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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lighted Way - Chapter 11. An Interrupted Luncheon
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The Lighted Way - Chapter 11. An Interrupted Luncheon Post by :dean_z Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :912

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The Lighted Way - Chapter 11. An Interrupted Luncheon

CHAPTER XI. AN INTERRUPTED LUNCHEON

The great car swung to the right, out of Tooley Street and joined the stream of traffic making its slow way across London Bridge. Fenella took the tube from its place by her side and spoke in Italian to the chauffeur. When she replaced it, she turned to Arnold.

"Do you understand what I said?" she asked.

"Only a word or two," he replied. "You told him to go somewhere else instead of to the Carlton, didn't you?"

She nodded, and lay back for a moment, silent, among the luxurious cushions. Her mood seemed suddenly to have changed. She was no longer gay. She watched the faces of the passers-by pensively. Presently she pointed out of the window to a gray-bearded old man tottering along in the gutter with a trayful of matches. A cold wind was blowing through his rags.

"Look!" she exclaimed. "Look at that! In my own country, yes, but here I do not understand. They tell me that this is the richest city in the world, and the most charitable."

"There must be poor everywhere," Arnold replied, a little puzzled.

She stared at him.

"It is not your laws I would complain of," she said. "It is your individuals. Look at him--a poor, shivering, starved creature, watching a constant stream of well-fed, well-clothed, smug men of business, passing always within a few feet of him. Why does he not help himself to what he wants?"

"How can he?" Arnold asked. "There is a policeman within a few yards of him. The law stands always in the way."

"The law!" she repeated, scornfully. "It is a pleasant word, that, which you use. The law is the artificial bogey made by the men who possess to keep those others in the gutter. And they tell me that there are half a million of them in London--and they suffer--like that. Could your courts of justice hold half a million law-breakers who took an overcoat from a better clad man, or the price of a meal from a sleek passer-by, or bread from the shop which taunted their hunger? They do not know their strength, those who suffer."

Arnold looked at her in sheer amazement. It was surely a strange woman who spoke! There was no sympathy in her face or tone. The idea of giving alms to the man seemed never to have occurred to her. She spoke with clouded face, as one in anger.

"Don't you believe," he asked, "in the universal principle, the survival of the fittest? Where there is wealth there must be poverty."

She laughed.

"Change your terms," she suggested; "where there are robbers there must be victims. But one may despise the victims all the same. One may find their content, or rather their inaction, ignoble."

"Generally speaking, it is the industrious who prosper," he affirmed.

She shook her head.

"If that were so, all would be well," she declared. "As a matter of fact, it is entirely an affair of opportunity and temperament."

"Why, you are a socialist," he said. "You should come and talk to my friend Isaac."

"I am not a socialist because I do not care one fig about others," she objected. "It is only myself I think of."

"If you do not sympathize with laws, you at least recognize morals?"

She laughed gayly, leaning back against the dark green upholstery and showing her flawless teeth; her long, narrow eyes with their seductive gleam flashed into his. A lighter spirit possessed her.

"Not other people's," she declared. "I have my own code and I live by it. As for you,--"

She paused. Her sudden fit of gayety seemed to pass.

"As for me?" he murmured.

"I am a little conscience-stricken," she said slowly. "I think I ought to have left you where you were. I am not at all sure that you would not have been happier. You are a very nice boy, Mr. Arnold Chetwode, much too good for that stuffy little office in Tooley Street, but I do not know whether it is really for your good if one is inclined to try and help you to escape. If you saw another man holding a position you wanted yourself, would you throw him out, if you could, by sheer force, or would you think of your laws and your morals?"

"It depends a little upon how much I wanted it," he confessed.

She laughed.

"Ah! I see, then, that there are hopes of you," she admitted. "You should read the reign of Queen Elizabeth if you would know what Englishmen should be like. You know, I had an English mother, and she was descended from Francis Drake.... Ah, we are arrived!"

They had lost themselves somewhere between Oxford Street and Regent Street. The car pulled up in front of a restaurant which Arnold had certainly never seen or heard of before. It was quite small, and it bore the name "Cafe Andre" painted upon the wall. The lower windows were all concealed by white curtains. The entrance hall was small, and there was no commissionnaire. Fenella, who led the way in, did not turn into the restaurant but at once ascended the stairs. Arnold followed her, his sense of curiosity growing stronger at every moment. On the first landing there were two doors with glass tops. She opened one and motioned him to enter.

"Will you wait for me for a few moments?" she said. "I am going to telephone."

He entered at once. She turned and passed into the room on the other side of the landing. Arnold glanced around him with some curiosity. The room was well appointed and a luncheon table was laid for four people. There were flowers upon the table, and the glass and cutlery were superior to anything one might have expected from a restaurant in this vicinity. The window looked down into the street. Arnold stood before it for a moment or two. The traffic below was insignificant, but the roar of Oxford Street, only a few yards distant, came to his ears even through the closed window. He listened thoughtfully, and then, before he realized the course his thoughts were taking, he found himself thinking of Ruth. In a certain sense he was superstitious about Ruth and her forebodings. He found himself wondering what she would have said if she could have seen him there and known that it was Fenella who had brought him. And he himself--what did he think of it? A week ago, his life had been so commonplace that his head and his heart had ached with the monotony of it. And now Fenella had come and had shown him already strange things. He seemed to have passed into a world where mysterious happenings were an every-day occurrence, into a world peopled by strange men and women who always carried secrets about with them. And, in a sense, no one was more mysterious than Fenella herself. He asked himself as he stood there whether her vagaries were merely temperamental, the air of mystery which seemed to surround her simply accidental. He thought of that night at her house, the curious intimacy which from the first moment she had seemed to take for granted, the confidence with which she had treated him. He remembered those few breathless moments in her room, the man's hand upon the window-sill, with the strange colored ring, worn with almost flagrant ostentation. And then, with a lightning-like transition of thought, the gleam of the hand with that self-same ring, raised to strike a murderous blow, which he had seen for a moment through the doors of the Milan. The red seal ring upon the finger--what did it mean? A doubt chilled him for a moment. He told himself with passionate insistence, that it was not possible that she could know of these things. Her words were idle, her theories a jest. He turned away from the window and caught up a morning paper, resolved to escape from his thoughts. The first headline stared up at him:


THE ROSARIO MURDER.
SENSATIONAL ARREST EXPECTED.
RUMORED EXTRAORDINARY DISCLOSURES.


He threw the paper down again. Then the door was suddenly opened, and Fenella appeared. She rang a bell.

"I am going to order luncheon," she announced. "My brother will be here directly."

Arnold bowed, a little absently. Against his will, he was listening to voices on the landing outside. One he knew to be Starling's, the other was Count Sabatini's. He closed his ears to their speech, but there was no doubt whatever that the voice of Starling shook with fear. A moment or two later the two men entered the room. Count Sabatini came forward with outstretched hand. A rare smile parted his lips. He looked a very distinguished and very polished gentleman.

"I am pleased to meet you again, Mr. Chetwode," he said, "the more pleased because I understand from my sister that we are to have the pleasure of your company for luncheon."

"You are very kind," Arnold murmured.

"Mr. Starling--I believe that you met the other night," Count Sabatini continued.

Arnold held out his hand but could scarcely repress a start. Starling seemed to have lost weight. His cheeks were almost cadaverous, his eyes hollow. His slight arrogance of bearing had gone; he gave one a most unpleasant impression.

"I remember Mr. Starling quite well," Arnold said. "We met also, I think, at the Milan Hotel, a few minutes after the murder of Mr. Rosario."

Starling shook hands limply. Sabatini smiled.

"A memorable occasion," he remarked. "Let us take luncheon now. Gustave," he added, turning to the waiter who had just entered the room, "serve the luncheon at once. It is a queer little place, this, Mr. Chetwode," he went on, turning to Arnold, "but I can promise you that the omelette, at least, is as served in my own country."

They took their places at the table, and Arnold, at any rate, found it a very pleasant party. Sabatini was no longer gloomy and taciturn. His manner still retained a little of its deliberation, but towards Arnold especially he was more than courteous. He seemed, indeed, to have the desire to attract. Fenella was almost bewitching. She had recovered her spirits, and she talked to him often in a half audible undertone, the familiarity of which gave him a curious pleasure. Starling alone was silent and depressed. He drank a good deal, but ate scarcely anything. Every passing footstep upon the stairs outside alarmed him; every time voices were heard he stopped to listen. Sabatini glanced towards him once with a scornful flash in his black eyes.

"One would imagine, my dear Starling, that you had committed a crime!" he exclaimed.

Starling raised his glass to his lips with shaking fingers, and drained its contents.

"I had too much champagne last night," he muttered.

There was a moment's silence. Every one felt his statement to be a lie. For some reason or other, the man was afraid. Arnold was conscious of a sense of apprehension stealing over him. The touch of Fenella's fingers upon his arm left him, for a moment, cold. Sabatini turned his head slowly towards the speaker, and his face had become like the face of an inquisitor, stern and merciless, with the flavor of death in the cold, mirthless parting of the lips.

"Then you drank a very bad brand, my friend," he declared. "Still, even then, the worst champagne in the world should not give you those ugly lines under the eyes, the scared appearance of a hunted rabbit. One would imagine--"

Starling struck the table a blow with his fist which set the glasses jingling.

"D--n it, stop, Sabatini!" he exclaimed. "Do you want to--"

He broke off abruptly. He looked towards Arnold. He was breathing heavily. His sudden fit of passion had brought an unwholesome flush of color to his cheeks.

"Why should I stop?" Sabatini proceeded, mercilessly. "Let me remind you of my sister's presence. Your lack of self-control is inexcusable. One would imagine that you had committed some evil deed, that you were indeed an offender against the law."

Again there was that tense silence. Starling looked around him with the helpless air of a trapped animal. Arnold sat there, listening and watching, completely fascinated. There was something which made him shiver about the imperturbability, not only of Sabatini himself, but of the woman who sat by his side.

Sabatini poured himself out a glass of wine deliberately.

"Who in the world," he demanded, "save a few unwholesome sentimentalists, would consider the killing of Rosario a crime?"

Starling staggered to his feet. His cheeks now were ashen.

"You are mad!" he cried, pointing to Arnold.

"Not in the least," Sabatini proceeded calmly. "I am not accusing you of having killed Rosario. In any case, it would have been a perfectly reasonable and even commendable deed. One can scarcely understand your agitation. If you are really accused of having been concerned in that little contretemps, why, here is our friend Mr. Arnold Chetwode, who was present. No doubt he will be able to give evidence in your favor."

Arnold was speechless for a moment. Sabatini's manner was incomprehensible. He spoke as one who alludes to some trivial happening. Yet even his light words could not keep the shadow of tragedy from the room. Even at that instant Arnold seemed suddenly to see the flash of a hand through the glass-topped door, to hear the hoarse cry of the stricken man.

"I saw nothing but the man's hand!" he muttered, in a voice which he would scarcely have recognized as his own. "I saw his hand and his arm only. He wore a red signet ring."

Sabatini inclined his head in an interested manner.

"A singular coincidence," he remarked, pleasantly. "My sister has already told me of your observation. It certainly is a point in favor of our friend Starling. It sounds like the badge of some secret society, and not even the most ardent romanticist would suspect our friend Starling here of belonging to anything of the sort."

Starling had resumed his luncheon, and was making a great effort at a show of indifference. Nevertheless, he watched Arnold uneasily.

"Say, there's no sense in talking like this!" he muttered. "Mr. Chetwode here will think you're in earnest."

"There is, on the contrary, a very great deal of sound common sense," Sabatini asserted, gently, "in all that I have said. I want our young friend, Mr. Chetwode, to be a valued witness for the defense when the misguided gentlemen from Scotland Yard choose to lay a hand upon your shoulder. One should always be prepared, my friend, for possibilities. You great--"

He stopped short. Starling, with a smothered oath, had sprung to his feet. The eyes of every one were turned toward the wall; a small electric bell was ringing violently. For the next few moments, events marched swiftly. Starling, with incredible speed, had left the room by the inner door. A waiter had suddenly appeared as though by magic, and of the fourth place at table there seemed to be left no visible signs. All the time, Sabatini, unmoved, continued to roll his cigarette. Then there came a tapping at the door.

(Illustration: The eyes of every one were turned toward the wall. _Page 97_.)

"See who is there," Sabatini instructed the waiter.

Gustave, his napkin in his hand, threw open the door. A young man presented himself--a person of ordinary appearance, with a notebook sticking out of his pocket. His eyes seemed to take in at once the little party. He advanced a few steps into the room.

"You are perhaps not aware, sir," Sabatini said gently, "that this is a private apartment."

The young man bowed.

"I must apologize for my intrusion, sir and madame," he declared, looking towards Fenella. "I am a reporter on the staff of the _Daily Unit_, and I am exceedingly anxious to interview--you will pardon me!"

With a sudden swift movement he crossed the room, passed into the inner apartment and disappeared. Sabatini rose to his feet.

"I propose," he said, "that we complain to the proprietor of this excitable young journalist, and take our coffee in the palm court at the Carlton."

Fenella also rose and stepped in front of the looking-glass.

"It is good," she declared. "I stay with you for one half hour. Afterwards I have a bridge party. You will come with us, Mr. Chetwode?"

Arnold did not at once reply. He was gazing at the inner door. Every moment he expected to hear--what? It seemed to him that tragedy was there, the greatest tragedy of all--the hunting of man! Sabatini yawned.

"Those others," he declared, "must settle their own little differences. After all, it is not our affair."

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