A number of supposedly prospective clients had called to ask for him at his office during his sojourn on the other side of the channel. That was to have been expected; but one or two of these, by dint of flattery, or possibly silver-lined persuasion, had succeeded in gaining access to his chambers.
“I should like to have a look into John Steele’s library; I’ve heard it’s worth while,” one had observed to the butler at the door. “Only a bit of a peep around!” His manner of putting his desire, supplemented by a half-crown, left the butler no alternative save to comply with the request, until the “peep around” began to develop into more than cursory examination, when his sense of propriety became outraged and the visitor’s welcome was cut short.
“He was that curious, a regular Paul Pry!” explained the servant to John Steele, in narrating the incident on the latter’s return to London. “Seemed specially taken by the reports of the old trials you have on the shelves, sir. ‘What an interesting collection of causes celebres!’ he kept remarking. ‘I suppose your master makes much of them?’ He would have been handling of them, too, and when I showed him the door—trusting I did right, sir, even if he should happen to be a client!—he asked more questions before going.”
“What questions?” quietly.
“Personal-like. But I put a stop to that.”
For a few moments John Steele said nothing; his face, on his reappearance in London, had looked slightly paler, more set and determined, not unlike that of a man, who, strongly assailed, has made up his mind to do battle to the end. With whom? How many? He might put out his hand, clench it; the thin air made no answer. He regarded the shadows now; they seemed to wave around him, intangible, obscure. A dark day in town, the streets were oppressive; the people below passed like poorly done replicas of themselves; the rattle of the wheels resembled a sullen, disgruntled mumble.
“You will admit no one to my chambers during my absence in the future,” said Steele at length, to the man, sternly. “No one, you understand, under any pretext whatever; even,” a flicker of grim humor in the deep eyes, “if he should say he was a client of mine!”
The butler returned a subdued answer, and John Steele, after a moment’s thought, stepped to a large safe in the corner, and applying a somewhat elaborate combination, swung open the door. Taking from a compartment a bundle of papers carefully rolled, he unfastened the tape, spread them on a table and examined them, one after the other. They made a voluminous heap; here and there on the white pages in bold regular script appeared the name of a woman; her life lay before him, the various stages of an odd and erratic career. At a cabaret at Montmartre; at a casino in the Paris Bohemian quarter; in London—at a variety hall of amusement. And afterward!—wastrel, nomad! Throughout the writing, in many of the documents, another name, too, a titled name, a man’s, often came and went, flitted elusively from leaf to leaf.