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   Chapter 8 No.8

The Double Traitor By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 7837

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Selingman had the air of a man who returns after a long absence to some familiar spot where he expects to find friends and where his welcome is assured. Mrs. Paston Benedek slipped from her place upon the cushioned fender and held out both her hands.

"Ah, it is really you!" she exclaimed. "Welcome, dear friend! For days I have wondered what it was in this place which one missed all the time. Now I know."

Selingman took the little outstretched hands and raised them to his lips.

"Dear lady," he assured her, "you repay me in one moment for all the weariness of my exile."

She turned towards her companion.

"Captain Baring," she begged, "please ring the bell. Mr. Selingman and I always drink a toast together the moment he first arrives to pay us one of his too rare visits. Thank you! You know Captain Baring, don't you, Mr. Selingman? This is another friend of mine whom I think that you have not met-Mr. Francis Norgate, Mr. Selingman. Mr. Norgate has just arrived from Berlin, too."

For a single moment the newcomer seemed to lose his Cheeryble-like expression. The glance which he flashed upon Norgate contained other elements besides those of polite pleasure. He was himself again, however, almost instantly. He grasped his new acquaintance by the hand.

"Mr. Norgate and I are already old friends," he insisted. "We occupied the same coupe coming from Berlin and drank a bottle of wine together in the buffet."

Mrs. Benedek threw back her head and laughed, a familiar gesture which her enemies declared was in some way associated with the dazzling whiteness of her teeth.

"And now," she exclaimed, "you find that you belong to the same bridge club. What a coincidence!"

"It is rather surprising, I must admit," Norgate assented. "Mr. Selingman and I discussed many things last night, but we did not speak of bridge. In fact, from the tone of our conversation, I should have imagined that cards were an amusement which scarcely entered into Mr. Selingman's scheme of life."

"One must have one's distractions," Selingman protested. "I confess that auction bridge, as it is played over here, is the one game in the world which attracts me."

"But how about the crockery?" Norgate asked. "Doesn't that come first?"

"First, beyond a doubt," Selingman agreed heartily. "Always, though, my plan of campaign is the same. On the day of my arrival here, I take things easily. I spend an hour or so at the office in the morning, and the afternoon I take holiday. After that I settle down for one week's hard work. London-your great London-takes always first place with me. In the mornings I see my agents and my customers. Perhaps I lunch with one of them. At four o'clock I close my desk, and crockery does not exist for me any longer. I get into a taxi, and I come here. My first game of bridge is a treat to which I look forward eagerly. See, there are three of us and several sitting out. Let us make another table. So!"

They found a fourth without difficulty and took possession of a table at the far end of the room. Selingman, with a huge cigar in his mouth, played well and had every appearance of thoroughly enjoying the game. Towards the end of their third rubber, Mrs. Benedek, who was dummy, leaned across towards Norgate.

"After all, perhaps you are better off here," she murmured in German.

"There is nothing like this in Berlin."

"One is at least nearer the things one cherishes," Norgate quoted in the same language.

Selingman was playing the hand and held between his fingers a card already drawn to play. For a moment, it was suspended in the air. He looked towards Norgate, and there was a new quality in his piercing gaze, an instant return in his expression of the shadow which had swept the broad good-humour from his face on his first appearance. The change came and went like a flash. He finished playing the hand and scored his points before

he spoke. Then he turned to Norgate.

"Your gift of acquiring languages in a short space of time is most extraordinary, my young friend! Since yesterday you have become able to speak German, eh? Prodigious!"

Norgate smiled without embarrassment. The moment was a critical one, portentous to an extent which no one at that table could possibly have realised.

"I am afraid," he confessed, "that when I found that I had a fellow traveller in my coupe I felt most ungracious and unsociable. I was in a thoroughly bad temper and indisposed for conversation. The simplest way to escape from it seemed to be to plead ignorance of any language save my own."

Selingman chuckled audibly. The cloud had passed from his face. To all appearance that momentary suspicion had been strangled.

"So you found me a bore!" he observed. "Then I must admit that your manners were good, for when you found that I spoke English and that you could not escape conversation, you allowed me to talk on about my business, and you showed few signs of weariness. You should be a diplomatist, Mr. Norgate."

"Mr. Norgate is, or rather he was," Mrs. Paston Benedek remarked. "He has just left the Embassy at Berlin."

Selingman leaned back in his chair and thrust both hands into his trousers pockets. He indulged in a few German expletives, bombastic and thunderous, which relieved him so much that he was able to conclude his speech in English.

"I am the densest blockhead in all Europe!" he announced emphatically. "If I had realised your identity, I would willingly have left you alone. No wonder you were feeling indisposed for idle conversation! Mr. Francis Norgate, eh? A little affair at the Café de Berlin with a lady and a hot-headed young princeling. Well, well! Young sir, you have become more to me than an ordinary acquaintance. If I had known the cause of your ill-humour, I would certainly have left you alone, but I would have shaken you first by the hand."

The fourth at the table, who was an elderly lady of somewhat austere appearance, produced a small black cigar from what seemed to be a harmless-looking reticule which she was carrying, and lit it. Selingman stared at her with his mouth open.

"Is this a bridge-table or is it not?" she enquired severely. "These little personal reminiscences are very interesting among yourselves, I dare say, but I cut in here with the idea of playing bridge."

Selingman was the first to recover his manners, although his eyes seemed still fascinated by the cigar.

"We owe you apologies, madam," he acknowledged. "Permit me to cut."

The rubber progressed and finished in comparative silence. At its conclusion, Selingman glanced at the clock. It was half-past seven.

"I am hungry," he announced.

Mrs. Benedek laughed at him. "Hungry at half-past seven! Barbarian!"

"I lunched at half-past twelve," he protested. "I ate less than usual, too. I did not even leave my office, I was so anxious to finish what was necessary and to find myself here."

Mrs. Benedek played with the cards a moment and then rose to her feet with a little grimace.

"Well, I suppose I shall have to give in," she sighed. "I am taking it for granted, you see, that you are expecting me to dine with you."

"My dear lady," Selingman declared emphatically, "if you were to break through our time-honoured custom and deny me the joy of your company on my first evening in London, I think that I should send another to look after my business in this country, and retire myself to the seclusion of my little country home near Potsdam. The inducements of managing one's own affairs in this country, Mr. Norgate," he added, "are, as you may imagine, manifold and magnetic."

"We will not grudge them to you so long as you don't come too often,"

Norgate remarked, as he bade them good night. "The man who monopolised

Mrs. Benedek would soon make himself unpopular here."

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