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."





Mr Bloke's Item My Friend The Murderer facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback