“I would give my life willingly to spare my husband the knowledge of what has been,” said Lady Ireton in a low, monotonous voice. “Three times I sent my maid to Meyer to recover my bag, but he demanded a price which even I could not pay. Now it is all discovered, and Harry will know.”
“That, I fear, is unavoidable, Lady Ireton,” declared Harley. “May I ask where Lord Ireton is at present?”
“He is in Africa after big game.”
“H’m,” said Harley, “in Africa, and after big game? I can offer you one consolation, Lady Ireton. In his own interests Meyer will stick to his first assertion that Mr. De Lana was dining alone.”
A strange, horribly pathetic look came into the woman’s haunted eyes.
“You--you--are not acting for------?” she began.
“I am acting for no one,” replied Harley tersely. “Upon my friend’s discretion you may rely as upon my own.”
“Then why should he ever know?” she whispered.
“Why, indeed,” murmured Harley, “since he is in Africa?”
As we descended the stair to the hall my friend paused and pointed to a life-sized oil painting by London’s most fashionable portrait painter. It was that of a man in the uniform of a Guards officer, a dark man, slightly gray at the temples, his face very tanned as if by exposure to the sun.
“Having had no occasion for disguise when the portrait was painted,” said Harley, “Lord Ireton appears here without the beard; and as he is not represented smiling one cannot see the gold tooth. But the painter, if anything, has accentuated the slanting eyes. You see, the fourth marquis—the present Lord Ireton’s father—married one of the world-famous Yen Sun girls, daughters of the mandarin of that name by an Irish wife. Hence, the eyes. And hence------”
“But, Harley—it was murder!”
“Not within the meaning of the law, Knox. It was a recrudescence of Chinese humour! Lord Ireton is officially in Africa (and he went actually after ’big game’). The counsel is not born who could secure a conviction. We are somewhat late, but shall therefore have less difficulty in finding a table at Prince’s.”
“Examine it closely,” said the man in the unusual caped overcoat. “It will repay examination.”
I held the little object in the palm of my hand, bending forward over the marble-topped table and looking down at it with deep curiosity. The babel of tongues so characteristic of Malay Jack’s, and that mingled odour of stale spirits, greasy humanity, tobacco, cheap perfume, and opium, which distinguish the establishment faded from my ken. A sense of loneliness came to me.
Perhaps I should say that it became complete. I had grown conscious of its approach at the very moment that the cadaverous white-haired man had addressed me. There was a quality in his steadfast gaze and in his oddly pitched deep voice which from the first had wrapped me about—as though he were cloaking me in his queer personality and withdrawing me from the common plane.