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   Chapter 2 BY ACCIDENT OR DESIGN

Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 20514

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The newcomer, who had presented himself now before Hunterleys and his wife, was a man of somewhat unusual appearance. He was tall, thickly-built, his black beard and closely-cropped hair were streaked with grey, he wore gold-rimmed spectacles, and he carried his head a little thrust forward, as though, even with the aid of his glasses, he was still short-sighted. He had the air of a foreigner, although his tone, when he spoke, was without accent. He held out his hand a little tentatively, an action, however, which Hunterleys appeared to ignore.

"My dear Sir Henry!" he exclaimed. "This is a surprise, indeed! Monte Carlo is absolutely the last place in the world in which I should have expected to come across you. The Sporting Club, too! Well, well, well!"

Hunterleys, standing easily with his hands behind his back, raised his eyebrows. The two men were of curiously contrasting types. Hunterleys, slim and distinguished, had still the frame of an athlete, notwithstanding his colourless cheeks and the worn lines about his eyes. He was dressed with extreme simplicity. His deep-set eyes and sensitive mouth were in marked contrast to the other's coarser mould of features and rather full lips. Yet there was about both men an air of strength, strength developed, perhaps, in a different manner, but still an appreciable quality.

"They say that the whole world is here," Hunterleys remarked. "Why may not I form a harmless unit of it?"

"Why not, indeed?" Draconmeyer assented heartily. "The most serious of us must have our frivolous moments. I hope that you will dine with us to-night? We shall be quite alone."

Hunterleys shook his head.

"Thank you," he said, "I have another engagement pending."

Mr. Draconmeyer was filled with polite regrets, but he did not renew the invitation.

"When did you arrive?" he asked.

"A few hours ago," Hunterleys replied.

"By the Luxe? How strange! I went down to meet it."

"I came from the other side."

"Ah!"

Mr. Draconmeyer's ejaculation was interrogative, Hunterleys hesitated for a moment. Then he continued with a little shrug of the shoulders.

"I have been staying at San Remo and Bordighera."

Mr. Draconmeyer was much interested.

"So that is where you have been burying yourself," he remarked. "I saw from the papers that you had accepted a six months' pair. Surely, though, you don't find the Italian Riviera very amusing?"

"I am abroad for a rest," Hunterleys replied.

Mr. Draconmeyer smiled curiously.

"A rest?" he repeated. "That rather belies your reputation, you know. They say that you are tireless, even when you are out of office."

Hunterleys turned from the speaker towards his wife.

"I have not tempted fortune myself yet," he observed. "I think that I shall have a look into the baccarat room. Do you care to stroll that way?"

Lady Hunterleys rose at once to her feet. Mr. Draconmeyer, however, intervened. He laid his fingers upon Hunterleys' arm.

"Sir Henry," he begged, "our meeting has been quite unexpected, but in a sense it is opportune. Will you be good enough to give me five minutes' conversation?"

"With pleasure," Hunterleys replied. "My time is quite at your disposal, if you have anything to say."

Draconmeyer led the way out of the crowded room, along the passage and into the little bar. They found a quiet corner and two easy-chairs. Draconmeyer gave an order to a waiter. For a few moments their conversation was conventional.

"I trust that you think your wife looking better for the change?" Draconmeyer began. "Her companionship is a source of great pleasure and relief to my poor wife."

"Does the conversation you wish to have with me refer to Lady Hunterleys?" her husband asked quietly. "If so, I should like to say a few preliminary words which would, I hope, place the matter at once beyond the possibility of any misunderstanding."

Draconmeyer moved a little uneasily in his place.

"I have other things to say," he declared, "yet I would gladly hear what is in your mind at the present moment. You do not, I fear, approve of this friendship between my wife and Lady Hunterleys."

Hunterleys was uncompromising, almost curt.

"I do not," he agreed. "It is probably no secret to you that my wife and I are temporarily estranged," he continued. "The chief reason for that estrangement is that I forbade her your house or your acquaintance."

Draconmeyer was a little taken back. Such extreme directness of speech was difficult to deal with.

"My dear Sir Henry," he protested, "you distress me. I do not understand your attitude in this matter at all."

"There is no necessity for you to understand it," Hunterleys retorted coolly. "I claim the right to regulate my wife's visiting list. She denies that right."

"Apart from the question of marital control," Mr. Draconmeyer persisted, "will you tell me why you consider my wife and myself unfit persons to find a place amongst Lady Hunterleys' acquaintances?"

"No man is bound to give the reason for his dislikes," Hunterleys replied. "Of your wife I know nothing. Nobody does. I have every sympathy with her unfortunate condition, and that is all. You personally I dislike. I dislike my wife to be seen with you, I dislike having her name associated with yours in any manner whatsoever. I dislike sitting with you here myself. I only hope that the five minutes' conversation which you have asked for will not be exceeded."

Mr. Draconmeyer had the air of a benevolent person who is deeply pained.

"Sir Henry," he sighed, "it is not possible for me to disregard such plain speaking. Forgive me if I am a little taken aback by it. You are known to be a very skilful diplomatist and you have many weapons in your armoury. One scarcely expected, however-one's breath is a little taken away by such candour."

"I am not aware," Hunterleys said calmly, "that the question of diplomacy need come in when one's only idea is to regulate the personal acquaintances of oneself and one's wife."

Mr. Draconmeyer sat quite still for a moment, stroking his black beard. His eyes were fixed upon the carpet. He seemed to be struggling with a problem.

"You have taken the ground from beneath my feet," he declared. "Your opinion of me is such that I hesitate to proceed at all in the matter which I desired to discuss with you."

"That," Hunterleys replied, "is entirely for you to decide. I am perfectly willing to listen to anything you have to say-all the more ready because now there can be no possibility of any misunderstanding between us."

"Very well," Mr. Draconmeyer assented, "I will proceed. After all, I am not sure that the personal element enters into what I was about to say. I was going to propose not exactly an alliance-that, of course, would not be possible-but I was certainly going to suggest that you and I might be of some service to one another."

"In what way?"

"I call myself an Englishman," Mr. Draconmeyer went on. "I have made large sums of money in England, I have grown to love England and English ways. Yet I came, as you know, from Berlin. The position which I hold in your city is still the position of president of the greatest German bank in the world. It is German finance which I have directed, and with German money I have made my fortune. To be frank with you, however, after these many years in London I have grown to feel myself very much of an Englishman."

Hunterleys was sitting perfectly still. His face was rigid but expressionless. He was listening intently.

"On the other hand," Mr. Draconmeyer proceeded slowly, "I wish to be wholly frank with you. At heart I must remain always a German. The interests of my country must always be paramount. But listen. In Germany there are, as you know, two parties, and year by year they are drawing further apart. I will not allude to factions. I will speak broadly. There is the war party and there is the peace party. I belong to the peace party. I belong to it as a German, and I belong to it as a devoted friend of England, and if the threatened conflict between the two should come, I should take my stand as a peace-loving German-cum-Englishman against the war party even of my own country."

Hunterleys still made no sign. Yet for one who knew him it was easy to realise that he was listening and thinking with absorbed interest.

"So far," Draconmeyer pointed out, "I have laid my cards on the table. I have told you the solemn truth. I regret that it did not occur to me to do so many months ago in London. Now to proceed. I ask you to emulate my frankness, and in return I will give you information which should enable us to work hand in hand for the peace which we both desire."

"You ask me," Hunterleys said thoughtfully, "to be perfectly frank with you. In what respect? What is it that you wish from me?"

"Not political information," Mr. Draconmeyer declared, his eyes blinking behind his glasses. "For that I certainly should not come to you. I only wish to ask you a question, and I must ask it so that we may meet on a common ground of confidence. Are you here in Monte Carlo to look after your wife, or in search of change of air and scene? Is that your honest motive for being here? Or is there any other reason in the world which has prompted you to come to Monte Carlo during this particular month-I might almost say this particular week?"

Hunterleys' attitude was that of a man who holds in his hand a puzzle and is doubtful where to commence in his efforts to solve it.

"Are you not a little mysterious this afternoon, Mr. Draconmeyer?" he asked coldly. "Or are you trying to incite a supposititious curiosity? I really cannot see the drift of your question."

"Answer it," Mr. Draconmeyer insisted.

Hunterleys took a cigarette from his case, tapped it upon the table and lit it in leisurely fashion.

"If you have any idea," he said, "that I came here to confront my wife, or to interfere in any way with her movements, let me assure you that you are mistaken. I had no idea that Lady Hunterleys was in Monte Carlo. I am here because I have a six months' holiday, and a holiday for the average Englishman between January and April generally means, as you must be aware, the

Riviera. I have tried Bordighera and San Remo. I have found them, as I no doubt shall find this place, wearisome. In the end I suppose I shall drift back to London."

Mr. Draconmeyer frowned.

"You left London," he remarked tersely, "on December first. It is to-day February twentieth. Do you wish me to understand that you have been at Bordighera and San Remo all that time?"

"How did you know when I left London?" Hunterleys demanded.

Mr. Draconmeyer pursed his lips.

"I heard of your departure from London entirely by accident," he said. "Your wife, for some reason or other, declined to discuss your movements. I imagine that she was acting in accordance with your wishes."

"I see," Hunterleys observed coolly. "And your present anxiety is to know where I spent the intervening time, and why I am here in Monte Carlo? Frankly, Mr. Draconmeyer, I look upon this close interest in my movements as an impertinence. My travels have been of no importance, but they concern myself only. I have no confidence to offer respecting them. If I had, it would not be to you that I should unburden myself."

"You suspect me, then? You doubt my integrity?"

"Not at all," Hunterleys assured his questioner. "For anything I know to the contrary, you are, outside the world of finance, one of the dullest and most harmless men existing. My own position is simply as I explained it during the first few sentences we exchanged. I do not like you, I detest my wife's name being associated with yours, and for that reason, the less I see of you the better I am pleased."

Mr. Draconmeyer nodded thoughtfully. He was, to all appearance, studying the pattern of the carpet. For once in his life he was genuinely puzzled. Was this man by his side merely a jealous husband, or had he any idea of the greater game which was being played around them? Had he, by any chance, arrived to take part in it? Was it wise, in any case, to pursue the subject further? Yet if he abandoned it at this juncture, it must be with a sense of failure, and failure was a thing to which he was not accustomed.

"Your frankness," he admitted grimly, "is almost exhilarating. Our personal relations being so clearly defined, I am inclined to go further even than I had intended. We cannot now possibly misunderstand one another. Supposing I were to tell you that your arrival in Monte Carlo, accidental though it may be, is in a sense opportune; that you may, in a short time meet here one or two politicians, friends of mine, with whom an interchange of views might be agreeable? Supposing I were to offer my services as an intermediary? You would like to bring about better relations with my country, would you not, Sir Henry? You are admittedly a statesman and an influential man in your Party. I am only a banker, it is true, but I have been taken into the confidence of those who direct the destinies of my country."

Hunterleys' face reflected none of the other's earnestness. He seemed, indeed, a little bored, and he answered almost irritably.

"I am much obliged to you," he said, "but Monte Carlo seems scarcely the place to me for political discussions, added to which I have no official position. I could not receive or exchange confidences. While my Party is out of power, there is nothing left for us but to mark time. I dare say you mean well, Mr. Draconmeyer," he added, rising to his feet, "but I am here to forget politics altogether, if I can. If you will excuse me, I think I will look in at the baccarat rooms."

He was on the point of departure when through the open doorway which communicated with the baccarat rooms beyond came a man of sufficiently arresting personality, a man remarkably fat, with close-cropped grey hair which stuck up like bristles all over his head; a huge, clean-shaven face which seemed concentrated at that moment in one tremendous smile of overwhelming good-humour. He held by the hand a little French girl, dark, small, looking almost like a marionette in her slim tailor-made costume. He recognised Draconmeyer with enthusiasm.

"My friend Draconmeyer," he exclaimed, in stentorian tones, "baccarat is the greatest game in the world. I have won-I, who know nothing about it, have won a hundred louis. It is amazing! There is no place like this in the world. We are here to drink a bottle of wine together, mademoiselle and I, mademoiselle who was at once my instructress and my mascot. Afterwards we go to the jeweler's. Why not? A fair division of the spoils-fifty louis for myself, fifty louis for a bracelet for mademoiselle. And then-"

He broke off suddenly. His gesture was almost dramatic.

"I am forgotten!" he cried, holding out his hand to Hunterleys,-"forgotten already! Sir Henry, there are many who forget me as a humble Minister of my master, but there are few who forget me physically. I am Selingman. We met in Berlin, six years ago. You came with your great Foreign Secretary."

"I remember you perfectly," Hunterleys assured him, as he submitted to the newcomer's vigorous handshake. "We shall meet again, I trust."

Selingman thrust his arm through Hunterleys' as though to prevent his departure.

"You shall not run away!" he declared. "I introduce both of you-Mr. Draconmeyer, the great Anglo-German banker; Sir Henry Hunterleys, the English politician-to Mademoiselle Estelle Nipon, of the Opera House. Now we all know one another. We shall be good friends. We will share that bottle of champagne."

"One bottle between four!" mademoiselle laughed, poutingly. "And I am parched! I have taught monsieur baccarat. I am exhausted."

"A magnum!" Selingman ordered in a voice of thunder, shaking his fist at the startled waiter. "We seat ourselves here at the round table. Mademoiselle, we will drink champagne together until the eyes of all of us sparkle as yours do. We will drink champagne until we do not believe that there is such a thing as losing at games or in life. We will drink champagne until we all four believe that we have been brought up together, that we are bosom friends of a lifetime. See, this is how we will place ourselves. Mademoiselle, if the others make love to you, take no notice. It is I who have put fifty louis in one pocket for that bracelet. Do not trust Sir Henry there; he has a reputation."

As usual, the overpowering Selingman had his way. Neither Draconmeyer nor Hunterleys attempted to escape. They took their places at the table. They drank champagne and they listened to Selingman. All the time he talked, save when mademoiselle interrupted him. Seated upon a chair which seemed absurdly inadequate, his great stomach with its vast expanse of white waistcoat in full view, his short legs doubled up beneath him, he beamed upon them all with a smile which never failed.

"It is a wonderful place," he declared, as he lifted his glass for the fifth time. "We will drink to it, this Monte Carlo. It is here that they come from all quarters of the world-the ladies who charm away our hearts," he added, bowing to mademoiselle, "the financiers whose word can shake the money-markets of the world, and the politicians who unbend, perhaps, just a little in the sunshine here, however cold and inflexible they may be under their own austere skies. For the last time, then-to Monte Carlo! To Monte Carlo, dear mademoiselle!-messieurs!"

* * *

"For the last time, then-to Monte Carlo!"

* * *

They drank the toast and a few minutes later Hunterleys slipped away. The two men looked after him. The smile seemed gradually to leave Selingman's lips, his face was large and impressive.

"Run and fetch your cloak, dear," he said to the girl.

She obeyed at once. Selingman leaned across the table towards his companion.

"What does Hunterleys do here?" he asked.

Draconmeyer shook his head.

"Who knows?" he answered. "Perhaps he has come to look after his wife. He has been to Bordighera and San Remo."

"Is that all he told you of his movements?"

"That is all," Draconmeyer admitted. "He was suspicious. I made no progress."

"Bordighera and San Remo!" Selingman muttered under his breath. "For a day, perhaps, or two."

"What do you know about him?" Draconmeyer asked, his eyes suddenly bright beneath his spectacles. "I have been suspicious ever since I met him, an hour ago. He left England on December first."

"It is true," Selingman assented. "He crossed to Paris, and-mark the cunning of it-he returned to England. That same night he travelled to Germany. We lost him in Vienna and found him again in Sofia. What does it mean, I wonder? What does it mean?"

"I have been talking to him for twenty minutes in here before you came," Draconmeyer said. "I tried to gain his confidence. He told me nothing. He never even mentioned that journey of his."

Selingman was sitting drumming upon the table with his broad fingertips.

"Sofia!" he murmured. "And now-here! Draconmeyer, there is work before us. I know men, I tell you. I know Hunterleys. I watched him, I listened to him in Berlin six years ago. He was with his master then but he had nothing to learn from him. He is of the stuff diplomats are fashioned of. He has it in his blood. There is work before us, Draconmeyer."

"If monsieur is ready!" mademoiselle interposed, a little petulantly, letting the tip of her boa play for a moment on his cheek.

Selingman finished his wine and rose to his feet. Once more the smile encompassed his face. Of what account, after all, were the wanderings of this melancholy Englishman! There was mademoiselle's bracelet to be bought, and perhaps a few flowers. Selingman pulled down his waistcoat and accepted his grey Homburg hat from the vestiaire. He held mademoiselle's fingers as they descended the stairs. He looked like a school-boy of enormous proportions on his way to a feast.

"We drank to Monte Carlo in champagne," he declared, as they turned on to the terrace and descended the stone steps, "but, dear Estelle, we drink to it from our hearts with every breath we draw of this wonderful air, every time our feet touch the buoyant ground. Believe me, little one, the other things are of no account. The true philosophy of life and living is here in Monte Carlo. You and I will solve it."

* * *

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