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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Great Secret - Chapter VII. A TETE-A-TETE DINNER
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The Great Secret - Chapter VII. A TETE-A-TETE DINNER Post by :mikefilsaime Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :April 2012 Read :829

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The Great Secret - Chapter VII. A TETE-A-TETE DINNER

At about nine o'clock the following morning a note was brought to my room addressed to me in a lady's handwriting. I tore it open at once. It was, as I bad expected, from Miss Van Hoyt.

"DEAR MR. COURAGE,--

"I should like to see you for a few minutes at twelve o'clock in the reading-room.

"Yours sincerely,

"ADELE VAN HOYT."

I wrote a reply immediately:--

"DEAR MISS VAN HOYT,--

"I regret that I am engaged for the day, and have to leave the hotel in an hour. I shall return about seven o'clock. Could you not dine with me this evening, either in the hotel or elsewhere?

"Yours sincerely,

"J. HARDROSS COURAGE."

Over my breakfast I studied the handwriting of her note. It might indeed have served for an index to so much of her character as had become apparent to me. The crisp, clear formation of the letters, the bold curves and angular terminations, seemed to denote a personality free from all feminine weaknesses. I was reminded at once of the unfaltering gaze of her deep blue eyes, of the chill precision of her words and manner. I asked myself, then, why a character so free, apparently, from all the lovable traits of her sex, should have proved so attractive to me. I had known other beautiful women, I was not untravelled, and I had met women in Paris and Vienna who also possessed the more subtle charms of perfect toilet and manners, and were free from the somewhat hopeless obviousness of most of the women of our country. There was something beneath all that. At the moment, I could not tell what it was. I simply realized that, for the first time, a woman stood easily first in my life, that my whole outlook upon the world was undermined.

Just as I was leaving the hotel, I saw her maid coming down the hall with a note in her hand. I waited, and she accosted me.

"Monsieur Courage!"

"Yes!" I answered.

She gave me the note.

"There is no reply at present," she said, dropping her voice almost to a whisper. "Monsieur might open it in his cab."

She gave me a glance of warning, and I saw that the hall porter and one of his subordinates were somewhat unnecessarily near me. Then she glided away, and I drove off in my cab. Directly we had started, I tore open the envelope and read these few lines.

"DEAR MR. COURAGE,--

"I will dine with you to-night at the Cafe Francais at eight o'clock. Please take a table upstairs. Do not ask for me again or send me any further message until we meet there.

"Yours sincerely,

"ADELE VAN HOYT."

At Lord's I was compelled to spend half the day hanging about the pavilion, smoking a good many more cigarettes than I was accustomed to, and finding the cricket much less interesting than usual. My own innings fortunately kept me distracted for a little more than two hours, and the effort of it soothed my nerves and did me good all round. On my way back to the hotel, I determined to forget everything except that I was going to dine alone with the one companion I would have chosen first out of the whole world. In that frame of mind I bathed, changed my clothes, and made my way a little before the appointed time to the Cafe Francais.

I found out my table, sent for some more flowers, and ordered the wine. Then I descended to the hall just in time to meet my guest.

She wore nothing over her evening dress save a lace scarf, which she untwisted as we ascended the stairs. For some reason I fancied that she was not very well pleased with me. Her greeting was certainly cool.

"Is this your favorite restaurant?" I asked, as the head-waiter ushered us to our table.

"I have no favorite restaurant," she answered; "only to-night I felt in the humor for French cooking--and French service."

I fancied that there was some meaning in the latter part of her sentence; but at that time I did not understand. I had ordered the dinner carefully; and I was glad to see that, although she ate sparingly, she showed appreciation. Wine she scarcely touched.

"So you have been particularly engaged to-day," was almost her first remark.

"I was forced to go to Lord's," I reminded her. "A cricket match lasts three days."

"Three whole days!" she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows.

"Certainly! unless it is over before," I replied.

"And you mean to say that you are a prisoner there all that time--that you could not leave if you chose to?"

"I am afraid not," I answered. "Cricket is a serious thing in this country, you know. If you are chosen to play and commence in the match, you must go through with it. Surely you have met with something of the same sort of thing in the football matches in America!"

"I have never been interested in such things," she said. "I suppose that is why I have never realized their importance. I am afraid, Mr. Courage--"

"Well?"

She lifted her eyes to mine. What a color!--and what a depth. Then I knew, as though by inspiration, how it was that I found myself passing into bondage. Cold she might seem, and self-engrossed! It was because the right chord had never been struck. Some day another light should shine in those wonderful eyes. I saw her before me transformed, saw color in her still, marble cheeks, saw her lips drift into a softer curve, heard the tremor of passion in her quiet, languid tone.

"Do you know that you are staring at me?" she remarked, calmly.

I apologized profusely.

"It is a bad habit of mine," I assured her. "I was looking--beyond."

There was real interest then in her face. She leaned a little forward. Perhaps it was my fancy, but I thought that she seemed to regard me differently.

"How interesting!" she said. "Do you know I had not given you credit for much imagination. You must tell me what you saw!"

"Impossible!" I declared.

"Rubbish!" she answered, "nothing is impossible. Besides, I ask it,"

"I do not know you well enough," I declared, helping myself to an artichoke, "to be personal."

"The liberties you take in your thoughts," she answered, "I permit you to render into speech. It is the same thing."

"One's thoughts," I answered, "are too phantasmagorial. One cannot collect them into speech."

"You must try," she declared, "or I shall never, never dine with you again. Nothing is so interesting as to see yourself from another's point of view!"

"Is it understood," I asked, "that I am not held personally responsible for my thoughts--that if I try to clothe them with words, I am held free from offence?"

She considered for a moment.

"I suppose so," she said. "Yes! Go on."

I drank off my glass of wine, and waited until the waiter, who had been carving a Rouen duckling on a stand by the side of the table, had stepped back into the background.

"Very well!" I said. "I am thirty-three years old and a bachelor, well off, and I have never been a stay-at-home. I know something of society in Paris, in Vienna, in Rome, as well as London. I have always found women agreeable companions, and I have never avoided them. The sex, as a whole, has attracted me. From individual members of it I have happened to remain absolutely heart-whole."

"Marvellous," she murmured in gentle derision. "Please pass the toast. Thank you!"

"I have been compelled," I said, "to be egotistical. I must now become personal. I saw you for the first time in the hall at the Universal, the morning before yesterday. I encountered you the night before under extremely dubious circumstances. I spoke to you for the first time yesterday. I have met other women as beautiful, I have met many others who have been more gracious to me. These things do not seem to count. You have asked for truth, mind, and you are going to have it. As surely as we are sitting here together, I know that, from henceforth, for me there will be--there could be--no other woman in the world!"

She moved in her chair a little restlessly. Her eyes avoided mine. Her eyebrows had contracted a little, but I could not see that she was angry.

"What am I to think of such a declaration as that?" she asked quietly. "You are not a wizard. You have seen of me what I chose, and you have seen nothing which a man should find lovable, except my looks."

I smiled as I leaned a little forward.

"Don't do me an injustice," I begged. "You have brought me now to the very moment when I forgot myself, and prompted your question. Remember that one has always one's fancy. I looked at you to-night, and I thought that I saw another woman--or rather I thought that I saw the woman that you might be, that I would pray to make you. The other woman is there, I think. I only hope that it may be my good fortune to call her into life."

Her head was bent over her plate. She seemed to be listening to the music--or was there something there which she did not wish me to see? I could not tell. The waiter intervened with another course. When she spoke to me again, her tone was almost cold, but it troubled me very little. There was a softness in her eyes which she could not hide.

"It seems to me," she said, "that we have been very frivolous. I agreed to dine with you that we might speak together of this unfortunate person, Leslie Guest. You saw him last night?"

"Yes," I answered, "I saw him."

My tone had become grave, and my face overcast. She was watching me curiously.

"Well!"

"I am bothered," I admitted. "I don't quite know what I ought to do!"

"Explain!"

"It seemed to me," I said, "that the man was neither more nor less than a prisoner there in the hands of those who, for some reason or other, are his enemies."

"That," she admitted, "is fairly obvious; what of it?"

"Well," I said, "the most straightforward thing for me to do, I believe, would be to go to the nearest police-station and tell them all I know."

She laughed softly.

"What an Englishman you are!" she exclaimed. "The law, or a letter to the _Times_. These are your final resources, are they not? Well, in this case, let me assure you that neither would help you in the least."

"I am not so sure," I answered. "At any rate, I do not see the fun of letting him remain there, to be done to death by those mysterious enemies of his."

"Then why not take him away?" she asked quietly.

"Where to?" I asked.

"Your own home, if you are sufficiently interested in him!"

"Do you mean that?" I asked.

"I do! Listen! I have no pity for the man who calls himself Leslie Guest! Death he has deserved, and his fate, whomever might intervene, is absolutely inevitable. But I do not wish him to die--at present!"

"Why not?"

"You can imagine, I think. He has the secret."

"He does not seem to me," I remarked, "the sort of man likely to part with it."

"Not to me," she answered quickly, "not to those others. From us he would guard it with his life! With you it is different."

"I am not sure," I said slowly, "that I wish to become a sharer of such dangerous knowledge."

"You are afraid?" she asked coldly.

"I do not see what I have to gain by it," I admitted. "I am not curious, and the possession of it certainly seems to entail some inconvenience, if not danger."

Her lip curled a little. She nodded as though she quite understood my point of view.

"You have said enough," she declared; "I perceive that I was not mistaken! You are exactly the sort of man I thought you were from the first. It is better for you to return to your cricket and your sports. You are at home with them; in the great world you would soon be weary and lost. Call for your bill, please, and put me in a cab. I have a call to make before I return to the hotel"

"One moment more," I begged. "You have not altogether understood me! I have spoken from my own point of view only. I have no interest in the salvation of Leslie Guest, beyond an Englishman's natural desire to see fair play. I have no wish to be burdened with a secret which seems to spell life or death in capital letters. But show me where your interest lies, and I promise you that I will be zealous enough! Tell me what to do and I will do it. My time and my life are yours. Do what you will with them! Can I say more than that?"

She flashed a wonderful look at me across the table--such a look that my heart beat, and my pulses flowed to a strange, new music. Her tone was soft, almost caressing.

"You mean this?"

"Upon my honor I do!" I answered.

"Then take Leslie Guest with you back to your home in the country," she said. "Keep him with you, keep every one else away from him. In less than a week he will tell you his secret!"

"I will do it," I answered.

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