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A FORMAL CALL
I changed my mind about calling at the Milan that morning, but toward five o'clock in the afternoon I presented myself there, and gave the hall-porter my card to send up to Miss Delora. He received me with some surprise, but I explained that I had been obliged to postpone my visit into the country.
"Miss Delora has asked twice about you this morning, sir," he announced. "I gave her your country address."
"Quite right," I answered. "By the bye, is Mr. Delora visible yet?"
"Not yet, sir," the man answered. "Rather a curious thing about his return, sir," he added. "Not a soul has even seen him yet."
I nodded, but made no remark. Presently the boy who had taken my card up returned.
"Miss Delora would be glad if you would step upstairs, sir," he announced.
I followed him into the lift and up to number 157. Felicia was there alone. She rose from the couch as I entered, and waited until the door had closed behind the disappearing page. Then she held out her hands, and there was something in her eyes which I could not resist. I was suddenly ashamed of all my suspicions.
"So you have come back," she said softly. "That is very kind of you, Capitaine Rotherby. I have been lonely--very lonely, indeed."
"I have come back," I answered, taking her hands into mine and holding them for a moment.
"I am nervous all the time, and afraid," she continued, standing close by my side and looking up. "Only think of it, Capitaine Rotherby,--it is this journey to London to which I have been looking forward for so many, many years, and now that it has come I am miserable!"
"Your uncle--" I asked.
"They told me what was not true!" she exclaimed. "He is not back. I am here all alone. He does not come to me, and he will not let me go to him. But you will sit down, Capitaine Rotherby?" she added. "You are not in a hurry? You are not going away again?"
"Not just yet, at any rate," I admitted. "Do you know that after all this is a very small world! I have come to pay you a formal call on behalf of my brother who is an invalid."
Her eyes grew round with surprise.
"But I do not understand!" she said.
I told her of my brother's letter from South America. She listened with interest which seemed mingled with anxiety.
"It is very strange," she said, when I had finished,--"very delightful, too, of course!" she added hurriedly. "Tell me, is it my uncle Maurice or my uncle Ferdinand of whom your brother spoke most in his letter?"
"He did not mention the Christian names of either," I told her. "He simply said that one of the Mr. Deloras and his niece were coming to London, and he begged us to do all we could to make their visit pleasant. Do you know," I continued, "that as I came along I had an idea?"
"Yes?" she exclaimed.
"Why shouldn't you come down into the country," I said, "to my aunt's? She will send you a telegram at once if I tell her to, and we could all stay together down at Feltham,--my brother's house in Norfolk. You are out of place here. You are not enjoying yourself, and you are worried to death. Beside which," I added more slowly, "you are mixed up with people with whom you should have nothing whatever to do."
"If only I could!" she murmured. "If only I could!"
"Why not?" I said. "Mr. Delora comes here with an introduction which precludes my criticising his friends or his connections, however strange they may be, but it is very certain that you ought not to be left here alone to rely upon the advice of a head-waiter, to be practically at the beck and call of men of whose existence you should be unconscious. I want you to make up your mind and come away with me."
A little flush of color stole into her cheeks, and her eyes danced with excitement.
"I do no good here!" she exclaimed. "Why not? You, too, Capitaine Rotherby,--you would come?"
"I would take you there," I answered, "and I would do my best, my very best, to keep you entertained."
"I shall ask!" she exclaimed. "To-night I shall ask."
"Ask whom?" I inquired. "Louis?"
She shook her head.
"My uncle," she answered.
"You will not see him!" I exclaimed.
"He will telephone," she answered. "He has promised."
I reached over towards her and took her hands into mine.
"Felicia," I said boldly, "I am your friend. The letter I have told you of should prove that. I am only anxious for your good. Tell me what reason your uncle can have for behaving in this extraordinary way, for allowing himself to be associated even for a moment with such people as Louis and his friends?"
Everything that it had made me so happy to see in her face died away. She was once more wan and anxious.
"I cannot tell you," she said,--"I cannot, because I dare not! I have promised! Only remember this. My uncle has lived in Paris for so many years--"
"But I thought that he had just come from South America!" I interrupted.
"Yes, but before that," she explained breathlessly,--"before that! He loves the mysterious. He likes to be associated with strange people, and I do believe, too," she continued, "that he has business just now which must be kept secret for the sake of other people. Oh, I know it must all seem so strange to you! Won't you believe, Capitaine Rotherby, that I am grateful for your kindness, and that I would tell you if I could?"
"I must," I answered, with a sigh. "I must believe what you tell me. Listen, then. I shall wait until you hear from your uncle."
"Have you come back to your rooms?" she asked timidly.
"I shall do so," I announced, "but I hope that it will be only for the night. To-morrow, if all goes well, we may be on our way to Norfolk."
There was a knock at the door. She started, and looked at me a little uneasily. Almost immediately the door was pushed open. It was Louis who entered, bearing a menu card. He addressed me with a little air of surprise. I was at once certain that he had known of my visit, and had come to see what it might mean.
"Monsieur has returned very soon," he remarked, bowing pleasantly.
"My journey was not a long one, Louis," I answered. "What have you brought that thing for?" I continued, pointing to the menu card. "Do you want an order for dinner? Miss Delora is dining elsewhere with me!"
My tone was purposely aggressive. Louis' manners, however, remained perfection.
"Miss Delora has engaged a table in the cafe," he said. "I have come myself to suggest a little dinner. I trust she will not disappoint us."
She looked at me pathetically. There was something which I could not understand in her face. Only I knew that whatever she might ask me I was prepared to grant.
"Will you not stay and dine here with me?" she said. "Louis will give us a very good dinner, and afterwards I shall have my message, and I shall know whether I may go or not."
The humor of the idea appealed to me. There was suddenly something fantastic, unbelievable, in the events of last night.
"With pleasure!" I answered.
Louis bowed, and for a moment or two seemed entirely engrossed in the few additions he was making to the menu he carried. Then he handed it to me with a little bow.
"There, monsieur," he said. "I think that you will find that excellent."
"I have no doubt that we shall, Louis," I answered. "I will only ask you to remember one thing."
"And that, monsieur?" he asked.
"I dine with mademoiselle," I said, "and our appetites are identical!"
Louis smiled. There were times when I suspected him of a sense of humor!
"Monsieur has not the thick neck of Bartot!" he murmured, as he withdrew.
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