Chapter XXX. The Contest for the Papers
 

Laverick, sitting with Zoe at dinner, caught his companion looking around the restaurant with an expression in her face which he did not wholly understand.

"Something is the matter with you this evening, Zoe," he said anxiously. "Tell me what it is. You don't like this place, perhaps?"

"Of course I do."

"It is your dinner, then, or me?" he persisted. "Come, out with it. Haven't we promised to tell each other the truth always?"

The pink color came slowly into her cheeks. Her eyes, raised for a moment to his, were almost reproachful.

"You know very well that it is not anything to do with you," she whispered. "You are too kind to me all the time. Only," she went on, a little hesitatingly, "don't you realize - can't you see how differently most of the girls here are dressed? I don't mind so much for myself - but you - you have so many friends. You keep on seeing people whom you know. I am afraid they will think that I ought not to be here."

He looked at her in surprise, mingled, perhaps, with compunction. For the first time he appreciated the actual shabbiness of her clothes. Everything about her was so neat - pathetically neat, as it seemed to him in one illuminating moment of realization. The white linen collar, notwithstanding its frayed edges, was spotlessly clean. The black bow was carefully tied to conceal its worn parts. Her gloves had been stitched a good many times. Her gown, although it was tidy, was old-fashioned and had distinctly seen its best days. He suddenly recognized the effort - the almost despairing effort - which her toilette had cost her.

"I don't think that men notice these things," he said simply. "To me you look just as you should look - and I wouldn't change places with any other man in the room for a great deal."

Her eyes were soft - perilously soft - as she looked at him with uplifted eyebrows and a faint smile struggling at the corners of her lips. A wave of tenderness crept into his heart. What a brave little child she was!

"You will quite spoil me if you make such nice speeches," she murmured.

"Anyhow," he went on, speaking with decision, "so long as you feel like that, you are going to have a new gown - or two - and a new hat, and you are going to have them at once. They are going to be bought with your brother's money, mind. Shall I come shopping with you?"

She shook her head.

"Mind, it is partly for your sake that I give in," she said. "It would be lovely to have you come, but you would spend far too much money. You really mean it all?"

"Absolutely," he answered. "I insist upon it."

She leaned towards him with dancing eyes. After all, she was very much of a child. The prospect of a new gown, now that she permitted herself to think of it, was enthralling.

"I might get a coat and skirt," she remarked thoughtfully, "and a simple white dress. A black hat would do for both of them, then."

"Don't you study your brother too much," Laverick declared. "His stock is going up all the time."

"Tell me your favorite color," she begged confidentially.

"I can't conceive your looking nicer than you do in black," he replied.

She made a wry face.

"I suppose it must be black," she murmured doubtfully. "It is much more economical than anything - "

She broke off to bow to a stout, red-faced man who, after a rude stare, had greeted her with a patronizing nod. Laverick frowned.

"Who is that fellow?" he asked.

"Mr. Heepman, our stage-manager," Zoe answered, a little timidly.

"Is there any particular reason why he should behave like a boor?" Laverick continued, raising his voice a little.

She caught at his arm in terror. The man was sitting at the next table.

"Don't, please!" she implored. "He might hear you. He is just behind there."

Laverick half turned in his chair. She guessed what he was about to say, and went on rapidly.

"He has been so foolish," she whispered. "He has asked me so often to go out with him. And he could get me sent away, if he wanted, any time. He almost threatened it, the last time I refused. Now that he has seen me with you, he will be worse than ever."

Laverick's face darkened, and there was a peculiar flash in his eyes. The man was certainly looking at them in a rude manner.

"There are so many of the girls who would only be too pleased to go with him," Zoe continued, in a terrified undertone. "I can't think why he bothers me."

"I can," Laverick muttered. "Let's forget about the brute."

But the dinner was already spoiled for Zoe, so Laverick paid the bill a few minutes later, and walked across to the stage-door of the theatre with her. Her little hand, when she gave it to him at parting, was quite cold.

"I'm as nervous as I can be," she confessed. "Mr. Heepman will be watching all the night for something to find fault with me about."

"Don't you let him bully you," Laverick begged.

"I won't," she promised. "Good-bye! Thanks so much for my dinner."

She turned away with a brave attempt at a smile, but it was only an attempt. Laverick walked on to his club. There was no one in the dining-room whom he knew, and the card-room was empty. He played one game of billiards, but he played badly. He was upset. His nerves were wrong he told himself, and little wonder. There seemed to be no chance of a rubber at bridge, so he sallied out again and walked aimlessly towards Covent Garden. Outside the Opera House he hesitated and finally entered, yielding to an impulse the nature of which he scarcely recognized. While he was inquiring about a stall, a small printed notice was thrust into his hand. He read it with a slight start.

We regret to announce that owing to indisposition Mademoiselle Idiale will not be able to appear this evening. The part of Delilah will be taken by Mademoiselle Blanche Temoigne, late of the Royal Opera House, St. Petersburg.

Ten minutes later, Laverick rang the bell of her flat in Dover Street. A strange man-servant answered him.

"I came to inquire after Mademoiselle Idiale," Laverick said.

The man held out a tray on which was already a small heap of cards. Laverick, however, retained his.

"I should be glad if you would take mine in to her," he said. "I think it is just likely that she may see me for a moment."

The servant's attitude was one of civil but unconcealed hostility. He would have closed the door had not Laverick already passed over the threshold.

"Madame is not well enough to receive visitors, sir," the man declared. "She shall have your card as soon as possible."

"I should like her to have it now," Laverick persisted, drawing a five-pound note from his pocket.

The man looked at the note longingly.

"It would be only waste of time, sir," he declared. "Mademoiselle is confined to her bedroom and my orders are absolute."

"You are not the man who was here earlier in the day," Laverick remarked. "I wonder," he continued, with a sudden inspiration, "whether you are not Mr. Bellamy's servant?"

"That is so, sir. Mr. Bellamy has sent me here to see that no one has access to Mademoiselle Idiale."

"Then there is no harm whatever in taking in my card," Laverick declared convincingly. "You can put that note in your pocket. I am perfectly certain that Mademoiselle Idiale will see me, and that your master would wish her to do so."

"I will take the risk, sir," the man decided, "but the orders I have received were stringent."

He disappeared and was gone for several moments. When he came back he was accompanied by a pale-faced woman dressed in black, obviously a maid.

"Monsieur Laverick," she said, "Mademoiselle Idiale will receive you. If you will come this way?"

She opened the door of the little reception-room, and Laverick followed her. The man returned to his place in the hall.

"Madame will be here in a moment," the maid said. "She will be glad to see you, but she has been very badly frightened."

Laverick bowed sympathetically. The woman herself was gray-faced, terror-stricken.

"It is Monsieur Lassen, the manager of Madame, who has caused a great deal of trouble here," she said. "Madame never trusted him and now we have discovered that he is a spy."

The woman seemed to fade away. The door of the inner room was opened and Louise came out. She was still exceedingly pale, and there were dark rims under her eyes. She came across the room with outstretched hands. There was no doubt whatever as to her pleasure.

"You have seen Mr. Bellamy?" she asked.

Laverick shook his head.

"No, I have seen nothing of Bellamy to-day. I came to call upon you this afternoon."

She wrung her hands.

"You understand, of course!" she exclaimed. "I did not trust Lassen, but I never imagined anything like this. He is an Austrian. Only a few hours ago I learned that he is one of their most heavily paid spies. Streuss got hold of him. But there, I forgot - you do not understand this. It is enough that he laid a plot to get that document from you. Where is it, Mr. Laverick? You have brought it now?"

"Why, no," Laverick answered, "I have not."

Her eyes were round with terror. She held out her hands as though to keep away some tormenting thought.

"Where is it?" she cried. "You have not parted with it?

"I have not," Laverick replied gravely. "It is in the safe deposit of a hotel to which I have moved."

She closed her eyes and drew a long breath of relief.

"You are not well," Laverick said. "Let me help you to a chair."

She sat down wearily.

"Why have you moved to a hotel?" she asked.

"To tell you the truth," Laverick answered, "I seem to have wandered into a sort of modern Arabian Nights. Three times to-day attempts have been made to get that document from me by force. I have been followed whereever I went. I felt that it was not safe in my chambers, so I moved to a hotel and deposited it in their strong-room. I have come to the conclusion that the best thing I can do is to open it to-morrow morning, and decide for myself as to its destination."

Louise sat quite still for several moments. Then she opened her eyes.

"What you say is an immense relief to me, Mr. Laverick," she declared. "I perceive now that we have made a mistake. We should have told you the whole truth from the first. This afternoon when Mr. Bellamy left me, it was to come to you and tell you everything."

Laverick listened gravely.

"Really," he said, "it seems to me the wisest course. I haven't the least desire to keep the document. I cannot think why Bellamy did not treat me with confidence from the first - "

He stopped short. Suddenly he understood. Something in Louise's face gave him the hint.

"Of course!" he murmured to himself.

"Mr. Laverick," Louise said quietly, "in this matter I am no man's judge, yet, as you and I know well, that paper could have come into your hands in one way, and one way only. There may be some explanation. If so, it is for you to offer it or not, as you think best. Mr. Bellamy and I are allies in this matter. It is not our business to interfere with the course of justice. You will run no risk in parting with that paper.

"Where can I see Bellamy?" Laverick Inquired, rising and taking up his hat.

"He would go straight to your rooms," she answered. "Did you leave word there where you had gone?"

"Purposely I did not," Laverick replied. "I had better try and find him, perhaps."

"It is not necessary," she announced. "No wonder that you feel yourself to have wandered into the Arabian Nights, Mr. Laverick. There are two sets of spies who follow you everywhere - two sets that I know of. There may be another."

"You think that Bellamy will find me?" he asked.

"I am sure of it."

"Then I'll go back to the hotel and wait."

She hurried him away, but at the door she detained him for a moment.

"Mr. Laverick," she said, looking at him earnestly, "somehow or other I cannot help believing that you are an honest man.

Laverick sighed. He opened his lips but closed them again.

"You are very kind, Mademoiselle," he declared simply.

Laverick, as he entered the reception hall at the Milan Hotel, noticed a man leaning over the cashier's desk talking confidentially to the clerk in charge. The latter recognized Laverick with obvious relief, and at once directed his questioner's attention to him. Kahn turned swiftly around and without a moment's hesitation came smiling towards Laverick with the apparent intention of accosting him. He was correctly garbed, tall and fair, with every appearance of being a man of breeding. He glanced at Laverick carelessly as he passed, but, as though changing his original purpose, made no attempt to address him. The cashier, who had been watching, gave vent to a little exclamation of surprise and sprang over the counter. He approached Laverick hastily.

"Do you know that gentleman just going out, sir?" he asked.

"I never saw him before in my life," Laverick answered. "Why?"

"Is this your handwriting, sir?" the man inquired, touching with his forefinger the half sheet of note-paper which he had been carrying.

Laverick read quickly, -

To the Cashier at the Milan Hotel, - Deliver to bearer document deposited with you.
STEPHEN LAVERICK.

"It is not," he declared promptly. "It is an impudent forgery. Good God! You don't mean to say that you parted with my property to - "

The cashier stopped his breathless question.

"I haven't parted with anything, sir," he said. "I was just wondering what to do when you came in. I'd no reason to believe that the signature was a forgery, but I didn't like the look of it, somehow. We'd better be after him. Come along, sir."

They hurried outside. The man was nowhere in sight. The cashier summoned the head porter.

"A gentleman has just come out," he exclaimed, - "tall and fair, very carefully dressed, with a single eyeglass! Which way did he go?"

"He's just driven off in a big Daimler car, sir," the porter answered. "I noticed him particularly. He spoke to the chauffeur in Austrian."

Laverick looked out into the Strand.

"Can't we stop him?" he asked rapidly.

The porter smiled as he shook his head.

"Not the ghost of a chance, sir. He shot round the corner there as though he were in a desperate hurry, and went the wrong side of the island. I heard the police calling to him. I hope there's nothing wrong, Mr. Dean?"

The cashier hesitated and glanced at Laverick.

"Nothing much," Laverick answered. "We should have liked to have asked him a question - that is all."

Bellamy came out from the hotel and paused to light a cigarette.

"How are you, Laverick?" he said quietly. "Nothing the matter, I hope?"

"Nothing worth mentioning," Laverick replied.

The cashier returned to his duties. The two men were alone. Bellamy, most carefully dressed, with his silver-headed cane under his arm, and his silk hat at precisely the correct angle, seemed very far removed from the work of intrigue into which Laverick felt himself to have blundered. He looked down for a moment at the tips of his patent shoes and up again at the sky, as though anxious about the weather.

"What about a drink, Laverick?" he asked nonchalantly.

"Delighted!" Laverick assented.