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AN INFORMAL TRIBUNAL
I was awakened about midday by the valet de chambre, who informed me that a gentleman was waiting below to see me--a gentleman who had given the name of Monsieur Louis. I ordered him to prepare my bath and bring my coffee. When Louis was shown upstairs I was seated on the edge of my bed in my dressing-gown, smoking my first cigarette.
Louis had the appearance of a man who had not slept. As for myself, I had never opened my eyes from the moment when my head had touched the pillow. I had no nerves, and I had done nothing which I regretted. I fancy, therefore, that my general appearance and reception of him somewhat astonished my early visitor. He seemed, indeed, to take my nonchalance almost as an affront, and he proceeded at once to try and disturb it.
"Monsieur was expecting, perhaps, another sort of visitor?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"I really hadn't thought about it," I said. "After what you told me last night I have been feeling quite comfortable."
"Do you know that it is doubtful whether Monsieur Tapilow will live?" Louis asked.
"It was the just payment of a just debt," I answered.
"The law," he objected, "does not permit such adjustments."
"The law," I answered, "can do what it pleases with me."
Louis regarded me steadily for a moment or two, and I fancied that there was something of that admiration in his gaze which a cautious man sometimes feels for the foolhardy.
"Monsieur has slept well?" he asked.
"Excellently," I answered.
He glanced at the watch which he had taken from his waistcoat pocket.
"In twenty minutes," he announced, "we must be at the Cafe Normandy."
I raised my eyebrows.
"Indeed!" I said dryly. "I don't exactly follow you."
Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"Monsieur," he said, "it is no time, this, for the choice of words. There is a man who lies very near to death up there in the Cafe des Deux Epingles, and it must be decided within the next few hours what is to be done with him."
"I am not sure that I understand, Louis," I said, lighting a cigarette.
"You will understand at the Cafe Normandy in half an hour's time," Louis answered. "In the meanwhile, have you a servant? If not, summon the valet de chambre. You must dress quickly. It is important, this."
"I will dress in ten minutes," I replied, "but I must shave before I go out. That will take me another ten. In the meantime, perhaps you will kindly tell me what it all means?"
"What it all means!" Louis repeated, with upraised hands. "Is it not clear? Have you forgotten what happened only a few hours ago? It rests with one or two people as to whether you shall be given up to the police for what you did last night,--does monsieur understand that?--the police!"
"To tell you the truth, Louis," I answered, "I never dreamed of escaping from them. It did not seem possible."
"In which case?" Louis asked slowly.
I pointed to the revolver upon my mantelpiece.
"We all," I remarked, "make the mistake of overestimating the actual importance of life."
Louis shivered a little. I noticed both then and afterwards that he was never comfortable in the presence of firearms.
"A last resource, of course," I said, "but one should always be prepared!"
"In this city," Louis said, "it is not as in London. In London there are no corners which are not swept bare by your police. In London, by this time you would have been sitting in a prison cell."
"That," I remarked, "is doubtless true. So much the more fortunate for me that I should have met Monsieur Tapilow in Paris and not in London. But will you tell me, Louis, why you want me to go with you to the Cafe Normandy, and how you think it will help me?"
"It would take too long," Louis answered. "We will talk in the carriage, perhaps. You must not delay now--not one moment."
I humored him by hastening my preparations, and we left the place together a few minutes later. There were many things which I desired to ask him with regard to the events of last night and the place to which he had taken me, but as though by mutual consent neither of us spoke of these things. When we were already, however, about half way towards the famous restaurant which was our destination I could not keep silence any longer.
"Louis," I said, "tell me about this little excursion of ours. Who are these men whom we are going to meet?"
He turned towards me. The last few hours seemed to have brought us into a greater intimacy. He addressed me by name, and his manner, although it was still respectful enough, was somehow altered.
"Captain Rotherby," he said, "you do not seem to appreciate the position in which you stand. You are young, and life is hot in your veins, and yet to-day, as you sit there, your liberty is forfeit,--perhaps even, if Tapilow should die, your life! Have you ever heard any stories, I wonder," he added, leaning a little toward me, "about French prisons?"
"Are you trying to frighten me, Louis?" I asked.
"No!" he answered, "but I want you to realize that you are in a very serious position."
"I know that," I answered. "Don't think, Louis," I continued, "that what I did last night was the result of a rash impulse. I had sworn since a certain day in the autumn of last year that the first time I came face to face with that man, whether it was in the daytime or the nighttime, in a friend's house or on the street, I would punish him. Well, I have kept my word. I had to. I have had my fill of vengeance. He can go through the rest of his life, so far as I am concerned, unharmed. But what I did, I was bound to do, and I am ready to face the consequences, if necessary."
Louis nodded sympathetically.
"Monsieur," said he, "you have but to talk like that to convince the men whom you will meet in a few moments that you had a real grievance against Tapilow, and all may yet be well."
"Who are these men?" I asked. "Is it a police court to which you are taking me?"
"Monsieur," Louis answered, "there are things which I cannot any longer conceal from you. I myself, believe me, am merely an outsider. I am, as you know, a hardworking man with a responsible position and a family to support. But here in Paris I come on to the fringe of a circle of life with which I have no direct connection, and yet whose happenings sometimes touch upon the lives of my friends and intimates. It is a circle of life into which is drawn much that is splendid, much that is brilliant; but, monsieur, it is life outside the law, life which does as it thinks fit, which lives its own way, and recognizes no laws save its own interests."
"Go on, Louis, please," I said, "Tell me, for example, who these men are whom I am going to meet."
"They are men," Louis answered, "who have great influence in that world of which I spoke. The law cannot touch them, or if it could it would not. They wield a power greater than the power which drives the wheels of government in this country. If they hear your story, and they think well, you will go free, even though the man Tapilow should die."
"You believe this, Louis?" I asked curiously.
"I am sure of it," he answered.
It was not for me to dispute what he said. I merely shrugged my shoulders. Yet, as a matter of fact, I was expecting every moment to find the hand of a gendarme upon my shoulder. I expected it as the carriage stopped before the restaurant and we crossed the pavement. I expected it even when two men who were sitting in the anteroom of the restaurant rose up to meet us. Louis, standing between, performed an introduction.
"Monsieur Decresson and Monsieur Grisson," he said, stretching out his hand, "permit me to make you acquainted with Monsieur le Capitaine Rotherby, a retired officer in the English army, and brother of the Earl of Welmington."
The two men bowed politely and held out their hands. They were both typical well-dressed, good-looking Frenchmen, apparently of the upper class. Monsieur Decresson had a narrow black beard, a military moustache, a high forehead, pale complexion, and thoughtful eyes. Monsieur Grisson was shorter, with lighter-colored hair, something of a fop in his attire, and certainly more genial in his manner.
"It is a pleasure," they both declared, "to have the honor of meeting Monsieur le Capitaine."
The usual inanities followed. Then Monsieur Decresson pointed with his hand into the restaurant.
"If monsieur will do us the honor to join us," he said, "we will take luncheon. Afterwards," he continued, "we can talk over our coffee and liqueurs. It would be well for us to become better acquainted."
I saw no reason to object. I was, in fact, exceedingly hungry. We lunched at a corner table in the famous restaurant, and I am bound to admit that we lunched exceedingly well. During the progress of the meal our conversation was absolutely general. All the events of the previous night were carefully ignored. When at last, however, we sat over our coffee and liqueurs, Monsieur Decresson, after a moment's pause, turned his melancholy gray eyes on me.
"Capitaine Rotherby," he said, "my friend and I represent a little group of people who have some interest in the place where we met last night. We are deputed to ask you to explain, if you can, your conduct,--your attack, which it seemed to us was absolutely unprovoked, upon an habitue of the place and an associate of our own."
"There is only one explanation which I can make," I answered slowly. "I went there, as Louis will tell you, absolutely a stranger, and absolutely by chance. Chance decreed that I should meet face to face the one man in the world against whom I bear a grudge, the one man whom I had sworn to punish whenever and wherever I might meet him."
Monsieur Decresson bowed.
"There are situations," he admitted, "which can only be dealt with in that manner. Do not think me personal or inquisitive, I beg of you, but--I ask in your own interests--what had you against this man Tapilow?"
"Monsieur Decresson," I said, "I will answer you frankly. The man whom I punished last night, I punished because I have proved him to be guilty of conduct unbecoming to a gentleman. I punished him because he broke the one social law which in my country, at any rate, may not be transgressed with impunity."
"What you are saying now," Monsieur Grisson interrupted, "amounts to an accusation. Tapilow is known to us. These things must be spoken of seriously. You speak upon your honor as an English soldier and a gentleman?"
"Messieurs," I answered, turning to both of them, "it is agreed. I speak to you as I would speak to the judge before whom I should stand if I had murdered this man, and I tell you both, upon my honor, that the treatment which he received from me he merited. He borrowed my money and my brother's money. He accepted the hospitality of my brother's house, the friendship of his friends. In return, he robbed him of the woman whom he loved."
"The quarrel," Monsieur Decresson said softly, "seems, then, to have been another's."
"Messieurs," I answered, "my brother is an invalid for life. The quarrel, therefore, was mine."
Decresson and his companion exchanged glances. I leaned back in my chair. The three of them talked together earnestly for several minutes in an undertone. Then Louis, with a little sigh of relief, rose to his feet and came over to my side.
"It is finished," he declared. "Monsieur Decresson and Monsieur Grisson are of one mind in this matter. The man Tapilow's punishment was deserved."
I looked from one to the other of them in wonder.
"But I do not understand!" I exclaimed. "You mean to say, then, that even if Tapilow himself should wish it--"
Monsieur Decresson smiled grimly.
"What happens in the Cafe des Deux Epingles," he said, "happens outside the world. Without special permission it would not be possible for Monsieur Tapilow to speak to the police of this assault. Buy your Figaro every evening," he continued, "and soon you will read. In the meantime, I recommend you, monsieur, not to stay too long in Paris."
They took leave of me with some solemnity on the pavement outside the restaurant, but Monsieur Decresson, before stepping into his automobile, drew me a little on one side.
"Capitaine Rotherby," he said, "you have been dealt with to-day as a very privileged person. You were brought to the Cafe des Deux Epingles a stranger, almost a guest, and your behavior there might very well have been resented by us."
"If I have not said much," I answered, "please do not believe me any the less grateful."
"Let that go," Monsieur Decresson said coldly. "Only I would remind you of this. You are a young man, but your experience has doubtless told you that in this world one does not often go out of one's way to serve a stranger for no purpose at all. There is a chance that the time may come when we shall ask you, perhaps through Louis here, perhaps through some other person, to repay in some measure your debt. If that time should come, I trust that you will not prove ungrateful."
"I think," I answered confidently, "that there is no fear of that."
Monsieur Decresson touched Louis on the shoulder and motioned him to enter the automobile which was waiting. With many bows and solemn salutes the great car swung off and left me there alone. I watched it until it disappeared, and then, turning in the opposite direction, started to walk toward the Ritz. Curiously enough it never occurred to me to doubt for a moment the assurance which had been given me. I had no longer the slightest fear of arrest.
On the way I passed the Cafe de Paris. Then I suddenly remembered that strange little note from the girl with the turquoises. I never stopped to consider whether or not I was doing a wise thing. I opened the swing doors and passed into the restaurant. It was almost empty, except for a few people who had sat late over their luncheon. I called Leon to me.
"Leon," I said, "you remember me? I am Captain Rotherby."
He held up his hand.
"It is enough, monsieur," he declared. "If monsieur would be so good."
He drew me a little on one side.
"Mademoiselle still waits," he said in an undertone. "If monsieur will ascend."
"Upstairs?" I asked.
Leon bowed and smiled.
"Mademoiselle is in one of the smaller rooms," he said. "Will monsieur follow me?"
"Why, certainly," I answered.
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