"Monsieur Bartot is very welcome," he said, speaking in French. "Monsieur Bartot has promised so often to make this visit, and has always disappointed us."
Bartot was no match for this sort of thing. His few muttered words at first were scarcely coherent. Louis bent towards him, always with the same attitude of polite attention.
"If there is anything I can do," he said softly. "Monsieur has already, without doubt, selected his rooms. It will give us great pleasure to see him in the cafe this evening."
Bartot commenced to talk, but his voice was almost inaudible, it was so thick with passion.
"I come to know what it means! It is not for pleasure that I come to this villainous country! I come to know what the game is! I will be told! Mademoiselle here—she tells me that her uncle has been lost, and now that he is ill. She will not let me see him!"
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Alas!" he said. "That, I know, is quite impossible. Monsieur Delora was taken ill on the voyage over. This gentleman," he added, turning to me, "will bear me out when I say this. He is now in bed, and a doctor is with him. I am sorry, but it would not be possible to have him disturbed."
"Then I wait!" Bartot declared, folding his arms. "I wait till monsieur recovers!"
"Why not?" Louis asked. "It is what we most desire. We will do our best to make monsieur comfortable here."
I felt Felicia's fingers press my arm. I glanced towards her, and she made a motion toward the door. We moved off, unnoticed, and I rang the bell for the lift.
"Oh! Capitaine Rotherby," she exclaimed, "once more you have come to my help! I was so frightened at that man! He did speak to me so angrily, and he did not believe anything I told him. Indeed, it is true that my uncle is ill. You do not disbelieve that, do you, Capitaine Rotherby?"
The lift arrived a little opportunely for me. Then it stopped at the fifth floor.
"We must walk softly," she said. "My uncle is asleep, and the doctor says that he must not be wakened."
"You are going to have dinner with me?" I asked.
"I think so," she answered. "Yes, I think so! Let us go somewhere a long way off. Take me somewhere quiet, Capitaine Rotherby, where I shall not see any one I know."
"I will," I promised her. "Put on a high-necked gown and a hat. I will take you where there is plenty of music but few people. We will get a quiet table and talk. Indeed," I continued, "there are several things which I want to say to you, Miss Delora."
"And I," she murmured. "It will be delightful. But step gently, monsieur. He must not be awakened."
She pointed to that closed door, and I looked steadfastly into her eyes. It was not possible that she was acting. I was convinced that she believed that her uncle was really in the next room.
"I call for you here," I whispered, "at half-past seven."
"I shall be ready," she answered, "quite ready. You must not be late or I shall be impatient. Oh!" she added, with a little impulsive gesture, "I am beginning to hate this place. I begin to long to escape from it forever. I look forward so much to going away,—the further the better, Capitaine Rotherby! I shall be ready when you come. Good-bye!"
A VERY SPECIAL DINNER
At seven o'clock that evening I passed through the cafe on my way to the American bar. There was already a good sprinkling of early diners there, and Louis was busy as usual. Directly he saw me, however, he came forward with his usual suave bow.
"The table in the left-hand corner," he said, "is engaged for monsieur. I have also taken the liberty of commanding a little dinner."
"But I am not dining here, Louis!" I protested.
Louis' expression was one of honest surprise.
"Monsieur is serious?" he inquired. "It is only a short time ago that I was talking with Mademoiselle Delora, and she told me that she was dining with you here."
"I am dining with Miss Delora," I answered, "but I certainly did not understand that it was to be here."
"Perhaps," he remarked, "mademoiselle had, for the moment, the idea of going away for dinner. If so, believe me, she has changed her mind. Monsieur will see when he calls for her."
I passed on thoughtfully. There was something about this which I scarcely understood. It seemed almost as though Louis had but to direct, and every one obeyed. Was I, too, becoming one of his myrmidons? Was I, too, to dine at his cafe because he had spoken the word?
I made my way to number 157 precisely at half-past seven. Felicia was waiting for me, and for a moment I forgot to ask any questions,—forgot everything except the pleasure of looking at her. She wore a black lace gown,—beautifully cut, and modelled to perfection to reveal the delicate outline of her figure,—a rope of pearls, and a large hat and veil, arranged as only those can arrange them who have learnt how to dress in Paris. She looked at me a little anxiously.
"You like me?" she asked. "I will do?"
"You are charming," I answered, "You take my breath away. Indeed, mademoiselle, I have never dined with any one so charming."
She dropped me a little curtsey. Then her face clouded over.
"There is something I have to ask," she said, looking at me ruefully. "Do you mind if we dine downstairs?"
"Louis has already told me that it is your wish," I answered.
She picked up the train of her gown. I fancied that she turned away in order that I should not see her face.
"He was so disappointed," she murmured, "and he has been so kind, I did not like to disappoint him."
"How is your uncle?" I asked.
"I have not yet been allowed to see him," she answered, "but they tell me that he is better. If he has a good night to-night, to-morrow morning I may go to him."
"I certainly hope that he will have a good night!" I remarked. "Shall we go down?"
"If you are ready," she answered. "There, you shall carry my purse and handkerchief while I put on my gloves. To put them on is foolish, is it not, when one does not leave the place? Still, one must do these things."
"Your purse is heavy," I remarked, swinging it on my finger.
"I carry always with me much money," she answered. "It is my uncle's idea. Some day, I tell him, one of us will be robbed. He has always one or two hundred pounds in his pocket. I have there fifty or sixty pounds. It is foolish, you think?"
"I do," I answered. "It rather seems like asking people to rob you."
"Ah, well, they do not know!" she answered, stepping into the lift. "I am hungry, Capitaine Rotherby. I have eaten so little to-day."
"Louis has chosen the dinner himself," I remarked, "so we shall probably find it everything that it should be."
We found our way to the table which had been reserved for us, escorted by one of Louis' subordinates. Louis himself was busy in the distance, arranging the seating of a small dinner-party. He came up to us directly, however. The waiter was serving us with caviare.
"I hope you will enjoy very much your dinner," he said, bowing. "I have taken special pains with everything. Two dinners to-night I have ordered with my own lips from the chef. One is yours, and the other the dinner of our friend Monsieur Bartot."
He pointed to a table a little distance away, where Monsieur Bartot was already dining. His back was towards us—broad and ugly, with its rolls of fat flesh around the neck, almost concealing the low collar.
"Some day," I remarked, "our friend Monsieur Bartot will suffer from apoplexy."
"It would not be surprising," Louis answered. "He is looking very flushed to-night. The chef has prepared for him a wonderful dinner. They say that he is never satisfied. We shall see to-night."
I looked away with a little gesture of disgust. Louis was summoned elsewhere, a fact for which I was duly grateful.
"Tell me, Miss Delora," I said, "how long have you known Louis?"
"Oh! for a very long time," she answered, a little evasively. "He is wonderful, they all say. There is no one quite like him. A rich man has built a great restaurant in New York, and he offered him his own price if he would go and manage it. But Monsieur Louis said 'No!' He loves the Continent. He loves London. He will not go so far away."
"Monsieur Louis has perhaps, too, other ties here," I remarked dryly.
She looked at me across the table meaningly.
"Ah!" she said, "Louis—he does interest himself in many things. He and my uncle always have had much to say to one another. What it is all about I do not know, but I heard my uncle say once that Louis very soon would be as rich as he himself."
"Tell me how long you thought of staying in London?" I asked.
"It is not sure," she answered. "My uncle's business may be settled in a few hours, or it may take him weeks."
"The selling of his coffee?" I asked dryly.
"But certainly!" she answered.
"And from here you go to where?" I asked.
"Back to Paris," she answered, "and then, alas, to South America. It is to be buried!"
"You have lived long in Paris?" I asked.
"Since I came there first to boarding-school," she answered. "A little child I was, with my hair in pigtails and frocks to my knees. I have learned to think, somehow, that Paris is my home. What I have heard of South America I do not love. I wish very much that my uncle would stay here."
"There is no chance of that, I suppose?" I asked.
"I think not," she answered. "In South America he is a very important man. They speak of him one day as President."
"Had you any idea," I asked, "that he had enemies over here?"
She shook her head.
"It is not that," she said. "We will not talk of it just now. It is not that he has enemies, but he has very, very important business to arrange, and there are some who do not think as he thinks about it. Shall we talk about something else, Capitaine Rotherby? Tell me about your friends or relations, and where you live? I would like so much to know everything."
"I am afraid there is not much to tell," I answered. "You see I am what is called over here a younger son. I have a brother who owns the house in which I was born, and all that sort of thing, and I have had to go out into the world and look for my fortune. So far," I continued, "I can't say that I have been very successful."
"You are poor, then?" she asked timidly.
"I am not rich," I answered. "Still, on the whole, I suppose for a bachelor I am comfortably off. Then my brother has no sons, and his health is always delicate. I do not count on that, of course, but I might have to succeed him."
"Tell me his name?" she asked.
"Lord Welmington," I answered,—"the Earl of Welmington he is called."
"And you would be that," she asked naively, "if he died?"
"I should," I answered, "but I should be very sorry to think that there was any chance of it. I am going to find something to do very soon, probably at one of the embassies on the Continent. The army at home, with no chance of a war, is dull work."
"You play games and shoot, of course," she asked, "like all your countrymen?"
"I am afraid I do," I admitted. "I have wasted a good deal of time the last few years. I have made up my mind definitely now, though, that I will get something to do. Ralph—that's my brother—wants me to stand for Parliament for the division of Norfolk, where we live, and has offered to pay all my expenses, but I am afraid I do not fancy myself as a politician."
"I would come and hear you speak," she murmured.
"Thank you," I answered, "but I have other accomplishments at which I shine more. I would rather—"
I broke off in the middle of my sentence, attracted by a sudden little exclamation from my companion. There was the sound of a heavy fall close at hand. I sprang to my feet.
"By Jove, it's Bartot!" I exclaimed.
The man was leaning half across the table, his arms stretched out in an unnatural fashion,—the wine which he had overturned streaming on to the floor. His face was flushed and blotchy. His eyes were closed. He was groaning quite audibly, and gasping.
"Empoisonne!" he muttered. "Empoisonne!"
"Poisoned?" I repeated. "What does the fellow mean?"
I stopped short. A sudden realization of what he did mean assailed me! He was desperately ill, there was no doubt about that. The word which he had uttered seemed likely to be his last for some time to come. They formed a sort of stretcher and carried him from the room. Felicia was sitting back in her chair, white to the lips. I was feeling a little queer myself. I called Louis, who had been superintending the man's removal.
"Louis," I whispered in his ear, "there were two dinners which you prepared yourself to-night!"
Louis smiled very quietly.
"You need have no anxiety, monsieur," he assured me,—"no anxiety at all!"
We sat out in the foyer and took our coffee. I did not suggest a visit to any place of entertainment, as I knew it was better for Felicia to retire early, in order that I might pass through the sitting-room to her uncle's room, unheard. The orchestra was playing delightful music; the rooms were thronged with a gay and fashionable crowd. Nevertheless, my companion's spirits, which had been high enough during dinner, now seemed to fail her. More than once during the momentary silence I saw the absent look come into her eyes,—saw her shiver as though she were recalling the little tragedy of a few minutes ago. I had hitherto avoided mentioning it, but I tried now to make light of the matter.
"I spoke to Louis coming out," I remarked. "The man Bartot has only had a slight stroke. With a neck like that, I wonder he has not had it before."
She found no consolation in my words. She only shook her head sadly.
"You do not understand," she said. "It is part of the game. So it goes on, Capitaine Rotherby," she said, looking at me with her sad eyes. "So it will go on to the end."
"Come," I said, "you must not get morbid."
"Morbid," she repeated. "It is not that. It is because I know."
"Do you believe, then," I asked, "that Bartot was poisoned?"
She looked at me as though in surprise. Her eyes were like the eyes of a child.
"I know it!" she answered simply. "There is not any question about it at all."
I listened to the music for several moments in silence. Once or twice I stole a glance at her. Notwithstanding a certain perfection of outline, and a toilette which removed her wholly from any suggestion of immaturity, there was yet something childish in the pale, drawn face,—in the eyes with their look of fear. My heart was full of sympathy for her. Such adventures as this one into which I seemed to have stumbled were well enough for men. She, at any rate, was wholly out of place in her present position! I had wild dreams at that moment. The wine and the music, and the absolute trustfulness with which she seemed, for the moment, to have committed herself to my keeping, fired my blood. I had thoughts of taking her hand in mine, of bidding her leave the hotel that night, that minute, with me,—of taking her away into the country, into some quiet place where we could be married, and where none of these things which terrified her could throw their shadows across her life! Yet barely had the thought come to me before I realized how impossible it all was. I, too, was an adventurer! If I were not actually in the power of these men, it was to them that I owed my liberty! My own spirits began to fall. It was a queer maze this into which I had been drawn.
The music changed its note. Even as we sat there its languorous, passionate rhythm passed away, to be succeeded by the quicker, cleaner notes of some old martial music. It came to me like a cold douche. I remembered that I had been—was still—a soldier. I remembered that my word was pledged to certain undertakings, and that after all I was fighting on her side. The momentary depression passed away. I found myself able to talk more lightly, until something of the old gayety came back to her also.
"Tell me," she said, as at last we rose to vacate our places,—"you spoke the other day of going down into the country."
"I am not leaving London just yet," I said decidedly.
If I had indeed made some great sacrifice, I should have been rewarded by the brilliant look which she flashed up at me. Her eyes for a moment were absolutely the color of violets. I heard people whisper as we passed by. We said very little more to one another. I left her at the lift, and she gave me both her hands with a little impulsive gesture which I had already learned to look for. Then one of those inexplicable moods seemed to take possession of her. As the lift shot away from me I saw that her eyes were full of tears.
I made my way back to the cafe. It was now almost deserted. All but one or two very late diners had gone, and the tables were being prepared for supper. Louis, however, was still there, sitting at the desk by the side of the cashier, and apparently making calculations. He came forward when he saw me enter, and we met by chance just as one of the under-managers of the hotel passed by.
"What can I do for you this evening, Captain Rotherby?" he asked, with his usual bow. "A table for supper, perhaps?"
"I want some coffee," I asked. "I want you to see that it is strong, and well made."
Louis turned and gave an order to a waiter. I sat down, and he stood by my side.
"Mademoiselle has gone to her room?" he asked.
"Five minutes ago," I answered.
"In an hour," he said, "it will be safe for monsieur to go to Mr. Delora's room. You need not pass through the sitting-room at all. There is a door into the bedroom connecting with the corridor. If mademoiselle hears anything, she will think that it is the doctor."
"I shall be quite ready," I answered. "There are only one or two things I want to ask you. One is this, what explanation is to be given of my occupying that room, if there is a row?"
"There will not be a row," Louis answered coolly. "If monsieur is hurt, I shall see to it that he is conveyed to his own apartment. If any one who attacks him, or tries to search the apartment, should be hurt by monsieur, I shall see, too, that they are removed quietly. These things are easy enough. The service through the night is almost abandoned. Monsieur may not know it, but on the floor on which he sleeps there is not a single servant."
"Supposing I ring my bell?" I asked.
"If it were answered at all," Louis said, "it would be by the lift man."
"On the whole," I remarked, "it seems to me that the residential side of the hotel is admirably suited to the nocturnal adjustment of small differences!"
"There has never been any trouble, sir," he said. "You see," he added, pointing to the clock, "it is now ten o'clock. In one hour monsieur should be there. I have ordered whiskey and soda to be put in the room."
"Shall I see anything of you, Louis?" I asked.
"It is not possible, monsieur," he answered. "I must be here until half-past twelve or one o'clock to attend to my supper guests."
I leaned back in my chair and laughed silently. It seemed to me a strange thing to speak so calmly of the service of the restaurant, while upstairs I was to lie quiet, my senses strained all the time, and the chances of life and death dependent, perhaps, on the quickness of my right arm, or some chance inspiration. I saw the usual throng come strolling in—I myself had often been one of them—actresses who had not time to make a toilette for the restaurant proper, actors, managers, agents, performers from all the hundreds of pleasure houses which London boasts, Americans who had not troubled to dress, Frenchwomen who objected to the order prohibiting their appearance in hats elsewhere,—a heterogeneous, light-hearted crowd, not afraid to laugh, to make jokes, certain to outstay their time, supping frugally or au prince, according to the caprice of the moment. And upstairs I saw myself waiting in a darkened room for what? I felt a thrill of something which I had felt just before the final assault upon Ladysmith, when we had drunk our last whiskey and soda, thrown away our cigarettes, and it had been possible to wonder, for a moment, whether ever again our lips would hold another. Only this was a very different matter. I might be ending my days, for all I knew, on behalf of a gang of swindlers!
"Louis," I said, "it would make me much more comfortable if you could be a little more candid. You might tell me in plain words what these men want from Delora. How am I to know that he is not the thief, and these others are seeking only their own?"
Louis was silent for a moment. He glanced carelessly around the room to assure himself that there were no listeners.
"I can tell you no more, sir," he said, "for if I told you more, I should tell you lies. I will only remind you that you owe us a debt which I am asking you to pay, and that it is the uncle of mademoiselle whose place you are taking."
"I am not in the least convinced," I said, "that I am aiding the uncle of mademoiselle in allowing myself to be attacked in his place."
"As for that," Louis answered, "you shall be assured to-morrow, and, if you will, there is another adventure still to be undertaken. You shall go to see Mr. Delora, and be thanked with his own lips."
"There is some sense in that, Louis," I allowed, lighting another cigarette, "but I warn you I shall make him tell me the truth."
Louis smiled inscrutably.
"Why not, monsieur?" he said.
"Tell me this, at any rate, Louis," I asked. "What is it that you hope for from this evening? You believe that some one will break in with the idea of robbing or else murdering Mr. Delora. They will find me there instead. What is it you hope,—that they will kill me, or that I shall kill them, or what?"
"That is a very reasonable question," Louis admitted. "I will answer it. In the first place, I would have them know that they have not all the wits on their side, and if they plot, we, too, can counterplot. In the second place, I wish you to see the man or the men face to face who make this attempt, and be prepared, if necessary, to recognize them hereafter. And in the third place, there is one man to whom, if he should himself make the attempt, I should be very glad indeed if harm came of it."
"Thank you, Louis," I said, "I am not proposing to do murder if I can help it."
"One must defend one's self," Louis said.
"Naturally," I answered, "up to a certain point. You have nothing more to tell me, then?"
"Nothing, sir," Louis answered calmly. "I wish you once more bonne fortune!"
I nodded, and left the cafe. Of the hall-porter I made an inquiry as to the man who had had a fit in the cafe earlier in the evening.
"The doctor has been to see him twice, sir," the man told me. "It was a sort of apoplectic stroke, brought on by something which he had eaten."
"Will he recover?" I asked.
"The doctor says it is serious," the man answered, "but that with careful nursing he will pull round. We have just sent a telegram to a lady in Paris to come over."
I smiled as I rang the bell for the lift. So I might see my lady of the turquoises again.
WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS
Arrived in my room, I changed my dress-coat for a smoking-jacket, and my patent shoes for loose slippers. Then I suddenly discovered that I had no cigarettes. I glanced at the clock. It was only half-past ten. I had still half an hour to spare.
I locked up my room and descended by the lift to the entrance hall. My friend the hall-porter was standing behind his counter, doing nothing.
"I wish you would send a boy into the cafe," I said, "and ask Louis to send me a box of my cigarettes."
"With pleasure, sir," the man answered. "By the bye," he added, "Louis is not there himself, but I suppose any of the others would know the sort you smoke, sir?"
"Not there?" I answered, glancing at the clock. "Ah! I suppose it is a little early for him."
"He will not be there at all this evening," the porter answered. "The second maitre d'hotel was here a few minutes ago, and told me so himself."
"Not there at all!" I repeated. "Do you mean to say that Louis has a night off?"
"Certainly, sir," the man answered. "He has just gone out in his morning clothes."
For a moment I was so surprised that I said nothing. Only a few minutes ago Louis had gone out of his way to tell me that he would be on duty that night in the cafe. All the time it was obviously a lie! He would not have deceived me without a reason. What was it? I walked to the door and back again. The hall-porter watched me a little curiously.
"Did you wish for Monsieur Louis particularly," he said, "or shall I send to Antoine for the cigarettes?"
I pulled myself together.
"Send to Antoine, by all means," I answered. "He knows what I want."
I took up an evening paper and glanced at the news. Somehow or other I was conscious, although I had had no exercise, of feeling unusually sleepy. When the boy returned with the cigarettes I thrust the box into my pocket, unopened. Then I went to the smoking-room on my way upstairs and drank a stiff brandy and soda. Of one of the junior waiters whom I met I asked a question.
"Do you know if Monsieur Louis will be here to-night?" I asked.
"No, sir!" he answered. "He has just left."
"Very well," I answered. "You need not mention my inquiry."
I gave the boy half-a-crown, and ascended once more to my room. I was feeling a little more awake, but, incomprehensible though it might seem, I began to have a curious idea concerning the coffee with which Louis had served me. I even remembered—or thought that I remembered—some curious taste about it. Yet what object could Louis have in drugging me just as I was on the point of entering into an enterprise on his behalf?
I had a spirit-lamp in my room, and I made myself rapidly a cup of strong tea. Even after I had drunk it, I still felt the remains of the drowsy feeling hanging around me. It was now ten minutes to eleven, and I opened my wardrobe to find the only weapon with which I proposed to arm myself,—a heavily loaded Malacca cane, which had more than once done me good service. To my surprise it was not in its accustomed corner. I was perfectly certain that I had seen it since my return from Paris, and I proceeded to make a thoroughly methodical search. I left scarcely an inch of space in my rooms undisturbed. At last I was forced to come to the conclusion that the stick had gone. Either the valet or some one else must have borrowed it.
It was eleven o'clock by the time I had concluded my search, and there was no time for me to make any further inquiries. I locked up my rooms and descended to the fifth floor. The corridor was empty, and with the key which Louis had given me I opened the door of Mr. Delora's bedroom without difficulty. The room was in darkness, but the electric-light knob was against the wall. I turned it on quickly. There was neither any one in the room, nor any evidence of it having been recently occupied t satisfied with my first inspection, I looked into the wardrobe and lifted the curtains of the bed. Very soon I was assured that there was no one in hiding. I sat down on the edge of the bed and began to consider how to pass the time for the next hour or so. The whiskey and soda set out upon the table attracted my attention. I went over to it, struck by a sudden thought! First I poured out a little of the whiskey. It smelt harmless enough. I tried it upon my tongue. There was no distinctive flavor. Then I looked at the soda-water syphon. The top was screwed up tightly enough, and it easily came undone with the application of a little force. I examined the screw. I felt certain at once, for some reason or other, that it had been tampered with recently. I poured a little of the soda-water into a glass. It was quite flat, and when I tasted it it had a peculiar flavor. Something seemed to have been added to it which destroyed altogether its buoyancy. I screwed on the top again and whistled softly to myself. The whiskey and soda had been placed there by Louis. He had even gone so far as to call my particular attention to it. The coffee which I had drunk a little before had also been prepared by Louis. He was evidently taking no chances! It was his intention that I should be asleep when the intruder, whoever he might be, should enter the room. After all, it seemed that I was in for something a little more complicated in the way of adventures than I had imagined. I examined the lock of the door by which I had entered. It worked easily, and there was also a bolt on the inside. The door was by its side which led into the sitting-room. I also examined it, and I saw with satisfaction that there was at the top a narrow glass transept, which I carefully opened. The sitting-room was in darkness, so Felicia had evidently retired for the night. I sat down to wait!
The time dragged on slowly enough, as it might well have done under the circumstances. I was waiting for something,—I had not the least idea what, or in what form it would arrive. I heard the quarters chime one after the other until one o'clock. Then at last I heard the sound of a key in the outer door of the suite. I had already poured half the syphon of soda and a fair quantity of the whiskey out of the window. I now threw myself upon the bed, closed my eyes, and did my best to simulate a heavy sleep. The person who entered the apartments came up the little outer passage until he reached the door leading into my room. I heard that softly opened. Then there was a pause, broken only by my heavy breathing. Some one was in the room, and it was some one who had learned the art of absolute noiselessness. I heard no footsteps,—not even a man's breathing. Suddenly there was the click of the electric light, and although I still heard nothing, I felt that some one had approached a little way towards the bed. I dared not open my eyes, but in a restless movement, which I felt I might safely make, I raised my hand to shield me, and caught a momentary glimpse of the person who was standing between me and the door. As I expected, it was Louis! He held the soda-water syphon in his hand, as though measuring its contents. I believe that he afterwards came and stood over me. I dared not open my eyes again, for I was none too good an actor, and I feared that he might not be deceived. The quantity of whiskey and soda, however, which I had apparently drunk, must have satisfied him, for he only stayed altogether about a minute in the room. Then he passed out into the sitting-room, closing the door behind him, and without noticing the open transept. I lay quite still, expecting that before long he would return. There were no signs of his coming, however, though through the transept I could see that the light in the sitting-room had been turned on. I rose softly from the bed and bolted both doors. If Louis were to make up his mind to return, it was better, after all, for him to discover that I had been deceiving him than to have him come upon me unawares!
From the top of a chair I was easily able to see through the transept into the sitting-room. At my first glance I thought that it was empty. Then, however, I saw Louis come in from the outer hall, as though from the door of Felicia's room. He came into the centre of the sitting-room and stood there waiting. He was in dark morning clothes, and there was no sign of that charming expression which his patrons found so attractive. His brows were contracted. His mouth seemed screwed together. His peculiar-colored eyes shone like gimlets. He seemed to be waiting impatiently—waiting for what? Once he moved a little, and glanced expectantly toward the open door of the sitting-room. For the first time a horrible fear gripped me. I could scarcely stand in my place. With both hands I held the cornice. My heart began to thump against my ribs. If it should be true! Then all of a sudden a little cry came to my lips, which Heaven knows how I stifled! My eyes were suddenly hot. There was a mist before them. I could see nothing, nothing save Felicia, who had entered the room in a dressing-jacket, with her hair still down her back. It was nothing to me, at that moment, that her eyes were round with fear, that she came as one comes who obeys the call of her master. I was so furious with anger that I had hard work to battle with the impulse which prompted me to throw open the door and confront them both.
"Louis, is this wise?" she murmured.
"There are times," he answered softly, "when one has to dare everything! Listen, Felicia."
"Yes?" she murmured.
"In a short time you will hear a soft knocking on the outside door. Take no notice. I shall open it. It will be some one to see your uncle. We shall talk in this sitting-room. I hope that nothing will happen, but if you hear the sound of blows or voices take no notice. Remain in your room till everything is quiet. Presently, if all is well, I shall knock three times on your door. I may need your help."
"Very well," she answered. "And if you do not knock?"
He handed her a slip of paper.
"You have a telephone in your room," he said. "Ring up the number you will find there, and simply repeat the words which I have written."
"Is that all?" she asked.
"That is all."
"Louis," she said,—then she pointed in my direction,—"may I not go in just for one minute?"
"No!" he answered. "It is not wise."
"It seems unkind," she said, "to keep away from him all this time if he is ill."
"I did not know that you had so much affection for him!" Louis remarked.
"Why not?" she answered. "He was always kind to me, in his way."
There was a moment's pause. Then she spoke again, and her voice had in it a note of sharp inquiry.
"Louis, whose stick is that?" she demanded.
I raised myself a little higher. Upon the table, close to where Louis was standing, was a thick Malacca cane which I recognized at once.
"Mine!" Louis answered shortly.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Whose did you suppose that it was?" he demanded.
"Capitaine Rotherby was carrying one just like it," she declared. "I noticed it in the railway carriage."
"They are common enough," Louis answered. "This one, at any rate, is mine. Hush!"
They both, for a moment, seemed to be listening intently. Then Louis pointed to the door.
"Go back to your room," he said, in a low whisper. "Go back at once, and turn your key."
She stole away. When she was no longer in the room I could see more clearly,—I could take account of other things! Distinctly I could hear now the soft knocking upon the outer door!
A TERRIBLE NIGHT
Louis disappeared from the room for the moment. I heard the outer door softly opened and closed. Then he came back into the sitting-room, followed by the man who had stood by our side at Charing Cross Station. The latter looked around the room quickly, and seemed disappointed to find it empty.
"I understood that Mr. Delora was here," he said.
"Mr. Delora is in his bedroom," Louis answered. "He is here, and perfectly willing to see you. But it is against the doctor's orders, and my instructions were that I was to warn you not to excite him. You must speak slowly, and you may have to repeat anything which you wish him to understand."
"Who are you?" the newcomer asked.
"I am Mr. Delora's servant," Louis answered.
The newcomer looked a little puzzled.
"Surely I have seen you before somewhere!" he exclaimed.
"It is very possible," Louis answered. "I am also a waiter in the cafe below, but I come from South America, and Mr. Delora, when he is over, is always kind to me. I spend most of my time, now that he is ill, up here looking after him."
The newcomer shook his head thoughtfully.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Louis," was the quiet answer.
"Then, my friend Louis," the newcomer said, "understand me plainly. I am not here to be bamboozled, or to give you an opportunity for exercising any ability you may possess in the art of lying. I am here to see Delora, and if he is here, see him I will and must! If he is not here, well, it will come later. There is no roof nor any walls in London which will enclose that man and keep him from me!"
"Mr. Delora has no desire to hide himself from any one," Louis answered calmly.
"That is a statement which I may be permitted to doubt!" the visitor answered. "Is that the door of his sleeping chamber? If so, I am going in!"
He pointed to the door, through the transept of which I was looking into the sitting-room. Louis moved on one side.
"That is Mr. Delora's room," he said softly. "Perhaps you had better let me be sure that he is awake."
"You need not trouble," the other answered. "If he is asleep I shall wake him. If he is awake he will know very well that there is no escaping me."
He turned away from Louis. His hand was already outstretched toward the handle of my door. Then I saw Louis snatch the Malacca cane from its place and swing it behind his body. He was already poised for the blow—a blow which would have killed any man breathing—when I sprang to the ground and flung open the door.
"Look out!" I cried.
The newcomer sprang on one side. Louis, disturbed by my cry, lost his nerve, and the blow fell upon a small side table, smashing it through, and sending splinters flying into the air. Both men looked at me in the blankest of amazement. I came out into the sitting-room.
"You coward!" I said to Louis.
He shrank back against the wall. He still held the stick in his hand, but he showed not a sign of fight. The other man stood with clenched fists, as though about to spring upon him, but I stepped between them.
"In the first place," I said to the newcomer, "you had better look into that room. You will see that Mr. Delora is not there. I can assure you, from my own knowledge, that he has never been there. When you have finished, come back and tell me what you want with him."
Louis was still staring at me in amazement. The idea that I had discovered his attempt to make a cat's-paw of me was dawning upon him slowly, but knowing nothing of the transept, he could not account for my unexpected appearance. For once, at any rate, he had lost his nerve. I could see that he was shaking with fear.
"Come, Louis," I said, "put my stick down and talk like a man, if you can."
The stick fell from his fingers. He had scarcely strength enough left to hold it. Then the man who had been examining Delora's room came back and stepped past Louis up to me.
"I do not know why you are here, sir," he said. "You may be mixed up in this affair or you may not be. But if you are, let me warn you that you are on the wrong side. You saw his attempt?" he added, pointing to Louis. "I am going to wring the life out of him. He deserves it."
"No!" I answered, holding him back. "We will have no violence here. Louis has a little account to settle with me yet."
"He has a more serious one with me," the other muttered.
"Settle it when and where you will," I said, "but not here. As for me, I have no longer any interest in or concern with any of you. I came into this thing by accident, and to-night I go out of it. You, sir, must leave the hotel at once. I do not know your name or anything about you. It is not my concern. If you have anything to say to Louis, choose another time."
He looked at me curiously. I could see that with every nerve in his body he was longing to spring upon Louis.
"You seem to be a masterful person, sir," he said. "Why should I obey you?"
"Because I saved your life, for one thing," I answered, "and because I will allow no violence in this room, for another. And if you need a third reason," I added, "because I have the advantage of you in strength. You need not be afraid of my further interference," I continued. "I shall leave London to-morrow, and I hope that I may never see one of you again. Now will you go?"
"Yes, I will go!" he said. "Let me tell you this, sir," he added, as he neared the door. "Your decision is a wise one. If you knew whose cause you had been aiding, whose tool you had very nearly become, I think that your manner would be a little more apologetic."
"I have your word, sir, that you will leave the hotel?" I asked.
"At once," the other answered.
We heard him close the outer door and depart. Then I turned to Louis.
"Louis," I said, "so this is your adventure! This is the way you proposed to make use of me! You got me into that room and drugged me. I was to lie there while you murdered that man with my weapon. Then you would creep away, and in the morning there was I and the dead man! I was to be the tool,—the girl there the lure. It was well worked out, Louis, but it was a coward's plan and a coward's trick!"
I reached out my hand and took him by the collar. I felt as though I were grasping some unclean insect, from whom the sting might shoot out at any moment.
"Have you anything to say?" I asked.
"You do not understand," he said, in a low tone. "I did not mean to put this thing upon you. I meant, perhaps, to disable that man who has just left. If you knew his history and mine, you would not wonder at it. But I meant to see that he was safely removed."
"Then why did you bring me down into that room," I asked, "under a false pretence? Why did you use that murderous cane of mine for your crime? Why did you insist upon it that I should be seen dining with the girl—God knows who she is!—who is in that room?"
"I can explain everything," Louis said. "I am confused! I cannot help it—you came so unexpectedly!"
"Unexpectedly indeed," I answered, "because I poured your whiskey and soda out of the window, and because I took an antidote to your coffee!"
"You speak of things which I do not understand," Louis declared.
"Oh! tell me no more lies!" I exclaimed. "Listen! You see I have you by the collar, and I have my cane. Now I am going to beat you till every bone in your body aches, till you will not be able to crawl about, until you tell me the real history of these things. For every lie—if I know it to be a lie—I shall strike you. Tell me who that man Delora is? Tell me who the girl is, posing as his niece, who meets you here after midnight? Tell me the name of that man who has just left us? Tell me how you are all bound together, and what your quarrel is? And tell me where Delora is now?"
"I have no strength," he gasped. "You are too rough. Let me sit down quietly. I must think."
"No!" I answered. "Speak! Speak now!"
I raised the stick as though to strike him. Then I saw a sudden change in his face. I looked toward the door. Almost as I did so I heard the faint flutter of moving draperies. Felicia stood there looking in upon us, her hands uplifted, her face full of terror.
"It is Capitaine Rotherby!" she cried. "Tell me, then, what has happened? Capitaine Rotherby!"
She came a little toward us, but I think that she read in my face something of what I was feeling, for she stopped suddenly and her lips quivered.
"What has happened?" she demanded. "Will neither of you tell me? Is my uncle worse? Has any one—any one tried to do him an injury?"
"Nothing is the matter," I answered, "except that we have come to an end of this tissue of lies and plots and counterplots. There is no uncle of yours in that room, nor ever has been. The man who was to have been murdered here has gone. And for the rest, I saw you here with Louis and I heard your conversation less than an hour ago."
"You saw us?" she gasped.
"From the transept there," I answered, pointing towards it. "I was brought into that room to personate your uncle, to receive an attack which was meant for him—a very clever scheme! I was drugged, and was to have lain there to cover this fellow's crime. But there, I don't suppose that I need tell you any of these things!" I added brutally.
She looked at me with horror.
"You do not believe—" she gasped.
"Oh! I believe nothing," I answered,—"nothing at all! Every word I have been told by both of you is a lie! Your lives are lies! God knows why I should ever have believed otherwise!" I said, looking at her.
"Let me go," Louis pleaded, "and you shall hear the truth."
"I shall be more likely to feel the knife you have in your pocket," I answered contemptuously, for I had seen his left hand struggling downward for the last few moments. "Oh! I'll let you go! I have no interest in any of you,—no interest in your cursed conspiracy, whatever it may be! Keep your story. I don't care to hear it. Lie there and talk to your accomplice!"
I sent him reeling across the room till he fell in the corner. Then I walked out, closing the sitting-room door behind me,—out into the corridor and up the stairs into my own room. Then I locked and bolted my own door and looked at my watch. It was a quarter to three. I took a Bradshaw from my bookcase, packed a few clothes myself, set an alarm clock for seven o'clock in the morning, and turned into bed. I told myself that I would not think. I told myself that there was no such person in the world as Felicia, that she had never lived, that she was only part of this nightmare from which I was freeing myself! I told myself that I would go to sleep, and I stayed awake until daylight. All the time there was only one thought in my brain!
A CHANGE OF PLANS
At a few minutes past nine on the following morning, I was standing outside the front door of the Court watching the piling of my luggage on to a four-wheel cab. The hall-porter stood by my side, superintending the efforts of his myrmidons.
"You had better send my letters on," I told him. "I am going down into Norfolk for several weeks,—perhaps longer."
"Very good, sir," he answered. "By the bye," he added, turning away, "this morning's letters have just arrived. There was one for you, I think."
He handed it to me, and I tore it open as I stepped on to the pavement. It was written from Feltham Court, Norfolk, and dated the previous day.
My Dear Austen,
I send you a hurried line in case you should be thinking of coming down here. I have decided to come up to London for a few weeks, and have lent the Court to Lady Mary, with the exception of the shooting, which is reserved for you. If you are in town, do look me up at Claridge's.
I was on the point of having the cab unloaded and reconsidering my plans. Suddenly, however, like an inspiration there flashed into my mind the thought that it would not, perhaps, be such a very bad thing if, under the circumstances, I kept my altered plans to myself. So I stuffed the letter into my pocket and stepped into the four-wheeler.
"You understand, Ashley?" I said. "Send everything on to Feltham Court,—cards, letters, or anything."
"Perfectly, sir," the man answered. "I hope you will have a pleasant time, sir."
"Tell the cabman Liverpool Street," I ordered, and got in.
We rolled out of the courtyard, and I drove all the way to Liverpool Street as though to catch my train. Arrived there, however, I deposited my luggage in the cloak-room and drove back to Claridge's in a hansom. I found that my brother was installed in a suite of rooms there, and his servant, who came into the sitting-room to me at once, told me that he believed they were up for at least a month.
"His Lordship has nearly finished dressing, sir," he added. "He will be in, in a few minutes."
I took up the morning paper, but found nothing of interest there. Then my brother came in, leaning heavily on two sticks, and moving slowly. He was not more than ten years older than I was, but the shock of his accident and subsequent sufferings had aged him terribly. His hair had gone prematurely gray, and his face was deeply lined. I stepped forward and took him by the hand.
"My dear Ralph," I said, "this is really first-class. The last time I saw you, you scarcely expected to be out of your bath-chair in six months."
"I am getting on, Austen," he answered, "thanks! I am getting on. I will sit in that easy-chair for a few minutes. Thanks! Then we will have some breakfast."
"I was starting for Feltham this morning," I told him, "when I got your letter."
"When did you get back from Paris?" he asked.
"Three or four days ago," I answered.
He raised his eyebrows.
"I know that I ought to have come at once," I said, "but there were several things in London. I found it hard to get away."
"Well?" he said.
"I met Tapilow face to face at a little French cafe," I told him. "They tell me that he will recover, but he is maimed and scarred for life."
My brother showed no excitement—scarcely, even, any interest in my information. His face, however, had darkened.
"I am glad that you did not kill him outright," he said. "Tell me, are you likely to get into any trouble for this?"
"No!" I assured him. "The affair happened in a very dubious sort of place. I don't think I shall hear anything more about it unless from Tapilow himself."
"We will close the chapter," he said.
"You have no news—"
"None!" he interrupted me, shortly. "We will close the chapter."
So I spoke to him no more on his own affairs. His servant brought in the letters and papers, poked the fire, and announced that breakfast was ready.
"You will have something, Austen?" he asked.
"I have only had a continental breakfast," I answered. "I dare say I can manage to eat something."
"I have a letter from Dicky," he remarked, later on. "Asks me to be civil, if I can, to some people who have been remarkably kind to him out in Brazil. They have an estate there."
"Dicky doing all right?" I asked.
"Seems to be," Ralph answered.
Dicky was our younger brother, and rather a wanderer.
"What is the name of the people who are coming over?" I asked.
"Some odd name," Ralph answered,—"Delora, I think."
Ralph had drawn the Times towards him, and he did not notice my start. I sat looking at him in blank amazement.
"Ralph!" I said presently.
My brother looked up.
"Have you got Dicky's letter on you?" I asked.
He passed it over to me. I skimmed through the first part until I came to the sentence which interested me.
I have been out staying at an awfully fine estate here, right on the Pampas. It belongs to some people called Delora. One of the brothers is just off to Europe, on some Government business, and will be in London for a few days with his niece, I expect. He is going to stay at the Milan Hotel, and it would be awfully good of you if you would look him up, or drop him a line. They really have been very kind to me out here.
I pushed the letter back to Ralph.
"Have you done anything yet," I asked, "about this?"
Ralph shook his head.
"I thought you would not mind calling for me," he remarked. "I would like to be civil to any one who has done anything for Dicky. If he shoots, you might take him down to the Court. Mary's there, of course, but that would not matter. There is the whole of the bachelor wing at your disposal."
"I will look after it for you," I said. "You can leave it in my hands. It is rather an odd thing, but I believe that I have met this man in Paris."
My brother was not much interested. I was glad of the excuse to bury myself in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Here at last, then, was something definite. The man Delora was not a fraud. He was everything that he professed to be—a wealthy man, without a doubt. I suddenly began to see things differently. What a coward I had been to think of running away! After all, there might be some explanation, even, of that meeting between the girl and Louis.
We finished our breakfast, and my brother hobbled over to the window. For several minutes he remained there, looking out upon the street with the aimless air of a man who scarcely knows what to do with his day.
"What are you thinking of doing, Austen?" he asked me.
"I had no plans," I answered. "Some part of the day I thought I would look up these people—the Deloras."
Ralph nodded and turned to his servant.
"Goreham," he said, "I will have the motor in an hour. Come and dine with me, will you, Austen?" he said, turning to me. "I don't suppose you will go down to Feltham for a day or two."
"I will come, with pleasure," I answered. "Where are you going to motor to?"
Ralph answered a little vaguely. He had some calls to make, and he was not altogether sure. I left him in a few minutes and descended to the street. I turned westward and walked for some little distance, when suddenly I was attracted by the sight of a familiar figure issuing from the door of a large, gray stone house. We came face to face upon the pavement. It was the man whose life I had probably saved only a few hours ago.
He lifted his hat, and his dark eyes sought mine interrogatively.
"You were not, by chance, on the way to call upon me?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Not only," I answered, "was I ignorant of where you lived, but I do not even know your name."
"Both matters," he remarked quietly, "are unimportant."
I glanced at the house from which he had issued.
"It would seem," I remarked, "that you have diplomatic connections."
"Why not?" he answered. "Indeed," he continued thoughtfully, "I do not see, Captain Rotherby, why my name should remain a secret to you."
He drew a card from his pocket, and handed it to me. I read it with ill-concealed curiosity.
MR. ALFONSE LAMARTINE
12, Porchester Square.
"You are a South American?" I asked quickly.
"By birth," he answered. "I have lived chiefly in Paris, and here in London."
"You knew Mr. Delora at Brazil, then?" I asked.
"I know the family quite well," he answered. "They are very influential people. I have told you my name, Captain Rotherby," he continued, "because I see no reason why we two should not be frank with one another. I am of necessity interested in the movements and doings of Mr. Delora and his niece. You," he continued, "appear to have been drawn a little way into the mesh of intrigue by which they are surrounded."
I drew my arm through his. We were walking now side by side.
"Look here," I said, "you were quite right in what you said. There is no reason why we should have secrets from one another. Tell me about these people, and why on earth they have any connections at all with persons of the class of Louis and those others."
My companion spread out his hand. He stopped short on the pavement, and gesticulated violently.
"It is you who ask me these things!" he exclaimed. "Yet it is from you I hoped to obtain information. I know nothing,—absolutely nothing! Simply my instructions were to meet Mr. Delora on his arrival in London, to show him every possible civility, and to assist him in any purpose where my help would be useful. I go to meet him—he has disappeared! I haunt his rooms—he has not returned! His niece knows nothing. I try to force my way into his rooms, and my life is attempted!"
"Wait a moment," I said. "You spoke of instructions. From whom do you receive them?"
"From my government," he answered a little shortly. "Mr. Delora has some private business of importance here in England, in which they are interested."
"Do you know anything of his niece?" I asked.
"Nothing whatever," the young man answered, "except that she seems a very charming young lady, and will, I believe, inherit a great fortune."
"Do you know of any enemies that he might have?" I asked. "For instance, is this business of his connected with any affairs which might bring him into touch with such people as Louis and his associates?"
"I will be frank with you," the young man said. "I do not know what his business was. Neither, curiously enough, does my chief. My instructions simply were to meet him, and to see him day by day. You yourself can judge how well I have succeeded!"
"Have you been to the police?" I asked.
"I have not," Lamartine answered. "We have written out to Brazil explaining the circumstances, and asking for a cablegram in reply. By the bye," he continued, a little diffidently, "did it strike you last night that Miss Delora must have been associated with that blackguard Louis in his little attempt upon me?"
"I do not believe anything of the sort!" I answered shortly.
The young man smiled cynically.
"It is perhaps natural," he answered.
"You are not seriously suggesting," I asked, "that a young lady in the position of Miss Delora would descend to scheming with a head-waiter?"
"Captain Rotherby," my companion said, "I do not know anything. I do not understand anything. I only know that the Delora business has puzzled me,—has puzzled my chief. We have important communications for Mr. Delora, and he cannot be found."
"It is not possible," I declared, "for a man to disappear in London."
"A man may disappear anywhere," Lamartine said dryly, "when such people as Louis are interested in him! However, we do no good by comparing notes when we neither of us know anything. If I should gain any information of Mr. Delora's whereabouts—"
I gave him my card quickly.
"We will exchange our news," I assured him. "It is a promise."
He bowed, and left me with a little farewell wave of the hand.
A FORMAL CALL
I changed my mind about calling at the Milan that morning, but toward five o'clock in the afternoon I presented myself there, and gave the hall-porter my card to send up to Miss Delora. He received me with some surprise, but I explained that I had been obliged to postpone my visit into the country.
"Miss Delora has asked twice about you this morning, sir," he announced. "I gave her your country address."
"Quite right," I answered. "By the bye, is Mr. Delora visible yet?"
"Not yet, sir," the man answered. "Rather a curious thing about his return, sir," he added. "Not a soul has even seen him yet."
I nodded, but made no remark. Presently the boy who had taken my card up returned.
"Miss Delora would be glad if you would step upstairs, sir," he announced.
I followed him into the lift and up to number 157. Felicia was there alone. She rose from the couch as I entered, and waited until the door had closed behind the disappearing page. Then she held out her hands, and there was something in her eyes which I could not resist. I was suddenly ashamed of all my suspicions.
"So you have come back," she said softly. "That is very kind of you, Capitaine Rotherby. I have been lonely—very lonely, indeed."
"I have come back," I answered, taking her hands into mine and holding them for a moment.
"I am nervous all the time, and afraid," she continued, standing close by my side and looking up. "Only think of it, Capitaine Rotherby,—it is this journey to London to which I have been looking forward for so many, many years, and now that it has come I am miserable!"
"Your uncle—" I asked.
"They told me what was not true!" she exclaimed. "He is not back. I am here all alone. He does not come to me, and he will not let me go to him. But you will sit down, Capitaine Rotherby?" she added. "You are not in a hurry? You are not going away again?"
"Not just yet, at any rate," I admitted. "Do you know that after all this is a very small world! I have come to pay you a formal call on behalf of my brother who is an invalid."
Her eyes grew round with surprise.
"But I do not understand!" she said.
I told her of my brother's letter from South America. She listened with interest which seemed mingled with anxiety.
"It is very strange," she said, when I had finished,—"very delightful, too, of course!" she added hurriedly. "Tell me, is it my uncle Maurice or my uncle Ferdinand of whom your brother spoke most in his letter?"
"He did not mention the Christian names of either," I told her. "He simply said that one of the Mr. Deloras and his niece were coming to London, and he begged us to do all we could to make their visit pleasant. Do you know," I continued, "that as I came along I had an idea?"
"Yes?" she exclaimed.
"Why shouldn't you come down into the country," I said, "to my aunt's? She will send you a telegram at once if I tell her to, and we could all stay together down at Feltham,—my brother's house in Norfolk. You are out of place here. You are not enjoying yourself, and you are worried to death. Beside which," I added more slowly, "you are mixed up with people with whom you should have nothing whatever to do."
"If only I could!" she murmured. "If only I could!"
"Why not?" I said. "Mr. Delora comes here with an introduction which precludes my criticising his friends or his connections, however strange they may be, but it is very certain that you ought not to be left here alone to rely upon the advice of a head-waiter, to be practically at the beck and call of men of whose existence you should be unconscious. I want you to make up your mind and come away with me."
A little flush of color stole into her cheeks, and her eyes danced with excitement.
"I do no good here!" she exclaimed. "Why not? You, too, Capitaine Rotherby,—you would come?"
"I would take you there," I answered, "and I would do my best, my very best, to keep you entertained."
"I shall ask!" she exclaimed. "To-night I shall ask."
"Ask whom?" I inquired. "Louis?"
She shook her head.
"My uncle," she answered.
"You will not see him!" I exclaimed.
"He will telephone," she answered. "He has promised."
I reached over towards her and took her hands into mine.
"Felicia," I said boldly, "I am your friend. The letter I have told you of should prove that. I am only anxious for your good. Tell me what reason your uncle can have for behaving in this extraordinary way, for allowing himself to be associated even for a moment with such people as Louis and his friends?"
Everything that it had made me so happy to see in her face died away. She was once more wan and anxious.
"I cannot tell you," she said,—"I cannot, because I dare not! I have promised! Only remember this. My uncle has lived in Paris for so many years—"
"But I thought that he had just come from South America!" I interrupted.
"Yes, but before that," she explained breathlessly,—"before that! He loves the mysterious. He likes to be associated with strange people, and I do believe, too," she continued, "that he has business just now which must be kept secret for the sake of other people. Oh, I know it must all seem so strange to you! Won't you believe, Capitaine Rotherby, that I am grateful for your kindness, and that I would tell you if I could?"
"I must," I answered, with a sigh. "I must believe what you tell me. Listen, then. I shall wait until you hear from your uncle."
"Have you come back to your rooms?" she asked timidly.
"I shall do so," I announced, "but I hope that it will be only for the night. To-morrow, if all goes well, we may be on our way to Norfolk."
There was a knock at the door. She started, and looked at me a little uneasily. Almost immediately the door was pushed open. It was Louis who entered, bearing a menu card. He addressed me with a little air of surprise. I was at once certain that he had known of my visit, and had come to see what it might mean.
"Monsieur has returned very soon," he remarked, bowing pleasantly.
"My journey was not a long one, Louis," I answered. "What have you brought that thing for?" I continued, pointing to the menu card. "Do you want an order for dinner? Miss Delora is dining elsewhere with me!"
My tone was purposely aggressive. Louis' manners, however, remained perfection.
"Miss Delora has engaged a table in the cafe," he said. "I have come myself to suggest a little dinner. I trust she will not disappoint us."
She looked at me pathetically. There was something which I could not understand in her face. Only I knew that whatever she might ask me I was prepared to grant.
"Will you not stay and dine here with me?" she said. "Louis will give us a very good dinner, and afterwards I shall have my message, and I shall know whether I may go or not."
The humor of the idea appealed to me. There was suddenly something fantastic, unbelievable, in the events of last night.
"With pleasure!" I answered.
Louis bowed, and for a moment or two seemed entirely engrossed in the few additions he was making to the menu he carried. Then he handed it to me with a little bow.
"There, monsieur," he said. "I think that you will find that excellent."
"I have no doubt that we shall, Louis," I answered. "I will only ask you to remember one thing."
"And that, monsieur?" he asked.
"I dine with mademoiselle," I said, "and our appetites are identical!"
Louis smiled. There were times when I suspected him of a sense of humor!
"Monsieur has not the thick neck of Bartot!" he murmured, as he withdrew.
It seemed to me that Felicia that night was in her most charming mood. She wore a dress of some soft white material, and a large black hat, under which her face—a little paler even than usual—wore almost a pathetic aspect. Her fingers touched my arm as we entered the restaurant together. She seemed, in a way, to have lost some of her self-control,—the exclusiveness with which she had surrounded herself,—and to have become at once more natural and more girlish. I noticed that she chose a seat with her back to the room, and I understood her reason even before she told me.
"I think," she said, "that to-night it would be pleasant to forget that there is any one here who disturbs me. I think it would be pleasant to remember only that this great holiday of mine, which I have looked forward to so long, has really begun."
"You have looked forward to coming to London so much?" I asked.
"Yes!" she answered. "I have lived a very quiet life, Capitaine Rotherby. After the Sisters had finished with me—and I stayed at the school longer than any of the others—I went straight to the house of a friend of my uncle's, where I had only a dame de compagnie. My uncle—he was so long coming, and the life was very dull. But always he wrote to me, 'Some day I will take you to London!' Even when we were in Paris together he would tell me that."
"Tell me," I asked, "what is your uncle's Christian name?"
"I have three uncles," she said, after a moment's hesitation,—"Maurice, Ferdinand, and Nicholas. Nicholas lives all the time in South America. Maurice and Ferdinand are often in Paris."
"And the uncle with whom you are now?" I asked.
I seemed to have been unfortunate in my choice of a conversation. Her eyes had grown larger. The quivering of her lips was almost pitiful.
"I am a clumsy ass!" I interrupted quickly. "I am asking you questions which you do not wish to answer. A little later on, perhaps, you will tell me everything of your own accord. But to-night I shall ask you nothing. We will remember only that the holiday has begun."
She drew a little sigh of relief.
"You are so kind," she murmured, "so very kind. Indeed I do not want to think of these things, which I do not understand, and which only puzzle me all the time. We will let them alone, is it not so? We will let them alone and talk about foolish things. Or you shall tell me about London, and the country—tell me what we will do. Indeed, I may go down to your home in Norfolk."
"I think you will like it there," I said. "It is too stuffy for London these months. My brother's house is not far from the sea. There is a great park which stretches down to some marshes, and beyond that the sands."
"Can one bathe?" she asked breathlessly.
"Of course," I answered. "There is a private beach, and when we have people in the house at this time of the year we always have the motor-car ready to take them down and back. That is for those who bathe early. Later on it is only a pleasant walk. Then you can learn games if you like,—golf and tennis, cricket and croquet."
"I should be so stupid," she said, with a little regretful sigh. "In France they did not teach me those things. I can play tennis a little, but oh! so badly; and in England," she continued, "you think so much of your games. Tell me, Capitaine Rotherby, will you think me very stupid in the country if I can do nothing but swim a little and play tennis very badly?"
"Rather not!" I answered. "There is the motor, you know. I could take you for some delightful drives. We should find plenty to do, I am sure, and I promise you that if only you will be as amiable as you are here I shall not find any fault."
"You will like to have me there?" she asked.
Her question came with the simplicity of a child. She laughed softly with pleasure when I leaned over the table and whispered to her,—
"Better than anything else in the world!"
"I am not sure, Capitaine Rotherby," she said, looking at me out of her great eyes, "whether you are behaving nicely."
"If I am not," I declared, "it is your fault! You should not look so charming."
She laughed softly.
"And you should not make such speeches to a poor little foreign girl," she said, "who knows so little of your London ways."
Louis stood suddenly before us. We felt his presence like a cold shadow. The laughter died away from her eyes, and I found it difficult enough to address him civilly.
"Monsieur is well served?" he asked. "Everything all right, eh?"
"Everything is very good, as usual, Louis," I answered. "The only thing that is amiss you cannot alter."
"For example?" he asked.
"The atmosphere," I answered. "It is no weather for London."
"Monsieur is right," he admitted. "He is thinking of departing for the country soon?"
"It depends a little upon mademoiselle," I answered.
Louis shook his head very slowly. He had the air of a man who discusses something with infinite regret.
"It would be very delightful indeed," he said, "if it were possible for mademoiselle to go into Norfolk to your brother's house. It would be very good for mademoiselle, but I am not sure—I fear that her uncle—"
"How the mischief did you know anything about it?" I asked in amazement.
Louis smiled—that subtle, half-concealed smile which seemed scarcely to part his lips.
"Why should not mademoiselle have told me?" he asked.
"But I have not!" she declared suddenly. "I have not seen Louis since you were here this afternoon, Capitaine Rotherby."
Louis extended his hands.
"It is true," he admitted. "It is not from mademoiselle that I had the news. But there, one cannot tell. Things may alter at any moment. It may be very pleasant for Monsieur Delora that his niece is able to accept this charming invitation."
"So you have been in communication with Mr. Delora, Louis?" I asked.
"Naturally," Louis answered. "He told me of mademoiselle's request. He told me that he had promised to reply at ten o'clock this evening."
"Perhaps you can tell us," I remarked, "what that reply will be?"
Louis' face remained absolutely expressionless. He only shook his head.
"Mr. Delora is his own master," he said. "It may suit him to be without mademoiselle, or it may not. Pardon, monsieur!"
Louis was gone, but he had left his shadow behind.
"He does not think," she murmured, "that I may come!"
"Felicia,—" I said.
"But I did not say that you might call me Felicia!" she interrupted.
"Then do say so," I begged.
"For this evening, then," she assented.
"For this evening, then, Felicia," I continued. "I do not wish to worry you by talking about certain things, but do you not think yourself that your uncle is very inconsiderate to leave you here alone on your first visit to London,—not to come near the place, or provide you with any means of amusement? Why should he hesitate to let you come to us?"
"We will not talk of it," she begged, a little nervously. "I must do as he wishes. We will hope that he says yes, will we not?"
"He must say yes!" I declared. "If he doesn't I'll find out where he is, somehow, and go and talk to him!"
She shook her head.
"He is very much engaged," she said. "He would not like you to find him out, nor would he have any time to talk to you."
"Selling his coffee?" I could not help saying.
"To-night, Capitaine Rotherby," she answered softly, "we do not talk of those things. Tell me what else we shall do down at your brother's house?"
"We shall go for long walks," I told her. "There are beautiful gardens there—a rose garden more than a hundred years old, and at the end of it a footpath which leads through a pine plantation and then down to the sea marshes. We can sit and watch the sea and talk, and when you find it dull we will fill the house with young people, and play games and dance—dance by moonlight, if you like. Or we can go fishing," I continued. "There is a small yacht there and a couple of sailing-boats."
She listened as though afraid of losing a single word.
"Tell me," I asked, "have you been lonely all your life, child?"
"All my life," she answered, and somehow or other her voice seemed to me full of tears, so that I was almost surprised to find her eyes dry. "Yes, I have always been lonely!" she murmured. "My uncle has been kind to me, but he has always some great scheme on hand, and Madame Muller—she would be kind if she knew how, I think, but she is as though she were made of wood. She has no sympathy, she does not understand."
"I wonder," I said reflectively, "what made your uncle bring you here."
"It was a promise," she said hurriedly,—"a promise of long ago. You yourself must know that. Your letter from your brother in South America said, 'Mr. Delora and his niece.'"
"It is true," I admitted. "But why he should want to bring you and then neglect you like this—But I forgot," I interrupted. "We must not talk so. Tell me, you have been often to the theatre in Paris?"
"Very seldom," she answered, "and I love it so much. Madame Muller and I go sometimes, but where we live is some distance from Paris, and it is difficult to get home afterwards, especially for us two alone. My uncle takes us sometimes, but he is generally so occupied."
"He is often in Paris, then?" I asked.
She started a little.
"Yes!" she said hurriedly. "He is often there, of course. But please do not forget,—to-night we do not talk about my uncle. We talk about ourselves. May I ask you something?"
"Certainly!" I answered.
"If my uncle says 'No!'—that I may not come—do you go away altogether, then, to-morrow?"
"No," I answered, "I do not! I shall not leave you alone here. So long as you stay, I shall remain in London."
She drew a little breath, and with a quick, impetuous movement her hand stole across the table and pressed mine.
"It is so good of you!" she murmured.
"I am afraid that it is selfishness, Felicia," I answered. "I should not care to go away and leave you here. I am beginning to find," I added, "that the pleasures in life which do not include you count for very little."
"You will turn my head," she declared, with a delightful little laugh.
"It is the truth," I assured her.
"I am quite sure now," she murmured, "that my great holiday has commenced!"
A TANTALIZING GLIMPSE
Felicia laid down the receiver and looked at me. There was scarcely any need for words. Her disappointment was written into her white face.
"You are not to come!" I said.
"I am not—to come," she repeated. "After all, my holiday is not yet."
"Will you tell me," I asked, "where I can find your uncle?"
She shook her head.
"You must not ask me such a thing," she declared.
"Remember," I said, "that I have really called to make his acquaintance as a matter of courtesy on behalf of my brother. What excuse do you give me for his absence? Tell me what it is that you are supposed to say in such a case?"
"Simply that he is away for a few days, engaged in the most important business," she answered. "He will rejoin me here directly it is settled."
"And in the meantime," I said thoughtfully, "you are left in a strange hotel without friends, without a chaperon, absolutely unprotected, and with only a head-waiter in your confidence. Felicia, there is something very wrong here. I am not sure," I continued, "that it is not my duty to run away with you."
She clasped her hands.
"Delightful!" she murmured. "But I mustn't think of it," she added, with a sudden gravity, "nor must you talk to me like that. What my uncle says is best to be done. He knows and understands. If he has had to leave me here alone, it is because it is necessary."
"You have a great deal of faith in him," I remarked.
"He has always been kind to me," she answered, "and I know that the business upon which he is engaged just now is hazardous and difficult. There are men who do not wish it to go through, and they watch for him. If they knew his whereabouts they would try to stop him."
"Felicia, do you know what that business is?" I asked.
"I have some idea of it," she answered.
Her answer puzzled me. If Felicia really had any idea as to the nature of it, and was content to play the part she was playing, it certainly could not be anything of an illicit nature. Yet everything else which had come under my notice pointed to Delora's being associated with a criminal undertaking. I paced the room, deep in thought. Felicia all the time was watching me anxiously.
"You are not going to leave me?" she asked very softly.
I came to a standstill before her.
"No, Felicia," I said, "I am not going to leave you! But I want to tell you this. I am going to try and find out for myself the things which you will not tell me. No, you must not try to stop me!" I said, anticipating the words which indeed had trembled upon her lips. "It must be either that or farewell, Felicia. I cannot remain here and do absolutely nothing. I want to find your uncle, and to have some sort of an explanation from him, and I mean to do it."
She shook her head.
"There are others who are trying to find him," she said, "but I do not think that they will succeed. The young man who was here the other night, for instance."
"If I fail, I fail," I answered. "At any rate, I shall be doing something. I must go back to my brother's to-night, Felicia, because I have promised to stay with him. In a day or two I shall return to my rooms here, and I shall do my best to find out the meaning of your uncle's mysterious movements. It may seem impertinent to you to interfere in anybody else's concerns. I cannot help it. It is for your sake. The present position is impossible!"
"You are not staying here to-night?" she asked.
"To-night, no!" I answered. "I will let you know directly I return."
"There is one thing else, Capitaine Rotherby. Could you promise it to me, I wonder?"
"I will try," I answered.
"Do not quarrel any more, if you can help it," she begged, "with Louis!"
Her question forced a laugh from my lips. Quarrel with Louis, indeed! What more could I do in that direction? Then I frowned, in temporary annoyance. I hated to hear her speak of him as a person to be considered.
"Louis is a venomous little person," I said, "but I certainly should not quarrel with him more than I can help. I am, unfortunately, in his debt, or I should have dealt with him before now."
I glanced at the clock and jumped up. It was very much later than I had thought. She gave me her hands a little wistfully.
"I do not like to think of you here alone," I said. "I wish that I could persuade you to engage a maid."
She shook her head.
"My uncle would not allow it," she said simply. "He says that servants are always prying into one's concerns. Good night, Capitaine Rotherby! Thank you so much for taking me out this evening. After all, I cannot help feeling that it has been rather like the beginning of this holiday."
I held her hands tightly in mine.
"When it really begins," I answered, "I shall try and make it a little more interesting!"
I declined a taxicab and turned to walk back to my brother's hotel. Certainly in the problem of these two people who had come so curiously into my life there was very much to give me matter for thought. I believed in the girl, and trusted her. More than that I did not dare to ask myself! I should have believed in her, even if her uncle were proved to be a criminal of the most dangerous type. But none the less I could not help realizing that her present position was a singularly unfortunate one. To be alone in a big hotel, without maid or chaperon, herself caught up in this web of mystery which Louis and those others seemed to have woven around her, was in itself undesirable and unnatural. Whatever was transpiring, I was quite certain that her share in it was a passive one. She had been told to be silent, and she was silent. Nothing would ever make me believe that she was a party to any wrong-doing. And yet the more I thought of Delora the less I trusted him. At Charing Cross Station, for instance, his had not been the anxiety of a man intrusted with a difficult mission. His agitation had been due to fear,—fear abject and absolute. I had seen the symptoms more than once in my life, and there was no mistaking them. I told myself that no man could be so shaken who was engaged in honest dealings. Even now he was in hiding,—it could not be called anything else,—and the one person with whom I had come in touch who was searching for him was, without a doubt, on the side of law and justice, with at least some settled position behind him. Delora's deportment was more the deportment of a fugitive from justice than of a man in the confidence of his government.
Walking a little carelessly, I took a turn too far northward, and found myself in one of the streets leading out of Shaftesbury Avenue. I was on the point of taking a passage which would lead me more in my proper direction, when my attention was attracted by a large motor-car standing outside one of the small foreign restaurants which abound in this district. I was always interested in cars, but I noticed this one more particularly from the fact of its utter incompatibility with its surroundings. It was one of the handsomest cars I had ever seen,—a sixty to eighty horse-power Daimler,—fitted up inside with the utmost luxury. The panels were plain, and the chauffeur, who sat motionless in his place, wore dark livery and was apparently a foreigner. I slackened my pace to glance for a moment at the non-skidding device on the back tire, and as I passed on I saw the door of the little restaurant open, and a tall commissionnaire hurried out. He held open the door of the car and stood at attention. Two men issued from the restaurant and crossed the pavement. I turned deliberately round to watch them—vulgar curiosity, perhaps, but a curiosity which I never regretted. The first man—tall and powerful—wore the splendid dress and black silk cap of a Chinese of high rank. The man who followed him was Delora. I knew him in a second, although he wore a white silk scarf around his neck, concealing the lower part of his face, and a silk hat pushed down almost over his eyes. I saw his little nervous glance up and down the street, I saw him push past the commissionnaire as though in a hurry to gain the semi-obscurity of the car. I stopped short upon the pavement, motionless for one brief and fatal moment. Then I turned back and hastened to the side of the car. I knocked at the window.
"Delora," I said, "I must speak to you."
The car had begun to move. I wrenched at the handle, but I found it held on the inside with a grip which even I could not move. I looked into the broad, expressionless face of the Chinaman, who, leaning forward, completely shielded the person of the man with whom I sought to speak.
"One moment," I called out. "I must speak with Mr. Delora. I have a message for him."
The car was going faster now. I tried to jump on to the step, but the first time I missed it. Then the window was suddenly let down. The Chinaman's arm flashed out and struck me on the chest, so that I was forced to relinquish my grasp of the handle. I reeled back, preserving my balance only by a desperate effort. Before I could start in pursuit, the car had turned into the more crowded thoroughfare, and when I reached the spot where it had disappeared a few seconds later, it was lost amongst the stream of vehicles.
I went back to the restaurant. It was like a hundred others of its class—stuffy, smelly, reminiscent of the poorer business quarters of a foreign city. A waiter in a greasy dress-suit flicked some crumbs from a vacant table and motioned me to sit down. I ordered a Fin Champagne, and put half-a-crown into his hand.
"Tell me," I said, "five minutes ago a Chinaman and another man were here."
The man laid the half-crown down on the table. His manner had undergone a complete change.
"Perhaps so, sir," he answered. "We have been busy to-night. I noticed nobody."
I called the proprietor to me—a little pale-faced man with a black moustache, who had been hovering in the background. He hastened to my side, smiling and bowing. This time I did not ask him a direct question.
"I am interested in the restaurants of this quarter," I said. "Some one has told me that your dinner is marvellous!"
He smiled a little suspiciously. The word was perhaps unfortunate!
"I am bringing some friends to try it very soon," I said.
The waiter brought my Fin Champagne. I drank it and ordered a cigar.
"You have all sorts of people here," I remarked. "I noticed a Chinaman—he was very much like the Chinese ambassador, by the bye—leaving as I came in."
The proprietor extended his hands.
"We have people of every class, monsieur," he assured me. "One comes and tells his friends, and they come, and so on. I believe that there was a Chinese gentleman here to-night. One does not notice. We were busy."
I paid my bill and departed. The commissionnaire pushed open the door, whistle in hand. He looked at me a little curiously. Without doubt he had watched my attempt to speak to Delora. I drew a half-sovereign from my pocket.
"Tell me," I said, "do you want to earn that?"
He was a German, with a large pasty face and a yellow moustache. His eyes were small, and they seemed to contract with greed as they looked upon the coin.
"Sir!" he answered, with a bow.
"Who was the Chinese gentleman with the splendid motor-car?" I asked.
The man spread out his hands.
"Who can tell?" he said. "He dined here to-night in a private room."
A private room! Well, that was something, at any rate!
"You do not know his name or where he comes from?" I asked.
The man shook his head, glancing nervously towards the interior of the restaurant.
"The other gentleman?" I asked.
"I do not know his name, sir," the man declared with emphasis. "He has been here once or twice, but always alone."
I put the half-sovereign in my pocket and drew out a sovereign. The man stretched out an eager hand which he suddenly dropped. He pointed down the street. The swing door of the restaurant remained closed, but over the soiled white curtain I also could see the face of the proprietor peering out.
"It is the second turn to the left," the man said to me.
"And if you want that sovereign made into five," I said carelessly, "my name is Captain Rotherby, and I am going from here to Claridge's Hotel."
I walked down the street and left him looking after me. At the corner I glanced around. The proprietor and the commissionnaire were talking together on the pavement.
PRIVATE AND DIPLOMATIC
The following evening I dined alone with my brother, who was, for him, in an unusually cheerful frame of mind. He talked with more interest of life and his share in it than he had done—to me, at any rate—since the tragedy which had deprived him of a home. Toward the end of dinner I asked him a question.
"Ralph," I said, "how could I meet the Chinese ambassador here?"
He stared at me for a moment.
"Why, at any of the diplomatic receptions, I suppose," he said, seeing that I was in earnest. "He is rather a pal of Freddy's. Why don't you ring up and ask him?"
"I will, the moment after dinner," I answered.
"Why this sudden interest in Orientalism?" Ralph asked curiously.
"Curiously enough, it is apropos of these Deloras," I answered. "I called to-day, but only found the girl in. The man I saw later with a Chinaman whom I believe to be the ambassador."
"What is the girl like?" my brother asked.
"Charming!" I answered. "I am writing Aunt Mary to invite her down to Feltham. The difficulty seems to be to get hold of Delora."
"So you've written Aunt Mary, eh?" Ralph remarked, looking up at me. "Austen, I believe you're gone on the girl!"
"I believe I am," I admitted equably. "So would you be if you saw her."
Ralph half closed his eyes for a moment. It was a clumsy speech of mine!
"Seriously, Austen," he continued, a few moments later, "have you ever thought of marrying?"
"Equally seriously, Ralph," I answered, "not until I met Felicia Delora."
"Felicia Delora!" my brother repeated. "It's a pretty name, at any rate. I suppose I must go and see her myself."
"Wait for a day or two, Ralph," I begged. "She is a little upset just now. Her uncle seems to be neglecting her for some precious scheme of his."
"I wonder if, by any chance, you are in earnest, Austen?" my brother asked.
"I should not be surprised," I admitted.
"It's an interesting subject, you know," Ralph continued gravely. "Considering my accident, and other things which we need not allude to, I think we may take it for granted that there's no chance of my ever having an heir. It's our duty to look ahead a little, you know, Austen. There isn't any manner of doubt that some time between now and the next ten years you will have to take up my place. I only hope you won't make such a hash of it."
"Don't talk rubbish, Ralph!" I answered.
"It isn't rubbish," he said firmly. "You go and talk to my doctor if you don't believe me. However, I hadn't meant to say anything about this to-night. Your mentioning the girl put it into my head. I want you, of course, to know that I am not forgetful of my responsibilities. Your two thousand a year may do you very well as a bachelor, but you are heir apparent to the title now, and if you should think of marrying, the Fakenham estates are yours, and the house. They bring in between six and seven thousand a year, I think,—never less."