Chapter IX. A Fine Night
 

In a shop where, that afternoon, the Countess had purchased some Lyons silks, one of the clerks, Peter Niburg, was free at last. At seven o'clock, having put away the last rolls of silk on the shelves behind him, and covered them with calico to keep off the dust; having given a final glance of disdain at the clerk in the linens, across; having reached under the counter for his stiff black hat of good quality and his silver-topped cane; having donned the hat and hung the stick to his arm with two swaggering gestures; having prepared his offensive, so to speak, he advanced.

Between Peter Niburg and Herman Spier of the linens, was a feud. Its source, in the person of a pretty cashier, had gone, but the feud remained. It was of the sort that smiles with the lips and scowls with the eyes, that speaks pleasantly quite awful things, although it was Peter Niburg who did most of the talking. Herman Spier was a moody individual, given to brooding. A man who stood behind his linens, and hated with his head down.

And he hated Peter. God, how he hated him! The cashier was gone, having married a restaurant keeper, and already she waxed fat. But Herman's hatred grew with the days. And business being bad, much of the time he stood behind his linens and thought about a certain matter, which was this:

How did Peter Niburg do it?

They were paid the same scant wage. Each Monday they stood together, Peter smiling and he frowning, and received into open palms exactly enough to live on, without extras. And each Monday Peter pocketed his cheerfully, and went back to his post, twirling his mustache as though all the money of the realm jingled in his trousers.

To accept the inevitable, to smile over one's poverty, that is one thing. But there was more to it. Peter made his money go amazingly far. It was Peter, for instance, who on name-days had been able to present the little cashier with a nosegay. Which had, by the way, availed him nothing against the delicatessen offerings of the outside rival. When, the summer before, the American Scenic Railway had opened to the public, with much crossing of flags, the national emblem and the Stars and Stripes, it was Peter who had invited the lady to an evening of thrills on that same railway at a definite sum per thrill. Nay, more, as Herman had seen with his own eyes, taken her afterward to a coffee-house, and shared with her a litre of white wine. A litre, no less.

Herman himself had been to the Scenic Railway, but only because he occupied a small room in the house where the American manager lived. The manager had given tickets to Black Humbert, the concierge, but Humbert was busy with other thing, and was, besides, chary of foreign deviltries. So he had passed the tickets on.

It was Peter, then, who made the impossible possible, who wore good clothes and did not have his boots patched, who went, rumor said, to the Opera now and then, and followed the score on his own battered copy.

How?

Herman Spier had suspected him of many things; had secretly audited his cash slips; had watched him for surreptitious parcels of silk. Once he had thought he had him. But the package of Lyons silk, opened by the proprietor at Herman's suggestion, proved to be material for a fancy waistcoat, and paid for by Peter Niburg's own hand.

With what? Herman stood confused, even confounded, but still suspicious. And now, this very day, he had stumbled on something. A great lady from the Court had made a purchase, and had left, under a roll of silk, a letter. There was no mistake. And Peter Niburg had put away the silk, and pocketed the letter, after a swift glance over the little shop.

An intrigue, then, with Peter Niburg as the go-between, or - something else. Something vastly more important, the discovery of which would bring Herman prominence beyond his fellows in a certain secret order to which he belonged.

In a way, he was a stupid man, this pale-eyed clerk who sold the quaint red and yellow cottons of the common people side by side with the heavy linens that furnished forth the tables of the rich. But hatred gave him wits. Gave him speed, too. He was only thirty feet behind Peter Niburg when that foppish gentleman reached the corner.

Herman was skilled in certain matters. He knew, for instance, that a glance into a shop window, a halt to tie a shoe, may be a ruse for passing a paper to other hands. But Peter did not stop. He went, not more swiftly than usual, to his customary restaurant, one which faced over the Square and commanded a view of the Palace. And there he settled himself in a window and ordered his dinner.

From the outside Herman stared in. He did not dine there. It was, for one thing, a matter of bitterness to see sitting at the cashier's high desk, the little Marie, grown somewhat with flesh, it is true, but still lovely in his eyes. It made Herman wince, even now, to see through the window that her husband patted her hand as he brought her money to be changed.

He lurked in the shadows outside, and watched. Peter sat alone. He had bowed very stiffly to Marie, and had passed the desk with his chest out. She had told him once that he had a fine figure.

Peter sat alone, and stared out. Herman took shelter, and watched. But Peter Niburg did not see him. His eyes were fixed on the gloomy mass across, shot with small lights from deep windows, which was the Palace.

Peter was calm. He had carried many such letters as the one now hidden in his breast pocket. No conscience stirred in him. If he did not do this work, others would. He shrugged his shoulders. He drank his brandy, and glanced at Marie. He found her eyes on him. Pretty eyes they still were, and just now speculative. He smiled at her, but she averted her head, and colored. Many things filled Peter Niburg's mind. If now she was not happy, what then? Her husband adored her. It was fatal. A woman should not be too sure of a husband. And probably he bored her. Another six months, and perhaps she would not turn away her head.

He had until midnight. At that hour a messenger would receive the letter from him in the colonnade of the cathedral. On this night, each week, the messenger waited. Sometimes there was a letter, sometimes none. That was all. It was amazingly simple, and for it one received the difference between penury and comfort.

Seeing Peter settled, a steaming platter before him, Herman turned and hurried through the night. This which he had happened on was a big thing, too big for him alone. Two heads were better than one. He would take advice.

Off the main avenue he fell into a smart trot. The color came to his pale cheeks. A cold sweat broke out over him. He was short of wind from many cigarettes. But at last he reached the house. It was near the park. Although the season was early spring and there was more than a hint of winter in the air, the Scenic Railway, he perceived, was already open for business. Certainly the Americans were enterprising.

The double doors of the tall, gloomy house on the Road of Good Children were already closed for the evening. As he stood panting, after he had rung the bell, Herman Spier could look across to that remote and unfashionable end of the great park where the people played on pleasant evenings, and where even now, on the heels of winter, the Scenic Railway made a pretense at summer.

The sight recalled that other vision of Marie and Peter Niburg, snugly settled in a car, Marie a trifle pale and apprehensive. Herman swore softly; and opened the doors.

Black Humbert was not in his bureau, behind the grating. With easy familiarity Herman turned to a door beyond and entered. A dirty little room, it was littered now with the preparations for a meal. On the bare table were a loaf, a jug of beer, and a dish of fried veal. The concierge was at the stove making gravy in a frying-pan - a huge man, bearded and heavy of girth, yet stepping lightly, like a cat. A dark man and called "the Black," he yet revealed, on full glance, eyes curiously pale and flat.

No greeting passed between them. Humbert gave his visitor a quick glance. Herman closed the door, and wiped out the band of his hat. The concierge poured the gravy over the meat.

"I have discovered something, something," Herman said. "As to its value, I know nothing, or its use to us."

"Let me judge that." But the concierge was unmoved, by Herman's excitement. He dealt in sensations. His daily tools were men less clever than himself, men who constantly made worthless discoveries. And it was the dinner hour. His huge body was crying for food.

"It is a matter of a letter."

"Sit down, man, and tell it. Or do you wish me to draw the information, like bad teeth?"

"A letter from the Palace," said Herman. And explained.

Black Humbert listened. He was skeptical, but not entirely incredulous. He knew the Court - none better. The women of the Court wrote many letters. He saw a number of them, through one of his men in the post office. There were many intrigues. After all, who could blame them? The Court was dreary enough these days, and if they chose to amuse themselves as best they could - one must make allowances.

"A liaison!" he said at last, with his mouth full. "The Countess is handsome, and bored. Annunciata is driving her to wickedness, as she drove her husband. But it is worth consideration. Even the knowledge of an intrigue is often helpful. Of what size was the letter?"

"A small envelope. I saw no more."

The concierge reflected. "The Countess uses a gray paper with a coronet."

"This was white."

Black Humbert reflected. "There is, of course, a chance that he has already passed this on. But even if so, there will be others. The Countess comes often to the shop?"

"Once in a week, perhaps."

"So." The big man rose, and untied his soiled apron. "Go back," he said, "and enter the restaurant. Order a small meal, that you may have finished when he does. Leave with him and suggest the Hungaria."

"Hungaria! I have no money."

"You will need no money. Now, mark this. At a certain corner you will be attacked and robbed. A mere form," he added, as he saw Herman's pallid face go whiter. "For the real envelope will be substituted another. In his breast-pocket, you said. Well, then suggest going to his room. He may," added the concierge grimly, "require your assistance. Leave him at his lodging, but watch the house. It is important to know to whom he delivers these letters."

As the man stood, he seemed to the cowering Herman to swell until he dominated the room. He took on authority. To Herman came suddenly the memory of a hidden room, and many men, and one, huge and towering, who held the others in the, hollow of his hand. Herman turned to go, but at the door the concierge stopped him.

"A moment," he said. "We will select first the shape and fashion of this envelope you saw. These matters require finesse."

He disappeared, returning shortly with a wooden box, filled to the top with old envelopes. Each had been neatly opened and its contents extracted. And on each was neatly penned in a corner the name of the sender. Herman watched while the concierge dug through it.

"Here it is," he said at last. "The Countess, to her aunt in a nunnery and relating to wool knitting. See, is this the sort of envelope?"

"That is gray," Herman Spier said sullenly.

"But in size?"

"It is similar."

"Good." He held the envelope to the light and inspected it. "It would be interesting to know," he said, "whether the Countess has an aunt in this nunnery, or whether - but go, man. And hurry."

Left alone, he got together pens, ink, and carbon paper. He worked awkwardly, his hands too large for the pen, his elbows spread wide over the table. But the result was fair. He surveyed it with satisfaction.

Meanwhile, back went Herman over his earlier route. But now he did not run. His craven knees shook beneath him. Fresh sweat, not of haste but of fear, broke out over him. He who was brave enough of tongue in the meetings, who was capable of rising to heights of cruelty that amounted to ferocity when one of a mob, was a coward alone.

However, the sight of the restaurant, and of his fellow clerk eating calmly, quieted him. Peter Niburg was still alone. Herman took a table near him, and ordered a bowl of soup. His hands shook, but the hot food revived him. After all, it was simple enough. But, of course, it hinged entirely on his fellow-clerk's agreeing to accompany him.

He glanced across. Peter Niburg was eating, but his eyes were fixed on Madame Marie, at her high desk. There was speculation in them, and something else. Triumph, perhaps.

Suddenly Herman became calm. Calm with hate.

And, after all, it was very easy. Peter Niburg was lonely. The burden of the letter oppressed him. He wanted the comfort of human conversation and the reassurance of a familiar face. When the two met at -the rack by the door which contained their hats, his expression was almost friendly. They went out together.

"A fine night," said Herman, and cast an eye at the sky.

"Fine enough."

"Too good to waste in sleep. I was thinking," observed Herman, "of an hour or two at the Hungaria."

The Hungaria! Something in Peter's pleasure-hungry heart leaped, but he mocked his fellow-clerk.

"Since when," he inquired, "have you frequented the Hungaria?

"I feel in the mood," was the somewhat sullen reply. "I work hard enough, God knows, to have a little pleasure now and then." Danger was making him shrewd. He turned away from Peter Niburg, then faced him again. "If you care to come," he suggested. "Not a supper, you understand; but a glass of wine, Italian champagne," he added.

Peter Niburg was fond of sweet champagne.

Peter Niburg pushed his hat to the back of his head, and hung his stick over his forearm. After all, why not? Marie was gone. Let the past die. If Herman could make the first move, let him, Peter, make the second. He linked arms with his old enemy.

"A fine night," he said.