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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Great Secret - Chapter I. ROOM NO. 317
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The Great Secret - Chapter I. ROOM NO. 317 Post by :realsuave Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :April 2012 Read :1606

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The Great Secret - Chapter I. ROOM NO. 317

I laid my papers down upon the broad mahogany counter, and exchanged greetings with the tall frock-coated reception clerk who came smiling towards me.

"I should like a single room on the third floor east, about the middle corridor," I said. "Can you manage that for me? 317 I had last time."

He shook his head at once. "I am very sorry, Mr. Courage," he said, "but all the rooms in that corridor are engaged. We will give you one on the second floor at the same price."

I was about to close with his offer, when, with a word of excuse, he hurried away to intercept some one who was passing through the hall. A junior clerk took his place, and consulted the plan for a moment doubtfully.

"There are several rooms exactly in the locality you asked for," he remarked, "which are simply being held over. If you would prefer 317, you can have it, and I will give 217 to our other client."

"Thank you," I answered, "I should prefer 317 if you can manage it."

He scribbled the number upon a ticket and handed it to the porter, who stood behind with my dressing-case. A page caught up the key, and I followed them to the lift. In the light of things which happened afterwards, I have sometimes wondered what became of the unfortunate junior clerk who gave me room number 317.

* * * * *

It was six o'clock when I arrived at the Hotel Universal. I washed, changed my clothes, and was shaved in the barber's shop. Afterwards, I spent, I think, the ordinary countryman's evening about town--having some regard always to the purpose of my visit. I dined at my club, went on to the Empire with a couple of friends, supped at the Savoy, and, after a brief return visit to the club, a single game of billiards and a final whisky and soda, returned to my hotel contented and sleepy, and quite prepared to tumble into bed. By some chance--the history of nations, as my own did, will sometimes turn upon such slight events--I left my door ajar whilst I sat upon the edge of the bed finishing a cigarette and treeing my boots, preparatory to depositing them outside. Suddenly my attention was arrested by a somewhat curious sound. I distinctly heard the swift, stealthy footsteps of a man running at full speed along the corridor. I leaned forward to listen. Then, without a moment's warning, they paused outside my door. It was hastily pushed open and as hastily closed. A man, half clothed and panting, was standing facing me--a strange, pitiable object. The boots slipped from my fingers. I stared at him in blank bewilderment.

"What the devil--" I began.

He made an anguished appeal to me for silence. Then I heard other footsteps in the corridor pausing outside my closed door. There was a moment's silence, then a soft muffled knocking. I moved towards it, only to be met by the intruder's frenzied whisper--

"For God's sake keep quiet!"

The man's hot breath scorched my cheek, his hands gripped my arm with nervous force, his hysterical whisper was barely audible, although his lips were within a few inches of my ear.

"Keep quiet," he muttered, "and don't open the door!"

"Why not?" I asked.

"They will kill me," he answered simply.

I resumed my seat on the side of the bed. My sensations were a little confused. Under ordinary circumstances, I should probably have been angry. It was impossible, however, to persevere in such a sentiment towards the abject creature who cowered by my side.

Yet, after all, was he abject? I looked away from the door, and, for the second time, studied carefully the features of the man who had sought my protection in so extraordinary a manner. He was clean shaven, his features were good; his face, under ordinary circumstances, might have been described as almost prepossessing. Just now it was whitened and distorted by fear to such an extent that it gave to his expression a perfectly repulsive cast. It was as though he looked beyond death and saw things, however dimly, more terrible than human understanding can fitly grapple with. There were subtleties of horror in his glassy eyes, in his drawn and haggard features.

Nothing, perhaps, could more completely illustrate the effect his words and appearance had upon me than the fact that I accepted his extraordinary statement without any instinct of disbelief! Here was I, an Englishman of sound nerves, of average courage, and certainly untroubled with any superabundance of imagination, domiciled in a perfectly well-known, if somewhat cosmopolitan, London hotel, and yet willing to believe, on the statement of a person whom I had never seen before in my life, that, within a few yards of me, were unseen men bent upon murder.

From outside I heard a warning chink of metal, and, acting upon impulse, I stepped forward and slipped the bolt of my door. Immediately afterwards a key was softly inserted in the lock and turned. The door strained against the bolt from some invisible pressure. Then there came the sound of retreating footsteps. We heard the door of the next room opened and closed. A moment later the handle of the communicating door was tried. I had, however, bolted it before I commenced to undress.

"What the mischief are you about?" I cried angrily. "Can't you leave my room alone?"

No answer; but the panels of the communicating door were bent inwards until it seemed as though they must burst. I crossed the room to where my portmanteau stood upon a luggage-rack, and took from it a small revolver. When I stood up with it in my hand, the effect upon my visitor was almost magical. He caught at my wrist and wrested it from my fingers. He grasped it almost lovingly.

"I can at least die now like a man," he muttered. "Thank Heaven for this!"

I sat down again upon the bed. I looked at the pillow and the unturned coverlet doubtfully. They had obviously not been disturbed. I glanced at my watch! it was barely two o'clock. I had not even been to bed. I could not possibly be dreaming! The door was straining now almost to bursting. I began to be annoyed.

"What the devil are you doing there?" I called out.

Again there was no answer, but a long crack had appeared on the panel. My companion was standing up watching it. He grasped the revolver as one accustomed to the use of such things. Once more I took note of him.

I saw now that he was younger than I had imagined, and a trifle taller. The ghastly pallor, which extended even to his lips, was unabated, but his first paroxysm of fear seemed, at any rate, to have become lessened. He looked now like a man at bay indeed, but prepared to fight for his life. He had evidently been dressed for the evening, for his white tie was still hanging about his neck. Coat and waistcoat he had left behind in his flight, but his black trousers were well and fashionably cut, and his socks were of silk, with small colored clocks. The fingers were white and delicate, and his nails well cared for. There was one thing more, the most noticeable of all perhaps. Although his face was the face of a young man, his hair was as white as snow.

"Look here," I said to him, "can't you give me some explanation as to what all this means? You haven't been getting yourself into trouble, have you?"

"Trouble!" he repeated vaguely, with his eyes fixed upon the door.

"With the police!" I explained.

"No, these are not the police," he answered.

"I don't mind a row particularly," I continued, "but I like to know something about it. What do these people want with you?"

"My life!" he answered grimly.

"Why?"

"I cannot tell you!"

A sudden and ridiculously obvious idea struck me for the first time. A small electric bell and telephone instrument were by the side of the bed. I leaned over and pressed the knob with my finger. My companion half glanced towards me, and back again instantly towards the door.

"No use," he muttered, "they will not come!"

Whereupon a thoroughly British sentiment was aroused in me. Of the liberties which had been taken with my room, both by this man and by his pursuers, I scarcely thought, but that any one should presume to interfere with my rights as an hotel guest angered me! I kept my finger on the knob of the bell; I summoned chambermaid, waiter, valet and boots. It was all to no effect. No one came. The telephone remained silent. The door was on the point of yielding.

I abandoned my useless efforts, and turned towards the man whom I was sheltering.

"How many are there in the next room?" I asked.

"Two!"

"If I stand by you, will you obey me?"

He hesitated for a moment. Then he nodded.

"Yes!"

"Get behind the bed then, and give me the revolver."

He parted with it reluctantly. I took it into my hand, only just in time. The door at last had burst away from its hinges. With perfect self-possession I saw one of the two men who had been engaged in its demolition calmly lean it up against the wall. The other stared at me as though I had been a ghost.

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