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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Great Secret - Chapter VI. "MR. GUEST"
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The Great Secret - Chapter VI. 'MR. GUEST' Post by :happyallday Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :April 2012 Read :3393

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The Great Secret - Chapter VI. "MR. GUEST"

I had been alone for nearly an hour before there came a cautious tapping at my door, I opened it at once, and stared at my visitor in surprise. It was the man in the grey tweed suit, who had broken into my room the night before.

"You!" I exclaimed; "what the mischief are you doing here?"

"If you will permit me to enter," he said, "I shall be glad to explain."

He stepped past me into the room. I closed the door behind him.

"What do you want with me?" I asked.

My visitor regarded me thoughtfully through his gold-rimmed spectacles. I, too, was taking careful note of him. Any one more commonplace--with less of the bearing of a conspirator--it would be impossible to imagine. His features, his clothes, his bearing, were all ordinary. His face had not even the shrewdness of the successful business man. His brown beard was carefully trimmed, his figure was a little podgy, his manner undistinguished. I found it hard to associate him in my mind with such things as the woman whom I had left a few moments ago had spoken of.

"I understand," he said, "that you wish for an interview with your friend, Mr. Leslie Guest. His room happens to be close to mine. I shall be pleased to conduct you there!"

"You have seen Miss Van Hoyt then?" I exclaimed.

"I have just left her!" he answered.

I stared at him incredulously.

"Do you mean to tell me," I said, "that, after last night, you have dared to remain in the hotel--that you have a room here?"

My visitor smiled.

"But certainly," he said, "you are under some curious apprehension as to the events of last night. My friend and I are most harmless individuals. We only wanted a little business conversation with Mr. Guest, which he was foolish enough to try and avoid. That is all arranged, now, however!"

"Is it?" I answered curtly. "Then I am sorry for Mr. Guest!"

Again my visitor smiled--quite a harmless smile it was, as of pity for some unaccountably foolish person.

"You do not seem," he remarked, "if I may be pardoned for saying so, a very imaginative person, Mr. Courage, but you certainly have some strange ideas as to my friend and myself. Possibly Mr. Guest himself is responsible for them! A very excitable person at times!"

"You had better take me to him, if that is your errand," I said shortly. "This sort of conversation between you and me is rather a waste of time."

"Certainly!" he answered. "Will you follow me?"

We took the lift to the sixth floor, traversed an entire corridor, and then, mounting a short and narrow flight of stairs, we arrived at a passage with three or four doors on either side, and no exit at the further end. We seemed to be entirely cut off from the main portion of the hotel, and I noticed that there were no numbers on the doors of the rooms. A very tall and powerful-looking man came to the head of the stairs, on hearing our footsteps, and regarded us suspiciously. Directly he recognized my companion, however, he allowed us to pass.

"A nice quiet part of the hotel this," my guide remarked, glancing towards me.

"Very!" I answered dryly.

"A man might be hidden here very securely," he added.

"I can well believe it," I assented.

He knocked softly at the third door on the left. A woman's voice answered him. A moment later, the door was opened by a nurse in plain hospital dress.

"Good evening, nurse!" my companion said cheerfully. "This gentleman would like to see Mr. Guest! Is he awake?"

The nurse opened the door a little wider, which I took for an invitation to enter. She closed it softly behind me. My guide remained outside.

The room was a very small one, and furnished after the usual hotel fashion. The only light burning was a heavily-shaded electric lamp, placed by the bedside. The nurse raised it a little, and looked down upon the man who lay there motionless.

"He is asleep," she remarked. "It is time he took his medicine. I must wake him!"

She spoke with a pronounced foreign accent. Her fair hair and stolid features left me little doubt as to her nationality. I was conscious of a strong and instinctive dislike to her from the moment I heard her speak and watched her bending over the bed. I think that her face was one of the most unsympathetic which I had ever seen.

She poured some medicine into a glass, and turned on another electric light. Her patient woke at once. Directly he opened his eyes, he recognized me with a little start.

"You!" he exclaimed. "You!"

I sat down on the edge of the bed.

"You haven't forgotten me then?" I remarked. "I'm sorry you're queer! Nothing serious, I hope?"

He ignored my words. He was looking at me all the time, as though inclined to doubt the evidence of his senses.

"Who let you come--up here?" he asked in a whisper.

"I made inquiries about you, and got permission to come up," I answered. "How are you feeling this evening?"

"I don't understand why they let you come," he said uneasily. "Stoop down!"

The nurse came forward with a wineglass.

"Will you take your medicine, please?" she said.

"Presently," he answered, "put it down."

She glanced at the clock and held the glass out once more.

"It is past the time," she said.

"I have had two doses to-day," he answered. "Quite enough, I think. Set it down and go away, please. I want to talk with this gentleman."

"Talking is not good for you," she said, without moving. "Better take your medicine and go to sleep!"

He took the glass from her hand, and, with a glance at its contents which puzzled me, drank it off.

"Now will you go?" he asked, handing back the glass to her.

She dragged her chair to the bedside.

"If you will talk," she said stolidly, "I must watch that you do not excite yourself too much!"

He glanced meaningly at me.

"I have private matters to discuss!" he said.

"You are not well enough to talk of private matters, or anything else important," she declared. "You will excite yourself. You will bring on the fever. I remain here to watch. It is by the doctor's orders."

She sat down heavily within a few feet of us.

"You speak French?" Guest asked me.

I nodded.

"Fairly well!"

"Watch her! See whether she seems to understand. I want to speak of what she must not hear."

She half rose from her chair. So far as her features could express anything, they expressed disquietude.

"She does not understand," I said. "Go on!"

She bent over the bedside.

"You must not talk any more," she said. "It excites you! Your temperature is rising."

He ignored her altogether.

"Listen," he said to me, "why they have let you come here I cannot tell! You know that I am in prison--that I am not likely to leave here alive!"

"I don't think that it is so bad as that," I assured him.

"It is worse! I am likely to die without the chance of finishing--my work. Great things will die with me. God knows what will happen."

"You have a doctor and a hospital nurse," I remarked. "That doesn't look as though they meant you to die!"

"You don't know who I am, and you don't know who they are," he answered, dropping his voice almost to a whisper.

"I want a month, one more month, and I might cheat them yet!"

"I don't think that they mean you to die," I said. "They have an idea that you are in possession of some marvellous secret. They want to get possession of that first."

"They persevere," he murmured. "In Paris--but never mind. They know very well that that secret, if I die before I can finish my work, dies with me, or--"

The nurse, who had left us a few moments before, re-entered the room. She went straight to a chair at the further end of the apartment, and took up a book. Guest looked at me with a puzzled expression.

"Stranger still!" he said, "we are allowed to talk."

"It may be only for a moment," I reminded him.

"Or pass it on to a successor who will complete my work," he said slowly. "I fear that I shall not find him. The time is too short now."

"Have you no friends I could send for?" I asked.

"Not one!" he answered.

I looked at him curiously. A man does not often confess himself entirely friendless.

"I need a strong, brave man," he said slowly--"one who is not afraid of Death, one who has the courage to dare everything in a great cause!"

"A great cause!" I repeated. "They are few and far between nowadays."

He looked at me steadily.

"You are an Englishman!"

I laughed.

"Saxon to the backbone," I admitted.

"You would consider it a great cause to save your country from ruin, from absolute and complete ruin!"

"My imagination," I declared, "cannot conceive such a situation."

"A flock of geese once saved an empire," he said, "a child's little finger in the crack of the dam kept a whole city from destruction. One man may yet save this pig-headed country of ours from utter disaster. It may be you--it may be I!"

"You are also an Englishman!" I exclaimed.

"Perhaps!" he answered shortly. "Never mind what I am. Think! Think hard! By to-morrow you must decide! Are you content with your life? Does it satisfy you? You have everything else; have you ambition?"

"I am not sure," I answered slowly. "Remember that this is all new to me. I must think!"

He raised himself a little in the bed. At no time on this occasion had he presented to me the abject appearance of the previous night. His cheeks were perfectly colorless, and this pallor, together with his white hair, and the spotless bed-linen, gave to his face a somewhat ghastly cast, but his dark eyes were bright and piercing, his features composed and natural.

"Listen," he said, "they may try to kill me, but I have a will, too, and I say that I will not die till I have found a successor to carry on--to the end--what I have begun. Mind, it is no coward's game! It is a walk with death, hand in hand, all the way."

He raised suddenly a warning finger. There was a knock at the door. The nurse who answered it came to the bedside.

"The gentleman has stayed long enough," she announced. "He must go now!"

I rose and held out my hand. He held it between his for a moment, and his eyes sought mine.

"You will come--to-morrow?"

"I will come," I promised. "To-morrow evening."

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