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A TANTALIZING GLIMPSE
Felicia laid down the receiver and looked at me. There was scarcely any need for words. Her disappointment was written into her white face.
"You are not to come!" I said.
"I am not--to come," she repeated. "After all, my holiday is not yet."
"Will you tell me," I asked, "where I can find your uncle?"
She shook her head.
"You must not ask me such a thing," she declared.
"Remember," I said, "that I have really called to make his acquaintance as a matter of courtesy on behalf of my brother. What excuse do you give me for his absence? Tell me what it is that you are supposed to say in such a case?"
"Simply that he is away for a few days, engaged in the most important business," she answered. "He will rejoin me here directly it is settled."
"And in the meantime," I said thoughtfully, "you are left in a strange hotel without friends, without a chaperon, absolutely unprotected, and with only a head-waiter in your confidence. Felicia, there is something very wrong here. I am not sure," I continued, "that it is not my duty to run away with you."
She clasped her hands.
"Delightful!" she murmured. "But I mustn't think of it," she added, with a sudden gravity, "nor must you talk to me like that. What my uncle says is best to be done. He knows and understands. If he has had to leave me here alone, it is because it is necessary."
"You have a great deal of faith in him," I remarked.
"He has always been kind to me," she answered, "and I know that the business upon which he is engaged just now is hazardous and difficult. There are men who do not wish it to go through, and they watch for him. If they knew his whereabouts they would try to stop him."
"Felicia, do you know what that business is?" I asked.
"I have some idea of it," she answered.
Her answer puzzled me. If Felicia really had any idea as to the nature of it, and was content to play the part she was playing, it certainly could not be anything of an illicit nature. Yet everything else which had come under my notice pointed to Delora's being associated with a criminal undertaking. I paced the room, deep in thought. Felicia all the time was watching me anxiously.
"You are not going to leave me?" she asked very softly.
I came to a standstill before her.
"No, Felicia," I said, "I am not going to leave you! But I want to tell you this. I am going to try and find out for myself the things which you will not tell me. No, you must not try to stop me!" I said, anticipating the words which indeed had trembled upon her lips. "It must be either that or farewell, Felicia. I cannot remain here and do absolutely nothing. I want to find your uncle, and to have some sort of an explanation from him, and I mean to do it."
She shook her head.
"There are others who are trying to find him," she said, "but I do not think that they will succeed. The young man who was here the other night, for instance."
"If I fail, I fail," I answered. "At any rate, I shall be doing something. I must go back to my brother's to-night, Felicia, because I have promised to stay with him. In a day or two I shall return to my rooms here, and I shall do my best to find out the meaning of your uncle's mysterious movements. It may seem impertinent to you to interfere in anybody else's concerns. I cannot help it. It is for your sake. The present position is impossible!"
"You are not staying here to-night?" she asked.
"To-night, no!" I answered. "I will let you know directly I return."
"There is one thing else, Capitaine Rotherby. Could you promise it to me, I wonder?"
"I will try," I answered.
"Do not quarrel any more, if you can help it," she begged, "with Louis!"
Her question forced a laugh from my lips. Quarrel with Louis, indeed! What more could I do in that direction? Then I frowned, in temporary annoyance. I hated to hear her speak of him as a person to be considered.
"Louis is a venomous little person," I said, "but I certainly should not quarrel with him more than I can help. I am, unfortunately, in his debt, or I should have dealt with him before now."
I glanced at the clock and jumped up. It was very much later than I had thought. She gave me her hands a little wistfully.
"I do not like to think of you here alone," I said. "I wish that I could persuade you to engage a maid."
She shook her head.
"My uncle would not allow it," she said simply. "He says that servants are always prying into one's concerns. Good night, Capitaine Rotherby! Thank you so much for taking me out this evening. After all, I cannot help feeling that it has been rather like the beginning of this holiday."
I held her hands tightly in mine.
"When it really begins," I answered, "I shall try and make it a little more interesting!"
I declined a taxicab and turned to walk back to my brother's hotel. Certainly in the problem of these two people who had come so curiously into my life there was very much to give me matter for thought. I believed in the girl, and trusted her. More than that I did not dare to ask myself! I should have believed in her, even if her uncle were proved to be a criminal of the most dangerous type. But none the less I could not help realizing that her present position was a singularly unfortunate one. To be alone in a big hotel, without maid or chaperon, herself caught up in this web of mystery which Louis and those others seemed to have woven around her, was in itself undesirable and unnatural. Whatever was transpiring, I was quite certain that her share in it was a passive one. She had been told to be silent, and she was silent. Nothing would ever make me believe that she was a party to any wrong-doing. And yet the more I thought of Delora the less I trusted him. At Charing Cross Station, for instance, his had not been the anxiety of a man intrusted with a difficult mission. His agitation had been due to fear,--fear abject and absolute. I had seen the symptoms more than once in my life, and there was no mistaking them. I told myself that no man could be so shaken who was engaged in honest dealings. Even now he was in hiding,--it could not be called anything else,--and the one person with whom I had come in touch who was searching for him was, without a doubt, on the side of law and justice, with at least some settled position behind him. Delora's deportment was more the deportment of a fugitive from justice than of a man in the confidence of his government.
Walking a little carelessly, I took a turn too far northward, and found myself in one of the streets leading out of Shaftesbury Avenue. I was on the point of taking a passage which would lead me more in my proper direction, when my attention was attracted by a large motor-car standing outside one of the small foreign restaurants which abound in this district. I was always interested in cars, but I noticed this one more particularly from the fact of its utter incompatibility with its surroundings. It was one of the handsomest cars I had ever seen,--a sixty to eighty horse-power Daimler,--fitted up inside with the utmost luxury. The panels were plain, and the chauffeur, who sat motionless in his place, wore dark livery and was apparently a foreigner. I slackened my pace to glance for a moment at the non-skidding device on the back tire, and as I passed on I saw the door of the little restaurant open, and a tall commissionnaire hurried out. He held open the door of the car and stood at attention. Two men issued from the restaurant and crossed the pavement. I turned deliberately round to watch them--vulgar curiosity, perhaps, but a curiosity which I never regretted. The first man--tall and powerful--wore the splendid dress and black silk cap of a Chinese of high rank. The man who followed him was Delora. I knew him in a second, although he wore a white silk scarf around his neck, concealing the lower part of his face, and a silk hat pushed down almost over his eyes. I saw his little nervous glance up and down the street, I saw him push past the commissionnaire as though in a hurry to gain the semi-obscurity of the car. I stopped short upon the pavement, motionless for one brief and fatal moment. Then I turned back and hastened to the side of the car. I knocked at the window.
"Delora," I said, "I must speak to you."
The car had begun to move. I wrenched at the handle, but I found it held on the inside with a grip which even I could not move. I looked into the broad, expressionless face of the Chinaman, who, leaning forward, completely shielded the person of the man with whom I sought to speak.
"One moment," I called out. "I must speak with Mr. Delora. I have a message for him."
The car was going faster now. I tried to jump on to the step, but the first time I missed it. Then the window was suddenly let down. The Chinaman's arm flashed out and struck me on the chest, so that I was forced to relinquish my grasp of the handle. I reeled back, preserving my balance only by a desperate effort. Before I could start in pursuit, the car had turned into the more crowded thoroughfare, and when I reached the spot where it had disappeared a few seconds later, it was lost amongst the stream of vehicles.
I went back to the restaurant. It was like a hundred others of its class--stuffy, smelly, reminiscent of the poorer business quarters of a foreign city. A waiter in a greasy dress-suit flicked some crumbs from a vacant table and motioned me to sit down. I ordered a Fin Champagne, and put half-a-crown into his hand.
"Tell me," I said, "five minutes ago a Chinaman and another man were here."
The man laid the half-crown down on the table. His manner had undergone a complete change.
"Perhaps so, sir," he answered. "We have been busy to-night. I noticed nobody."
I called the proprietor to me--a little pale-faced man with a black moustache, who had been hovering in the background. He hastened to my side, smiling and bowing. This time I did not ask him a direct question.
"I am interested in the restaurants of this quarter," I said. "Some one has told me that your dinner is marvellous!"
He smiled a little suspiciously. The word was perhaps unfortunate!
"I am bringing some friends to try it very soon," I said.
The waiter brought my Fin Champagne. I drank it and ordered a cigar.
"You have all sorts of people here," I remarked. "I noticed a Chinaman--he was very much like the Chinese ambassador, by the bye--leaving as I came in."
The proprietor extended his hands.
"We have people of every class, monsieur," he assured me. "One comes and tells his friends, and they come, and so on. I believe that there was a Chinese gentleman here to-night. One does not notice. We were busy."
I paid my bill and departed. The commissionnaire pushed open the door, whistle in hand. He looked at me a little curiously. Without doubt he had watched my attempt to speak to Delora. I drew a half-sovereign from my pocket.
"Tell me," I said, "do you want to earn that?"
He was a German, with a large pasty face and a yellow moustache. His eyes were small, and they seemed to contract with greed as they looked upon the coin.
"Sir!" he answered, with a bow.
"Who was the Chinese gentleman with the splendid motor-car?" I asked.
The man spread out his hands.
"Who can tell?" he said. "He dined here to-night in a private room."
A private room! Well, that was something, at any rate!
"You do not know his name or where he comes from?" I asked.
The man shook his head, glancing nervously towards the interior of the restaurant.
"The other gentleman?" I asked.
"I do not know his name, sir," the man declared with emphasis. "He has been here once or twice, but always alone."
I put the half-sovereign in my pocket and drew out a sovereign. The man stretched out an eager hand which he suddenly dropped. He pointed down the street. The swing door of the restaurant remained closed, but over the soiled white curtain I also could see the face of the proprietor peering out.
"It is the second turn to the left," the man said to me.
"And if you want that sovereign made into five," I said carelessly, "my name is Captain Rotherby, and I am going from here to Claridge's Hotel."
I walked down the street and left him looking after me. At the corner I glanced around. The proprietor and the commissionnaire were talking together on the pavement.
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