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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lighted Way - Chapter 3. Arnold Scents Mystery
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The Lighted Way - Chapter 3. Arnold Scents Mystery Post by :khobar_12 Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2941

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The Lighted Way - Chapter 3. Arnold Scents Mystery

CHAPTER III. ARNOLD SCENTS MYSTERY

From the first, nothing about that evening was as Arnold had expected. He took the tube to Hampstead station, and, the night being dry, he walked to Pelham Lodge without detriment to his carefully polished patent shoes. The neighborhood was entirely strange to him and he was surprised to find that the house which was pointed out to him by a policeman was situated in grounds of not inconsiderable extent, and approached by a short drive. Directly he rang the bell he was admitted not by a flamboyant parlormaid but by a quiet, sad-faced butler in plain, dark livery, who might have been major-domo to a duke. The house was even larger than he had expected, and was handsomely furnished in an extremely subdued style. It was dimly, almost insufficiently lit, and there was a faint but not unpleasant odor in the drawing-room which reminded him of incense. The room itself almost took his breath away. It was entirely French. The hangings, carpet and upholstery were all of a subdued rose color and white. Arnold, who was, for a young man, exceedingly susceptible to impressions, looked around him with an air almost of wonder. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the room was empty.

"Mr. and Mrs. Weatherley will be downstairs in one moment, sir," the man announced. "Mr. Weatherley was a little late home from the city."

Arnold nodded and stood upon the hearthrug, looking around him. He was quite content to spend a few moments alone, to admire the drooping clusters of roses, the elegance with which every article of furniture and appointment of the room seemed to fit into its place. Somehow or other, too, nothing appeared new. Everything seemed subdued by time into its proper tone. He began to wonder what sort of woman the presiding genius over such perfection could be. Then, with a quaint transition of thought, he remembered the little counting-house in Tooley Street, the smell of cheeses, and Mr. Weatherley's half-nervous invitation. His lips twitched and he began to smile. These things seemed to belong to a world so far away.

Presently he heard footsteps outside and voices. The door was opened but the person outside did not immediately enter. Apparently she had turned round to listen to the man who was still some distance behind. Arnold recognized his employer's voice.

"I am sorry that you are displeased, my dear Fenella, but I assure you that I did the best I could. It is true that the young man is in my office, but I am convinced that you will find him presentable."

A peal of the softest and most musical laughter that Arnold had ever heard in his life effectually stopped Mr. Weatherley's protestations. Yet, for all its softness and for all its music, there was a different note underneath, something a little bitter, unutterably scornful.

"My dear Samuel, it is true, without doubt, that you did your best. I do not blame you at all. It was I who was foolish to leave such a matter in your hands. It was not likely that among your acquaintances there was one whom I would have cared to welcome to my house. But that you should have gone to your employees--that, indeed, is funny! You do amuse me very much. Come."

The door was pushed fully open now and a woman entered, at the sight of whom Arnold forgot all his feelings of mingled annoyance and amusement. She was of little over the medium height, exceedingly slim--a slimness which was accentuated by the fashion of the gown she wore. Her face was absolutely devoid of color, but her features were almost cameo-like in their sensitive perfection. Her eyes were large and soft and brown, her hair a Titian red, worn low and without ornament. Her dress was of pale blue satin, which somehow had the effect of being made in a single piece, without seam or joining. Her neck and throat, exquisitely white, were bare except for a single necklace of pearls which reached almost to her knees. The look in Arnold's face, as she came slowly into the room, was one of frank and boyish admiration. The woman came towards him with a soft smile about her lips, but she was evidently puzzled. It was Mr. Weatherley who spoke. There was something almost triumphant in his manner.

"This is Mr. Chetwode, dear, of whom I was speaking to you," he said. "Glad to see you, Chetwode," he added, with ponderous condescension.

The woman laughed softly as she held out her hand.

"Are you going to pretend that you were deaf, to forgive me and be friends, Mr. Chetwode?" she asked, looking up at him. "One foggy day my husband took me to Tooley Street, and I did not believe that anything good could come out of the yellow fog and the mud and the smells. It was my ignorance. You heard, but you do not mind? I am sure that you do not mind?"

"Not a bit in the world," Arnold answered, still holding the hand which she seemed to have forgotten to draw away, and smiling down into her upturned face. "I was awfully sorry to overhear but you see I couldn't very well help it, could I?"

"Of course you could not help it," she replied. "I am so glad that you came and I hope that we can make it pleasant for you. I will try and send you in to dinner with some one very charming."

She laughed at him understandingly as his lips parted and closed again without speech. Then she turned away to welcome some other guests, who were at that moment announced. Arnold stood in the background for a few minutes. Presently she came back to him.

"Do you know any one here?" she asked.

"No one," he answered.

She dropped her voice almost to a whisper. Arnold bent his head and listened with a curious pleasure to her little stream of words.

"It is a strange mixture of people whom you see here," she said, "a mixture, perhaps, of the most prosaic and the most romantic. The Count Sabatini, whom you see talking to my husband, is my brother. He is a person who lives in the flood of adventures. He has taken part in five wars, he has been tried more than once for political offenses. He has been banished from what is really our native country, Portugal, with a price set upon his head. He has an estate upon which nothing grows, and a castle with holes in the roof in which no one could dwell. Yet he lives--oh, yes, he lives!"

Arnold looked across at the man of whom she was speaking--gaunt and olive-skinned, with deep-set eyes and worn face. He had still some share of his sister's good looks and he held himself as a man of his race should.

"I think I should like your brother," Arnold declared. "Will he talk about his campaigns?"

"Perhaps," she murmured, "although there is one about which you would not care to hear. He fought with the Boers, but we will not speak of that. Mr. and Mrs. Horsman there I shall say nothing about. Imagine for yourself where they belong."

"They are your husband's friends," he decided, unhesitatingly.

"You are a young man of great perceptions," she replied. "I am going to like you, I am sure. Come, there is Mr. Starling standing by the door. What do you think of him?"

Arnold glanced across the room. Mr. Starling was apparently a middle-aged man--clean-shaven, with pale cheeks and somewhat narrow eyes.

"An American, without a doubt," Arnold remarked.

"Quite right. Now the lady in the gray satin with the wonderful coiffure--she has looked at you already more than once. Her name is Lady Blennington, and she is always trying to discover new young men."

Arnold glanced at her deliberately and back again at his hostess.

"There is nothing for me to say about her," he declared.

"You are wonderful," she murmured. "That is so exactly what one feels about Lady Blennington. Then there is Lady Templeton--that fluffy little thing behind my husband. She looks rather as though she had come out of a toy shop, does she not?"

"She looks nice," Arnold admitted. "I knew--"

She glanced up at him and waited. Arnold, however, had stopped short.

"You have not yet told me," he said, "the name of the man who stands alone near the door--the one with the little piece of red ribbon in his coat?"

It seemed to him that, for some reason, the presence of that particular person affected her. He was a plump little man, sleek and well-dressed, with black hair, very large pearl studs, black moustache and imperial. Mrs. Weatherley stood quite still for a moment. Perhaps, he thought, she was listening to the conversation around them.

"The man's name is Rosario," she replied. "He is a financier and a man of fashion. Another time you must tell me what you think of him, but I warn you that it will not be so easy as with those others, for he is also a man of schemes. I am sorry, but I must send you in now with Mrs. Horsman, who is much too amiable to be anything else but dull. You shall come with me and I will introduce you."

Dinner was announced almost at that moment. Arnold, keen to enjoy, with all the love of new places and the enthusiasm of youth in his veins, found every moment of the meal delightful. They took their places at a round table with shaded lights artistically arranged, so that they seemed to be seated before a little oasis of flowers and perfumes in the midst of a land of shadows. He found his companion pleasant and sympathetic. She had a son about his age who was going soon into the city and about whom she talked incessantly. On his left, Lady Blennington made frank attempts to engage him in conversation whenever an opportunity arose. Arnold felt his spirits rise with every moment. He laughed and talked the whole of the time, devoting himself with very little intermission to one or the other of his two neighbors. Mr. Weatherley, who was exceedingly uncomfortable and found it difficult even to remember his few staple openings, looked across the table more than once in absolute wonder that this young man who, earning a wage of twenty-eight shillings a week, and occupying almost the bottom stool in his office, could yet be entirely and completely at his ease in this exalted company. More than once Arnold caught his hostess's eye, and each time he felt, for some unknown reason, a little thrill of pleasure at the faint relaxing of her lips, the glance of sympathy which shone across the roses. Life was a good place, he thought to himself, for these few hours, at any rate. And then, as he leaned back in his place for a moment, Ruth's words seemed suddenly traced with a finger of fire upon the dim wall. To-night was to be a night of mysteries. To-night the great adventure was to be born. He glanced around the table. There was, indeed, an air of mystery about some of these guests, something curiously aloof, something which it was impossible to put into words. The man Starling, for instance, seemed queerly placed here. Count Sabatini was another of the guests who seemed somehow to be outside the little circle. For minutes together he sat sometimes in grim silence. About him, too, there was always a curious air of detachment. Rosario was making the small conversation with his neighbor which the occasion seemed to demand, but he, too, appeared to talk as one who had more weighty matters troubling his brain. It was a fancy of Arnold's, perhaps, but it was a fancy of which he could not rid himself. He glanced towards his employer and a curious feeling of sympathy stirred him. The man was unhappy and ill at ease. He had lost his air of slight pomposity, the air with which he entered his offices in the morning, strutted about the warehouse, went out to lunch with a customer, and which he somehow seemed to lose as the time came for returning to his home. Once or twice he glanced towards his wife, half nervously, half admiringly. Once she nodded back to him, but it was the nod of one who gathers up her skirts as she throws alms to a beggar. Then Arnold realized that his little fit of thoughtfulness had made a material difference to the hum of conversation. He remembered his duty and leaned over toward Lady Blennington.

"You promised to tell me more about some of these people," he reminded her. "I am driven to make guesses all the time. Why does Mr. Starling look so much like an unwilling and impatient guest? And where is the castle of the Count Sabatini which has no roof?"

Lady Blennington sighed.

"This table is much too small for us to indulge in scandal," she replied. "It really is such a pity. One so seldom meets any one worth talking to who doesn't know everything there is that shouldn't be known about everybody. About Count Sabatini, for instance, I could tell you some most amusing things."

"His castle, perhaps, is in the air?" Arnold inquired.

"By no means," Lady Blennington assured him.

"On the contrary, it is very much upon the rocks. Some little island near Minorca, I believe. They say that Mr. Weatherley was wrecked there and Sabatini locked him up in a dungeon and refused to let him go until he promised to marry his sister."

"There are a good many men in the world, I should think," Arnold murmured, "who would like to be locked up on similar conditions."

She looked at him with a queer little smile.

"I suppose it is inevitable," she declared. "You will have to go through it, too. She certainly is one of the loveliest women I ever saw. I suppose you are already convinced that she is entirely adorable?"

"She has been very kind to me," Arnold replied.

"She would be," Lady Blennington remarked, dryly. "Look at her husband. The poor man ought to have known better than to have married her, of course, but do you think that he looks even reasonably happy?"

Arnold was beginning to feel rather uncomfortable. He was conscious of a strong desire not to discuss his hostess. Yet his curiosity was immense. He asked one question.

"Tell me," he said, "if she came from this little island in the Mediterranean, why does she speak English so perfectly?"

"She was educated in England," Lady Blennington told him. "Afterwards, her brother took her to South America. She had some small fortune, I believe, but when she came back they were penniless. They were really living as small market gardeners when Mr. Weatherley found them."

"You don't like her," he remarked. "I wonder why?"

Lady Blennington shook her head.

"One never knows," she replied. "I admire her, if that is anything."

"But you do not like her," he persisted.

She shrugged her shoulders slightly.

"I am afraid it is true," she agreed.

"You admit that and yet you are willing to be her guest?"

She smiled at him approvingly.

"If there is one masculine quality which I do appreciate," she said, "it is directness. I come because I love bridge and because I love my fellow-creatures and because my own friends are none too numerous. With the exception of those worthy friends of our host and his wife who are seated upon your right--Mr. and Mrs. Horsman, I believe they are called--we are all of the same ilk. Mr. Starling no one knows anything about; Count Sabatini's record is something awful."

"But there is Rosario," Arnold protested.

"Rosario goes into all the odd corners of the world," she replied. "Sometimes the corners are respectable and sometimes they are not. It really doesn't matter so far as he is concerned. Supposing, in return for all this information, you tell me something about yourself?"

"There isn't anything to tell," Arnold assured her. "I was asked here to fill up. I am an employee of Mr. Weatherley's."

She turned in her chair to look at him. Her surprise was obvious.

"Do you mean that you are his secretary, or something of that sort?" she demanded.

"I am a clerk in his office," Arnold told her.

She was evidently puzzled, but she asked him no more questions. At that moment Mrs. Weatherley rose from her place. As she passed Arnold she paused for a moment.

"You are all coming in five minutes," she said. "Before we play bridge, come straight to me. I have something to say to you."

He bowed and resumed his seat, from which he had risen quickly at her coming. Mr. Weatherley motioned to him to move up to his side. His face now was a little flushed, but his nervousness had not disappeared. He was certainly not the same man whom one met at Tooley Street.

"Glad to see you've made friends with the wife, Chetwode," he said. "She seems to have taken quite a fancy to you."

"Mrs. Weatherley has been very kind," Arnold answered.

"Enjoying yourself, I hope?" Mr. Weatherley asked.

"Very much indeed," Arnold declared. "It has been quite a treat for me."

Sabatini and Starling were talking earnestly together at the other side of the table. Rosario, bringing his wine down, came and sat at his host's other side.

"Beautiful vintage, this, Mr. Weatherley," he said. "Excellent condition, too."

Mr. Weatherley, obviously pleased, pursued the subject. In a way, it was almost pathetic to see his pleasure in being addressed by one of his own guests. Arnold drew a little away and looked across the banks of roses. There was something fascinating to him in the unheard conversation of Sabatini and Starling, on the opposite side of the table. Everything they said was in an undertone and the inexpressive faces of the two men gave no indication as to the nature of their conversation. Yet the sense of something mysterious in this house and among these guests was growing all the time with Arnold.

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