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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Amiable Charlatan - Chapter 8. At The Alhambra
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An Amiable Charlatan - Chapter 8. At The Alhambra Post by :Howlerckc Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1969

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An Amiable Charlatan - Chapter 8. At The Alhambra

CHAPTER VIII. AT THE ALHAMBRA

Luigi's face, when he met the Parkers and myself at the entrance of the restaurant, was a study. His polite bow and smile of welcome seemed suddenly frozen on his face as his eyes fell upon Mr. Moss. Mr. Moss was still wearing his hat, which was a black bowler with a small brim, set at a jaunty angle a little on one side and affording a liberal view of his black curls underneath. His linen failed completely to stand the test of the clear, soft light of the restaurant, and one might have been excused for entertaining certain doubts with regard to the diamond pin in his mauve tie and the ring that flashed from his not overwhite hand as he tardily removed his headgear.

"Bit of all right--this place!" Mr. Moss remarked, handing his hat to Luigi. "Who'll have a short one with me before we feed?"

Luigi passed the hat from the tips of his fingers to a subordinate. He showed us a table quite silently, handed the menu over to a _maitre d'hotel and promptly departed. Looking round a little nervously I could see him gazing at us from his sanctum over the top of the blind!

"Mr. Moss, I see, has American tastes," Mr. Parker declared. "He likes an _aperitif before dinner. Leave it to me, please."

Mr. Parker ordered a somewhat extensive dinner. Throughout the meal we listened to a series of adventures in which the hero was always Mr. Moss. We heard of wonderful hauls and wonderful escapes; detectives outwitted-- exploits that reminded me more of the motor bandits of Paris than of our own sober capital.

Mr. Parker's attention never flagged. Halfway through the meal Mr. Moss suddenly put down his knife and fork. He broke off in the middle of a fascinating narration of an episode during which he had ju-jutsued one detective, knocked another down, locked them both in an empty room, and strolled away with a cigar abstracted from the case of one of them and his pockets full of uncut emeralds. With his mouth open he was gazing fixedly across the room. There was a considerable change in his tone.

"'Ware 'tec'!" he said sharply.

We all looked in the direction he indicated, and we all recognized Mr. Cullen, who was apparently returning with interest our observation. I saw a grim smile upon his lips as he disappeared for a moment behind the menu card. For a man who had in his time treated detectives in such a cavalier way, Mr. Moss' change of color and subdued manner was a little extraordinary. He cheered up, however, after a little while.

"Our friend Cullen," Mr. Parker murmured, "seems to have taken quite a fancy to this restaurant."

"Used to be on my lay," Mr. Moss remarked. "He's much too big a duke now for the street, though. They say he gets nearly all the high-class forgery and swindling cases."

"We have come into contact with him ourselves," Mr. Parker observed genially. "Seems to me there's a kind of want of snap about him compared with our American detectives; but I dare say he knows his business."

"Is your father really enjoying this?" I asked Eve.

"He absolutely loves it!" she replied.

I sighed.

"And I think," she added suddenly, "you are behaving beautifully--I almost love you for it."

I looked at her quickly and I felt rewarded for all I had gone through. Her attitude toward me was subtly different. Somehow I felt that I was being permitted a glimpse of the real Eve. Her eyes were soft; she patted my hand under the table. I could almost have shaken hands with Mr. Moss!

"What about a music hall afterward?" I proposed in the fullness of my heart. "Shall I send for stalls at the Alhambra?"

My proposal was received with unanimous approval. Our departure from the restaurant a few minutes later evoked almost as much comment as our arrival. Mr. Moss led the way, his hands in his trousers pockets and a large cigar, pointing toward the ceiling, protruding from the corner of his mouth. His slight uneasiness with regard to the whereabouts of his hat having been dispelled by its appearance before we finished our meal, he placed it on his head at its usual angle before we left the room.

Mr. Parker took his arm as they passed out, and I saw Mr. Cullen's eyes follow them from behind his newspaper. The two got into a taxi and Eve and I followed them in another, an arrangement that Mr. Moss appeared to regard with disfavor. Eve's hand stole into mine as we drove off.

"Do you know," she said seriously, "I think it's perfectly horrid to drag you about in such company! It's all very well for us, because we belong and we are in a strange city; but I saw some of your friends look at you and whisper. They must think you are mad!"

"So long as you are in it, dear," I assured her, "I don't care where I go or with whom."

"You don't look like that a bit, you know!" she sighed.

"As for the rest," I went on, "if you are really sorry for me--why, then, end it! Your father could spare us for a little time."

I could see she was becoming serious again. Lights flashed upon her face. I felt a sudden wave of pity mingled with my love for her. After all, there were times when her anxiety must have been almost insupportable.

"Eve, dearest," I whispered, "you must let me take you away from this. You must! You are too good and sweet ever to mix with these people--to live this life."

She half closed her eyes for a moment. When she looked at me again she was laughing.

"You're a dear boy!" she said. "Now help me out, please. We have arrived." We found four stalls reserved for us near the front at the music hall; and, after settling a slight preliminary difficulty, owing to Mr. Moss' reluctance to parting with his hat, we sat down to enjoy the performance. Mr. Moss seemed a little disappointed, too, that his bright and snappy order for drinks to the powdered official who showed us to our places was not at once executed; but otherwise he made himself very much at home.

We had been there perhaps half an hour when I saw a sudden change in his demeanor, which was almost at once reflected in the serious expression that had stolen into Mr. Parker's benign countenance. An old gentleman, white-haired, with rubicund face and a jovial air, had taken the seat next to them. He had the appearance of having come from the country and of having spent a happy day in town. Even from where I sat I could see protruding from his breast-pocket a brown leather pocketbook.

I watched them as though fascinated. The change in Mr. Moss was amazing. His reckless air of enjoyment had departed. He was still smoking, but he was all alert, like a cat ready to spring. Mr. Parker, too, was interested. I saw him whisper something in Mr. Moss' ear and I felt a cold foreboding of what was going to happen.

"I'm for a drink !" Mr. Moss declared in a rather loud tone. "Come on, guv'nor!"

They both rose. The old gentleman drew in his legs to let them pass. Though I watched with fixed eyes I was absolutely unable to follow their movements, but when they had passed the old gentleman I could see from where I sat that his pocketbook was gone.

"Did you see that?" I whispered to Eve.

She shook her head.

"The old gentleman's pocketbook," I groaned; "they've got it!"

Eve for a moment sat quite still; she, too, seemed nervous. I was looking away again at the retreating figures of Mr. Parker and Mr. Moss. Suddenly my heart sank. I saw the old gentleman spring to his feet and hurry after them; and I saw, too, at the end of the line of stalls, Mr. Cullen and a companion standing, waiting. I rose quickly to my feet.

"I'm afraid there's going to be some trouble," I said to Eve. "Let me go and see if I can help. It looks as though the whole thing were a trap."

I followed quickly. It is only fair to Mr. Cullen to say that he conducted the affair with great discretion and with every consideration for the feelings of the management. He stopped Mr. Parker and Mr. Moss as they reached the end of the line of stalls.

"Please come with me," he said. "I have something to say to you outside."

Mr. Moss showed signs of an attempt to escape. He stooped for a minute as though to run, but a kick from Mr. Parker induced him to alter his mind.

"Wotcher want?" he asked belligerently.

The old gentleman had now reached them, red-faced and incoherent. He addressed himself to Mr. Cullen, and I no longer had any doubt whatever that the affair was a plant of the detective.

"I've been robbed of my pocketbook!" he exclaimed. "One of these two has got it--brushed up against me just now on the way out of the stalls. Where's the manager?"

Only a few people in the immediate vicinity were conscious that anything at all unusual was happening. The promenade just at that particular spot was almost deserted.

"This gentleman is certainly mistaken," Mr. Parker declared with dignity. "Neither my friend nor myself knows anything about his pocketbook."

"I am sorry," Mr. Cullen said politely, "but I shall have to trouble you to come with me to Bow Street at once--and you, too, sir," he added, addressing the old gentleman. "I am a police officer and we will go into the matter there. You will agree with me that it is well not to make a disturbance here. I have two assistants with me."

He indicated by a little gesture two men who had emerged from somewhere in the background.

"I will go with the utmost pleasure," Mr. Parker consented. "At the same time this gentleman has obviously been drinking and his charge is absurd."

It was precisely at this moment that I felt something hard pressed against my hand. With a dexterity that was nothing short of miraculous, Mr. Parker, who apparently was standing with his hands in his pockets, had suddenly forced one of them through some secret opening in his coat.

In those few seconds it seemed to me I lived a year. I had no time to think--no time to realize that if I failed nothing could save my appearance at Bow Street on the following morning as a common pickpocket. I gripped the pocketbook from his hand and, without changing a muscle, dropped it into the yawning overcoat pocket of the bucolic gentleman.

The moment was over and passed. Mr. Parker, with a movement forward, had covered my proceedings. I had been face to face with death years before, but I had never felt quite the same thrill.

"This way, gentlemen, if you please," Mr. Cullen directed softly.

"You will not object to my accompanying you?" I asked.

"Certainly not," Mr. Cullen replied; "I, in fact, am not sure that it would not be my duty to ask you to come."

"One moment!" I begged.

Mr. Cullen paused.

"The gentleman who made this charge," I went on, "seems to me to be in a very uncertain condition. Might I suggest that, before you commit yourself to taking these people to the police station, you just make sure he really has been robbed of his pocketbook?"

"Had it here," the old gentleman declared; "right in this pocket! Look for yourself--gone!"

"The old gentleman scarcely seems to me," I remarked, "to be in a fit condition to know which pocket it was in."

Mr. Cullen, who had been walking carefully between him and the other two, smiled in a superior way.

"Please feel in all your pockets," he told his accomplice.

The old gentleman obeyed. Suddenly he stopped short. A blank expression came into his face.

"What have you got there?" I asked.

He brought it out with ill-concealed reluctance. It was, without doubt, the pocketbook. I shall never forget Mr. Cullen's face! He was bereft of words. He stared at it as though he had seen it come up through the floor. Mr. Moss simply stood with his mouth open. Mr. Parker alone appeared unmoved by any emotion of surprise. His manner was serious--almost dignified.

"I want you to take this from me straight, Mr. Cullen," he said. "I am not a man who loses his temper easily, but you're trying us a bit high."

Mr. Cullen remained for a moment or two speechless. He looked at me and drew a long breath. I knew perfectly well what he was thinking. He had had a man on either side of Mr. Parker and Mr. Moss. The only person who could have transferred that pocketbook was myself. I could see him readjusting his ideas as to my moral character.

"Mr. Parker--gentlemen," he said, removing his hat, "pray accept my apologies. You are free to return to your seats whenever you choose. This gentleman was evidently mistaken," he added, speaking with withering sarcasm and turning sharply toward his coadjutor. "You oughtn't to come to these places in your present condition, sir. Take my advice and get along home at once."

The bucolic gentleman, who had completely lost his appearance of inebriety, mumbled a few incoherent words and departed. After his departure Mr. Parker assumed a more genial attitude.

"Well, well! I suppose you only did your duty, sir," he remarked, with a resigned sigh. "We were on our way to the bar. Will you join us, Mr. Cullen?"

I did not hear the detective's reply, but somehow or other we all drifted there. Mr. Moss at once found an easy-chair, which he pronounced to be "a bit of all right" and in which he assumed an easy and elegant attitude. Mr. Parker, Mr. Cullen, and I completed the circle, which now included a professional gutter-thief, a disappointed detective, Mr. Parker and myself. It was a unique moment in my life!

The wine affected the spirits of no one except, perhaps, Mr. Moss; and him, when we finally broke up our party, we thought it advisable to get rid of in quick order. To my surprise Mr. Parker seemed in a particularly despondent frame of mind. He needed pressing even to come to supper.

"You were quick-witted, Walmsley," he admitted as we rolled away in the car, "quick-witted, I'll admit that; but you were dead clumsy with your fingers! I could see what you were doing from the back of my head."

"Really!" I murmured. "Well, I suppose that sort of thing is a gift. I only know that I hope I may never have to do it again."

Mr. Parker sighed.

"I fear," he said, "that your troubles with us will soon be over. Eve has been telling me about that young idiot of an Englishman who visited the Bundercombes out in Okata. If there was one man whose name I thought I was safe to make use of it was Joe Bundercombe!"

"It seems," I admitted, "to have been an unfortunate choice. What do you think of doing about it?"

Mr. Parker apparently had no immediate answer ready for me. During our brief ride in the motor and in the early stages of supper he was afflicted by a taciturnity that made him almost negligible as a companion. And then suddenly a light broke over his face. He had the appearance of a shipwrecked mariner who suddenly catches sight of land in the offing. His lips were a little parted, his boyish face all aglow.

"Walmsley, my dear fellow!" he exclaimed. "Eve, dear! The problem is solved! Raise your glasses and drink with me. Here's farewell to Mr. Joseph H. Parker and Miss Parker. And a welcome to Mr. and Miss Bundercombe, of Okata!"

"That's all very well," I said; "but Reggie will be on your track."

Mr. Parker beamed on Eve and me.

"We shall see!" he declared didactically.

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