Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VI. The Seven Suppers of Andrea Korust
Peter, Baron de Grost, was enjoying what he had confidently looked forward to as an evening's relaxation, pure and simple. He sat in one of the front rows of the stalls of the Alhambra, his wife by his side and an excellent cigar in his mouth. An hour or so ago he had been in telephonic communication with Paris, had spoken with Sogrange himself, and received his assurance of a calm in political and criminal affairs amounting almost to stagnation. It was out of season, and, though his popularity was as great as ever, neither he nor his wife had any social engagements; hence this evening at a music hall, which Peter, for his part, was finding thoroughly amusing.
The place was packed - some said owing to the engagement of Andrea Korust and his brother, others to the presence of Mademoiselle Sophie Celaire in her wonderful danse des apaches. The violinist that night had a great reception. Three times he was called before the curtain; three times he was obliged to reiterate his grateful but immutable resolve never to yield to the nightly storm which demanded more from a man who has given of his best. Slim, with the worn face and hollow eyes of a genius, he stood and bowed his thanks, but when he thought the time had arrived, he disappeared, and though the house shook for minutes afterwards, nothing could persuade him to reappear.
Afterwards came the turn which, notwithstanding the furore caused by Andrea Korust's appearance, was generally considered to be equally responsible for the packed house - the apache dance of Mademoiselle Sophie Celaire. Peter sat slightly forward in his chair as the curtain went up. For a time he seemed utterly absorbed by the performance. Violet glanced at him once or twice curiously. It began to occur to her that it was not so much the dance as the dancer in whom her husband was interested.
"You have seen her before - this Mademoiselle Celaire?" she whispered.
"Yes," said Peter, nodding, "I have seen her before."
The dance proceeded. It was like many others of its sort, only a little more daring, a little more finished. Mademoiselle Celaire, in her tight-fitting, shabby black frock, with her wild mass of hair, her flashing eyes, her seductive gestures, was, without doubt, a marvelous person. Peter, Baron de Grost, watched her every movement with absorbed attention. When the curtain went down he forgot to clap. His eyes followed her off the stage. Violet shrugged her shoulders. She was looking very handsome herself in a black velvet dinner gown, and a hat so exceedingly Parisian that no one had had the heart to ask her to remove it.
"My dear Peter," she remarked, reprovingly, "a moderate amount of admiration for that very agile young lady I might, perhaps, be inclined to tolerate; but, having watched you for the last quarter of an hour, I am bound to confess that I am becoming jealous."
"Of Mademoiselle Celaire?" he asked.
"Of Mademoiselle Sophie Celaire."
He leaned a little towards her. His lips were parted; he was about to make a statement or a confession. Just then a tall commissionaire leaned over from behind and touched him on the shoulder.
"For Monsieur le Baron de Grost," he announced, handing Peter a note.
Peter glanced towards his wife.
"You permit me?" he murmured, breaking the seal.
Violet shrugged her shoulders, ever so slightly. Her husband was already absorbed in the few lines hastily scrawled across the sheet of notepaper which he held in his hand.
MONSIEUR LE BARON DE GHOST. Dear Monsieur le Baron, 4 Come to my dressing-room, without 4 fail, as soon as you receive this. SOPHIE CELAIRE.
Violet looked over his shoulder.
"The hussy!" she exclaimed, indignantly. Her husband raised his eyebrows. With his forefinger he merely tapped the two numerals.
"The Double-Four!" she gasped.
He looked around and nodded. The commissionaire was waiting. Peter took up his silk hat from under the seat.
"If I am detained, dear," he whispered, "you'll make the best of it, won't you? The car will be here and Frederick will be looking out for you."
"Of course," she answered, cheerfully. "I shall be quite all right."
She nodded brightly and Peter took his departure. He passed through a door on which was painted "Private," and through a maze of scenery and stage hands and ballet ladies by a devious route to the region of the dressing-rooms. His guide conducted him to the door of one of these and knocked.
"Entrez, monsieur," a shrill feminine voice replied.
Peter entered and closed the door behind him. The commissionaire remained outside. Mademoiselle Celaire turned to greet her visitor.
"It is a few words I desire with you as quickly as possible, if you please, Monsieur le Baron," she said, advancing towards him. "Listen."
She had brushed out her hair and it hung from her head straight and a little stiff, almost like the hair of an Indian woman. She had washed her face, too, free of all cosmetics and her pallor was almost waxen. She wore a dressing gown of green silk. Her discarded black frock lay upon the floor.
"I am entirely at your service, mademoiselle," Peter answered, bowing. "Continue, if you please."
"You sup with me to-night - you are my guest."
"I am very much honored," he murmured. "It is an affair of urgency, then? Mademoiselle will remember that I am not alone here."
She threw out her hands scornfully.
"They told me in Paris that you were a genius!" she exclaimed. "Cannot you feel, then, when a thing is urgent? Do you not know it without being told? You must meet me with a carriage at the stage door in forty minutes. We sup in Hamilton Place with Andrea Korust and his brother."
"With whom?" Peter asked, surprised.
"With the Korust Brothers," she repeated. "I have just been talking to Andrea. He calls himself a Hungarian. Bah! They are as much Hungarian, those young men, as I am!"
Peter leaned slightly against the table and looked thoughtfully at his companion. He was trying to remember whether he had ever heard anything of these young men.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "the prospect of partaking of any meal in your company is in itself enchanting, but I do not know your friends, the Korust Brothers. Apart from their wonderful music, I do not recollect ever having heard of them before in my life. What excuse have I, then, for accepting their hospitality? Pardon me, too, if I add that you have not as yet spoken as to the urgency of this affair."
She turned from him impatiently and, throwing herself back into the chair from which she had risen at his entrance, she began to exchange the thick woolen stockings which she had been wearing upon the stage for others of fine silk.
"Oh, la, la!" she exclaimed. "You are very slow, Monsieur le Baron. It is, perhaps, my stage name which has misled you. I am Marie Lapouse. Does that convey anything to you?"
"A great deal," Peter admitted, quickly. "You stand very high upon the list of my agents whom I may trust."
"Then stay here no longer," she begged, "for my maid waits outside and I need her services. Go back and make your excuses to your wife. In forty minutes I shall expect you at the stage door."
"An affair of diplomacy, this, or brute force?" he inquired.
"Heaven knows what may happen!" she replied. "To tell you the truth, I do not know myself. Be prepared for anything, but, for Heaven's sake, go now! I can dress no further without my maid, and Andrea Korust may come in at any moment. I do not wish him to find you here."
Peter made his way thoughtfully back to his seat. He explained the situation to his wife so far as he could, and sent her home. Then he waited about until the car returned, smoking a cigarette and trying once more to remember if he had ever heard anything from Sogrange of Andrea Korust or his brother. Punctually at the time stated he was outside the stage door of the music-hall, and a few minutes later Mademoiselle Celaire appeared, a dazzling vision of fur and smiles and jewelry imperfectly concealed. A small crowd pressed around to see the famous Frenchwoman. Peter handed her gravely across the pavement into his waiting car. One or two of the loungers gave vent to a groan of envy at the sight of the diamonds which blazed from her neck and bosom. Peter smiled as he gave the address to his servant and took his place by the side of his companion.
"They see only the externals, this mob," he remarked. "They picture to themselves, perhaps, a little supper for two. Alas!"
Mademoiselle Celaire laughed at him softly.
"You need not trouble to assume that most disconsolate of expressions, my dear Baron," she assured him. "Your reputation as a man of gallantry is beyond question; but remember that I know you also for the most devoted and loyal of husbands. We waste no time in folly, you and I. It is the business of the Double-Four."
Peter was relieved, but his innate politeness forbade his showing it.
"Proceed," he said.
"The Brothers Korust," she went on, leaning towards him, "have a week's engagement at the Alhambra. Their salary is six hundred pounds. They play very beautifully, of course, but I think that it is as much as they are worth."
Peter agreed with her fervently. He had no soul for music.
"They have taken the furnished house belonging to one of your dukes, in Hamilton Place, for which we are now bound; taken it, too, at a fabulous rent," Mademoiselle Celaire continued. "They, have installed there a chef and a whole retinue of servants. They are here for seven nights; they have issued invitations for seven supper parties."
"Hospitable young men they seem to be," Peter murmured. "I read in one of the stage papers that Andrea is a Count in his own country, and that they perform in public only for the love of their music and for the sake of the excitement and travel."
"A paragraph wholly inspired and utterly false," Mademoiselle Celaire declared, firmly, sitting a little forward in the car, and laying her hand, ablaze with jewels, upon his coat sleeve. "Listen. They call themselves Hungarians. Bah! I know that they are in touch with a great European court, both of them, the court of the country to which they belong. They have plans, plans and schemes connected with their visit here, which I do not understand. I have done my best with Andrea Korust, but he is not a man to be trusted. I know that there is something more in these seven supper parties than idle hospitality. I and others like me, artistes and musicians, are invited, to give the assembly a properly Bohemian tone; but there are to be other guests, attracted there, no doubt, because the papers have spoken of these gatherings."
"You have some idea of what it all means, in your mind?" Peter suggested.
"It is too vague to put into words," she declared, shaking her head. "We must both watch. Afterwards, we will, if you like, compare notes."
The car drew up before the doors of a handsome house in Hamilton Place. A footman received Peter and relieved him of his hat and overcoat. A trim maid performed the same office for Mademoiselle Celaire. They met, a moment or two later, and were ushered into a large drawing-room in which a dozen or two of men and women were already assembled, and from which came a pleasant murmur of voices and laughter. The apartment was hung with pale green satin; the furniture was mostly Chippendale, upholstered in the same shade. A magnificent grand piano stood open in a smaller room, just visible beyond. Only one thing seemed strange to the two newly arrived guests. The room was entirely lit with shaded candles, giving a certain mysterious but not unpleasant air of obscurity to the whole suite of apartments. Through the gloom, the jewels and eyes of the women seemed to shine with a new brilliance. Slight eccentricities of toilette, for a part of the gathering was distinctly Bohemian, were softened and subdued. The whole effect was somewhat weird, but also picturesque.
Andrea Korust advanced from a little group to meet his guests. Off the stage he seemed at first sight frailer and slighter than ever. His dress coat had been exchanged for a velvet dinner jacket, and his white tie for a drooping black bow. He had a habit of blinking nearly all the time, as though his large brown eyes, which he seldom wholly opened, were weaker than they appeared to be. Nevertheless, when he came to within a few paces of his newly arrived visitors, they shone with plenty of expression. Without any change of countenance, however, he held out his hand.
"Dear Andrea," Mademoiselle Celaire exclaimed, "you permit me that I present to you my dear friend, well known in Paris - alas! many years ago - Monsieur le Baron de Grost. Monsieur le Baron was kind enough to pay his respects to me this evening, and I have induced him to become my escort here."
"It was my good fortune," Peter remarked, smiling, "that I saw Mademoiselle Celaire's name upon the bills this evening - my good fortune, since it has procured for me the honor of an acquaintance with a musician so distinguished."
"You are very kind, Monsieur le Baron," Korust replied.
"You stay here, I regret to hear, a very short time?"
"Alas!" Andrea Korust admitted, "it is so. For myself I would that it were longer. I find your London so attractive, the people so friendly. They fall in with my whims so charmingly. I have a hatred, you know, of solitude. I like to make acquaintances wherever I go, to have delightful women and interesting men around, to forget that life is not always gay. If I am too much alone, I am miserable, and when I am miserable I am in a very bad way indeed. I cannot then make music.
Peter smiled gravely and sympathetically.
"And your brother? Does he, too, share your gregarious instincts?"
Korust paused for a moment before replying. His eyes were quite wide open now. If one could judge from his expression, one would certainly have said that the Baron de Grost's attempts to ingratiate himself with his host were distinctly unsuccessful.
"My brother has exactly opposite instincts," he said slowly. "He finds no pleasure in society. At the sound of a woman's voice, he hides."
"He is not here, then?" Peter asked, glancing around.
Andrea Korust shook his head.
"It is doubtful whether he joins us this evening at all," he declared. "My sister, however, is wholly of my disposition. Monsieur le Baron will permit that I present him."
Peter bowed low before a very handsome young woman with flashing black eyes, and a type of features undoubtedly belonging to one of the countries of eastern Europe. She was picturesquely dressed in a gown of flaming red silk, made as though in one piece, without trimming or flounces, and she seemed inclined to bestow upon her new acquaintance all the attention that he might desire. She took him at once into a corner and seated herself by his side. It was impossible for Peter not to associate the empressement of her manner with the few words which Andrea Korust had whispered into her ear at the moment of their introduction.
"So you," she murmured, "are the wonderful Baron de Grost. I have heard of you so often."
"Wonderful!" Peter repeated, with twinkling eyes. "I have never been called that before. I feel that I have no claims whatever to distinction, especially in a gathering like this."
She shrugged her shoulders and glanced carelessly across the room.
"They are well enough," she admitted, "but one wearies of genius on every side of one. Genius is not the best thing in the world to live with, you know. It has whims and fancies. For instance, look at these rooms - the gloom, the obscurity - and I love so much the light."
"It is the privilege of genius," he remarked, "to have whims and to indulge in them."
"To do Andrea justice," she said, "it is, perhaps, scarcely a whim that he chooses to receive his guests in semi-darkness. He has weak eyes and he is much too vain to wear spectacles. Tell me, you know every one here?"
"No one," Peter declared. "Please enlighten me, if you think it necessary. For myself," he added, dropping his voice a little, "I feel that the happiness of my evening is assured, without making any further acquaintances."
"But you came as the guest of Mademoiselle Celaire," she reminded him, doubtfully, with a faint regretful sigh and a provocative gleam in her eyes.
"I saw Mademoiselle Celaire to-night for the first time for years," Peter replied. "I called to see her in her dressing-room and she claimed me for an escort this evening. I am, alas! a very occasional wanderer in the pleasant paths of Bohemia."
"If that is really true," she murmured, "I suppose I must tell you something about the people, or you will feel that you have wasted your opportunity."
"Mademoiselle," Peter whispered.
She held out her hand and laughed into his face.
"No!" she interrupted. "I shall do my duty. Opposite you is Mademoiselle Trezani, the famous singer at Covent Garden. Do I need to tell you that, I wonder? Rudolf Maesterling, the dramatist, stands behind her there in the corner. He is talking to the wonderful Cleo, whom all the world knows. Monsieur Guyer there, he is manager, I believe, of the Alhambra; and talking to him is Marborg, the great pianist. One of the ladies talking to my brother is Esther Braithwaite, whom, of course, you know by sight; she is leading lady, is she not, at the Hilarity? The other is Miss Ransome; they tell me that she is your only really great English actress."
Peter nodded appreciatively.
"It is all most interesting," he declared. "Now tell me, please, who is the military person with the stiff figure and sallow complexion, standing by the door? He seems quite alone."
The girl made a little grimace.
"I suppose I ought to be looking after him," she admitted, rising reluctantly to her feet. "He is a soldier just back from India - a General Noseworthy, with all sorts of letters after his name. If Mademoiselle Celaire is generous, perhaps we may have a few minutes' conversation later on," she added, with a parting smile.
"Say, rather, if Mademoiselle Korust is kind," De Grost replied, bowing. "It depends upon that only."
He strolled across the room and rejoined Mademoiselle Celaire a few moments later. They stood apart in a corner.
"I should like my supper," Peter declared.
"They wait for one more guest," Mademoiselle Celaire announced.
"One more guest! Do you know who it is?"
"No idea," she answered. "One would imagine that it was some one of importance. Are you any wiser than when you came, dear master?" she added, under her breath.
"Not a whit," he replied, promptly.
She took out her fan and waved it slowly in front of her face.
"Yet you must discover what it all means to-night or not at all," she whispered. "The dear Andrea has intimated to me most delicately that another escort would be more acceptable if I should honor him again."
"That helps," he murmured. "See, our last guest arrives.
A tall, - spare-looking man was just being announced. They heard his name as Andrea presented him to a companion -
Mademoiselle Celaire saw a gleam in her companion's eyes.
"It is coming - the idea?" she whispered.
"Very vaguely," he admitted.
"Who is this Colonel Mayson?"
"Our only military aeronaut," Peter replied.
She raised her eyebrows.
"Aeronaut!" she repeated, doubtfully. "I see nothing in that. Both my own country and Germany are years ahead of poor England in the air. Is it not so?"
Peter smiled and held out his arm.
"See," he said, "supper has been announced. Afterwards, Andrea Korust will play to us, and I think that Colonel Mayson and his distinguished brother officer from India will talk. We shall see."
They passed into a room whose existence had suddenly been revealed by the drawing back of some beautiful brocaded curtains. Supper was a delightful meal, charmingly served. Peter, putting everything else out of his head for the moment, thoroughly enjoyed himself, and, remembering his duty as a guest, contributed in no small degree towards the success of the entertainment. He sat between Mademoiselle Celaire and his hostess, both of whom demanded much from him in the way of attention. But he still found time to tell stories which were listened to by every one, and exchanged sallies with the gayest. Only Andrea Korust, from his place at the head of the table, glanced occasionally towards his popular guest with a curious, half-hidden expression of distaste and suspicion.
The more the Baron de Grost shone, the more uneasy he became. The signal to rise from the meal was given almost abruptly. Mademoiselle Korust hung on to Peter's arm. Her own wishes and her brother's orders seemed absolutely to coincide. She led him towards a retiring corner of the music room. On the way, however, Peter overheard the introduction which he had expected.
"General Noseworthy is just returned from India, Colonel Mayson," Korust said, in his usual quiet, tired tone. "You will, perhaps, find it interesting to talk together a little. As for me, I play because all are polite enough to wish it, but conversation disturbs me not in the least."
Peter passed, smiling, on to the corner pointed out by his companion, which was the darkest and most secluded in the room. He took her fan and gloves, lit her cigarette, and leaned back by her side.
"How does your brother, a stranger to London, find time to make the acquaintance of so many interesting people?" he asked.
"He brought many letters," she replied. "He has friends everywhere."
"I have an idea," Peter remarked, "that an acquaintance of my own, the Count von Hern, spoke to me once about him."
She took her cigarette from her lips and turned her head slightly. Peter's expression was one of amiable reminiscence. His cheeks were a trifle flushed, his appearance was entirely reassuring. She laughed at her brother's caution. She found her companion delightful.
"Yes, the Count von Hern is a friend of my brother's," she admitted, carelessly.
"And of yours?" he whispered, his arm slightly pressed against hers.
She laughed at him silently and their eyes met. Decidedly Peter, Baron de Grost, found it hard to break away from his old weakness! Andrea Korust, from his place near the piano, breathed a sigh of relief as he watched. A moment or two later, however, Mademoiselle Korust was obliged to leave her companion to receive a late but unimportant guest, and almost simultaneously Colonel Mayson passed by on his way to the farther end of the apartment. Andrea Korust was bending over the piano to give some instructions to his accompanist. Peter leaned forward and his face and tone were strangely altered.
"You will find General Noseworthy of the Indian Army a little inquisitive, Colonel," he remarked.
The latter turned sharply round. There was meaning in those few words, without doubt! There was meaning, too, in the still, cold face which seemed to repel his question. He passed on thoughtfully. Mademoiselle Korust, with a gesture of relief, came back and threw herself once more upon the couch.
"We must talk in whispers," she said, gayly. "Andrea always declares that he does not mind conversation, but too much noise is, of course, impossible. Besides, Mademoiselle Celaire will not spare you to me for long."
"There is a whole language," he replied, "which was made for whispers. And as for Mademoiselle Celaire -"
He laughed softly.
"Mademoiselle Celaire is, I think, more your brother's friend than mine," he murmured. "At least, I will be generous. He has given me a delightful evening. I resign my claims upon Mademoiselle Celaire."
"It would break your heart," she declared.
His voice sank even below a whisper. Decidedly, Peter, Baron de Grost, did not improve!
He rose to leave precisely at the right time, neither too early nor too late. He had spent altogether a most amusing evening. There were one or two little comedies which bad diverted him extremely. At the moment of parting, the beautiful eyes of Mademoiselle Korust had been raised to his very earnestly.
"You will come again very soon - to-morrow night?" she had whispered. "Is it necessary that you bring Mademoiselle Celaire?"
"It is altogether unnecessary," Peter replied.
"Let me try and entertain you instead, then!"
It was precisely at that instant that Andrea had sent for his sister. Peter watched their brief conversation with much interest and intense amusement. She was being told not to invite him there again and she was rebelling! Without a doubt, he had made a conquest! She returned to him flushed and with a dangerous glitter in her eyes.
"Monsieur le Baron," she said, leading him on one side, "I am ashamed and angry."
"Your brother is annoyed because you have asked me here to-morrow night?" he asked, quickly.
"It is so," she confessed. "Indeed, I thank you that you have spared me the task of putting my brother's discourtesy into words. Andrea takes violent fancies like that sometimes. I am ashamed, but what can I do?"
"Nothing, mademoiselle," be admitted, with a sigh. "I obey, of course. Did your brother mention the source of his aversion to me?"
"He is too absurd sometimes," she declared. "One must treat him like a great baby."
"Nevertheless, there must be a reason," Peter persisted, gently.
"He has heard some foolish thing from Count von Hern," she admitted, reluctantly. "Do not let us think anything more about it. In a few days it will have passed. And meanwhile - "
She paused. He leaned a little towards her. She was looking intently at a ring upon her finger.
"If you would really like to see me," she whispered, and if you are sure that Mademoiselle Celaire would not object, could you not ask me to tea to-morrow - or the next day?"
"To-morrow," Peter insisted, with a becoming show of eagerness. "Shall we say at the Canton at five?"
"Isn't that rather a public place?" she objected.
"Anywhere else you like."
She was silent for a moment. She seemed to be waiting for some suggestion from him. None came, however.
"The Carlton at five," she murmured. "I am angry with Andrea. I feel, even, that I could break his wonderful violin in two!"
Peter sighed once more.
"I should like to twist von Hern's neck," he declared. "Lucky for him that he's in St. Petersburg! Let us forget this unpleasant matter, mademoiselle. The evening has been too delightful for such memories."
Mademoiselle Celaire turned to her escort eagerly as soon as they were alone together in the car.
"As an escort, let me tell you, my dear Baron," she exclaimed, with some pique, "that you are a miserable failure! For the rest - "
"For the rest, I will admit that I am puzzled," Peter said. "I need to think. I have the glimmerings of an idea - no more."
"You will act? It is an affair for us - for the Double-Four?"
"Without a doubt - an affair and a serious one," Peter assured her. "I shall act; exactly how I cannot say until after to-morrow."
"To-morrow?" she repeated, inquiringly.
"Mademoiselle Korust takes tea with me," he explained.
In a quiet sort of way, the series of supper parties given by Andrea Korust became the talk of London. The most famous dancer in the world broke through her unvarying rule and night after night thrilled the distinguished little gathering. An opera singer, the "star" of the season, sang, a great genius recited, and Andrea himself gave always of his best. Apart from this wonderful outpouring of talent, Andrea Korust himself seemed to possess the peculiar art of bringing into touch with one another people naturally interested in the same subjects. On the night after the visit of Peter, Baron de Grost, His Grace the Duke of Rosshire was present, the man in whose hands lay the destinies of the British Navy; and, curiously enough, on the same night, a great French writer on naval subjects was present, whom the Duke had never met, and with whom he was delighted to talk for some time apart. On another occasion, the Military Secretary to the French Embassy was able to have a long and instructive chat with a distinguished English general on the subject of the recent maneuvers, and the latter received, in the strictest confidence, some very interesting information concerning the new type of French guns. On the following evening, the greatest of our Colonial statesmen, a red-hot Imperialist, was able to chat about the resources of the Empire with an English politician of similar views whom he chanced never to have previously met. Altogether, these parties seemed to be the means of bringing together a series of most interesting people, interesting not only in themselves, but in their relations to one another. It was noticeable, however, that from this side of his little gatherings Andrea Korust remained wholly apart. He frankly admitted that music and cheerful companionship were the only two things in life he cared for. Politics or matters of world import seemed to leave him unmoved. If a serious subject of conversation were started at supper time, he was frankly bored, and took no particular pains to hide the fact. It is certain that whatever interesting topics were alluded to in his presence, he remained entirely outside any understanding of them. Mademoiselle Celaire, who was present most evenings, although with other escorts, was entirely puzzled. She could see nothing whatever to account for the warning which she had received, and which she had passed on, as was her duty, to the Baron de Grost. She failed, also, to understand the faint but perceptible enlightenment to which Peter himself had admittedly attained after that first evening. Take that important conversation, for instance, between the French military attach, and the English general. Without a doubt it was of interest, and especially so to the country which she was sure claimed his allegiance, but it was equally without doubt that Andrea Korust neither overheard a word of that conversation nor betrayed the slightest curiosity concerning it. Mademoiselle Celaire was a clever woman and she had never felt so hopelessly at fault....
The seventh and last of these famous supper parties was in full swing. Notwithstanding the shaded candles, which left the faces of the guests a little indistinct, the scene was a brilliant one. Mademoiselle Celaire was wearing her famous diamonds, which shone through the gloom like pin-pricks of fire. Garda Desmaines, the wonderful Garda, sat next to her host, her bosom and hair on fire with jewels, yet with the most wonderful light of all glowing in her eyes. A famous actor, who had thrown his proverbial reticence to the winds, kept his immediate neighbors in a state of semi-hysterical mirth. The clink of wine glasses, the laughter of beautiful women, the murmur of cultivated voices, rising and swelling through the faint, mysterious gloom, made a picturesque, a wonderful scene. Pale as a marble statue, with the covert smile of the gracious host, Andrea Korust sat at the head of his table, well pleased with his company, as indeed he had the right to be. By his side was a great American statesman, who was traveling around the world and yet had refused all other invitations of this sort. He had come for the pleasure of meeting the famous Dutch writer and politician, Mr. Van Jool. The two were already talking intimately. It was at this point that tragedy, or something like it, intervened. A impatient voice was heard in the hall outside, a voice which grew louder and louder, more impatient, finally more passionate. People raised their heads to listen. The American statesman, who was, perhaps, the only one to realize exactly what was coming, slipped his hand into his pocket and gripped something cold and hard. Then the door was flung open. An apologetic and much disturbed butler made the announcement which had evidently been demanded of him.
"Mr. Von Tassen!"
A silence followed - breathless - the silence before the bursting of the storm. Mr. Von Tassen was the name of the American statesman, and the man who rose slowly from his place by his host's side was the exact double of the man who stood now upon the threshold, gazing in upon the room. The expression of the two alone was different. The newcomer was furiously angry, and looked it. The sham Mr. Von Tassen was very much at his ease. It was he who broke the silence, and his voice was curiously free from all trace of emotion. He was looking his double over with an air of professional interest.
"On the whole," he said, calmly, "very good. A little stouter, I perceive, and the eyebrows a trifle too regular. Of course, when you make faces at me like that, it is hard to judge of the expression. I can only say that I did the best I could."
"Who the devil are you, masquerading in my name?" the newcomer demanded, with emphasis. "This man is an impostor!" he added, turning to Andrea Korust. "What is he doing at your table?"
Andrea leaned forward and his face was an evil thing to look upon.
"Who are you?" he hissed out.
The sham Mr. Von Tassen turned away for a moment and stooped down. The trick has been done often enough upon the stage, often in less time, but seldom with more effect. The wonderful wig disappeared, the spectacles, the lines in the face, the make-up of diabolical cleverness. With his back to the wall and his fingers playing with something in his pocket, Peter, Baron de Grost, smiled upon his host.
"Since you insist upon knowing - the Baron de Grost, at your service!" he announced.
Andrea Korust was, for the moment, speechless. One of the women shrieked. The real Mr. Von Tassen looked around him helplessly.
"Will some one be good enough to enlighten me as to the meaning of this?" he begged. "Is it a roast? If so, I only want to catch on. Let me get to the joke, if there is one. If not, I should like a few words of explanation from you, sir," he added, addressing Peter.
"Presently," the latter replied. "In the meantime, let me persuade you that I am not the only impostor here."
He seized a glass of water and dashed it in the face of Mr. Van Jool. There was a moment's scuffle, and no more of Mr. Van Jool. What emerged was a good deal like the shy Maurice Korust, who accompanied his brother at the music hall, but whose distaste for these gatherings had been Andrea's continual lament. The Baron de Grost stepped back once more against the wall. His host was certainly looking dangerous. Mademoiselle Celaire was leaning forward, staring through the gloom with distended eyes. Around the table every head was turned towards the centre of the disturbance. It was Peter again who spoke.
"Let me suggest, Andrea Korust," he said, "that you send your guests - those who are not immediately interested in this affair - into the next room. I will offer Mr. Von Tassen then the explanation to which he is entitled."
Andrea Korust staggered to his feet. The nerve had failed. He was shaking all over. He pointed to the music room.
"If you would be so good, ladies and gentlemen?" he begged. "We will follow you immediately."
They went with obvious reluctance. All their eyes seemed focussed upon Peter. He bore their scrutiny with calm cheerfulness. For a moment he had feared Korust, but that moment had passed. A servant, obeying his master's gesture, pulled back the curtains after the departing crowd. The four men were alone.
"Mr. Von Tassen," Peter said, easily, "you are a man who loves adventures. To-night you experience a new sort of one. Over in your great country, such methods are laughed at as the cheap device of sensation mongers. Nevertheless, they exist. To-night is a proof that they exist."
"Get on to facts, sir," the American admonished. "You've got to explain to me what you mean by passing yourself off as Thomas Von Tassen, before you leave this room."
"With much pleasure, Mr. Von Tassen," he declared. "For your information, I might tell you that you are not the only person in whose guise I have figured. In fact, I have had quite a busy week. I have been - let me see - I have been Monsieur le Marquis de Beau Kunel on the night when our shy friend, Maurice Korust, was playing the part of General Henderson. I have also been His Grace the Duke of Rosshire when my friend Maurice here was introduced to me as Francois Defayal, known by name to me as one of the greatest writers on naval matters. A little awkward about the figure I found His Grace, but otherwise I think that I should have passed muster wherever he was known. I have also passed as Sir William Laureston, on the evening when my rival artist here sang the praises of Imperial England."
Andrea Korust leaned forward with venomous eyes.
"You mean that it was you who was here last night in Sir William Laureston's place?" he almost shrieked.
"Most certainly," Peter admitted, "but you must remember that, after all, my performances have been no more difficult than those of your shy but accomplished brother. Whenever I took to myself a strange personality I found him there, equally good as to detail, and with his subject always at his finger tips. We settled that little matter of the canal, didn't we?" Peter remarked, cheerfully, laying his hand upon the shoulder of the young man.
They stared at him, those two white-faced brothers, like tiger-cats about to spring. Mr. Von Tassen was getting impatient.
"Look here," he protested, "you may be clearing matters up so far as regards Mr. Andrea Korust and his brother, but I'm as much in the fog as ever. Where do I come in?"
"Your pardon, sir," Peter replied. "I am getting nearer things now. These two young men - we will not call them hard names - are suffering from an excess of patriotic zeal. They didn't come and sit down on a camp stool and sketch obsolete forts, as those others of their countrymen do when they want to pose as the bland and really exceedingly ignorant foreigner. They went about the matter with some skill. It occurred to them that it might be interesting to their country to know what Sir William Laureston thought about the strength of the Imperial Navy, and to what extent his country was willing to go in maintaining their allegiance to Great Britain. Then there was the Duke of Rosshire. They thought they'd like to know his views as to the development of the Navy during the next ten years. There was that little matter, too, of the French guns. It would certainly be interesting to them to know what Monsieur le Marquis de Beau Kunel had to say about them. These people were all invited to sit at the hospitable board of our host here. I, however, had an inkling on the first night of what was going on, and I was easily able to persuade those in authority to let me play their several parts. You, sir, Peter added, turning to Mr. Von Tassen, "you, sir, floored me. You were not an Englishman, and there was no appeal which I could make. I simply had to risk you. I counted upon your not turning up. Unfortunately, you did. Fortunately, you are the last guest. This is the seventh supper."
Mr. Von Tassen glanced around at the three men and made up his mind.
"What do you call yourself?" he asked Peter.
"The Baron de Grost," Peter replied.
"Then, my friend the Baron de Grost," Von Tassen said, "I think that you and I had better get out of this. So I was to talk about Germany with Mr. Van Jool, eh?"
"I have already explained your views," Peter declared, with twinkling eyes. "Mr. Van Jool was delighted."
Mr. Von Tassen shook with laughter.
"Say," he exclaimed, "this is a great story! If you're ready, Baron de Grost, lead the way to where we can get a whiskey and soda and a chat."
Mademoiselle Celaire came gliding out to them.
"I am not going to be left here," she whispered, taking Peter's arm.
Peter looked back from the door.
"At any rate, Mr. Andrea Korust," he said, "your first supper was a success. Colonel Mayson was genuine. Our real English military aeronaut was here, and he has disclosed to you, Maurice Korust, all that he ever knew. Henceforth, I presume your great country will dispute with us for the mastery of the air.
"Queer country, this!" Mr. Von Tassen remarked, pausing on the step to light a cigar. "Seems kind of humdrum after New York, but there's no use talking. Things do happen over here, anyway!"