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قراءة كتاب A Cabinet Secret

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A Cabinet Secret

A Cabinet Secret

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
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been watching him, and have followed him to the yacht. It was foolish of him to run such a risk. Let us hope, however, he will be able to get out of Naples without their laying hands upon him."

Shortly after one o'clock the train reached Rome and they alighted from it. Such travellers as had witnessed the arrival of the invalid at the Neapolitan railway station, would have observed now that he seemed greatly fatigued by the journey. He was even more muffled up than before, while the nurse was, if possible, more assiduous in her attentions than she had been at the southern station. It was noticeable also that she was a poor Italian scholar. Indeed, her pronunciation of such words as she did know was of the most erratic and elementary description.

*         *         *         *         *

Later in the day, just as dusk was falling, an artist's model, in the picturesque dress of the country, might have been observed making her way slowly down the Via Sistina in the direction of the Piazza S. Trinità de' Monti. She appeared to be familiar with the neighbourhood, though, on the other hand, no one seemed to have any acquaintance with her. She had reached the Casa Zuccheri, when she was stopped by a tall artistic-looking man, who walked with great uprightness, and carried a portfolio beneath his arm. For the benefit of the passers by, he enquired in broken Italian, whether the girl could inform him as to the locality of a certain artist's studio, whereupon she personally offered to conduct him to it. He thanked her courteously, and proceeded with her in the direction indicated. They had no sooner left the vicinity of the Via Sistina, however, than he turned to her and said, in the purest Italian: "I was afraid you were not coming. You are very late."

"I am aware of that," the girl replied. "I had a suspicion that I was being watched. Now, what have you to tell me?"

"You saw Luigi in Naples, I believe?"

"He met me there, with Conrad," the girl answered. "I could not help thinking that it was an imprudence on his part."

"Luigi is always imprudent; and yet I cannot help feeling that he is safer in his folly than we are in our care. He told you of the scheme the Council had originated?"

The girl nodded an assent.

"He gave me to understand, however, that you would furnish me with full particulars," she said.

"I am prepared to do so now," her companion replied.

As he said this, he led her from the main street into a dark alley, where, having convinced himself that they had not been followed, he set to work and told his tale. So anxious was he that there should be no mistake about the matter, that when he had finished it he began it again, only to repeat it a third time. The woman listened with rapt attention.

"In conclusion," said he, "I might add that the money will be paid to your credit at whatever London Bank you may select. One of the most handsome residences, replete with all the necessaries, has been taken for you in a fashionable quarter, and on your arrival in London you will be left to act as your knowledge of the situation and the dictates of the Council may determine. It is needless to caution you as to the risks you may be called upon to run. The Council has, moreover, authorised me to say that it places implicit trust in your discretion. Should you require further advice, it will be furnished you at once, with any help that may be considered needful."

"In the meantime, Paris is the first stage," the girl answered. "You are quite certain that this Englishman, Sir George Manderville, has not yet returned to England?"

"No, he is still there," her companion replied. "We have learnt, however, that he will cross the channel on Friday next."

"On Friday next?" she repeated. "In that case there is no time to lose. At first glance it would appear that he is the key to the situation."

"That is exactly the opinion of the Council," the man answered. "Now, farewell, and may good luck attend you!"

So saying they retraced their steps to the main street. At the entrance to the alley they separated, the girl returning to the Via Sistina—the man going off in an opposite direction.

By the first train next morning the Countess de Venetza made an unostentatious departure from Rome, for Paris, accompanied by her father and her cousin, Conrad, Count Reiffenburg.


CHAPTER I

As a preface, I might explain that I have had the pleasure of knowing Paris and De Belleville for more than twenty years. Both are, therefore, old friends, the city and the man. The fact, however, remains, that De Belleville, though a most charming companion, has one fault. Few people would be prepared to admit it, but unfortunately, I am not only compelled to recognise it, but to proclaim it to the world. As a friend, he has not his equal—at least so far as I am concerned; he is certainly not punctual, however. It is of that I complain. I have remonstrated with him on the subject times out of number, but it makes no sort of difference. If one has an appointment with him, he is invariably late, but when he does put in an appearance, he will greet you with such charming assurance, that you feel angry with yourself for having been led into commenting upon the lapse of time.

On the particular afternoon which I am now about to describe to you, we had arranged to meet at my hotel and then to go on together to call upon the D'Etrebilles, who were just off to Cairo and the Upper Nile. He had promised to be with me at three o'clock, and, as usual, at twenty minutes past the hour he had not put in an appearance. Now, I flatter myself that I am a punctual man in every respect, and when one is ready to go out, a twenty minutes' wait is an annoyance calculated to test the serenest temper. In my case it was certainly so, and, as I sat in the picturesque courtyard of the hotel, you may be sure I called down the reverse of blessings upon De Belleville's handsome head. Carriage after carriage drove up, but not one of them contained my friend. I took a third cigarette from my case and lit it, and as I did so, lay back in my chair and amused myself watching my neighbours.

To my thinking, there are few places more interesting (that is, of course, provided one has a weakness for studying character) than a hotel courtyard. In sheer idleness I speculated as to the nationality and relationship of the various people about me. There were several probable Russians, one or two undoubted Germans, two whom I set down as Italians, one might have been a Greek, but the majority were undoubtedly English. And that reminds me that, as I waited, I was the witness of an amusing altercation between a cabman and an English lady of considerable importance and mature years. Both were playing at cross purpose, and it was not until the Hotel Commissionaire, the deus ex machina, so to speak, appeared upon the scene and interposed, that the matter at issue was satisfactorily adjusted.

"Your pardon, Madame," he said, bowing low, "but ze man meant no harm. It was his misfortune that he did not comprehend the words what Madame said to him."

For a person who prided himself upon his tact, the poor fellow could scarcely have said a more unfortunate thing. The matter of the overcharge, Madame could have understood and have forgiven, but to be informed in so many words that her knowledge of the French tongue was deficient, was an insult not only to her intelligence, and to her experience, but also to the money that had been spent upon her education.

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