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At a few minutes before twelve I entered the Milan by the Court entrance, and received at once some astonishing news. Ashley, who came out to meet me, drew me at once upon one side with a little gesture of apology.
"Mr. Delora has returned, sir," he said.
For the moment I had forgotten the sensation which Delora's non-arrival on that first evening had made, and which had always left behind it a flavor of mystery. I could see from Ashley's face that he was puzzled.
"Is Mr. Delora with his niece?" I asked.
"They have moved into Number 35, sir," Ashley told me. "Mr. Delora complained very much of his rooms, said they were too small, and threatened to move to Claridge's. Number 35 is the best suite we have."
I stood, for a moment, thinking. Ashley, meanwhile, had retreated to his place behind the counter. I approached him slowly.
"Ashley," I said, "ring up and tell Mr. Delora that I have called."
Ashley went at once to the telephone.
"Don't be surprised," I said, "if his reply isn't exactly polite. I don't think he is very well pleased with me just now."
I strolled away for a few minutes to look into the cafe, where the waiters were preparing for luncheon. There was no sign of Louis. When I returned, Ashley leaned forward to me from the other side of the desk.
"Mr. Delora wishes you to step up, sir," he said.
I was a little surprised, but I moved promptly to the lift.
"On the third floor, isn't it?" I asked.
"Exactly, sir," Ashley answered. "Shall I send a page with you?"
I shook my head.
"I can find it all right," I said.
My knock at the door was answered by a dark-faced valet. He ushered me into a large and very handsome sitting-room. Felicia and Delora were standing talking together near the mantelpiece. They both ceased at my entrance, but I had an instinctive feeling that I had been the subject of their conversation. Felicia greeted me timidly. There were signs of tears in her face, and I felt that by some means or other this man had been able to reassert his influence over her. Delora himself was a changed being. He was dressed with the almost painful exactness of the French man of fashion. His slight black imperial was trimmed to a point, his moustache upturned with a distinctly foreign air. He wore a wonderful pin in his carefully arranged tie, and a tiny piece of red ribbon in his button-hole. The manicurist whom I had met in the passage had evidently just left him, for as I entered he was regarding his nails thoughtfully. He did not offer me his hand. He stared at me instead with a certain restrained insolence.
"I should be glad to know, Captain Rotherby," he said calmly, "to what I owe this intrusion?"
"I am sorry that you look upon it in that light, sir," I answered. "My visit, as a matter of fact, was intended for your niece."
She took a step towards me, but Delora's outstretched arm barred her progress.
"My niece is very much honored," he answered, "but her friends and her acquaintances are mine. You were so good as to render me some service on our arrival at Charing Cross a few days ago, but you have since then presumed upon that service to an unwarrantable extent."
"I am sorry that you should think so," I answered.
"I did not know," Delora continued, "that the young men of your country had time enough to spare to devote themselves to other people's business in the way that you have done. I came to this country upon a peculiar and complicated mission, intrusted to me by my own government. The chief condition of success was that it should be performed in secrecy. You were only a chance acquaintance, and how on earth you should have had the impertinence to associate yourself with my doings I cannot imagine! But the fact remains that you made my task more difficult, and, in fact, at one time seriously endangered its success. Not only that," Delora continued, "but you have chosen to ally yourself with those whose object it has been to wreck my undertaking. Yet, with the full knowledge of these things, you have had the supreme impudence to force your company upon my niece,--even, I understand, to pay her your addresses!"
"The dowry of fifty thousand pounds," I began,--
He stretched out his hand with a commanding air.
"We will not allude to that, sir," he declared. "I was forced to make an attempt to bribe you, I admit, but it was under very difficult circumstances. As it is, I am only thankful that you declined my offer. I have arranged matters so that your cable shall do me no harm. It has precipitated matters by twenty-four hours, but that is no one's loss and my gain. When I heard your name sent up I could scarcely believe my ears, but since you are here, since you have ventured to pay this call, I wish to inform you, on behalf of my niece and myself, that we consider your further acquaintance undesirable in the extreme."
The man's deportment was magnificent. But for the fact that I had long ago lost all faith in him I should have felt, without the shadow of a doubt, that I had made a supreme fool of myself. But as it was, my faith was only shaken. The hideous possibility that I had made a mistake was there like a shadow, but I could not accept it as a certainty.
"Mr. Delora," I said, "from one point of view I am very glad to hear you speak like this. If I have been mistaken in supposing that your extraordinary behavior in London--"
"But what the devil has my extraordinary behavior got to do with you?" Delora demanded, with the first note of anger in his tone which he had shown.
"My interest was for your niece, sir," I answered.
"My niece does not require your protection or your interest," Delora answered. "It seems to me that you have chosen a queer way to return the hospitality which it was our pleasure to extend to your brother in Brazil. I have still a busy morning, sir, and I have seen you for this one reason only: to have you clearly understand that we--my niece and I--do not find your further acquaintance desirable."
She made another little movement towards me, and by doing so came into the light. I saw that her eyes were red with weeping, and notwithstanding an angry exclamation from Delora she held out her hands to me.
"Capitaine Rotherby," she said, "I believe, I do, indeed, that you have acted out of kindness to me. My uncle, as you see, is very angry. What he has said has not been from my heart, but from his. Yet, as you know, I must obey!"
I raised her fingers to my lips, and I smiled into her face.
"Felicia," I said, "do not be afraid. This is not the end!"
Delora turned to the servant whom he had summoned.
"Show this gentleman out, Francois," he said coldly.
* * * * * * *
Lamartine was a few minutes late. He drove up in a large motor-car with an elderly gentleman, who remained inside, and with whom he talked for a few minutes earnestly before he joined me.
"You forgive me?" he asked, as he handed his hat and stick to an attendant. "The chief kept me talking. He brought me down here himself."
"It is of no consequence," I said. "I have some news for you."
"Nothing," Lamartine declared, passing his arm through mine, "will surprise me."
"Delora is here," I said, "with his niece!"
Lamartine stopped short.
"Under his own name?" he asked. "Do you mean that he has thrown off all disguise? That he is here as Maurice Delora?"
"I never knew his Christian name," I answered, "but he is here as Delora, right enough. He has taken the largest suite in the Court, and for the last quarter of an hour he has been dressing me down in great shape."
"He is magnificent!" Lamartine said softly, "If he can keep it up for twenty-four hours longer, he who has been a beggar practically for ten years will be worth a great fortune!"
"So that," I remarked, "was the stake!"
"A worthy one, is it not so, my friend?" Lamartine declared.
"Does he win?" I asked.
"Heaven knows!" Lamartine answered. "Even now I cannot tell you. Unless something turns up, I should say that it was very likely."
We entered the cafe. When Louis saw us arrive together he stood for a moment motionless upon the floor. His eyes seemed to question us with swift and fierce curiosity. Had we arrived together? Was this a chance meeting? How much was either in the other's confidence? These things and many others he seemed to ask. Then he came slowly towards us. A ray of sunshine, streaming through the glass roof of the courtyard and reflected through the window, lay across the floor of the cafe. As Louis passed over it I saw a change in the man. Always colorless, his white cheeks were graven now with deep, cob-webbed lines. His eyes seemed to have receded into his head. His manner lacked that touch of graceful and not unbecoming confidence which one had grown to admire.
"What can I do for you, messieurs?" he asked, with a little bow. "A table for two--yes? This way."
We followed him to a small table in the best part of the room.
"Monsieur had good sport in the country?" he asked me.
"Excellent, Louis!" I answered. "How are things in town?"
Louis shrugged his shoulders and glanced around.
"As one sees," he answered, "here we are fortunate. Here we are always, always busy. We turn people away all the time, because we prefer to serve well our old customers."
"Louis," I said, "you are wonderful!"
"What will the gentlemen eat?" Louis asked.
I looked at Lamartine, and Lamartine looked at me. The same thought was in the minds of both of us. Curiously enough we felt a certain delicacy in letting Louis perceive our dilemma!
"Those cold grouse look excellent," Lamartine said to me, pointing to the sideboard.
"Cold grouse are very good," Louis assented. "I will have one specially prepared and sent up."
Lamartine shook his head.
"Bring over the dish there, and let us look at them, Louis," he said.
Louis obeyed him. There was no alternative. Lamartine, without hesitation, coolly took one of the birds on to his own plate.
"Our luncheon is arranged for, Louis," he said. "Let a waiter bring us a dish and carving-knife. I like to carve myself at the table."
"But certainly!" Louis assented, and, calling a waiter, he glided away. Lamartine and I exchanged glances.
"I fancy we are pretty safe with this bird," he remarked.
"Absolutely," I answered. "He never had the ghost of a chance to tamper with it. The question of drinks is a little difficult," I continued.
"And I am very thirsty," Lamartine said. "An unopened bottle of hock, eh?"
I shook my head.
"No good," I answered. "I am convinced that Louis has a cellar of his own. Did you notice the fellow, by the bye?" I went on. "He shows signs of the worry of this thing. Somehow or other I do not fancy that Louis will be in this place a week from to-day."
"That may be," Lamartine answered, "but I must drink!"
There was a bottle of whiskey upon the table next to us, from which its occupant had been helping himself. He rose now to go, and I seized the opportunity the moment he had left, and before the waiter could clear the table I had secured the bottle.
"We won't risk soda-water," I said. "Whiskey and water is good enough."
The one waiter whom I disliked--a creature of Louis', as I knew well--came hurrying forward and endeavored to possess himself of the bottle.
"Let me get you another bottle of whiskey, sir," he said.
I shook my head.
"This one will do, thank you," I said.
"Soda-water or Perrier, sir?" he asked.
"Neither, thank you," I answered.
The man moved away, and I saw him in a corner talking to Louis. Lamartine served the grouse, and leaned across the table to me.
"Captain Rotherby," he said, "I think I will tell you now why, notwithstanding the risk of Monsieur Louis, I asked you to lunch with me here at this restaurant. But look! See who comes!"
He laid his fingers upon my coat-sleeve. I turned my head. Felicia was sailing down the room,--Felicia exquisitely dressed as usual, walking with a soft rustle of lace,--delightful, alluring; and in her wake Delora himself, tall, well-groomed, aristocratic, looking around him with mild but slightly bored interest. Louis was piloting them to a table, the best in the place. We watched them seat themselves. Delora, through a horn-rimmed eyeglass, studied the menu. Felicia, drawing off her gloves, looked a little wearily out into the busy courtyard. So they were sitting when the thing happened which Lamartine, I believe, had expected, but which, for me, was the most wonderful thing that had yet come to pass amongst this tangle of strange circumstances!
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