THE GRAND BABYLON HOTEL
By Arnold Bennett
T. Racksole & Daughter
Chapter One THE MILLIONAIRE AND THE WAITER
Jules, the celebrated head waiter of the Grand Babylon, was bending formally towards the alert, middle-aged man who had just entered the smoking-room and dropped into a basket-chair in the corner by the conservatory. It was 7.45 on a particularly sultry June night, and dinner was about to be served at the Grand Babylon. Men of all sizes, ages, and nationalities, but every one alike arrayed in faultless evening dress, were dotted about the large, dim apartment. A faint odour of flowers came from the conservatory, and the tinkle of a fountain. The waiters, commanded by Jules, moved softly across the thick Oriental rugs, balancing their trays with the dexterity of jugglers, and receiving and executing orders with that air of profound importance of which only really first-class waiters have the secret. The atmosphere was an atmosphere of serenity and repose, characteristic of the Grand Babylon. It seemed impossible that anything could occur to mar the peaceful, aristocratic monotony of existence in that perfectly-managed establishment. Yet on that night was to happen the mightiest upheaval that the Grand Babylon had ever known.
'Yes, sir?' repeated Jules, and this time there was a shade of august disapproval in his voice: it was not usual for him to have to address a customer twice.
'Oh!' said the alert, middle-aged man, looking up at length. Beautifully ignorant of the identity of the great Jules, he allowed his grey eyes to twinkle as he caught sight of the expression on the waiter's face. 'Bring me an Angel Kiss.'
'Bring me an Angel Kiss, and be good enough to lose no time.'
'If it's an American drink, I fear we don't keep it, sir.' The voice of Jules fell icily distinct, and several men glanced round uneasily, as if to deprecate the slightest disturbance of their calm. The appearance of the person to whom Jules was speaking, however, reassured them somewhat, for he had all the look of that expert, the travelled Englishman, who can differentiate between one hotel and another by instinct, and who knows at once where he may make a fuss with propriety, and where it is advisable to behave exactly as at the club. The Grand Babylon was a hotel in whose smoking-room one behaved as though one was at one's club.
'I didn't suppose you did keep it, but you can mix it, I guess, even in this hotel.'
'This isn't an American hotel, sir.' The calculated insolence of the words was cleverly masked beneath an accent of humble submission.
The alert, middle-aged man sat up straight, and gazed placidly at Jules, who was pulling his famous red side-whiskers.
'Get a liqueur glass,' he said, half curtly and half with good-humoured tolerance, 'pour into it equal quantities of maraschino, cream, and creme de menthe. Don't stir it; don't shake it. Bring it to me. And, I say, tell the bar-tender—'
'Tell the bar-tender to make a note of the recipe, as I shall probably want an Angel Kiss every evening before dinner so long as this weather lasts.'
'I will send the drink to you, sir,' said Jules distantly. That was his parting shot, by which he indicated that he was not as other waiters are, and that any person who treated him with disrespect did so at his own peril.
A few minutes later, while the alert, middle-aged man was tasting the Angel Kiss, Jules sat in conclave with Miss Spencer, who had charge of the bureau of the Grand Babylon. This bureau was a fairly large chamber, with two sliding glass partitions which overlooked the entrance-hall and the smoking-room. Only a small portion of the clerical work of the great hotel was performed there. The place served chiefly as the lair of Miss Spencer, who was as well known and as important as Jules himself. Most modern hotels have a male clerk to superintend the bureau. But the Grand Babylon went its own way. Miss Spencer had been bureau clerk almost since the Grand Babylon had first raised its massive chimneys to heaven, and she remained in her place despite the vagaries of other hotels. Always admirably dressed in plain black silk, with a small diamond brooch, immaculate wrist-bands, and frizzed yellow hair, she looked now just as she had looked an indefinite number of years ago. Her age—none knew it, save herself and perhaps one other, and none cared. The gracious and alluring contours of her figure were irreproachable; and in the evenings she was a useful ornament of which any hotel might be innocently proud. Her knowledge of Bradshaw, of steamship services, and the programmes of theatres and music-halls was unrivalled; yet she never travelled, she never went to a theatre or a music-hall. She seemed to spend the whole of her life in that official lair of hers, imparting information to guests, telephoning to the various departments, or engaged in intimate conversations with her special friends on the staff, as at present.
'Who's Number 107?' Jules asked this black-robed lady.
Miss Spencer examined her ledgers.
'Mr Theodore Racksole, New York.'
'I thought he must be a New Yorker,' said Jules, after a brief, significant pause, 'but he talks as good English as you or me. Says he wants an "Angel Kiss"—maraschino and cream, if you please—every night. I'll see he doesn't stop here too long.'
Miss Spencer smiled grimly in response. The notion of referring to Theodore Racksole as a 'New Yorker' appealed to her sense of humour, a sense in which she was not entirely deficient. She knew, of course, and she knew that Jules knew, that this Theodore Racksole must be the unique and only Theodore Racksole, the third richest man in the United States, and therefore probably in the world. Nevertheless she ranged herself at once on the side of Jules.
Just as there was only one Racksole, so there was only one Jules, and Miss Spencer instinctively shared the latter's indignation at the spectacle of any person whatsoever, millionaire or Emperor, presuming to demand an 'Angel Kiss', that unrespectable concoction of maraschino and cream, within the precincts of the Grand Babylon. In the world of hotels it was currently stated that, next to the proprietor, there were three gods at the Grand Babylon—Jules, the head waiter, Miss Spencer, and, most powerful of all, Rocco, the renowned chef, who earned two thousand a year, and had a chalet on the Lake of Lucerne. All the great hotels in Northumberland Avenue and on the Thames Embankment had tried to get Rocco away from the Grand Babylon, but without success. Rocco was well aware that even he could rise no higher than the maitre hotel of the Grand Babylon, which, though it never advertised itself, and didn't belong to a limited company, stood an easy first among the hotels of Europe—first in expensiveness, first in exclusiveness, first in that mysterious quality known as 'style'.
Situated on the Embankment, the Grand Babylon, despite its noble proportions, was somewhat dwarfed by several colossal neighbours. It had but three hundred and fifty rooms, whereas there are two hotels within a quarter of a mile with six hundred and four hundred rooms respectively. On the other hand, the Grand Babylon was the only hotel in London with a genuine separate entrance for Royal visitors constantly in use. The Grand Babylon counted that day wasted on which it did not entertain, at the lowest, a German prince or the Maharajah of some Indian State. When Felix Babylon—after whom, and not with any reference to London's nickname, the hotel was christened—when Felix Babylon founded the hotel in 1869 he had set himself to cater for Royalty, and that was the secret of his triumphant eminence.
The son of a rich Swiss hotel proprietor and financier, he had contrived to established a connection with the officials of several European Courts, and he had not spared money in that respect. Sundry kings and not a few princesses called him Felix, and spoke familiarly of the hotel as 'Felix's'; and Felix had found that this was very good for trade. The Grand Babylon was managed accordingly. The 'note' of its policy was discretion, always discretion, and quietude, simplicity, remoteness. The place was like a palace incognito. There was no gold sign over the roof, not even an explanatory word at the entrance. You walked down a small side street off the Strand, you saw a plain brown building in front of you, with two mahogany swing doors, and an official behind each; the doors opened noiselessly; you entered; you were in Felix's. If you meant to be a guest, you, or your courier, gave your card to Miss Spencer. Upon no consideration did you ask for the tariff. It was not good form to mention prices at the Grand Babylon; the prices were enormous, but you never mentioned them. At the conclusion of your stay a bill was presented, brief and void of dry details, and you paid it without a word. You met with a stately civility, that was all. No one had originally asked you to come; no one expressed the hope that you would come again. The Grand Babylon was far above such manoeuvres; it defied competition by ignoring it; and consequently was nearly always full during the season.
If there was one thing more than another that annoyed the Grand Babylon—put its back up, so to speak—it was to be compared with, or to be mistaken for, an American hotel. The Grand Babylon was resolutely opposed to American methods of eating, drinking, and lodging—but especially American methods of drinking. The resentment of Jules, on being requested to supply Mr Theodore Racksole with an Angel Kiss, will therefore be appreciated.
'Anybody with Mr Theodore Racksole?' asked Jules, continuing his conversation with Miss Spencer. He put a scornful stress on every syllable of the guest's name.
'Miss Racksole—she's in No. 111.'
Jules paused, and stroked his left whisker as it lay on his gleaming white collar.
'She's where?' he queried, with a peculiar emphasis.
'No. 111. I couldn't help it. There was no other room with a bathroom and dressing-room on that floor.' Miss Spencer's voice had an appealing tone of excuse.
'Why didn't you tell Mr Theodore Racksole and Miss Racksole that we were unable to accommodate them?'
'Because Babs was within hearing.'
Only three people in the wide world ever dreamt of applying to Mr Felix Babylon the playful but mean abbreviation—Babs: those three were Jules, Miss Spencer, and Rocco. Jules had invented it. No one but he would have had either the wit or the audacity to do so.
'You'd better see that Miss Racksole changes her room to-night,' Jules said after another pause. 'Leave it to me: I'll fix it. Au revoir! It's three minutes to eight. I shall take charge of the dining-room myself to-night.'
And Jules departed, rubbing his fine white hands slowly and meditatively. It was a trick of his, to rub his hands with a strange, roundabout motion, and the action denoted that some unusual excitement was in the air.
At eight o'clock precisely dinner was served in the immense salle manger, that chaste yet splendid apartment of white and gold. At a small table near one of the windows a young lady sat alone. Her frocks said Paris, but her face unmistakably said New York. It was a self-possessed and bewitching face, the face of a woman thoroughly accustomed to doing exactly what she liked, when she liked, how she liked: the face of a woman who had taught hundreds of gilded young men the true art of fetching and carrying, and who, by twenty years or so of parental spoiling, had come to regard herself as the feminine equivalent of the Tsar of All the Russias. Such women are only made in America, and they only come to their full bloom in Europe, which they imagine to be a continent created by Providence for their diversion.
The young lady by the window glanced disapprovingly at the menu card. Then she looked round the dining-room, and, while admiring the diners, decided that the room itself was rather small and plain. Then she gazed through the open window, and told herself that though the Thames by twilight was passable enough, it was by no means level with the Hudson, on whose shores her father had a hundred thousand dollar country cottage. Then she returned to the menu, and with a pursing of lovely lips said that there appeared to be nothing to eat.
'Sorry to keep you waiting, Nella.' It was Mr Racksole, the intrepid millionaire who had dared to order an Angel Kiss in the smoke-room of the Grand Babylon. Nella—her proper name was Helen—smiled at her parent cautiously, reserving to herself the right to scold if she should feel so inclined.
'You always are late, father,' she said.
'Only on a holiday,' he added. 'What is there to eat?'
'Then let's have it. I'm hungry. I'm never so hungry as when I'm being seriously idle.'
'Consomme Britannia,' she began to read out from the menu, 'Saumon d'Ecosse, Sauce Genoise, Aspics de Homard. Oh, heavens! Who wants these horrid messes on a night like this?'
'But, Nella, this is the best cooking in Europe,' he protested.
'Say, father,' she said, with seeming irrelevance, 'had you forgotten it's my birthday to-morrow?'
'Have I ever forgotten your birthday, O most costly daughter?'
'On the whole you've been a most satisfactory dad,' she answered sweetly, 'and to reward you I'll be content this year with the cheapest birthday treat you ever gave me. Only I'll have it to-night.'
'Well,' he said, with the long-suffering patience, the readiness for any surprise, of a parent whom Nella had thoroughly trained, 'what is it?'
'It's this. Let's have filleted steak and a bottle of Bass for dinner to-night. It will be simply exquisite. I shall love it.'
'But my dear Nella,' he exclaimed, 'steak and beer at Felix 's! It's impossible! Moreover, young women still under twenty-three cannot be permitted to drink Bass.'
'I said steak and Bass, and as for being twenty-three, shall be going in twenty-four to-morrow.'
Miss Racksole set her small white teeth.
There was a gentle cough. Jules stood over them. It must have been out of a pure spirit of adventure that he had selected this table for his own services. Usually Jules did not personally wait at dinner. He merely hovered observant, like a captain on the bridge during the mate's watch. Regular frequenters of the hotel felt themselves honoured when Jules attached himself to their tables.
Theodore Racksole hesitated one second, and then issued the order with a fine air of carelessness:
'Filleted steak for two, and a bottle of Bass.' It was the bravest act of Theodore Racksole's life, and yet at more than one previous crisis a high courage had not been lacking to him.
'It's not in the menu, sir,' said Jules the imperturbable.
'Never mind. Get it. We want it.'
'Very good, sir.'
Jules walked to the service-door, and, merely affecting to look behind, came immediately back again.
'Mr Rocco's compliments, sir, and he regrets to be unable to serve steak and Bass to-night, sir.'
'Mr Rocco?' questioned Racksole lightly.
'Mr Rocco,' repeated Jules with firmness.
'And who is Mr Rocco?'
'Mr Rocco is our chef, sir.' Jules had the expression of a man who is asked to explain who Shakespeare was.
The two men looked at each other. It seemed incredible that Theodore Racksole, the ineffable Racksole, who owned a thousand miles of railway, several towns, and sixty votes in Congress, should be defied by a waiter, or even by a whole hotel. Yet so it was. When Europe's effete back is against the wall not a regiment of millionaires can turn its flank. Jules had the calm expression of a strong man sure of victory. His face said: 'You beat me once, but not this time, my New York friend!'
As for Nella, knowing her father, she foresaw interesting events, and waited confidently for the steak. She did not feel hungry, and she could afford to wait.
'Excuse me a moment, Nella,' said Theodore Racksole quietly, 'I shall be back in about two seconds,' and he strode out of the salle a manger. No one in the room recognized the millionaire, for he was unknown to London, this being his first visit to Europe for over twenty years. Had anyone done so, and caught the expression on his face, that man might have trembled for an explosion which should have blown the entire Grand Babylon into the Thames.
Jules retired strategically to a corner. He had fired; it was the antagonist's turn. A long and varied experience had taught Jules that a guest who embarks on the subjugation of a waiter is almost always lost; the waiter has so many advantages in such a contest.
Chapter Two HOW MR RACKSOLE OBTAINED HIS DINNER
NEVERTHELESS, there are men with a confirmed habit of getting their own way, even as guests in an exclusive hotel: and Theodore Racksole had long since fallen into that useful practice—except when his only daughter Helen, motherless but high-spirited girl, chose to think that his way crossed hers, in which case Theodore capitulated and fell back. But when Theodore and his daughter happened to be going one and the same road, which was pretty often, then Heaven alone might help any obstacle that was so ill-advised as to stand in their path. Jules, great and observant man though he was, had not noticed the terrible projecting chins of both father and daughter, otherwise it is possible he would have reconsidered the question of the steak and Bass.
Theodore Racksole went direct to the entrance-hall of the hotel, and entered Miss Spencer's sanctum.
'I want to see Mr Babylon,' he said, 'without the delay of an instant.'
Miss Spencer leisurely raised her flaxen head.
'I am afraid—,' she began the usual formula. It was part of her daily duty to discourage guests who desired to see Mr Babylon.
'No, no,' said Racksole quickly, 'I don't want any "I'm afraids." This is business. If you had been the ordinary hotel clerk I should have slipped you a couple of sovereigns into your hand, and the thing would have been done.
As you are not—as you are obviously above bribes—I merely say to you, I must see Mr Babylon at once on an affair of the utmost urgency. My name is Racksole—Theodore Racksole.'
'Of New York?' questioned a voice at the door, with a slight foreign accent.
The millionaire turned sharply, and saw a rather short, French-looking man, with a bald head, a grey beard, a long and perfectly-built frock coat, eye-glasses attached to a minute silver chain, and blue eyes that seemed to have the transparent innocence of a maid's.
'There is only one,' said Theodore Racksole succinctly.
'You wish to see me?' the new-comer suggested.
'You are Mr Felix Babylon?'
The man bowed.
'At this moment I wish to see you more than anyone else in the world,' said Racksole. 'I am consumed and burnt up with a desire to see you, Mr Babylon.
I only want a few minutes' quiet chat. I fancy I can settle my business in that time.'
With a gesture Mr Babylon invited the millionaire down a side corridor, at the end of which was Mr Babylon's private room, a miracle of Louis XV furniture and tapestry: like most unmarried men with large incomes, Mr Babylon had 'tastes' of a highly expensive sort.
The landlord and his guest sat down opposite each other. Theodore Racksole had met with the usual millionaire's luck in this adventure, for Mr Babylon made a practice of not allowing himself to be interviewed by his guests, however distinguished, however wealthy, however pertinacious. If he had not chanced to enter Miss Spencer's office at that precise moment, and if he had not been impressed in a somewhat peculiar way by the physiognomy of the millionaire, not all Mr Racksole's American energy and ingenuity would have availed for a confabulation with the owner of the Grand Babylon Hotel that night. Theodore Racksole, however, was ignorant that a mere accident had served him. He took all the credit to himself.
'I read in the New York papers some months ago,' Theodore started, without even a clearing of the throat, 'that this hotel of yours, Mr Babylon, was to be sold to a limited company, but it appears that the sale was not carried out.'
'It was not,' answered Mr Babylon frankly, 'and the reason was that the middle-men between the proposed company and myself wished to make a large secret profit, and I declined to be a party to such a profit. They were firm; I was firm; and so the affair came to nothing.'
'The agreed price was satisfactory?'
'May I ask what the price was?'
'Are you a buyer, Mr Racksole?'
'Are you a seller, Mr Babylon?'
'I am,' said Babylon, 'on terms. The price was four hundred thousand pounds, including the leasehold and goodwill. But I sell only on the condition that the buyer does not transfer the property to a limited company at a higher figure.'
'I will put one question to you, Mr Babylon,' said the millionaire. 'What have your profits averaged during the last four years?'
'Thirty-four thousand pounds per annum.'
'I buy,' said Theodore Racksole, smiling contentedly; 'and we will, if you please, exchange contract-letters on the spot.'
'You come quickly to a resolution, Mr Racksole. But perhaps you have been considering this question for a long time?'
'On the contrary,' Racksole looked at his watch, 'I have been considering it for six minutes.'
Felix Babylon bowed, as one thoroughly accustomed to eccentricity of wealth.
'The beauty of being well-known,' Racksole continued, 'is that you needn't trouble about preliminary explanations. You, Mr Babylon, probably know all about me. I know a good deal about you. We can take each other for granted without reference. Really, it is as simple to buy an hotel or a railroad as it is to buy a watch, provided one is equal to the transaction.'
'Precisely,' agreed Mr Babylon smiling. 'Shall we draw up the little informal contract? There are details to be thought of. But it occurs to me that you cannot have dined yet, and might prefer to deal with minor questions after dinner.'
'I have not dined,' said the millionaire, with emphasis, 'and in that connexion will you do me a favour? Will you send for Mr Rocco?'
'You wish to see him, naturally.'
'I do,' said the millionaire, and added, 'about my dinner.'
'Rocco is a great man,' murmured Mr Babylon as he touched the bell, ignoring the last words. 'My compliments to Mr Rocco,' he said to the page who answered his summons, 'and if it is quite convenient I should be glad to see him here for a moment.'
'What do you give Rocco?' Racksole inquired.
'Two thousand a year and the treatment of an Ambassador.'
'I shall give him the treatment of an Ambassador and three thousand.'
'You will be wise,' said Felix Babylon.
At that moment Rocco came into the room, very softly—a man of forty, thin, with long, thin hands, and an inordinately long brown silky moustache.
'Rocco,' said Felix Babylon, 'let me introduce Mr Theodore Racksole, of New York.'
'Sharmed,' said Rocco, bowing. 'Ze—ze, vat you call it, millionaire?'
'Exactly,' Racksole put in, and continued quickly: 'Mr Rocco, I wish to acquaint you before any other person with the fact that I have purchased the Grand Babylon Hotel. If you think well to afford me the privilege of retaining your services I shall be happy to offer you a remuneration of three thousand a year.'
'Tree, you said?'
'And now, Mr Rocco, will you oblige me very much by ordering a plain beefsteak and a bottle of Bass to be served by Jules—I particularly desire Jules—at table No. 17 in the dining-room in ten minutes from now? And will you do me the honour of lunching with me to-morrow?'
Mr Rocco gasped, bowed, muttered something in French, and departed.
Five minutes later the buyer and seller of the Grand Babylon Hotel had each signed a curt document, scribbled out on the hotel note-paper. Felix Babylon asked no questions, and it was this heroic absence of curiosity, of surprise on his part, that more than anything else impressed Theodore Racksole. How many hotel proprietors in the world, Racksole asked himself, would have let that beef-steak and Bass go by without a word of comment.
'From what date do you wish the purchase to take effect?' asked Babylon.
'Oh,' said Racksole lightly, 'it doesn't matter. Shall we say from to-night?'
'As you will. I have long wished to retire. And now that the moment has come—and so dramatically—I am ready. I shall return to Switzerland. One cannot spend much money there, but it is my native land. I shall be the richest man in Switzerland.' He smiled with a kind of sad amusement.
'I suppose you are fairly well off?' said Racksole, in that easy familiar style of his, as though the idea had just occurred to him.
'Besides what I shall receive from you, I have half a million invested.'
'Then you will be nearly a millionaire?'
Felix Babylon nodded.
'I congratulate you, my dear sir,' said Racksole, in the tone of a judge addressing a newly-admitted barrister. 'Nine hundred thousand pounds, expressed in francs, will sound very nice—in Switzerland.'
'Of course to you, Mr Racksole, such a sum would be poverty. Now if one might guess at your own wealth?' Felix Babylon was imitating the other's freedom.
'I do not know, to five millions or so, what I am worth,' said Racksole, with sincerity, his tone indicating that he would have been glad to give the information if it were in his power.
'You have had anxieties, Mr Racksole?'
'Still have them. I am now holiday-making in London with my daughter in order to get rid of them for a time.'
'Is the purchase of hotels your notion of relaxation, then?'
Racksole shrugged his shoulders. 'It is a change from railroads,' he laughed.
'Ah, my friend, you little know what you have bought.'
'Oh! yes I do,' returned Racksole; 'I have bought just the first hotel in the world.'
'That is true, that is true,' Babylon admitted, gazing meditatively at the antique Persian carpet. 'There is nothing, anywhere, like my hotel. But you will regret the purchase, Mr Racksole. It is no business of mine, of course, but I cannot help repeating that you will regret the purchase.'
'I never regret.'
'Then you will begin very soon—perhaps to-night.'
'Why do you say that?'
'Because the Grand Babylon is the Grand Babylon. You think because you control a railroad, or an iron-works, or a line of steamers, therefore you can control anything. But no. Not the Grand Babylon. There is something about the Grand Babylon—' He threw up his hands.
'Servants rob you, of course.'
'Of course. I suppose I lose a hundred pounds a week in that way. But it is not that I mean. It is the guests. The guests are too—too distinguished.
The great Ambassadors, the great financiers, the great nobles, all the men that move the world, put up under my roof. London is the centre of everything, and my hotel—your hotel—is the centre of London. Once I had a King and a Dowager Empress staying here at the same time. Imagine that!'
'A great honour, Mr Babylon. But wherein lies the difficulty?'
'Mr Racksole,' was the grim reply, 'what has become of your shrewdness—that shrewdness which has made your fortune so immense that even you cannot calculate it? Do you not perceive that the roof which habitually shelters all the force, all the authority of the world, must necessarily also shelter nameless and numberless plotters, schemers, evil-doers, and workers of mischief? The thing is as clear as day—and as dark as night. Mr Racksole, I never know by whom I am surrounded. I never know what is going forward.
Only sometimes I get hints, glimpses of strange acts and strange secrets.
You mentioned my servants. They are almost all good servants, skilled, competent. But what are they besides? For anything I know my fourth sub-chef may be an agent of some European Government. For anything I know my invaluable Miss Spencer may be in the pay of a court dressmaker or a Frankfort banker. Even Rocco may be someone else in addition to Rocco.'
'That makes it all the more interesting,' remarked Theodore Racksole.
'What a long time you have been, Father,' said Nella, when he returned to table No. 17 in the salle manger.
'Only twenty minutes, my dove.'
'But you said two seconds. There is a difference.'
'Well, you see, I had to wait for the steak to cook.'
'Did you have much trouble in getting my birthday treat?'
'No trouble. But it didn't come quite as cheap as you said.'
'What do you mean, Father?'
'Only that I've bought the entire hotel. But don't split.'
'Father, you always were a delicious parent. Shall you give me the hotel for a birthday present?'
'No. I shall run it—as an amusement. By the way, who is that chair for?'
He noticed that a third cover had been laid at the table.
'That is for a friend of mine who came in about five minutes ago. Of course I told him he must share our steak. He'll be here in a moment.'
'May I respectfully inquire his name?'
'Dimmock—Christian name Reginald; profession, English companion to Prince Aribert of Posen. I met him when I was in St Petersburg with cousin Hetty last fall. Oh; here he is. Mr Dimmock, this is my dear father. He has succeeded with the steak.'
Theodore Racksole found himself confronted by a very young man, with deep black eyes, and a fresh, boyish expression. They began to talk.
Jules approached with the steak. Racksole tried to catch the waiter's eye, but could not. The dinner proceeded.
'Oh, Father!' cried Nella, 'what a lot of mustard you have taken!'
'Have I?' he said, and then he happened to glance into a mirror on his left hand between two windows. He saw the reflection of Jules, who stood behind his chair, and he saw Jules give a slow, significant, ominous wink to Mr Dimmock—Christian name, Reginald.
He examined his mustard in silence. He thought that perhaps he had helped himself rather plenteously to mustard.
Chapter Three AT THREE A.M.
MR REGINALD DIMMOCK proved himself, despite his extreme youth, to be a man of the world and of experiences, and a practised talker. Conversation between him and Nella Racksole seemed never to flag. They chattered about St Petersburg, and the ice on the Neva, and the tenor at the opera who had been exiled to Siberia, and the quality of Russian tea, and the sweetness of Russian champagne, and various other aspects of Muscovite existence. Russia exhausted, Nella lightly outlined her own doings since she had met the young man in the Tsar's capital, and this recital brought the topic round to London, where it stayed till the final piece of steak was eaten. Theodore Racksole noticed that Mr Dimmock gave very meagre information about his own movements, either past or future. He regarded the youth as a typical hanger-on of Courts, and wondered how he had obtained his post of companion to Prince Aribert of Posen, and who Prince Aribert of Posen might be. The millionaire thought he had once heard of Posen, but he wasn't sure; he rather fancied it was one of those small nondescript German States of which five-sixths of the subjects are Palace officials, and the rest charcoal-burners or innkeepers. Until the meal was nearly over, Racksole said little—perhaps his thoughts were too busy with Jules' wink to Mr Dimmock, but when ices had been followed by coffee, he decided that it might be as well, in the interests of the hotel, to discover something about his daughter's friend. He never for an instant questioned her right to possess her own friends; he had always left her in the most amazing liberty, relying on her inherited good sense to keep her out of mischief; but, quite apart from the wink, he was struck by Nella's attitude towards Mr Dimmock, an attitude in which an amiable scorn was blended with an evident desire to propitiate and please.
'Nella tells me, Mr Dimmock, that you hold a confidential position with Prince Aribert of Posen,' said Racksole. 'You will pardon an American's ignorance, but is Prince Aribert a reigning Prince—what, I believe, you call in Europe, a Prince Regnant?'
'His Highness is not a reigning Prince, nor ever likely to be,' answered Dimmock. 'The Grand Ducal Throne of Posen is occupied by his Highness's nephew, the Grand Duke Eugen.'
'Nephew?' cried Nella with astonishment.
'Why not, dear lady?'
'But Prince Aribert is surely very young?'
'The Prince, by one of those vagaries of chance which occur sometimes in the history of families, is precisely the same age as the Grand Duke. The late Grand Duke's father was twice married. Hence this youthfulness on the part of an uncle.'
'How delicious to be the uncle of someone as old as yourself! But I suppose it is no fun for Prince Aribert. I suppose he has to be frightfully respectful and obedient, and all that, to his nephew?'
'The Grand Duke and my Serene master are like brothers. At present, of course, Prince Aribert is nominally heir to the throne, but as no doubt you are aware, the Grand Duke will shortly marry a near relative of the Emperor's, and should there be a family—' Mr Dimmock stopped and shrugged his straight shoulders. 'The Grand Duke,' he went on, without finishing the last sentence, 'would much prefer Prince Aribert to be his successor. He really doesn't want to marry. Between ourselves, strictly between ourselves, he regards marriage as rather a bore. But, of course, being a German Grand Duke, he is bound to marry. He owes it to his country, to Posen.'
'How large is Posen?' asked Racksole bluntly.
'Father,' Nella interposed laughing, 'you shouldn't ask such inconvenient questions. You ought to have guessed that it isn't etiquette to inquire about the size of a German Dukedom.'
'I am sure,' said Dimmock, with a polite smile, 'that the Grand Duke is as much amused as anyone at the size of his territory. I forget the exact acreage, but I remember that once Prince Aribert and myself walked across it and back again in a single day.'
'Then the Grand Duke cannot travel very far within his own dominions? You may say that the sun does set on his empire?'
'It does,' said Dimmock.
'Unless the weather is cloudy,' Nella put in. 'Is the Grand Duke content always to stay at home?'
'On the contrary, he is a great traveller, much more so than Prince Aribert.
I may tell you, what no one knows at present, outside this hotel, that his Royal Highness the Grand Duke, with a small suite, will be here to-morrow.'
'In London?' asked Nella.
'In this hotel?'
'Oh! How lovely!'
'That is why your humble servant is here to-night—a sort of advance guard.'
'But I understood,' Racksole said, 'that you were—er—attached to Prince Aribert, the uncle.'
'I am. Prince Aribert will also be here. The Grand Duke and the Prince have business about important investments connected with the Grand Duke's marriage settlement.... In the highest quarters, you understand.'
'For so discreet a person,' thought Racksole, 'you are fairly communicative.' Then he said aloud: 'Shall we go out on the terrace?'
As they crossed the dining-room Jules stopped Mr Dimmock and handed him a letter. 'Just come, sir, by messenger,' said Jules.
Nella dropped behind for a second with her father. 'Leave me alone with this boy a little—there's a dear parent,' she whispered in his ear.
'I am a mere cypher, an obedient nobody,' Racksole replied, pinching her arm surreptitiously. 'Treat me as such. Use me as you like. I will go and look after my hotel' And soon afterwards he disappeared.
Nella and Mr Dimmock sat together on the terrace, sipping iced drinks. They made a handsome couple, bowered amid plants which blossomed at the command of a Chelsea wholesale florist. People who passed by remarked privately that from the look of things there was the beginning of a romance in that conversation. Perhaps there was, but a more intimate acquaintance with the character of Nella Racksole would have been necessary in order to predict what precise form that romance would take.
Jules himself served the liquids, and at ten o'clock he brought another note. Entreating a thousand pardons, Reginald Dimmock, after he had glanced at the note, excused himself on the plea of urgent business for his Serene master, uncle of the Grand Duke of Posen. He asked if he might fetch Mr Racksole, or escort Miss Racksole to her father. But Miss Racksole said gaily that she felt no need of an escort, and should go to bed. She added that her father and herself always endeavoured to be independent of each other.
Just then Theodore Racksole had found his way once more into Mr Babylon's private room. Before arriving there, however, he had discovered that in some mysterious manner the news of the change of proprietorship had worked its way down to the lowest strata of the hotel's cosmos. The corridors hummed with it, and even under-servants were to be seen discussing the thing, just as though it mattered to them.
'Have a cigar, Mr Racksole,' said the urbane Mr Babylon, 'and a mouthful of the oldest cognac in all Europe.'
In a few minutes these two were talking eagerly, rapidly. Felix Babylon was astonished at Racksole's capacity for absorbing the details of hotel management. And as for Racksole he soon realized that Felix Babylon must be a prince of hotel managers. It had never occurred to Racksole before that to manage an hotel, even a large hotel, could be a specially interesting affair, or that it could make any excessive demands upon the brains of the manager; but he came to see that he had underrated the possibilities of an hotel. The business of the Grand Babylon was enormous. It took Racksole, with all his genius for organization, exactly half an hour to master the details of the hotel laundry-work. And the laundry-work was but one branch of activity amid scores, and not a very large one at that. The machinery of checking supplies, and of establishing a mean ratio between the raw stuff received in the kitchen and the number of meals served in the salle a manger and the private rooms, was very complicated and delicate. When Racksole had grasped it, he at once suggested some improvements, and this led to a long theoretical discussion, and the discussion led to digressions, and then Felix Babylon, in a moment of absent-mindedness, yawned.
Racksole looked at the gilt clock on the high mantelpiece.
'Great Scott!' he said. 'It's three o'clock. Mr Babylon, accept my apologies for having kept you up to such an absurd hour.'
'I have not spent so pleasant an evening for many years. You have let me ride my hobby to my heart's content. It is I who should apologize.'
'I should like to ask you one question,' said Babylon. 'Have you ever had anything to do with hotels before?'
'Never,' said Racksole.
'Then you have missed your vocation. You could have been the greatest of all hotel-managers. You would have been greater than me, and I am unequalled, though I keep only one hotel, and some men have half a dozen. Mr Racksole, why have you never run an hotel?'
'Heaven knows,' he laughed, 'but you flatter me, Mr Babylon.'
'I? Flatter? You do not know me. I flatter no one, except, perhaps, now and then an exceptionally distinguished guest. In which case I give suitable instructions as to the bill.'
'Speaking of distinguished guests, I am told that a couple of German princes are coming here to-morrow.'
'That is so.'
'Does one do anything? Does one receive them formally—stand bowing in the entrance-hall, or anything of that sort?'
'Not necessarily. Not unless one wishes. The modern hotel proprietor is not like an innkeeper of the Middle Ages, and even princes do not expect to see him unless something should happen to go wrong. As a matter of fact, though the Grand Duke of Posen and Prince Aribert have both honoured me by staying here before, I have never even set eyes on them. You will find all arrangements have been made.'
They talked a little longer, and then Racksole said good night. 'Let me see you to your room. The lifts will be closed and the place will be deserted.
As for myself, I sleep here,' and Mr Babylon pointed to an inner door.
'No, thanks,' said Racksole; 'let me explore my own hotel unaccompanied. I believe I can discover my room.' When he got fairly into the passages, Racksole was not so sure that he could discover his own room. The number was 107, but he had forgotten whether it was on the first or second floor.
Travelling in a lift, one is unconscious of floors. He passed several lift-doorways, but he could see no glint of a staircase; in all self-respecting hotels staircases have gone out of fashion, and though hotel architects still continue, for old sakes' sake, to build staircases, they are tucked away in remote corners where their presence is not likely to offend the eye of a spoiled and cosmopolitan public. The hotel seemed vast, uncanny, deserted. An electric light glowed here and there at long intervals. On the thick carpets, Racksole's thinly-shod feet made no sound, and he wandered at ease to and fro, rather amused, rather struck by the peculiar senses of night and mystery which had suddenly come over him. He fancied he could hear a thousand snores peacefully descending from the upper realms. At length he found a staircase, a very dark and narrow one, and presently he was on the first floor. He soon discovered that the numbers of the rooms on this floor did not get beyond seventy. He encountered another staircase and ascended to the second floor. By the decoration of the walls he recognized this floor as his proper home, and as he strolled through the long corridor he whistled a low, meditative whistle of satisfaction. He thought he heard a step in the transverse corridor, and instinctively he obliterated himself in a recess which held a service-cabinet and a chair. He did hear a step. Peeping cautiously out, he perceived, what he had not perceived previously, that a piece of white ribbon had been tied round the handle of the door of one of the bedrooms. Then a man came round the corner of the transverse corridor, and Racksole drew back. It was Jules—Jules with his hands in his pockets and a slouch hat over his eyes, but in other respects attired as usual.
Racksole, at that instant, remembered with a special vividness what Felix Babylon had said to him at their first interview. He wished he had brought his revolver. He didn't know why he should feel the desirability of a revolver in a London hotel of the most unimpeachable fair fame, but he did feel the desirability of such an instrument of attack and defence. He privately decided that if Jules went past his recess he would take him by the throat and in that attitude put a few plain questions to this highly dubious waiter. But Jules had stopped. The millionaire made another cautious observation. Jules, with infinite gentleness, was turning the handle of the door to which the white ribbon was attached. The door slowly yielded and Jules disappeared within the room. After a brief interval, the night-prowling Jules reappeared, closed the door as softly as he had opened it, removed the ribbon, returned upon his steps, and vanished down the transverse corridor.
'This is quaint,' said Racksole; 'quaint to a degree!'
It occurred to him to look at the number of the room, and he stole towards it.
'Well, I'm d—d!' he murmured wonderingly.
The number was 111, his daughter's room! He tried to open it, but the door was locked. Rushing to his own room, No. 107, he seized one of a pair of revolvers (the kind that are made for millionaires) and followed after Jules down the transverse corridor. At the end of this corridor was a window; the window was open; and Jules was innocently gazing out of the window. Ten silent strides, and Theodore Racksole was upon him.
'One word, my friend,' the millionaire began, carelessly waving the revolver in the air. Jules was indubitably startled, but by an admirable exercise of self-control he recovered possession of his faculties in a second.
'Sir?' said Jules.
'I just want to be informed, what the deuce you were doing in No. 111 a moment ago.'
'I had been requested to go there,' was the calm response.
'You are a liar, and not a very clever one. That is my daughter's room. Now—out with it, before I decide whether to shoot you or throw you into the street.'
'Excuse me, sir, No. 111 is occupied by a gentleman.'
'I advise you that it is a serious error of judgement to contradict me, my friend. Don't do it again. We will go to the room together, and you shall prove that the occupant is a gentleman, and not my daughter.'
'Impossible, sir,' said Jules.
'Scarcely that,' said Racksole, and he took Jules by the sleeve. The millionaire knew for a certainty that Nella occupied No. 111, for he had examined the room her, and himself seen that her trunks and her maid and herself had arrived there in safety. 'Now open the door,' whispered Racksole, when they reached No.111.
'I must knock.'
'That is just what you mustn't do. Open it. No doubt you have your pass-key.'
Confronted by the revolver, Jules readily obeyed, yet with a deprecatory gesture, as though he would not be responsible for this outrage against the decorum of hotel life. Racksole entered. The room was brilliantly lighted.
'A visitor, who insists on seeing you, sir,' said Jules, and fled.
Mr Reginald Dimmock, still in evening dress, and smoking a cigarette, rose hurriedly from a table.
'Hello, my dear Mr Racksole, this is an unexpected—ah—pleasure.'
'Where is my daughter? This is her room.'
'Did I catch what you said, Mr Racksole?'
'I venture to remark that this is Miss Racksole's room.'
'My good sir,' answered Dimmock, 'you must be mad to dream of such a thing.
Only my respect for your daughter prevents me from expelling you forcibly, for such an extraordinary suggestion.'
A small spot half-way down the bridge of the millionaire's nose turned suddenly white.
'With your permission,' he said in a low calm voice, 'I will examine the dressing-room and the bath-room.'
'Just listen to me a moment,' Dimmock urged, in a milder tone.
'I'll listen to you afterwards, my young friend,' said Racksole, and he proceeded to search the bath-room, and the dressing-room, without any result whatever. 'Lest my attitude might be open to misconstruction, Mr Dimmock, I may as well tell you that I have the most perfect confidence in my daughter, who is as well able to take care of herself as any woman I ever met, but since you entered it there have been one or two rather mysterious occurrences in this hotel. That is all.' Feeling a draught of air on his shoulder, Racksole turned to the window. 'For instance,' he added, 'I perceive that this window is broken, badly broken, and from the outside.
Now, how could that have occurred?'
'If you will kindly hear reason, Mr Racksole,' said Dimmock in his best diplomatic manner, 'I will endeavour to explain things to you. I regarded your first question to me when you entered my room as being offensively put, but I now see that you had some justification.' He smiled politely. 'I was passing along this corridor about eleven o'clock, when I found Miss Racksole in a difficulty with the hotel servants. Miss Racksole was retiring to rest in this room when a large stone, which must have been thrown from the Embankment, broke the window, as you see. Apart from the discomfort of the broken window, she did not care to remain in the room. She argued that where one stone had come another might follow. She therefore insisted on her room being changed. The servants said that there was no other room available with a dressing-room and bath-room attached, and your daughter made a point of these matters. I at once offered to exchange apartments with her. She did me the honour to accept my offer. Our respective belongings were moved—and that is all. Miss Racksole is at this moment, I trust, asleep in No. 124.'
Theodore Racksole looked at the young man for a few seconds in silence.
There was a faint knock at the door.
'Come in,' said Racksole loudly.
Someone pushed open the door, but remained standing on the mat. It was Nella's maid, in a dressing-gown.
'Miss Racksole's compliments, and a thousand excuses, but a book of hers was left on the mantelshelf in this room. She cannot sleep, and wishes to read.'
'Mr Dimmock, I tender my apologies—my formal apologies,' said Racksole, when the girl had gone away with the book. 'Good night.'
'Pray don't mention it,' said Dimmock suavely—and bowed him out.
Chapter Four ENTRANCE OF THE PRINCE
NEVERTHELESS, sundry small things weighed on Racksole's mind. First there was Jules' wink. Then there was the ribbon on the door-handle and Jules' visit to No. 111, and the broken window—broken from the outside. Racksole did not forget that the time was 3 a.m. He slept but little that night, but he was glad that he had bought the Grand Babylon Hotel. It was an acquisition which seemed to promise fun and diversion.
The next morning he came across Mr Babylon early. 'I have emptied my private room of all personal papers,' said Babylon, 'and it is now at your disposal.
I purpose, if agreeable to yourself, to stay on in the hotel as a guest for the present. We have much to settle with regard to the completion of the purchase, and also there are things which you might want to ask me. Also, to tell the truth, I am not anxious to leave the old place with too much suddenness. It will be a wrench to me.'
'I shall be delighted if you will stay,' said the millionaire, 'but it must be as my guest, not as the guest of the hotel.'
'You are very kind.'
'As for wishing to consult you, no doubt I shall have need to do so, but I must say that the show seems to run itself.'
'Ah!' said Babylon thoughtfully. 'I have heard of hotels that run themselves. If they do, you may be sure that they obey the laws of gravity and run downwards. You will have your hands full. For example, have you yet heard about Miss Spencer?'
'No,' said Racksole. 'What of her?'
'She has mysteriously vanished during the night, and nobody appears to be able to throw any light on the affair. Her room is empty, her boxes gone.
You will want someone to take her place, and that someone will not be very easy to get.'
'H'm!' Racksole said, after a pause. 'Hers is not the only post that falls vacant to-day.'
A little later, the millionaire installed himself in the late owner's private room and rang the bell.
'I want Jules,' he said to the page.
While waiting for Jules, Racksole considered the question of Miss Spencer's disappearance.
'Good morning, Jules,' was his cheerful greeting, when the imperturbable waiter arrived.
'Good morning, sir.'
'Take a chair.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'We have met before this morning, Jules.'
'Yes, sir, at 3 a.m.'
'Rather strange about Miss Spencer's departure, is it not?' suggested Racksole.
'It is remarkable, sir.'
'You are aware, of course, that Mr Babylon has transferred all his interests in this hotel to me?'
'I have been informed to that effect, sir.'
'I suppose you know everything that goes on in the hotel, Jules?'
'As the head waiter, sir, it is my business to keep a general eye on things.'
'You speak very good English for a foreigner, Jules.'
'For a foreigner, sir! I am an Englishman, a Hertfordshire man born and bred. Perhaps my name has misled you, sir. I am only called Jules because the head waiter of any really high-class hotel must have either a French or an Italian name.'
'I see,' said Racksole. 'I think you must be rather a clever person, Jules.'
'That is not for me to say, sir.'
'How long has the hotel enjoyed the advantage of your services?'
'A little over twenty years.'
'That is a long time to be in one place. Don't you think it's time you got out of the rut? You are still young, and might make a reputation for yourself in another and wider sphere.'
Racksole looked at the man steadily, and his glance was steadily returned.
'You aren't satisfied with me, sir?'
'To be frank, Jules, I think—I think you—er—wink too much. And I think that it is regrettable when a head waiter falls into a habit of taking white ribbons from the handles of bedroom doors at three in the morning.'
Jules started slightly.
'I see how it is, sir. You wish me to go, and one pretext, if I may use the term, is as good as another. Very well, I can't say that I'm surprised. It sometimes happens that there is incompatibility of temper between a hotel proprietor and his head waiter, and then, unless one of them goes, the hotel is likely to suffer. I will go, Mr Racksole. In fact, I had already thought of giving notice.'
The millionaire smiled appreciatively. 'What wages do you require in lieu of notice? It is my intention that you leave the hotel within an hour.'
'I require no wages in lieu of notice, sir. I would scorn to accept anything. And I will leave the hotel in fifteen minutes.'
'Good-day, then. You have my good wishes and my admiration, so long as you keep out of my hotel.'
Racksole got up. 'Good-day, sir. And thank you.'
'By the way, Jules, it will be useless for you to apply to any other first-rate European hotel for a post, because I shall take measures which will ensure the rejection of any such application.'
'Without discussing the question whether or not there aren't at least half a dozen hotels in London alone that would jump for joy at the chance of getting me,' answered Jules, 'I may tell you, sir, that I shall retire from my profession.'
'Really! You will turn your brains to a different channel.'
'No, sir. I shall take rooms in Albemarle Street or Jermyn Street, and just be content to be a man-about-town. I have saved some twenty thousand pounds—a mere trifle, but sufficient for my needs, and I shall now proceed to enjoy it. Pardon me for troubling you with my personal affairs. And good-day again.'
That afternoon Racksole went with Felix Babylon first to a firm of solicitors in the City, and then to a stockbroker, in order to carry out the practical details of the purchase of the hotel.
'I mean to settle in England,' said Racksole, as they were coming back. 'It is the only country—' and he stopped.
'The only country?'
'The only country where you can invest money and spend money with a feeling of security. In the United States there is nothing worth spending money on, nothing to buy. In France or Italy, there is no real security.'
'But surely you are a true American?' questioned Babylon.
'I am a true American,' said Racksole, 'but my father, who began by being a bedmaker at an Oxford college, and ultimately made ten million dollars out of iron in Pittsburg—my father took the wise precaution of having me educated in England. I had my three years at Oxford, like any son of the upper middle class! It did me good. It has been worth more to me than many successful speculations. It taught me that the English language is different from, and better than, the American language, and that there is something—I haven't yet found out exactly what—in English life that Americans will never get. Why,' he added, 'in the United States we still bribe our judges and our newspapers. And we talk of the eighteenth century as though it was the beginning of the world. Yes, I shall transfer my securities to London. I shall build a house in Park Lane, and I shall buy some immemorial country seat with a history as long as the A. T. and S. railroad, and I shall calmly and gradually settle down. D'you know—I am rather a good-natured man for a millionaire, and of a social disposition, and yet I haven't six real friends in the whole of New York City. Think of that!'
'And I,' said Babylon, 'have no friends except the friends of my boyhood in Lausanne. I have spent thirty years in England, and gained nothing but a perfect knowledge of the English language and as much gold coin as would fill a rather large box.'
These two plutocrats breathed a simultaneous sigh.
'Talking of gold coin,' said Racksole, 'how much money should you think Jules has contrived to amass while he has been with you?'
'Oh!' Babylon smiled. 'I should not like to guess. He has had unique opportunities—opportunities.'
'Should you consider twenty thousand an extraordinary sum under the circumstances?'
'Not at all. Has he been confiding in you?'
'Somewhat. I have dismissed him.'
'You have dismissed him?'
'There is no reason why not. But I have felt inclined to dismiss him for the past ten years, and never found courage to do it.'
'It was a perfectly simple proceeding, I assure you. Before I had done with him, I rather liked the fellow.'
'Miss Spencer and Jules—both gone in one day!' mused Felix Babylon.
'And no one to take their places,' said Racksole. 'And yet the hotel continues its way!'
But when Racksole reached the Grand Babylon he found that Miss Spencer's chair in the bureau was occupied by a stately and imperious girl, dressed becomingly in black.
'Heavens, Nella!' he cried, going to the bureau. 'What are you doing here?'
'I am taking Mis Spencer's place. I want to help you with your hotel, Dad. I fancy I shall make an excellent hotel clerk. I have arranged with a Miss Selina Smith, one of the typists in the office, to put me up to all the tips and tricks, and I shall do very well.'
'But look here, Helen Racksole. We shall have the whole of London talking about this thing—the greatest of all American heiresses a hotel clerk! And I came here for quiet and rest!'
'I suppose it was for the sake of quiet and rest that you bought the hotel, Papa?'
'You would insist on the steak,' he retorted. 'Get out of this, on the instant.'
'Here I am, here to stay,' said Nella, and deliberately laughed at her parent.
Just then the face of a fair-haired man of about thirty years appeared at the bureau window. He was very well-dressed, very aristocratic in his pose, and he seemed rather angry.
He looked fixedly at Nella and started back.
'Ach!' he exclaimed. 'You!'
'Yes, your Highness, it is indeed I. Father, this is his Serene Highness Prince Aribert of Posen—one of our most esteemed customers.'
'You know my name, Fraeulein?' the new-comer murmured in German.
'Certainly, Prince,' Nella replied sweetly. 'You were plain Count Steenbock last spring in Paris—doubtless travelling incognito—'
'Silence,' he entreated, with a wave of the hand, and his forehead went as white as paper.
Chapter Five WHAT OCCURRED TO REGINALD DIMMOCK
IN another moment they were all three talking quite nicely, and with at any rate an appearance of being natural. Prince Aribert became suave, even deferential to Nella, and more friendly towards Nella's father than their respective positions demanded. The latter amused himself by studying this sprig of royalty, the first with whom he had ever come into contact. He decided that the young fellow was personable enough, 'had no frills on him,' and would make an exceptionally good commercial traveller for a first-class firm. Such was Theodore Racksole's preliminary estimate of the man who might one day be the reigning Grand Duke of Posen.
It occurred to Nella, and she smiled at the idea, that the bureau of the hotel was scarcely the correct place in which to receive this august young man. There he stood, with his head half-way through the bureau window, negligently leaning against the woodwork, just as though he were a stockbroker or the manager of a New York burlesque company.
'Is your Highness travelling quite alone?' she asked.
'By a series of accidents I am,' he said. 'My equerry was to have met me at Charing Cross, but he failed to do so—I cannot imagine why.'
'Mr Dimmock?' questioned Racksole.
'Yes, Dimmock. I do not remember that he ever missed an appointment before.
You know him? He has been here?'
'He dined with us last night,' said Racksole—'on Nella's invitation,' he added maliciously; 'but to-day we have seen nothing of him. I know, however, that he has engaged the State apartments, and also a suite adjoining the State apartments—No. 55. That is so, isn't it, Nella?'
'Yes, Papa,' she said, having first demurely examined a ledger. 'Your Highness would doubtless like to be conducted to your room—apartments I mean.' Then Nella laughed deliberately at the Prince, and said, 'I don't know who is the proper person to conduct you, and that's a fact. The truth is that Papa and I are rather raw yet in the hotel line. You see, we only bought the place last night.'
'You have bought the hotel!' exclaimed the Prince.
'That's so,' said Racksole.
'And Felix Babylon has gone?'
'He is going, if he has not already gone.'
'Ah! I see,' said the Prince; 'this is one of your American "strokes". You have bought to sell again, is that not it? You are on your holidays, but you cannot resist making a few thousands by way of relaxation. I have heard of such things.'
'We sha'n't sell again, Prince, until we are tired of our bargain. Sometimes we tire very quickly, and sometimes we don't. It depends—eh? What?'
Racksole broke off suddenly to attend to a servant in livery who had quietly entered the bureau and was making urgent mysterious signs to him.
'If you please, sir,' the man by frantic gestures implored Mr Theodore Racksole to come out.
'Pray don't let me detain you, Mr Racksole,' said the Prince, and therefore the proprietor of the Grand Babylon departed after the servant, with a queer, curt little bow to Prince Aribert.
'Mayn't I come inside?' said the Prince to Nella immediately the millionaire had gone.
'Impossible, Prince,' Nella laughed. 'The rule against visitors entering this bureau is frightfully strict.'
'How do you know the rule is so strict if you only came into possession last night?'
'I know because I made the rule myself this morning, your Highness.'
'But seriously, Miss Racksole, I want to talk to you.'
'Do you want to talk to me as Prince Aribert or as the friend—the acquaintance—whom I knew in Paris' last year?'
'As the friend, dear lady, if I may use the term.'
'And you are sure that you would not like first to be conducted to your apartments?'
'Not yet. I will wait till Dimmock comes; he cannot fail to be here soon.'
'Then we will have tea served in father's private room—the proprietor's private room, you know.'
'Good!' he said.
Nella talked through a telephone, and rang several bells, and behaved generally in a manner calculated to prove to Princes and to whomever it might concern that she was a young woman of business instincts and training, and then she stepped down from her chair of office, emerged from the bureau, and, preceded by two menials, led Prince Aribert to the Louis XV chamber in which her father and Felix Babylon had had their long confabulation on the previous evening.
'What do you want to talk to me about?' she asked her companion, as she poured out for him a second cup of tea. The Prince looked at her for a moment as he took the proffered cup, and being a young man of sane, healthy, instincts, he could think of nothing for the moment except her loveliness.
Nella was indeed beautiful that afternoon. The beauty of even the most beautiful woman ebbs and flows from hour to hour. Nella's this afternoon was at the flood. Vivacious, alert, imperious, and yet ineffably sweet, she seemed to radiate the very joy and exuberance of life.
'I have forgotten,' he said.
'You have forgotten! That is surely very wrong of you? You gave me to understand that it was something terribly important. But of course I knew it couldn't be, because no man, and especially no Prince, ever discussed anything really important with a woman.'
'Recollect, Miss Racksole, that this afternoon, here, I am not the Prince.'
'You are Count Steenbock, is that it?'
He started. 'For you only,' he said, unconsciously lowering his voice. 'Miss Racksole, I particularly wish that no one here should know that I was in Paris last spring.'
'An affair of State?' she smiled.
'An affair of State,' he replied soberly. 'Even Dimmock doesn't know. It was strange that we should be fellow guests at that quiet out-of-the-way hotel—strange but delightful. I shall never forget that rainy afternoon that we spent together in the Museum of the Trocadero. Let us talk about that.'
'About the rain, or the museum?'
'I shall never forget that afternoon,' he repeated, ignoring the lightness of her question.
'Nor I,' she murmured corresponding to his mood.
'You, too enjoyed it?' he said eagerly.
'The sculptures were magnificent,' she replied, hastily glancing at the ceiling.
'Ah! So they were! Tell me, Miss Racksole, how did you discover my identity.'
'I must not say,' she answered. 'That is my secret. Do not seek to penetrate it. Who knows what horrors you might discover if you probed too far?' She laughed, but she laughed alone. The Prince remained pensive—as it were brooding.
'I never hoped to see you again,' he said.
'One never sees again those whom one wishes to see.'
'As for me, I was perfectly convinced that we should meet again.'
'Because I always get what I want.'
'Then you wanted to see me again?'
'Certainly. You interested me extremely. I have never met another man who could talk so well about sculpture as the Count Steenbock.'
'Do you really always get what you want, Miss Racksole?'
'That is because your father is so rich, I suppose?'
'Oh, no, it isn't!' she said. 'It's simply because I always do get what I want. It's got nothing to do with Father at all.'
'But Mr Racksole is extremely wealthy?'
'Wealthy isn't the word, Count. There is no word. It's positively awful the amount of dollars poor Papa makes. And the worst of it is he can't help it.
He told me once that when a man had made ten millions no power on earth could stop those ten millions from growing into twenty. And so it continues.
I spend what I can, but I can't come near coping with it; and of course Papa is no use whatever at spending.'
'And you have no mother?'
'Who told you I had no mother?' she asked quietly.
'I—er—inquired about you,' he said, with equal candour and humility.
'In spite of the fact that you never hoped to see me again?'
'Yes, in spite of that.'
'How funny!' she said, and lapsed into a meditative silence.
'Yours must be a wonderful existence,' said the Prince. 'I envy you.'
'You envy me—what? My father's wealth?'
'No,' he said; 'your freedom and your responsibilities.'
'I have no responsibilities,' she remarked.
'Pardon me,' he said; 'you have, and the time is coming when you will feel them.'
'I'm only a girl,' she murmured with sudden simplicity. 'As for you, Count, surely you have sufficient responsibilities of your own?'
'I?' he said sadly. 'I have no responsibilities. I am a nobody—a Serene Highness who has to pretend to be very important, always taking immense care never to do anything that a Serene Highness ought not to do. Bah!'
'But if your nephew, Prince Eugen, were to die, would you not come to the throne, and would you not then have these responsibilities which you so much desire?'
'Eugen die?' said Prince Aribert, in a curious tone. 'Impossible. He is the perfection of health. In three months he will be married. No, I shall never be anything but a Serene Highness, the most despicable of God's creatures.'
'But what about the State secret which you mentioned? Is not that a responsibility?'
'Ah!' he said. 'That is over. That belongs to the past. It was an accident in my dull career. I shall never be Count Steenbock again.'
'Who knows?' she said. 'By the way, is not Prince Eugen coming here to-day? Mr Dimmock told us so.'
'See!' answered the Prince, standing up and bending over her. 'I am going to confide in you. I don't know why, but I am.'
'Don't betray State secrets,' she warned him, smiling into his face.
But just then the door of the room was unceremoniously opened.
'Go right in,' said a voice sharply. It was Theodore Racksole's. Two men entered, bearing a prone form on a stretcher, and Racksole followed them.
Nella sprang up. Racksole stared to see his daughter.
'I didn't know you were in here, Nell. Here,' to the two men, 'out again.'
'Why!' exclaimed Nella, gazing fearfully at the form on the stretcher, 'it's Mr Dimmock!'
'It is,' her father acquiesced. 'He's dead,' he added laconically. 'I'd have broken it to you more gently had I known. Your pardon, Prince.' There was a pause.
'Dimmock dead!' Prince Aribert whispered under his breath, and he kneeled down by the side of the stretcher. 'What does this mean?'
The poor fellow was just walking across the quadrangle towards the portico when he fell down. A commissionaire who saw him says he was walking very quickly. At first I thought it was sunstroke, but it couldn't have been, though the weather certainly is rather warm. It must be heart disease. But anyhow, he's dead. We did what we could. I've sent for a doctor, and for the police. I suppose there'll have to be an inquest.'
Theodore Racksole stopped, and in an awkward solemn silence they all gazed at the dead youth. His features were slightly drawn, and his eyes closed; that was all. He might have been asleep.
'My poor Dimmock!' exclaimed the Prince, his voice broken. 'And I was angry because the lad did not meet me at Charing Cross!'
'Are you sure he is dead, Father?' Nella said.
'You'd better go away, Nella,' was Racksole's only reply; but the girl stood still, and began to sob quietly. On the previous night she had secretly made fun of Reginald Dimmock. She had deliberately set herself to get information from him on a topic in which she happened to be specially interested and she had got it, laughing the while at his youthful crudities—his vanity, his transparent cunning, his absurd airs. She had not liked him; she had even distrusted him, and decided that he was not 'nice'. But now, as he lay on the stretcher, these things were forgotten. She went so far as to reproach herself for them. Such is the strange commanding power of death.
'Oblige me by taking the poor fellow to my apartments,' said the Prince, with a gesture to the attendants. 'Surely it is time the doctor came.'
Racksole felt suddenly at that moment he was nothing but a mere hotel proprietor with an awkward affair on his hands. For a fraction of a second he wished he had never bought the Grand Babylon.
A quarter of an hour later Prince Aribert, Theodore Racksole, a doctor, and an inspector of police were in the Prince's reception-room. They had just come from an ante-chamber, in which lay the mortal remains of Reginald Dimmock.
'Well?' said Racksole, glancing at the doctor.
The doctor was a big, boyish-looking man, with keen, quizzical eyes.
'It is not heart disease,' said the doctor.
'Not heart disease?'
'Then what is it?' asked the Prince.
'I may be able to answer that question after the post-mortem,' said the doctor. 'I certainly can't answer it now. The symptoms are unusual to a degree.'
The inspector of police began to write in a note-book.
Chapter Six IN THE GOLD ROOM
AT the Grand Babylon a great ball was given that night in the Gold Room, a huge saloon attached to the hotel, though scarcely part of it, and certainly less exclusive than the hotel itself. Theodore Racksole knew nothing of the affair, except that it was an entertainment offered by a Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi to their friends. Who Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi were he did not know, nor could anyone tell him anything about them except that Mr Sampson Levi was a prominent member of that part of the Stock Exchange familiarly called the Kaffir Circus, and that his wife was a stout lady with an aquiline nose and many diamonds, and that they were very rich and very hospitable. Theodore Racksole did not want a ball in his hotel that evening, and just before dinner he had almost a mind to issue a decree that the Gold Room was to be closed and the ball forbidden, and Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi might name the amount of damages suffered by them. His reasons for such a course were threefold—first, he felt depressed and uneasy; second, he didn't like the name of Sampson Levi; and, third, he had a desire to show these so-called plutocrats that their wealth was nothing to him, that they could not do what they chose with Theodore Racksole, and that for two pins Theodore Racksole would buy them up, and the whole Kaffir Circus to boot. But something warned him that though such a high-handed proceeding might be tolerated in America, that land of freedom, it would never be tolerated in England. He felt instinctively that in England there are things you can't do, and that this particular thing was one of them. So the ball went forward, and neither Mr nor Mrs Sampson Levi had ever the least suspicion what a narrow escape they had had of looking very foolish in the eyes of the thousand or so guests invited by them to the Gold Room of the Grand Babylon that evening.
The Gold Room of the Grand Babylon was built for a ballroom. A balcony, supported by arches faced with gilt and lapis-lazulo, ran around it, and from this vantage men and maidens and chaperons who could not or would not dance might survey the scene. Everyone knew this, and most people took advantage of it. What everyone did not know—what no one knew—was that higher up than the balcony there was a little barred window in the end wall from which the hotel authorities might keep a watchful eye, not only on the dancers, but on the occupants of the balcony itself.
It may seem incredible to the uninitiated that the guests at any social gathering held in so gorgeous and renowned an apartment as the Gold Room of the Grand Babylon should need the observation of a watchful eye. Yet so it was. Strange matters and unexpected faces had been descried from the little window, and more than one European detective had kept vigil there with the most eminently satisfactory results.
At eleven o'clock Theodore Racksole, afflicted by vexation of spirit, found himself gazing idly through the little barred window. Nella was with him.
Together they had been wandering about the corridors of the hotel, still strange to them both, and it was quite by accident that they had lighted upon the small room which had a surreptitious view of Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi's ball. Except for the light of the chandelier of the ball-room the little cubicle was in darkness. Nella was looking through the window; her father stood behind.
'I wonder which is Mrs Sampson Levi?' Nella said, 'and whether she matches her name. Wouldn't you love to have a name like that, Father—something that people could take hold of—instead of Racksole?'
The sound of violins and a confused murmur of voices rose gently up to them.
'Umphl' said Theodore. 'Curse those evening papers!' he added, inconsequently but with sincerity.
'Father, you're very horrid to-night. What have the evening papers been doing?'
'Well, my young madame, they've got me in for one, and you for another; and they're manufacturing mysteries like fun. It's young Dimmock's death that has started 'em.'
'Well, Father, you surely didn't expect to keep yourself out of the papers. Besides, as regards newspapers, you ought to be glad you aren't in New York. Just fancy what the dear old Herald would have made out of a little transaction like yours of last night.'
'That's true,' assented Racksole. 'But it'll be all over New York to-morrow morning, all the same. The worst of it is that Babylon has gone off to Switzerland.'
'Don't know. Sudden fancy, I guess, for his native heath.'
'What difference does it make to you?'
'None. Only I feel sort of lonesome. I feel I want someone to lean up against in running this hotel.'
'Father, if you have that feeling you must be getting ill.'
'Yes,' he sighed, 'I admit it's unusual with me. But perhaps you haven't grasped the fact, Nella, that we're in the middle of a rather queer business.'
'You mean about poor Mr Dimmock?'
'Partly Dimmock and partly other things. First of all, that Miss Spencer, or whatever her wretched name is, mysteriously disappears. Then there was the stone thrown into your bedroom. Then I caught that rascal Jules conspiring with Dimmock at three o'clock in the morning. Then your precious Prince Aribert arrives without any suite—which I believe is a most peculiar and wicked thing for a Prince to do—and moreover I find my daughter on very intimate terms with the said Prince. Then young Dimmock goes and dies, and there is to be an inquest; then Prince Eugen and his suite, who were expected here for dinner, fail to turn up at all—'
'Prince Eugen has not come?'
'He has not; and Uncle Aribert is in a deuce of a stew about him, and telegraphing all over Europe. Altogether, things are working up pretty lively.'
'Do you really think, Dad, there was anything between Jules and poor Mr Dimmock?'
'Think! I know! I tell you I saw that scamp give Dimmock a wink last night at dinner that might have meant—well!'
'So you caught that wink, did you, Dad?'
'Why, did you?'
'Of course, Dad. I was going to tell you about it.'
The millionaire grunted.
'Look here, Father,' Nella whispered suddenly, and pointed to the balcony immediately below them. 'Who's that?' She indicated a man with a bald patch on the back of his head, who was propping himself up against the railing of the balcony and gazing immovable into the ball-room.
'Well, who is it?'
'Isn't it Jules?'
'Gemini! By the beard of the prophet, it is!'
'Perhaps Mr Jules is a guest of Mrs Sampson Levi.'
'Guest or no guest, he goes out of this hotel, even if I have to throw him out myself.'
Theodore Racksole disappeared without another word, and Nella followed him.
But when the millionaire arrived on the balcony floor he could see nothing of Jules, neither there nor in the ball-room itself. Saying no word aloud, but quietly whispering wicked expletives, he searched everywhere in vain, and then, at last, by tortuous stairways and corridors returned to his original post of observation, that he might survey the place anew from the vantage ground. To his surprise he found a man in the dark little room, watching the scene of the ball as intently as he himself had been doing a few minutes before. Hearing footsteps, the man turned with a start.
It was Jules.
The two exchanged glances in the half light for a second.
'Good evening, Mr Racksole,' said Jules calmly. 'I must apologize for being here.'
'Force of habit, I suppose,' said Theodore Racksole drily.
'Just so, sir.'
'I fancied I had forbidden you to re-enter this hotel?'
'I thought your order applied only to my professional capacity. I am here to-night as the guest of Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi.'
'In your new role of man-about-town, eh?'
'But I don't allow men-about-town up here, my friend.'
'For being up here I have already apologized.'
'Then, having apologized, you had better depart; that is my disinterested advice to you.'
'Good night, sir.'
'And, I say, Mr Jules, if Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi, or any other Hebrews or Christians, should again invite you to my hotel you will oblige me by declining the invitation. You'll find that will be the safest course for you.'
'Good night, sir.'
Before midnight struck Theodore Racksole had ascertained that the invitation-list of Mr and Mrs Sampson Levi, though a somewhat lengthy one, contained no reference to any such person as Jules.
He sat up very late. To be precise, he sat up all night. He was a man who, by dint of training, could comfortably dispense with sleep when he felt so inclined, or when circumstances made such a course advisable. He walked to and fro in his room, and cogitated as few people beside Theodore Racksole could cogitate. At 6 a.m. he took a stroll round the business part of his premises, and watched the supplies come in from Covent Garden, from Smithfield, from Billingsgate, and from other strange places. He found the proceedings of the kitchen department quite interesting, and made mental notes of things that he would have altered, of men whose wages he would increase and men whose wages he would reduce. At 7 a.m. he happened to be standing near the luggage lift, and witnessed the descent of vast quantities of luggage, and its disappearance into a Carter Paterson van.
'Whose luggage is that?' he inquired peremptorily.
The luggage clerk, with an aggrieved expression, explained to him that it was the luggage of nobody in particular, that it belonged to various guests, and was bound for various destinations; that it was, in fact, 'expressed' luggage despatched in advance, and that a similar quantity of it left the hotel every morning about that hour.
Theodore Racksole walked away, and breakfasted upon one cup of tea and half a slice of toast.
At ten o'clock he was informed that the inspector of police desired to see him. The inspector had come, he said, to superintend the removal of the body of Reginald Dimmock to the mortuary adjoining the place of inquest, and a suitable vehicle waited at the back entrance of the hotel.
The inspector had also brought subpoenas for himself and Prince Aribert of Posen and the commissionaire to attend the inquest.
'I thought Mr Dimmock's remains were removed last night,' said Racksole wearily.
'No, sir. The fact is the van was engaged on another job.'
The inspector gave the least hint of a professional smile, and Racksole, disgusted, told him curtly to go and perform his duties.
In a few minutes a message came from the inspector requesting Mr Racksole to be good enough to come to him on the first floor. Racksole went. In the ante-room, where the body of Reginald Dimmock had originally been placed, were the inspector and Prince Aribert, and two policemen.
'Well?' said Racksole, after he and the Prince had exchanged bows. Then he saw a coffin laid across two chairs. 'I see a coffin has been obtained,' he remarked. 'Quite right' He approached it. 'It's empty,' he observed unthinkingly.
'Just so,' said the inspector. 'The body of the deceased has disappeared.
And his Serene Highness Prince Aribert informs me that though he has occupied a room immediately opposite, on the other side of the corridor, he can throw no light on the affair.'
'Indeed, I cannot!' said the Prince, and though he spoke with sufficient calmness and dignity, you could see that he was deeply pained, even distressed.
'Well, I'm—' murmured Racksole, and stopped.
Chapter Seven NELLA AND THE PRINCE
IT appeared impossible to Theodore Racksole that so cumbrous an article as a corpse could be removed out of his hotel, with no trace, no hint, no clue as to the time or the manner of the performance of the deed. After the first feeling of surprise, Racksole grew coldly and severely angry. He had a mind to dismiss the entire staff of the hotel. He personally examined the night-watchman, the chambermaids and all other persons who by chance might or ought to know something of the affair; but without avail. The corpse of Reginald Dimmock had vanished utterly—disappeared like a fleshless spirit.
Of course there were the police. But Theodore Racksole held the police in sorry esteem. He acquainted them with the facts, answered their queries with a patient weariness, and expected, nothing whatever from that quarter. He also had several interviews with Prince Aribert of Posen, but though the Prince was suavity itself and beyond doubt genuinely concerned about the fate of his dead attendant, yet it seemed to Racksole that he was keeping something back, that he hesitated to say all he knew. Racksole, with characteristic insight, decided that the death of Reginald Dimmock was only a minor event, which had occurred, as it were, on the fringe of some far more profound mystery. And, therefore, he decided to wait, with his eyes very wide open, until something else happened that would throw light on the business. At the moment he took only one measure—he arranged that the theft of Dimmock's body should not appear in the newspapers. It is astonishing how well a secret can be kept, when the possessors of the secret are handled with the proper mixture of firmness and persuasion. Racksole managed this very neatly. It was a complicated job, and his success in it rather pleased him.