The man laughed
It was a faint cynical murmur of a laugh. Its expression hardly disturbed the composition of his features.
“I fear, Lady Muriel,” he said, “that your profession is ruined. Our friend – ‘over the water’ – is no longer concerned about the affairs of England.”
The woman fingered at her gloves, turning them back about the wrists. Her face was anxious and drawn.
“I am rather desperately in need of money,” she said.
The cynicism deepened in the man’s face.
“Unfortunately,” he replied, “a supply of money cannot be influenced by the intensity of one’s necessity for it.”
He was a man indefinite in age. His oily black hair was brushed carefully back. His clothes were excellent, with a precise detail. Everything about him was conspicuously correct in the English fashion. But the man was not English. One could not say from what race he came. Among the races of Southern Europe he could hardly have been distinguished. There was a chameleon quality strongly dominant in the creature.
The woman looked up quickly, as in a strong aversion.
“What shall you do?” she said.
The man glanced about the room. There was a certain display within the sweep of his vision. Some rugs of great value, vases and bronzes; genuine and of extreme age. He made a careless gesture with his hands.
“I shall explore some ruins in Syria, and perhaps the aqueduct which the French think carried a water supply to the Carthage of Hanno. It will be convenient to be beyond British inquiry for some years to come; and after all, I am an antiquarian, like Prosper Merimee.”
Lady Muriel continued to finger her gloves. They had been cleaned and the cryptic marks of the shopkeeper were visible along the inner side of the wrist hem. This was, to the woman, the first subterfuge of decaying smartness. When a woman began to send her gloves to the laundry she was on her way down. Other evidences were not entirely lacking in the woman’s dress, but they were not patent to the casual eye. Lady Muriel was still, to the observer, of the gay top current in the London world.
The woman followed the man’s glance about the room.
“You must be rich, Hecklemeir,” she said. “Lend me a hundred pounds.”
The man laughed again in his queer chuckle.
“Ah, no, my Lady,” he replied, “I do not lend.” Then he added.
“If you have anything of value, bring it to me . . . . not information from the ministry, and not war plans; the trade in such commodities is ended.”
It was the woman’s turn to laugh.
“The shopkeepers in Oxford Street have been before you, Baron . . . . I’ve nothing to sell.”
Hecklemeir smiled, kneading his pudgy hands.
“It will be hard to borrow,” he said. “Money is very dear to the Britisher just now – right against his heart . . . . Still. . . . perhaps one’s family could be thumb screwed. . . . . .An elderly relative with no children would be the most favorable, I think. Have you got such a relative concealed somewhere in a nook of London? Think about it. If you could recall one, he would be like a buried nut.”
The man paused; then he added, with the offensive chuckling laugh:
“Go to such an one, Lady Muriel. Who shall turn aside from virtue in distress? Perhaps, in the whole of London, I alone have the brutality – shall we call it – to resist that spectacle.”
The woman rose. Her face was now flushed and angry.
“I do not know of any form of brutality in which you do not excel, Hecklemeir,” she said. “I have a notion to, go to Scotland Yard with the whole story of your secret traffic.”
The man continued to smile.
“Alas, my Lady,” he replied, “we are coupled together. Scotland Yard would hardly separate us . . . . you could scarcely manage to drown me and, keep afloat yourself. Dismiss the notion; it is from the pit.”