A Cabinet Secret - Guy Boothby - ebook

A Cabinet Secret ebook

Guy Boothby

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The city itself, climbing a hillside almost at the water’s edge, was painted pale pink at sunset, and even the old Vesuvius, from the top of which a thin column of black smoke seemed a little less gloomy than usual. Because of heaven, the sky was a mass of golden and raspberry-colored, and this was reflected in the calm waters of the bay until the whole world turned into a real radiance. The evening could hardly be desired. And yet this is not the city, mountain or sunset that we must make, but the first movement of the conspiracy, which was ultimately destined to shake one of the greatest Empires that the Earth has ever seen.

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Contents

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

INTRODUCTION

NIGHT was falling, and Naples Harbour, always picturesque, appeared even more so than usual in the warm light of the departing day. The city itself, climbing up the hillside, almost from the water’s edge, was coloured a pale pink by the sunset, and even old Vesuvius, from whose top a thin column of black smoke was issuing, seemed somewhat less sombre than usual. Out Ischiawards, the heavens were a mass of gold and crimson colouring, and this was reflected in the calm waters of the Bay, till the whole world was a veritable glow. Taken altogether, a more beautiful evening could scarcely have been desired. And yet it is not with the city, the mountain, or the sunset, that we have to do, but with the first movement of a conspiracy that was destined ultimately to shake one of the greatest Empires, the earth has ever seen, to the very foundations of its being.

Though the world was not aware of it, and would not, in all human probability, have concerned itself very much about it even if it had, the fact remains that for some hours past two men, from a house situated on one of the loftiest pinnacles of the city, had been concentrating their attention, by means of powerful glasses, upon the harbour, closely scrutinizing every vessel that entered and dropped her anchor inside the Mole.

“Can anything have happened that she does not come?” asked the taller of the pair, as he put down his glasses, and began to pace the room. “The cable said most distinctly that the steam yacht, Princess Badroulbadour passed through the Straits of Messina yesterday at seven o’clock. Surely they should be here by this time?”

“One would have thought so,” his companion replied. “It must be borne in mind, however, that the Princess is a private yacht, and it is more likely, as the wind is fair, that the owner is sailing in order to save his fuel.”

“To the devil with him, then, for his English meanness,” answered the other angrily. “He does not know how anxious we are to see her.”

“And, everything taken into consideration, it is just as well for us and for the safety of his passengers that he does not,” his friend retorted. “If he did, his first act after he dropped anchor would be to hand them over to the tender mercies of the Police. In that case we should be ruined for ever and a day. Perhaps that aspect of the affair has not struck you?”

“It is evident that you take me for a fool,” the other answered angrily. “Of course, I know all that; but it does not make me any the less anxious to see them. Consider for a moment what we have at stake. Never before has there been such a chance of bringing to her knees one of the proudest nations of the earth. And to think that if that vessel does not put in an appearance within the next few hours, all our preparations may be in vain!”

“She will be here in good time, never fear,” his companion replied soothingly. “She has never disappointed us yet.”

“Not willingly, I will admit,” the other returned; “but in this matter she may not be her own mistress. She is a beautiful woman, and for all we know to the contrary, this English milord may be prolonging the voyage in order to enjoy her society. Who knows but that he may carry her off altogether?”

“In that case his country should erect a memorial to him, similar to the Nelson Monument,” said the smaller man. “For it is certain he will have rendered her as great a service as that empty-sleeved Hero ever did.”

The other did not reply, but, after another impatient glance at the Harbour, once more began to pace the room. He was a tall, handsome fellow, little more than thirty years of age, and carried himself with soldierly erectness. The most casual observer would have noticed that he was irreproachably dressed, and that his manners were those of one accustomed to good society. His companion, on the other hand, was short and stout, with a round bullet head, and closely cropped hair. He was also the possessor of a pair of small twinkling eyes, and a neck so thick, that one instinctively thought of apoplexy and sudden death in connection with its owner. The room they occupied was strangely at variance with the appearance of the younger and taller man. It was little more than a garret, very dirty, and furnished in the poorest fashion. But it had one advantage: it commanded a splendid view of Naples Harbour, and, after all, that was what its present occupants required. At last, the younger man, tired of his sentry-go up and down the room, threw himself into a chair and lit a cigarette. For some minutes not a word passed between them; all the time, however, the shorter man remained at the window, his glass turned seaward, watching for the smallest sign of the vessel they were so eagerly expecting. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation which caused the other to spring to his feet.

“What is it?” cried the latter; “what do you see?”

“I fancy she is coming up now,” his friend replied. “If you run your glass along the sky-line, I fancy you will be able to detect a white speck, with a tiny column of smoke above it.”

The other followed the directions given him, and, after a careful scrutiny, gave it as his opinion that what his companion had said was correct. Nearly an hour elapsed, however, before they could be quite certain upon the subject. At last the matter was settled beyond doubt, and when a magnificent white yacht rounded the Mole and came to its anchorage in the Mercantile Harbour, they prepared to make their way down to the water-side in order to board her. Before they started, however, the elder of the two men effected sundry changes in his attire.

“Forgive the mummery,” he remarked, as he took a somewhat clerical hat and cloak from a peg, “but, as they say upon the stage, ‘the unities must be observed.’ If our beautiful Countess has played her cards carefully, Monseigneur should be of great benefit to us hereafter. It would be a thousand pities to scare him away at the beginning. For this reason it will be as well for you to remember that I am her Excellency’s lawyer, who has hastened to Naples in order to confer with her on a matter of considerable importance, connected with her Styrian estates. No suspicion will then be excited.”

By the time he had finished speaking he had donned the hat and cloak, and when he had given another expression to his face–for the man was a consummate actor–he was satisfied that he looked the part he was about to play. After that they descended the narrow, rickety stairs together, and passed out into the street. It was a warm afternoon, and in consequence Naples was in her most unsavoury humour. The two men, however, did not appear to trouble themselves very much about it. Side by side they made their way through the crowded streets, almost in silence. Each was thinking of the approaching interview, and of what was to result from it. Reaching the Harbour, they chartered a boat and bade the rower convey them to the white yacht which had just dropped her anchor. The man obeyed, and in less than five minutes they were lying alongside one of the most beautiful pleasure vessels that has ever upheld the shipbuilding honour of the Clyde. The Port formalities had already been complied with, and now the accommodation ladder was hanging at the side in readiness for visitors. When they drew up at its foot, the tall man, addressing the quartermaster on duty at the gangway, enquired whether Madame la Comtesse de Venetza were aboard, and, if so, whether she would permit visitors to pay their respects to her.

It was noticeable that he spoke excellent English, with scarcely a touch of foreign accent.

The man departed with the message, to presently return with the report that Madame would be pleased to see the gentleman if they would “come aboard.” They accordingly climbed the ladder, and followed the quartermaster along the deck to a sumptuous saloon under the bridge. The owner of the beautiful craft was in the act of leaving the cabin as they approached it.

“Won’t you come in?” he said, pausing to open the door for them. “The Countess will be very pleased to see you.”

As he said this he glanced sharply at the two men, with an Englishman’s innate distrust of foreigners. He saw little in them, however, to criticise, and nothing to dislike. They, on their side, found him a tall, stalwart Englishman of the typical standard–blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, close cropped hair, the latter a little inclined to be curly, well, but not over dressed, and carrying with him an air of latent strength that, in spite of his good-humoured expression, would have made most people chary of offending him. When the two men entered the cabin, he closed the door behind them and ran lightly up the ladder to the bridge.

After his departure there was a momentary, but somewhat embarrassing, silence. A long shaft of sunlight streamed in through one of the windows (for they resembled windows more than port-holes) and revealed the fact that the lady, who was reclining in a long easy-chair, was extremely beautiful. Despite the cordial message she had sent, her visitors could scarcely have been welcome, for she did not even take the trouble to rise to receive them, but allowed a tall grey-haired man, who might very well have passed for her father, to do the honours for her.

“My dear Luigi–my dear Conrad,” he said, offering his right hand to the smaller of the two men and his left to the other. “It is indeed kind of you to be so quick to welcome us. The Countess is a little tired this afternoon, but she is none the less delighted to see you.”

The scornful curl of the lady’s lips not only belied this assertion, but indicated that milady was in a by no means pleasant temper. The impatient movement of the little foot, peeping from beneath her dress, said as much, as plainly as any words could speak.

“We have been waiting for you all day,” the younger man began. “There is news of the greatest importance to communicate. Every hour that passes is now so much time wasted.”

Then, for the first time during the interview, the lady spoke.

“You infer that I might have been quicker?” she said, with a touch of scorn in her voice. “You evidently forget that, had it not been for this English milord’s kindness, I should not be here even now.”

It looked as if the younger man, while really uncomfortable, were trying to act as if he were not afraid of her.

“Is there not such a thing as the Oriental Express?” he asked. “Had you used that, we might have met at Turin, and have saved a great deal of trouble and valuable time.”

The lady turned impatiently from him to his companion.

“What form does your news take?” she enquired. “Is it contained in a letter?”

“No, Excellenza, it was to be delivered by word of mouth,” the other replied. “The Council, who were in Prague at the time, paid me the compliment of trusting to my discretion, and despatched me immediately to you. We heard that you were in Constantinople, and the Secretary undertook to have a message transmitted to you there. Our friend, Conrad here, is perhaps not aware that the Oriental Express is occasionally an impossible medium. But, while condoling with you on that score, I must congratulate your Excellency in having pressed the Duke of Rotherhithe into your service.”

“Pray spare yourself the trouble,” the lady replied. “I do not know that I am particularly fond of obtaining hospitality, such as his, under false pretences. It is sufficient for your purposes, is it not, that I am here, and ready to do the Council’s bidding, whatever that may be. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me what is expected of me?”

“Is it safe for me to tell you here?” Luigi enquired, and as he said it he looked anxiously about him, as if he feared the presence of eavesdroppers.

“As safe as it will be anywhere,” the lady answered. “It is an Englishman’s yacht, and, whatever we may say of them, they are not in the habit of listening at keyholes. Now what have you to tell me?”

The man hesitated once more before he replied. He was the chosen mouth-piece of one of the most powerful organisations in Europe, and ere now affairs involving death, and worse than death, had been entrusted to him, and he had brought them to a satisfactory issue. As a rule, and certainly when dealing with men, he did not know what fear was. In this lady’s presence, however, he was strangely nervous.

“Come,” she said, “you are a long time telling me. Is it so very difficult to explain? Or am I to anticipate a repetition of the Palermo Incident?”

Whatever the Palermo Incident may have been, it was certainly not a pleasant recollection to either of the men before her; the elder man became uncomfortable, while the younger moved uneasily in his seat.

“You hit hard, madam,” the elder man returned; “but, thank goodness, I am not thin-skinned. That the Palermo affair was a mistake, I am quite prepared to admit; it is possible, however, the success which will doubtless attend this affair, will make ample amends for it.”

“You have not told me what the affair is,” the lady replied. “Unless you make haste, I fear I shall not be able to hear it to- night. It would be as well for you to remember that I am not my own mistress, and that, in return for his hospitality, my host has at least some claim upon my society.”

“I will not detain you longer than is absolutely necessary,” the other replied. “With your permission I will now explain my mission. Of course, your Excellency is aware that the British Empire is on the eve of a serious struggle with the two South African Republics. The Republics in question have been arming for several years, and there can be no sort of doubt that the war, which is now about to begin, will make the most enormous demands upon the resources and capabilities of even that great Empire. That the country, at least so far as its military organisation is concerned, is not properly prepared for such an encounter, admits of no doubt. Her armament is well known to be deficient, if not defective; she possesses but few Generals whose experience entitles them to the right of leading her troops as they should be led against a foe which will have in its ranks some of the best fighting men in the world; while the nature of the country in which she will have to fight, and the peculiar tactics of the enemy, are unfavourable to her in the highest degree. Apart from this, it has been her boast that she occupies an isolated position in Europe, if not in the world. France, Russia, Germany and Holland are avowedly unfavourable; Spain remembers Great Britain’s sympathy with America in the Cuban affair; Portugal will wait to see what turn events take before she commits herself; while America will stand strictly neutral. We all remember that the larger Republic has beaten her before: it is possible that it may do so again. All these things having been taken into consideration, it must be quite clear to an observant mind that if England is ever to be humiliated, now is the time to do it. With this end in view, the Council was summoned hastily to meet in Prague. The result of their deliberations was the drawing up of a plan of action, and as soon as this had been agreed upon, I was ordered to place myself in communication with you. You were in Constantinople, and, as I have said, a message was immediately despatched by the Secretary to you.”

“I received it, and am here. What am I to do?”

“I can tell you no more than that you are to make your way to England at once, via Rome and Paris. Von Rosendell is in Rome. He will meet you, and give you full particulars of the scheme which has been proposed.”

“And when am I to leave Naples in order to meet him?”

“As soon as possible,” the other replied; “there is no time to waste. I was to invite you to make your arrangements at once, and to telegraph the hour of your departure in the usual way.”

“In that case I need not detain you any longer,” she answered with chilling politeness. “Should it be necessary for me to communicate with you, I presume the usual address will find you?”

“But–”

“But what? Is there anything else I am to hear?”

“There is this–that I am to go with you,” the younger man put in, almost apologetically. “I received my orders from the Council this morning. I hope you do not disapprove?”

He looked at her almost beseechingly; the expression upon her face, however, betrayed neither pleasure nor annoyance. Do what he would, he could not prevent a sigh from escaping him as he became aware of it. All day he had been hoping that she would be pleased when she heard that he was to co-operate with her; now, however, his heart sank like lead. It was just the sort of enterprise he liked. It was daring, reckless to a degree; they would carry their lives in their hands, as they had so often done before; indeed, the mere fact that he was to share the dangers with her had been the greatest pleasure he had known for months past.

“If you are to accompany us,” she said, scarcely looking at him, “you had better hold yourself in readiness. It will be safer if we travel apart during the time we are in Italy, and afterwards other arrangements can be made so that we–”

“We will leave you and return to the shore,” interrupted the man called Luigi, who did not altogether approve the turn affairs were taking. “I have carried out my instructions, and so far as I am concerned, individually, the matter is at an end.”

Five minutes later they had left the yacht, and the Countess de Venetza was apologizing to the Duke of Rotherhithe for the intrusion of her lawyer people on his yacht.

“It is really too hard,” she said pathetically; “they give me no peace. When my husband died and I inherited his estates, he had no thought of the trouble and anxiety the management of them would cause me. My lawyers are perpetually grumbling because they cannot obtain interviews with me. I often think that they look upon me as a sort of Will-o’-the-Wisp, flickering about Europe, and impossible to catch. Why they could not have transacted the business with my father instead of bothering me with it, I cannot imagine. However, you will forgive me, will you not?”

The Duke, who by the way, was extremely susceptible, looked unutterable things. He had first met the Countess in Algiers a year before, and had fallen desperately in love with her before he had known her twenty-four hours. The mere fact that she did not encourage his attentions only served to attract him the more. They met at Cairo six months later–and now, when he discovered that it was in his power to do her a service by conveying her from Constantinople to Naples, he was only too glad to avail himself of the opportunity.

“It is a shame, indeed, that they should worry you so,” he said sympathetically, looking as he spoke into his fair friend’s eyes in a manner that would have carried consternation into the hearts of not a few mothers in England. “They worry me at home in much the same way. As I say to them, what’s the use of employing lawyers and Estate Agents, and all those sort of people, if they cannot do their work without your assistance? You might just as well do it yourself in the first instance, and save their salaries. But then, you see, I am not so clever as you are, Countess, and that makes all the difference.”

“What makes you think I am so clever, pray?” she enquired, looking up at him with innocent eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied; “I’ve noticed it on lots of occasions. Do you remember the day that plausible Greek beggar worried us so in Constantinople, and you whispered something to him that sent him off about his business like a shot out of a gun. And in Algiers, when that Frenchman made himself so objectionable and you managed to send him to the right-about after a few moments’ conversation. How you did it I never could understand, but it was jolly clever all the same.”

The Countess regarded him attentively for a moment. Was he really as innocent as he made out to be, or had he noticed anything else? No; one moment’s examination was sufficient to convince her that, so far as he was concerned, all was as it should be. Strolling to the port side of the bridge, she looked down at the boat-load of musicians who were strumming guitars, and bawling “Finiculi Finicula” with all the strength of their Southern lungs.

“What a way in which to spend one’s life,” said the Duke, as he joined her, and tossed some silver into the boat. “Fancy shouting that wretched thing, week after week, and year after year! Italy is a funny country–all bandits, soldiers, beggars and musicians. I suppose, if the truth were known, each of those men belongs to some secret society or another. Either the Cammoristi, or the Mafia, or some such organisation. How would you like to be a conspirator, Countess, and be always in terror of being caught?”

The Countess’s hand clenched the bar before her, and, for a moment, her face turned deathly pale.

“What an extraordinary question to ask,” she began, fighting hard for her self-possession. “Do you want to frighten me out of my wits? I am afraid I should make the poorest conspirator imaginable. I should be too deficient in courage.”

“I am not inclined to believe that,” said the Duke, reflectively. “I think you would have plenty of courage when it was required.”

“I am afraid you must think me an altogether remarkable person,” she returned. “If you go on in this way, I shall scarcely have presence of mind enough to remain in your company. Seriously, however, Duke, I don’t know how to thank you for the services you have rendered my father and myself. But for your assistance we should not be in Naples now, in which case we should have been too late to have joined the party with whom I am proceeding to England.”

“You are going to England then after all?” he cried in great astonishment and delight. “I thought you were only going as far as Rome?”

“That was our original intention,” she replied. “However, some letters that we received to-night have altered our plans. But why do you look so astonished? Are we poor foreigners not to be allowed to enter your country?”

“It is not that,” he said. “I was so pleased to hear that you intend honouring us with a visit. When do you think you will reach England, and where will you stay while you are there?”

She shook her head.

“Those are questions I cannot at present answer,” she said. “It will depend upon circumstances. As our arrangements stand at present, I think it is extremely likely that we shall be in London in less than a week’s time.”

“And will there be any means of learning your whereabouts?” he asked. “You will surely not be cruel enough to visit England without permitting me to call upon you?”

“Call by all means,” she answered. “At present, however, I cannot tell you what our address will be, for the reason that I do not know it myself.”

“But perhaps when you are settled you will let me know. You know my house, I think?”

“I will do so with pleasure,” she replied. “Then you will come and see me, and I shall be able to thank you again for the kindness you have shown my father and myself in our present trouble.”

“It has been a very great pleasure to me,” he said, “and I cannot thank you sufficiently for honouring my yacht as you have done.”

At that moment the elder man, to whom she had referred as her father, made his appearance on the bridge and came towards them.

“My dear,” he began, “has it not struck you that it is time for us to be thinking of bidding His Grace farewell? Remember we have to start for Rome by the early train to-morrow morning. It behoves us, therefore, to make our preparations as soon as possible.”

The Duke, however, would not hear of their leaving the yacht before dinner, and in consequence it was quite dark when the Countess de Venetza and her father, or, to be more correct, her reputed father, were rowed ashore by four stalwart yachtsmen, steered by the Duke of Rotherhithe himself. He would have accompanied them to their hotel, but this the Countess would not permit.

“You have done too much for us already,” she said; “we cannot let you do more. We will not say adieu, but au revoir, since, in all probability, it will not be long before we meet again.”

“I hope, with all my heart, it may not be,” he replied, and then the cab they had engaged rattled away over the stones and was soon lost to view.

The Countess’s stay in Naples was a short one, for next morning she left by an early train for Rome. According to the plan he had prepared, His Grace of Rotherhithe, having made enquiries as to the trains leaving Naples for the capital, was present on the platform when the first took its departure. With an eagerness that could only be accounted for by his infatuation, he scanned the faces of the passengers, but the lady for whom he had been so anxiously waiting was not among them. Greatly disappointed by his discovery, he went off in search of breakfast, only to return a quarter of an hour before the next train was due to leave. Unfortunately, on this occasion, he was no more successful than before. The train was well filled, but among the passengers there was not one who bore any sort of resemblance to the lady he was hoping to see. So anxious was he to make sure that he did not miss her, that, just before the train started, he came within an ace of being run into by an invalid chair, in which was seated a man closely muffled up with shawls. By the side of the chair walked a nurse in English hospital uniform, who wore large blue glasses, and carried more wraps and a couple of cushions upon her arm. Even had he been aware of their identity, the Duke would have found it difficult to recognise in the pair his guests of the previous day. It was not the first time in their careers that they had been compelled to adopt such disguises, and only that morning news had reached them to the effect that, if they desired to get safely out of Naples, disguises such as they had assumed would be imperative necessities. A carriage, it appeared, had been reserved for the invalid Englishman, and towards it they made their way. Having seated the old gentleman in one corner, the nurse took her seat opposite him, and busied herself preparing for the journey. It was not until Naples was far behind, however, that she removed her spectacles and the invalid discarded his wraps.

“That was as narrow an escape as we have ever had,” said the former. “The Head of the Police was upon the platform, and I recognised two detectives in the crowd. However, all is well that ends well, and if Luigi’s arrangements have been properly made, we should be in Paris before they know we have left Naples, and in London forty-eight hours afterwards.”

“Then you still feel certain that they were aware of our presence in Naples?”

“Luigi’s message said there was no doubt about it. Though he did not know it, they must have been watching him, and have followed him to the yacht. It was foolish of him to run such a risk. Let us hope, however, he will be able to get out of Naples without their laying hands upon him.”

Shortly after one o’clock the train reached Rome and they alighted from it. Such travellers as had witnessed the arrival of the invalid at the Neapolitan railway station, would have observed now that he seemed greatly fatigued by the journey. He was even more muffled up than before, while the nurse was, if possible, more assiduous in her attentions than she had been at the southern station. It was noticeable also that she was a poor Italian scholar. Indeed, her pronunciation of such words as she did know was of the most erratic and elementary description.

LATER in the day, just as dusk was falling, an artist’s model, in the picturesque dress of the country, might have been observed making her way slowly down the Via Sistina in the direction of the Piazza S. Trinità de’ Monti. She appeared to be familiar with the neighbourhood, though, on the other hand, no one seemed to have any acquaintance with her. She had reached the Casa Zuccheri, when she was stopped by a tall artistic-looking man, who walked with great uprightness, and carried a portfolio beneath his arm. For the benefit of the passers by, he enquired in broken Italian, whether the girl could inform him as to the locality of a certain artist’s studio, whereupon she personally offered to conduct him to it. He thanked her courteously, and proceeded with her in the direction indicated. They had no sooner left the vicinity of the Via Sistina, however, than he turned to her and said, in the purest Italian: “I was afraid you were not coming. You are very late.”

“I am aware of that,” the girl replied. “I had a suspicion that I was being watched. Now, what have you to tell me?”

“You saw Luigi in Naples, I believe?”

“He met me there, with Conrad,” the girl answered. “I could not help thinking that it was an imprudence on his part.”

“Luigi is always imprudent; and yet I cannot help feeling that he is safer in his folly than we are in our care. He told you of the scheme the Council had originated?”

The girl nodded an assent.

“He gave me to understand, however, that you would furnish me with full particulars,” she said.

“I am prepared to do so now,” her companion replied.

As he said this, he led her from the main street into a dark alley, where, having convinced himself that they had not been followed, he set to work and told his tale. So anxious was he that there should be no mistake about the matter, that when he had finished it he began it again, only to repeat it a third time. The woman listened with rapt attention.

“In conclusion,” said he, “I might add that the money will be paid to your credit at whatever London Bank you may select. One of the most handsome residences, replete with all the necessaries, has been taken for you in a fashionable quarter, and on your arrival in London you will be left to act as your knowledge of the situation and the dictates of the Council may determine. It is needless to caution you as to the risks you may be called upon to run. The Council has, moreover, authorised me to say that it places implicit trust in your discretion. Should you require further advice, it will be furnished you at once, with any help that may be considered needful.”

“In the meantime, Paris is the first stage,” the girl answered. “You are quite certain that this Englishman, Sir George Manderville, has not yet returned to England?”

“No, he is still there,” her companion replied. “We have learnt, however, that he will cross the channel on Friday next.”

“On Friday next?” she repeated. “In that case there is no time to lose. At first glance it would appear that he is the key to the situation.”

“That is exactly the opinion of the Council,” the man answered. “Now, farewell, and may good luck attend you!”

So saying they retraced their steps to the main street. At the entrance to the alley they separated, the girl returning to the Via Sistina–the man going off in an opposite direction.

By the first train next morning the Countess de Venetza made an unostentatious departure from Rome, for Paris, accompanied by her father and her cousin, Conrad, Count Reiffenburg.

CHAPTER I

AS a preface, I might explain that I have had the pleasure of knowing Paris and De Belleville for more than twenty years. Both are, therefore, old friends, the city and the man. The fact, however, remains, that De Belleville, though a most charming companion, has one fault. Few people would be prepared to admit it, but unfortunately, I am not only compelled to recognise it, but to proclaim it to the world. As a friend, he has not his equal–at least so far as I am concerned; he is certainly not punctual, however. It is of that I complain. I have remonstrated with him on the subject times out of number, but it makes no sort of difference. If one has an appointment with him, he is invariably late, but when he does put in an appearance, he will greet you with such charming assurance, that you feel angry with yourself for having been led into commenting upon the lapse of time.

On the particular afternoon which I am now about to describe to you, we had arranged to meet at my hotel and then to go on together to call upon the D’Étrebilles, who were just off to Cairo and the Upper Nile. He had promised to be with me at three o’clock, and, as usual, at twenty minutes past the hour he had not put in an appearance. Now, I flatter myself that I am a punctual man in every respect, and when one is ready to go out, a twenty minutes’ wait is an annoyance calculated to test the serenest temper. In my case it was certainly so, and, as I sat in the picturesque courtyard of the hotel, you may be sure I called down the reverse of blessings upon De Belleville’s handsome head. Carriage after carriage drove up, but not one of them contained my friend. I took a third cigarette from my case and lit it, and as I did so, lay back in my chair and amused myself watching my neighbours.

To my thinking, there are few places more interesting (that is, of course, provided one has a weakness for studying character) than a hotel courtyard. In sheer idleness I speculated as to the nationality and relationship of the various people about me. There were several probable Russians, one or two undoubted Germans, two whom I set down as Italians, one might have been a Greek, but the majority were undoubtedly English. And that reminds me that, as I waited, I was the witness of an amusing altercation between a cabman and an English lady of considerable importance and mature years. Both were playing at cross purpose, and it was not until the Hotel Commissionaire, the deus ex machina, so to speak, appeared upon the scene and interposed, that the matter at issue was satisfactorily adjusted.

“Your pardon, Madame,” he said, bowing low, “but ze man meant no harm. It was his misfortune that he did not comprehend the words what Madame said to him.”

For a person who prided himself upon his tact, the poor fellow could scarcely have said a more unfortunate thing. The matter of the overcharge, Madame could have understood and have forgiven, but to be informed in so many words that her knowledge of the French tongue was deficient, was an insult not only to her intelligence, and to her experience, but also to the money that had been spent upon her education. Casting a withering glance at the unhappy functionary, she departed into the hotel, every hair of her head bristling with indignation, while the Commissionaire, shrugging his shoulders, went forward to receive a tall, picturesque individual, who at that moment had driven up.

The newcomer interested me exceedingly. In my own mind I instantly set him down as a dilettante Englishman of good birth and education. He looked the sort of being who would spend the greater part of his time in foreign picture-galleries and cathedrals; who would carry his Ruskin continually in his pocket, and who would probably end by writing a volume of travels “for private circulation only.” I should not have been surprised had I been told that he dabbled a little in water-colours, or to have heard that he regarded Ruskin as the greatest writer, and Turner as the greatest painter, of our era. One thing at least was self-evident, and that was the fact that he was a person of considerable importance at this particular hotel. The Commissionaire bowed before him as if he were a foreign potentate, while the maître d’hôtel received him with as much respect as if he had been an American millionaire. When he in his turn disappeared into the building, I beckoned the Commissionaire to my side.

“Who is that gentleman that has just entered the hotel?” I enquired.

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