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A Child Of The Rain
A Difficult Problem
A Grammatical Ghost
A Memorable Night
A Mysterious Case
A Mystery With A Moral
A Spectral Collie
A Terribly Strange Bed
American Horses
An Astral Onion
An Intangible Clue
As Told By Mr Gryce
Bourgonef
From The Loom Of The Dead
His Last Bow
Hunted Down
Introduction To A Mystery With A Moral
Introduction To Melmoth The Wanderer
Melmoth The Wanderer
Missing: Page Thirteen
My Fascinating Friend
No 1 Branch Line: The Signal-man
On Being Found Out
On The Northern Ice
Problem Ix Violet's Own
Satire Of The Sea
Shall He Wed Her?
Story Of An Obstinate Corpse
Story Of The Vanishing Patient
The Adventure Of Black Peter
The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton
The Adventure Of The Abbey Grange
The Adventure Of The Bruce-partington Plans
The Adventure Of The Cardboard Box
The Adventure Of The Dancing Men
The Adventure Of The Devil's Foot
The Adventure Of The Dying Detective
The Adventure Of The Empty House
The Adventure Of The Golden Pince-nez
The Adventure Of The Missing Three-quarter
The Adventure Of The Norwood Builder
The Adventure Of The Priory School
The Adventure Of The Red Circle
The Adventure Of The Six Napoleons
The Adventure Of The Solitary Cyclist
The Adventure Of The Three Students
The Adventure Of Wisteria Lodge
The Affair Of The Tortoise
The Avenger
The Birth-mark
The Black Cross
The Box With The Iron Clamps
The Bronze Hand
The Cambered Foot
The Case Of He Golden Bullet
The Case Of Mr Foggatt
The Case Of The Dixon Torpedo
The Case Of The Pocket Diary Found In The Snow
The Case Of The Pool Of Blood In The Pastor's Study
The Case Of The Registered Letter
The Closed Cabinet
The Coin Of Dionysius
The Disappearance Of Lady Frances Carfax
The Doctor His Wife And The Clock
The Dreaming Lady
The End Of The Road
The Fortune Teller
The Golden Slipper
The Gray Madam
The Great Valdez Sapphire
The Grotto Spectre
The Haunted And The Haunters Or The House And The Brain
The Hermit Of Street
The Hole In The Mahogany Panel
The House By The Loch
The House Of Clocks
The House That Was Not
The Incantation
The Jew's Breastplate
The Knight's Cross Signal Problem
The Last Adventure
The Last Exploit Of Harry The Actor
The Lenton Croft Robberies
The Loss Of Sammy Crockett
The Lost Lady
The Lost Room
The Man In The Green Hat
The Mortals In The House
The Mysterious Card
The Notch On The Ax - A Story A La Mode
The Oblong Box
The Old Stone House
The Piano Next Door
The Pumpkin Coach
The Quinton Jewel Affair
The Reward
The Room Of The Evil Thought
The Second Bullet
The Shape Of Fear
The Spread Rails
The Stanway Cameo Mystery
The Thing On The Hearth
The Torture By Hope
The Tragedy At Brookbend Cottage
The Wrong Sign
The Yellow Flower
Their Dear Little Ghost

Masterpieces Of Mystery

A Ghost[1]
A Terribly Strange Bed
Chan Tow The Highrob
May Day Eve
Mr Bloke's Item
My Fascinating Friend
The Birth-mark
The Box With The Iron Clamps
The Diamond Lens
The Great Valdez Sapphire
The Inmost Light
The Lost Room
The Man Who Went Too Far
The Man With The Pale Eyes
The Mummy's Foot
The Mysterious Card
The Oblong Box
The Rival Ghosts
The Secret Of Goresthorpe Grange
The Torture By Hope



My Fascinating Friend








William Archer




I


Nature has cursed me with a retiring disposition. I have gone round the
world without making a single friend by the way. Coming out of my own
shell is as difficult to me as drawing others out of theirs. There are
some men who go through life extracting the substance of every one they
meet, as one picks out periwinkles with a pin. To me my fellow-men are
oysters, and I have no oyster-knife; my sole consolation (if it be one)
is that my own values absolutely defy the oyster-knives of others. Not
more than twice or thrice in my life have I met a fellow-creature at
whose "Open Sesame" the treasures of my heart and brain stood instantly
revealed. My Fascinating Friend was one of these rare and sympathetic
beings.

I was lounging away a few days at Monaco, awaiting a summons to join
some relations in Italy. One afternoon I had started for an aimless and
rambling climb among the olive-terraces on the lower slopes of the Tete
du Chien. Finding an exquisite coign of vantage amid the roots of a
gnarled old trunk springing from a built-up semicircular patch of level
ground, I sat me down to rest, and read, and dream. Below me, a little
to the right, Monaco jutted out into the purple sea. I could distinguish
carriages and pedestrians coming and going on the chaussee between the
promontory and Monte Carlo, but I was far too high for any sound to
reach me. Away to the left the coast took a magnificent sweep, past the
clustering houses of Roccabruna, past the mountains at whose base
Mentone nestled unseen, past the Italian frontier, past the bight of
Ventimiglia, to where the Capo di Bordighera stood faintly outlined
between sea and sky. There was not a solitary sail on the whole expanse
of the Mediterranean. A line of white, curving at rhythmic intervals
along a small patch of sandy beach, showed that there was a gentle swell
upon the sea, but its surface was mirror-like. A lovelier scene there is
not in the world, and it was at its very loveliest. I took the Saturday
Review from my pocket, and was soon immersed in an article on the
commutation of tithes.

I was aroused from my absorption by the rattle of a small stone hopping
down the steep track, half path, half stairway, by which I had ascended.
It had been loosened by the foot of a descending wayfarer, in whom, as
he picked his way slowly downward, I recognized a middle-aged German
(that I supposed to be his nationality) who had been very assiduous at
the roulette-tables of the Casino for some days past. There was nothing
remarkable in his appearance, his spectacled eyes, squat nose, and
square-cropped bristling beard being simply characteristic of his class
and country. He did not notice me as he went by, being too intent on his
footing to look about him; but I was so placed that it was a minute or
more before he passed out of sight round a bend in the path. He was just
turning the corner, and my eyes were still fixed on him, when I was
conscious of another figure within my field of vision. This second comer
had descended the same pathway, but had loosened no stones on his
passage. He trod with such exquisite lightness and agility that he had
passed close by me without my being aware of his presence, while he, for
his part, had his eyes fixed with a curious intensity on the thick-set
figure of the German, upon whom, at his rate of progress, he must have
been gaining rapidly. A glance showed me that he was a young man of
slender figure, dressed in a suit of dark-coloured tweed, of English
cut, and wearing a light-brown wide-awake hat. Just as my eye fell upon
him he put his hand into the inner breast-pocket of his coat, and drew
from it something which, as he was now well past me, I could not see. At
the same moment some small object, probably jerked out of his pocket by
mistake, fell almost noiselessly on the path at his feet. In his
apparently eager haste he did not notice his loss, but was gliding
onward, leaving what I took to be his purse lying on the path. It was
clearly my duty to call his attention to it; so I said, "Hi!" an
interjection which I have found serves its purpose in all countries. He
gave a perceptible start, and looked round at me over his shoulder. I
pointed to the object he had dropped, and said, "Voila!" He had thrust
back into his pocket the thing, whatever it was, which he held in his
hand, and now turned round to look where I was pointing. "Ah!" he said
in English, "my cigarette-case! I am much obliged to you," and he
stooped and picked it up.

"I thought it was your purse," I said.

"I would rather have lost my purse than this," he said, with a light
laugh. He had apparently abandoned his intention of overtaking the
German, who had meanwhile passed out of sight.

"Are you such an enthusiastic smoker?" I asked.

"I go in for quality, not quantity," he replied; "and a Spanish friend
has just given me some incomparable cigarritos." He opened the case as
he ascended the few steps which brought him up to my little plateau.
"Have one?" he said, holding it out to me with the most winning smile I
have ever seen on any human face.

I was about to take one from the left-hand side of the case, when he
turned it away and presented the other side to me.

"No, no!" he said; "these flat ones are my common brand. The round ones
are the gems."

"I am robbing you," I said, as I took one.

"Not if you are smoker enough to appreciate it," he said, as he
stretched himself on the ground beside me, and produced from a little
gold match-box a wax vesta, with which he lighted my cigarette and his
own.

So graceful was his whole personality, so easy and charming his manner,
that it did not strike me as in the least odd that he should thus make
friends with me by the mere exchange of half a dozen words. I looked at
him as he lay resting on his elbows and smoking lazily. He had thrown
his hat off, and his wavy hair, longish and of an opaque charcoal black,
fell over his temples while he shook it back behind his ears. He was a
little above the middle height, of dark complexion, with large and soft
black eyes and arched eyebrows, a small and rather broad nose (the worst
feature in his face), full curving and sensitive lips, and a very strong
and rounded chin. He was absolutely beardless, but a slight black down
on the upper lip announced a coming mustache. His age could not have
been more than twenty. The cut of his clothes, as I have said, was
English, but his large black satin neck-cloth, flowing out over the
collar of his coat, was such as no home-keeping Englishman would ever
have dared to appear in. This detail, combined with his accent,
perfectly pure but a trifle precise and deliberate, led me to take him
for an Englishman brought up on the Continent--probably in Italy, for
there was no French intonation in his speech. His voice was rich, but
deep--a light baritone.

He took up my Saturday Review.

"The Bible of the Englishman abroad," he said. "One of the institutions
that makes me proud of our country."

"I have it sent me every week," I said.

"So had my father," he replied. "He used to say, 'Shakespeare we share
with the Americans, but damn it, the Saturday Review is all our own!'
He was one of the old school, my father."

"And the good school," I said, with enthusiasm. "So am I."

"Now, I'm a bit of a Radical," my new friend rejoined, looking up with a
smile, which made the confession charming rather than objectionable; and
from this point we started upon a discussion, every word of which I
could write down if I chose, such a lasting impression did it make upon
me. He was indeed a brilliant talker, having read much and travelled
enormously for one so young. "I think I have lived in every country in
Europe," he said, "except Russia. Somehow it has never interested me." I
found that he was a Cambridge man, or, at least, was intimately
acquainted with Cambridge life and thought; and this was another bond
between us. His Radicalism was not very formidable; it amounted to
little more, indeed, than a turn for humorous paradox. Our discussion
reminded me of Fuller's description of the wit-combats between Ben
Jonson and Shakespeare at the "Mermaid." I was the Spanish galleon, my
Fascinating Friend was the English man-of-war, ready "to take advantage
of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention." An hour sped
away delightfully, the only thing I did not greatly enjoy being the
cigarette, which seemed to me no better than many I had smoked before.

"What do you think of my cigarettes?" he said, as I threw away the
stump.

I felt that a blunt expression of opinion would be in bad taste after
his generosity in offering an utter stranger the best he had.
"Exquisite!" I answered.

"I thought you would say so," he replied, gravely. "Have another!"

"Let me try one of your common ones," I said.

"No, you shan't!" he replied, closing the case with a sudden snap, which
endangered my fingers, but softening the brusquerie of the proceeding
by one of his enthralling smiles; then he added, using one of the odd
idioms which gave his speech a peculiar piquancy, "I don't palm off upon
my friends what I have of second best." He re-opened the case and held
it out to me. To have refused would have been to confess that I did not
appreciate his "gems" as he called them. I smoked another, in which I
still failed to find any unusual fragrance; but the aroma of my
new-found friend's whole personality was so keen and subtle, that it may
have deadened my nerves to any more material sensation.

We lay talking until the pink flush of evening spread along the horizon,
and in it Corsica, invisible before, seemed to body itself forth from
nothingness like an island of phantom peaks and headlands. Then we rose,
and, in the quickly gathering dusk, took our way down among the
olive-yards, and through the orange-gardens to Monte Carlo.




II


My acquaintance with my Fascinating Friend lasted little more than
forty-eight hours, but during that time we were inseparable. He was not
at my hotel, but on that first evening I persuaded him to dine with me,
and soon after breakfast on the following morning I went in search of
him; I was at the Russie, he at the Hotel de Paris. I found him smoking
in the veranda, and at a table not far distant sat the German of the
previous afternoon, finishing a tolerably copious dejeuner a la
fourchette. As soon as he had scraped his plate quite clean and
finished the last dregs of his bottle of wine, he rose and took his way
to the Casino. After a few minutes' talk with my Fascinating Friend, I
suggested a stroll over to Monaco. He agreed, and we spent the whole day
together, loitering and lounging, talking and dreaming. We went to the
Casino in the afternoon to hear the concert, and I discovered my friend
to be a cultivated musician. Then we strolled into the gambling-room for
an hour, but neither of us played. The German was busy at one of the
roulette-tables, and seemed to be winning considerably. That evening I
dined with my friend at the table d'hote of his hotel. At the other end
of the table I could see the German sitting silent and unnoticing, rapt
in the joys of deglutition.

Next morning, by arrangement, my friend called upon me at my hotel, and
over one of his cigarettes, to which I was getting accustomed, we
discussed our plan for the day. I suggested a wider flight than
yesterday's. Had he ever been to Eza, the old Saracen robber-nest
perched on a rock a thousand feet above the sea, halfway between Monaco
and Villafranca? No, he had not been there, and after some consideration
he agreed to accompany me. We went by rail to the little station on the
seashore, and then attacked the arduous ascent. The day was perfect,
though rather too warm for climbing, and we had frequent rests among the
olive-trees, with delightfully discursive talks on all things under the
sun. My companion's charm grew upon me moment by moment. There was in
his manner a sort of refined coquetry of amiability which I found
irresistible. It was combined with a frankness of sympathy and interest
subtly flattering to a man of my unsocial habit of mind. I was conscious
every now and then that he was drawing me out; but to be drawn out so
gently and genially was, to me, a novel and delightful experience. It
produced in me one of those effusions of communicativeness to which, I
am told, all reticent people are occasionally subject. I have myself
given way to them some three or four times in my life, and found myself
pouring forth to perfect strangers such intimate details of feeling and
experience as I would rather die than impart to my dearest friend. Three
or four times, I say, have I found myself suddenly and inexplicably
brought within the influence of some invisible truth-compelling
talisman, which drew from me confessions the rack could not have
extorted; but never has the influence been so irresistible as in the
case of my Fascinating Friend. I told him what I had told to no other
human soul--what I had told to the lonely glacier, to the lurid
storm-cloud, to the seething sea, but had never breathed in mortal
ear--I told him the tragedy of my life. How well I remember the scene!
We were resting beneath the chestnut-trees that shadow a stretch of
level sward immediately below the last short stage of ascent that leads
into the heart of the squalid village now nestling in the crevices of
the old Moslem fastness. The midday hush was on sea and sky. Far out on
the horizon a level line of smoke showed where an unseen steamer was
crawling along under the edge of the sapphire sphere. As I reached the
climax of my tale an old woman, bent almost double beneath a huge fagot
of firewood, passed us on her way to the village. I remember that it
crossed my mind to wonder whether there was any capacity in the nature
of such as she for suffering at all comparable to that which I was
describing. My companion's sympathy was subtle and soothing. There was
in my tale an element of the grotesque which might have tempted a vulgar
nature to flippancy. No smile crossed my companion's lips. He turned
away his head, on pretense of watching the receding figure of the old
peasant-woman. When he looked at me again, his deep dark eyes were
suffused with a moisture which enhanced the mystery of their tenderness.
In that moment I felt, as I had never felt before, what it is to find a
friend.

We returned to Monte Carlo late in the afternoon, and I found a telegram
at my hotel begging me to be in Genoa the following morning. I had
barely time to bundle my traps together and swallow a hasty meal before
my train was due. I scrawled a note to my new found confidant,
expressing most sincerely my sorrow at parting from him so soon and so
suddenly, and my hope that ere long we should meet again.




III


The train was already at the platform when I reached the station. There
were one or two first-class through carriages on it, which, for a French
railway, were unusually empty. In one of them I saw at the window the
head of the German, and from a certain subdued radiance in his
expression, I judged that he must be carrying off a considerable "pile"
from the gaming-table. His personality was not of the most attractive,
and there was something in his squat nose suggestive of stertorous
possibilities which, under ordinary circumstances, would have held me
aloof from him. But--shall I confess it?--he had for me a certain
sentimental attraction, because he was associated in my mind with that
first meeting with my forty-eight hours' friend. I looked into his
compartment; an overcoat and valise lay in the opposite corner from his,
showing that seat to be engaged, but two corners were still left me to
choose from. I installed myself in one of them, face to face with the
valise and overcoat, and awaited the signal to start. The cry of "En
voiture, messieurs!" soon came, and a lithe figure sprang into the
carriage. It was my Fascinating Friend! For a single moment I thought
that a flash of annoyance crossed his features on finding me there, but
the impression vanished at once, for his greeting was as full of
cordiality as of surprise. We soon exchanged explanations. He, like
myself, had been called away by telegram, not to Genoa, but to Rome; he,
like myself, had left a note expressing his heartfelt regret at our
sudden separation. As we sped along, skirting bays that shone burnished
in the evening light, and rumbling every now and then through a
tunnel-pierced promontory, we resumed the almost affectionate converse
interrupted only an hour before, and I found him a more delightful
companion than ever. His exquisitely playful fantasy seemed to be acting
at high pressure, as in the case of a man who is talking to pass the
time under the stimulus of a delightful anticipation. I suspected that
he was hurrying to some peculiarly agreeable rendezvous in Rome, and I
hinted my suspicion, which he laughed off in such a way as to confirm
it. The German, in the mean time, sat stolid and unmoved, making some
pencilled calculations in a little pocket-book. He clearly did not
understand English.

As we approached Ventimiglia my friend rose, took down his valise from
the rack, and, turning his back to me, made some changes in its
arrangement, which I, of course, did not see. He then locked it
carefully and kept it beside him. At Ventimiglia we had all to turn out
to undergo the inspection of the Italian dogana. My friend's valise
was his sole luggage, and I noticed, rather to my surprise, that he gave
the custom-house official a very large bribe--two or three gold
pieces--to make his inspection of it purely nominal, and forego the
opening of either of the inside compartments. The German, on the other
hand, had a small portmanteau and a large dispatch box, both of which he
opened with a certain ostentation, and I observed that the official's
eyes glittered under his raised eyebrows as he looked into the contents
of the dispatch-box. On returning to the train we all three resumed our
old places, and the German drew the shade of a sleeping-cap over his
eyes and settled himself down for the night. It was now quite dark, but
the moon was shining.

"Have you a large supply of the 'gems' in your valise?" I asked,
smiling, curious to know his reason for a subterfuge which accorded ill
with his ordinary straight-forwardness, and remembering that tobacco is
absolutely prohibited at the Italian frontier.

"Unfortunately, no," he said; "my 'gems' are all gone, and I have only
my common cigarettes remaining. Will you try them, such as they are?"
and he held out his case, both sides of which were now filled with the
flat cigarettes. We each took one and lighted it, but he began giving me
an account of a meeting he had had with Lord Beaconsfield, which he
detailed so fully and with so much enthusiasm, that, after a whiff or
two he allowed his cigarette to go out. I could not understand his taste
in tobacco. These cigarettes which he despised seemed to me at once more
delicate and more peculiar than the others. They had a flavour which was
quite unknown to me. I was much interested in his vivid account of the
personality of that great man, whom I admired then, while he was yet
with us, and whom, as a knight of the Primrose League, I now revere; but
our climb of the morning, and the scrambling departure of the afternoon,
were beginning to tell on me, and I became irresistibly drowsy.
Gradually, and in spite of myself, my eyes closed. I could still hear my
companion's voice mingling with the heavy breathing of the German, who
had been asleep for some time; but soon even these sounds ceased to
penetrate the mist of languor, the end of my cigarette dropped from
between my fingers and I knew no more.

* * * * *

My awakening was slow and spasmodic. There was a clearly perceptible
interval--probably several minutes--between the first stirrings of
consciousness and the full clarification of my faculties. I began to be
aware of the rumble and oscillation of the train without realizing what
was meant. Then I opened my eyes and blinked at the lamp, and vaguely
noted the yellow oil washing to and fro in the bowl. Then the white
square of the "Avis aux Voyageurs" caught my eye in the gloom under the
luggage-rack, and beneath it, on the seat, I saw the light reflected
from the lock of the German's portmanteau. Next I was conscious of the
German himself still sleeping in his corner, but no longer puffing and
grunting as when I had fallen asleep. Then I raised my head, looked
round the carriage, and the next moment sprang bolt upright in dismay.

Where was my Fascinating Friend?

Gone! vanished! There was not a trace of him. His valise, his
great-coat, all had disappeared. Only in the little cigar-ash box on the
window-frame I saw the flat cigarette which he had barely lighted--how
long before? I looked at my watch: it must have been about an hour and a
half ago.

By this time I had all my faculties about me. I looked across at the
German, intending to ask him if he knew anything of our late
travelling-companion. Then I noticed that his head had fallen forward in
such a way that it seemed to me suffocation must be imminent. I
approached him, and put down my head to look into his face. As I did so
I saw a roundish black object on the oil-cloth floor not far from the
toe of his boot. The lamplight was reflected at a single point from its
convex surface. I put down my hand and touched it. It was liquid. I
looked at my fingers--they were not black, but red. I think (but am not
sure) that I screamed aloud. I shrank to the other end of the carriage,
and it was some moments before I had sufficient presence of mind to look
for a means of communicating with the guard. Of course there was none. I
was alone for an indefinite time with a dead man. But was he dead? I had
little doubt, from the way his head hung, that his throat was cut, and a
horrible fascination drew me to his side to examine. No; there was no
sign of the hideous fissure I expected to find beneath the gray bristles
of his beard. His head fell forward again into the same position, and I
saw with horror that I had left two bloody fingermarks upon the gray
shade of his sleeping-cap. Then I noticed for the first time that the
window he was facing stood open, for a gust of wind came through it and
blew back the lapel of his coat. What was that on his waistcoat? I tore
the coat back and examined: it was a small triangular hole just over the
heart, and round it there was a dark circle about the size of a
shilling, where the blood had soaked through the light material. In
examining it I did what the murderer had not done--disturbed the
equilibrium of the body, which fell over against me.

At that moment I heard a loud voice behind me, coming from I knew not
where. I nearly fainted with terror. The train was still going at full
speed; the compartment was empty, save for myself and the ghastly object
which lay in my arms; and yet I seemed to hear a voice almost at my ear.
There it was again! I summoned up courage to look round. It was the
guard of the train clinging on outside the window and demanding
"Biglietti!" By this time, he, too, saw that something was amiss. He
opened the door and swung himself into the carriage. "Dio mio!" I heard
him exclaim, as I actually flung myself into his arms and pointed to the
body now lying in a huddled heap amid its own blood on the floor. Then,
for the first time in my life, I positively swooned away, and knew no
more.

When I came to myself the train had stopped at a small station, the name
of which I do not know to this day. There was a Babel of speech going on
around, not one word of which I could understand. I was on the platform,
supported between two men in uniform, with cocked hats and cockades. In
vain I tried to tell my story. I knew little or no Italian, and, though
there were one or two Frenchmen in the train, they were useless as
interpreters, for on the one hand my power of speaking French seemed to
have departed in my agitation, and on the other hand none of the
Italians understood it. In vain I tried to make them understand that a
"giovane" had travelled in the compartment with us who had now
disappeared. The Italian guard, who had come on at Ventimiglia,
evidently had no recollection of him. He merely shook his head, said
"Non capisco," and inquired if I was "Prussiano." The train had already
been delayed some time, and, after a consultation between the
station-master, the guard, the syndic of the village, who had been
summoned in haste, it was determined to hand the matter over to the
authorities at Genoa. The two carabinieri sat one on each side of me
facing the engine, and on the opposite seat the body was stretched out
with a luggage tarpaulin over it. In this hideous fashion I passed the
four or five remaining hours of the journey to Genoa.

The next week I spent in an Italian prison, a very uncomfortable yet
quite unromantic place of abode. Fortunately, my friends were by this
time in Genoa, and they succeeded in obtaining some slight mitigation of
my discomforts. At the end of that time I was released, there being no
evidence against me. The testimony of the French guard, of the
booking-clerk at Monaco, and of the staff of the Hotel de Paris,
established the existence of my Fascinating Friend, which was at first
called in question; but no trace could be found of him. With him had
disappeared his victim's dispatch-box, in which were stored the proceeds
of several days of successful gambling. Robbery, however, did not seem
to have been the primary motive of the crime, for his watch, purse, and
the heavy jewelry about his person were all untouched. From the German
Consul at Genoa I learned privately, after my release, that the murdered
man, though in fact a Prussian, had lived long in Russia, and was
suspected of having had an unofficial connection with the St. Petersburg
police. It was thought, indeed, that the capital with which he had
commenced his operation at Monte Carlo was the reward of some special
act of treachery; so that the anarchists, if it was indeed they who
struck the blow, had merely suffered Judas to put his thirty pieces out
to usance, in order to pay back to their enemies with interest the
blood-money of their friends.




IV


About two years later I happened one day to make an afternoon call in
Mayfair, at the house of a lady well known in the social and political
world, who honours me, if I may say so, with her friendship. Her
drawing-room was crowded, and the cheerful ring of afternoon tea-cups
was audible through the pleasant medley of women's voices. I joined a
group around the hostess, where an animated discussion was in progress
on the Irish Coercion Bill, then the leading political topic of the day.
The argument interested me deeply; but it is one of my mental
peculiarities that when several conversations are going on around me I
can by no means keep my attention exclusively fixed upon the one in
which I am myself engaged. Odds and ends from all the others find their
way into my ears and my consciousness, and I am sometimes accused of
absence of mind, when my fault is in reality a too great alertness of
the sense of hearing. In this instance the conversation of three or four
groups was more or less audible to me; but it was not long before my
attention was absorbed by the voice of a lady, seated at the other side
of the circular ottoman on which I myself had taken my place.

She was talking merrily, and her hearers, in one of whom, as I glanced
over my shoulder, I recognized an ex-Cabinet Minister, seemed to be
greatly entertained. As her back was toward me, all I could see of the
lady herself was her short black hair falling over the handsome fur
collar of her mantle.

"He was so tragic about it," she was saying, "that it was really
impayable. The lady was beautiful, wealthy, accomplished, and I don't
know what else. The rival was an Australian squatter, with a beard as
thick as his native bush. My communicative friend--I scarcely knew even
his name when he poured forth his woes to me--thought that he had an
advantage in his light moustache, with a military twirl in it. They were
all three travelling in Switzerland, but the Australian had gone off to
make the ascent of some peak or other, leaving the field to the foe for
a couple of days at least. On the first day the foe made the most of his
time, and had nearly brought matters to a crisis. The next morning he
got himself up as exquisitely as possible, in order to clinch his
conquest, but found to his disgust that he had left his dressing-case
with his razors at the last stopping-place. There was nothing for it but
to try the village barber, who was also the village stationer, and
draper, and ironmonger, and chemist--a sort of Alpine Whiteley, in fact.
His face had just been soaped--what do you call it?--lathered, is it
not? and the barber had actually taken hold of his nose so as to get his
head into the right position, when, in the mirror opposite, he saw the
door open, and--oh, horror!--who should walk into the shop but the fair
one herself! He gave such a start that the barber gashed his chin. His
eyes met hers in the mirror; for a moment he saw her lips quiver and
tremble, and then she burst into shrieks of uncontrollable laughter, and
rushed out of the shop. If you knew the pompous little man, I am sure
you would sympathize with her. I know I did when he told me the story.
His heart sank within him, but he acted like a Briton. He determined to
take no notice of the contretemps, but return boldly to the attack.
She received him demurely at first, but the moment she raised her eyes
to his face, and saw the patch of sticking-plaster on his chin, she was
again seized with such convulsions that she had to rush from the room.
'She is now in Melbourne,' he said, almost with a sob, 'and I assure
you, my dear friend, that I never now touch a razor without an impulse,
to which I expect I shall one day succumb, to put it to a desperate
use.'"

There was a singing in my ears, and my brain was whirling. This story,
heartlessly and irreverently told, was the tragedy of my life!

I had breathed it to no human soul--save one!

I rose from my seat, wondering within myself whether my agitation was
visible to those around me, and went over to the other side of the room
whence I could obtain a view of the speaker. There were the deep, dark
eyes, there were the full sensuous lips, the upper shaded with an
impalpable down, there was the charcoal-black hair! I knew too well that
rich contralto voice! It was my Fascinating Friend!

Before I had fully realized the situation she rose, handed her empty
tea-cup to the Cabinet-Minister, bowed to him and his companion, and
made her way up to the hostess, evidently intending to take her leave.
As she turned away, after shaking hands cordially with Lady X----, her
eyes met mine intently fixed upon her. She did not start, she neither
flushed nor turned pale; she simply raised for an instant her finely
arched eyebrows, and as her tall figure sailed past me out of the room,
she turned upon me the same exquisite and irresistible smile with which
my Fascinating Friend had offered me his cigarette-case that evening
among the olive-trees.

I hurried up to Lady X----.

"Who is the lady who has just left the room?" I asked.

"Oh, that is the Baroness M----," she replied. "She is half an
Englishwoman, half a Pole. She was my daughter's bosom friend at
Girton--a most interesting girl."

"Is she a politician?" I asked.

"No; that's the one thing I don't like about her. She is not a bit of a
patriot; she makes a joke of her country's wrongs and sufferings. Should
you like to meet her? Dine with us the day after to-morrow. She is to be
here."

* * * * *

I dined at Lady X----'s on the appointed day, but the Baroness was not
there. Urgent family affairs had called her suddenly to Poland.

A week later the assassination of the Czar sent a thrill of horror
through the civilized world.

* * * * *

"Don't you think your friend might be held an accessory after the fact
to the death of the German?" asked the Novelist, when all the flattering
comments, which were many, were at an end. "And an accessory before the
fact to the assassination of the Czar?" chimed in the Editor. "Why
didn't he go straight from Lady ----'s house to the nearest
police-station and put the police on the track of his 'Fascinating
Friend'?" "What a question!" the Romancer exclaimed, starting from his
seat and pacing restlessly about the deck. "How could any man with a
palate for the rarest flavours of life resist the temptation of taking
that woman down to dinner? And, besides, hadn't he eaten salt with her?
Hadn't he smoked the social cigarette with her? Shade of De Quincey! are
we to treat like a vulgar criminal a mistress of the finest of the fine
arts? Shall we be such crawling creatures as to seek to lay by the heels
a Muse of Murder? Are we a generation of detectives, that we should do
this thing?" "So my friend put it to me," said the Critic dryly, "not
quite so eloquently, but to that effect. Between ourselves, though, I
believe he was influenced more by consideration of his personal safety
than by admiration for murder as a fine art. He remembered the fate of
the German, and was unwilling to share it." "He adopted a policy of
non-intervention," said the Eminent Tragedian, who in his hours of
leisure, was something of a politician. "I should rather say of laissez
faire, or, more precisely, of laissez assassiner," laughed the
Editor. "What was the Fascinating Friend supposed to have in her
portmanteau?" asked Beatrice. "What was she so anxious to conceal from
the custom-house officers?" "Her woman's clothes, I imagine," the Critic
replied, "though I don't hold myself bound to explain all the ins and
outs of her proceedings." "Then she was a wonderful woman," replied
the fair questioner, as one having authority, "if she could get a
respectable gown and 'fixings,' as the Americans say, into a small
portmanteau. But," she added, "I very soon suspected she was a woman."
"Why?" asked several voices simultaneously. "Why, because she drew him
out so easily," was the reply. "You think, in fact," said the Romancer,
"that however little its victim was aware of it, there was a touch of
the Ewig-weibliche in her fascination?" "Precisely."





Next: The Lost Room

Previous: The Box With The Iron Clamps



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