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TWO OF A TRADE
I smoked two pipes, one after the other, in a vain attempt to draw out some definite sequence of facts from the tangled web of happenings into which I seemed to have strayed. I came to the conclusion that Fate, which had bestowed on me a physique of more than ordinary size, a sound constitution, and muscles which had filled my study with various kinds of trophies, had not been equally generous in her dispensation of brains. Try as I would, I could make nothing of the situation in which I found myself. The most reasonable thing seemed to be to conclude that Louis was one of a gang of thieves, that I was about to become their accomplice, and that Felicia was simply the Delilah with whom these people had summoned me to their aid. Such a conclusion, however, was not flattering, nor did it please me in any way. Directly I allowed myself to think of Felicia, I believed in her. There were none of the arts of the adventuress about her methods, her glances, or her words. She did not, for instance, in the least resemble the young lady with the turquoises, who had also been good enough to take an interest in me! I gave the whole thing up at last. Perhaps by the morrow I should know more,--if, indeed, I thought, a little grimly, I knew anything! I could not help feeling that this little enterprise to which I had committed myself might turn out to be a serious affair. Even Louis had not tried to minimize the risks. I felt, however, that if it led me to any better understanding of the situation, I could welcome whatever danger it involved.
A little before six o'clock I turned to look at the weather, which had been threatening all day, meaning to take a stroll. The rain, however, was coming down in sheets, so I descended instead to the little smoking-room, thinking that I might find there some one whom I knew. I had already ensconced myself in an easy-chair and ordered a whiskey and soda, when I became conscious that the very person with whom my thoughts were occupied was in the room and within a few feet of me.
Felicia was sitting on a couch, and by her side a man whom I recognized at once. It was the companion of my lady of the turquoises! Apparently they had not noticed my entrance. They continued for several moments to be unaware of it. Felicia was paler than ever. She seemed to be struggling, as she sat there, to conceal her fear and aversion for the man who leaned toward her, talking in rapid French, with many gesticulations. He was badly dressed in a travelling suit of French cut, with a waistcoat buttoned almost to the chin. A floppy black tie hung down over the lapels of his coat. His black moustache, which seemed to have suffered from the crossing, was drooping, and gave to his mouth a particularly sinister expression. He had a neck of unusual size, and the fat ran in ridges to the back of his scalp, worked up by his collar as he moved his head rapidly with every sentence. He seemed altogether unable to sit still or control himself. His boots--brown tops with narrow patent vamps--beat a tattoo upon the floor. No wonder that Felicia shrunk into the corner of her lounge! I felt that it was impossible for me to sit and watch them any longer. I rose to my feet.
Felicia saw me first,--then her companion. Felicia's first expression, to my intense joy, was one of relief. Her companion, on the other hand, darted towards me a perfectly murderous glance. I advanced toward them, and Felicia half rose.
"Capitaine Rotherby," she said, "oh, I am very glad to see you! This man here who sits by my side--he does not speak one word of English. Listen, I beg. Go and find some one in the cafe--you know whom I mean, I will not mention his name. Go and find him, and bring him here. Tell him that Bartot is here and is terrifying me, that he threatens all the time. Please bring him."
"I will go at once," I answered.
I bowed and turned away. Of Bartot I took no notice, though he rose at once and seemed about to address me. I hurried into the cafe, but it was a slack hour and there were no signs of Louis.
"Can you tell me where to find Louis?" I asked one of the waiters.
The man glanced at the clock and shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps in his office," he said, "but Monsieur Louis often goes out for an hour about this time."
"Where is his office?" I asked.
The man led me into the service room and turned to the left. He knocked at a closed door, and I heard a sleepy voice say--
I entered, and found Louis in a tiny little sitting-room, curled up on a sofa. In his hand was a pocket-book and a pencil. He appeared to have been making memoranda. He sprang to his feet as I entered.
"Monsieur!" he exclaimed, putting away the pocket-book and rising to his feet.
"Sorry to disturb you, Louis," I said. "Miss Delora is in the little smoking-room, and Bartot is there,--just arrived, I suppose, from Paris. He is terrifying her. She sent me to fetch you."
I saw Louis' lips curl into something which I can only describe as a snarl. After that moment I never even partially trusted him again. He looked like a wild animal, one of those who creep through the hidden places and love to spring upon their prey unseen!
"So!" he muttered. "I come, monsieur. I come."
He followed me out and into the restaurant. As he passed along his features composed themselves. He bent courteously toward me. He even opened the door of the little smoking-room and insisted that I should precede him. I stood on one side then while he went up to the pair. I heard Felicia give a little murmur of relief. Bartot turned round fiercely. The two faced one another, and it seemed to me that unutterable things passed between them. They were like wild animals, indeed,--Louis silent, composed, serene, yet with a jaguar-like glare in his eyes, his body poised, as though to spring or defend himself, as circumstances might dictate. Bartot, who had risen to his feet, was like a clumsy but powerful beast, showing his fierce primitivism through the disguise of clothes and his falsely human form. To me those few seconds were absolutely thrilling! There was another man in the room, who continued writing as though nothing were happening. A couple of strangers passed through on their way to the bar, and seemed to see nothing except the meeting of Louis--the maitre d'hotel--with a possible client. Felicia had let fall her veil, so that her terror was no longer written in her face. She had separated herself now from Bartot, and with an involuntary movement I came over to her side. Then the tension was suddenly broken. It was Louis who showed his teeth, but it was with the razor-edge of civility.
"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!"
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