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   Chapter 7 THE DECOY-HOUSE OF EUROPE

A Maker of History By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 9894

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Spencer wrote out his luncheon with the extreme care of the man to whom eating has passed to its proper place amongst the arts, and left to Duncombe the momentous question of red wine or white. Finally, he leaned back in his chair, and looked thoughtfully across at his companion.

"Sir George," he said, "you have placed me in a very painful position."

Duncombe glanced up from his hors d'?uvre.

"What do you mean?"

"I will explain," Spencer continued. "You came to me last night with a story in which I hope that I showed a reasonable amount of interest, but in which, as a matter of fact, I was not interested at all. Girls and boys who come to Paris for the first time in their lives unattended, and find their way to the Café Montmartre, and such places, generally end up in the same place. It would have sounded brutal if I had added to your distress last night by talking like this, so I determined to put you in the way of finding out for yourself. I sent two of my most successful news-scouts to that place last night, and I had not the slightest doubt as to the nature of the information which they would bring back. It turns out that I was mistaken."

"What did they discover?" Duncombe asked eagerly.

"Nothing!"

Duncombe's face fell, but he looked a little puzzled.

"Nothing? I don't understand. They must have heard that they had been there anyhow."

"They discovered nothing. You do not understand the significance of this. I do! It means that I was mistaken for one thing. Their disappearance has more in it than the usual significance. Evil may have come to them, but not the ordinary sort of evil. Listen! You say that the police have disappointed you in having discovered nothing. That is no longer extraordinary to me. The police, or those who stand behind them, are interested in this case, and in the withholding of information concerning it."

"You are talking riddles to me, Spencer," Duncombe declared. "Do you mean that the police in Paris may become the hired tools of malefactors?"

"Not altogether that," Spencer said, waving aside a dish presented before him by the head waiter himself with a gesture of approval. "Not necessarily malefactors. But there are other powers to be taken into consideration, and most unaccountably your two friends are in deeper water than your story led me to expect. Now, not another question, please, until you have tried that sauce. Absolute silence, if you please, for at least three or four minutes."

Duncombe obeyed with an ill grace. He had little curiosity as to its flavor, and a very small appetite at all with the conversation in its present position. He waited for the stipulated time, however, and then leaned once more across the table.

"Spencer!"

"First I must have your judgment upon the sauce. Did you find enough mussels?"

"Damn the sauce!" Duncombe answered. "Forgive me, Spencer, but this affair is, after all, a serious one to me. You say that your two scouts, as you call them, discovered nothing. Well, they had only one evening at it. Will they try again in other directions? Can I engage them to work for me? Money is absolutely no object."

Spencer shook his head.

"Duncombe," he said, "you're going to think me a poor sort of friend, but the truth is best. You must not count upon me any more. I cannot lift even my little finger to help you. I can only give you advice if you want it."

"And that?"

"Go back to England to-morrow. Chuck it altogether. You are up against too big a combination. You can do no one any good. You are a great deal more likely to come to harm yourself."

Duncombe was quite quiet for several moments. When he spoke again his manner had a new stiffness.

"You have surprised me a good deal, I must confess, Spencer. We will abandon the subject."

Spencer shrugged his shoulders.

"I know how you're feeling, old chap," he said. "I can't help it. You understand my position here. I write a daily letter for the best paying and most generous newspaper in the world, and it is absolutely necessary that I keep hand in glove with the people in high places here. My position absolutely demands it, and my duty to my chief necessitates my putting all personal feeling on one side in a case like this when a conflict arises."

"But where," Duncombe asked, "does the conflict arise?"

"Here!" Spencer answered. "I received a note this morning from a great personage in this country to whom I am under more obligation than any other breathing man, requesting me to refrain from making any further inquiries or assisting any one else to make them in this matter. I can assure you that I was thunderstruck, but the note is in my pocket at the present moment."

"Does it mention them by name?"

"The exact words are," Spencer answered, "'respecting the reported disappearance of the young Englishman, Mr. Guy Poynton, and his sister.' This will just show you how much you have to h

ope for from the police, for the person whose signature is at the foot of that note could command the implicit obedience of the whole system."

Duncombe's cheeks were a little flushed. He was British to the backbone, and his obstinacy was being stirred.

"The more reason," he said quietly, "so far as I can see, that I should continue my independent efforts with such help as I can secure. This girl and boy are fellow country-people, and I haven't any intention of leaving them in the clutches of any brutal gang of Frenchmen into whose hands they may have got. I shall go on doing what I can, Spencer."

The journalist shrugged his shoulders.

"I can't help sympathizing with you, Duncombe," he said, "but keep reasonable. You know your Paris well enough to understand that you haven't a thousand to one chance. Besides, Frenchmen are not brutal. If the boy got into a scrape, it was probably his own fault."

"And the girl? What of her? Am I to leave her to the tender mercies of whatever particular crew of blackguards may have got her into their power?"

"You are needlessly melodramatic," Spencer answered. "I will admit, of course, that her position may be an unfortunate one, but the personage whom I have the honor to call my friend does not often protect blackguards. Be reasonable, Duncombe! These young people are not relatives of yours, are they?"

"No!"

"Nor very old friends? The young lady, for instance?"

Duncombe looked up, and his face was set in grim and dogged lines. He felt like a man who was nailing his colors to the mast.

"The young lady," he said, "is, I pray Heaven, my future wife!"

Spencer was honestly amazed, and a little shocked.

"Forgive me, Duncombe," he said. "I had no idea-though perhaps I ought to have guessed."

They went on with their luncheon in silence for some time, except for a few general remarks. But after the coffee had been brought and the cigarettes were alight, Spencer leaned once more across the table.

"Tell me, Duncombe, what you mean to do."

"I shall go to the Café Montmartre myself to-night. At such a place there must be hangers-on and parasites who see something of the game. I shall try to come into touch with them. I am rich enough to outbid the others who exact their silence."

"You must be rich enough to buy their lives then," Spencer answered gravely, "for if you do succeed in tempting any one to betray the inner happenings of that place on which the seal of silence has been put, you will hear of them in the Morgue before a fortnight has passed."

"They must take their risk," Duncombe said coldly. "I am going to stuff my pockets with money to-night, and I shall bid high. I shall leave word at the hotel where I am going. If anything happens to me there-well, I don't think the Café Montmartre will flourish afterwards."

"Duncombe," his friend said gravely, "nothing will happen to you at the Café Montmartre. Nothing ever does happen to any one there. You remember poor De Laurson?"

"Quite well. He was stabbed by a girl in the Rue Pigalle."

"He was stabbed in the Café Montmartre, but his body was found in the Rue Pigalle. Then there was the Vicomte de Sauvinac."

"He was found dead in his study-poisoned."

"He was found there-yes, but the poison was given to him in the Café Montmartre, and it was there that he died. I am behind the scenes in some of these matters, but I know enough to hold my tongue, or my London letter wouldn't be worth a pound a week. I am giving myself away to you now, Duncombe. I am risking a position which it has taken me twenty years to secure. I've got to tell you these things, and you must do as I tell you. Go back to London!"

Duncombe laughed as he rose to his feet.

"Not though the Vicomte's fate is to be mine to-night," he answered. "The worse hell this place is the worse the crew it must shelter. I should never hold my head up again if I sneaked off home and left the girl in their hands. I don't see how you can even suggest it."

"Only because you can't do the least good," Spencer answered. "And besides, don't run away with a false impression. The place is dangerous only for certain people. The authorities don't protect murderers or thieves except under special circumstances. The Vicomte's murderer and De Laurson's were brought to justice. Only they keep the name of the place out of it always. Tourists in shoals visit it, and visit safely every evening. They pay fancy prices for what they have, but I think they get their money's worth. But for certain classes of people it is the decoy house of Europe. Foreign spies have babbled away their secrets there, and the greatest criminals of the world have whispered away their lives to some fair daughter of Judas at those tables. I, who am behind the scenes, tell you these things, Duncombe."

Duncombe smiled.

"To-morrow," he said, "you may add another victim to your chamber of horrors!"

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