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THE FALLING OF THE HANDKERCHIEF
Monsieur Albert looked over her shoulder for the man who must surely be in attendance--but he looked in vain.
"Mademoiselle wishes a table--for herself alone!" he repeated doubtfully.
"If you please," she answered.
It was obvious that Mademoiselle was of the class which does not frequent night cafés alone, but after all that was scarcely Monsieur Albert's concern. She came perhaps from that strange land of the free, whose daughters had long ago kicked over the barriers of sex with the same abandon that Mademoiselle Flossie would display the soles of her feet a few hours later in their national dance. If she had chanced to raise her veil no earthly persuasions on her part would have secured for her the freedom of that little room, for Monsieur Albert's appreciation of likeness was equal to his memory for faces. But it was not until she was comfortably ensconced at a corner table, from which she had a good view of the room, that she did so, and Monsieur Albert realized with a philosophic shrug of the shoulders the error he had committed.
Phyllis looked about her with some curiosity. It was too early for the habitués of the place, and most of the tables were empty. The scarlet-coated band were smoking cigarettes, and had not yet produced their instruments. The conductor curled his black moustache and stared hard at the beautiful young English lady, without, however, being able to attract a single glance in return. One or two men also tried to convey to her by smiles and glances the fact that her solitude need continue no longer than she chose. The unattached ladies put their heads together and discussed her with little peals of laughter. To all of these things she remained indifferent. She ordered a supper which she ate mechanically, and wine which she scarcely drank. All the while she was considering. Now that she was here what could she do? Of whom was she to make inquiries? She scanned the faces of the newcomers with a certain grave curiosity which puzzled them. She neither invited nor repelled notice. She remained entirely at her ease.
Monsieur Albert, during one of his peregrinations round the room, passed close to her table. She stopped him.
"I trust that Mademoiselle is well served!" he remarked with a little bow.
"Excellently, I thank you," she answered.
He would have passed on, but she detained him.
"You have very many visitors here," she remarked. "Is it the same always?"
"To-night," he declared, "it is nothing. There are many who come here every evening. They amuse themselves here."
"You have a good many strangers also?" she asked.
"But certainly," he declared. "All the time!"
"I have a brother," she said, "who was here eleven nights ago--let me see--that would be last Tuesday week. He is tall and fair, about twenty-one, and they say like me. I wonder if you remember him."
Monsieur Albert shook his head slowly.
"That is strange," he declared, "for as a rule I forget no one. Last Tuesday week I remember perfectly well. It was a quiet evening. La Scala was here--but of the rest no one. If Mademoiselle's brother was here it is most strange."
Her lip quivered for a moment. She was disappointed.
"I am so sorry," she said. "I hoped that you might have been able to help me. He left the Grand Hotel on that night with the intention of coming here--and he never returned. I have been very much worried ever since."
She was no great judge of character, but Monsieur Albert's sympathy did not impress her with its sincerity.
"If Mademoiselle desires," he said, "I will make inquiries amongst the waiters. I very much fear, however, that she will obtain no news here."
He departed, and Phyllis watched him talking to some of the waiters and the leader of the orchestra.
Presently he returned.
"I am very sorry," he announced, "but the brother of Mademoiselle could not have come here. I have inquired of the garçons, and of Monsieur Jules there, who forgets no one. They answer all the same."
"Thank you very much," she answered. "It must have been somewhere else!"
She was unreasonably disappointed. It had been a very slender chance, but at least it was something tangible. She had scarcely expected to have it snapped so soon and so thoroughly. She dropped her veil to hide the tears which she felt were not far from her eyes, and summoned the waiter for her bill. There seemed to be no object in staying longer. Suddenly the unexpected happened.
A hand, flashing with jewels, was rested for a moment upon her table. When it was withdrawn a scrap of paper remained there.
Phyllis looked up in amazement. The girl to whom the hand had belonged was sitting at the next table, but her head was turned away, and she seemed to be only concerned in watching the door. She drew the scrap of paper towards her and cautiously opened it. This is what she read, written in English, but with a foreign turn to most of the letters:--
"Monsieur Albert lied. Your brother was here. Wait till I speak to you."
Instinctively she crumpled up this strange little note in her hand. She struggled hard to maintain her composure. She had at once the idea that every one in the place was looking at her. Monsieur Albert, indeed, on his way down the room wondered what had driven the hopeless expression from her face.
The waiter brought her bill. She paid it and tipped him with prodigality which for a woman was almost reckless. Then she ordered coffee, and after a second's hesitation cigarettes. Why not? Nearly all the women were smoking, and she desired to pass for the moment as one of them. For the first time she ventured to gaze at her neighbor.
It was the young lady from Vienna. She was dressed in a wonderful demi-toilette of white lace, and she wore a large picture hat adjusted at exactly the right angle for her profile. From her throat and bosom there flashed the sparkle of many gems--the finger which held her cigarette was ablaze with diamonds. She leaned back in her seat smoking lazily, and she met Phyllis's furtive gaze with almost insolent coldness. But a moment later, when Monsieur Albert's back was turned, she leaned forward and addressed her rapidly.
"A man will come here," she said, "who could tell you, if he was willing, all that you seek to know. He will come to-night--he comes all the nights. You will see I hold my handkerchief so in my right hand. When he comes I shall drop it--so!"
The girl's swift speech, her half-fearful glances towards the door, puzzled Phyllis.
"Can you not come nearer to me and talk?" she asked.
"No! You must not speak to me again. You must not let any one, especially the man himself, know what I have told you. No more now. Watch for the handkerchief!"
"But what shall I say to him?"
The girl took no notice of her. She was looking in the opposite direction. She seemed to have edged away as far as possible from her. Phyllis drew a long breath.
She felt her heart beating with excitement. The place suddenly seemed to her like part of a nightmare.
And then all was clear again. Fortune was on her side. The secret of Guy's disappearance was in this room, and a few careless words from the girl at the next table had told her more than an entire police system had been able to discover. But why the mystery? What was she to say to the man when he came? The girl from Vienna was talking to some friends and toying carelessly with a little morsel of lace which she had drawn from her bosom. Phyllis watched it with the eyes of a cat. Every now and then she watched also the door.
The place was much fuller now. Mademoiselle Flossie had arrived with a small company of friends from Maxim's. The music was playing all the time. The popping of corks was almost incessant, the volume of sound had swelled. The laughter and greeting of friends betrayed more abandon than earlier in the evening. Old acquaintances had been renewed, and new ones made. Mademoiselle from Vienna was surrounded by a little circle of admirers. Still she held in her right hand a crumpled up little ball of lace.
Men passing down the room tried to attract the attention of the beautiful young English demoiselle who looked out upon the little scene so indifferently as regarded individuals, and yet with such eager interest as a whole. No one was bold enough, however, to make a second effort. Necessity at times gives birth to a swift capacity. Fresh from her simple country life, Phyllis found herself still able with effortless serenity to confound the most hardened boulevarders who paused to ogle her. Her eyes and lips expressed with ease the most convincing and absolute indifference to their approaches. A man may sometimes brave anger; he rarely has courage to combat indifference. So Phyllis held her own and waited.
And at last the handkerchief fell. Phyllis felt her own heart almost stop beating, as she gazed down the room. A man of medium height, dark, distinguished, was slowly approaching her, exchanging greetings on every side. His languid eyes fell upon Phyllis. Those who had watched her previously saw then a change. The cold indifference had vanished from her face. She leaned forward as though anxious to attract his attention. She succeeded easily enough.
He was almost opposite her table, and her half smile seemed to leave him but little choice. He touched the back of the chair which fronted hers, and took off his hat.
"Mademoiselle permits?" he asked softly.
"But certainly," she answered. "It is you for whom I have been waiting!"
"Mademoiselle flatters me!" he murmured, more than a little astonished.
"Not in the least," she answered. "I have been waiting to ask you what has become of my brother--Guy Poynton!"
He drew out the chair and seated himself. His eyes never left her face.
"Mademoiselle," he murmured, "this is most extraordinary!"
She noticed then that his hands were trembling.
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