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The pitch of conversation had risen higher, still mingled with the intermittent popping of corks and the striking of matches. Blue wreaths of cigarette smoke were curling upwards—a delicate feeling of “abandon” was making itself felt amongst the roomful of people. The music grew softer as the babel of talk grew in volume. The whole environment became tinged with a faint but genial voluptuousness. Densham was laughing over the foibles of some mutual acquaintance; Wolfenden leaned back in his chair, smoking a cigarette and sipping his Turkish coffee. His eyes scarcely left for a moment the girl who sat only a few yards away from him, trifling with a certain dainty indifference with the little dishes, which one after the other had been placed before her and removed. He had taken pains to withdraw himself from the discussion in which his friends were interested. He wanted to be quite free to watch her. To him she was certainly the most wonderful creature he had ever seen. In every one of her most trifling actions she seemed possessed of an original and curious grace, even the way she held her silver fork, toyed with her serviette, raised her glass to her lips and set it down again—all these little things she seemed to him to accomplish with a peculiar and wonderful daintiness. Of conversation between her companion and herself there was evidently very little, nor did she appear to expect it. He was enjoying his supper with the moderation and minute care for trifles which denote the epicure, and he only spoke to her between the courses. She, on the other hand, appeared to be eating scarcely anything. At last, however, the waiter set before her a dish in which she was evidently interested. Wolfenden recognised the pink frilled paper and smiled. She was human enough then to care for ices. She bent over it and shrugged her shoulders—turning to the waiter who was hovering near, she asked a question. He bowed and removed the plate. In a moment or two he reappeared with another. This time the paper and its contents were brown. She smiled as she helped herself—such a smile that Wolfenden wondered that the waiter did not lose his head, and hand her pepper and salt instead of gravely filling her glass. She took up her spoon and deliberately tasted the contents of her plate. Then she looked across the table, and spoke the first words in English which he had heard from her lips—
“Coffee ice. So much nicer than strawberry!”
The man nodded back.
“Ices after supper are an abomination,” he said. “They spoil the flavour of your wine, and many other things. But after all, I suppose it is waste of time to tell you so! A woman never understands how to eat until she is fifty.”
She laughed, and deliberately finished the ice. Just as she laid down the spoon, she raised her eyes quietly and encountered Wolfenden’s. He looked away at once with an indifference which he felt to be badly assumed. Did she know, he wondered, that he had been watching her like an owl all the time? He felt hot and uncomfortable—a veritable schoolboy at the thought. He plunged into the conversation between Harcutt and Densham—a conversation which they had been sustaining with an effort. They too were still as interested in their neighbours, although their positions at the table made it difficult for either to observe them closely.
When three men are each thinking intently of something else, it is not easy to maintain an intelligent discussion. Wolfenden, to create a diversion, called for the bill. When he had paid it, and they were ready to depart, Densham looked up with a little burst of candour—
“She’s wonderful!” he exclaimed softly.
“Marvellous!” Wolfenden echoed.
“I wonder who on earth they can possibly be,” Harcutt said almost peevishly. Already he was being robbed of some part of his contemplated satisfaction. It was true that he would probably find the man’s name on the table-list at the door, but he had a sort of presentiment that the girl’s personality would elude him. The question of relationship between the man and the girl puzzled him. He propounded the problem and they discussed it with bated breath. There was no likeness at all! Was there any relationship? It was significant that although Harcutt was a scandalmonger and Wolfenden somewhat of a cynic, they discussed it with the most profound respect. Relationship after all of some sort there must be. What was it? It was Harcutt who alone suggested what to Wolfenden seemed an abominable possibility.
“Scarcely husband and wife, I should think,” he said thoughtfully, “yet one never can tell!”
Involuntarily they all three glanced towards the man. He was well preserved and his little imperial and short grey moustache were trimmed with military precision, yet his hair was almost white, and his age could scarcely be less than sixty. In his way he was quite as interesting as the girl. His eyes, underneath his thick brows, were dark and clear, and his features were strong and delicately shaped. His hands were white and very shapely, the fingers were rather long, and he wore two singularly handsome rings, both set with strange stones. By the side of the table rested the stick upon which he had been leaning during his passage through the room. It was of smooth, dark wood polished like a malacca cane, and set at the top with a curious, green, opalescent stone, as large as a sparrow’s egg. The eyes of the three men had each in turn been arrested by it. In the electric light which fell softly upon the upper part of it, the stone seemed to burn and glow with a peculiar, iridescent radiance. Evidently it was a precious possession, for once when a waiter had offered to remove it to a stand at the other end of the room, the man had stopped him sharply and drawn it a little closer towards him.
Wolfenden lit a fresh cigarette, and gazed thoughtfully into the little cloud of blue smoke.
“Husband and wife,” he repeated slowly. “What an absurd idea! More likely father and daughter!”
“How about the roses?” Harcutt remarked. “A father does not as a rule show such excellent taste in flowers!”
They had finished supper. Suddenly the girl stretched out her left hand and took a glove from the table. Wolfenden smiled triumphantly.
“She has no wedding-ring,” he exclaimed softly.
Then Harcutt, for the first time, made a remark for which he was never altogether forgiven—a remark which both the other men received in chilling silence.
“That may or may not be a matter for congratulation,” he said, twirling his moustache. “One never knows!”
Wolfenden stood up, turning his back upon Harcutt and pointedly ignoring him.
“Let us go, Densham,” he said. “We are almost the last.”
As a matter of fact his movement was made at exactly the right time. They could scarcely have left the room at the same moment as these two people, in whom manifestly they had been taking so great an interest. But by the time they had sent for their coats and hats from the cloak-room, and Harcutt had coolly scrutinised the table-list, they found themselves all together in a little group at the head of the stairs.
Wolfenden, who was a few steps in front, drew back to allow them to pass. The man, leaning upon his stick, laid his hand upon the girl’s sleeve. Then he looked up at the man, and addressed Wolfenden directly.
“You had better precede us, sir,” he said; “my progress is unfortunately somewhat slow.”
Wolfenden drew back courteously.
“We are in no hurry,” he said. “Please go on.”
The man thanked him, and with one hand upon the girl’s shoulder and with the other on his stick commenced to descend. The girl had passed on without even glancing towards them. She had twisted a white lace mantilla around her head, and her features were scarcely visible—only as she passed, Wolfenden received a general impression of rustling white silk and lace and foaming tulle as she gathered her skirts together at the head of the stairs. It seemed to him, too, that the somewhat close atmosphere of the vestibule had become faintly sweet with the delicate fragrance of the white roses which hung by a loop of satin from her wrist.
The three men waited until they had reached the bend of the stairs before they began to descend. Harcutt then leaned forward.
“His name,” he whispered, “is disenchanting. It is Mr. Sabin! Whoever heard of a Mr. Sabin? Yet he looks like a personage!”
At the doors there was some delay. It was raining fast and the departures were a little congested. The three young men still kept in the background. Densham affected to be busy lighting a cigarette, Wolfenden was slowly drawing on his gloves. His place was almost in a line with the girl’s. He could see the diamonds flashing in her fair hair through the dainty tracery of the drooping white lace, and in a moment, through some slight change in her position, he could get a better view of her face than he had been able to obtain even in the supper-room. She was beautiful! There was no doubt about that! But there were many beautiful women in London, whom Wolfenden scarcely pretended to admire. This girl had something better even than supreme beauty. She was anything but a reproduction. She was a new type. She had originality. Her hair was dazzlingly fair; her eyebrows, delicately arched, were high and distinctly dark in colour. Her head was perfectly shaped—the features seemed to combine a delightful piquancy with a somewhat statuesque regularity. Wolfenden, wondering of what she in some manner reminded him, suddenly thought of some old French miniatures, which he had stopped to admire only a day or two before, in a little curio shop near Bond Street. There was a distinct dash of something foreign in her features and carriage. It might have been French, or Austrian—it was most certainly not Anglo-Saxon!
The crush became a little less, they all moved a step or two forward—and Wolfenden, glancing carelessly outside, found his attention immediately arrested. Just as he had been watching the girl, so was a man, who stood on the pavement side by side with the commissionaire, watching her companion. He was tall and thin; apparently dressed in evening clothes, for though his coat was buttoned up to his chin, he wore an opera hat. His hands were thrust into the loose pockets of his overcoat, and his face was mostly in the shadows. Once, however, he followed some motion of Mr. Sabin’s and moved his head a little forward. Wolfenden started and looked at him fixedly. Was it fancy, or was there indeed something clenched in his right hand there, which gleamed like silver—or was it steel—in the momentary flash of a passing carriage-light? Wolfenden was puzzled. There was something, too, which seemed to him vaguely familiar in the man’s figure and person. He was certainly waiting for somebody, and to judge from his expression his mission was no pleasant one. Wolfenden who, through the latter part of the evening, had felt a curious and unwonted sense of excitement stirring his blood, now felt it go tingling through all his veins. He had some subtle prescience that he was on the brink of an adventure. He glanced hurriedly at his two companions; neither of them had noticed this fresh development.
Just then the commissionaire, who knew Wolfenden by sight, turned round and saw him standing there. Stepping back on to the pavement, he called up the brougham, which was waiting a little way down the street.
“Your carriage, my lord,” he said to Wolfenden, touching his cap.
Wolfenden, with ready presence of mind, shook his head.
“I am waiting for a friend,” he said. “Tell my man to pass on a yard or two.”
The man bowed, and the danger of leaving before these two people, in whom his interest now was becoming positively feverish, was averted. As if to enhance it, a singular thing now happened. The interest suddenly became reciprocal. At the sound of Wolfenden’s voice the man with the club foot had distinctly started. He changed his position and, leaning forward, looked eagerly at him. His eyes remained for a moment or two fixed steadily upon him. There was no doubt about the fact, singular in itself though it was. Wolfenden noticed it himself, so did both Densham and Harcutt. But before any remark could pass between them a little coupé brougham had drawn up, and the man and the girl started forward.
Wolfenden followed close behind. The feeling which prompted him to do so was a curious one, but it seemed to him afterwards that he had even at that time a conviction that something unusual was about to happen. The girl stepped lightly across the carpeted way and entered the carriage. Her companion paused in the doorway to hand some silver to the commissionaire, then he too, leaning upon his stick, stepped across the pavement. His foot was already upon the carriage step, when suddenly what Wolfenden had been vaguely anticipating happened. A dark figure sprang from out of the shadows and seized him by the throat; something that glittered like a streak of silver in the electric light flashed upwards. The blow would certainly have fallen but for Wolfenden. He was the only person not wholly unprepared for something of the sort, and he was consequently not paralysed into inaction as were the others. He was so near, too, that a single step forward enabled him to seize the uplifted arm in a grasp of iron. The man who had been attacked was the next to recover himself. Raising his stick he struck at his assailant violently. The blow missed his head, but grazed his temple and fell upon his shoulder. The man, released from Wolfenden’s grasp by his convulsive start, went staggering back into the roadway.
There was a rush then to secure him, but it was too late. Wolfenden, half expecting another attack, had not moved from the carriage door, and the commissionaire, although a powerful man, was not swift. Like a cat the man who had made the attack sprang across the roadway, and into the gardens which fringed the Embankment. The commissionaire and a loiterer followed him. Just then Wolfenden felt a soft touch on his shoulder. The girl had opened the carriage door, and was standing at his side.
“Is any one hurt?” she asked quickly.
“No one,” he answered. “It is all over. The man has run away.”
Mr. Sabin stooped down and brushed away some grey ash from the front of his coat. Then he took a match-box from his ticket-pocket, and re-lit the cigarette which had been crumpled in his fingers. His hand was perfectly steady. The whole affair had scarcely taken thirty seconds.
“It was probably some lunatic,” he remarked, motioning to the girl to resume her place in the carriage. “I am exceedingly obliged to you, sir. Lord Wolfenden, I believe?” he added, raising his hat. “But for your intervention the matter might really have been serious. Permit me to offer you my card. I trust that some day I may have a better opportunity of expressing my thanks. At present you will excuse me if I hurry. I am not of your nation, but I share an antipathy with them—I hate a row!”
He stepped into the carriage with a farewell bow, and it drove off at once. Wolfenden remained looking after it, with his hat in his hand. From the Embankment below came the faint sound of hurrying footsteps.
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