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The fog was still heavy, and the blurred street-lamps looked ghastly in the yellow mist, when the little newsboy messenger, the first half of his mission performed, struck briskly riverward to complete his business. He disposed of his papers by the simple expedient of throwing them into a street refuse-bin. He jumped on a passing 'bus, and after half an hour's cautious drive reached Southwark. He entered one of the narrow streets leading from the Borough. Here the gas lamps were fewer, and the intersecting streets more narrow and gloomy.
He plunged down a dark and crabbed way, glancing warily behind him now and then to see if he was being followed.
Here, between invisible walls, the fog hung thick and warm and sticky, crowding up close, with a kind of blowsy intimacy that whispered the atmosphere of the place. Occasionally, close to his ear, snatches of loose song burst out, or a coarse face loomed head-high through the reek.
But the boy was upon his native heath and scuttled along, whistling softly between closed teeth, as, with a dexterity born of long practice, he skirted slush and garbage sinks, slipped around the blacker gulfs that denoted unguarded basement holes, and eluded the hideous shadows that lurched by in the gloom.
Hugging the wall, he presently became aware of footsteps behind him. He rounded a corner, and, turning swiftly, collided with something which grabbed him with great hands. Without hesitation, the lad leaned down and set his teeth deep into the hairy arm.
The man let go with a hoarse bellow of rage and the boy, darting across the alley, could hear him stumbling after him in blind search of the narrow way.
As he sped along a door suddenly opened in the blank wall beside him, and a stream of ruddy light gushed out, catching him square within its radiance, mud-spattered, starry-eyed, vivid.
A man stood framed in the doorway.
"Come in," he commanded, briefly.
The boy obeyed. Surreptitiously he wiped the wet and mud from his face and tried to reduce his wild breathing.
The room which he entered was meagre and stale-smelling, with bare floor and stained and sagging wall-paper; unfurnished save for a battered deal table and some chairs.
He sank into one of them and stared with frank curiosity past his employer, who had often entrusted him with messages requiring secrecy, past his employer's companion, to the third figure in the room--a prostrate figure which lay quite still under the heavy folds of a long dark ulster with its face turned to the wall.
"Well?" It was a singularly agreeable voice which aroused him, soft and well-bred, but with a faint foreign accent. The speaker was his employer, a slender dark man, with a finely carved face, immobile as the Sphinx. He had laid aside his Inverness and top hat, and showed himself in evening dress with a large--perhaps a thought too large--buttonhole of Parma violets, which sent forth a faint fragrance.
Of the personality of the man the messenger knew nothing more than that he was foreign, eccentric in a quiet way, lived in a grand house near Portland Place, and rewarded him handsomely for his occasional services. That the grand house was an hotel at which Poltavo had run up an uncomfortable bill he could not know.
The boy related his adventures of the evening, not omitting to mention his late pursuer.
The man listened quietly, brooding, his elbows upon the table, his inscrutable face propped in the crotch of his hand. A ruby, set quaintly in a cobra's head, gleamed from a ring upon his little finger. Presently he roused.
"That's all to-night, my boy," he said, gravely.
He drew out his purse, extracted a sovereign, and laid it in the messenger's hand.
"And this," he said, softly, holding up a second gold piece, "is for--discretion! You comprehend?"
The boy shot a swift glance, not unmixed with terror, at the still, recumbent figure in the corner, mumbled an assent and withdrew. Out in the dampness of the fog, he took a long, deep breath.
As the door closed behind him, the door of an inner room opened and Farrington came out. He had preceded the messenger by five minutes. The young exquisite leaned back in his chair, and smiled into the sombre eyes of his companion.
"At last!" he breathed, softly. "The thing moves. The wheels are beginning to revolve!"
The other nodded gloomily, his glance straying off toward the corner of the room.
"They've got to revolve a mighty lot more before the night's done!" he replied, with heavy significance.
"I needn't tell you," he continued, "that we must move in this venture with extreme caution. A single misstep at the outset, the slightest breath of suspicion, and pff! the entire superstructure falls to the ground."
"That is doubtless true, Mr. Farrington," murmured his companion, pleasantly. He leaned down to inhale the fragrant scent of the violets. "But you forget one little thing. This grand superstructure you speak of--so mysteriously"--he hid a slight smile--"I don't know it--all. You have seen fit, in your extreme caution, to withhold complete information from me."
He paused, and regarded his companion with a level, steady gaze. A faint, ironical smile played about the corners of his mouth; he spoke with a slightly foreign accent, which was at once pleasant and piquant.
"Is it not so, my friend?" he asked, softly. "I am--how you say--left out in the cold--I do not even know your immediate plans."
His countenance was serene and unruffled, and it was only by his slightly quickened breathing that the conversation held any unusual significance.
The other stirred uneasily in his chair.
"There are certain financial matters," he said, with a light air.
"There are others immediately pressing," interrupted his companion. "I observe, for example, that your right hand is covered by a glove which is much larger than that on your left. I imagine that beneath the white kid there is a thin silk bandage. Really, for a millionaire, Mr. Farrington, you are singularly--shall I say--'furtive'?"
"Hush!" whispered Farrington, hoarsely. He glanced about half-fearfully.
The younger man ignored the outburst. He laid a persuasive hand upon his companion's arm.
"My friend," he said gravely, "let me give you a bit of good advice. Believe me, I speak disinterestedly. Take me into your counsel. I think you need assistance--and I have already given you a taste of my quality in that respect. This afternoon when I called upon you in your home in Brakely Square, suggesting that a man of my standing might be of immense value to you, you were at first innocently dull, then suspicious. After I told you of my adventures in the office of a certain Society journal you were angry. Frankly," the young man shrugged his shoulders, "I am a penniless adventurer--can I be more frank than that? I call myself Count Poltavo--yet the good God knows that my family can give no greater justification to the claim of nobility than the indiscretions of lovely Lydia Poltavo, my grandmother, can offer. For the matter of that I might as well be prince on the balance of probability. I am living by my wits: I have cheated at cards, I have hardly stopped short of murder--I need the patronage of a strong wealthy man, and you fulfill all my requirements."
He bowed slightly to the other, and went on:
"You challenged me to prove my worth--I accepted that challenge. To-night, as you entered the theatre, you were told by a messenger that T. B. Smith--a most admirable man--was watching you--that he had practically surrounded the Jollity with detectives, and, moreover, I chose as my messenger a small youth who has served you more than once. Thus at one stroke I proved that not only did I know what steps authority was taking to your undoing, but also that I had surprised this splendid rendezvous--and your secret."
He waived his hand around the sordid room, and his eyes rested awhile upon the silent, ulster-covered figure on the bed; his action was not without intent.
"You are an interesting man," said Farrington, gruffly. He looked at his watch. "Join my party at the Jollity," he said; "we can talk matters over. Incidentally, we may challenge Mr. Smith." He smiled, but grew grave again. "I have lost a good friend there"--he looked at the form on the bed; "there is no reason why you should not take his place. Is it true--what you said to-day--that you know something of applied mechanics?"
"I have a diploma issued by the College of Padua," said the other promptly.
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