The Yellow Crayon by E. Phillips Oppenheim
R. Sabin, who was never, for its own sake, fond of solitude, had ordered dinner for two at eight-thirty in the general dining-room. At a few minutes previous to that hour Mr. Skinner presented himself.
Mr. Skinner was not in the garb usually affected by men of the world who are invited to dine out. The long day's exertion, too, had had its effect upon his linen. His front, indeed, through a broad gap, confessed to a foundation of blue, and one of his cuffs showed a marked inclination to escape from his wrist over his knuckles. His face was flushed, and he exhaled a strong odour of cigars and cocktails. Nevertheless, Mr. Sabin was very glad to see him, and to receive the folded sheet of paper which he at once produced.
"I have taken the liberty," Mr. Sabin remarked, on his part, "of adding a trifle to the amount we first spoke of, which I beg you will accept from me as a mark of my gratitude for your promptness."
"Sure!" Mr. Skinner answered tersely, receiving the little roll of bills without hesitation, and retreating into a quiet corner, where he carefully counted and examined every one. "That's all right!" he announced at the conclusion of his task. "Come and have one with me now before you read your little billet-doux, eh?"
"I shall not read your report until after dinner," Mr. Sabin said, "and I think if you are ready that we might as well go in. At the head-waiter's suggestion I have ordered a cocktail with the oysters, and if we are much later he seemed to fear that it might affect the condition of the - I think it was terrapin, he said."
Mr. Skinner stopped short. His tone betrayed emotion.
"Did you say terrapin, sir?"
Mr. Sabin nodded. Mr. Skinner at once took his arm.
"Guess we'll go right in," he declared. "I hate to have a good meal spoiled."
They were an old-looking couple. Mr. Sabin quietly but faultlessly attired in the usual evening dinner garb, Mr. Skinner ill-dressed, untidy, unwashed and frowsy. But here at least Mr. Sabin's incognito had been unavailing, for he had stayed at the hotel several times - as he remembered with an odd little pang - with Lucille, and the head-waiter, with a low bow, ushered them to their table. Mr. Skinner saw the preparations for their repast, the oysters, the cocktails in tall glasses, the magnum of champagne in ice, and chuckled. To take supper with a duke was a novelty to him, but he was not shy. He sat down and tucked his serviette into his waistcoat, raised his glass, and suddenly set it down again.
"The boss!" he exclaimed in amazement.
Mr. Sabin turned his head in the direction which his companion had indicated. Coming hastily across the room towards them, already out of breath as though with much hurrying, was a thick-set, powerful man, with the brutal face and coarse lips of a prizefighter; a beard cropped so short as to seem the growth of a few days only covered his chin, and his moustache, treated in the same way, was not thick enough to conceal a cruel mouth. He was carefully enough dressed, and a great diamond flashed from his tie. There was a red mark round his forehead where his hat had been, and the perspiration was streaming from his forehead. He strode without hesitation to the table where Mr. Sabin and his guest were sitting, and without even a glance at the former turned upon his myrmidon.
"Where's that report?" he cried roughly. "'Where is it?"
Mr. Skinner seemed to have shrunk into a smaller man. He pointed across the table.
"I've given it to him," he said. "What's wrong, boss?"
The newcomer raised his hand as though to strike Skinner. He gnashed his teeth with the effort to control himself.
"You damned blithering idiot," he said hoarsely, gripping the side of the table. "Why wasn't it presented to me first?"
"Guess it didn't seem worth while," Skinner answered. "There's nothing in the darned thing."
"You ignorant fool, hold your tongue," was the fierce reply.
The newcomer sank into a chair and wiped the perspiration from his streaming forehead. Mr. Sabin signaled to a waiter.
"You seem upset, Mr. Horser," he remarked politely. "Allow me to offer you a glass of wine.
Mr. Horser did not immediately reply, but he accepted the glass which the waiter brought him, and after a moment's hesitation drained its contents. Then he turned to Mr. Sabin.
"You said nothing about those letters you had had when you came to see me this morning!"
"It was you yourself," Mr. Sabin reminded him, "who begged me not to enter into particulars. You sent me on to Mr. Skinner. I told him everything."
Mr. Horser leaned over the table. His eyes were bloodshot, his tone was fierce and threatening. Mr. Sabin was coldly courteous. The difference between the demeanour of the two men was remarkable.
"You knew what those letters meant! This is a plot! Where is Skinner's report?"
Mr. Sabin raised his eyebrows. He signaled to the head-waiter.
"Be so good as to continue the service of my dinner," he ordered. "The champagne is a trifle too chilled. You can take it out of the cooler."
The man bowed, with a curious side glance at Horser.
"Certainly, your Grace!"
Horser was almost speechless with anger.
"Are you going to answer my questions?" he demanded thickly.
"I have no particular objection to doing so," Mr. Sabin answered, "but until you can sit up and compose yourself like an ordinary individual, I decline to enter into any conversation with you at all."
Again Mr. Horser raised his voice, and the glare in his eyes was like the glare of a wild beast.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked. "Do you know who you're talking to?"
Mr. Sabin looked at him coolly, and fingered his wineglass.
"Well," he said, "I've a shocking memory for names, but yours is - Mr. Horser, isn't it? I heard it for the first time this morning, and my memory will generally carry me through four-and-twenty hours."
There was a moment's silence. Horser was no fool. He accepted his defeat and dropped the bully.
"You're a stranger in this city, Mr. Sabin, and I guess you aren't altogether acquainted with our ways yet," he said. "But I want you to understand this. The report which is in your pocket has got to be returned to me. If I'd known what I was meddling with I wouldn't have touched your business for a hundred thousand dollars. It's got to be returned to me, I say!" he repeated in a more threatening tone.
Mr. Sabin helped himself to fish, and made a careful examination of the sauce.
"After all," he said meditatively, "I am not sure that I was wise in insisting upon a sauce piquante. I beg your pardon, Mr. Horser. Please do not think me inattentive, but I am very hungry. So, I believe, is my friend, Mr. Skinner. Will you not join us - or perhaps you have already dined?"
There was an ugly flush in Mr. Horser's cheeks, but he struggled to keep his composure.
"Will you give me back that report?"
"When I have read it, with pleasure," Mr. Sabin answered. "Before, no."
Mr. Horser swallowed an exceedingly vicious oath. He struck the table lightly with his forefinger.
"Look here," he said. "If you'd lived in New York a couple of years, even a couple of months, you wouldn't talk like that. I tell you that I hold the government of this city in my right hand. I don't want to be unpleasant, but if that paper is not in my hands by the time you leave this table I shall have you arrested as you leave this room, and the papers taken from you."
"Dear me," Mr. Sabin said, "this is serious. On what charge may I ask should I be exposed to this inconvenience?"
"Charge be damned!" Mr. Horser answered. "The police don't want particulars from me. When I say do a thing they do it. They know that if they declined it would be their last day on the force."
Mr. Sabin filled his glass and leaned back in his chair.
"This," he remarked, "is interesting. I am always glad to have the opportunity of gaining an insight into the customs of different countries. I had an idea that America was a country remarkable for the amount of liberty enjoyed by its inhabitants. Your proposed course of action seems scarcely in keeping with this."
"What are you going to do? Come, I've got to have an answer."
"I don't quite understand," Mr. Sabin remarked, with a puzzled look, "what your official position is in connection with the police."
Mr. Horser's face was a very ugly sight. "Oh, curse my official position," he exclaimed thickly. "If you want proof of what I say you shall have it in less than five minutes. Skinner, be off and fetch a couple of constables."
"I really must protest," Mr. Sabin said. "Mr. Skinner is my guest, and I will not have him treated in this fashion, just as the terrapin is coming in, too. Sit down, Mr. Skinner, sit down. I will settle this matter with you in my room, Mr. Horser, after I have dined. I will not even discuss it before."
Mr. Horser opened his mouth twice, and closed it again. He knew that his opponent was simply playing to gain time, but, after all, he held the trump card. He could afford to wait. He turned to a waiter and ordered a cigar. Mr. Sabin and Mr. Skinner continued their dinner.
Conversation was a little difficult, though Mr. Sabin showed no signs of an impaired appetite. Skinner was white with fear, and glanced every now and then nervously at his chief. Mr. Horser smoked without ceasing, and maintained an ominous silence. Mr. Sabin at last, with a sigh, rose, and lighting a cigarette, took his stick from the waiter and prepared to leave.
"I fear, Mr. Horser," he remarked, "that your presence has scarcely contributed to the cheerfulness of our repast. Mr. Skinner, am I to be favoured with your company also upstairs?"
Horser clutched that gentleman's arm and whispered a few words in his ear.
"Mr. Skinner," he said, "will join us presently. What is your number?"
"336," Mr. Sabin answered. "You will excuse my somewhat slow progress."
They crossed the hall and entered the elevator. Mr. Horser's face began to clear. In a moment or two they would be in Mr. Sabin's sitting-room-alone. He regarded with satisfaction the other's slim, delicate figure and the limp with which he moved. He felt that the danger was already over.