I adore excitement; in fact I must have it."
"You shall," I promised. "I'll take you to Paris and Monte Carlo. We'll go up to Khartum and take a caravan beyond. You shall go big-game shooting with me in Africa. I'll take you where very few women have been before. I'll take you where you can gamble with life and death instead of this sordid business of freedom or prison. We'll start for Abyssinia in three weeks if you like. I'll find you excitement—the right sort. I'll take you into the big places, where one feels—and the empty places, where one suffers."
Her eyes flashed sympathetically for a moment.
"It sounds good," she admitted, "and yet—am I ungrateful, I wonder?— there's no excitement for me except where men and women are. I'm afraid I'm a daughter of Babylon."
"Doomed from her infancy to a life of crime, I fear," Mr. Parker declared, pinching a cigar he had just taken out of a box. "She loves the rapier play—the struggle with men and women. Takes risks every moment of the time and thrives on it. All the same, Mr. Walmsley, there's something very attractive about the way you are talking. I am not going to let my little girl decide too hastily. Our sort of life's all very well when we are number one and Mr. Cullen's number two. We can't have the luck all the time, though."
"I haven't dared to mention it in plain words," I answered, "because the thought, the mere thought, of what might happen to Miss Eve is too horrible! But the risk is there all the time. One doesn't deal in forged notes or steal pearl necklaces for nothing; and you've an enemy in Cullen if ever any one had. He means to get you both, and if you give him the least chance he'll have no mercy."
I looked at them anxiously. The whole thing seemed to me so momentous. Neither of them showed the slightest signs of fear or apprehension. Mr. Parker, with his newly lit cigar in the corner of his mouth, was smiling a smile of pleasant contentment. Eve, leaning back in her chair, with her hands clasped round the back of her head, was gazing at me with a bewitching little smile on her lips.
"I am not a bit afraid of Mr. Cullen," she declared softly.
"Between you and me," her father remarked, knocking the ash from his cigar, "there's only one darned thing in this world we are afraid of and that, thank the Lord, isn't this side of the Atlantic!"
The smile faded from Eve's lips. For a moment she closed her eyes—a shiver passed through her frame.
"Don't!" she begged weakly.
"I guess I'll leave it at that," her father agreed. "Now this little proposition of yours, Mr. Walmsley, has just got to lie by for a little time—perhaps only for a very short time. It's a kind of business for us to make up our minds to part with our liberty or any portion of it. Meanwhile, if you'd like to take Eve for a motor ride round and meet me for luncheon, why, the car's outside, and if Eve's agreeable I can pass the time all right."
I looked at her eagerly. She rose at once to her feet.
"Why, it would be charming, if you have nothing to do, Mr. Walmsley," she assented. "I'll put my hat on at once."
"I have nothing to do at any time now but to respect your wishes," I answered firmly, "and wait until you are sensible enough to say Yes to my little proposition."
She looked back at me from the door with a twinkle in her eyes.
"You know," she said, "before I came over I was told that Englishmen were rather slow. I shall begin to doubt it. You wouldn't describe yourself exactly as shy, would you, Mr. Walmsley?"
"I don't know about that," I replied; "but we have other traits as well. We know what we want; very often we get it."
Mr. Parker rose to his feet. He put his hand on my shoulder. He was the very prototype of the self-respecting, conscientious, prospective father- in-law.
"Young fellow," he confessed, "I shall end by liking you!" I drove with Eve for about two hours. We went out nearly as far as Kingston and wound up in the heart of the West End. I tried to persuade her to walk down Bond Street, but she shook her head.
"To tell you the truth," she confided, "I am not very fond of being seen upon the streets. You know how marvelously clever dad is; still we have been talked about once or twice, and there are several people whom I shouldn't care about meeting."
I sighed as I looked out of the window toward the jewelers' shops.
"I should very much like," I said, "to buy you an engagement ring."
She laughed at me.
"You absurd person! Why, I am not engaged to you yet!"
"You are very near it," I assured her. "Anyhow, it would be an awfully good opportunity for you to show me the sort of ring you like."
She shook her head.
"Not to-day," she decided. "Somehow or other I feel that if ever I do let you, you'll choose just the sort of ring I shall love, without my interfering. Where did we say we'd pick father up?"
"Here," I answered, as the car came to a standstill outside the Cafe Royal. "I'll go in and fetch him."
I found Mr. Parker seated at a table with two of the most villainous specimens of humanity I had ever beheld. They were of the same class as the men with whom he had been talking at the Milan, but still more disreputable. He welcomed me, however, without embarrassment.
"Just passing the time, my dear fellow!" he remarked airily. "Met a couple of acquaintances of mine. Will you join us?"
"Miss Parker is outside in the car," I explained. "If you don't mind I will go out and wait with her. You can join us when you are ready."
"Five minutes—not a moment longer, I promise!" he called out after me. "Sorry you won't join us."
I took my place once more by Eve's side. Perhaps my tone was a little annoyed.
"Your father is in there," I said, "with two of the most disreputable- looking ruffians I have ever seen crawling upon the face of the earth. What in the world induces him to sit at the same table with them I cannot imagine."
"Necessity, perhaps," she remarked. "Very likely they are highly useful members of our industry."
Mr. Parker came out almost immediately afterward. I suggested the Ritz for luncheon. They looked at each other dubiously.
"To be perfectly frank with you, my dear fellow," Mr. Parker explained, as he clambered into the car and took the place I had vacated by his daughter's side, "it would give us no pleasure to go to the Ritz. We have courage, both of us—my daughter and I—as you may have observed for yourself; but courage is a different thing from rashness. We have been enjoying a very pleasant and not unlucrative time for the last six weeks, with the—er—natural result that there are several ladies and gentlemen in London whom I would just as soon avoid. The Ritz is one of those places where one might easily come across them."
"The Carlton? Prince's? Claridge's? Berkeley?" I suggested. "Or what do you say to Jules' or the Milan grill-room?"
Mr. Parker shook his head slowly.
"If you really mean that you wish me to choose," he said, "I say Stephano's."
"As you will," I agreed. "I only suggested the other places because I thought Miss Parker might like a change."
We drove to Stephano's. It struck me that Luigi's greeting was scarcely so cordial as usual. He piloted us, however, to the table usually occupied by Mr. Parker. On the way he took the opportunity of drawing me a little apart.
"Mr. Walmsley, sir," he said, "can you tell me anything about Mr. Parker and his daughter?"
"Anything about them?" I repeated.
"That they are Americans I know," he continued, "and that the young lady is beautiful—well, one has eyes! It is not my business to be too particular as to the character of those who frequent my restaurant; but twice Mr. Parker has been followed here by a detective, and last night, as you know, they left practically under arrest. It is not good for my restaurant, Mr. Walmsley, to have the police so often about, and if Mr. Parker and his daughter are really of the order of those who pass their life under police supervision, I would rather they patronized another restaurant."
I only laughed at him.
"My dear Luigi," I protested, "be careful how you turn away custom. Mr. Parker is, I should think, no better or any worse than a great many of your clients."
"If one could but keep the police out of it!" Luigi observed. "Could you drop a word to the gentleman, sir? Since I have seen them in your company I have naturally more confidence, but it is not good for my restaurant to have it watched by the police all the time."
"I'll see what can be done, Luigi," I promised him.
Mr. Parker was twice called up on the telephone during luncheon time. He seemed throughout the meal preoccupied; and more than once, with a word of apology to me, he and Eve exchanged confidential whispers. I felt certain that something was in the air, some new adventure from which I was excluded, and my heart sank as I thought of all the grim possibilities overshadowing it.
I watched them with their heads close together, Mr. Parker apparently unfolding the details of some scheme; and it seemed to me that, after all, the wisest thing I could do was to bid this strange pair farewell after luncheon and return either to the country or cross over to Paris for a few days. And then a chance word, a little look from Eve, a little touch from her fingers, as it occurred to her that I was being neglected, made me realize the absolute impossibility of doing anything of the sort.
For a person of my habits of life and temperament I had certainly fallen into a strange adventure. Not only had Eve herself come to mean for me everything that was real and vital in life, but I was most curiously attracted by her terrible father. I liked him.
I liked being with him. He was a type of person I had never met before in my life and one whom I thoroughly appreciated. I sat and watched him during an interval of the conversation.
Geniality and humor were stamped upon his expression. "I am enjoying life!" he seemed to say to everybody. "Come and enjoy it with me!" What a man to be walking the tight rope all the time—to be risking his character and his freedom day by day!
"If there is anything more on hand," I said, trying to make my tone as little dejected as possible, "I should like to be in it."
Mr. Parker scratched his chin.
"I am not sure that you really enjoy these little episodes."
"Of course I don't enjoy them," I admitted indignantly. "You know that. I hate them. I am miserable all the time, simply because of what may happen to you and to Miss Eve."
Mr. Parker sighed.
"There you are, you see!" he declared. "That's the one kink in your disposition, sir, which places you irrevocably outside the class to which Eve and I belong. Now let me ask you this, young man," he went on: "What is the most dangerous thing you've ever done?"
"I've played some tough polo," I remembered.
"That'll do," Mr. Parker declared. "Now tell me: When you turned out you knew perfectly well that a broken leg or a broken arm—perhaps a cracked skull—was a distinct possibility. Did you think about this when you went into the game? Did you think about it while you were playing?"
"Of course I didn't," I admitted.
"Just so!" Mr. Parker concluded triumphantly. "That's where the sporting instinct comes in. You know a thing is going to amuse and excite you. Beyond that you do not think."
"But in this case," I persisted, "I think it is your duty to think for your daughter's sake."
Eve flashed upon me the first angry glance I had seen from her.
"I think," she decided coldly, "it is not worth while discussing this matter with Mr. Walmsley. We are too far apart in our ideas. He has been brought up among a different class of people and in a different way. Besides, he misses the chief point. If I weren't an adventuress, Mr. Walmsley, I might have to become a typist and daddy might have to serve in a shop. Don't you think that we'd rather live—really live, mind—even for a week or two of our lives, than spend dull years, as we have done, upon the treadmill?"
"I give it up," I said. "There is only one argument left. You know quite well that the pecuniary excuse exists no longer."