Mrs. Warriner and her daughter were on their way home, or to one of their homes; this one was up the Hills of Lenox. They had been in Egypt and up the Nile, and for the last two months had been slowly working their way north through Greece and Italy. They were in London, at the Savoy, waiting for their sailing-day, and on the night of their arrival young Corbin was giving them a dinner. For three months Mrs. Warriner and himself had alternated in giving each other dinners in every part of Southern Europe, and the gloom which hung over this one was not due to the fact that the diners had become wearied of one another's society, but that the opportunities still left to them for this exchange of hospitality were almost at an end. That night, for the hundredth time, young Corbin had decided it would have been much better for him if they had come to an end many weeks previous, for the part he played in the trio was a difficult one. It was that of the lover who will not take "no" for an answer. The lover who will take no, and goes on his way disconsolate, may live to love another day, and everyone is content; but the one who will not have no, who will not hear of it, nor consider it, has much to answer for in making life a burden to himself and all around him.
When Corbin joined the Warriners on their trip up the Nile it was considered by all of them, in their ignorance, a happy accident. Other mothers, more worldly than Mrs. Warriner, with daughters less attractive, gave her undeserved credit for having lured into her party one of the young men of Boston who was most to be desired as a son-in-law. But the mind of Mrs. Warriner, so far as Mr. Corbin was concerned, was quite free from any such consideration; so was the mind of the young bachelor; certainly Miss Warriner held no tender thoughts concerning him. The families of the Warriners and the Corbins had been friends ever since the cowpath crossed the Common. Before Corbin entered Harvard Miss Warriner and he had belonged to the same dancing-class. Later she had danced with him at four class- days, and many times between. When he graduated, she had gone abroad with her mother, and he had joined the Somerset Club, and played polo at Pride's Crossing, and talked vaguely of becoming a lawyer, and of re-entering Harvard by the door of the Law School, chiefly, it was supposed, that he might have another year of the football team. He was very young in spirit, very big and athletic, very rich, and without a care or serious thought. Miss Warriner was to him, then, no more than a friend; to her he was a boy, one of many nice, cultivated Harvard boys, who occasionally called upon her and talked football. On the face of things, she was not the sort of girl he should have loved. But for some saving clause in him, he should have loved and married one of the many other girls who had belonged to the same dancing-class, who would have been known as "Mrs. Tom" Corbin, who would have been sought after as a chaperone, and who would have stood up in her cart when he played polo and shouted at him across the field to "ride him off."
Miss Warriner, on the contrary, was much older than he in everything but years, and was conscious of the fact. She was a serious, self- centred young person, and satisfied with her own thoughts, unless her companion gave her better ones. She concerned herself with the character and ideas of her friends. If a young man lacked ideas, the fact that he possessed wealth and good manners could not save him. If these attributes had been pointed out to her as part of his assets she would have been surprised. She was not impressed with her own good looks and fortune—she took them for granted; so why should they count with her in other people?
Miss Warriner made an error of analysis in regard to Mr. Corbin in judging his brain by his topics of conversation. His conversation was limited to the A B C's of life, with which, up to the time of his meeting her, his brain had been fed. When, however, she began to cram it full with all the other letters of the alphabet, it showed itself just as capable of digesting the economic conditions of Egypt as it had previously succeeded in mastering the chess-like problems of the game of football.
Young Corbin had not considered the Home Beautiful, nor Municipal Government, nor How the Other Half Lives as topics that were worth his while; but when Miss Warriner showed her interest in them, her doing so made them worth his while, and he fell upon them greedily. He even went much further than she had gone, and was not content merely to theorize and to discuss social questions from the safe distance of the deck of a dahabiyeh on the Nile, but proposed to at once put her theories into practice. To this end he offered her a house in the slums of Boston, rent free, where she could start her College Settlement. He made out lists of the men he thought would like to teach there, and he volunteered to pay the expenses of the experiment until it failed or succeeded. When her interest changed to the Tombs of the Rameses, and the succession of the ancient dynasties, he spent hours studying his Baedeker that he might keep in step with her; and when she abandoned ancient for modern Egypt and became deeply charmed with the intricacies of the dual control and of the Mixed Courts, he interviewed subalterns, Pashas, and missionaries in a gallant effort to comprehend the social and political difficulties of the white men who had occupied the land of the Sphinx, who had funded her debt, irrigated her deserts, and "made a mummy fight."
One night, as the dahabiyeh lay moored beneath a group of palms in the moonlight, Miss Warriner gave him praise for offering her the house in the slums for her experiment. He assured her that he was entirely selfish—that he did so because he believed her settlement would be a benefit to the neighborhood, in which he owned some property. When she then accused him of giving sordid reasons for what was his genuine philanthropy he told her flatly that he neither cared for the higher education of the slums nor the increased value of his rents, but for her, and to please her, and that he loved her and would love her always. In answer to this, Miss Warriner told him gently but firmly that she could not love him, but that she liked him and admired him, even though she was disappointed to find that his sudden interest in matters more serious than polo had been assumed to please her. She added that she would always be his friend. This, she thought, ended the matter; it was unfortunate that they should be shipbound on the Nile; but she trusted to his tact and good sense to save them both from embarrassment. She was not prepared, however, to see him come on deck very late the next morning, after, apparently, a long sleep, as keen, as cheerful, and as smiling as he had been before the blow had fallen. It piqued her a little, and partly because of that, and partly because she really was relieved to find him in such a humor, she congratulated him on his most evident happiness.
"Why not?" he asked, suddenly growing sober. "I love you. That is enough to make any man happy, isn't it? You needn't love me, but you can't prevent my going on loving you."
"Well, I am very sorry," she sighed in much perplexity.
"You needn't be," he answered, reassuringly. "I'm more sorry for you than I am for myself. You are going to have a terrible time until you marry me."
They were at Thebes, and he went off that afternoon to the Temple of Luxor with her mother, and made violent use of the sacred altars, the beauty of Cleopatra, the eternity of the scarabea, and the indestructibility of the Pyramids to suggest faintly to Mrs. Warriner how much he loved her daughter. He shook his hand at the crouching sphinxes and said:
"Mrs. Warriner, in forty centuries they have never looked down upon a man as proud as I am, and I am told they have seen Napoleon; but I need help; she won't help me, so you must. It's no use arguing against me. When this Nile dries up I shall have ceased loving your daughter!"
"Did you tell Helen what you have told me? Did you talk to her so?" asked Mrs. Warriner.
"No, not last night," said Corbin; "but I will, in time, after she gets more used to the Idea."
Unfortunately for the peace of Mr. Corbin and all concerned. Miss Warriner did not become reconciled to the idea. On the contrary, she resented it greatly. She had looked at the possibility of something to be carried out later—much later, perhaps not at all. It did not seem possible that before she had really begun to enjoy life it should be subjected to such a change. She saw that it was obviously the thing that should happen. If the match had been arranged by the entire city of Boston it could not have been more obvious. But she argued with him that marriage was a mutual self-sacrifice, and that until she felt ready to make her share of the sacrifice it was impossible for her to consent.
He combated her arguments, which he refused to consider as arguments, and demolished them one by one. But the objection which he destroyed before he went to sleep at night was replaced the next day by another, and his cause never advanced. Each day he found the citadel he was besieging girt in by new and intricate defences. The reason was simple enough: the girl was not in love with him. Her objections, her arguments, her reasons were as absurd as he proved them to be. But they were insurmountable because they were really various disguises of the fact that she did not care for him. They were disguises to herself as well as to him. He was so altogether a good fellow, so earnest, honest, and desperate a lover that the primary fact that she did not want his love did not present itself, and she kept casting about in her mind for excuses and reasons to explain her lack of feeling. He wooed her in every obvious way that would present itself to a boy of deep feeling, of quick mind, and an unlimited letter of credit. He created wants in order to gratify them later. He suggested her need of things which he had already ordered, which, before she had been enticed into expressing a wish for them, were then speeding across the Continent toward her. Every hour brought her some fresh and ingenuous sign of his thought and of his devotion. He treated these tributes as a matter of course; if she failed to observe them and to see his handiwork in them he let them fall to the ground unnoticed.
His love itself was his argument-in-chief; it was its own excuse; it needed no allies; "I love you" was his first and last word. It puzzled her to find that she could not care. When she was alone she asked herself what there was in him of which she disapproved, and she could only answer that there was nothing. She asked herself what other men there were who pleased her more, and she could think of none. On the contrary, she found him entirely charming as a friend— but his love distressed her greatly. It was a foreign language; she could not comprehend it. When he allowed it to appear it completely disguised him in her eyes; it annoyed her so much that at times she considered herself a much ill-used young person.
It was in this way that the matter stood between them when their long journey was ended and they reached London. He was miserable, desperate, and hopeless; the girl was firm in that she would not marry him, and her mother, who respected both the depth of Corbin's feelings and her daughter's reticence, and who had watched the struggle with a troubled heart, was only thankful that they were to part, and that it was at an end. Corbin had no idea where he would go nor what he would do. He recognized that to cross the ocean with them would only subject his love to fresh distress and humiliation, and he had determined to put as much space between him and Miss Warriner as the surface of the globe permitted. The Philippines seemed to offer a picturesque retreat for a broken life. He decided he would go there and enlist and have himself shot. He was uncertain whether he would follow in the steps of his Revolutionary ancestors and join the men who were struggling for their liberty and independence, or his fellow-Americans; but that he would get shot by one side or the other he was determined. And then in days to come she would think, perhaps, of the young man on the other side of the globe, buried in the wet rice-fields, with the palms fanning him through his eternal sleep, and she might be sorry then that she had not listened to his troubled heart. The picture gave him some small comfort, and that night when he ordered dinner for them at the Savoy his manner showed the inspired resolve of one who is soon to mount the scaffold unafraid, and with a rose between his lips.
Edouard, the first violin, saw Miss Warriner when she entered and took her place facing him at one of the tables in the centre of the room. He was sitting with his violin on his knees, touching the strings with his finger-tips. When he saw her he choked the neck of the violin with his hand, as though it had been the hand of a friend which he had grasped in a sudden ecstasy of delight. The effect her appearance had made upon him was so remarkable that he glanced quickly over his shoulder to see if he had betrayed himself by some sign or gesture. But the other musicians were concerned with their own gossip, and he felt free to turn again and from under his half- closed eyelids to observe her covertly.
There was nothing to explain why Miss Warriner, in particular, should have so disturbed him; the English women seated about her were as fair; she showed no great sorrow in her face; her beauty was not of the type which carried observers by assault. And yet not one of the many beautiful women who on one night or another passed before Edouard in the soft light of the red shades had ever stirred him so strangely, had ever depressed him with such a tender melancholy, and filled his soul—the soul of a Hungarian and a musician—with such loneliness and unrest. He knew that, so far as he was concerned, she was as distant as the Venus in the Louvre; she was, for him, a beautiful, unapproachable statue, placed, by some social convention, upon a pedestal.
As he looked at her he felt hotly the degradation of his silly uniform, of the striped sash around his waist, the tawdry braids, and the tasselled boots. He felt as he had often felt before, but now more keenly than ever, the prostitution of his art in this temple of the senses, this home of epicures, where people met to feast their eyes and charm their palates. He could not put his feelings into words, and he knew that if by some upheaval of the social world he should be thrown into her presence he would still be bound, he would not be able to speak or write what she inspired in him. But—and at the thought he breathed quickly, and raised his shoulders with a touch of pride—he could tell her in his own way; after his own fashion he could express what he felt better even than those other men could tell what they feel—these men for whose amusement he performed nightly, to whom it was granted to sit at her side, who spoke the language of her class and of her own people. Edouard was not given to analyzing his emotions; like the music of his Tzigane ancestors, they came to him sweeping every chord in his nature, beating rapidly to the time of the Schardash, or with the fitfulness of the gypsy folksongs sinking his spirits into melancholy. So he did not stop to question why this one face so suddenly inspired him; he only knew that he felt grateful, that he was impatient to pay his tribute of admiration, that he was glad he was an artist who could give his feelings voice.
In the long programme of selected airs he remembered that there was one which would give him this chance to speak, in the playing of which he could put all his skill and all his soul, an air which carried with it infinite sadness and the touch of a caress. The other numbers on the programme had been chosen to please the patrons of a restaurant, this one, La Lettre d'Amour, was included in the list for his own satisfaction. He had put it there to please himself; to-night he would play it to please her—to this unknown girl who had so suddenly awakened and inspired him.
As he waited for this chance to come he watched her, noting her every movement, her troubled smile, her air of being apart and above her surroundings. He noticed, too, the set face of the young man at her side and, with the discernment of one whose own interest is captive, saw the half-concealed longing in his eyes. He felt a quick antipathy to this young man. His assured position at the girl's side accentuated how far he himself was removed from her; he resented also the manner of the young man to the waiters, and he wondered hotly if, in the mind of this favored youth, the musician who played for his entertainment was regarded any more highly than the servant who received his orders. To this feeling of resentment was added one of contempt. For, as he read the tableau at the table below him, the young man was the devotee of the young girl at his side, and if one could judge from her averted eyes, from her silent assent to his questions, from the fact that she withdrew from the talk between him and the older woman, his devotion was not welcome.
This reading of the pantomime pleased Edouard greatly. Nothing could have so crowned the feeling which the beauty of the stranger stirred in him as the thought that another loved her as well as himself, and that the other, who started with all things in his favor, met with none from her.
Edouard assured himself that this was so because he had often heard his people boast that men not of their country could not feel as they could feel. If he had ever considered them at all it was as cold and conscious creatures who taught themselves to cover up what they felt, so that when their emotions strove to assert themselves they were found, through long disuse, to be dumb and inarticulate. Edouard rejoiced that to the men of his race it was given to feel and suffer much. He was sure that beneath the calmness of her beauty this woman before him could feel deeply; he read in her eyes the sympathy of a great soul; she made him think of a Madonna in the church of St. Sophia at Budapest. He saw in her a woman who could love greatly. When he considered how impossible it was for the young man at her side ever to experience the great emotions which alone could reach her, his contempt for him rose almost to pity. His violin, with his power to feel, and with his knowledge of technic added, could send his message as far as sound could carry. He could afford to be generous, and when he rose to play La Lettre d'Amour it was with the elation of a knight entering the lists, with the ardor of a lover singing beneath his lady's window. La Lettre d'Amour is a composition written to a slow measure, and filled with chords of exquisite pathos. It comes hesitatingly, like the confession of a lover who loves so deeply that he halts to find words with which to express his feelings. It moves in broken phrases, each note rising in intensity and growing in beauty. It is not a burst of passionate appeal, but a plea, tender, beseeching, and throbbing with melancholy. As he played, Edouard stepped down from the dais on which the musicians sat, and advanced slowly between the tables. It was late, and the majority of those who had been dining had departed to the theatres. Those who remained were lingering over their coffee, and were smoking; their voices were lowered to a polite monotone; the rush of the waiters had ceased, and the previous chatter had sunk to a subdued murmur. Into this, the quivering sigh of Edouard's violin penetrated like a sunbeam feeling its way into a darkened room, and, at the sound, the voices, one by one, detached themselves from the general chorus, until, lacking support, it ceased altogether. Some were silent, that they might hear the better, others, who preferred their own talk, were silent out of regard for those who desired to listen, and a waiter who was so indiscreet as to clatter a tray of glasses was hushed on the instant. The tribute of attention lent to Edouard an added power; his head lifted on his shoulders with pride; his bow cut deeper and firmer, and with more delicate shading; the notes rose in thrilling, plaintive sadness, and flooded the hot air with melody.
Edouard made his way to within a short distance of the table at which Miss Warriner was seated, and halted there as though he had found his audience. He did not look at her, although she sat directly facing him, but it was evident to all that she was the one to whom his effort was directed, and Corbin, who was seated with his back to Edouard, recognized this and turned in his chair.
The body of the young musician was trembling with the feeling which found its outlet through the violin. He was in ecstasy over his power and its accomplishment. The strings of the violin pulsated to the beating of his heart, and he felt that surely by now the emotion which shook him must have reached the girl who had given it life— and, for one swift second, his eyes sought hers. What he saw was the same beautiful face which had inspired him, but unmoved, cold, and unresponsive. As his eyes followed hers she raised her head and looked, listlessly, around the room, and then turned and glanced up at him with a careless and critical scrutiny. If his music had been the music of an organ in the street, and he the man who raised his hat for coppers, she could not have been less moved. The discovery struck Edouard like a cold blast from an open door. His fingers faltered on the neck of his violin, his bow wavered, drunkenly, across the strings, and he turned away his eyes to shut out the vision of his failure, seeking relief and sympathy. And, in their swift passage, they encountered those of Corbin looking up at him, his eyes aglow with wonder, feeling, and sorrow. They seemed to hold him to account; they begged, they demanded of him not to break the spell, and, in response, the hot blood in the veins of the musician surged back, his pride flared up again, his eyes turned on Corbin's like those of a dog to his master's. Under their spell the music soared, trembling, paused and soared again, thrilling those who heard it with its grief and tenderness.
Edouard's heart leaped with triumph. "The man knows," he whispered to the violin; "he understands us. He knows."
The people, leaning with their elbows on the tables before them, the waiters listening with tolerant smiles, the musicians following Edouard with anxious pride, saw only a young man with his arm thrown heavily across the back of his chair, who was looking up at Edouard with a steady, searching gaze. But Edouard saw in him both a disciple and a master. He saw that this man was lifted up and carried with him, that he understood the message of the music. The notes of the violin sank lower and lower, until they melted into the silence of the room, and the people, freed of the spell the music had put upon them, applauded generously. Edouard placed his violin under his arm, and with his eyes, which had never left Corbin's face, still fastened upon his, bowed low to him, and Corbin raised his head and nodded gravely. It was as though they were the only people in the room. As Edouard retreated his face was shining with triumph, for he knew that the other had understood him, and that the other knew that he knew.
That night until he fell asleep, and all of the day following, the beautiful face of Miss Warriner troubled Edouard, and the thought of her alternately thrilled and depressed him. One moment he mocked at himself for presuming to think that his simple art could reach the depths of such a nature, and the next he stirred himself to hope that he should see her once again, and that he should succeed where he had failed.
The music had moved Corbin so deeply that when he awoke the day following the effect of it still hung upon him. It seemed to him as though all he had been trying to tell Miss Warriner of his love for her, and which he had failed to make her understand in the last three months, had been expressed in the one moment of this song. It was that in it which had so enchanted him. It was as though he had listened to his own deepest and most sacred thoughts, uttered for the first time convincingly, and by a stranger. Why was it, he asked himself, that this unknown youth could translate another's feelings into music, when he himself could not put them into words? He was walking in Piccadilly, deep in this thought, when a question came to him which caused him to turn rapidly into Green Park, where he could consider it undisturbed.
The doubt which had so suddenly presented itself was in some degree the same one which had stirred Edouard. Was it that he was really unable to express his feelings, or was it that Miss Warriner could not understand them? Was it really something lacking in him, or was it not something lacking in her? He flushed at the disloyalty of the thought and put it from him; but, as his memory reached back over the past three months, the question returned again and again with fresh force, and would not be denied. He called himself a fatuous, conceited fool. Because he could not make a woman love him other men could do so. That was really the answer; he was not the man. But the answer did not seem final. What, after all, was the thing his love sought—a woman only, or a woman capable of deep and great feeling? Even if he could not inspire such emotions, even if another could, he would still be content and proud to love a woman capable of such deep feelings. But if she were without them? At the thought, Corbin stared blankly before him as though he had stumbled against a stone wall. What sign had she ever given him that she could care greatly? Was not any form of emotion always distasteful to her? Was not her mind always occupied with abstract questions? Was she not always engaged in her own self-improvement—with schemes, it is true, for bettering the world; but did her heart ever ache once for the individual? What was it, then, he loved? Something he imagined this girl to be, or was he in love with the fact that his own nature had been so mightily stirred? Was it not the joy of caring greatly which had carried him along? And if this was so, was he now to continue to proffer this devotion to one who could not feel, to a statue, to an idol? Were not the very things which rendered her beautiful the offerings which he himself had hung upon her altar? Did the qualities he really loved in her exist? Was he not on the brink of casting his love before one who could neither feel it for him nor for any other man? He stood up, trembling and frightened. Even though the girl had rejected him again and again, he felt a hateful sense of disloyalty. He was ashamed to confess it to himself, and he vowed, hotly, that he must be wrong, that he would not believe. He would still worship her, fight for her, and force her to care for him.
Mrs. Warriner and her daughter were to sail on the morrow, and that night they met Corbin at dinner for the last time. After many days— although self-accused—he felt deeply conscious of his recent lack of faith, and, in the few hours still left him, he determined to atone for the temporary halt in his allegiance. They had never found him more eager, tactful, and considerate than he was that evening. The eyes of Mrs. Warriner softened as she watched him. As one day had succeeded another, her admiration and liking for him had increased, until now she felt as though his cause was hers—as though she was not parting from a friend, but from a son. But the calmness of her daughter was impenetrable; from her manner it was impossible to learn whether the approaching separation was a relief or a regret.
To Edouard the return of the beautiful girl to the restaurant appeared not as an accident, but as a marked favor vouchsafed to him by Fate. He had been given a second chance. He read it as a sign that he should take heart and hope. He felt that fortune was indeed kind. He determined that he would play to her again, and that this time he would not fail.
As the first notes of La Lettre d'Amour brought a pause of silence in the restaurant, Corbin, who was talking at the moment, interrupted himself abruptly, and turned in his chair.
All through the evening he had been conscious of the near presence of the young musician. He had not forgotten how, on the night before, his own feelings had been interpreted in La Lettre d'Amour, and for some time he had been debating in his mind as to whether he would request Edouard to play the air again, or let the evening pass without again submitting himself to so supreme an assault upon his feelings. Now the question had been settled for him, and he found that it had been decided as he secretly desired. It was impossible to believe that Edouard was the same young man who had played the same air on the night previous, for Edouard no longer considered that he was present on sufferance—he invited and challenged the attention of the room; his music commanded it to silence. It dominated all who heard it.
As he again slowly approached the table where Miss Warriner was seated, the eyes of everyone were turned upon him; the pathos, the tenderness of his message seemed to speak to each; the fact that he dared to offer such a wealth of deep feeling to such an audience was in itself enough to engage the attention of all. A group of Guardsmen, their faces flushed with Burgundy and pulling heavily on black cigars, stared at him sleepily, and then sat up, erect and alert, watching him with intent, wide-open eyes; and at tables which had been marked by the laughter of those seated about them there fell a sudden silence. Those who fully understood the value of the music withdrew into themselves, submitting, thankfully, to its spell; others, less susceptible, gathered from the bearing of those about them that something of moment was going forward; but it was recognized by each, from the most severe English matron present down to the youngest "omnibus-boy" among the waiters, that it was a love- story which was being told to them, and that in this public place the deepest, most sacred, and most beautiful of emotions were finding noble utterance.
The music filled Corbin with desperate longing and regret. It was so truly the translation of his own feelings that he was alternately touched with self-pity and inspired to fresh resolve. It seemed to assure him that love such as his could not endure without some return. It emboldened him to make still another and a final appeal. Mrs. Warriner, with all the other people in the room, was watching Edouard, and so, unobserved, and hidden by the flowers upon the table, Corbin leaned toward Miss Warriner and bent his head close to hers. His eyes were burning with feeling; his voice thrilled in unison to the plaint of the violin.
He gave a toss of his head in the direction from whence the music came.
"That is what I have been trying to tell you," he whispered. His voice was hoarse and shaken. "That is how I care, but that man's genius is telling you for me. At last, you must understand." In his eagerness, his words followed each other brokenly and impetuously. "That is love," he whispered. "That is the real voice of love in all its tenderness and might, and—it is love itself. Don't you understand it now?" he demanded.
Miss Warriner raised her head and frowned. She stared at Edouard with a pained expression of perplexity and doubt.
"He shows no lack of feeling," she said, critically, "but his technic is not equal to Ysaye's."
"Good God!" Corbin gasped. He sank away from Miss Warriner and stared at her with incredulous eyes.
"His technic," he repeated, "is not equal to Ysaye's?" He gave a laugh which might have been a sob, and sat up, suddenly, with his head erect and his shoulders squared. He had the shaken look of one who has recovered from a dangerous illness. But when he spoke again it was in the accents of every-day politeness.
At an early hour the following morning, Mrs. Warriner and her daughter left Waterloo Station on the steamer-train for Southampton, and Corbin attended them up to the moment of the train's departure. He concerned himself for their comfort as conscientiously as he had always done throughout the last three months, when he had been their travelling-companion; nothing could have been more friendly, more sympathetic, than his manner. This effort, which Mrs. Warriner was sure cost him much, touched her deeply. But when he shook Miss Warriner's hand and she said, "Good-by, and write to us before you go to the Philippines," Corbin for the first time stammered in some embarrassment.
"Good-by," he said; "I—I am not sure that I shall go."
He dined at the Savoy again that night, in company with some Englishmen. They sat at a table in the corner where they could observe the whole extent of the room, and their talk was eager and their laughter constant and hearty. It was only when the boy who led the orchestra began to walk among the tables, playing an air of peculiar sadness, that Corbin's manner lost its vivacity, and he sank into a sudden silence, with his eyes fixed on the table before him.
"That's odd," said one of his companions. "I say, Corbin, look at that chap! What's he doing?"
Corbin raised his eyes. He saw Edouard standing at the same table at which for the last two nights Miss Warriner had been seated. "What is it?" he asked.
"Why, that violin chap," said the Englishman. "Don't you see? He's been playing to the only vacant table in the room, and to an empty chair."
IN THE FOG
The Grill is the club most difficult of access in the world. To be placed on its rolls distinguishes the new member as greatly as though he had received a vacant Garter or had been caricatured in "Vanity Fair."
Men who belong to the Grill Club never mention that fact. If you were to ask one of them which clubs he frequents, he will name all save that particular one. He is afraid if he told you he belonged to the Grill, that it would sound like boasting.
The Grill Club dates back to the days when Shakespeare's Theatre stood on the present site of the "Times" office. It has a golden Grill which Charles the Second presented to the Club, and the original manuscript of "Tom and Jerry in London," which was bequeathed to it by Pierce Egan himself. The members, when they write letters at the Club, still use sand to blot the ink.
The Grill enjoys the distinction of having blackballed, without political prejudice, a Prime Minister of each party. At the same sitting at which one of these fell, it elected, on account of his brogue and his bulls, Quiller, Q. C., who was then a penniless barrister.
When Paul Preval, the French artist who came to London by royal command to paint a portrait of the Prince of Wales, was made an honorary member—only foreigners may be honorary members—he said, as he signed his first wine-card, "I would rather see my name on that than on a picture in the Louvre."
At which Quiller remarked, "That is a devil of a compliment, because the only men who can read their names in the Louvre to-day have been dead fifty years."
On the night after the great fog of 1897 there were five members in the Club, four of them busy with supper and one reading in front of the fireplace. There is only one room to the Club, and one long table. At the far end of the room the fire of the grill glows red, and, when the fat falls, blazes into flame, and at the other there is a broad bow-window of diamond panes, which looks down upon the street. The four men at the table were strangers to each other, but as they picked at the grilled bones, and sipped their Scotch and soda, they conversed with such charming animation that a visitor to the Club, which does not tolerate visitors, would have counted them as friends of long acquaintance, certainly not as Englishmen who had met for the first time, and without the form of an introduction. But it is the etiquette and tradition of the Grill that whoever enters it must speak with whomever he finds there. It is to enforce this rule that there is but one long table, and whether there are twenty men at it or two, the waiters, supporting the rule, will place them side by side.
For this reason the four strangers at supper were seated together, with the candles grouped about them, and the long length of the table cutting a white path through the outer gloom.
"I repeat," said the gentleman with the black pearl stud, "that the days for romantic adventure and deeds of foolish daring have passed, and that the fault lies with ourselves. Voyages to the pole I do not catalogue as adventures. That African explorer, young Chetney, who turned up yesterday after he was supposed to have died in Uganda, did nothing adventurous. He made maps and explored the sources of rivers. He was in constant danger, but the presence of danger does not constitute adventure. Were that so, the chemist who studies high explosives, or who investigates deadly poisons, passes through adventures daily. No, 'adventures are for the adventurous.' But one no longer ventures. The spirit of it has died of inertia. We are grown too practical, too just, above all, too sensible. In this room, for instance, members of this Club have, at the sword's point, disputed the proper scanning of one of Pope's couplets. Over so weighty a matter as spilled Burgundy on a gentleman's cuff, ten men fought across this table, each with his rapier in one hand and a candle in the other. All ten were wounded. The question of the spilled Burgundy concerned but two of them. The eight others engaged because they were men of 'spirit.' They were, indeed, the first gentlemen of the day. To-night, were you to spill Burgundy on my cuff, were you even to insult me grossly, these gentlemen would not consider it incumbent upon them to kill each other. They would separate us, and to-morrow morning appear as witnesses against us at Bow Street. We have here to-night, in the persons of Sir Andrew and myself, an illustration of how the ways have changed."
The men around the table turned and glanced toward the gentleman in front of the fireplace. He was an elderly and somewhat portly person, with a kindly, wrinkled countenance, which wore continually a smile of almost childish confidence and good-nature. It was a face which the illustrated prints had made intimately familiar. He held a book from him at arm's-length, as if to adjust his eyesight, and his brows were knit with interest.
"Now, were this the eighteenth century," continued the gentleman with the black pearl, "when Sir Andrew left the Club to-night I would have him bound and gagged and thrown into a sedan chair. The watch would not interfere, the passers-by would take to their heels, my hired bullies and ruffians would convey him to some lonely spot where we would guard him until morning. Nothing would come of it, except added reputation to myself as a gentleman of adventurous spirit, and possibly an essay in the 'Tatler' with stars for names, entitled, let us say, 'The Budget and the Baronet.'"
"But to what end, sir?" inquired the youngest of the members. "And why Sir Andrew, of all persons—why should you select him for this adventure?"
The gentleman with the black pearl shrugged his shoulders.
"It would prevent him speaking in the House to-night. The Navy Increase Bill," he added, gloomily. "It is a Government measure, and Sir Andrew speaks for it. And so great is his influence and so large his following that if he does"—the gentleman laughed ruefully—"if he does, it will go through. Now, had I the spirit of our ancestors," he exclaimed, "I would bring chloroform from the nearest chemist's and drug him in that chair. I would tumble his unconscious form into a hansom-cab, and hold him prisoner until daylight. If I did, I would save the British taxpayer the cost of five more battleships, many millions of pounds."
The gentleman again turned, and surveyed the baronet with freshened interest. The honorary member of the Grill, whose accent already had betrayed him as an American, laughed softly.
"To look at him now," he said, "one would not guess he was deeply concerned with the affairs of state."
The others nodded silently.
"He has not lifted his eyes from that book since we first entered," added the youngest member. "He surely cannot mean to speak to-night."
"Oh, yes, he will speak," muttered the one with the black pearl, moodily. "During these last hours of the session the House sits late, but when the Navy bill comes up on its third reading he will be in his place—and he will pass it."
The fourth member, a stout and florid gentleman of a somewhat sporting appearance, in a short smoking-jacket and black tie, sighed enviously.
"Fancy one of us being as cool as that, if he knew he had to stand up within an hour and rattle off a speech in Parliament. I'd be in a devil of a funk myself. And yet he is as keen over that book he's reading as though he had nothing before him until bedtime."
"Yes, see how eager he is," whispered the youngest member. "He does not lift his eyes even now when he cuts the pages. It is probably an Admiralty Report, or some other weighty work of statistics which bears upon his speech."
The gentleman with the black pearl laughed morosely.
"The weighty work in which the eminent statesman is so deeply engrossed," he said, "is called 'The Great Rand Robbery.' It is a detective novel for sale at all bookstalls."
The American raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
"'The Great Rand Robbery'?" he repeated, incredulously. "What an odd taste!"
"It is not a taste, it is his vice," returned the gentleman with the pearl stud. "It is his one dissipation. He is noted for it. You, as a stranger, could hardly be expected to know of this idiosyncrasy. Mr. Gladstone sought relaxation in the Greek poets, Sir Andrew finds his in Gaboriau. Since I have been a member of Parliament, I have never seen him in the library without a shilling shocker in his hands. He brings them even into the sacred precincts of the House, and from the Government benches reads them concealed inside his hat. Once started on a tale of murder, robbery, and sudden death, nothing can tear him from it, not even the call of the division-bell, nor of hunger, nor the prayers of the party Whip. He gave up his country house because when he journeyed to it in the train he would become so absorbed in his detective-stories that he was invariably carried past his station." The member of Parliament twisted his pearl stud nervously, and bit at the edge of his mustache. "If it only were the first pages of 'The Rand Robbery' that he were reading," he murmured bitterly, "instead of the last! With such another book as that, I swear I could hold him here until morning. There would be no need of chloroform to keep him from the House."
The eyes of all were fastened upon Sir Andrew, and each saw, with fascination, that, with his forefinger, he was now separating the last two pages of the book. The member of Parliament struck the table, softly, with his open palm.
"I would give a hundred pounds," he whispered, "if I could place in his hands at this moment a new story of Sherlock Holmes—a thousand pounds," he added, wildly—"five thousand pounds!"
The American observed the speaker sharply, as though the words bore to him some special application, and then, at an idea which apparently had but just come to him, smiled, in great embarrassment.
Sir Andrew ceased reading, but, as though still under the influence of the book, sat looking, blankly, into the open fire. For a brief space, no one moved until the baronet withdrew his eyes and, with a sudden start of recollection, felt, anxiously, for his watch. He scanned its face eagerly, and scrambled to his feet.
The voice of the American instantly broke the silence in a high, nervous accent.
"And yet Sherlock Holmes himself," he cried, "could not decipher the mystery which to-night baffles the police of London."
At these unexpected words, which carried in them something of the tone of a challenge, the gentlemen about the table started as suddenly as though the American had fired a pistol in the air, and Sir Andrew halted, abruptly, and stood observing him with grave surprise.
The gentleman with the black pearl was the first to recover.
"Yes, yes," he said, eagerly, throwing himself across the table. "A mystery that baffles the police of London. I have heard nothing of it. Tell us at once, pray do—tell us at once."
The American flushed uncomfortably, and picked, uneasily, at the table-cloth.
"No one but the police has heard of it," he murmured, "and they only through me. It is a remarkable crime, to which, unfortunately, I am the only person who can bear witness. Because I am the only witness, I am, in spite of my immunity as a diplomat, detained in London by the authorities of Scotland Yard. My name," he said, inclining his head, politely, "is Sears, Lieutenant Ripley Sears, of the United States Navy, at present Naval Attache to the Court of Russia. Had I not been detained to-day by the police, I would have started this morning for Petersburg."
The gentleman with the black pearl interrupted with so pronounced an exclamation of excitement and delight that the American stammered and ceased speaking.
"Do you hear, Sir Andrew?" cried the member of Parliament, jubilantly. "An American diplomat halted by our police because he is the only witness of a most remarkable crime—THE most remarkable crime, I believe you said, sir," he added, bending eagerly toward the naval officer, "which has occurred in London in many years."
The American moved his head in assent, and glanced at the two other members. They were looking, doubtfully, at him, and the face of each showed that he was greatly perplexed.
Sir Andrew advanced to within the light of the candles and drew a chair toward him.
"The crime must be exceptional, indeed," he said, "to justify the police in interfering with a representative of a friendly power. If I were not forced to leave at once, I should take the liberty of asking you to tell us the details."
The gentleman with the pearl pushed the chair toward Sir Andrew, and motioned him to be seated.
"You cannot leave us now," he exclaimed. "Mr. Sears is just about to tell us of this remarkable crime."
He nodded, vigorously, at the naval officer and the American, after first glancing, doubtfully, toward the servants at the far end of the room, and leaned forward across the table. The others drew their chairs nearer and bent toward him. The baronet glanced, irresolutely, at his watch, and, with an exclamation of annoyance, snapped down the lid. "They can wait," he muttered. He seated himself quickly, and nodded at Lieutenant Sears.
"If you will be so kind as to begin, sir," he said, impatiently.
"Of course," said the American, "you understand that I understand that I am speaking to gentlemen. The confidences of this Club are inviolate. Until the police give the facts to the public press, I must consider you my confederates. You have heard nothing, you know no one connected with this mystery. Even I must remain anonymous."
The gentlemen seated around him nodded gravely.
"Of course," the baronet assented, with eagerness, "of course."
"We will refer to it," said the gentleman with the black pearl, "as 'The Story of the Naval Attache.'"
"I arrived in London two days ago," said the American, "and I engaged a room at the Bath Hotel. I know very few people in London, and even the members of our embassy were strangers to me. But in Hong Kong I had become great pals with an officer in your navy, who has since retired, and who is now living in a small house in Rutland Gardens, opposite the Knightsbridge Barracks. I telegraphed him that I was in London, and yesterday morning I received a most hearty invitation to dine with him the same evening at his house. He is a bachelor, so we dined alone and talked over all our old days on the Asiatic Station and of the changes which had come to us since we had last met there. As I was leaving the next morning for my post at Petersburg, and had many letters to write, I told him, about ten o'clock, that I must get back to the hotel, and he sent out his servant to call a hansom.
"For the next quarter of an hour, as we sat talking, we could hear the cab-whistle sounding, violently, from the doorstep, but apparently with no result.
"'It cannot be that the cabmen are on strike,' my friend said, as he rose and walked to the window.
"He pulled back the curtains and at once called to me.
"'You have never seen a London fog, have you?' he asked. 'Well, come here. This is one of the best, or, rather, one of the worst, of them.' I joined him at the window, but I could see nothing. Had I not known that the house looked out upon the street I would have believed that I was facing a dead wall. I raised the sash and stretched out my head, but still I could see nothing. Even the light of the street- lamps, opposite, and in the upper windows of the barracks, had been smothered in the yellow mist. The lights of the room in which I stood penetrated the fog only to the distance of a few inches from my eyes.
"Below me the servant was still sounding his whistle, but I could afford to wait no longer, and told my friend that I would try and find the way to my hotel on foot. He objected, but the letters I had to write were for the Navy Department, and, besides, I had always heard that to be out in a London fog was the most wonderful experience, and I was curious to investigate one for myself.
"My friend went with me to his front door, and laid down a course for me to follow. I was first to walk straight across the street to the brick wall of the Knightsbridge Barracks. I was then to feel my way along the wall until I came to a row of houses set back from the sidewalk. They would bring me to a cross street. On the other side of this street was a row of shops which I was to follow until they joined the iron railings of Hyde Park. I was to keep to the railings until I reached the gates at Hyde Park Corner, where I was to lay a diagonal course across Piccadilly, and tack in toward the railings of Green Park. At the end of these railings, going east, I would find the Walsingham, and my own hotel.
"To a sailor the course did not seem difficult, so I bade my friend good-night and walked forward until my feet touched the paving. I continued upon it until I reached the curbing of the sidewalk. A few steps further, and my hands struck the wall of the barracks. I turned in the direction from which I had just come, and saw a square of faint light cut in the yellow fog. I shouted, 'All right,' and the voice of my friend answered, 'Good luck to you.' The light from his open door disappeared with a bang, and I was left alone in a dripping, yellow darkness. I have been in the Navy for ten years, but I have never known such a fog as that of last night, not even among the icebergs of Behring Sea. There one at least could see the light of the binnacle, but last night I could not even distinguish the hand by which I guided myself along the barrack-wall. At sea a fog is a natural phenomenon. It is as familiar as the rainbow which follows a storm, it is as proper that a fog should spread upon the waters as that steam shall rise from a kettle. But a fog which springs from the paved streets, that rolls between solid house-fronts, that forces cabs to move at half speed, that drowns policemen and extinguishes the electric lights of the music-hall, that to me is incomprehensible. It is as out of place as a tidal wave on Broadway.
"As I felt my way along the wall, I encountered other men who were coming from the opposite direction, and each time when we hailed each other I stepped away from the wall to make room for them to pass. But the third time I did this, when I reached out my hand, the wall had disappeared, and the further I moved to find it the further I seemed to be sinking into space. I had the unpleasant conviction that at any moment I might step over a precipice. Since I had set out, I had heard no traffic in the street, and now, although I listened some minutes, I could only distinguish the occasional footfalls of pedestrians. Several times I called aloud, and once a jocular gentleman answered me, but only to ask me where I thought he was, and then even he was swallowed up in the silence. Just above me I could make out a jet of gas which I guessed came from a street-lamp, and I moved over to that, and, while I tried to recover my bearings, kept my hand on the iron post. Except for this nicker of gas, no larger than the tip of my finger, I could distinguish nothing about me. For the rest, the mist hung between me and the world like a damp and heavy blanket.
"I could hear voices, but I could not tell from whence they came, and the scrape of a foot, moving cautiously, or a muffled cry as someone stumbled, were the only sounds that reached me.
"I decided that until someone took me in I had best remain where I was, and it must have been for ten minutes that I waited by the lamp, straining my ears and hailing distant footfalls. In a house near me some people were dancing to the music of a Hungarian band. I even fancied I could hear the windows shake to the rhythm of their feet, but I could not make out from which part of the compass the sounds came. And sometimes, as the music rose, it seemed close at my hand, and, again, to be floating high in the air above my head. Although I was surrounded by thousands of householders, I was as completely lost as though I had been set down by night in the Sahara Desert. There seemed to be no reason in waiting longer for an escort, so I again set out, and at once bumped against a low, iron fence. At first I believed this to be an area railing, but, on following it, I found that it stretched for a long distance, and that it was pierced at regular intervals with gates. I was standing, uncertainly, with my hand on one of these, when a square of light suddenly opened in the night, and in it I saw, as you see a picture thrown by a biograph in a darkened theatre, a young gentleman in evening dress, and, back of him, the lights of a hall. I guessed, from its elevation and distance from the sidewalk, that this light must come from the door of a house set back from the street, and I determined to approach it and ask the young man to tell me where I was. But, in fumbling with the lock of the gate, I instinctively bent my head, and when I raised it again the door had partly closed, leaving only a narrow shaft of light. Whether the young man had re-entered the house, or had left it I could not tell, but I hastened to open the gate, and as I stepped forward I found myself upon an asphalt walk. At the same instant there was the sound of quick steps upon the path, and someone rushed past me. I called to him, but he made no reply, and I heard the gate click and the footsteps hurrying away upon the sidewalk.
"Under other circumstances the young man's rudeness, and his recklessness in dashing so hurriedly through the mist, would have struck me as peculiar, but everything was so distorted by the fog that at the moment I did not consider it. The door was still as he had left it, partly open. I went up the path, and, after much fumbling, found the knob of the door-bell and gave it a sharp pull. The bell answered me from a great depth and distance, but no movement followed from inside the house, and, although I pulled the bell again and again, I could hear nothing save the dripping of the mist about me. I was anxious to be on my way, but unless I knew where I was going there was little chance of my making any speed, and I was determined that until I learned my bearings I would not venture back into the fog. So I pushed the door open and stepped into the house.
"I found myself in a long and narrow hall, upon which doors opened from either side. At the end of the hall was a staircase with a balustrade which ended in a sweeping curve. The balustrade was covered with heavy, Persian rugs, and the walls of the hall were also hung with them. The door on my left was closed, but the one nearer me on the right was open, and, as I stepped opposite to it, I saw that it was a sort of reception or waiting-room, and that it was empty. The door below it was also open, and, with the idea that I would surely find someone there, I walked on up the hall. I was in evening dress, and I felt I did not look like a burglar, so I had no great fear that, should I encounter one of the inmates of the house, he would shoot me on sight. The second door in the hall opened into a dining-room. This was also empty. One person had been dining at the table, but the cloth had not been cleared away, and a flickering candle showed half-filled wineglasses and the ashes of cigarettes. The greater part of the room was in complete darkness.
"By this time I had grown conscious of the fact that I was wandering about in a strange house, and that, apparently, I was alone in it. The silence of the place began to try my nerves, and in a sudden, unexplainable panic I started for the open street. But as I turned, I saw a man sitting on a bench, which the curve of the balustrade had hidden from me. His eyes were shut, and he was sleeping soundly.
"The moment before I had been bewildered because I could see no one, but at sight of this man I was much more bewildered.
"He was a very large man, a giant in height, with long, yellow hair, which hung below his shoulders. He was dressed in a red silk shirt, that was belted at the waist and hung outside black velvet trousers, which, in turn, were stuffed into high, black boots. I recognized the costume at once as that of a Russian servant, but what a Russian servant in his native livery could be doing in a private house in Knightsbridge was incomprehensible.
"I advanced and touched the man on the shoulder, and, after an effort, he awoke, and, on seeing me, sprang to his feet and began bowing rapidly, and making deprecatory gestures. I had picked up enough Russian in Petersburg to make out that the man was apologizing for having fallen asleep, and I also was able to explain to him that I desired to see his master.
"He nodded vigorously, and said, 'Will the Excellency come this way? The Princess is here.'
"I distinctly made out the word 'princess,' and I was a good deal embarrassed. I had thought it would be easy enough to explain my intrusion to a man, but how a woman would look at it was another matter, and as I followed him down the hall I was somewhat puzzled.
"As we advanced, he noticed that the front door was standing open, and with an exclamation of surprise, hastened toward it and closed it. Then he rapped twice on the door of what was apparently the drawing-room. There was no reply to his knock, and he tapped again, and then, timidly, and cringing subserviently, opened the door and stepped inside. He withdrew himself at once and stared stupidly at me, shaking his head.
"'She is not there,' he said. He stood for a moment, gazing blankly through the open door, and then hastened toward the dining-room. The solitary candle which still burned there seemed to assure him that the room also was empty. He came back and bowed me toward the drawing-room. 'She is above,' he said; 'I will inform the Princess of the Excellency's presence.'
"Before I could stop him, he had turned and was running up the staircase, leaving me alone at the open door of the drawing-room. I decided that the adventure had gone quite far enough, and if I had been able to explain to the Russian that I had lost my way in the fog, and only wanted to get back into the street again, I would have left the house on the instant.
"Of course, when I first rang the bell of the house I had no other expectation than that it would be answered by a parlor-maid who would direct me on my way. I certainly could not then foresee that I would disturb a Russian princess in her boudoir, or that I might be thrown out by her athletic bodyguard. Still, I thought I ought not now to leave the house without making some apology, and, if the worst should come, I could show my card. They could hardly believe that a member of an Embassy had any designs upon the hat-rack.
"The room in which I stood was dimly lighted, but I could see that, like the hall, it was hung with heavy, Persian rugs. The corners were filled with palms, and there was the unmistakable odor in the air of Russian cigarettes, and strange, dry scents that carried me back to the bazaars of Vladivostock. Near the front windows was a grand piano, and at the other end of the room a heavily carved screen of some black wood, picked out with ivory. The screen was overhung with a canopy of silken draperies, and formed a sort of alcove. In front of the alcove was spread the white skin of a polar bear, and set on that was one of those low, Turkish coffee-tables. It held a lighted spirit-lamp and two gold coffee-cups. I had heard no movement from above stairs, and it must have been fully three minutes that I stood waiting, noting these details of the room and wondering at the delay, and at the strange silence.
"And then, suddenly, as my eye grew more used to the half-light, I saw, projecting from behind the screen, as though it were stretched along the back of a divan, the hand of a man and the lower part of his arm. I was as startled as though I had come across a footprint on a deserted island. Evidently, the man had been sitting there since I had come into the room, even since I had entered the house, and he had heard the servant knocking upon the door. Why he had not declared himself I could not understand, but I supposed that, possibly, he was a guest, with no reason to interest himself in the Princess's other visitors, or, perhaps, for some reason, he did not wish to be observed. I could see nothing of him except his hand, but I had an unpleasant feeling that he had been peering at me through the carving in the screen, and that he still was doing so. I moved my feet noisily on the floor and said, tentatively, 'I beg your pardon.'
"There was no reply, and the hand did not stir. Apparently, the man was bent upon ignoring me, but, as all I wished was to apologize for my intrusion and to leave the house, I walked up to the alcove and peered around it. Inside the screen was a divan piled with cushions, and on the end of it nearer me the man was sitting. He was a young Englishman with light-yellow hair and a deeply bronzed face. He was seated with his arms stretched out along the back of the divan, and with his head resting against a cushion. His attitude was one of complete ease. But his mouth had fallen open, and his eyes were set with an expression of utter horror. At the first glance, I saw that he was quite dead.
"For a flash of time I was too startled to act, but in the same flash I was convinced that the man had met his death from no accident, that he had not died through any ordinary failure of the laws of nature. The expression on his face was much too terrible to be misinterpreted. It spoke as eloquently as words. It told me that before the end had come he had watched his death approach and threaten him.
"I was so sure he had been murdered that I instinctively looked on the floor for the weapon, and, at the same moment, out of concern for my own safety, quickly behind me; but the silence of the house continued unbroken.
"I have seen a great number of dead men; I was on the Asiatic Station during the Japanese-Chinese war. I was in Port Arthur after the massacre. So a dead man, for the single reason that he is dead, does not repel me, and, though I knew that there was no hope that this man was alive, still, for decency's sake, I felt his pulse, and, while I kept my ears alert for any sound from the floors above me, I pulled open his shirt and placed my hand upon his heart. My fingers instantly touched upon the opening of a wound, and as I withdrew them I found them wet with blood. He was in evening dress, and in the wide bosom of his shirt I found a narrow slit, so narrow that in the dim light it was scarcely discernible. The wound was no wider than the smallest blade of a pocket-knife, but when I stripped the shirt away from the chest and left it bare, I found that the weapon, narrow as it was, had been long enough to reach his heart. There is no need to tell you how I felt as I stood by the body of this boy, for he was hardly older than a boy, or of the thoughts that came into my head. I was bitterly sorry for this stranger, bitterly indignant at his murderer, and, at the same time, selfishly concerned for my own safety and for the notoriety which I saw was sure to follow. My instinct was to leave the body where it lay, and to hide myself in the fog, but I also felt that since a succession of accidents had made me the only witness to a crime, my duty was to make myself a good witness and to assist to establish the facts of this murder.
"That it might, possibly, be a suicide, and not a murder, did not disturb me for a moment. The fact that the weapon had disappeared, and the expression on the boy's face were enough to convince, at least me, that he had had no hand in his own death. I judged it, therefore, of the first importance to discover who was in the house, or, if they had escaped from it, who had been in the house before I entered it. I had seen one man leave it; but all I could tell of him was that he was a young man, that he was in evening dress, and that he had fled in such haste that he had not stopped to close the door behind him.
"The Russian servant I had found apparently asleep, and, unless he acted a part with supreme skill, he was a stupid and ignorant boor, and as innocent of the murder as myself. There was still the Russian princess whom he had expected to find, or had pretended to expect to find, in the same room with the murdered man. I judged that she must now be either upstairs with the servant, or that she had, without his knowledge, already fled from the house. When I recalled his apparently genuine surprise at not finding her in the drawing-room, this latter supposition seemed the more probable. Nevertheless, I decided that it was my duty to make a search, and after a second hurried look for the weapon among the cushions of the divan, and upon the floor, I cautiously crossed the hall and entered the dining-room.
"The single candle was still flickering in the draught, and showed only the white cloth. The rest of the room was draped in shadows. I picked up the candle, and, lifting it high above my head, moved around the corner of the table. Either my nerves were on such a stretch that no shock could strain them further, or my mind was inoculated to horrors, for I did not cry out at what I saw nor retreat from it. Immediately at my feet was the body of a beautiful woman, lying at full length upon the floor, her arms flung out on either side of her, and her white face and shoulders gleaming, dully, in the unsteady light of the candle. Around her throat was a great chain of diamonds, and the light played upon these and made them flash and blaze in tiny flames. But the woman who wore them was dead, and I was so certain as to how she had died that, without an instant's hesitation, I dropped on my knees beside her and placed my hands above her heart. My fingers again touched the thin slit of a wound. I had no doubt in my mind but that this was the Russian princess, and when I lowered the candle to her face I was assured that this was so. Her features showed the finest lines of both the Slav and the Jewess; the eyes were black, the hair blue-black and wonderfully heavy, and her skin, even in death, was rich in color. She was a surpassingly beautiful woman.
"I rose and tried to light another candle with the one I held, but I found that my hand was so unsteady that I could not keep the wicks together. It was my intention to again search for this strange dagger which had been used to kill both the English boy and the beautiful princess, but before I could light the second candle I heard footsteps descending the stairs, and the Russian servant appeared in the doorway.
"My face was in darkness, or I am sure that, at the sight of it, he would have taken alarm, for at that moment I was not sure but that this man himself was the murderer. His own face was plainly visible to me in the light from the hall, and I could see that it wore an expression of dull bewilderment. I stepped quickly toward him and took a firm hold upon his wrist.
"'She is not there,' he said. 'The Princess has gone. They have all gone.'
"'Who have gone?' I demanded. 'Who else has been here? '
"'The two Englishmen,' he said.
"'What two Englishmen?' I demanded. 'What are their names?'
"The man now saw by my manner that some question of great moment hung upon his answer, and he began to protest that he did not know the names of the visitors and that until that evening he had never seen them.
"I guessed that it was my tone which frightened him, so I took my hand off his wrist and spoke less eagerly.
"'How long have they been here?' I asked, 'and when did they go?'
"He pointed behind him toward the drawing-room.
"'One sat there with the Princess,' he said; 'the other came after I had placed the coffee in the drawing-room. The two Englishmen talked together, and the Princess returned here to the table. She sat there in that chair, and I brought her cognac and cigarettes. Then I sat outside upon the bench. It was a feast-day, and I had been drinking. Pardon, Excellency, but I fell asleep. When I woke, your Excellency was standing by me, but the Princess and the two Englishmen had gone. That is all I know.'
"I believed that the man was telling me the truth. His fright had passed, and he was now apparently puzzled, but not alarmed.
"'You must remember the names of the Englishmen,' I urged. 'Try to think. When you announced them to the Princess what name did you give?'
"At this question he exclaimed, with pleasure, and, beckoning to me, ran hurriedly down the hall and into the drawing-room. In the corner furthest from the screen was the piano, and on it was a silver tray. He picked this up and, smiling with pride at his own intelligence, pointed at two cards that lay upon it. I took them up and read the names engraved upon them."
The American paused abruptly, and glanced at the faces about him. "I read the names," he repeated. He spoke with great reluctance.
"Continue!" cried the baronet, sharply.
"I read the names," said the American with evident distaste, "and the family name of each was the same. They were the names of two brothers. One is well known to you. It is that of the African explorer of whom this gentleman was just speaking. I mean the Earl of Chetney. The other was the name of his brother. Lord Arthur Chetney."
The men at the table fell back as though a trapdoor had fallen open at their feet.
"Lord Chetney?" they exclaimed, in chorus. They glanced at each other and back to the American, with every expression of concern and disbelief.
"It is impossible!" cried the Baronet. "Why, my dear sir, young Chetney only arrived from Africa yesterday. It was so stated in the evening papers."
The jaw of the American set in a resolute square, and he pressed his lips together.
"You are perfectly right, sir," he said, "Lord Chetney did arrive in London yesterday morning, and yesterday night I found his dead body."
The youngest member present was the first to recover. He seemed much less concerned over the identity of the murdered man than at the interruption of the narrative.
"Oh, please let him go on!" he cried. "What happened then? You say you found two visiting-cards. How do you know which card was that of the murdered man?"
The American, before he answered, waited until the chorus of exclamations had ceased. Then he continued as though he had not been interrupted.
"The instant I read the names upon the cards," he said, "I ran to the screen and, kneeling beside the dead man, began a search through his pockets. My hand at once fell upon a card-case, and I found on all the cards it contained the title of the Earl of Chetney. His watch and cigarette-case also bore his name. These evidences, and the fact of his bronzed skin, and that his cheek-bones were worn with fever, convinced me that the dead man was the African explorer, and the boy who had fled past me in the night was Arthur, his younger brother.
"I was so intent upon my search that I had forgotten the servant, and I was still on my knees when I heard a cry behind me. I turned, and saw the man gazing down at the body in abject horror.
"Before I could rise, he gave another cry of terror, and, flinging himself into the hall, raced toward the door to the street. I leaped after him, shouting to him to halt, but before I could reach the hall he had torn open the door, and I saw him spring out into the yellow fog. I cleared the steps in a jump and ran down the garden-walk but just as the gate clicked in front of me. I had it open on the instant, and, following the sound of the man's footsteps, I raced after him across the open street. He, also, could hear me, and he instantly stopped running, and there was absolute silence. He was so near that I almost fancied I could hear him panting, and I held my own breath to listen. But I could distinguish nothing but the dripping of the mist about us, and from far off the music of the Hungarian band, which I had heard when I first lost myself.
"All I could see was the square of light from the door I had left open behind me, and a lamp in the hall beyond it flickering in the draught. But even as I watched it, the flame of the lamp was blown violently to and fro, and the door, caught in the same current of air, closed slowly. I knew if it shut I could not again enter the house, and I rushed madly toward it. I believe I even shouted out, as though it were something human which I could compel to obey me, and then I caught my foot against the curb and smashed into the sidewalk. When I rose to my feet I was dizzy and half stunned, and though I thought then that I was moving toward the door, I know now that I probably turned directly from it; for, as I groped about in the night, calling frantically for the police, my fingers touched nothing but the dripping fog, and the iron railings for which I sought seemed to have melted away. For many minutes I beat the mist with my arms like one at blind man's buff, turning sharply in circles, cursing aloud at my stupidity and crying continually for help. At last a voice answered me from the fog, and I found myself held in the circle of a policeman's lantern.
"That is the end of my adventure. What I have to tell you now is what I learned from the police.
"At the station-house to which the man guided me I related what you have just heard. I told them that the house they must at once find was one set back from the street within a radius of two hundred yards from the Knightsbridge Barracks, that within fifty yards of it someone was giving a dance to the music of a Hungarian band, and that the railings before it were as high as a man's waist and filed to a point. With that to work upon, twenty men were at once ordered out into the fog to search for the house, and Inspector Lyle himself was despatched to the home of Lord Edam, Chetney's father, with a warrant for Lord Arthur's arrest. I was thanked and dismissed on my own recognizance.
"This morning, Inspector Lyle called on me, and from him I learned the police theory of the scene I have just described.
"Apparently, I had wandered very far in the fog, for up to noon to- day the house had not been found, nor had they been able to arrest Lord Arthur. He did not return to his father's house last night, and there is no trace of him; but from what the police knew of the past lives of the people I found in that lost house, they have evolved a theory, and their theory is that the murders were committed by Lord Arthur.
"The infatuation of his elder brother, Lord Chetney, for a Russian princess, so Inspector Lyle tells me, is well known to everyone. About two years ago the Princess Zichy, as she calls herself, and he were constantly together, and Chetney informed his friends that they were about to be married. The woman was notorious in two continents, and when Lord Edam heard of his son's infatuation he appealed to the police for her record.
"It is through his having applied to them that they know so much concerning her and her relations with the Chetneys. From the police Lord Edam learned that Madame Zichy had once been a spy in the employ of the Russian Third Section, but that lately she had been repudiated by her own government and was living by her wits, by blackmail, and by her beauty. Lord Edam laid this record before his son, but Chetney either knew it already or the woman persuaded him not to believe in it, and the father and son parted in great anger. Two days later the marquis altered his will, leaving all of his money to the younger brother, Arthur.
"The title and some of the landed property he could not keep from Chetney, but he swore if his son saw the woman again that the will should stand as it was, and he would be left without a penny.
"This was about eighteen months ago, when, apparently, Chetney tired of the Princess, and suddenly went off to shoot and explore in Central Africa. No word came from him, except that twice he was reported as having died of fever in the jungle, and finally two traders reached the coast who said they had seen his body. This was accepted by all as conclusive, and young Arthur was recognized as the heir to the Edam millions. On the strength of this supposition he at once began to borrow enormous sums from the money-lenders. This is of great importance, as the police believe it was these debts which drove him to the murder of his brother. Yesterday, as you know, Lord Chetney suddenly returned from the grave, and it was the fact that for two years he had been considered as dead which lent such importance to his return and which gave rise to those columns of detail concerning him which appeared in all the afternoon papers. But, obviously, during his absence he had not tired of the Princess Zichy, for we know that a few hours after he reached London he sought her out. His brother, who had also learned of his reappearance through the papers, probably suspected which would be the house he would first visit, and followed him there, arriving, so the Russian servant tells us, while the two were at coffee in the drawing-room. The Princess, then, we also learn from the servant, withdrew to the dining-room, leaving the brothers together. What happened one can only guess.
"Lord Arthur knew now that when it was discovered he was no longer the heir, the moneylenders would come down upon him. The police believe that he at once sought out his brother to beg for money to cover the post-obits, but that, considering the sum he needed was several hundreds of thousands of pounds, Chetney refused to give it him. No one knew that Arthur had gone to seek out his brother. They were alone. It is possible, then, that in a passion of disappointment, and crazed with the disgrace which he saw before him, young Arthur made himself the heir beyond further question. The death of his brother would have availed nothing if the woman remained alive. It is then possible that he crossed the hall, and, with the same weapon which made him Lord Edam's heir, destroyed the solitary witness to the murder. The only other person who could have seen it was sleeping in a drunken stupor, to which fact undoubtedly he owed his life. And yet," concluded the Naval Attache, leaning forward and marking each word with his finger, "Lord Arthur blundered fatally. In his haste he left the door of the house open, so giving access to the first passer-by, and he forgot that when he entered it he had handed his card to the servant. That piece of paper may yet send him to the gallows. In the meantime, he has disappeared completely, and somewhere, in one of the millions of streets of this great capital, in a locked and empty house, lies the body of his brother, and of the woman his brother loved, undiscovered, unburied; and with their murder unavenged."
In the discussion which followed the conclusion of the story of the Naval Attache, the gentleman with the pearl took no part. Instead, he arose, and, beckoning a servant to a far corner of the room, whispered earnestly to him until a sudden movement on the part of Sir Andrew caused him to return hurriedly to the table.
"There are several points in Mr. Sears's story I want explained," he cried. "Be seated, Sir Andrew," he begged. "Let us have the opinion of an expert. I do not care what the police think, I want to know what you think."
But Sir Andrew rose reluctantly from his chair.
"I should like nothing better than to discuss this," he said. "But it is most important that I proceed to the House. I should have been there some time ago." He turned toward the servant and directed him to call a hansom.
The gentleman with the pearl stud looked appealingly at the Naval Attache. "There are surely many details that you have not told us," he urged. "Some you have forgotten."
The Baronet interrupted quickly.
"I trust not," he said, "for I could not possibly stop to hear them."
"The story is finished," declared the Naval Attache; "until Lord Arthur is arrested or the bodies are found there is nothing more to tell of either Chetney or the Princess Zichy."
"Of Lord Chetney, perhaps not," interrupted the sporting-looking gentleman with the black tie, "but there'll always be something to tell of the Princess Zichy. I know enough stories about her to fill a book. She was a most remarkable woman." The speaker dropped the end of his cigar into his coffee-cup and, taking his case from his pocket, selected a fresh one. As he did so he laughed and held up the case that the others might see it. It was an ordinary cigar-case of well-worn pig-skin, with a silver clasp.
"The only time I ever met her," he said, "she tried to rob me of this."
The Baronet regarded him closely.
"She tried to rob you?" he repeated.
"Tried to rob me of this," continued the gentleman in the black tie, "and of the Czarina's diamonds." His tone was one of mingled admiration and injury.
"The Czarina's diamonds!" exclaimed the Baronet. He glanced quickly and suspiciously at the speaker, and then at the others about the table. But their faces gave evidence of no other emotion than that of ordinary interest.
"Yes, the Czarina's diamonds," repeated the man with the black tie. "It was a necklace of diamonds. I was told to take them to the Russian Ambassador in Paris, who was to deliver them at Moscow. I am a Queen's Messenger," he added.
"Oh, I see," exclaimed Sir Andrew, in a tone of relief. "And you say that this same Princess Zichy, one of the victims of this double murder, endeavored to rob you of—of—that cigar-case."
"And the Czarina's diamonds," answered the Queen's Messenger, imperturbably. "It's not much of a story, but it gives you an idea of the woman's character. The robbery took place between Paris and Marseilles."
The Baronet interrupted him with an abrupt movement. "No, no," he cried, shaking his head in protest. "Do not tempt me. I really cannot listen. I must be at the House in ten minutes."
"I am sorry," said the Queen's Messenger. He turned to those seated about him. "I wonder if the other gentlemen—" he inquired, tentatively. There was a chorus of polite murmurs, and the Queen's Messenger, bowing his head in acknowledgment, took a preparatory sip from his glass. At the same moment the servant to whom the man with the black pearl had spoken, slipped a piece of paper into his hand. He glanced at it, frowned, and threw it under the table.
The servant bowed to the Baronet.
"Your hansom is waiting, Sir Andrew," he said.
"The necklace was worth twenty thousand pounds," began the Queen's Messenger, "It was a present from the Queen of England to celebrate— " The Baronet gave an exclamation of angry annoyance.
"Upon my word, this is most provoking," he interrupted. "I really ought not to stay. But I certainly mean to hear this." He turned irritably to the servant. "Tell the hansom to wait," he commanded, and, with an air of a boy who is playing truant, slipped guiltily into his chair.
The gentleman with the black pearl smiled blandly, and rapped upon the table.
"Order, gentlemen," he said. "Order for the story of the Queen's Messenger and the Czarina's diamonds."
"The necklace was a present from the Queen of England to the Czarina of Russia," began the Queen's Messenger. "It was to celebrate the occasion of the Czar's coronation. Our Foreign Office knew that the Russian Ambassador in Paris was to proceed to Moscow for that ceremony, and I was directed to go to Paris and turn over the necklace to him. But when I reached Paris I found he had not expected me for a week later and was taking a few days' vacation at Nice. His people asked me to leave the necklace with them at the Embassy, but I had been charged to get a receipt for it from the Ambassador himself, so I started at once for Nice. The fact that Monte Carlo is not two thousand miles from Nice may have had something to do with making me carry out my instructions so carefully.
"Now, how the Princess Zichy came to find out about the necklace I don't know, but I can guess. As you have just heard, she was at one time a spy in the service of the Russian Government. And after they dismissed her she kept up her acquaintance with many of the Russian agents in London. It is probable that through one of them she learned that the necklace was to be sent to Moscow, and which one of the Queen's Messengers had been detailed to take it there. Still, I doubt if even that knowledge would have helped her if she had not also known something which I supposed no one else in the world knew but myself and one other man. And, curiously enough, the other man was a Queen's Messenger, too, and a friend of mine. You must know that up to the time of this robbery I had always concealed my despatches in a manner peculiarly my own. I got the idea from that play called 'A Scrap of Paper.' In it a man wants to hide a certain compromising document. He knows that all his rooms will be secretly searched for it, so he puts it in a torn envelope and sticks it up where anyone can see it on his mantle-shelf. The result is that the woman who is ransacking the house to find it looks in all the unlikely places, but passes over the scrap of paper that is just under her nose. Sometimes the papers and packages they give us to carry about Europe are of very great value, and sometimes they are special makes of cigarettes, and orders to court-dressmakers. Sometimes we know what we are carrying and sometimes we do not. If it is a large sum of money or a treaty, they generally tell us. But, as a rule, we have no knowledge of what the package contains; so to be on the safe side, we naturally take just as great care of it as though we knew it held the terms of an ultimatum or the crown-jewels. As a rule, my confreres carry the official packages in a despatch-box, which is just as obvious as a lady's jewel-bag in the hands of her maid. Everyone knows they are carrying something of value. They put a premium on dishonesty. Well, after I saw the 'Scrap-of-Paper' play, I determined to put the government valuables in the most unlikely place that anyone would look for them. So I used to hide the documents they gave me inside my riding-boots, and small articles, such as money or jewels, I carried in an old cigar-case. After I took to using my case for that purpose I bought a new one, exactly like it, for my cigars. But, to avoid mistakes, I had my initials placed on both sides of the new one, and the moment I touched the case, even in the dark, I could tell which it was by the raised initials.
"No one knew of this except the Queen's Messenger of whom I spoke. We once left Paris together on the Orient Express. I was going to Constantinople and he was to stop off at Vienna. On the journey I told him of my peculiar way of hiding things and showed him my cigar- case. If I recollect rightly, on that trip it held the grand cross of St. Michael and St. George, which the Queen was sending to our Ambassador. The Messenger was very much entertained at my scheme, and some months later when he met the Princess he told her about it as an amusing story. Of course, he had no idea she was a Russian spy. He didn't know anything at all about her, except that she was a very attractive woman. It was indiscreet, but he could not possibly have guessed that she could ever make any use of what he told her.
"Later, after the robbery, I remembered that I had informed this young chap of my secret hiding-place, and when I saw him again I questioned him about it. He was greatly distressed, and said he had never seen the importance of the secret. He remembered he had told several people of it, and among others the Princess Zichy. In that way I found out that it was she who had robbed me, and I know that from the moment I left London she was following me, and that she knew then that the diamonds were concealed in my cigar-case.
"My train for Nice left Paris at ten in the morning. When I travel at night I generally tell the chef de gare that I am a Queen's Messenger, and he gives me a compartment to myself, but in the daytime I take whatever offers. On this morning I had found an empty compartment, and I had tipped the guard to keep everyone else out, not from any fear of losing the diamonds, but because I wanted to smoke. He had locked the door, and as the last bell had rung I supposed I was to travel alone, so I began to arrange my traps and make myself comfortable. The diamonds in the cigar-case were in the inside pocket of my waistcoat, and as they made a bulky package, I took them out, intending to put them in my hand-bag. It is a small satchel like a bookmaker's, or those hand-bags that couriers carry. I wear it slung from a strap across my shoulders, and, no matter whether I am sitting or walking, it never leaves me.
"I took the cigar-case which held the necklace from my inside pocket and the case which held the cigars out of the satchel, and while I was searching through it for a box of matches I laid the two cases beside me on the seat.
"At that moment the train started, but at the same instant there was a rattle at the lock of the compartment, and a couple of porters lifted and shoved a woman through the door, and hurled her rugs and umbrellas in after her.
"Instinctively I reached for the diamonds. I shoved them quickly into the satchel and, pushing them far down to the bottom of the bag, snapped the spring-lock. Then I put the cigars in the pocket of my coat, but with the thought that now that I had a woman as a travelling companion I would probably not be allowed to enjoy them.
"One of her pieces of luggage had fallen at my feet, and a roll of rugs had landed at my side. I thought if I hid the fact that the lady was not welcome, and at once endeavored to be civil, she might permit me to smoke. So I picked her hand-bag off the floor and asked her where I might place it.
"As I spoke I looked at her for the first time, and saw that she was a most remarkably handsome woman.
"She smiled charmingly and begged me not to disturb myself. Then she arranged her own things about her, and, opening her dressing-bag, took out a gold cigarette-case.
"'Do you object to smoke?' she asked.
"I laughed and assured her I had been in great terror lest she might object to it herself.
"'If you like cigarettes,' she said, 'will you try some of these? They are rolled especially for my husband in Russia, and they are supposed to be very good.'
"I thanked her, and took one from her case, and I found it so much better than my own that I continued to smoke her cigarettes throughout the rest of the journey. I must say that we got on very well. I judged from the coronet on her cigarette-case, and from her manner, which was quite as well bred as that of any woman I ever met, that she was someone of importance, and though she seemed almost too good-looking to be respectable, I determined that she was some grande dame who was so assured of her position that she could afford to be unconventional. At first she read her novel, and then she made some comment on the scenery, and finally we began to discuss the current politics of the Continent. She talked of all the cities in Europe, and seemed to know everyone worth knowing. But she volunteered nothing about herself except that she frequently made use of the expression, 'When my husband was stationed at Vienna,' or 'When my husband was promoted to Rome.' Once she said to me, 'I have often seen you at Monte Carlo. I saw you when you won the pigeon- championship.' I told her that I was not a pigeon-shot, and she gave a little start of surprise. 'Oh, I beg your pardon,' she said; 'I thought you were Morton Hamilton, the English champion.' As a matter of fact, I do look like Hamilton, but I know now that her object was to make me think that she had no idea as to who I really was. She needn't have acted at all, for I certainly had no suspicions of her, and was only too pleased to have so charming a companion.
"The one thing that should have made me suspicious was the fact that at every station she made some trivial excuse to get me out of the compartment. She pretended that her maid was travelling back of us in one of the second-class carriages, and kept saying she could not imagine why the woman did not come to look after her, and if the maid did not turn up at the next stop, would I be so very kind as to get out and bring her whatever it was she pretended she wanted.
"I had taken my dressing-case from the rack to get out a novel, and had left it on the seat opposite to mine, and at the end of the compartment farthest from her. And once when I came back from buying her a cup of chocolate, or from some other fool-errand, I found her standing at my end of the compartment with both hands on the dressing-bag. She looked at me without so much as winking an eye, and shoved the case carefully into a corner. 'Your bag slipped off on the floor,' she said. 'If you've got any bottles in it, you had better look and see that they're not broken.'