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A CONFESSION OF LOVE
The Colonel turned bodily round in his chair. The couple to whom Wrayson had drawn his attention were certainly incongruous enough to attract notice anywhere. The man was lank, elderly, and of severe appearance. He was bald, he had slight side-whiskers, he wore spectacles, and his face was devoid of expression. He was dressed in plain dinner clothes of old-fashioned cut. The tails of his coat were much too short, his collar belonged to a departed generation, and his tie was ready made. In a small Scotch town he might have passed muster readily enough as the clergyman or lawyer of the place. As a diner at Luigi's, ushered up the room to the soft strains of "La Mattchiche," and followed by such a companion, he was almost ridiculously out of place. If anything, she was the more noticeable of the two to the casual observer. Her hair was dazzlingly yellow, and arranged with all the stiffness of the coiffeur's art. She wore a dress of black sequins, cut perilously low, and shorn a little by wear of its pristine splendour. Her complexion was as artificial as her high-pitched voice; her very presence seemed to exude perfumes of the patchouli type. She was the sort of person concerning whom the veriest novice in such matters could have made no mistake. Yet her companion seemed wholly unembarrassed. He handed her the menu and looked calmly around the room.
"Who are those people?" the Colonel asked. "Rather a queer combination, aren't they?"
"The man is Bentham, the lawyer," Wrayson answered. His eyes were fixed upon the lady, who seemed not at all indisposed to become the object of any stray attention.
"That Bentham!" the Colonel repeated, under his breath. "But what on earth--where the mischief could he pick up a companion like that?"
Wrayson scarcely heard him. He had withdrawn his eyes from the lady with an effort.
"I have seen that woman somewhere," he said thoughtfully--"somewhere where she seemed quite as much out of place as she does here. Lately, too."
"H'm!" the Colonel remarked, leaning back in his chair to allow the waiter to serve him. "She's not the sort of person you'd be likely to forget either, is she?"
"And, by Heavens, I haven't!" Wrayson declared, suddenly laying down his knife and fork. "I remember her now. It was at the inquest--Barnes' inquest. She was one of the two women at whose flat he called on his way home. What on earth is Bentham doing with her?"
"You think," the Colonel remarked quietly, "that there is some connection--"
"Of course there is," Wrayson interrupted. "Does that old fossil look like the sort to take such a creature about for nothing? Colonel, he doesn't know himself--where those securities are! He's brought that woman here to pump her!"
The Colonel passed his hand across his forehead.
"I am getting a little confused," he murmured.
"And I," Wrayson declared, with barely suppressed excitement, "am beginning to see at least the shadow of daylight. If only you had some influence with your daughter, Colonel!"
The Colonel looked at him steadfastly. Wrayson wondered whether it was the light, or whether indeed his friend had aged so much during the last few months.
"I have no influence over my daughter, Wrayson," he said. "I thought that I had already explained that. And, Herbert," he added, leaning over the table, "why don't you let this matter alone? It doesn't concern you. You are more likely to do harm than good by meddling with it. There may be interests involved greater than you know of; you may find understanding a good deal more dangerous than ignorance. It isn't your affair, anyhow. Take my advice! Let it alone!"
"I wish I could," Wrayson answered, with a little sigh. "Frankly, I would if I could, but it fascinates me."
"All that I have heard of it," the Colonel remarked wearily, "sounds sordid enough."
"I think," he said, "that it is the sense of personal contact in a case like this which stirs the blood. I have memories about that night, Colonel, which I couldn't describe to you--or any one. And now this young brother coming on the scene seems to bring the dead man to life again. He's one of the worst type of young bounders I ever came into contact with. A creature without sentiment or feeling of any sort--nothing but an almost ravenous cupidity. He's wearing his brother's clothes now--thinks nothing of it! He hasn't a single regret. I haven't heard a single decent word pass his lips. But he wants the money. Nothing else! The money!"
"Do you believe," the Colonel asked, "that he will get it?"
"Who can tell?" Wrayson answered. "That Morris Barnes was in possession of valuables of some sort, everything goes to prove. Just think of the number of people who have shown their interest in him. There is Bentham and his mysterious client, the Baroness de Sturm and your daughter, and--the person who murdered him. Apparently, even though he lost his life, Barnes was too clever for them, for his precious belongings must still be undiscovered."
The Colonel finished his wine and leaned back in his chair.
"I am tired of this subject," he said. "I should like to get back to the club."
Wrayson called for the bill a little unwillingly. He was, in a sense, disappointed at the Colonel's attitude.
"Very well," he said, "we will bury it. But before we do so, there is one thing I have had it in my mind to say--for some time. I want to say it now. It is about your daughter, Colonel!"
The Colonel looked at him curiously.
"My daughter?" he repeated, under his breath.
Wrayson leaned a little forward. Something new had come into his face. This was the first time he had suffered such words to pass his lips--almost the first time he had suffered such thoughts to form themselves in his mind.
"I never looked upon myself," he said quietly, "as a particularly impulsive person. Yet it was an impulse which prompted me to conceal the truth as to her presence in the flat buildings that night. It was a serious thing to do, and somehow I fancy that the end is not yet."
"Why did you do it?" the Colonel asked. "You did not know who she was. It could not have been that."
"Why did I do it?" Wrayson repeated. "I can't tell you. I only know that I should do it again and again if the need came. If I told you exactly how I felt, it would sound like rot. But I'm going to ask you that question."
The Colonel's grey eyebrows were drawn together. His eyes were keen and bright. So he might have looked in time of stress; but he was not in the least like the genial idol of the Sheridan billiard-room.
"If I came to you to-morrow," Wrayson said, "and told you that I had met at last the woman whom I wished to make my wife, and that woman was your daughter, what should you say?"
"I should be glad," the Colonel answered simply.
"You and she are, for some unhappy reason, not on speaking terms. That--"
"Good God!" the Colonel interrupted, "whom do you mean? Whom are you talking about?"
"About your daughter--whom I shielded--the companion of the Baroness de Sturm. Your daughter Louise."
The Colonel raised his trembling fingers to his forehead. His voice quivered ominously.
"Of course! Of course! God help me, I thought you meant Edith! I never thought of Louise. And Edith has spoken of you lately."
"I found your younger daughter charming," Wrayson said seriously, "but it was of your daughter Louise I was speaking. I thought that you would understand that."
"My daughter--whom you found--in Morris Barnes' flat--that night?"
"Exactly," Wrayson answered, "and my question is this. I cannot ask you why you and she parted, but at least you can tell me if you know of any reason why I should not ask her to be my wife."
The Colonel was silent.
"No!" he said at last, "there is no reason. But she would not consent. I am sure of that."
"We will let it go at that," Wrayson answered. "Come!"
He had chosen his moment for rising so as to pass down the room almost at the same time as Mr. Bentham and his strange companion. Prolific of smiles and somewhat elephantine graces, the lady's darkened eyes met Wrayson's boldly, and finding there some encouragement, she even favoured him with a backward glance. In the vestibule he slipped a half-crown into the attendant's hand.
"See if you can hear the address that lady gives her cabman," he whispered.
The boy nodded, and hurried out after them. Wrayson kept the Colonel back under the pretence of lighting a fresh cigar. When at last they strolled forward, they met the boy returning. He touched his hat to Wrayson.
"Alhambra, sir!" he said, quietly. "Gone off alone, sir, in a hansom. Gentleman walked."
The Colonel kept silence until they were in the street.
"Coming to the club?" he asked, a little abruptly.
"No!" Wrayson answered.
"You are going after that woman?" the Colonel exclaimed.
"I am going to the Alhambra," Wrayson answered. "I can't help it. It sounds foolish, I suppose, but this affair fascinates me. It works on my nerves somehow. I must go."
The Colonel turned on his heel. Without another word, he crossed the Strand, leaving Wrayson standing upon the pavement. Wrayson, with a little sigh, turned westwards.
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