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I

Not often did mere man attract attention in the famous dining-room of the 'Regal,' but men and women alike, who were seated near the East Archway, raised their eyes to stare at the man who stood in the doorway, calmly surveying them. The smoke-glass, tortoise-shell library spectacles, which made of his eyes two great circles of dull brown, brought out the whiteness of the face strikingly. The nose, with its delicately sensitive nostrils, was thin and straight; the lips, now curved in a smile, somehow gave one the impression that, released by the mind, they would suddenly spring back to their accustomed thin, straight line. For a smile seemed out of place on that pale, masterful face, with its lean, cleft chin. The snow-white hair of silky fineness that curled away from the part to show the pink scalp underneath contrasted sharply with the sober black of the faultless dinner-coat that fell in just the proper folds from the broad shoulders and deep chest.

The eyes of the girl at the sixth table seemed to be held, fascinated. The elder woman, who was with her, toyed with her salad and conformed to convention by stealing covert glances at the man in the archway, and the square-chinned, clean-looking young man who made the third of the party stared openly, unashamed; but his eyes held not the other diners' rude questioning, nor yet the girl's frank fascination.

"You are staring, Rhoda," rebuked the elder woman mildly.

The girl turned her eyes with a little sigh.

"What wonderful character there is in his face!" she murmured.

"He is a wonderful character," asserted the man, his face lighting up boyishly, his tone one of admiration.

"You know him?" Both asked it in a breath, eyes eager.

"Yes. He is Thornley Colton, man about town, club member, musician, whose recreation is the solving of problems that baffle other men. It was he who found the murderer of President Parkins of the up-town National, and, when the crash came, secured me my position in the Berkley Trust."

"A detective?" The elder woman asked it; the girl's eyes were again on Colton.

"No." The man shook his head. "He jokingly calls himself a problemist, and accepts only those cases that he thinks will prove interesting, for the solving of them is merely his recreation. He takes no fees. The man with him is his secretary, Sydney Thames, whose name is pronounced like that of the river. He, too, is a remarkably handsome man, but he is never noticed when with Thornley Colton, except as his coal-black hair and eyes, and red cheeks, form a striking contrast to Colton."

"I had not even noticed him," confessed the elder woman, as she glanced for the first time at the slim young man of twenty-five or six, who stood at Colton 's side, eyes apparently taking in every detail of the big dining-room. Then she remembered her duty as mentor. "You must not stare so rudely, Rhoda!" she chided.

"I don't think Mr. Colton minds the stare," the man said quietly. "He has been totally blind since birth, though many people refuse to believe it."

"Blind!" They both breathed it, in their voices the tender sympathy all women feel for the misfortunes of others.

"He is coming," warned the elder woman unnecessarily.

They had seen the head-waiter apparently apologise to Colton, and step aside. The secretary had whispered a few words, and Thornley Colton, his slim stick held lightly and idly in his fingers, started down the aisle between the rows of tables, shoulders swung back, chin up, followed by Sydney Thames. The woman and the girl watched his approach with parted lips, in their eyes mother fear for his safety as he hurried toward them, stepping aside at exactly the proper moment to avoid a hurrying waiter, walking around the very much overdressed, stout woman whose chair projected a foot over the unmarked aisle line. As he neared their table, they saw the thin lips frame a smile of friendly greeting.

"How do you do, Mr. Morris?" His voice, rich, of wonderful musical timbre, seemed to thrill the girl with its kindliness and strength, as he stepped around her chair to shake hands with her escort. " Sydney saw you while we were waiting for our table."

"Will you meet Miss Richmond?" asked Norris, when he had answered the greeting in kind. Colton turned instantly to face the girl, his slim white hand, with its long, tapering fingers, outstretched.

"It is a concession we of the darkness ask of every one," he apologized.

Their hands met, the girl felt the warm grip, and her sensitive wrist seemed to feel a touch, light as the touch of wind-blown thistle-down, but it was gone instantly, and she knew it was but the telepathic thrill of the meeting palms. She murmured a commonplace, and bit her lips in vexation, because it was a commonplace. The man before her seemed to call for more.

"Your singing is wonderful, Miss Richmond," he declared enthusiastically. "Sydney and I have had orchestra seats three nights this week. You know, to me music must give the combined pleasures of painting, sculpture, architecture, and other beautiful things the average person doesn't even appreciate."

Her eyes expressed their pity, but her lips said only: "My mother, Mr. Colton." They shook hands across the table, Mrs. Richmond with a heartiness that was not part of the artificial code New York has fixed, he with a few words that brought a flush of pleasure to her faded cheeks.

"Why didn't Mr. Thames stay?" asked Norris curiously. "He hurried on as though he thought we were plague victims."

"He usually does," smiled Colton. "He has a very curious fear. I'll tell you about it some time."

"Why don't you drop into the bank and see me some day? You haven't been in my tomb-like office for months. Miss Richmond and her mother saw me at work for a few minutes this afternoon. It compares very favourably with the dressing-rooms given to opera-singers, they say."

"I should say so!" laughed the girl. "If you can compare Persian rugs and mahogany with our cracked walls, and box-propped dressing-tables, and plugged gas-jets!"

"Men always do take the best," conceded Colton smilingly. Then he addressed Norris directly. "How is Simpson attending to business nowadays?"

"He has been away for a week. He came in this afternoon to amaze us with the news that he had just been married. He didn't have much to say about his wife, however, except that he was going to turn over a new leaf."

"That's news!" whistled Colton. "He never struck me as the marrying kind."

"Nor any one else," laughed Norris, with a tender, significant glance at the girl across the table.

"I'll have to look him up and congratulate him. Till we meet again, then." And with a pleasant nod of parting to each of them, a touch of a chair leg with his slim stick, Colton hurried down the aisle to the small table in the far corner, where Sydney Thames was giving his order to the waiter. The serving-man responded to a friendly nod from Colton, closed his order tablet, and hurried away. Thornley took a cigarette from his case, scratched a match on the bronze box, and learned comfortably back in his chair.

"Some time, Sydney, your terrible fear of beautiful women is going to get me into a very embarrassing position." He said it half seriously, half smilingly. "Instead of seventeen steps, it was but sixteen and a short half. If it hadn't been for Norris's habit of nervously tapping his glass with his finger-tips, my outstretched hand would have gone to the back of his neck."

"I thought I had figured it exactly!" There was earnest contrition in the tone; the sombre, black eyes showed the pain of the mistake.

"It is forgotten," dismissed Colton. Then: "But you should have stopped, Sydney. Miss Richmond's personality is as remarkable as her singing, and her mother is so proud and happy she forgets to be embarrassed at the difference between Keokuk and the Regal. Norris is lucky, for she loves him, and he-" The smiling lips needed no finishing words.

"But she is already commanding two hundred dollars a week at the very beginning of her career, and Norris cannot be earning more than five thousand a year," protested Thames.

"You poor boy!" smiled Colton. "You'll never know women; that susceptible heart of yours, which drives you away like a scared sheep whenever a beautiful woman approaches, will never be good for anything but pumping blood."

"Thorn, don't I know my weakness!" The tone was indescribably bitter. "I must keep away, though I'm starving for the society of good women. To meet one would be to fall in love, hopelessly, helplessly. I'd forget that I was a thing of shame, a brat picked up on the banks of the river that gave me the only name I know."

Colton was instantly serious. "Starvation seems a peculiar cure for hunger," he mused. "But we have argued that so many times-" Again the thin, expressive lips finished the sentence.

Then came the waiter with a club sandwich for Thames and Colton's invariable after-theatre supper that was always ready when he came, and which he never needed to order; two slices of graham bread covered with rich, red beef-blood gravy, and a bottle of mineral water. Colton 's slim cane, hollow, and light as a feather, the slightest touch of which sent its warning to his supersensitive finger-tips, rested between his knees as he ate.

Sydney Thames nibbled his sandwich absent-mindedly, eyes roving around the dining-room, now stopping at a gaudily-dressed dowager, now at an overpainted lady who smiled her fixed smile at the bull-necked man at her table, now at the circle-eyed girl who stabbed the cherry from her empty cocktail glass with a curved tine of her oyster fork; but always coming back to the fresh, wholesomely beautiful face of Rhoda Richmond. Then the sombre eyes would light up; for a beautiful face, to Sydney Thames, was more intoxicating than wine, and, to his highly sensitive nature, more dangerous.

Colton pushed his plate aside as the other's eyes once more started their round of the dining-room.

"The gods give gaudiness in recompense for the eye-sparkle they have taken, and the wrinkles they have given," Thornley Colton murmured quietly. "One must come to a New York restaurant to realise the true pathos of beauty." Colton 's mood had been curiously serious since those few words at Norris's table.

Thames did not answer, for no answer was needed. His wandering eyes had rested on a table to the left.

"One often wonders," continued Colton, in that same musing, low-pitched voice, "why a stout woman, like that one two tables to our left, for instance, will suffer the tortures of her hereafter for the sake of drinking high balls in a tight, purple gown."

Sydney had turned his eyes to stare at Colton, as he always did when the man who had picked him up as a bundle of baby-clothes on the banks of the Thames, twenty-five years before, made an observation of this kind. Many such had he heard, but never did they fail to startle him.

"How, in Heaven's name, did you know what I was doing, or that she was dressed in purple?" he demanded.

"You should keep both feet flat on the floor if you want to keep your staring a secret," laughed Colton quietly. "You forget that crossed knees make your suspended foot tell my cane each time you turn your head ever so slightly. See that my fingers are not on my stick when you covertly watch the women you fear to meet."

"But the purple gown?" demanded Sydney, repressing the inclination to uncross his knees, and flushing at the amused smile the involuntary first motion of the foot had brought to the lips of Colton.

"All stout women who breathe asthmatically wear purple," declared Colton emphatically. "It is the only unfailing rule of femininity. And to one who has practised the locating of sounds that come to doubly sharp ears the breathing part was easy. There is no one at the next table on the left, you'll observe. Now you can resume your overt watching of Miss Richmond; see"-he laid both hands on the white table-cloth before him-"I won't look."

The head-waiter stopped at the table.

"Mr. Simpson would like to have you come to his table, Mr. Colton. He wants you to meet his wife."

"His wife?" put in Thames quickly.

"She is, sir." It was said with a positiveness there was no gainsaying."

"Where is Mr. Simpson?" asked Colton. "We had not seen him."

"In the east wing, sir, where the palms are."

"We will go to him immediately."

"I'll tell him, sir." His beckoning finger brought the waiter who had served them with the check.

Sydney Thames spoke. "Some one of his cheap actress friends has roped him at last," he said scornfully. "He's a pretty specimen of man to be first vice-president of the conservative Berkley Trust Company."

"I'll wager you're wrong," declared Colton quietly, as he handed the waiter a two-dollar bill from his fold. "If it were one of the women for whom he has been buying wine suppers for the past two years, she wouldn't be 'where the palms are' nor would the waiter be so positive of the marriage relation."

"I'm not going," protested Thames quickly.

"Surely, Sydney, you are not afraid a married woman will kidnap you?" smiled Colton, as he took the stick between his fingers and prepared to rise. "How many?"

Sydney, who had turned half around in his chair to gaze toward the entrance to the east wing, faced him. "I'll go," he said shortly; another hasty glance, and he rose with Colton. "Thirty-seven straight, eighteen left, nine right. We will stop at the door of the east wing. I can't see it."

"There are no pretty women to disturb the distance judgment you have been so many years acquiring?" queried Colton mildly.

Without answering, Thames turned on his heel, and made his way rapidly between the tables toward the east wing. Colton laughed silently, picked up his change, and hurried after, his perfectly trained brain counting the steps automatically, his thoughts busy elsewhere. He was thinking of Simpson, who had gained such an unenviable reputation as a spender along the gay White Way during the past two years.

Simpson had always interested him, student of human nature that he was, as the one man who had never lived up to the impression Colton 's unerring instinct had told him was the right one the first time they had met. The problemist had expected things of Simpson, and Simpson had done nothing but idle as much time as possible in the position as first vice-president of one of the most conservative banks in the city, and spend money on women.

Colton stopped for an instant beside Thames in the archway, apparently gazing idly at the crowd of men and women at the palm-shaded tables.

"Two left, nineteen straight, half in," directed Thames, stepping aside to follow.

The heavy-lidded, thickset man, with the faint lines of blue vein traceries in his cheeks, rose to meet them.

"This is a pleasure, Mr. Colton," he exclaimed, in heavy-voiced heartiness. "You are the one man I wanted to see; though I hardly believed it would be my luck to catch you this night of all nights. You knew the pace I was going, and I want you to meet the little girl I went back to the old town to marry. We've been friends since we were tots. Thank God, I waked up in time to know what a good woman means! When next you see us it will be in our own home. One moment, please"-his voice sank to an almost reverent whisper-"my wife is deaf and dumb, Mr. Colton."

Thames had heard; had seen, with curiously mixed feelings, the little woman with the small, boyish face around which the tendrils of brown hair curled from under the close-fitting toque, and had appraised the slim, quietly dressed figure, the half smile as she stared inquiringly at them. The girl seemed but a child, but he saw that her face was heavily daubed with powder and rouge, as though its application had neither been taught nor practised. Until those last explaining words he had stood back with a half-pitying light in his eyes, for he knew Simpson's reputation with women. But at the quietly spoken sentence he had undergone an instant change of feeling, such as only highly-strung, hypersensitive men like him are capable of, toward the man who had gone away from his women of wine to marry a simple country girl who could neither speak nor hear.

Simpson's fingers had been moving rapidly; he bowed toward Thornley Colton. The girl smiled, and put out her small hand, the movement throwing back from her wrist the filmy lace of the long sleeve. For a moment they clasped hands; then the girl's fingers worked again.

Simpson laughed. "She does not believe you are blind, Mr. Colton; she says you have eyes like every one else."

Thornley Colton smiled. "If you tell her that I've got to wear these large-lensed, smoked glasses to prevent the light giving me a headache you will probably never convince her," he observed, as he refused the chair the waiter had drawn up.

Sydney Thames acknowledged his introduction with a bow and the usual meaningless words, but his eyes were soft and tender as a woman's as they met those of the girl in the instant's glance she gave him before the lashes were lowered. A woman's face never failed to stir him.

"Won't you sit down?" pleaded Simpson. "It will probably be the last time you will ever find me in one of these glided palaces. A man who has been my kind of a fool can appreciate his own fireside, and Gertie, who was all aflutter to visit one of the famous Broadway restaurants, recognised in ten minutes the crass artificiality it took me years to discover." He was holding her hand openly and unashamed as he said it.

Thornley Colton shook his head. "It is past my time for going home, and you know my habits. A glass of Celestin's at one-fifteen, the beauties of the Moonlight Sonata on my piano for fifteen minutes, and then to bed. If I may visit you at your home, Mrs. Simpson?" his outstretched hand met that of the girl. "Ah, you read the lips? A wonderful accomplishment to us who have never had eyes." His lips framed a smile of pleasure; he turned to Thames. "The same, Sydney?" he asked.

The secretary's eyes travelled up the aisle. "The man nine steps up is gesticulating quite freely."

"Lots of room." Colton 's slim stick touched a chair-leg, he bowed, and hurried away, the hearty good-night of Simpson following. Thornley Colton never needed any direction for going back over the same route, for his mind, trained to the figures of steps, neither hesitated nor made mistakes in following them backward. He stepped aside to avoid the swinging arm of the loud-voiced man who was punctuating his liquor-born blatancy with violent gestures, and paused at the archway of the main dining-room for Thames.

"Is Morris still at his table?" he asked.

"It is empty."

"Urn!" Colton 's high forehead wrinkled a frown, his slim stick tapped his leg. "Time enough tomorrow," he announced finally, and started through the maze of tables towards the entrance.

They received their hats and overcoats and left the big hotel to enter the long, black car that awaited them at the north entrance at one o'clock each morning. They were well on their way to the big, old-fashioned brownstone house where Thornley Colton had been born, before the silence was broken. Then Sydney Thames spoke: "There must be a lot of latent goodness in a man who could take a woman like that to love, and cherish, and protect," he said slowly.

"You mean Miss Richmond?" The darkness concealed the whimsical smile on Colton 's lips.

"No!" The negative was short. "Morris will marry Miss Richmond just because she is beautiful and accomplished; because his man's vanity will be tickled to exhibit her before men as his possession. I mean Simpson, who took a simple country girl whom God had handicapped, just because he loved her. That means something."

"But, Sydney "- Colton 's thin fingers rested lightly on the other's sleeve; there was just the faintest trace of laughter in the words-"don't you think she was a bit too heavily rouged?"

He felt the highly-strung man jump under his hand.

"Good heavens, Thorn!" Sydney burst out. "Sometimes I wonder if you are blind!"

"God gives fingers to the sightless, Sydney," Colton 's voice was quietly serious. "In the darkness the keyboard of my piano gives me the soul secrets of dead men gone to dust. In the lights of a Broadway restaurant the keyboard of silence gives me the secrets of living hearts. And they cannot lie."

"What do you mean? What have I missed?" Thames asked the questions eagerly, tensely, for he knew the moods of this man who had been the only father he had ever known; he understood that something of grave portent had given its significance to the man who could not see, while he with five perfect senses, had seen nothing, suspected nothing.

Colton pulled his crystalless watch from his pocket, and touched it with a finger-tip. "One-thirty; we are fifteen minutes late." He put his hand on the door catch as the big machine slowed up before his home. And it was not until they were ascending the broad brownstone steps that he answered the question.

"You have missed the first act of what promises to be a very remarkable crime, Sydney," he said quietly.


CLINTON H. STAGG (1890-1916) | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | cледующая глава







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