“Don’t you want my decision as to dinner?” she asked.
“You can continue the narrative while we dine. Now to begin.”
“Then vanish Madame X, and enter Mistress Clephane.”
At that moment a woman and a man entered the room from the corridor by the middle door, and crossed to a divan in the corner farthest from Mrs. Clephane and Harleston. The former had her back to them; Harleston was facing their way and saw them.
The man was middle-aged, bald, and somewhat stout—and Harleston recognized one of his visitors of the early morning. The woman was sinuous, with raven hair, dead white complexion, a perfectly lovely face, and a superb figure. Harleston would have known that walk and that figure anywhere and at any time even if he had not seen her face.
It was Madeline Spencer.
Harleston quickly swung his chair around so that the broad back hid Mrs. Clephane and himself. He was quite sure that she had noticed the pair; though when he glanced at her she was looking thoughtfully at him, as if considering where to begin her story.
“Do you know the two who just came in and are sitting in the far corner,” he asked; “the slender woman and the bald-headed man?”
“No,” she answered; “except that she is an exceedingly fine-looking woman—as you doubtless have noted.”
“I’ve noted other things!” he smiled.
“No, not about her.”
She laughed, deliciously he thought.
“I best get on with my tale,” she said. “So, once upon a time, which means, to be accurate, about ten days ago, I took a steamer at Cherbourg for New York. On the boat was a Madame Durrand, whom I had known on the Continent and in London for a number of years. Neither was aware of the other’s sailing until we met aboard. I think that it was on the fourth day out she asked me to come to her state-room; there she told me that she was a secret agent of the French Government and the bearer of a most important letter from a high official, written however in his private capacity to their Ambassador in Washington; that she had a presentiment ill fortune would befall her on the way; that there was no one else on the ship in whom she trusted; and that she wanted me to accompany her to Washington, and, if she were to meet with an accident, to deliver the letter to the Ambassador. I consented, wishing to oblige her, and being bound for Washington. She showed me where she carried the letter, and gave me the verbal message that went with it, which was the name of the Minister and that he sent it in his private capacity and not officially.
“I’m not in the secret service of a government, as you doubtless can infer from my knowledge of matters and use of technical language!” she smiled. “And the affair rather fascinated me, I admit, by its unusualness. Moreover, I knew Madame Durrand intimately—how intimately may be inferred from the circumstances.