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Four men sauntered up the grand staircase and entered the huge smoking-room of the Radical Club as Big Ben was chiming the hour of eleven o'clock. Any curious observer who had cared to consult the visitor's book in the hall, wherein the two lines last written were not yet dry, would have found the following entries:
VISITOR RESIDENCE INTROD'ING MEMBER Dr. Bruce Cumberly London John Exel M. Gaston Paris Brian Malpas
The smoking-room was fairly full, but a corner near the big open grate had just been vacated, and here, about a round table, the four disposed themselves. Our French acquaintance being in evening dress had perforce confined himself in his sartorial eccentricities to a flowing silk knot in place of the more conventional, neat bow. He was already upon delightfully friendly terms with the frigid Exel and the aristocratic Sir Brian Malpas. Few natures were proof against the geniality of the brilliant Frenchman.
Conversation drifted, derelict, from one topic to another, now seized by this current of thought, now by that; and M. Gaston Max made no perceptible attempt to steer it in any given direction. But presently:
"I was reading a very entertaining article," said Exel, turning his monocle upon the physician, "in the Planet to-day, from the pen of Miss Cumberly; Ah! dealing with Olaf van Noord."
Sir Brian Malpas suddenly became keenly interested.
"You mean in reference to his new picture, 'Our Lady of the Poppies'?" he said.
"Yes," replied Exel, "but I was unaware that you knew van Noord?"
"I do not know him," said Sir Brian, "I should very much like to meet him. But directly the picture is on view to the public I shall certainly subscribe my half-crown."
"My own idea," drawled Exel, "was that Miss Cumberly's article probably was more interesting than the picture or the painter. Her description of the canvas was certainly most vivid; and I, myself, for a moment, experienced an inclination to see the thing. I feel sure, however, that I should be disappointed."
"I think you are wrong," interposed Cumberly. "Helen is enthusiastic about the picture, and even Miss Ryland, whom you have met and who is a somewhat severe critic, admits that it is out of the ordinary."
Max, who covertly had been watching the face of Sir Brian Malpas, said at this point:
"I would not miss it for anything, after reading Miss Cumberly's account of it. When are you thinking of going to see it, Sir Brian? I might arrange to join you."
"Directly the exhibition is opened," replied the baronet, lapsing again into his dreamy manner. "Ring me up when you are going, and I will join you."
"But you might be otherwise engaged?"
"I never permit business," said Sir Brian, "to interfere with pleasure."
The words sounded absurd, but, singularly, the statement was true. Sir Brian had won his political position by sheer brilliancy. He was utterly unreliable and totally indifferent to that code of social obligations which ordinarily binds his class. He held his place by force of intellect, and it was said of him that had he possessed the faintest conception of his duties toward his fellow men, nothing could have prevented him from becoming Prime Minister. He was a puzzle to all who knew him. Following a most brilliant speech in the House, which would win admiration and applause from end to end of the Empire, he would, perhaps on the following day, exhibit something very like stupidity in debate. He would rise to address the House and take his seat again without having uttered a word. He was eccentric, said his admirers, but there were others who looked deeper for an explanation, yet failed to find one, and were thrown back upon theories.
M. Max, by strategy, masterful because it was simple, so arranged matters that at about twelve o'clock he found himself strolling with Sir Brian Malpas toward the latter's chambers in Piccadilly.
A man who wore a raincoat with the collar turned up and buttoned tightly about his throat, and whose peculiar bowler hat seemed to be so tightly pressed upon his head that it might have been glued there, detached himself from the shadows of the neighboring cab rank as M. Gaston Max and Sir Brian Malpas quitted the Club, and followed them at a discreet distance.
It was a clear, fine night, and both gentlemen formed conspicuous figures, Sir Brian because of his unusual height and upright military bearing, and the Frenchman by reason of his picturesque cloak and hat. Up Northumberland Avenue, across Trafalgar Square and so on up to Piccadilly Circus went the two, deep in conversation; with the tireless man in the raincoat always dogging their footsteps. So the procession proceeded on, along Piccadilly. Then Sir Brian and M. Max turned into the door of a block of chambers, and a constable, who chanced to be passing at the moment, touched his helmet to the baronet.
As the two were entering the lift, the follower came up level with the doorway and abreast of the constable; the top portion of a very red face showed between the collar of the raincoat and the brim of the hat, together with a pair of inquiring blue eyes.
"Reeves!" said the follower, addressing the constable.
The latter turned and stared for a moment at the speaker; then saluted hurriedly.
"Don't do that!" snapped the proprietor of the bowler; "you should know better! Who was that gentleman?"
"Sir Brian Malpas, sir."
"Sir Brian Malpas?"
"And the other?"
"I don't know, sir. I have never seen him before."
"H'm!" grunted Detective-Sergeant Sowerby, walking across the road toward the Park with his hands thrust deep in his pockets; "I have! What the deuce is Max up to? I wonder if Dunbar knows about this move?"
He propped himself up against the railings, scarcely knowing what he expected to gain by remaining there, but finding the place as well suited to reflection as any other. He shared with Dunbar a dread that the famous Frenchman would bring the case to a successful conclusion unaided by Scotland Yard, thus casting professional discredit upon Dunbar and himself.
His presence at that spot was largely due to accident. He had chanced to be passing the Club when Sir Brian and M. Max had come out, and, fearful that the presence of the tall stranger portended some new move on the Frenchman's part, Sowerby had followed, hoping to glean something by persistency when clues were unobtainable by other means. He had had no time to make inquiries of the porter of the Club respecting the identity of M. Max's companion, and thus, as has appeared, he did not obtain the desired information until his arrival in Piccadilly.
Turning over these matters in his mind, Sowerby stood watching the block of buildings across the road. He saw a light spring into being in a room overlooking Piccadilly, a room boasting a handsome balcony. This took place some two minutes after the departure of the lift bearing Sir Brian and his guest upward; so that Sowerby permitted himself to conclude that the room with the balcony belonged to Sir Brian Malpas.
He watched the lighted window aimlessly and speculated upon the nature of the conversation then taking place up there above him. Had he possessed the attributes of a sparrow, he thought, he might have flown up to that balcony and have "got level" with this infernally clever Frenchman who was almost certainly going to pull off the case under the very nose of Scotland Yard.
In short, his reflections were becoming somewhat bitter; and persuaded that he had nothing to gain by remaining there any longer he was about to walk off, when his really remarkable persistency received a trivial reward.
One of the windows communicating with the balcony was suddenly thrown open, so that Sowerby had a distant view of the corner of a picture, of the extreme top of a book-case, and of a patch of white ceiling in the room above; furthermore he had a clear sight of the man who had opened the window, and who now turned and reentered the room. The man was Sir Brian Malpas.
Heedless of the roaring traffic stream, upon the brink of which he stood, heedless of all who passed him by, Sowerby gazed aloft, seeking to project himself, as it were, into that lighted room. Not being an accomplished clairvoyant, he remained in all his component parts upon the pavement of Piccadilly; but ours is the privilege to succeed where Sowerby failed, and the comedy being enacted in the room above should prove well deserving of study.
To the tactful diplomacy of M. Gaston Max, the task of securing from Sir Brian an invitation to step up into his chambers in order to smoke a final cigar was no heavy one. He seated himself in a deep armchair, at the baronet's invitation, and accepted a very fine cigar, contentedly, sniffing at the old cognac with the appreciation of a connoisseur, ere holding it under the syphon.
He glanced around the room, noting the character of the ornaments, and looked up at the big bookshelf which was near to him; these rapid inquiries dictated the following remark: "You have lived in China, Sir Brian?"
Sir Brian surveyed him with mild surprise.
"Yes," he replied; "I was for some time at the Embassy in Pekin."
His guest nodded, blowing a ring of smoke from his lips and tracing its hazy outline with the lighted end of his cigar.
"I, too, have been in China," he said slowly.
"What, really! I had no idea."
"Yes--I have been in China . . . I" . . .
M. Gaston grew suddenly deathly pale and his fingers began to twitch alarmingly. He stared before him with wide-opened eyes and began to cough and to choke as if suffocating--dying.
Sir Brian Malpas leapt to his feet with an exclamation of concern. His visitor weakly waved him away, gasping: "It is nothing . . . it will . . . pass off. Oh! mon dieu!" . . .
Sir Brian ran and opened one of the windows to admit more air to the apartment. He turned and looked back anxiously at the man in the armchair.
M. Gaston, twitching in a pitiful manner and still frightfully pale, was clutching the chair-arms and glaring straight in front of him. Sir Brian started slightly and advanced again to his visitor's side.
The burning cigar lay upon the carpet beside the chair, and Sir Brian took it up and tossed it into the grate. As he did so he looked searchingly into the eyes of M. Gaston. The pupils were extraordinary dilated. . . .
"Do you feel better?" asked Sir Brian.
"Much better," muttered M. Gaston, his face twitching nervously-- "much better."
"Are you subject to these attacks?"
"Since--I was in China--yes, unfortunately."
Sir Brian tugged at his fair mustache and seemed about to speak, then turned aside, and, walking to the table, poured out a peg of brandy and offered it to his guest.
"Thanks," said M. Gaston; "many thanks indeed, but already I recover. There is only one thing that would hasten my recovery, and that, I fear, is not available."
"What is that?"
He looked again at M. Gaston's eyes with their very dilated pupils.
"Opium!" whispered M. Gaston.
"What! you . . . you" . . .
"I acquired the custom in China," replied the Frenchman, his voice gradually growing stronger; "and for many years, now, I have regarded opium, as essential to my well-being. Unfortunately business has detained me in London, and I have been forced to fast for an unusually long time. My outraged constitution is protesting--that is all."
He shrugged his shoulders and glanced up at his host with an odd smile.
"You have my sympathy," said Sir Brian. . . .
"In Paris," continued the visitor, "I am a member of a select and cozy little club; near the Boulevard Beaumarchais. . . ."
"I have heard of it," interjected Malpas--"on the Rue St. Claude?"
"That indeed is its situation," replied the other with surprise. "You know someone who is a member?"
Sir Brian Malpas hesitated for ten seconds or more; then, crossing the room and reclosing the window, he turned, facing his visitor across the large room.
"I was a member, myself, during the time that I lived in Paris," he said, in a hurried manner which did not entirely serve to cover his confusion.
"My dear Sir Brian! We have at least one taste in common!"
Sir Brian Malpas passed his hand across his brow with a weary gesture well-known to fellow Members of Parliament, for it often presaged the abrupt termination of a promising speech.
"I curse the day that I was appointed to Pekin," he said; "for it was in Pekin that I acquired the opium habit. I thought to make it my servant; it has made me" . . .
"What! you would give it up?"
Sir Brian surveyed the speaker with surprise again.
"Do you doubt it?"
"My dear Sir Brian!" cried the Frenchman, now completely restored, "my real life is lived in the land of the poppies; my other life is but a shadow! Morbleu! to be an outcast from that garden of bliss is to me torture excruciating. For the past three months I have regularly met in my trances." . . .
Sir Brian shuddered coldly.
"In my explorations of that wonderland," continued the Frenchman, "a most fascinating Eastern girl. Ah! I cannot describe her; for when, at a time like this, I seek to conjure up her image,--nom d'um nom! do you know, I can think of nothing but a serpent!"
"A serpent, exactly. Yet, when I actually meet her in the land of the poppies, she is a dusky Cleopatra in whose arms I forget the world--even the world of the poppy. We float down the stream together, always in an Indian bark canoe, and this stream runs through orange groves. Numberless apes--millions of apes, inhabit these groves, and as we two float along, they hurl orange blossoms-- orange blossoms, you understand--until the canoe is filled with them. I assure you, monsieur, that I perform these delightful journeys regularly, and to be deprived of the key which opens the gate of this wonderland, is to me like being exiled from a loved one. Pardieu! that grove of the apes! Morbleu! my witch of the dusky eyes! Yet, as I have told you, owing to some trick of my brain, whilst I can experience an intense longing for that companion of my dreams, my waking attempts to visualize her provide nothing but the image" . . .
"Of a serpent," concluded Sir Brian, smiling pathetically. "You are indeed an enthusiast, M. Gaston, and to me a new type. I had supposed that every slave of the drug cursed his servitude and loathed and despised himself." . . .
"Ah, monsieur! to me those words sound almost like a sacrilege!"
"But," continued Sir Brian, "your remarks interest me strangely; for two reasons. First, they confirm your assertion that you are, or were, an habitue of the Rue St. Claude, and secondly, they revive in my mind an old fancy--a superstition."
"What is that, Sir Brian?" inquired M. Max, whose opium vision was a faithful imitation of one related to him by an actual frequenter of the establishment near the Boulevard Beaumarchais.
"Only once before, M. Gaston, have I compared notes with a fellow opium-smoker, and he, also, was a patron of Madame Jean; he, also, met in his dreams that Eastern Circe, in the grove of apes, just as I" . . .
"As I meet her!"
"But this is astounding!" cried Max, who actually thought it so. "Your fancy--your superstition--was this: that only habitues of Rue St. Claude met, in poppyland, this vision? And in your fancy you are now confirmed?"
"It is singular, at least."
"It is more than that, Sir Brian! Can it be that some intelligence presides over that establishment and exercises--shall I call it a hypnotic influence upon the inmates?"
M. Max put the question with sincere interest.
"One does not always meet her," murmured Sir Brian. "But--yes, it is possible. For I have since renewed those experiences in London."
"What! in London?"
"Are you remaining for some time longer in London?"
"Alas! for several weeks yet."
"Then I will introduce you to a gentleman who can secure you admission to an establishment in London--where you may even hope sometimes to find the orange grove--to meet your dream-bride!"
"What!" cried M. Gaston, rising to his feet, his eyes bright with gratitude, "you will do that?"
"With pleasure," said Sir Brian Malpas, wearily; "nor am I jealous! But--no! do not thank me, for I do not share your views upon the subject, monsieur. You are a devout worshiper; I, an unhappy slave!"
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