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   Chapter 9 THE STORY OF A CALL

A Maker of History By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 11541

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Mademoiselle Mermillon was not warmly welcomed at the Grand Hotel. The porter believed that Sir George Duncombe was out. He would inquire, if Mademoiselle would wait, but he did not usher her into the drawing-room, as would have been his duty in an ordinary case, or even ask her to take a seat.

Mademoiselle Mermillon was of the order of young person who resents, but this afternoon she was far too nervous. During the porter's temporary absence she started at every footstep, and scrutinized anxiously every passer-by. Often she looked behind her through the glass doors into the street. When at last he reappeared alone her disappointment was obvious.

"Sir George Duncombe is out, Mademoiselle," he announced. "Will you be pleased to leave a message, or your name?"

"You do not know how long he will be?" she inquired.

"Sir George left no word," the man answered. "He has been out since before déjeuner."

Mademoiselle decided to leave a note. The porter supplied her with notepaper and envelopes. She sat down at a small round table, and once more glanced furtively around. Convinced that she was not being watched, she hastily wrote a few lines, sealed and addressed the envelope, and handed it to the porter.

"You will give this to Sir George immediately he returns," she begged. "It is important."

"Monsieur shall have it without doubt, Mademoiselle," the man answered.

She pulled down her veil and left the place hurriedly. When she reached the boulevard she slackened her pace, and drew a little breath of relief.

"Ten thousand francs!" she murmured to herself. "If I took that with me they would receive me at home. I might start all over again. It is worth a little risk. Heavens, how nervous I am!"

She entered a café and drank à petit verre. As she set her glass down a man looked at her over the top of his newspaper. She tried to smile, but her heart was beating, and she was sick with fear.

"What a fool I am!" she muttered. "It is a stranger, too. If he were one of Gustav's lot I should know him."

She returned his smile, and he came and sat down beside her. They had another liqueur. Later they left the place together.

* * *

Duncombe returned to his hotel tired out after a disappointing day spent in making fruitless inquiries in various parts of Paris. He had learnt nothing. He seemed as far off the truth as ever. He opened the note which the porter handed him listlessly enough. Afterwards, however, it was different. This is what he read:-

"I can tell you about the young English lady if you will promise upon your honor that you will not betray me. I dare not come here again. I dare not even speak to you while the others are about. Go to the Café Sylvain to-night and order dinner in a private room. I will come at half-past seven.-Flossie."

Duncombe drew a little sigh of relief. At last then he was to know something. He was very English, a bad amateur detective, and very weary of his task. Nothing but his intense interest in the girl herself-an interest which seemed to have upset the whole tenor of his life-would have kept him here plodding so relentlessly away at a task which seemed daily to present more difficulties and complications. Yet so absorbed had he become that the ordinary duties and pleasures which made up the routine of his life scarcely ever entered into his mind. There had been men coming down to shoot, whom in an ordinary way he would not have dreamed of putting off-a cricket match which had been postponed until his return, and which he had completely forgotten. Paris had nothing in the shape of amusement to offer him in place of these things, yet in his own mind these things were as if they had not been. Every interest and energy of his life was concentrated upon the one simple object of his search.

He gave the man half a crown, and walked to the lift whistling. The porter shook his head, and Duncombe receded considerably in his estimation, notwithstanding the tip. He considered Mademoiselle Flossie a little obvious for a gentleman of Duncombe's class. Duncombe treated himself to a cocktail and a cigarette as he changed his clothes. It was positively the first gleam of hope he had had. And then suddenly he remembered Spencer's warning, and he became grave.

He was at the Café Sylvain early. He ordered dinner, gave elaborate instructions about a young lady when she arrived, and with a glass of absinthe and another cigarette sat down to wait. At a quarter to eight he began to get restless. He summoned the waiter again, and gave a more detailed description of Mademoiselle Flossie. The waiter was regretful but positive. No young lady of any description had arrived expecting to meet a gentleman in a private room. Duncombe tried him with her name. But yes, Mademoiselle Mermillon was exceedingly well known there! He would give orders that she should be shown up immediately she arrived. It would be soon, without doubt.

At a quarter-past eight Duncombe dined alone, too disappointed to resent the waiter's sympathetic attitude. At nine o'clock he returned to the hotel on the chance that a message might have been sent there. He read the English newspapers, and wrote letters until midnight. Then he ordered a carriage and drove to the Café Montmartre.

He mounted the stairs and passed through the little bar which led into the supper-room. Monsieur Albert came forward with a low bow.

"You can find me a table, I suppose?" Duncombe remarked, looking round. "Where shall I sit?"

Monsieur Albert shook his head slowly. His hands were outstretched, his manner sad, but resigned.

"I am very sorry, Monsieur, but to-night every place is taken. I have had to turn others away already," he declared. "A thousand regrets."

Dunc

ombe looked at him astonished. The place was more than half empty.

"Surely you can find me a small table somewhere," he said. "I was here last evening, you know. If it is because I am alone I will order supper for two and a magnum of wine."

Monsieur Albert was immovable. He remembered Duncombe well, and he was proud of his patronage, but to-night it was impossible to offer him a table. Duncombe began to be annoyed.

"Very well," he said, "I will stay in the bar. You can't turn me out of there, can you?"

Monsieur Albert was evasive. He desired Monsieur Duncombe to be amused, and the people who remained in the bar-well, it was not possible to get rid of them, but they were not fitting company for him.

"There is the Café Mazarin," he added confidentially, "a few steps only from here-a most amusing place. The most wonderful ladies there, too, very chic, and crowded every night! Monsieur should really try it. The commissionaire would direct him-a few yards only."

"Much obliged to you," Duncombe answered, turning on his heel. "I may look in there presently."

He seated himself at a small round table and ordered a drink. The people here were of a slightly different class from those who had the entrée to the supper-room and were mostly crowded round the bar itself. At a small desk within a few feet of him a middle-aged woman with a cold, hard face sat with a book of account before her and a pile of bills. There was something almost Sphynx-like about her appearance. She never spoke. Her expression never changed. Once their eyes met. She looked at him steadfastly, but said nothing. The girl behind the bar also took note of him. She was very tall and slim, absolutely colorless, and with coils of fair hair drawn tightly back from her forehead. She was never without a cigarette, lighting a fresh one always from its predecessor, talking all the while unceasingly, but without the slightest change of expression. Once she waved the men and girls who stood talking to her on one side, and Duncombe fancied that it was because she desired a better view of him.

Suddenly he was startled by a voice close at hand. He looked up. The woman at the desk was speaking to him.

"Monsieur would be well advised," she said, "if he departed."

Duncombe looked at her in amazement. She was writing rapidly in her book, and her eyes were fixed upon her work. If he had not actually heard her, it would have been hard to believe that she had spoken.

"But why, Madame?" he asked. "Why should I go? I am in no one's way. I can pay for what I have."

She dipped her pen in the ink.

"I know nothing of Monsieur or his business," she said, still without even glancing towards him, "but I know that Monsieur Albert does not wish him to remain."

"The devil take Monsieur Albert!" Duncombe answered angrily. "I am waiting to speak to some one who comes here regularly, and I shall stay until she comes."

The woman wrote steadily for a moment. Then she blotted the page on which she had been writing, and raising her head, looked at him.

"It is no affair of mine," she said, "but Monsieur Albert has sent for the police. They may say that you have had too much wine, or that you owe money. In either case you will be removed. The police will not listen to you. Monsieur Albert has special discretion. It is no affair of mine," she repeated, "but if I were Monsieur I would go."

Duncombe rose slowly to his feet, and summoning a waiter paid his bill. The man produced a second one, dated a few days back, for a large amount.

"What is the meaning of this?" he asked. "I do not owe you anything."

"Monsieur was here with a party last Thursday night," he said glibly. "He promised to pay the next time. I will call the manager."

Duncombe tore the bill in half and turned away. He bowed to the lady at the desk.

"I see that you were right," he said. "I will leave."

"Monsieur is wise," she answered without looking up.

He left the café without speaking to any one further. When he reached the pavement he slipped a five-franc piece into the hand of the tall commissionaire.

"You know most of the young ladies who come here, I suppose?" he asked.

"But certainly!" the man answered with a smile, "Monsieur desires?"

"I want the address of a young lady named Mermillon-Flossie, I think they call her," Duncombe said.

"Thirty-one, Rue Pigalle," the man answered promptly. "But she should be here within an hour. She never misses."

Duncombe thanked him, and hailed a carriage.

"Shall I give Mademoiselle any message?" the man asked confidentially.

"I am going to call for her," Duncombe answered. "If I do not find her I will return."

To drive to the Rue Pigalle was an affair of five minutes only. Duncombe climbed a couple of flights of narrow stairs, pushed open a swing gate, and found himself in front of an office, in which an elderly woman sat reading.

"Can you tell me where to find Mademoiselle Mermillon?" Duncombe asked.

"Next floor; first door on the left," the woman answered. "Mademoiselle is not often in at this hour, though."

Duncombe thanked her, and climbed another flight of stairs. He had to strike a match to look for a bell or knocker, and then found neither. He knocked on the door with his knuckles. There was no reply. He was on the point of departure, when he noticed that the door was ajar. After a moment's hesitation he pushed it open.

He found himself in a narrow passage, with dresses and other articles of apparel hanging from a row of pegs on the wall. The place was in complete darkness. He struck another match. At the end of the passage was an inner door, also ajar. He rapped upon it, and finally pushed it open. Just then his match went out!

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