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At precisely ten o'clock, as the curtain came reefing slowly down upon the first act of The Strand Girl, Lady Dinsmore turned with outstretched hand to greet the first of the two men who had just entered the box.
"My dear Count," she exclaimed, "I am disappointed in you! Here I have been paying you really quite tremendous compliments to these young people. I presume you are on Gregory's 'business'?"
"I am desolated!"
Count Poltavo had a way of looking at one gravely, with an air of concentrated attention, as if he were seeing through the words, into the very soul of the speaker. He was, indeed, a wonderful listener, and this quality, added to a certain buoyancy of temperament, accounted perhaps for his popularity in such society as he had been able to penetrate.
"Before I ask you to name the crime, Lady Dinsmore," he said, "permit me to offer my humblest apologies for my lateness."
Lady Dinsmore shook her head at him and glanced at Farrington, but that dour man had drawn a chair to the edge of the box, and was staring moodily down into the great auditorium.
"You are an incorrigible!" she declared, "but sit down and make your excuses at your leisure. You know my niece, and I think you have met Mr. Doughton. He is one of our future leaders of thought!"
The Count bowed, and sank into a chair beside his hostess.
Frank, after a frigidly polite acknowledgement, resumed his conversation with Doris, and Lady Dinsmore turned to her companion.
"Now for the explanation," she exclaimed, briskly. "I shall not let you off! Unpunctuality is a crime, and your punishment shall be to confess its cause."
Count Poltavo bent toward her with bright, smiling eyes.
"A very stupid and foolish business engagement," he replied, "which required my personal attendance, and unfortunately that of Mr. Farrington."
Lady Dinsmore threw up a protesting hand.
"Business has no charms to soothe my savage breast! Mr. Farrington," she lowered her voice confidentially, "can talk of nothing else. When he was staying with us he was for ever telegraphing, cabling to America, or decoding messages. There was no peace in the house, by day or by night. Finally I made a stand. 'Gregory,' I said, 'you shall not pervert my servants with your odious tips, and turn my home into a public stock-exchange. Take your bulls and bears over to the Savoy and play with them there, and leave Doris to me.' And he did!" she concluded triumphantly.
Count Poltavo looked about, as if noting for the first time Farrington's preoccupation. "Is he quite well?" he inquired, in an undertone.
Lady Dinsmore shrugged her shoulders.
"Frankly, I think he had a slight indisposition, and magnified it in order to escape small talk. He hates music. Doris has been quite distrait ever since. The child adores her uncle--you know, of course, that she is his niece--the daughter of my sister. Gregory was her father's brother--we are almost related."
Her companion glanced across to the subject of their remarks. The girl sat in the front of the box, slim and elegant, her hands clasped loosely in her lap. She was watching the brilliant scene with a certain air of detachment, as if thinking of other things. Her usual lightness and gay banter seemed for the moment to have deserted her, leaving a soft brooding wistfulness that was strangely appealing.
The Count looked at her.
"She is very beautiful," he murmured under his breath.
Something in his voice caught Lady Dinsmore's attention. She eyed him keenly.
The Count met her look frankly.
"Is--is she engaged to her young friend?" he asked quietly. "Believe me, it is not vulgar curiosity which prompts the question. I--I am--interested." His voice was as composed as ever.
Lady Dinsmore averted her gaze hurriedly and thought with lightning rapidity.
"I have not her confidence," she replied at length, in a low tone; "she is a wise young woman and keeps her own counsel." She appeared to hesitate. "She dislikes you," she said. "I am sorry to wound you, but it is no secret."
Count Poltavo nodded. "I know," he said, simply. "Will you be my good friend and tell me why?"
Lady Dinsmore smiled. "I will do better than that," she said kindly. "I will be your very good friend and give you a chance to ask her why. Frank,"--she bent forward and tapped the young man upon the shoulder with her fan,--"will you come over here and tell me what your editor means?"
The Count resigned his seat courteously, and took the vacant place beside the girl. A silence fell between them, which presently the man broke.
"Miss Gray," he began, seriously, "your aunt kindly gave me this opportunity to ask you a question. Have I your permission also?"
The girl arched her eyebrows. Her lip curled ever so slightly.
"A question to which you and my Aunt Patricia could find no answer between you! It must be subtle indeed! How can I hope to succeed?"
He ignored her sarcasm. "Because it concerns yourself."
"Ah!" She drew herself up and regarded him with sparkling eyes. One small foot began to tap the floor ominously. Then she broke into a vexed little laugh.
"I am no match for you with the foils, Count. I admit it freely. I should have learned by this time that you never say what you mean, or mean what you say."
"Forgive me, Miss Gray, if I say that you mistake me utterly. I mean always what I say--most of all to you. But to say all that I mean--to put into speech all that one hopes or dreams--or dares,"--his voice dropped to a whisper--"to turn oneself inside out like an empty pocket to the gaze of the multitude--that is--imbecile." He threw out his hands with an expressive gesture.
"But to speak concretely--I have unhappily offended you, Miss Gray. Something I have done, or left undone--or my unfortunate personality does not engage your interest. Is it not true?"
There was no mistaking his sincerity now.
But the girl still held aloof, her blue eyes cool and watchful. For the moment, her face, in its young hardness, bore a curious resemblance to her uncle's.
"Is that your question?" she demanded.
The Count bowed silently.
"Then I will tell you!" She spoke in a low voice surcharged with emotion. "I will give you candour for candour, and make an end of all this make-believe."
"That," he murmured, "is what I most desire."
Doris continued, heedless of the interruption. "It is true that I dislike you. I am glad to be able to tell you as much openly. And yet, perhaps, I should use another word. I dislike your secrecy--something dark and hidden within you--and I fear your influence over my uncle. You have known me less than a fortnight--Mr. Farrington, less than a week--yet you have made what I can only conceive to be impertinent proposals of marriage to me. To-day you were for three hours with my uncle. I can only guess what your business has been."
"You would probably guess wrong," he said coolly.
Farrington, at the other end of the box, shot a swift, suspicious glance across. Poltavo turned to the girl again.
"I want only to be a friend of yours in the day of your need," he said, in a low voice; "believe me, that day is not far distant."
"That is true?" She leaned toward him, a little troubled.
He bowed his head in assent.
"If I could believe you," she faltered. "I need a friend! Oh, if you could know how I have been torn by doubts--beset by fears--oppressions." Her voice quivered. "There is something wrong somewhere--I can't tell you everything--if you would help me--wait. May I test you with a question?"
"A thousand if you like."
"And you will answer--truthfully?" In her eagerness she was like a child.
He smiled. "If I answer at all, be sure it will be truthful."
"Tell me then, is Dr. Fall your friend?"
"He is my dearest enemy," he returned, promptly.
He had only the dimmest notion as to the identity of Dr. Fall, but it seemed that a lie was demanded--Poltavo could lie very easily.
"Or Mr. Gorth?" she asked, and he shook his head.
She drew a deep breath of relief. "And my uncle?" The question was a whisper. She appeared to hang upon his reply.
The Count hesitated. "I do not know," he admitted finally. "If he were not influenced by Dr. Fall, I believe he would be my friend." It was a bow at a venture. He was following the bent of her inclination.
For the first time that evening Doris looked at him with interest.
"May I ask how your uncle came to know Gorth?"
He asked the question with the assurance of one who knew all that was to be known save on this point.
She hesitated awhile.
"I don't quite know. The doctor we have always known. He lives in the country, and we only see him occasionally. He is----" She hesitated and then went on rapidly: "I think he has rather dreadful work. He is in charge of a lunatic."
Poltavo was interested.
"Please go on," he said.
The girl smiled. "I am afraid you are an awful gossip," she rallied, but became more serious. "I don't like him very much, but uncle says that is my prejudice. He is one of those quiet, sure men who say very little and make one feel rather foolish. Don't you know that feeling? It is as though one were dancing the tango in front of the Sphinx."
Poltavo showed his white teeth in a smile.
"I have yet to have that experience," he said.
"One of these days you will meet Dr. Fall and you will know how helpless one can feel in his presence."
A remarkable prophecy which was recalled by Poltavo at a moment when he was powerless to profit by the warning.
Again she hesitated and shrugged her shoulders.
"Well," she said frankly, "he is just a common man. He looks almost like a criminal to my mind. But apparently he has been a loyal servant to uncle for many years."
"Tell me," asked Poltavo, "on what terms is Dr. Fall with your uncle? On terms of equality?"
"Naturally," she said with a look of surprise, "he is a gentleman, and is, I believe, fairly well off."
"And Gorth?" asked Poltavo.
He was interested for many reasons as one who had to take the place of that silent figure which lay in the fog-shrouded house.
"I hardly know how to describe uncle's relations with Gorth," she answered, a little puzzled. "There was a time when they were on terms of perfect equality, but sometimes uncle would be very angry with him indeed. He was rather a horrid man really. Do you know a paper called Gossip's Corner?" she asked suddenly.
Poltavo had heard of the journal and had found a certain malicious joy in reading its scandalous paragraphs.
"Well," she said in answer to his nod, "that was Mr. Gorth's idea of literature. Uncle would never have the paper in his house, but whenever you saw Mr. Gorth--he invariably waited for uncle in the kitchen--you would be sure to find him chuckling over some of the horrid things which that paper published. Uncle used to get more angry about this than anything else, Mr. Gorth took a delight in all the unpleasant things which this wretched little paper printed. I have heard it said that he had something to do with its publication; but when I spoke to uncle about it, he was rather cross with me for thinking such a thing."
Poltavo was conscious that the eyes of Farrington were searching his face narrowly, and out of the corner of his eye he noted the obvious disapproval. He turned round carelessly.
"An admirable sight--a London theatre crowd."
"Very," said the millionaire, drily.
"Celebrities on every hand--Montague Fallock, for instance, is here."
"And that wise-looking young man in the very end seat of the fourth row--he is in the shadow, but you may see him."
"T. B. Smith," said Farrington, shortly. "I have seen him--I have seen everybody but----"
"The occupant of the royal box. She keeps in the shadow all the time. She is not a detective, too, I suppose?" he asked, sarcastically. He looked round. Frank Doughton, his niece and Lady Dinsmore were engrossed in conversation.
"Poltavo," he said, dropping his voice, "I want to know who that woman is in the opposite box--I have a reason."
The orchestra was playing a soft intermezzo, and of a sudden the lights went down in the house, hushed to silence as the curtain went slowly up upon the second act.
There was a shifting of chairs to distribute the view, a tense moment of silence as the chorus came down a rocky defile and then--a white pencil of flame shot out from the royal box and a sharp crash of a pistol report.
"My God!" gasped Mr. Farrington, and staggered back.
There was a loud babble of voices, a stentorian voice from the back of the stalls shouted, "House lights--quick!" The curtain fell as the house was bathed in the sudden glare of lights.
T. B. saw the flash and leapt for the side aisle: two steps and he was at the door which led to the royal box. It was empty. He passed quickly through the retiring room--empty also, but the private entrance giving on to the street was open and the fog was drifting through in great wreaths.
He stepped out into the street and blew a shrill whistle. Instantly from the gloom came a plain clothes policeman--No, he had seen nobody pass. T. B. went back to the theatre, raced round to the box opposite and found it in confusion.
"Where is Mr. Farrington?" he asked, quickly.
He addressed his remark to Poltavo.
"He is gone," said the other, with a shrug.
"He was here when the pistol was fired--at this box, my friend, as the bullet will testify." He pointed to the mark on the enamelled panel behind. "When the lights came he had gone--that is all."
"He can't have gone," said T. B. shortly. "The theatre is surrounded. I have a warrant for his arrest."
A cry from the girl stopped him. She was white and shaking.
"Arrest!" she gasped, "on what charge?"
"On a charge of being concerned with one Gorth in burglary at the Docks--and with an attempted murder."
"Gorth!" cried the girl, vehemently. "If any man is guilty, it is Gorth--that evil man----"
"Speak softly of the dead," said T. B. gently. "Mr. Gorth, as I have every reason to believe, received wounds from which he died. Perhaps you can enlighten me, Poltavo?"
But the Count could only spread deprecating hands.
T. B. went out into the corridor. There was an emergency exit to the street, but the door was closed. On the floor he found a glove, on the door itself the print of a bloody hand.
But there was no sign of Farrington.
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