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   Chapter 1 AN UNEXPECTED MEETING

Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 16950

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The eyes of the man who had looked in upon a scene inordinately, fantastically brilliant, underwent, after those first few moments of comparative indifference, a curious transformation. He was contemplating one of the sights of the world. Crowded around the two roulette tables, promenading or lounging on the heavily cushioned divans against the wall, he took note of a conglomeration of people representing, perhaps, every grade of society, every nationality of importance, yet with a curious common likeness by reason of their tribute paid to fashion. He glanced unmoved at a beautiful Englishwoman who was a duchess but looked otherwise; at an equally beautiful Frenchwoman, who looked like a duchess but was-otherwise. On every side of him were women gowned by the great artists of the day, women like flowers, all perfume and softness and colour. His eyes passed them over almost carelessly. A little tired with many weeks' travel in countries where the luxuries of life were few, his senses were dulled to the magnificence of the scene, his pulses as yet had not responded to its charm and wonder. And then the change came. He saw a woman standing almost exactly opposite to him at the nearest roulette table, and he gave a noticeable start. For a moment his pale, expressionless face was transformed, his secret was at any one's mercy. That, however, was the affair of an instant only. He was used to shocks and he survived this one. He moved a little on one side from his prominent place in the centre of the wide-flung doorway. He stood by one of the divans and watched.

She was tall and fair and slight. She wore a high-necked gown of shimmering grey, a black hat, under which her many coils of hair shone like gold, and a necklace of pearls around her throat, pearls on which his eyes had rested with a curious expression. She played, unlike many of her neighbours, with restraint, yet with interest, almost enthusiasm. There was none of the strain of the gambler about her smooth, beautiful face. Her delicately curved lips were free from the grim lines of concentrated acquisitiveness. She was thirty-two years old but she looked much younger as she stood there, her lips a little parted in a pleased smile of anticipation. She was leaning a little over the table and her eyes were fixed with humorous intentness upon the spinning wheel. Even amongst that crowd of beautiful women she possessed a certain individual distinction. She not only looked what she was-an Englishwoman of good birth-but there was a certain delicate aloofness about her expression and bearing which gave an added charm to a personality which seemed to combine the two extremes of provocativeness and reserve. One would have hesitated to address to her even the chance remarks which pass so easily between strangers around the tables.

"Violet here!" the man murmured under his breath. "Violet!"

There was tragedy in the whisper, a gleam of something like tragedy, too, in the look which passed between the man and the woman a few moments later. With her hands full of plaques which she had just won, she raised her eyes at last from the board. The smile upon her lips was the delighted smile of a girl. And then, as she was in the act of sweeping her winnings into her gold bag, she saw the man opposite. The smile seemed to die from her lips; it appeared, indeed, to pass with all else of expression from her face. The plaques dropped one by one through her fingers, into the satchel. Her eyes remained fixed upon him as though she were looking upon a ghost. The seconds seemed drawn out into a grim hiatus of time. The croupier's voice, the muttered imprecation of a loser by her side, the necessity of making some slight movement in order to allow the passage of an arm from some one in search of change-some such trifle at last brought her back from the shadows. Her expression became at once more normal. She did not remove her eyes but she very slightly inclined her head towards the man. He, in return, bowed very gravely and without a smile.

The table in front of her was cleared now. People were beginning to consider their next coup. The voice of the croupier, with his parrot-like cry, travelled down the board.

"Faites vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs."

The woman made no effort to stake. After a moment's hesitation she yielded up her place, and moving backwards, seated herself upon an empty divan. Rapidly the thoughts began to form themselves in her mind. Her delicate eyebrows drew closer together in a distinct frown. After that first shock, that queer turmoil of feeling, beyond analysis, yet having within it some entirely unexpected constituent, she found herself disposed to be angry. The sensation had not subsided when a moment or two later she was conscious that the man whose coming had proved so disturbing was standing before her.

"Good afternoon," he said, a little stiffly.

She raised her eyes. The frown was still upon her forehead, although to a certain extent it was contradicted by a slight tremulousness of the lips.

"Good afternoon, Henry!"

For some reason or other, further speech seemed to him a difficult matter. He moved towards the vacant place.

"If you have no objection," he observed, as he seated himself.

She unfurled her fan-an ancient but wonderful weapon of defence. It gave her a brief respite. Then she looked at him calmly.

"Of all places in the world," she murmured, "to meet you here!"

"Is it so extraordinary?"

"I find it so," she admitted. "You don't at all fit in, you know. A scene like this," she added, glancing around, "would scarcely ever be likely to attract you for its own sake, would it?"

"It doesn't particularly," he admitted.

"Then why have you come?"

He remained silent. The frown upon her forehead deepened.

"Perhaps," she went on coldly, "I can help you with your reply. You have come because you are not satisfied with the reports of the private detective whom you have engaged to watch me. You have come to supplement them by your own investigation."

His frown matched hers. The coldness of his tone was rendered even more bitter by its note of anger.

"I am surprised that you should have thought me capable of such an action," he declared. "All I can say is that it is thoroughly in keeping with your other suspicions of me, and that I find it absolutely unworthy."

She laughed a little incredulously, not altogether naturally.

"My dear Henry," she protested, "I cannot flatter myself that there is any other person in the world sufficiently interested in my movements to have me watched."

"Are you really under the impression that that is the case?" he enquired grimly.

"It isn't a matter of impression at all," she retorted. "It is the truth. I was followed from London, I was watched at Cannes, I am watched here day by day-by a little man in a brown suit and a Homburg hat, and with a habit of lounging. He lounges under my windows, he is probably lounging across the way now. He has lounged within fifty yards of me for the last three weeks, and to tell you the truth I am tired of him. Couldn't I have a week's holiday? I'll keep a diary and tell you all that you want to know."

"Is it sufficient," he asked, "for me to assure you, upon my word of honour, that I know nothing of this?"

She was somewhat startled. She turned and looked at him. His tone was convincing. He had not the face of a man whose word of honour was a negligible thing.

"But, Henry," she protested, "I tell you that there is no doubt about the matter. I am watched day and night-I, an insignificant person whose doings can be of no possible interest save to you and you only."

The man did not at once reply. His thoughts seemed to have wandered off for a moment. When he spoke again, his tone had lost its note of resentment.

"I do not blame you for your suspicion," he said calmly, "although I can assure you that I have never had any idea of having you watched. It is not a course which could possibly have suggested itself to me, even in my most unhappy moments."

She was puzzled-at once puzzled and interested.

"I am so glad to hear this," she said, "and of course I believe you, but there the fact is. I think that you will agree with me that it is curious."

"Isn't it possible," he ventured to suggest, "that it is your companions who are the object of this man's vigilance? You are not, I presume, alone here?"

She eyed him a l

ittle defiantly.

"I am here," she announced, "with Mr. and Mrs. Draconmeyer."

He heard her without any change of expression, but somehow or other it was easy to see that her news, although more than half expected, had stung him.

"Mr. and Mrs. Draconmeyer," he repeated, with slight emphasis on the latter portion of the sentence.

"Certainly! I am sorry," she went on, a moment late, "that my companions do not meet with your approval. That, however, I could scarcely expect, considering-"

"Considering what?" he insisted, watching her steadfastly.

"Considering all things," she replied, after a moment's pause.

"Mrs. Draconmeyer is still an invalid?"

"She is still an invalid."

The slightly satirical note in his question seemed to provoke a certain defiance in her manner as she turned a little sideways towards him. She moved her fan slowly backwards and forwards, her head was thrown back, her manner was almost belligerent. He took up the challenge. He asked her in plain words the question which his eyes had already demanded.

"I find myself constrained to ask you," he said, in a studiously measured tone, "by what means you became possessed of the pearls you are wearing? I do not seem to remember them as your property."

Her eyes flashed.

"Don't you think," she returned, "that you are a little outstepping your privileges?"

"Not in the least," he declared. "You are my wife, and although you have defied me in a certain matter, you are still subject to my authority. I see you wearing jewels in public of which you were certainly not possessed a few months ago, and which neither your fortune nor mine-"

"Let me set your mind at rest," she interrupted icily. "The pearls are not mine. They belong to Mrs. Draconmeyer."

"Mrs. Draconmeyer!"

"I am wearing them," she continued, "at Linda's special request. She is too unwell to appear in public and she is very seldom able to wear any of her wonderful jewelry. It gives her pleasure to see them sometimes upon other people."

He remained quite silent for several moments. He was, in reality, passionately angry. Self-restraint, however, had become such a habit of his that there were no indications of his condition save in the slight twitchings of his long fingers and a tightening at the corners of his lips. She, however, recognised the symptoms without difficulty.

"Since you defy my authority," he said, "may I ask whether my wishes have any weight with you?"

"That depends," she replied.

"It is my earnest wish," he went on, "that you do not wear another woman's jewelry, either in public or privately."

She appeared to reflect for a moment. In effect she was struggling against a conviction that his request was reasonable.

"I am sorry," she said at last. "I see no harm whatever in my doing so in this particular instance. It gives great pleasure to poor Mrs. Draconmeyer to see her jewels and admire them, even if she is unable to wear them herself. It gives me an intense joy which even a normal man could scarcely be expected to understand; certainly not you. I am sorry that I cannot humour you."

He leaned towards her.

"Not if I beg you?"

She looked at him fixedly, looked at him as though she searched for something in his face, or was pondering over something in his tone. It was a moment which might have meant much. If she could have seen into his heart and understood the fierce jealousy which prompted his words, it might have meant a very great deal. As it was, her contemplation appeared to be unsatisfactory.

"I am sorry that you should lay so much stress upon so small a thing," she said. "You were always unreasonable. Your present request is another instance of it. I was enjoying myself very much indeed until you came, and now you wish to deprive me of one of my chief pleasures. I cannot humour you."

He turned away. Even then chance might have intervened. The moment her words had been spoken she realised a certain injustice in them, realised a little, perhaps, the point of view of this man who was still her husband. She watched him almost eagerly, hoping to find some sign in his face that it was not only his stubborn pride which spoke. She failed, however. He was one of those men who know too well how to wear the mask.

"May I ask where you are staying here?" he enquired presently.

"At the Hotel de Paris."

"It is unfortunate," he observed. "I will move my quarters to-morrow."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Monte Carlo is full of hotels," she remarked, "but it seems a pity that you should move. The place is large enough for both of us."

"It is not long," he retorted, "since you found London itself too small. I should be very sorry to spoil your holiday."

Her eyes seemed to dwell for a moment upon the Spanish dancer who sat at the table opposite them, a woman whose name had once been a household word, dethroned now, yet still insistent for notice and homage; commanding them, even, with the wreck of her beauty and the splendour of her clothes.

"It seems a queer place, this," she observed, "for domestic disagreements. Let us try to avoid disputable subjects. Shall I be too inquisitive if I ask you once more what in the name of all that is unsuitable brought you to such a place as Monte Carlo?"

He fenced with her question. Perhaps he resented the slightly ironical note in her tone. Perhaps there were other reasons.

"Why should I not come to Monte Carlo?" he enquired. "Parliament is not particularly amusing when one is in opposition, and I do not hunt. The whole world amuses itself here."

"But not you," she replied quickly. "I know you better than that, my dear Henry. There is nothing here or in this atmosphere which could possibly attract you for long. There is no work for you to do-work, the very breath of your body; work, the one thing you live for and were made for; work, you man of sawdust and red tape."

"Am I as bad as all that?" he asked quietly.

She fingered her pearls for a moment.

"Perhaps I haven't the right to complain," she acknowledged. "I have gone my own way always. But if one is permitted to look for a moment into the past, can you tell me a single hour when work was not the prominent thought in your brain, the idol before which you worshipped? Why, even our honeymoon was spent canvassing!"

"The election was an unexpected one," he reminded her.

"It would have been the same thing," she declared. "The only literature which you really understand is a Blue Book, and the only music you hear is the chiming of Big Ben."

"You speak," he remarked, "as though you resented these things. Yet you knew before you married me that I had ambitions, that I did not propose to lead an idle life."

"Oh, yes, I knew!" she assented drily. "But we are wandering from the point. I am still wondering what has brought you here. Have you come direct from England?"

He shook his head.

"I came to-day from Bordighera."

"More and more mysterious," she murmured. "Bordighera, indeed! I thought you once told me that you hated the Riviera."

"So I do," he agreed.

"And yet you are here?"

"Yet I am here."

"And you have not come to look after me," she went on, "and the mystery of the little brown man who watches me is still unexplained."

"I know nothing about that person," he asserted, "and I had no idea that you were here."

"Or you would not have come?" she challenged him.

"Your presence," he retorted, nettled into forgetting himself for a moment, "would not have altered my plans in the slightest."

"Then you have a reason for coming!" she exclaimed quickly.

He gave no sign of annoyance but his lips were firmly closed. She watched him steadfastly.

"I wonder at myself no longer," she continued. "I do not think that any woman in the world could ever live with a man to whom secrecy is as great a necessity as the very air he breathes. No wonder, my dear Henry, the politicians speak so well of you, and so confidently of your brilliant future!"

"I am not aware," he observed calmly, "that I have ever been unduly secretive so far as you are concerned. During the last few months, however, of our life together, you must remember that you chose to receive on terms of friendship a person whom I regard-"

Her eyes suddenly flashed him a warning. He dropped his voice almost to a whisper. A man was approaching them.

"As an enemy," he concluded, under his breath.

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