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The amber wine fell in a little wavering stream from his upraised glass on to the table-cloth below. He leaned back in his chair and gazed at his three guests with a fatuous smile. The girl in blue, with the dazzlingly fair hair and wonderful complexion, steadied his hand and exchanged a meaning look with the man who sat opposite. Surely the poor fool was ready for the plucking? But Madame, who sat beside her, frowned upon them both. She had seen things which had puzzled her. She signed to them to wait.
She leaned over and flashed her great black eyes upon him.
"Monsieur enjoys himself like this every night in Paris?"
A soft, a very seductive, voice. The woman who envied her success compared it to the purring of a cat. Men as a rule found no fault with it, especially those who heard it for the first time.
Duncombe set down his glass, now almost empty. He looked from the stain on the table-cloth into the eyes of Madame, and again she thought them very unlike the eyes of a drunken man.
"Why not? It's the one city in the world to enjoy one's self in. Half-past four, and here we are as jolly as anything. Chucked out of everywhere in London at half-past twelve. 'Time, gentlemen, please!' And out go the lights. Jove, I wonder what they'd think of this at the Continental! Let's--let's have another bottle."
The fair-haired girl--Flossie to her friends, Mademoiselle Mermillon until you had been introduced--whispered in his ear. He shook his head vaguely. She had her arm round his neck. He removed it gently.
"We'll have another here first anyhow," he declared. "Hi, Garçon! Ring the bell, there's a good chap, Monsieur--dash it, I've forgotten your name. No, don't move. I'll do it myself."
He rose and staggered towards the door.
"The bell isn't that way, Monsieur," Madame exclaimed. "It is to the right. Louis, quick!"
Monsieur Louis sprang to his feet. There was a queer grating little sound, followed by a sharp click. Duncombe had swung round and faced them. He had turned the key in the door, and was calmly pocketing it. The hand which held that small shining revolver was certainly not the hand of a drunken man.
They all three looked at him in wonder--Madame, Monsieur Louis, and Mademoiselle Flossie. The dark eyebrows of Madame almost met, and her eyes were full of the promise of evil things. Monsieur Louis, cowering back from that steadily pointed revolver, was white with the inherited cowardice of the degenerate. Flossie, who had drunk more wine than any of them, was trying to look as though it were a joke. Duncombe, with his disordered evening clothes, his stained shirt-front and errant tie, was master of the situation. He came and stood a few feet away from them. His blundering French accent and slow choice of words had departed. He spoke to them without hesitation, and his French was almost as good as their own.
"I want you to keep your places," he said, "and listen to me for a few minutes. I can assure you I am neither mad nor drunk. I have a few questions to ask you, and if your answers are satisfactory you may yet find my acquaintance as profitable as though I had been the pigeon I seemed. Keep your seat, Monsieur le Baron!"
Monsieur Louis, who had half risen, sat down again hastily. They all watched him from their places around the table. It was Madame whom he addressed more directly--Madame with the jet black hair and golden earrings, the pale cheeks and scarlet lips.
"I invited you into a private room here," he said, "because what I have said to you three is between ourselves alone. You came, I presume, because it promised to be profitable. All that I want from you is information. And for that I am willing to pay."
Monsieur Louis interposed. He stroked his little black moustache with a much beringed hand. With the other he gesticulated.
"Monsieur talks reasonably," he declared, "but why all this mystery? Why this feigned drunkenness? Why the show of arms? If we can help Monsieur--it is an affair of pleasure, and if he chooses to make a present to these ladies in return--why, no doubt they will be charmed. Me, I presume, he has no intention to insult. Permit me, Monsieur."
He drew a card from a small gold case, and presented it to Duncombe, who accepted it with a little bow.
"If I can aid you in any way," Monsieur Louis continued, "I am entirely at your service, but I require first of all that in addressing us you recognize my position as a French nobleman, who amuses himself in this place as you, Monsieur, also do, and also that you unlock that door."
Duncombe smiled quietly.
"Monsieur le Baron," he said, "I think that we are very well as we are--secure from interruption. I have sent others here on this same mission, and they did not succeed. Both of these ladies, I believe, have been approached for the information I desire, and they have thought well to withhold it. I have set my heart upon success this time, and I wish to secure at least the opportunity of being heard."
Monsieur Louis shrugged his shoulders.
"There are secrets," he murmured; "affairs of honor----"
Duncombe interrupted him.
"Monsieur Louis," he said, "I am not so young as I look, and I have lived in Paris. I know that this café, for all its outward smartness, bears perhaps the worst reputation in Europe. I have heard of you three many times--the 'Trinity from Hell,' they call you sometimes, I think. You see I know where I am and the risk I run. Even this little room has its secrets--a murder or two, I believe, and other things--secrets which I don't suppose there is gold enough in France to buy. Well, I don't want to buy them. You can go your way so far as I am concerned. There is only one thing I want to know from you, and for that I offer you--the ladies, of course, I mean--five thousand francs each."
"Five thousand francs!" Madame murmured.
Mademoiselle Flossie said nothing, but her eyes shone.
"The question, Monsieur?"
"What has become of Mademoiselle Phyllis Poynton, the young English lady?"
The eyes of Madame seemed to narrow for a moment. Monsieur Louis lit a cigarette with fingers which shook a little, and the fair face of Mademoiselle Flossie was suddenly white. Then they all three looked at one another.
"Do you know whom Monsieur may mean?"
"An English girl! There are none come here."
"Mademoiselle Poynton! It is a name unheard of."
The young Englishman smiled upon them grimly.
"Madame," he said, "you have in your satchel--don't move, if you please--a roll of French notes--indeed you must not move--very cleverly abstracted from my pocket by my charming young companion, Mademoiselle Flossie here. Now I have at least half a dozen friends in the café below whom I could summon here by touching that bell, and the identification of those notes would be a perfectly simple matter. Shall I do it? Or will you earn another roll by giving me the information I seek?"
Madame leaned forward and whispered in the man's ear. Monsieur Louis nodded.
"Tell him," Mademoiselle Flossie murmured tremulously. "Monsieur will not break faith with us. He will not let it be known from whence he gained the knowledge."
"Agreed!" the young Englishman declared. "Go on."
Madame held up her hand.
"I," she said, "will tell Monsieur what we know."
She rose to her feet and leaned over the table. The blue-black sequins on her dress glittered and shone in the dull light. Her figure was superb, her neck and bosom a flawless white. The Englishman, however, was unmoved. His keen gray eyes were fixed upon her, but the revolver remained in his right hand. From downstairs they could hear the music of violins, the rattle of glasses, the hum of voices and laughter. Madame frowned slightly as she marked the young Englishman's alertness. She was used to victims, and his imperturbability annoyed her.
"I trust," she said, "that you will remember, Monsieur, that I am breaking a pledged word. If Monsieur the Director here knew that I was telling you of Mademoiselle Poynton there would be much trouble for all of us."
"Go on," he said.
"Mademoiselle came here first about a month or perhaps six weeks ago," she said. "From that time on she was a regular visitor. She came alone. She spoke to no one. She was always a mystery. She was very handsomely dressed--for an English girl, quite chic! She spent money, and Monsieur Albert the director kept always a table for her. As time went on we began to feel the mystery. We asked ourselves for what purpose does she come here? For what, indeed!
"One night Monsieur Albert, who was always besieged with questions about her, took too much wine. I have seen that happen with him but once--since that time never. He told us about Mademoiselle. She made some inquiries about her brother, and Monsieur Albert was able to tell her his whereabouts. After that he scarcely expected to see her again, but the next night she was here also.
"Then Monsieur Albert learned more. Mademoiselle was in a small way an artist, and she had conceived the idea of painting a picture of the café--an early morning picture of effects, Monsieur understands. There was to be the morning sunlight streaming across the supper-tables, the faces of all of us aged and haggard. Monsieur Louis here, without doubt, a very child of the devil! Oh, a very moral picture, Monsieur. It was to convert us all. Monsieur Albert declared that he would arrange to have it here on exhibition, and we should all mend our ways. Monsieur knew perhaps that the young lady was an artist?"
The question was flashed suddenly upon him as though the intention was to take him by surprise. Duncombe, however, remained unmoved.
"I am here, Madame, to ask, not to answer, questions," he said. "Will you kindly proceed? I am greatly interested."
Madame put her hand to her throat for a moment as though to loosen her necklace. She had not the appearance of being greatly in love with her questioner.
"There came a night," she continued, "when Mademoiselle broke through her rule. A man came in and sat at her table. His name was the Vicomte D'Aubarde, and he was known to most of us, though to the young lady he appeared to be a stranger. They talked earnestly for an hour or more. When she left--he accompanied her!"
The Englishman had grown paler. Madame saw it and smiled. Her lover perhaps! It was good to make him suffer.
"Flossie here," she continued, "was outside, and saw them depart. They drove off together in the Vicomte's coupé. They were apparently on the best of terms. Since then we have not seen her again--nor the Vicomte. Monsieur knows now as much as we know."
"And how long ago is that?" Duncombe asked quietly.
"A week to-night," Madame replied.
Duncombe laid down a roll of notes upon the table.
"I wish," he said, "to prove to you that I am in earnest. I am therefore going to pay you the amount I promised, although I am perfectly well aware that the story of Madame is--false!"
"As I remarked," he repeated, "false. Now listen to me. I want to tempt one of you, I don't care which, to break through this thieves' compact of yours. I have paid a thousand francs for lies--I will pay ten thousand francs for truth! Ten thousand francs for the present whereabouts of Mademoiselle Phyllis Poynton!"
Mademoiselle Flossie looked up at him quickly. Then she glanced furtively at Madame, and the flash of Madame's eyes was like lightning upon blue steel. Duncombe moved towards the door.
"I will pay the bill downstairs," he said. "Good night! Think over what I have said. Ten thousand francs!"
Monsieur Louis stood up and bowed stiffly. Mademoiselle Flossie ventured to throw him a kiss. Madame smiled inscrutably.
The door closed. They heard him go downstairs. Madame picked up his card and read aloud.
Sir George Duncombe,
Grand Hotel, Paris.
"If one could only," Madame murmured, "tell him the truth, collect the money--and----"
"And," Flossie murmured, half fearfully.
Monsieur le Baron smiled!
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