[Frontispiece: FRANCIS X. BUSHMAN AS JOHN D. CURTIS. BEVERLY BAYNE AS LADY HERMIONE.]
ONE WONDERFUL NIGHT
A ROMANCE OF NEW YORK
MIRABEL'S ISLAND, THE WINGS OF THE MORNING, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY
EDWARD J. CLODE
Moving picture enthusiasts who reveled in the romantic mysteries that tangled the plot of ONE WONDERFUL NIGHT will find even more pleasure in reading this fascinating story.
"THE LADIES' WORLD" contest—the greatest in the history of motion pictures—has just come to a close. Under the auspices of the "Ladies' World" with its million circulation monthly, moving picture lovers all over the United States have been voting for the actor to impersonate the heroic part of John Delancy Curtis in the photo-play of ONE WONDERFUL NIGHT—probably the most interesting and absorbing presentation ever made on the screen.
Five million, four hundred and forty-thousand, seven-hundred and sixty votes were cast. Francis Bushman won the prize. With a vote of 1,806,630 he was chosen the typical American hero. In the Essanay Company's elaborate production of ONE WONDERFUL NIGHT, Mr. Bushman is supported by a strong cast, including beautiful Beverly Bayne as Lady Hermione.
Those who have witnessed the photo-play production will find the book even more intensely interesting. The hero, John Delancy Curtis, drops in from Pekin, China, for a brief rest from strenuous engineering work, and on his first night in New York finds a marriage license in the pocket of a murdered man's coat, rushes off in a taxi to the address of the woman named therein, marries her, punches a frantic rival on the nose, flouts her father (an English baronet), takes the fair one to a hotel, holds a banquet at which the Chief of Police of New York is an honored guest, and sits down to gaze contentedly into the future of bliss that a half a million a year will bring.
We bespeak for the reader pleasure, entertainment and diversion in this absorbing and unusual story.
I. DUSK II. EIGHT O'CLOCK III. EIGHT-THIRTY IV. AN INTERLUDE V. NINE O'CLOCK VI. NINE-THIRTY VII. TEN O'CLOCK VIII. TEN-THIRTY IX. ELEVEN O'CLOCK X. MIDNIGHT XI. ONE O'CLOCK XII. TWO-THIRTY A.M. XIII. WHEREIN LADY HERMIONE "ACTS FOR THE BEST" XIV. THREE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING XV. WHEREIN THE PACE SLACKENS—BUT ONLY FOR A FEW HOURS XVI. A PARLEY XVII. WHEREIN JOHN AND HERMIONE BECOME ORDINARY MEMBERS OF SOCIETY
FRANCIS X. BUSHMAN AS JOHN D. CURTIS. BEVERLY BAYNE AS LADY HERMIONE . . . . . . Frontispiece
Scenes from the photo-drama
Scenes from the photo-drama
Scenes from the photo-drama
ONE WONDERFUL NIGHT
"There, sonny—behold the city of your dreams! Good old New York, as per schedule. . . . Gee! Ain't she great?"
The slim, self-possessed youth of twenty hardly seemed to expect an answer; but the man addressed in this pert manner, though the senior of the pair by six years, felt that the emotion throbbing in his heart must be allowed to bubble forth lest he became hysterical.
"Old New York, do you call it?" he asked quietly. The tense restraint in his voice would perhaps have betrayed his mood to a more delicately tuned ear than his companion's, but young Howard Devar, heir of the Devar millions—son of "Vancouver" Devar, the Devar who fed multitudes on canned salmon, and was suspected of having cornered wheat at least once, thus woefully misapplying the parable of the loaves and fishes—had the wit to appreciate the significance of the question, deaf as he was to its note of longing, of adulation, of vibrant sentiment.
"Coelum non animum mutat, which, in good American, means that it is the same old city on the level, and only changes its sky-line," he chortled. "Bet you a five-spot to a nickel I'll walk blindfolded along Twenty-third Street from the Hoboken Ferry any time of the day, and take the correct turn into Broadway, bar being run over by a taxi or street-car at the crossings."
"I'll take the same odds and do that myself. How could any normal human being miss the rattle of the Sixth Avenue Elevated?"
Devar's forehead wrinkled with surprise.
"Hello, there! Hold on! How often have you told me that you had never seen New York since you were a baby?" he cried.
"Nor have I. Ten years ago, almost to a day, I sailed from Boston to Europe with my people, and I had never revisited New York after leaving it in infancy, though both my father and mother hailed from the Bronx."
"There's a cog missing somewhere, or my mental gear-box is out of shape."
"Not a bit of it. One may learn heaps of things from maps and books."
"Start right in, then, and take an honors course, for behold in me a map and a book and a high-grade society index for the whole blessed little island of Manhattan."
"Thank you. What is that slender, column-like structure to the left of the Singer Building?"
Devar gazed hard at the graceful tower indicated by his friend; then he laughed.
"Oh, you're uncanny, that's what you are," he said. "You've lived so long in the East that you've imbibed its tricks of occultism and necromancy. I suppose you have discovered in some way that that mushroom has sprung up since the old man sent me to Heidelberg?"
"I guessed it, I admit. It does not figure among the down-town sky-scrapers in the latest drawing available in London."
"And d'ye mean to tell me that you can pick out any of these top-notchers merely by studying a picture?"
"Yes. Probably you could do the same if you, like me, felt yourself a returned exile."
Young Devar awoke at last to the fact that his companion was brimming over with subdued excitement. Whether this arose from the intense nationalism of an expatriated American, or from some more subtle personal cause, he could not determine, but, being young, he was cynical. He looked at the strong, set face, the well-knit, sinewy figure, the purposeful hands gripping the fore rail of the promenade deck; then he growled, with just the least spice of humorous envy:
"Say, Curtis, old man, you ought to have a hell of a good time in New York!"
"At any rate, I shall not suffer from lack of enthusiasm," came the quick retort.
Devar felt the spur, and his restless, bird-like eyes condescended to dwell for a few seconds in silence on the splendid panorama in front. The Lusitania had passed through the Narrows before the two young men had strolled along the upper deck of the great steamship to the 'vantage point of a gangway which made a half-circle around the commander's quarters. Already the Statue of Liberty loomed majestically over the port bow, and the wide expanse of the Hudson River was framed by the wooded slopes of Staten Island, the low shores of New Jersey, and the heights of the Palisades. Somewhat to the right rose the imperial outlines of newest New York, that wonderful city which, even in the memory of children, has raised itself hundreds of feet nearer the sky. A thin, blue haze gave glamour to a delightful scene, glowing in the declining rays of a November sun. The gigantic strands of the Brooklyn Bridge showed through it like some aerial path to a fabulous land, while, merging fast in the shadows, other dim specters told of even greater engineering marvels higher up the East River. A fleet of bustling vessels, for the most part ferry-boats and tugs of every possible size and shape, scudded across the spacious waterways, and lent to the picture exactly that semblance of vitality, of energetic purpose, of relentless effort to be up and doing—whether the New Yorker was going home from his office, or his wife was coming into town for dinner and a theater—which one, at least, of the city's uncounted sons had confidently expected to find in it.
So John Delancy Curtis drew a deep breath that sounded almost like a sigh, but a pleasant smile illumined his somewhat stern face as he turned to Devar and said:
"I am giving myself fourteen days' free run of the town before I go West to visit some relatives. They live in Indiana, I believe. Bloomington, Monroe County, is the latest address I possess. Don't forget to ring me up to-morrow. You remember the hotel, the Central, in West 27th Street."
"Oh, forget it!" cried the other vexedly. "Why in the world are you burying yourself in that pre-historic shanty? Man alive, the Holland House is only a block away, and there are 'steen hotels of the right sort strung out along Fifth Avenue, 'way up to Central Park——"
"It's just a whim," broke in Curtis, who did not feel like explaining at the moment that he was choosing a quiet old inn in a side street because he had been born there! Nevertheless, his words held that ring of decision, of finality in judgment, which invariably forms part of the equipment of men who have lived in wild lands and lorded it over inferior races. Devar was vaguely conscious, and perhaps slightly resentful, of this compelling quality in his new-found crony. Oft-times it had quelled him for an instant during some stubbornly contested argument, though he raged at himself just as often for yielding to it, as if, forsooth, he were one of those patient, animal-like, Chinese coolies of whose courage and endurance Curtis spoke so admiringly. Yet he was drawn to the man, and clung to his friendship.
"Right-o! I s'pose the place owns a telephone," he snickered, and then hurried away to finish packing. Curtis, whose belongings were locked and strapped hours ago, remained on deck, and watched the preparations for bringing the great liner alongside the Cunard pier. When her engines were stopped in mid-stream a number of fussy little tugs began nosing her round to starboard. It seemed a matter of sheer impossibility that these puny creatures should move such a monster; but faith can move mountains, and in half an hour, or less, the tugs had moved the Lusitania to her allotted berth.
Meanwhile, in each wide arch of the Customs shed, parterres of joyous faces grew momentarily more distinct. It was easy to discern the very instant when one or other eager group on shore recognized the features of relatives and friends on the ship. A frenzied waving of handkerchiefs, small flags, or umbrellas, an occasional wild whoop, a college cry or a rebel yell, would evoke similar demonstrations from the packed lines of onlookers fringing the lower decks. One fact was dominant—to the vast majority of the passengers, this was home.
Suddenly, Curtis found that he was the sole tenant of the open promenade. Everyone on board had hurried to the less exalted levels, the many to hail their loved ones, the few to watch that first unique demonstration of welcome to a new land which New York gives so generously. Somehow, he had never felt himself more alone—not even by night in the solemn plains of Manchuria—and he threw off the feeling, almost with contempt. Was not this city his very own? Had he not a birthright in every stone of it, from pavement to loftiest pinnacle? This was his home-coming, too, more real, more literally complete, than in the case of any but the few born New Yorkers who might figure among the two thousand passengers carried by the Lusitania.
Insistently claiming his share of recognition, he turned abruptly, and made his way to the third deck. There he met a lady, a young bride, who was returning to the States with her husband after a prolonged tour through Europe. Her pretty face was wrung with emotion, but a second glance revealed that her distress was due to the pleasant pain of happiness.
"Have you seen your father and mother?" he asked sympathetically, knowing that she had looked forward to this great hour with so much longing.
"Y-yes," she sobbed. "They are there—somewhere. B-but, oh dear! I cannot see them now for my tears."
Someone dug a joyful thumb into Curtis's ribs. It was the girl's husband.
"Gee, it's fine to be home again!" he said huskily. "Your leaning towers of Pisa are all right by way of a change, but deal me the Metropolitan for keeps, an' I've just spotted my old dad grinning at me like a Cheshire cat from the middle of a crowd wedged so tight that it would take a panic to squeeze in an extra walking-stick."
So the knowledge was borne in on Curtis that one could feel quite as lonely on C Deck as on A, and, case-hardened wanderer that he was, he badly wanted someone to yell at gleefully among the waiting multitude.
Now the gangways were out, and West folded East in her willing arms. The stolid masses of steamship and Customs shed obliterated the orange and crimson sky still gleaming over the Jersey shore, and pallid electric lights revealed but vaguely the ever-changing groups beyond the gangways.
To an experienced traveler like Curtis all Custom-houses were alike, dingy, nerve-racking, superfluous clogs on free movement. Taking his time, for he had none to embrace or greet with outstretched hand, he strolled quietly off the ship, collected his baggage, which was piled with other people's belongings under a big "C," and nodded to Devar, similarly engaged at "D."
The boy ran to him for an instant.
"I may look you up to-night," he said. "Dad is in Chicago, and won't be here till the morning. You remember we passed the Switzerland after breakfast, and she signaled that she was steaming with the port engine only?"
"Well, her trouble was known by wireless, and there is a man on board whom dad has to meet. This chap is important. I am not."
"My dear fellow, don't think of leaving your friends on my account this evening," and Curtis, without looking around, showed that he had noticed the befurred elderly lady and two very pretty daughters who were taking Howard Devar under their elegant wings.
"Oh, that's my aunt, and two of my cousins. I have dozens of 'em, dozens of cousins, that is. Anyhow, old sport, don't wait in after 7.30; just leave word where you may be about eleven."
No further protest by Curtis was possible, because Devar's present behavior was of the whirlwind order. He seemed to own as many trunks as cousins, and a lantern-jawed Customs official was gloating over them already. Perhaps Curtis felt a faint whiff of surprise that his young friend had not introduced him to his relatives, but it vanished instantly. Steamer acquaintance is a nebulous thing at the best; in that respect, the land is more unstable than the sea.
At last, the stranger in his own country was consigned to a porter, his two steamer trunks, a kit-bag, a suit-case, and a bundle of worn golf clubs were placed on a taxi, and a breath of clean, cold air blew in on his face as the vehicle hurried along West Street, that broad and exceedingly useful thoroughfare which New York has finally wrested from its waterside slums.
The chief city of America is fortunate in the fact that a noble harbor presents her in full regalia to the voyager from Europe. That favorable first impression, unattainable by the majority of the world's capitals, is never lost, and now it enabled Curtis to disregard the garish ugliness of the avenues and streets glimpsed during a quick run to the center of the town. For one thing, he realized how the mere propinquity of docks and wharves infects entire districts with the happy-go-lucky carelessness of Jack ashore; for another, he knew what was coming.
Or he fancied that he knew, a state of mind which, particularly in New York, produces brain storms. His first shock came when the taxi drew up in front of a narrow-fronted, exceedingly tall building, equipped with revolving doors, while a hall-porter, dressed like an archduke, peered through the window and inquired severely:
"Have you reserved a room, sir?"
Yes, this was the Central Hotel, rebuilt, gone skyward, in full cry after its more pretentious a la carte neighbors, and the hall-porter was pained by the mere suspicion that the fact was not accepted of all the world of travel.
Although the newcomer confessed that he had not made any reservation of rooms, the Archduke graciously permitted him to alight—indeed, quelled an incipient rebellion on Curtis's part by ordering a couple of negroes to disappear with most of the baggage. So Curtis announced meekly to a super-clerk that he wanted a room with a bathroom, and was allowed to register. As in a dream, he signed "John D. Curtis, Pekin," and was promptly annoyed at finding what he had written, because, being a citizen of New York, he had meant to claim the distinction, and ignore his long years in Cathay.
"You'll find 605 a comfortable, quiet room, Mr. Curtis," said the clerk. "Going to make a long stay, may I ask?"
"A few days—perhaps a fortnight. I cannot say offhand."
"Well, sir, I can't fix you better than in 605."
From some points of view, the clerk had never uttered a truer word. It was wholly impossible that he or Curtis should guess how an apparently empty and really excellent apartment in the Central Hotel should be full to the ceiling that evening with that dynamite in human affairs called chance. If the slightest inkling of the forthcoming explosion could have been vouchsafed to both men, there is no telling what Curtis might have done, for he was a true adventurer, of the D'Artagnan genus, but the clerk would certainly have used all his persuasiveness to induce the guest to occupy some other part of the house. In later periods of unruffled calm, he was wont to date from that moment the genesis of gray hairs among his once raven-hued locks.
But chance, like dynamite, not only gives no warning of its explosive properties but resembles that agent of disruption in following a curiously wayward path. Curtis was piloted into an elevator by an affable negro, was conducted to 605, which, of course, lay on the sixth floor, and was plunged forthwith into the prosaic business of consigning a good deal of soiled linen to the laundry.
The room was insufferably hot, so he directed the negro attendant to shut off the radiator, and himself threw open the window. Glancing out, he discovered that he was located in a corner which commanded a distant glimpse of Broadway. Directly before his eyes, in the topmost story of a comparatively low building, a lady who had forgotten to draw the blinds of her flat was apparently indulging in calisthenic exercises, so Curtis, being a modest man, drew the blind in his own room, and busied himself with a partial unpacking of his baggage. The door faced the bed, at a distance of some six feet. A wardrobe occupied the recess, and the negro, while unstrapping a steel trunk at the foot of the bed, balanced the bag of golf clubs against the front of the wardrobe—an action simple enough in itself, but comparable in its after effects to the setting of a clock attached to a bomb.
Soon afterwards, Curtis dismissed the man, and noticed casually that the opening of the door caused a pleasant draught of cool air. He wrote a few letters, dressed, electing for a Tuxedo and black tie, filled a cigar-case, donned a green Homburg hat, threw an overcoat over his left arm, picked up the letters, extinguished the lights, and went out. Again there came that rush of air from the window, and, just as the lock snapped, a crash from the interior announced the falling of the golf clubs, probably owing to a swaying of the wardrobe door. Simultaneously, Curtis realized that he had left the key on the dressing-table.
It was hardly worth while searching the floor for a chamber-maid: he decided to inform the civil-spoken clerk, and have the key brought to the office, at which sapient resolve Puck, who was surely abroad in New York that night, must have chuckled delightedly. Unhappily, there were other spirits brooding in the city, spirits before whose deathly scowls the prime mischief-maker would have fled in terror, and Curtis, all unwitting, brushed against one of them in the hall. His only acquaintance, the clerk, was momentarily absent, so he turned to a bookstall and cigar counter, and bought some stamps. A man who had been seated in a sort of cafe, which the news-stand and a flower-stall partially screened from the main hall, rose hurriedly when he saw Curtis, and purchased a cigar. In doing so, he touched the young man's shoulder, and said: "Pardon!"
Curtis turned, and looked into the singularly unprepossessing face of a swarthy foreigner, a powerfully-built, ungainly person of about his own age.
"That's all right," said he, licking a stamp.
"I jostled you by accident, monsieur," said the other, in correct French, though with a quaint accent which Curtis, himself no mean linguist, put down to a Polish or Czech nationality.
"Ca ne fait rien," he replied civilly, and the stamping of the letters being completed, he took them to the letter-box.
The stranger, who seemed to be rather puzzled, if somewhat reassured, dawdled over the lighting of the cigar, and watched Curtis enter the dining-room. Then he went back to his chair in the cafe. So much, and no more, did the youth in charge of the counter observe—not a great deal, but it went a long way before midnight.
A clock in the hall showed that the hour was five minutes to seven. Half hoping that Devar might actually put in an appearance a little later, Curtis gave his hat and coat to a negro, and decided to dine in the hotel. Evidently, the place still retained its old-time repute as a family and commercial resort. The family element was in evidence at some of the tables, while, in the case of solitary diners, each man could have been labeled Pittsburg, Chicago, or Philadelphia, almost without error, by those acquainted with the industrial life of the United States.
He ate well, if simply, and treated himself to a small bottle of a noted champagne. At half-past seven, meaning to give Devar ten minutes' grace, he ordered coffee and a glass of green Chartreuse. As a time-killer, there is no liqueur more potent, but, regarded in the light of subsequent occurrences, it would be hard to say exactly how far the cunning monkish decoction helped in determining his wayward actions. Undoubtedly, some fantastic influence carried him beyond those bounds of calm self-possession within which everyone who knew John Delancy Curtis would have expected to find him. His subsequent light-headedness, his placid acceptance of a mad romance as the one thing that was inevitable, his ready yielding to impulse, his no less stubborn refusal to return to the beaten path of common sense—these unlikely traits in a character gifted with the New England dourness of purpose can only be explained, if at all, as arising from some unsuspected hereditary streak of knight-errantry brought into sudden and exotic life by the good wines of France.
Be that as it may, at twenty minutes to eight he paid what he owed, lighted a cigar, donned his hat, and, still carrying the overcoat, was walking to the office to leave word about the key, when his attention was attracted by the peculiar behavior of the man who had pushed against him at the cigar counter.
This person, apparently obeying a signal from another man of his own type who had just emerged from the elevator, hastened from the cafe, and the two ran to the door. Now, the weather had been mild during the afternoon, and the revolving shutters of the doorway were folded back to allow of the overheated hall being cooled. A porter stood there, and it was ascertained afterwards that, noticing a certain air of flurry and confusion about the foreigners, he asked if they wanted a taxi. They gave no heed, but continued to gaze up and down the street, as though they awaited someone. Equally did they seem to expect, or dread, an apparition from the hotel. It would have been hard to pick out, at that instant, two persons more singularly ill at ease in all New York.
Curtis saw that the clerk, now at his desk, was engaged with a lady, so he strolled to the door, being rather interested in the excited antics of the pair on the sidewalk. He had just passed through the door when an automobile dashed up, and he fancied, though he could not be quite sure in the half-light, that the chauffeur nodded to the waiting men. The porter opened the door of the automobile, and a young man in evening dress, and carrying an overcoat, leaped out. Obviously, he was in a desperate hurry, and Curtis heard him say in French:
"Don't stop the engine, Anatole. I shall be but one moment."
At that instant the two foreigners sprang at him. One, swinging the porter off his feet, seized the newcomer's right arm, and, helped by his comrade, endeavored to force him back into the vehicle. The effort failed, however, so the second desperado drew a knife and plunged it deliberately into the unfortunate man's neck. It was a fearsome stroke, intended both to silence and to kill, and, with a gurgling cry, its victim collapsed in the grip of his assailants.
Curtis, though almost stupefied by the suddenness of the crime, did not hesitate a second when he caught the venomous gleam of the knife. Throwing aside his coat, he rushed forward, but he had to cross the whole width of the pavement, and the murderers, realizing that the capture of one or both was imminent, thrust the inert body in his way. The chauffeur, who must have seen all that happened, had already started the car, the two men scrambled into it, and all that Curtis could do was to run after it and shout frantically to the driver of a taxi coming in the opposite direction to turn his vehicle and block the roadway.
The man understood, but was naturally slow to risk a sharp collision merely at the order of an excited gentleman in evening dress. He stopped quickly enough, but, by the time his help was available, pursuit was hopeless; the one thing Curtis could do he had done—while running up the street he had deciphered the number of the car, X24-305.
Before Curtis rejoined the dazed hall-porter a small crowd had gathered, and it was difficult to get near the body lying on the curb. A man picked up an overcoat, and Curtis, cool and clear-headed now, took it, and appealed to him, if he knew where the nearest doctor lived, to run thither at top speed. The man obeyed him instantly.
"Meanwhile, let me see to the poor fellow," he said. "I am not a doctor, but I know enough about wounds to say whether those scoundrels have killed him or not."
The throng yielded to an authoritative voice, and some of the more sensible bystanders formed a ring, thus securing a semblance of light and air around the prostrate man. Curtis struck a match, and it needed no second glance to learn that the stranger's lung had been pierced by an almost vertical thrust; indeed, he was already dying. The poor lips, from which blood and froth were bubbling, strove vainly to articulate words which, in the prevalent hubbub of alarm and excitement, it was impossible to distinguish. A policeman came, and, as a traffic station for the precinct happened to lie within a couple of doors, the moribund form was carried in, and placed on a stretcher kept there for use in emergency.
A doctor was soon on the spot, but he arrived just in time to record the last flicker of life in the tortured eyes. Then, as one in a dream, Curtis gave the policeman the details of the crime, the name of the chauffeur, and the number of the car, his testimony being borne out to some extent by the hall-porter, and, so far as the car was concerned, by the sharp-eyed driver of the taxi. His own name and address were taken, and a police captain and a couple of detectives, called to the scene by telephone, thanked him for his alertness in securing valuable clews, not only in regard to the car and chauffeur but also in describing the features, figure, and dress of one of the criminals.
Finally, he was warned to hold himself in readiness to attend the opening of an inquest on the following morning, and the police intimated that they did not desire the presence of witnesses while the dead man's clothing was being scrutinized.
So Curtis went out into the street, and, with no other purpose than to avoid the publicity and questioning of the crowd gathered in and around the hotel, sauntered into Broadway. At the corner he halted for a moment to put on the overcoat. He had gone some few yards up the brilliantly illuminated thoroughfare when he fancied that his nervous system needed the tonic of a cigar, and he searched in the pockets of the overcoat for a box of matches he had placed there before leaving his bedroom. The box had gone, but in the right-hand pocket his fingers closed on a long, narrow envelope, made of stiff linen paper, which somehow seemed unfamiliar. He drew it out, and examined it, standing in front of a well-lighted shop window.
Then he whistled with sheer amazement, as well he might. The envelope held a marriage license for two people named Jean de Courtois and Hermione Beauregard Grandison. . . . In a word, he was wearing the dead man's overcoat, and the fearsome conviction leaped to his brain that the dead man must be Jean de Courtois.
From one aspect, Curtis's sense of dread and horror was merely altruistic, the natural welling forth of the springs of human sentiment. If the man now lying stark and lifeless in that dreary official bureau had in truth been hurrying on his way to a marriage feast, then, indeed, tragedy had assumed its grimmest aspect that night in New York. But, beyond an enforced personal contact with a ghastly crime, Curtis had no vital interest in its victim, and it should have occurred to him, as a law-abiding citizen, that his instant duty was to communicate this new discovery to the authorities. Nay more, such definite information would help the police materially in their pursuit of the murderers. It might lay bare a motive, put the bloodhounds of the law on a well-marked trail, and render impossible the escape of the guilty ones.
That was the sane, level-headed, man-of-the-world view, and, to one inured to deeds of violence in a land where the Foreign Devil oft-time holds his life as scarce worth an hour's purchase, no other solution of the problem should have presented itself. But, for all his strength of character, Curtis had been breathing an intoxicating atmosphere ever since he set foot on American soil. His home-coming had begun by producing in his soul a subtle exaltation which had survived a conspiracy of repression. Devar's careless acceptance of the city's grandeur had jarred; the exuberance of the joyous throng on the jetty had touched dormant chords of sad memories; even at the very portals of the hotel the building's newness had struck a bizarre note; and now, as though to emphasize the vile crime of which he had been an involuntary witness, came the stifling knowledge that somewhere in New York an expectant bride was chafing at delay—a delay caused by an assassin's dagger, while there was not lacking even the tormenting suspicion that somehow, had he been more wide-awake, he could have prevented that malignant thrust.
Yet, his head remained in the clouds. In common with most men whose lot is cast in climes far removed from civilization, Curtis worshiped an ideal of womanhood which was rather that of a poet than of the blase, cynical town-dweller. He had seen death too often to be shocked by its harsh visage, and, perhaps in protest against the idle belief that the crime was preventable, his sympathies were absorbed now by the vision of some fair girl waiting vainly for the bridegroom who would never come. His analytical mind fastened instantly on the theory that murder had been done to prevent a marriage. He took it for granted that the Jean de Courtois of the marriage certificate was dead, and his heart grieved for the hapless young woman whose aristocratic name was blazoned on that same document. So, instead of retracing his steps, and warning the officers of the law, he bent his brows over the certificate, and, in acting thus, unconsciously committed himself to as fantastic a course as ever was followed by mortal man.
It is only fair to urge that had he known the truth, had the veil been lifted ever so slightly on other happenings in the Central Hotel that night, he would not have hesitated a moment about returning to the conclave of policemen and detectives. He acted impulsively, absurdly, almost insanely, it may be held, but he did honestly act in good faith, and that is the best and the worst that can be said of him, or for him.
And now to peer over his shoulder at the printed form and its written interlineations, which he was perusing with anxious, thoughtful eyes.
It was headed "State of New York, County of New York, City of New York," and bade all men know that any person authorized by law to perform marriage ceremonies within the State was thereby "authorized and empowered to solemnize the rites of matrimony between Jean de Courtois, a citizen of the French Republic, now residing in the Central Hotel, West 27th Street, New York, and Hermione Beauregard Grandison, a citizen of Great Britain, now residing at 1000 West 59th Street, New York."
It had been issued that very day, November 8th. Annexed to the license was the actual marriage certificate, with blanks for names and dates, to be filled in by the person performing the ceremony. A set of printed rules, reciting various duties, legal obligations, and penalties for infringing the same, was also inclosed; but Curtis was in no mood to master the provisions of "An Act to Amend the Domestic Relations Law, by providing for Marriage Licenses," for they must perforce be silent on the one topic wherein he needed guidance—the course to be pursued in the circumstances now facing him.
His thoughts were focussed on the name and address of the girl who had been so cruelly, so wantonly, bereft of her lover, and it seemed to him both fitting and charitable that someone other than a police sergeant or detective should interpose between the grim tragedy of 27th Street and the even more poignant horror which was fated to descend on some house in 59th Street. Apparently, fate had decreed that he should be the messenger charged with this sad errand, and, with a singular disregard of consequences, he accepted the mandate.
He did not act blindly. When all was said and done, the certificate had come into his possession by unavoidable chance. At the hapless bride's residence he would surely be able to meet someone who could accompany him to the police office, and give the details needed for a successful chase. Indeed, he argued that he was saving valuable time by his prompt action, and, reviewing the whole of the facts while being carried swiftly up Broadway in a taxi, he found, at first, no flaw in his judgment.
Though busy in mind with the extraordinary events of the past quarter of an hour, his alert eyes missed few features of the abounding life of the Great White Way. As it happened, a stranger in New York could not have entered the city's main thoroughfare at any point better calculated to bewilder and astound than the very corner where Curtis had picked up the cab. On both sides, from the level of the street to a height often measurable in hundreds of feet, nearly every building blazed with electric signs. Many of the devices seemed to be alive. Horses galloped, either in Roman stadium or modern polo-ground; a girl's skirts were fluttered by a rain-storm; a giant's hand, with unerring skill, bowled a ball at ten-pins in a bowling alley; the names of theaters, of hotels, of drugs, of patent foods, of every known variety of caterer for human needs and amusements, flickered, and winked, and stared, at the passer-by from ground floor to attic—while each and all—horses, skirts, rain-drops, hand, ball, pins, and names—glowed in every known shade of color from every known form of electric lamp.
The glare of this advertisers' paradise was so overpowering that even the marvel-surfeited citizens who crowded the sidewalks would gather in dense groups at a corner, thence to watch and take in the dazzling significance of some sign new to their vision. Curtis noticed many such assemblies before the taxi sped out of the magic area which ends at 42nd Street; but it was all novel to him; he could not discuss the contrast between last week's glorification of Somebody's Pickles and to-night's triumph of Everybody's Whisky, and he was almost bemused by the display, which provided such a bizarre anti-climax to the terrible drama he had just witnessed.
It was a positive relief, therefore, when the vehicle bowled swiftly into a quiet cross street, and he was vouchsafed only fleeting glimpses of broad avenues where fresh multitudes of lamps again bade defiance to the night.
In one place, an illuminated dial showed that the hour was eight o'clock, and the curiously simple fact of noting the time roused him to a perception of all that had happened since he strolled out of the dining-room of the Central Hotel. He smiled dourly when he remembered the mislaid key. Did it still repose in the bedroom? Or had a housemaid found it, and restored it to a numbered hook in the office? Had not that immaculately dressed clerk said he would find Number 605 "a comfortable, quiet room"? Well, it might be all that, yet Curtis could hardly help dwelling on the thought that had he been put in any other cell of the human beehive called the Central Hotel it was highly probable he would not now be flying across New York on a self-imposed mission so nebulous, so ill-defined, that already his orderly brain was beginning to doubt the logic which inspired it.
Was it too late to draw back? To this handy automobile city distances were negligible quantities, and he would rejoin the detectives before they could have any reason to suspect him even of carelessness in withholding from their ken the new and important fact revealed by the accidental change of overcoats.
And, yes—by Jove!—it would be assumed that his overcoat was the dead man's, though, indeed, certain papers in the pockets would soon show that there was a blunder somewhere, because the John D. Curtis mentioned therein necessarily figured as the chief witness in the case now being worked up against three unknown malefactors. Oddly enough, it was contemporaneous with this thought that the queer similarity of his own name to that of the unfortunate Frenchman first dawned on him. John D. Curtis and Jean de Courtois were, as names, particularly as the names of two men of different nationalities, sufficiently alike to invite comment. Well, that being so, there was all the more reason why the identity of poor Jean de Courtois should be established beyond doubt, and this reflection appealed so strongly that, when the cab stopped, Curtis was once more reconciled to the policy hurriedly arrived at while he was standing at the corner of Broadway and 27th Street.
He opened the door, alighted, glanced up at a rather imposing block of flats, and said to the driver:
"Is this 1000 West 59th Street?"
"Yes, sir. Quite a bunch of people live here," was the answer.
"I take it, then, that the lady I wish to see occupies one of the flats?"
The driver smiled broadly, for it seemed to him that the naive statement sounded rather funny.
"I guess that's about the size of it," he said.
Curtis smiled, too. This needless blurting out of confidences to a cabman was the one folly essential to a complete restoration of his wits.
"Wait for me," he said. "I may be only a minute or two, and I shall want you to take me right back to the point I came from."
The man nodded, and turned to set the time index of the taximeter. A few steps led up to a spacious doorway, and Curtis passed through a revolving door. Halfway along a well-lighted passage he saw an elevator sign, and found an attendant sitting there.
"I believe that Miss Grandison lives here?" he said.
"Second floor—Number 10—take you up?" was the time-saving reply.
"Yes, but I am not anxious to see Miss Grandison herself. I would prefer to speak to some male relative."
The attendant looked puzzled; perhaps he was wishful to make smooth the way for a visitor who was obviously a gentleman, but the problem offered by Curtis's request presented difficulties, and he fell back on his official instructions.
"Sorry, but you must explain matters to the maid at Number 10," he said, quite civilly, and Curtis was soon pressing an electric bell at the door of the flat itself.
A neatly dressed girl appeared. Her out-of-doors costume suggested that she was either just going out or just returned, and Curtis, unaccustomed to the domestic problem as it exists in New York, fancied that she ranked above the level of a house-maid.
"Is Miss Grandison in?" he asked.
"I'll inquire, sir. What name shall I say?"
It was a noncommittal answer, so he changed ground in the next question.
"I would prefer not to meet Miss Grandison herself if it is in any way possible to interview a relative of hers, or a friend," he said.
This colorless statement, intended to be reassuring, seemed to have such an alarming effect on the girl that he hastened to add:
"I am here with reference to Monsieur Jean de Courtois."
His hearer smiled, and her manner changed from fright to friendliness. Indeed, if he had not been so wrapped up in the highly disagreeable task which lay before him, he could hardly have failed to notice that she welcomed, rather than resented, the visit of a smart looking young man to the establishment.
"Oh, come in, do," she said, glancing up at him with demure but very bright eyes. "Why didn't you say at once that you had been sent by Mr. de Courtois, without trying to scare me stiff by talking about relatives?"
He obeyed, and he closed the door.
"I really meant what I said," he persisted. "Something has happened to prevent Monsieur de Courtois coming here this evening——"
"Not coming! Then there will be no wedding!"
Her voice was subdued, but she put such distress, such perplexity, into her words that at any other time Curtis would have marveled at the gamut of emotion which the feminine temperament was capable of. Still, he had to risk even a mild display of hysteria, so he went on quietly:
"You will understand now why I would rather meet some person other than Miss Grandison."
"But who is there to meet? She is alone. I do believe I am the only living being she knows in New York, except Mr. de Courtois. . . . Why can't he come? What is keeping him? Has he met with an accident? . . . Oh, I can see by your face that he is hurt—or he has been kidnapped! Yes, that's it, for sure! And that dear young lady will be trapped like a bird in a cage! . . . Miss Hermione! Miss Hermione! Here is someone come to tell you that Mr. de Courtois has been spirited away. . . . Oh dear, to think that this should be the end of all our planning and contriving!"
During this crescendo of excited and scarcely intelligible utterances the girl had first backed away from Curtis, and then turned, running to open, without knocking, a door on the right of the extreme end of a corridor which divided the suite into two sections.
Curtis did not attempt to stop her. Whatsoever the outcome, he was committed now to an undertaking from which there was no retreat. He half expected that the maid, whose disjointed outburst betokened, at least, that she was her mistress's trusted confidante, would reappear from the room into which she had vanished. But he was mistaken, doubly mistaken, since the mental picture he had formed of Hermione Beauregard Grandison was utterly falsified by the slight, elegant, girlish figure which presented itself before his astonished eyes. Somehow, those superfine Christian names and that aristocratic surname had prepared him for a rather magnificent person, young, probably, because the dead man might be of his own age within a year, but decidedly impressive. He had gone so far as to imagine her an actress, of the sinuous, well-rounded type, who would address him in a deep contralto, and, if and when she fainted, would sink gracefully on to a couch correctly placed for scenic effect.
The reality took his breath away.
He saw a girl, not a day older than twenty, dressed in a simple costume of brown cloth, and wearing a hat, veil, and gloves of harmonizing tints. The veil had been hurriedly lifted above the brim of the hat, and a pair of what seemed to be intensely dark violet eyes gazed at him from a small-featured, pallid face from which every vestige of color had fled.
"Is this thing true?" she said, halting timidly within a few feet of him. "Perhaps Marcelle has misunderstood you. Who sent you?—Monsieur de Courtois himself, I suppose?"
Her voice, so wistful, so pleading, perfect in cadence yet almost childlike in its evident anxiety to be reassured, reached uncharted depths in his soul. At once he began to ask himself why this mere girl should be exposed to the impish trick which fate had played on her, and, in the same breath, he was conscious of a fierce anger against the ghouls who had contrived it.
"Are you Miss Grandison?" he asked, rather to gain time than because of any doubt as to her personality.
"Yes. And you?"
"My name is Curtis—John D. Curtis. I only landed in New York three hours ago."
He added the explanatory sentence in order to clear the ground, as it were, for the strange and horrible story he had to tell, but its effect was curious in the extreme. The girl's white face blanched to that wan hue which personal fear lends to distress.
"Where have you come from?" she gasped.
"Yes. I have been traveling without pause during the past eight weeks."
By this time he had ascertained two certain facts about Hermione Beauregard Grandison. In the first place, she was the prettiest and most graceful creature he had ever met; in the second, she had all the hall-marks of good breeding and high social caste. His brain was so busy over these discoveries that he disregarded the really remarkable way in which the object of his visit had been shelved for the moment. It might reasonably be expected that the disconsolate lady would be concerned mainly as to the fate of the missing bridegroom, but the mistress evidently shared the maid's disquietude about Curtis himself.
And, precisely as in the case of Marcelle, Miss Grandison's face showed relief when it became manifest that he was a complete stranger.
"Pray forgive me for questioning you in this manner," she said, with a rapid reversion to a conventional air that disconcerted her hearer in a way she little imagined. "Will you come in here, and be seated? . . . Now, please tell me just why you have called, Mr. Curtis."
She had preceded him into a prettily furnished dining-room, and the notion leaped up in his troubled mind that she was not so deeply moved by the malfortune of Monsieur Jean de Courtois as might be expected from the man's prospective bride.
Still, he tried bravely to accommodate himself to conditions which left his brain in a whirl.
"I had better begin by saying that your marriage cannot take place—to-night——" he added, flinching from the necessity of bringing that look of dismay into those charming eyes. "That is why I asked your maid if there was no other person whom I could take into my confidence. You see, it is a terribly hard thing to be compelled to discuss such a matter with one so closely bound up with—with Monsieur de Courtois."
"But there is no one else. Marcelle and I live here quite alone."
More than ever did Curtis feel uncomfortable, but he had deliberately elected for this miserable job, and he meant to go through with it.
"So I gathered from Mademoiselle Marcelle herself," he said. "Well, then, Miss Grandison, I have no option but to inform you, with all the sympathy any man must feel for a woman in your position, that Monsieur de Courtois has met with an accident."
"Oh, how terrible! Is he badly hurt?"
"Yet it may be possible for the ceremony to be performed. Monsieur de Courtois has proved himself such a true friend, he has always been so anxious to help me, that I am sure he would be glad if I brought the minister to the hospital, or to his apartments in the hotel if he has been taken there, and the marriage would be solemnized without causing him the slightest inconvenience or worry, no matter how ill he may be, so long as he is conscious."
Curtis thought he had never before heard the English language twisted into such enigmas as these few simple words presented. It was an outrage to credit this well-mannered and delightful girl with the cold-blooded callousness which seemed to reveal itself in every syllable. That she was blithely unaware of this element in her excited utterances was shown by her eager face and animated attitude. She had risen from the chair in which she had seated herself when they entered the room, and obviously expected him to lose no time in conducting her to the bedside of Jean de Courtois.
"Pray sit down again, Miss Grandison," said Curtis, and his voice assumed a sterner, more commanding note, though he, too, stood up, and approached nearer, lest she might collapse in a faint and fall before he could save her. "I fear I have blundered woefully in assuming a role for which I am ill-fitted, but I must make you realize somehow that your marriage is irrevocably—postponed."
A slight color tinged her cheeks; she was actually becoming annoyed with him!
"I will tell you when you are seated."
"What nonsense! One can hear as well standing."
Nevertheless, she obeyed. People generally did obey when Curtis spoke in that insistent manner.
Now he was quite near her, and his tone grew gentle again.
"The accident from which Monsieur de Courtois suffered was fatal," he said.
She looked at him, wide-eyed, alarmed, but assuredly not with the soul-sickened terror of a woman who loves when she hears that her lover is dead.
"Do you mean that he has been killed?" she whispered.
"Oh, poor fellow. I have lost my only friend, and now, indeed, I am the most wretched girl in all the world."
Flinging her clasped arms on the table, she hid her face in them, and sobbed as though her heart would break. Curtis placed a hand on her shoulder, and strove to calm her with such commonplace phrases as his dazed brain could dictate, but she wept bitterly, just as a child might weep if disappointed about the non-fulfillment of some object on which its heart was set.
"It sounds horrid—I know—" she murmured brokenly, "that I should—seem to be thinking—only of myself. But—Monsieur de Courtois—was the one man—who could save me. Now—I don't know—what will become of me. How cruel is fate! If only—we could have been married yesterday—perhaps this dreadful thing would not have happened."
Curtis, who had never been so mystified in his life, followed up those last disjointed words as a man lost in a forest might cling to a path in the certainty that it would lead somewhere. He rejected all else, since the wild vagaries of events during the past few minutes were beyond his comprehension. He waited, therefore, until the vehemence of her grief had somewhat subsided, and then, with another friendly pressure on her shoulder, he spoke with as much firmness as he thought the situation demanded.
"Now, Miss Grandison, you must endeavor to regain self-control," he said. "Monsieur de Courtois has been killed, and your—your friendship for him—no less than the interests of justice—demand that those responsible for his death should be discovered and punished."
At that, she raised her head, and lifted her swimming eyes to his, and Curtis saw that they were blue, not violet, and that their hue changed as the light irradiated their profound depths.
"He met with no accident, then, but was murdered?" she cried.
"And for my sake?"
"I gather from what you have said that that is possible."
"But what have I said?"
"Well, you seemed to hint that your marriage might have prevented this crime."
No more exasperating monosyllable can fall from a woman's lips than that one word "why," and Curtis felt its full force then and there.
"That is what I am asking you," he said, a trifle brusquely.
"But how can I tell you?" she cried.
"I am only striving vainly to pierce the fog which seems to envelop us. Let me begin again. I, a mere stranger in New York, just three hours landed from the Lusitania, witnessed a murderous attack on a young man who was alighting from a cab in front of my hotel, the Central, in West 27th Street. I saw him stabbed so seriously that he died within a couple of minutes, and his assailants made off in an automobile, the very vehicle, in fact, in which he arrived. I managed to note its number, and I gathered, from instructions the victim himself had given, that the chauffeur's Christian name was Anatole. The two men who actually committed the murder—though the chauffeur was in league with them—seemed to me to be Czechs or Hungarians——"
"Ah, I thought so," broke in the girl.
"And now may I ask why you did think so?"
"I may tell you later, perhaps. Please forgive me. I am quite unnerved, and oh, so unhappy. Why have you come here?"
"That is due to one of those fantastic chances which occur occasionally. In the effort to save Monsieur de Courtois, or rather to seize his slayers, because I was too far away to interfere when the blow was struck, I dropped the overcoat I was carrying. A crowd gathered, and someone gave me a coat which I took as my own. It was not until I had quitted the police and doctor, who arrived almost immediately, and I had gone into Broadway to avoid the clamor in the hotel, that I discovered I was wearing the dead man's overcoat, and in one of the pockets I found a marriage license. Here it is. By that means I learnt your address, and I came here quickly, hoping to save you some of the agony which the appearance of a policeman or detective would have caused. Unfortunately, I have proved but a sorry substitute for an official messenger."
"Oh, no, no, Mr. Curtis. You have been most kind, most considerate. If anyone is to blame, it is I."
"Will you pardon me, then, if I remind you that time is pressing? Even a half-hour gained to-night by the authorities may be invaluable. If you are able to supply any clew, the least hint of motive, the most shadowy of guesses at a personality behind this beastly crime, you will be rendering a great service."
"Please, please, give me time to think. I am not heartless—indeed I am not. . . . If I could do anything to save Monsieur de Courtois' life I would make the sacrifice—you will believe that, won't you? . . . But he is dead, you say, and I might blurt out something in my distress which would cause endless mischief. Perhaps I have thought too much of my own troubles. Now I must begin to endure for the sake of others. That is the woman's lot in life, I fear. . . . Have you a wife or a sister, Mr. Curtis, or is there some woman whom you love? For her sake, have pity on me, and do not drag me into the horrible arena of courts and newspapers."
Her pleading, her attitude, her pathetic gestures, gave extraordinary force to an appeal which, by contrast with her extreme agitation, was almost grotesquely inconsequent. Curtis was at his wits' end to find the line of reasoning calculated to convince this beautiful creature that she might, indeed, begin enduring "for the sake of others" by expressing her determination to give the police all possible assistance.
"There is no urgency for a few minutes," was the best reply he could frame on the spur of the moment. "Shall I leave you alone for a little while? Perhaps you would like to consult your maid? Indeed, her services might meet all the requirements of the case. The police would be the first to recognize that a woman who had lost her affianced husband under such terrible——"
"Ah, but that is the wretched difficulty I am in. Poor Monsieur de Courtois was nothing to me."
"Nothing to you!"
Probably Curtis's brain did not reel, but it assuredly felt like reeling, and it is quite certain that his eyes blazed down on the half-hysterical girl with an intensity that magnetized her into a broken excuse.
"It is—quite—true," she stammered, with the diffidence of a child explaining some lapse which, it was hoped, might not be regarded as a real fault. "I never dreamed of marriage—in the sense—that people mean—when they intend to live happily together. . . . Monsieur de Courtois was to be my husband—only in name. I—I paid him for that. . . . I—I gave him a thousand dollars—and—and—— Don't look at me in that way or I shall scream! . . . I have done nothing wrong. . . . I was trying to protect myself. . . . Oh, if you are a man you will want to help me, rather than push me into the living tomb which threatens to engulf me before to-morrow morning!"
Even in their agitation, they both heard the jar of a bell. The girl sprang upright. There was something splendid in her courage, in the way she threw back her proud head and clenched her tiny hands.
"Ah me!" she sighed. "Perhaps it is already too late!"
They stood in silence, listening to the footsteps of Marcelle on the parquet floor of the passage. The outer door was opened, and a murmur of voices reached them indistinctly.
"I have had the honor of knowing you not much longer than ten minutes, Miss Grandison," said Curtis, and the strong, vibrant note in his voice might well have won any woman's confidence, "but if you feel that you can trust me, and my help is of value, please command me, that is, if your enemies are men."
She rewarded him with one swift look of gratitude.
"If it is my father, both you and I are powerless," she whispered. "And the other would not dare come without him."
A discreet tap on the door heralded Marcelle. That sprightly young person, despite her Parisian name, was unquestionably American in every inch of her self-possessed neatness; she smiled at Curtis while giving him a message.
"The driver of your taxi has sent up the hall-porter to ask if you wish him to wait any longer," she said.
Not often, even in comedy, has the mountain heaved and brought forth such a ridiculous mouse. Curtis did actually laugh; even his distraught companion tittered in sheer nervous reaction.
"Please tell him to wait, and not to worry about the fare," said Curtis. "I suppose," he added, turning to Miss Grandison, "the man put me down as a newcomer, and, taught by previous experience, thought it best to warn me how the register mounts."
The effort to restore their rather strained relations to a sedate level was well meant, but the girl's downcast eyes and tremulous lips revealed a state of piteous uncertainty and confusion that was more distressing to Curtis than anything which had gone before. Nevertheless, reminding himself that precious time was being wasted, he determined to seek a full explanation of circumstances which at present savored of Bedlam.
"Now that the fears of the taxi-driver have been stilled," he said cheerfully, "suppose you and I sit down and discuss matters like sensible people. I am an American, Miss Grandison, and, although long an exile from my own country, I appreciate the national characteristic of plain speech. Let me explain that I am not married, that I have no ties which prevent free action on my part, and that nothing on earth will stop me from helping a woman who pins her faith to me. With that preamble, as the lawyers say, I purpose taking off this heavy overcoat, and listening in comfort to anything you may wish to tell. Or, if you are afraid of being disturbed, what do you say if we go to some restaurant, where, perhaps, we may eat, and, at any rate, talk without fear of interference?"
"I think we had better remain here," said the girl sadly, though it was plain that Curtis's offer of protection during the alarm created by the hall-porter's errand had advanced him a long way in her esteem. "There are only two persons living who dare pretend to exercise control over my actions, and if they have arrived in New York this evening I have good reason to believe that I cannot escape them."
"Are they coming here from Europe?" asked Curtis quickly, for his active mind was already groping toward certain dimly defined conclusions.
"Could they have been fellow-passengers of mine on the Lusitania?"
"No, they are on board the Switzerland."
He smiled, and discarded that fateful overcoat.
"Then set your mind at rest," he said, with the nonchalance of a man who has shelved a major difficulty. "The Switzerland has broken down. We passed her early to-day. She is staggering into port with engines partly disabled and she cannot possibly reach New York before to-morrow morning."
"Are you quite sure?" came the eager demand.
"Well, there is nothing so uncertain as the sea but a young friend of mine said that those facts were signaled by wireless, and, to some extent, they governed his own movements. I myself can assure you that the Switzerland was limping along like a lame duck at 8 A.M. to-day."
"Ah, thank Heaven for that small mercy!" murmured the girl. For a few seconds she busied herself with gloves, veil, and hat-pins, and Curtis happened to glance at the overcoat, which he had placed over the back of a chair. To his dismay, he noticed that one of the sleeves, the left, was bespattered with blood, but he contrived to refold the garment so as to conceal this grewsome record of a tragedy before his hostess had divested herself of hat and gloves.
Then they seemed to survey each other with a new interest, for Curtis was a good figure of a man in evening dress, and Hermione Grandison became, if possible, more attractive to the male eye because of the wealth of brown hair which crowned her smooth forehead, almost hid her tiny ears, and clustered low at the back of her slender, well-shaped neck. Where the rays of light caught the coiled tresses they had the sheen of burnished gold. In the shadow they commingled those voluptuous tints by which the magic of Rubens has immortalized one fair woman, Isabella Brant, in every gallery of note throughout the world.
Hermione it was, now, who first broke the silence which had reigned in the room for a minute or more. Seating herself on the opposite side of a square table, and resting her elbows thereon, she propped her pretty chin on her small, clenched fists, and gazed fearlessly at Curtis.
"You must think me a very extraordinary person," she began.
"Let that pass," said he, with a smile, wise in the knowledge that the present was no hour for compliments.
"But I am, and I know it, not because I differ so greatly from other girls of my own age, but owing to the misery which has been my portion. The one man in the world who should wish to secure my happiness has become my persecutor. I am here to-night because I have run away from my father, and I have used every lawful means to get married—under conditions framed by myself, of course—in order to escape from a hateful marriage which he has planned."
She hesitated, for a reflective frown was deepening on Curtis's face.
"Now you recognize my name!" she cried. "Have you seen anything about me in the newspapers?"
"You are Lady Hermione Grandison?" he said, meeting her watchful eyes frankly.
"Daughter of the Earl of Valletort?"
"And about a month ago you were reported missing from some apartment in the Rue de Rivoli, on the eve of your marriage with—with some Hungarian prince?"
"Yes, Count Ladislas Vassilan."
"So you came here—with Monsieur Jean de Courtois?"
"I brought him here, and paid him for his services. I have no desire to minimize his friendly aid, but I was buying the security of his name as my husband, and he had given me his guarantee that, when it suited my purposes, he would help me to dissolve the marriage."
Curtis disregarded a perceptible coldness in her tone. He was too busy sweeping away the mists.
"What sort of guarantee?" he asked.
"His promise, his word of honor."
"Was he—a gentleman?"
"Not socially, but in every other sense. He was my music-master in Paris."
Curtis put his next question hurriedly. He was anxious to avoid the least suspicion on the girl's part that he might be crediting Jean de Courtois with motives which would not pass muster before a jury of cool-headed men so readily as they seemed to have satisfied an impetuous and frightened girl.
"How did your father ascertain that you were in New York?" he said.
"Oh, it seems that a certain period of residence was necessary before a marriage license could be obtained, and it was unavoidable that my name should be found out by those whom he hired to track me."
"But why were you not married under an assumed name?"
"Monsieur de Courtois assured me that such a thing would render the marriage invalid."
"He was wrong," said Curtis dryly. "It subjected you to some small legal penalty, but you would be just as effectually married if you called yourself Jane Smith."
"I really think you are mistaken. Monsieur de Courtois made the most exhaustive inquiries."
"Were you not leaving the ceremony to the latest possible hour?" went on Curtis, divided now between the fear of shocking her and the paramount importance of learning the truth about the curiously scrupulous Jean de Courtois.
"We were to have been married two days ago, but the license was stolen."
"So it is rather by accident than otherwise that Lord Valletort and Count Vassilan, who, I take it, is with your father on board the Switzerland, have not arrived in time to prevent the marriage—that is, if they were able to prevent it?"
"No, I think not. Poor Monsieur de Courtois was here this afternoon, and he was jubilant because we had plenty of time, provided we were married this evening."
"Where was the ceremony to take place?"
"I—I don't know. I left everything in the hands of Monsieur de Courtois."
A very real and active doubt of the Frenchman's good faith was beginning to peep up in Curtis's mind. Rather to account for the thoughtful lines on his forehead than for any reason connected with the license, he took that document from the table, where it had lain since he produced it, and affected to examine it judiciously. Therefore, he was really surprised when he found an endorsement on the back which read;—"Issued in duplicate. This license is not available if the original has been used."
"Oh!" he said, and the monosyllable might mean much or little.
"What have you discovered there?" said the girl, rising and coming nearer, to stoop over the table and scrutinize the paper with him.
"The original license certainly seems to have disappeared," said Curtis, who had suddenly become aware that the propinquity of a charming woman was one of the subtle joys of life.
"Ah me!" sighed Lady Hermione, straightening her supple form, and turning slightly aside.
There was a little pause. Curtis, whose enunciation was usually distinguished by its ease and clearness, found some slight difficulty in resuming the conversation. He resolved firmly that, in future, he would eschew liqueurs after champagne.
"I hate to act the role of inquisitor, Lady Hermione," he said, rather huskily as to the first few words, "but would you mind telling me why you are so opposed to Count Ladislas Vassilan as a husband?"
"First, because I do not want to marry any man; secondly, because Count Vassilan is a vile person, both in appearance and repute; and thirdly, because my father is only urging this match to serve his own ends. Our unhappy history is so widely known that there is no harm in telling you that my mother and he were separated during many years, and when mamma died three years ago she left all her money to me, absolutely under my control. I was young, only seventeen, but I managed to retain it, though goodness only knows how, and this horrid Hungarian prince wants it—to help him to regain a throne, he says—but I don't believe him."
"You could not be forced into matrimony," said Curtis, with a slow gravity that was lost on his dejected hearer.
"You cannot have lived in France, or you would not say that," was the bitter answer. "Everyone, everything, was opposed to me. I was a minor, and one against many. The laws seemed to conspire with my relatives to force me into the power of a beast. . . . Yes, it sounds horrid on my lips, but the man is really a beast," and she stamped an emphatic foot on the floor; Curtis could see the white circles over the tiny knuckles as her hands clenched in protest. They were such pretty hands, too. He had often smiled at the notion of a man kissing a woman's hand, but it did not strike him now as a specially foolish act.
"Let us forget him," he agreed.
"But how can I forget him? He will be here to-morrow. Once my father and he have found me, what am I to do? Die, I suppose! . . . I would rather die than marry Count Vassilan, and again I would rather die than figure in a vulgar brawl, such as the newspapers would take a delight in. My father is well aware of that, and will play on my weakness. . . . B-but—I may—be able—to defeat them—in another way."
Curtis stood up. The sound of her grief maddened him, and he threw prudence to the winds.
"The first reason you gave was the most convincing one, so far as you personally are concerned, Lady Hermione," he said, making the effort of his life to speak calmly. "You said you did not want to marry any man."
"Y-yes, it is true. I d-don't."
"Still, there is only one way out of your trouble. You must marry me—to-night."
The girl whirled round on him; her eyes were glistening with tears, but her face was radiant.
"Do you really mean that?" she cried.
"Then never let anyone tell me that the age of chivalry has passed."
"I fancy it has just begun," he said, though the jest nearly choked him.
"But why should you do this kind and gracious thing for a girl you have been acquainted with only a brief half-hour? You see, I understand that you are a gentleman—I realize that, although I have plenty of money, I cannot offer to recompense you as I did that poor Jean de Courtois."
"No," he agreed grimly.
"Don't you grasp what this one-sided bargain implies? You are merely to pose as my husband until Count Vassilan leaves me in peace?"
"And then we are to obtain a divorce?"
"You are, not I."
"Isn't that a distinction without a difference?"
"Perhaps. The fact remains that I shall agree to all your terms save one—you, of course, can divorce me at your own pleasure. The procedure is simple in some States of the Union."
For no obvious reason, Lady Hermione blushed. For an instant, indeed, she was somewhat disconcerted, and the vivacity fled from her mobile face.
"Perhaps, Mr. Curtis, I have no right to let you make this sacrifice," she said, a trifle coldly. "It would be different if I could repay you in some way. Surely, although you may be a wealthy man, there will be expenses—you will, at least, lose a good deal of time, which you could occupy to better purpose?"
"I have given myself twelve months' respite from railway construction in China. I really don't see how I could pass a part of my holiday better than as your husband."
"In idle make-believe?"
"Every decent man has the heart of a child, and make-believe is reality to some children."
"But, even though in my need I take you at your word, how can a marriage become possible?"
"Here is the license. For the purposes of the ceremony I become Jean de Courtois. By singular chance, the change of name is not such a wrench as it might be if I didn't happen to be called John D. Curtis."
Still she hesitated. Somehow, becoming Mrs. John D. Curtis impressed her as a far more serious undertaking than purchasing the right to pose as Madame de Courtois.
"We don't even know where to get married," she faltered.
"Given a license and a comparatively small sum of money, New York abounds with facilities."
"Are you sure the ceremony will be legal if you appear under a false name?"
"Can you be punished if it is found out?"
"I'll run the risk."
After a fateful pause, which would have been considerably curtailed had Lady Hermione Grandison been vouchsafed the least premonition of events in which the night was still rich, she held out her hand.
"I can only thank you from the depths of my heart, Mr. Curtis," she said. "I must trust someone, and I do trust you most implicitly."
"You will never regret it, Lady Hermione," he said reverently. He wondered whether or not this was an occasion on which hand-kissing was permissible, but contented himself with returning the friendly pressure of the girl's fingers—retaining them, in fact, for a second or two.
"I have your word of honor that you will regard the ceremony as a formal compact between us two?" she murmured, unaccountably shy, and seemingly half-afraid that he meant to clasp her in his arms then and there.
"You have," he said, relinquishing her hand. Perhaps, at that instant, Puck sighed, and wondered what would have happened had this husband only in name strained to his heart the bride whom he had vowed not to embrace. But Curtis did nothing of the sort. His tone became intensely practical and businesslike, and he glanced at his watch.
"It is half-past eight," he said. "How soon will you be ready to come with me and hunt up a minister?"
"Now—I am ready now. Marcelle and I were waiting for—for that unhappy Monsieur de Courtois when you arrived. It sounds rather dreadful, Mr. Curtis, to talk of marriage, even as a mere means of cheating the law, at a moment when a man is already lying dead for my sake. Please don't consider me, but draw back, if you want to, before it is too late."
"My grandfather commanded the Fifth Cavalry during the Civil War, Lady Hermione."
"Pray, how does that interesting fact affect us?"
"It is well-known that the Fifth never retreat, and the habit has become a family tradition."
He pocketed the license, and picked up the overcoat, meaning to put it on in the hall while her ladyship was rearranging her hat. But Marcelle was waiting there, hatted, and gloved.
"Have you fixed things?" she whispered breathlessly.
"We have," said Curtis.
"Goodness me! But I guessed it. Nobody can resist her, can they?"
"I didn't try," said Curtis, wriggling into the coat sideways.
"Poor dear. She has had a time. What a piece of luck I met her the day she landed."
Curtis had no opportunity to inquire just what Marcelle meant, for Lady Hermione had joined them. Sedulously keeping that tell-tale sleeve out of sight, Curtis took the lead, and opened the door, which Marcelle closed and locked.
While they were waiting for the elevator, Curtis fathomed Marcelle's stock of information as to the addresses of neighboring ministers of the Protestant Episcopal Church. It was nil. He appealed to the attendant when the elevator came up, but that worthy thoughtfully tickled his scalp under his cap, and suggested a consultation with the taxi-driver. Indeed, to further the quest, he went with them to the door, and, while Lady Hermione and Marcelle seated themselves in the cab, the three men discussed the religious problem on the sidewalk.
"Ministers don't use taxis much in N' York, sir," commented the driver. "Fact is, they mostly can't afford 'em, but I do happen to know where one old gentleman lives, an' he's sure to be home, because he's crippled something cruel with the rheumatiz."
"Is it far?" demanded Curtis.
"Three blocks away, in 56th Street, near Seventh Avenue. Lives next door to the church, he does."
"Take us there," and Curtis entered the vehicle, which whirled out of sight in the peculiarly downright fashion of the automobile.
The elevator man looked after it, and tickled another section of his scalp.
"I'd a notion she was going to marry that Frenchman," he said to himself. "Of course, it's her business, an' not mine, but of the two I'd take a chance with this new fellar. An' it's odd, too, that they shouldn't know where to go, unless they mean to pick up Froggy on the road. Well, wimmen is queer creetures, they are, sure, an' the English ones are just as queer as the Americans. Not that Miss Grandison ain't a peach wherever she comes from, an' I hope she'll be happy, night an' day till the time comes when she don't care if it snows."
He glanced up at the sky, rolled a cigarette, and, before returning indoors, sniffed a keen wind which was rustling the last crisp leaves in Central Park. The street was quiet, and no one was stirring in the mansion.
"I'm not likely to be wanted for another minnit or two," he said, "so I'll just give the furnace a shake-out. Unless I'm mistaken, there's a frost coming."
Had he prophesied a hurricane he would not have been far wrong, but it was entirely in keeping with the other remarkable developments of a night already noteworthy for its strange happenings that the elevator attendant at No. 1000 59th Street should have chosen the next few minutes to attend to the steam-heating arrangements in the basement.
There is little to be gained, however, from speculation as to the probable outcome of conditions which did not obtain, and the trivial space of time which was demanded for the shaking-out and re-coaling of a furnace was largely responsible for John D. Curtis and Hermione Beauregard Grandison being made man and wife.
Curiously enough, the tying of this particular knot was facilitated by the fact that the clergyman was hale mentally but decrepit physically, and, as might be expected, resented the conclusion, long ago arrived at by his friends, that he was unfitted for work. He burgeoned with delight when a servant announced that two young people wanting to get married were waiting in the vestibule; he hobbled out of the library, where he was poring over an essay on the Sixtine text of the Septuagint, and ushered them into a parlor. The room was not well-lighted, because of some defect in the electric installation, but the old gentleman—"Rev. Thomas J. Hughes" was the legend on the door-plate—bustled about in the liveliest way, and talked most cheerfully.
"Ah, young folk—as usual, leaving things to the last moment, and then in a desperate hurry," he chirped. "Got the license—yes? Complied with all the formalities? Of course, of course. Where's the ring? You've not forgotten the ring?"
Curtis and Hermione looked at each other in blank dismay; even Marcelle's aplomb yielded under this unforeseen strain, and her agitation showed itself in a gasping murmur:
"Oh dear! What shall we do now?"
Mr. Hughes positively chortled over their discomfiture. He limped to a secretaire, and opened a drawer.
"See what it is to have a long experience in these affairs," he cried. "Do you fancy you are the first couple who failed to provide a ring? Ah me! When I was quite a boy in the cloth I learnt the necessity of keeping rings in stock, so a jeweler friend of mind replenishes my store, and, when I sell one, I apply a small profit to a favorite charity of mine. The wearing of a wedding ring has no legal significance, but it is a fine old custom, and should be preserved. Among the Romans the ring was a pledge, pignus, that the betrothal contract would be fulfilled. Pliny tells us that the ring, or circle, was of iron, but the ladies speedily determined that it should be of gold, and the Church went a step farther in recognizing it as a symbol of matrimony. Hence, perhaps, the Episcopal ring, and even the Ring of the Fisherman itself, though some authorities hold that signets—Ah, yes," for Curtis had intimated politely that the hour was growing late, "if the lady will say which of these rings fits; they are fifteen dollars each—cheaper, I believe, than you can buy them in Fifth Avenue. . . . Ah, that one? Very well. Now, as to the form of service?"
"The full marriage rite," said Curtis.
"Precisely, just what I would have suggested. I adhere to the time-honored formula. Now, let me examine the license—my eyes fail me a little, but I take the utmost pains to be accurate, because accuracy is of the greatest importance. . . . Yes, yes, State of New York—what are the names?"
"John D. Curtis and Hermione Beauregard Grandison," said Curtis. His tone was so calm and self-confident that even the prospective bride was deaf for a moment to the vital significance of the words. Then she whispered tremulously:
"Are you not making some mistake?"
"No," he replied, looking her straight in the eyes.
The minister, whose ears partook of the defects in his other faculties, caught the word "mistake."
"This is no place for mistakes, my dear young lady," he said, "A nice young couple like you should only require to be married once in your lives. Take my advice, and stick to one another in sunshine and in storm, and you shall be blessed even unto the fourth generation. . . . Now, all is in order. . . . Is this your witness?" and he nodded affably toward Marcelle. "Shall we have one other? William Jenkins, my factotum, has been privileged to assist on many such occasions. . . . Wil-li-am!"
He raised his voice, and a wizened little man appeared suddenly, having evidently waited outside the door until he was summoned.
Then, with due ritual, John Delancy Curtis and Hermione Beauregard Grandison were joined in the bonds of wedlock, and, by the time Mr. Hughes had completed the ceremony, he had pronounced their names so often, and was so accustomed to their form and sound, that when he filled in the certificate annexed to the license, "John D. Curtis" appeared therein in place of "Jean de Courtois."
Hermione was in a pitiable state of suppressed excitement before the ordeal was concluded. The solemnity and impressiveness of the vows she was taking disturbed the serenity with which she had schooled herself to regard the marriage as "make-believe." She was frightened at her own daring. A dread that the tie she was so lightly assuming might be harder to undo than she had contemplated was fluttering her heart and almost paralyzing her limbs. But Curtis was unemotional as an icicle; or, at any rate, he looked it, which was all that the half-hysterical girl by his side could ascertain by an occasional timid glance. The fact lent her a sort of courage to persevere to the end, and she signed her maiden name for the last time with a numb confidence in the man whom she had, so to speak, bargained for as a husband in an emergency.
Curtis did not fail to note that the aged clergyman's handwriting was crabbed and palsied as his bent frame. None could tell, for certain, whether he wrote "Jean" or "John," "Courtois" or "Curtis," though, indeed, the balance of probability inclined to the latter of the two names, Christian and surname, since those were indubitably what he meant to write.
Then, having stated his fee, and been paid for the ring, he handed Hermione a copy of the certificate.
"Treasure that during all your days, Mrs. Curtis," he said. "May it be a charter of lasting happiness and content!"
Mrs. Curtis! Another shock! Hermione felt that she would scream if there were many more such. And the pressure of the little gold ring on the third finger of her left hand was becoming intolerable. Iron, it used to be, said the minister, and a band of iron it seemed to have become since this man whom she had taken, so completely on trust had placed it there.
On the way out, Curtis tipped Jenkins, tipped him so lavishly that a queer little voice squeaked from a queer little face:
"Thank you, sir. Fair weather to both you and your wife, and a safe berth when you drop anchor!"
So Jenkins had been a sailor, for none but a shell-back would put his good wishes in such nautical lingo.
"I have just finished one long voyage, but seem to have begun another," said Curtis to his "wife." He accompanied the words with a laugh, and was really talking for the sake of breaking an awkward silence. They were descending a few steps from the door, and he noticed that a private automobile was speeding down the street from the same direction as the taxi had taken. It swung close to the curb, and was pulled up barely a yard short of the waiting cab, whose engine the driver was starting with the crank.
A shout came from the interior, and a man leaped out. The street was rather dark in that part, but Hermione recognized the stranger instantly.
"Count Vassilan!" she cried, and the fear in her voice thrilled Curtis to the core.
Almost as quickly, the man now running along the sidewalk knew that a long chase had ended, or he fancied that it had ended, which is not always the same thing.
"Here we are, Valletort!" he shouted. "Got 'em, by ——! You see after Hermione! I'll attend to this d—d Frenchman!"
Curtis gently disengaged the clasp of a tiny hand on his arm, a clasp which was eloquent of a woman's sore need and complete trust. He stepped forward to meet the Count, a stoutly built, heavy man, who had reckoned on closing with an undersized Frenchman. There was no time to rectify mistakes. Curtis met his rival's onset with a beautiful half-arm jab on the nose. Scientifically, it was perfect, since the blow was delivered at the back of the Count's head with complete disregard of intervening tissues, and its recipient went down like one of those pins which succumbed so regularly to the ball bowled by a colossal fist in the Broadway electric sign. The only difference was that the pin fell noiselessly, whereas Count Vassilan roared like a bull in anguish.
In the next instant Curtis, who, for a mild-mannered person, appeared to possess a singularly close acquaintance with the ethics of a street row, sprang at the automobile, pushed back a man who was getting out, slammed the door, seized the speed levers, and bent them hopelessly with a violent tug.
A swearing chauffeur fumbled in the seat, but was in no real hurry to alight, because he had noted the Count's debacle, and Curtis ran to the two cowering women.
"In with you!" he said cheerily, adding, with a grin at the driver:
"Fifty for you if we win clear. Now, be a sport!"
Of course, the driver of a taxi would be a sport. In five minutes he pulled up somewhere in Madison Avenue, and, leaning back and twisting his neck, bawled:
"Where to now, sir?"
The appearance on the scene of the Earl of Valletort and Count Ladislas Vassilan at a moment which, though undeniably critical, might be described as either opportune or inopportune—the choice of an adjective depending solely on the varying points of view of the one who gave and the one who received that powerful thump on the nose—was due to no feat of skill on the part of the engine-room staff of the Switzerland, but to a judicious combination of wireless telegraphy, money, and influence.
When it became evident, very early in the morning, that the vessel might, with luck, crawl up to the quarantine station about midnight, urgent messages were sent to two consulates and the Port Authorities of New York. In the result, a fast steam-yacht drew up alongside the vessel when she took the pilot on board, and the two magnates and their baggage were transferred from the disabled liner to the deck of the trim yacht.
She made praiseworthy efforts to reach a quay and a batch of Customs officers before eight o'clock, but failed by five minutes. Consequently, some slight delay was experienced, and, with the best of good will on the part of the officials, the two fuming passengers could not fling themselves into a waiting automobile until nearly twenty minutes past the hour.
Then, however, they made up for lost time. Intrusting their belongings to a porter and a taxi, with instructions to proceed to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, they bade the chauffeur travel at top speed to No. 1000 59th Street. Many times were they sworn at en route by endangered pedestrians and enraged drivers of horsed vehicles; the growing torrent of ill wishes thus engendered may have exercised some unrecognized form of telepathy at No. 1000, because a regulating valve in the steam-heat apparatus, which had never proved intractable before, suddenly took it into its metallic head to go wrong. Thus, the elevator man was not aware of a good deal of ringing of electric bells and hammering on the locked door of flat Number 10.
Ultimately, the valve resumed its normal functions, for no cause that a hot and oily human being could perceive other than the occasional "cussedness" which inanimate objects can be capable of; while surveying it wrathfully, he awoke to the racket in the upper regions.
Behold him, then, angry and perspiring, vowing by all his gods that he had other duties to perform than eternally watching the comings and goings of the mansion's occupants; being a free-born American of Irish ancestry, name of Rafferty, he would certainly have bandied contumely with Count Ladislas Vassilan had not the Earl intervened. The Hungarian had addressed Rafferty as though he were a dog: the Englishman, more certain of his social predominance, treated him as a person endowed with reason.
"Now, listen to me, my good man," he said, calmly but emphatically, "I am the Earl of Valletort, and the lady you know as Miss Grandison is the Lady Hermione Grandison, my daughter. She has come to New York in order to marry a wretched little French adventurer named Jean de Courtois, and it is absolutely essential, for her own welfare, not to mention other considerations, that the wedding, which is to take place to-night, shall be prevented. Two European consuls and several important men in your own city have helped me to land this evening from a vessel which will not disembark her passengers till the morning. Therefore, it is fairly obvious that you run several sorts of risk by refusing to help me in finding my daughter, and I can hardly believe that you know nothing about her movements. . . . Come, my man, don't be both a fool and a knave, but speak!"
Rafferty, who had calmed down during this impressive harangue, took thought, and did speak.
"If yer friend had said half as much, my lord, I'd have made him wise straight away," he answered. "Miss Grandison went off at 8.30 in a taxi with her maid, Marcelle Leroux, and a strange gentleman who certainly wasn't Mr. de Courtois, my lord. They wanted to find out where a clergyman lived, an' I couldn't tell them—not about the Protestant Episcopal, I mean, my lord—but the driver of the taxi remembered that there was a minister of that persuasion living in 56th Street, near 7th Avenue, an' next door to a church. So they made a bee-line that-a-way, my lord, an' I went to see to the furnace, an' that's all there is to it, my lord."
"You say the man was not de Courtois?" queried the Earl impatiently.
"I'm sure he wasn't the man who has passed under that name hereabouts nearly every day for a month, my lord," said Rafferty.
"Oh, some fellow of his own kidney he has hired to assist him," put in Vassilan, who held fast to that theory, in part, even after he had been painfully disillusioned as to other parts of it. "Come quickly now, you, and tell our chauffeur where to take us."
If Rafferty had dared, he would have given the chauffeur directions likely to lead to further bickering, but the presence of the Earl restrained him, for Valletort, though thin and hawk-nosed, was an aristocrat in every inch, whereas Count Ladislas Vassilan wore the stage aspect of a successful pork-butcher. So he explained matters to the chauffeur, yet smiled grimly when the automobile wheeled away almost in the very tracks of Curtis's taxi.
"Who sez there's no such thing as luck?" he chuckled. "That valve knew what it was about when it stuck, an' my name ain't what it is if that wedding isn't over and done with by this time. An' I gev him 'my lord' for it, too! Played the high-tone society act for all it was worth, eh, what?"
The next scene in the drama began for the Hungarian when he sat upon the sidewalk in 56th Street, and tried to pacify certain outraged blood-vessels in the nasal region. Of course, the curtain had been up some time, but, so far as he was concerned, the incidents which followed his precipitate descent from the automobile were merely catastrophic. He had seen a vivid, violet-colored star close to his eyes, had felt a crushing blow, had heard his own voice vaguely; and then he awoke to a singular sense of personal dis-ease, and to the fact that the noble Earl had nearly lost his temper.
"It was entirely your fault, Vassilan," his lordship was saying. "You gain nothing but lose everything by your bullying tactics. Dash it all, the fellow downed you like a prize-fighter. Who was he? Not Jean de Courtois, I'll swear, so where has de Courtois gone? Can't you stand up? It's damn silly to sit there, nursing your nose. Our motor-car is out of action. We had better interview this clergyman, and learn exactly what has happened."
Vassilan rose. He was neither a coward nor a weakling, but he felt sore in mind as in body.
"What's wrog with the car?" he demanded. "Ad cad you led me ad hadkerchief?"
"That rascal who was with Hermione nearly pulled the gear levers out by the roots," said the Earl testily. "He pushed me back into the limousine—with some degree of force, too, confound him! Who can he be?"
"Suppose we idquire," growled Vassilan, and, mopping his nose with the Earl's handkerchief, he tugged viciously at the old-fashioned bell-pull which served the needs of visitors to the Rev. Thomas J. Hughes.
The maid-servant who took the names of the two men was surprised, and showed it, but her democratic respect for titles yielded to suspicion when she observed Count Vassilan's villainous guise.
"Wil-li-am!" she cried, and, when the ex-sailor appeared from the depths, she asked him to "look after the gentlemen" while she summoned Mr. Hughes.
"Cad you take me somewhere, ad supply me with a towel ad pledty of cold water?" said the Hungarian, addressing the wizened one.