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PRIVATE AND DIPLOMATIC
The following evening I dined alone with my brother, who was, for him, in an unusually cheerful frame of mind. He talked with more interest of life and his share in it than he had done--to me, at any rate--since the tragedy which had deprived him of a home. Toward the end of dinner I asked him a question.
"Ralph," I said, "how could I meet the Chinese ambassador here?"
He stared at me for a moment.
"Why, at any of the diplomatic receptions, I suppose," he said, seeing that I was in earnest. "He is rather a pal of Freddy's. Why don't you ring up and ask him?"
"I will, the moment after dinner," I answered.
"Why this sudden interest in Orientalism?" Ralph asked curiously.
"Curiously enough, it is apropos of these Deloras," I answered. "I called to-day, but only found the girl in. The man I saw later with a Chinaman whom I believe to be the ambassador."
"What is the girl like?" my brother asked.
"Charming!" I answered. "I am writing Aunt Mary to invite her down to Feltham. The difficulty seems to be to get hold of Delora."
"So you've written Aunt Mary, eh?" Ralph remarked, looking up at me. "Austen, I believe you're gone on the girl!"
"I believe I am," I admitted equably. "So would you be if you saw her."
Ralph half closed his eyes for a moment. It was a clumsy speech of mine!
"Seriously, Austen," he continued, a few moments later, "have you ever thought of marrying?"
"Equally seriously, Ralph," I answered, "not until I met Felicia Delora."
"Felicia Delora!" my brother repeated. "It's a pretty name, at any rate. I suppose I must go and see her myself."
"Wait for a day or two, Ralph," I begged. "She is a little upset just now. Her uncle seems to be neglecting her for some precious scheme of his."
"I wonder if, by any chance, you are in earnest, Austen?" my brother asked.
"I should not be surprised," I admitted.
"It's an interesting subject, you know," Ralph continued gravely. "Considering my accident, and other things which we need not allude to, I think we may take it for granted that there's no chance of my ever having an heir. It's our duty to look ahead a little, you know, Austen. There isn't any manner of doubt that some time between now and the next ten years you will have to take up my place. I only hope you won't make such a hash of it."
"Don't talk rubbish, Ralph!" I answered.
"It isn't rubbish," he said firmly. "You go and talk to my doctor if you don't believe me. However, I hadn't meant to say anything about this to-night. Your mentioning the girl put it into my head. I want you, of course, to know that I am not forgetful of my responsibilities. Your two thousand a year may do you very well as a bachelor, but you are heir apparent to the title now, and if you should think of marrying, the Fakenham estates are yours, and the house. They bring in between six and seven thousand a year, I think,--never less."
"It's very good of you, Ralph,--" I began.
"It's nothing of the sort," he answered. "It's your rightful position. The Fakenham estates have been held by the heir apparent for generations. Tell me a little about this Miss Delora."
"I'll bring her to see you presently, Ralph," I answered.
"You are in earnest, then?" he remarked, with a smile.
"I believe so," I answered.
He looked at me once more, searchingly.
"There is something on your mind, Austen," he said,--"something bothering you. I believe it is about these Deloras, too. Is there something about them which you can't understand, eh?"
"There is, Ralph," I admitted. "You saw what Dicky said. They are people of consequence in their own country, at any rate, yet over here the man seems to behave like a hunted criminal."
"Dicky also said," Ralph remarked, "that the man was intrusted with some business over here for his government. Nasty underhand lot, those republics of the Southern Hemisphere. I dare say he is driven to be a bit mysterious to carry the thing through."
"I shall know more about it soon, I hope," I answered. "I'll go and ring Freddy up, if you don't mind, now."
"I'm off to my room, at any rate, old chap," he said. "Groves is going abroad for a month's holiday, and he has brought some papers for me to look through. See you some time to-morrow."
I made my way into the little sitting-room which belonged to the suite of rooms my brother had placed at my disposal. There I rang up Lord Frederic Maynard, my first cousin, and a junior member of the government. The butler told me that Lord Frederic was dining, but would doubtless speak to me for a moment. In a minute or two I heard his familiar voice.
"Freddy," I said, "I want to meet the Chinese ambassador."
"Eleven till one to-night here," he answered. "What the devil do you want with him?"
"Do you mean that he is coming to your house to-night?" I asked.
"Exactly," Freddy answered. "We've a political reception, semi-diplomatic. I saw our old friend only yesterday, and he reminded me that he was coming."
"You're a brick, Freddy!" I answered. "I'll be round."
"You have not answered my question," he reminded me.
"I'll tell you later," I answered, and rang off.
I was at Maynard House very soon after eleven, and, after chatting for a little while with my hostess, I hung around near the entrance, watching the arrivals. About midnight His Excellency the Chinese ambassador was announced, and I felt a little thrill of exultation. I was right! The tall, powerful-looking man whom I saw bowing over my cousin's hand was indeed the person whom I had seen with Delora a few hours ago. I ran Freddy to ground, and presently I found myself also bowing before His Excellency. He regarded me through his horn-rimmed spectacles with a benign and pleasant expression. I had been in the East, and I talked for a few moments upon the subjects which I thought would interest him.
"Your Excellency, I dare say, is well acquainted with London," I remarked, apropos of something he said.
"I know your great city only indifferently," he answered. "I am always anxious to take the opportunity of seeing more of it."
"Last evening, for instance," I remarked, "Your Excellency was, I think, exploring a very interesting neighborhood."
"Last evening," he repeated. "Let me think. No, not last evening, Captain Rotherby! I was giving a little dinner at my own house."
I looked at him for a moment in silence. There was nothing to be learned from his expression.
"I thought," I said, "that I saw your Excellency in a street near Shaftesbury Avenue, leaving a small foreign restaurant,--the Cafe Universel. Your Excellency was with a man named Delora."
Very slowly the ambassador shook his head.
"Not me!" he said. "Not me! I did dine with the younger members of the Legation in Langham Place. What name did you say?"
"A man named Delora," I repeated.
Once more the ambassador shook his head, slowly and thoughtfully.
"Delora!" he repeated. "The name is unknown to me. There are many others of my race in London now," he continued. "The costume, perhaps, makes one seem like another to those who look and pass by."
I bowed very low. It was the most magnificently told lie to which I had ever listened in my life! His Excellency smiled at me graciously as I made my adieux, and passed on. Despite my disappointment, I felt that I was now becoming profoundly interested in my quest. The evidence, too, was all in favor of Delora. It seemed, indeed, as though this undertaking in which he was involved might, after all, be connected with other things than crime!
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