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LOUIS, MAITRE D'HOTEL
I measured out that quarter of an hour into minutes, and almost into seconds. Then I knocked at the door of the sitting-room, and was bidden enter by Felicia Delora herself. She was alone, but she was dressed for the street, and was apparently just leaving the hotel again. Her clothes were of fashionable make, and cut with the most delightful simplicity. Her toilette was that of the ideal Frenchwoman who goes out for a morning's shopping, and may possibly lunch in the Bois. She was still very pale, however, and the dark lines under her eyes seemed to speak of a sleepless night. I fancied that she welcomed me a little shyly. She dropped her veil almost at once, and she did not ask me to sit down.
"I hope that you have some news this morning of your uncle, Miss Delora?" I asked.
She shook her head.
"I have not heard--anything of importance," she answered.
"I am sorry," I said. "I am afraid that you must be getting very anxious."
She bent over the button of her glove.
"Yes," she admitted. "I am very anxious! I am very anxious indeed. I scarcely know what to do."
"Tell me, then," I said, "why do you not let me go with you to the police and have some inquiries made? If you prefer it, we could go to a private detective. I really think that something ought to be done."
She shook her head.
"I dare not," she said simply.
"Dare not?" I repeated.
"Because when he returns," she explained, "he would be so very, very angry with me. He is a very eccentric man--my uncle. He does strange things, and he allows no one to question his actions."
"But he has no right," I declared hotly, "to leave you like this in a strange hotel, without even a maid, without a word of farewell or explanation. The thing is preposterous!"
She had finished buttoning her gloves, and looked up at me with a queer little smile at the corner of her lips and her hands behind her.
"Capitaine Rotherby," she said, "there are so many things which it seems hard to understand. I myself am very unhappy and perplexed, but I do know what my uncle would wish me to do. He would wish me to remain quite quiet, and to wait."
I was silent for a few moments. It was difficult to reason with her.
"You have been out this morning," I said, a little abruptly.
"I have been out," she admitted. "I do not think, Capitaine Rotherby, that I must tell you where I have been, but I went to the one place where I thought that I might have news of him."
"You brought back with you a companion."
"No, not a companion," she interposed gently. "You must not think that, Capitaine Rotherby. He was just a person who--who had to come. You are not cross with me," she asked, lifting her eyes a little timidly to mine, "that there are some things which I do not tell you?"
"No, I am not cross!" I answered slowly. "Only, if you felt it possible," I added, "to give me your entire confidence, it seems to me that it would be better. I will ask you to believe," I continued, "that I am not merely a curious person. I am--well, more than a little interested."
She held out both her hands and raised her eyes to mine. Through the filmy lace of her veil I could see that they were very soft, almost as though tears were gathering there.
"Oh! I do believe you, Capitaine Rotherby," she said, "and I would be very, very happy if I could tell you now all the things which trouble me, all the things which I do not understand! But I may not. I may not--just now."
"Whenever you choose," I answered, "I shall be ready to hear. Whenever you need my services, they are yours."
"You do trust me a little, then?" she asked quickly.
"Implicitly!" I answered.
"You do not mind," she continued, "that I tell you once more that I am going out, and that I must go out alone?"
"Why, no!" I answered. "If you do not need me, there is an end of it."
"You are very good to me," she said. "Perhaps this afternoon, if you have a few minutes to spare, we might talk, eh?"
"At any time you say," I answered.
"At four o'clock, then," she said, "you will come here and sit with me for a little time. Perhaps this evening, if you have nothing to do--" she asked.
"I have nothing to do," I interrupted promptly.
"I do not know how I shall feel," she said, "about going out, but I would like to see you, anyhow."
"I shall come," I promised her. "Some time within the next few days I must go down to Norfolk--"
"To Norfolk?" she interrupted quickly. "Is that far away?"
"Only a few hours," I answered.
"You will stay there?" she exclaimed.
I shook my head.
"I think not," I answered. "I think I shall come back directly I have seen my brother."
She lifted her eyes to mine.
"Why?" she whispered.
"In case I can be of service to you!" I answered.
"You are so very good, so very kind," she said earnestly; "and to think that when I first saw you, I believed--but that does not matter!" she wound up quickly. "Please come to the lift with me and ring the bell. I lose my way in these passages."
I watched her step into the lift, her skirts a little raised, she herself, to my mind, the perfection of feminine grace from the tips of her patent shoes to the black feathers in her hat. She waved her hand to me as the lift shot down, and I turned away....
At exactly half-past one I went down to the cafe for lunch. The room was fairly full, but almost the first person I saw was Louis, suave and courteous, conducting a party of guests to their places. I took my seat at my accustomed table, and watched him for a few moments as he moved about. What a waiter he must have been, I thought! His movements were swift and noiseless. His eyes seemed like points of electricity, alive to the smallest fault on the part of his subordinates, the slightest frown on the faces of his patrons. There was scarcely a person lunching there who did not feel that he himself was receiving some part of Louis' personal attention. One saw him in the distance, suggesting with his easy smile a suitable luncheon to some bashful youth; or found him, a moment or two later, comparing reminiscences of some wonderful sauce with a bon viveur, an habitue of the place. Such a man, I thought, was wasted as a maitre d'hotel. He had the gifts of a diplomatist, the presence and inspiration of a genius.
I had imagined that my entrance into the room was unnoticed, but I found him suddenly bowing before my table.
"The Plat du Jour," he remarked, "is excellent. Monsieur should try it. After a few days of French cookery," he continued, "a simple English dish is sometimes an agreeable relief."
"Thank you, Louis," I answered. "Tell me what has become of Mr. Delora?"
My sudden attack was foiled with the consummate ease of a master--if, indeed, the man was not genuine.
"Mr. Delora!" he repeated. "Is he not staying here,--he and his niece? I have been looking for them to come into luncheon."
"His niece is here," I answered. "Mr. Delora never arrived."
Louis then did a thing which I have never seen him do before or afterwards,--he dropped something which he was carrying! It was only a wine carte, and he stooped and picked it up at once with a word of graceful apology. But I noticed that when he once more stood erect, the exercise of stooping, so far from having brought any flush into his face, seemed to have driven from it every atom of color.
"You mean that Mr. Delora went elsewhere, Monsieur?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"They travelled up from Folkestone," I said, "in my carriage. At Charing Cross Mr. Delora, who had been suffering, he said, from sea-sickness, and who was certainly very nervous and ill at ease, jumped out before the train had altogether stopped and hurried off to get a hansom to come on here. It had been arranged that I should bring his niece and follow him. When we arrived he had not come. He has not been here since. I have just left his niece, and she assured me that she had no idea where he was."
Louis stood quite still.
"It is a most singular occurrence," he said.
"It is the strangest thing I have ever heard of in my life," I answered.
"Monsieur is very much interested, doubtless," Louis said thoughtfully. "He travelled with them,--he expressed, I believe, an admiration for the young lady. Doubtless he is very much interested."
"So much so, Louis," I answered, "that I intend to do everything I can to solve the mystery of Delora's disappearance. I am an idle man, and it will amuse me."
Louis shook his head.
"Ah!" he said, "it is not always safe to meddle in the affairs of other people! There are wheels within wheels. The disappearance of Mr. Delora may not be altogether so accidental as it seems."
"You mean--" I exclaimed hastily.
"But nothing, monsieur," Louis answered, with a little shrug of the shoulders. "I spoke quite generally. A man disappears, and every one in the world immediately talks of foul play, of murder,--of many such things. But, after all, is that quite reasonable? Most often the man who disappears, disappears of his own accord,--disappears either from fear of things that may happen to him, or because he himself has some purpose to serve."
"You mean to suggest, then, Louis," I said, "that the disappearance of Mr. Delora is a voluntary one?"
Once more Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Who can tell, monsieur?" he answered. "I suggest nothing. I spoke only as one might speak, hearing of this case. One moment, monsieur."
He darted away to welcome some newcomers, ushered them to their table, suggested their lunch, passed up and down the room, stopping here and there to bow to a patron, to examine the dishes standing ready to be served, to correct some fault of service. It seemed to me, as I watched him, that he did a hundred things before he returned. Yet in a very few moments he was standing once more before my table, examining with a complacent air the service of my luncheon.
"Monsieur will find the petits carots excellent," he declared. "My friend Henry, he tries to serve this dish, but it is not the same thing; no! Always the vegetables must be served in the country where they are grown. Monsieur will drink something?"
"A pint of Moselle," I ordered. "I dare not order whiskey and soda before you, Louis."
He made a little grimace.
"It is as monsieur wishes," he declared, "but it is a drink without finesse,--a crude drink for a man of monsieur's tastes. It shall be the Moselle No. 197," he added, turning to the waiter. "Do not forget the number. 197," he added, turning to me, "is an absolutely light wine,--for luncheon, delicious!"
We were alone once more. Louis bent, smiling, over my table.
"Monsieur is much interested," he said, "in the disappearance of an acquaintance, a passing travelling companion, but he does not ask of affairs which concern him more gravely."
"Of Tapilow!" I exclaimed quickly.
"Tapilow is in an hospital and he will live," Louis declared slowly, "but all his life he will limp, and all his life he will carry a scar from his forehead to his mouth."
I nodded meditatively.
"It is, perhaps," I answered, "a more complete punishment."
I fancied that in Louis' green eyes there shot for a moment a gleam of something like admiration.
"Monsieur has courage," he murmured.
"Why not?" I answered. "We all of us have a certain amount of philosophy, you know, Louis. It was inevitable that when that man and I met, I should try to kill him. I had no weapon that night. I simply took him into my hands. But there, you know the rest. If he had died, I might have had to pay the penalty. It was a risk, but you see I had to take it. The thing was inevitable. The wrong that he had done some one who is very dear to me was too terrible, too hideous, for him to be allowed to go unpunished."
"When he recovers," Louis remarked thoughtfully, "monsieur will have an enemy."
"A great man, Louis, once declared," I reminded him, "that one's enemies were the salt of one's life. One's friends sometimes weary. One's enemies give always a zest to existence."
Again Louis was summoned away. I ate my lunch and sipped my wine. Louis was right. It was excellent, yet likely enough to be overlooked by the casual visitor, for it was of exceedingly moderate price.
So Tapilow was not likely to die! So much the better, perhaps! The time might have come in my life when the whole of that tragedy lay further back in the shadows, and when the thought that I had killed a man, however much he had deserved it, might chill me. I understood from Louis' very reticence that I had nothing now to fear from the law. So far as regards Tapilow himself, I had no fear. It was not likely that he would ever raise his hand against me.
I dismissed the subject from my thoughts. It was just then I remembered that, after all, I had not gathered from Louis a single shred of information on the subject in which I was most interested. I almost smiled when I remembered how admirably he had contrived to elude my curiosity. The only thing which I gathered from his manner was that Mr. Delora's disappearance was unexpected by him. Never mind, the end was not yet! I ordered coffee and a liqueur, and laid my cigarette case upon the table. I would wait until Louis chose to come to me once more. There were certain things which I intended to ask him point blank.
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