The Yellow Crayon by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Mr. Sabin drew a little breath, partly of satisfaction because he had discovered the place he sought, and partly of disgust at the neighbourhood in which he found himself. Nevertheless, he descended three steps from the court into which he had been directed, and pushed open the swing door, behind which Emil Sachs announced his desire to supply the world with dinners at eightpence and vin ordinaire at fourpence the small bottle.
A stout black-eyed woman looked up at his entrance from behind the counter. The place was empty.
"What does monsieur require she asked, peering forward through the gloom with some suspicion. For the eightpenny dinners were the scorn of the neighbourhood, and strangers were rare in the wine shop of Emil Sachs.
Mr. Sabin smiled.
"One of your excellent omelettes, my good Annette," he answered, "if your hand has not lost its cunning!"
She gave a little cry.
"It is monsieur!" she exclaimed. "After all these years it is monsieur! Ab, you will pardon that I did not recognise you. This place is a cellar. Monsieur has not changed. In the daylight one would know him anywhere."
The woman talked fast, but even in that dim light Mr. Sabin knew quite well that she was shaking with fear. He could see the corners of her mouth twitch. Her black eyes rolled incessantly, but refused to meet his. Mr. Sabin frowned.
"You are not glad to see me, Annette!"
She leaned over the counter.
"For monsieur s own sake," she whispered, "go!"
Mr. Sabin stood quite still for a short space of time.
"Can I rest in there for a few minutes?" he asked, pointing to the door which led into the room beyond.
The woman hesitated. She looked up at the clock and down again.
"Emil will return," she said, "at three. Monsieur were best out of the neighbourhood before then. For ten minutes it might be safe."
Mr. Sabin passed forward. The woman lifted the flap of the counter and followed him. Within was a smaller room, far cleaner and better appointed than the general appearance of the place promised. Mr. Sabin seated himself at one of the small tables. The linen cloth, he noticed, was spotless, the cutlery and appointments polished and clean.
"This, I presume," he remarked, "is not where you serve the eightpenny table d'hote?"
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
"But it would not be possible," she answered. "We have no customers for that. If one arrives we put together a few scraps. But one must make a pretense. Monsieur understands?"
Mr. Sabin nodded.
"I will take," he said, "a small glass of fin champagne."
She vanished, and reappeared almost immediately with the brandy in a quaintly cut liqueur glass. A glance at the clock as she passed seemed to have increased her anxiety.
"If monsieur will drink his liqueur and depart," she prayed. "Indeed, it will be for the best."
Mr. Sabin set down his glass. His steadfast gaze seemed to reduce Annette into a state of nervous panic.
"Annette," he said, "they have placed me upon the list."
"It-is true, monsieur," she answered. "Why do you come here?"
"I wanted to know first for certain that they had ventured so far," Mr. Sabin said. "I believe that I am only the second person in this country who has been so much honoured."
The woman drew nearer to him.
"Monsieur," she said, "your only danger is to venture into such parts as these. London is so safe, and the law is merciless. They only watch. They will attempt nothing. Do not leave England. There is here no machinery of criminals. Besides, the life of monsieur is insured."
"Insured?" Mr. Sabin remarked quietly. "That is good news. And who pays the premium?"
"A great lady, monsieur! I know no more. Monsieur must go indeed. He has found his way into the only place in London where he is not safe."
Mr. Sabin rose.
"You are expecting, perhaps," he said, "one of my friends from the - "
She interrupted him.
"It is true," she declared. He may be here at any instant. The time is already up. Oh, monsieur, indeed, indeed it would not do for him to find you."
Mr. Sabin moved towards the door.
"You are perhaps right," he said regretfully, "although I should much like to hear about this little matter of life insurance while I am here."
"Indeed, monsieur," Annette declared, "I know nothing. There is nothing which I can tell monsieur."
Mr. Sabin suddenly leaned forward. His gaze was compelling. His tone was low but terrible.
"Annette," he said, "obey me. Send Emil here."
The woman trembled, but she did not move. Mr. Sabin lifted his forefinger and pointed slowly to the door. The woman's lips parted, but she seemed to have lost the power of speech.
"Send Emil here!" Mr. Sabin repeated slowly.
Annette turned and left the room, groping her way to the door as though her eyesight had become uncertain. Mr. Sabin lit a cigarette and looked for a moment carefully into the small liqueur glass out of which he had drunk.
"That was unwise," he said softly to himself. "Just such a blunder might have cost me everything."
He held it up to the light and satisfied himself that no dregs remained. Then he took from his pocket a tiny little revolver, and placing it on the table before him, covered it with his handkerchief. Almost immediately a door at the farther end of the room opened and closed. A man in dark clothes, small, unnaturally pale, with deep-set eyes and nervous, twitching mouth, stood before him. Mr. Sabin smiled a welcome at him.
"Good-morning, Emil Sachs," he said. "I am glad that you have shown discretion. Stand there in the light, please, and fold your arms. Thanks. Do not think that I am afraid of you, but I like to talk comfortably."
"I am at monsieur's service," the man said in a low tone.
"Exactly. Now, Emil, before starting to visit you I left a little note behind addressed to the chief of the police here - no, you need not start - to be sent to him only if my return were unduly delayed. You can guess what that note contained. It is not necessary for us to revert to - unpleasant subjects."
The man moistened his dry lips.
"It is not necessary," he repeated. "Monsieur is as safe here - from me - as at his own hotel."
"Excellent!" Mr. Sabin said. "Now listen, Emil. It has pleased me chiefly, as you know, for the sake of your wife, the good Annette, to be very merciful to you as regards the past. But I do not propose to allow you to run a poison bureau for the advantage of the Prince of Saxe Leinitzer and his friends - more especially, perhaps, as I am at present upon his list of superfluous persons."
The man trembled.
"Monsieur," he said, "the Prince knows as much as you know, and he has not the mercy that one shows to a dog."
"You will find," Mr. Sabin said, "that if you do not obey me, I myself can develop a similar disposition. Now answer me this! You have within the last few days supplied several people with that marvelous powder for the preparation of which you are so justly famed."
"Several - no, monsieur! Two only."
The man trembled.
"If they should know!"
"They will not, Emil. I will see to that."
"The first I supplied to the order of the Prince."
"Good! And the second?"
"To a lady whose name I do not know."
Mr. Sabin raised his eyebrows.
"Is not that," he remarked, "a little irregular?"
"The lady wrote her request before me in the yellow crayon. It was sufficient."
"And you do not know her name, Emil?"
"No, monsieur. She was dark and tall, and closely veiled. She was here but a few minutes since."
"Dark and tall!" Mr. Sabin repeated to himself thoughtfully. "Emil, you are telling me the truth?"
"I do not dare to tell you anything else, monsieur," the man answered.
Mr. Sabin did not continue his interrogations for a few moments. Suddenly he looked up.
"Has that lady left the place yet, Emil?"
Mr. Sabin smiled.
"Have you a back exit?" he asked.
"None that the lady would know of," Emil answered. "She must pass along the passage which borders this apartment, and enter the bar by a door from behind. If monsieur desires it, it is impossible for her to leave unobserved."
"That is excellent, Emil," Mr. Sabin said. "Now there is one more question - quite a harmless one. Annette spoke of my life being in some way insured."
"It is true, monsieur," Emil admitted. "A lady who also possessed the yellow crayon came here the day that - that monsieur incurred the displeasure of - of his friends. She tried to bribe me to blow up my laboratory and leave the country, or that I should substitute a harmless powder for any required by the Prince. I was obliged to refuse."
"Then she promised me a large sum if you were alive in six months, and made me at once a payment.
"Dear me," Mr. Sabin said, "this is quite extraordinary."
"I can tell monsieur the lady's name," Emil continued, "for she raised her veil, and everywhere the illustrated papers have been full of her picture. It was the lady who was besieged in a little town of South Africa, and who carried despatches for the general, disguised as a man."
"Lady Carey!" Mr. Sabin remarked quietly.
"That was the lady's name," Emil agreed.
Mr. Sabin was thoughtful for a few moments. Then he looked up.
"Emil Sachs," he said sternly, "you have given out at least one portion of your abominable concoction which is meant to end my days. Whether I shall escape it or not remains to be seen. I am forced at the best to discharge my servant, and to live the life of a hunted man. Now you have done enough mischief in the world. To-morrow morning a messenger will place in your hands two hundred pounds. A larger sum will await you at Baring's Bank in New York. You will go there and buy a small restaurant in the business quarter. This is your last chance, Emil. I give it to you for the sake of Annette."
"And I accept it, monsieur, with gratitude."
"For the present "
Mr. Sabin stopped short. His quick ears had caught the swish of woman's gown passing along the passage outside. Emil too had heard it.
"It is the dark lady," he whispered, "who purchased from me the other powder. See, I open gently this door. Monsieur must both see and hear."
The door at the end of the passage was opened. A woman stepped out into the little bar and made her way towards the door. Here she was met by a man entering. Mr. Sabin held up his forefinger to stop the terrified exclamation which trembled on Emil's lips. The woman was Lucille, the man the Prince. It was Lucille who was speaking.
"You have followed me, Prince. It is intolerable."
"Dear Lucille, it is for your own sake. These are not fit parts for you 'to visit alone."
"It is my own business," she answered coldly.
The Prince appeared to be in a complaisant mood.
"Come," he said, "the affair is not worth a quarrel. I ask you no questions. Only since we are here I propose that we test the cooking of the good Annette. We will lunch together."
"What, here?" she answered. "Absurd."
"By no means," he answered. "As you doubtless know, the exterior of the place is entirely misleading. These people are old servants of mine. I can answer for the luncheon."
"You can also eat it," came the prompt reply. "I am returning to the carriage."
Mr. Sabin emerged through the swing door. "Your discretion, my dear Lucille," he said, smiling, "is excellent. The place is indeed better than it seems, and Annette's cookery may be all that the Prince claims. Yet I think I know better places for a luncheon party, and the ventilation is not of the best. May I suggest that you come with me instead to the Milan?"
"Victor! You here?"
Mr. Sabin smiled as he admitted the obvious fact. The Prince's face was as black as night.
"Believe me," Mr. Sabin said, turning to the Prince, "I sympathise entirely with your feelings at the present moment. I myself have suffered in precisely the same manner. The fact is, intrigue in this country is almost an impossibility. At Paris, Vienna, Pesth, how different! You raise your little finger, and the deed is done. Superfluous people - like myself - are removed like the hairs from your chin. But here intrigue seems indeed to exist only within the pages of a shilling novel, or in a comic opera. The gentleman with a helmet there, who regards us so benignly, will presently earn a shilling by calling me a hansom. Yet in effect he does me a far greater service. He stands for a multitude of cold Anglo-Saxon laws, adamant, incorruptible, inflexible - as certain as the laws of Nature herself. I am quite aware that by this time I ought to be lying in a dark cellar with a gag in my mouth, or perhaps in the river with a dagger in my chest. But here in England, no!"
The Prince smiled - to all appearance a very genial smile.
"You are right, my dear friend," he said, "yet what you say possesses, shall we call it, a somewhat antediluvian flavour. Intrigue is no longer a clumsy game of knife and string and bowl. It becomes to-day a game of finesse. I can assure you that I have no desire to give a stage whistle and have you throttled at my feet. On the contrary, I beg you to use my carriage, which you will find in the street. You will lunch at the Milan with Lucille, and I shall retire discomfited to eat alone at my club. But the game is a long one, my dear friend. The new methods take time."
"This conversation," Mr. Sabin said to Lucille, "is interesting, but it is a little ungallant. I think that we will resume it at some future occasion. Shall we accept the Prince's offer, or shall we be truly democratic and take a hansom."
Lucille passed her arm through his and laughed.
"You are robbing the Prince of me," she declared. "Let us leave him his carriage."
She nodded her farewells to Saxe Leinitzer, who took leave of them with a low bow. As they waited at the corner for a hansom Mr. Sabin glanced back. The Prince had disappeared through the swing doors.
"I want you to promise me one thing," Lucille said earnestly.
"It is promised," Mr. Sabin answered.
"You will not ask me the reason of my visit to this place?"
"I have no curiosity," Mr. Sabin answered. "Come!"