The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel by A. E. W. Mason

The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel by A. E. W. Mason

THE AFFAIR
AT THE SEMIRAMIS HOTEL

I

Mr. Ricardo, when the excitements of the Villa Rose were done with, returned to Grosvenor Square and resumed the busy, unnecessary life of an amateur. But the studios had lost their savour, artists their attractiveness, and even the Russian opera seemed a trifle flat. Life was altogether a disappointment; Fate, like an actress at a restaurant, had taken the wooden pestle in her hand and stirred all the sparkle out of the champagne; Mr. Ricardo languished–until one unforgettable morning.

He was sitting disconsolately at his breakfast-table when the door was burst open and a square, stout man, with the blue, shaven face of a French comedian, flung himself into the room. Ricardo sprang towards the new-comer with a cry of delight.

“My dear Hanaud!”

He seized his visitor by the arm, feeling it to make sure that here, in flesh and blood, stood the man who had introduced him to the acutest sensations of his life. He turned towards his butler, who was still bleating expostulations in the doorway at the unceremonious irruption of the French detective.

“Another place, Burton, at once,” he cried, and as soon as he and Hanaud were alone: “What good wind blows you to London?”

“Business, my friend. The disappearance of bullion somewhere on the line between Paris and London. But it is finished. Yes, I take a holiday.”

A light had suddenly flashed in Mr. Ricardo’s eyes, and was now no less suddenly extinguished. Hanaud paid no attention whatever to his friend’s disappointment. He pounced upon a piece of silver which adorned the tablecloth and took it over to the window.

“Everything is as it should be, my friend,” he exclaimed, with a grin. “Grosvenor Square, the Times open at the money column, and a false antique upon the table. Thus I have dreamed of you. All Mr. Ricardo is in that sentence.”

Ricardo laughed nervously. Recollection made him wary of Hanaud’s sarcasms. He was shy even to protest the genuineness of his silver. But, indeed, he had not the time. For the door opened again and once more the butler appeared. On this occasion, however, he was alone.

“Mr. Calladine would like to speak to you, sir,” he said.

“Calladine!” cried Ricardo in an extreme surprise. “That is the most extraordinary thing.” He looked at the clock upon his mantelpiece. It was barely half-past eight. “At this hour, too?”

“Mr. Calladine is still wearing evening dress,” the butler remarked.

Ricardo started in his chair. He began to dream of possibilities; and here was Hanaud miraculously at his side.

“Where is Mr. Calladine?” he asked.

“I have shown him into the library.”

“Good,” said Mr. Ricardo. “I will come to him.”

But he was in no hurry. He sat and let his thoughts play with this incident of Calladine’s early visit.

“It is very odd,” he said. “I have not seen Calladine for months–no, nor has anyone. Yet, a little while ago, no one was more often seen.”

He fell apparently into a muse, but he was merely seeking to provoke Hanaud’s curiosity. In this attempt, however, he failed. Hanaud continued placidly to eat his breakfast, so that Mr. Ricardo was compelled to volunteer the story which he was burning to tell.

“Drink your coffee, Hanaud, and you shall hear about Calladine.”

Hanaud grunted with resignation, and Mr. Ricardo flowed on:

“Calladine was one of England’s young men. Everybody said so. He was going to do very wonderful things as soon as he had made up his mind exactly what sort of wonderful things he was going to do. Meanwhile, you met him in Scotland, at Newmarket, at Ascot, at Cowes, in the box of some great lady at the Opera–not before half-past ten in the evening there–in any fine house where the candles that night happened to be lit. He went everywhere, and then a day came and he went nowhere. There was no scandal, no trouble, not a whisper against his good name. He simply vanished. For a little while a few people asked: ‘What has become of Calladine?’ But there never was any answer, and London has no time for unanswered questions. Other promising young men dined in his place. Calladine had joined the huge legion of the Come-to-nothings. No one even seemed to pass him in the street. Now unexpectedly, at half-past eight in the morning, and in evening dress, he calls upon me. ‘Why?’ I ask myself.”

Mr. Ricardo sank once more into a reverie. Hanaud watched him with a broadening smile of pure enjoyment.

“And in time, I suppose,” he remarked casually, “you will perhaps ask him?”

Mr. Ricardo sprang out of his pose to his feet.

“Before I discuss serious things with an acquaintance,” he said with a scathing dignity, “I make it a rule to revive my impressions of his personality. The cigarettes are in the crystal box.”

“They would be,” said Hanaud, unabashed, as Ricardo stalked from the room. But in five minutes Mr. Ricardo came running back, all his composure gone.

“It is the greatest good fortune that you, my friend, should have chosen this morning to visit me,” he cried, and Hanaud nodded with a little grimace of resignation.

“There goes my holiday. You shall command me now and always. I will make the acquaintance of your young friend.”

He rose up and followed Ricardo into his study, where a young man was nervously pacing the floor.

“Mr. Calladine,” said Ricardo. “This is Mr. Hanaud.”

The young man turned eagerly. He was tall, with a noticeable elegance and distinction, and the face which he showed to Hanaud was, in spite of its agitation, remarkably handsome.

“I am very glad,” he said. “You are not an official of this country. You can advise–without yourself taking action, if you’ll be so good.”

Hanaud frowned. He bent his eyes uncompromisingly upon Calladine.

“What does that mean?” he asked, with a note of sternness in his voice.

“It means that I must tell someone,” Calladine burst out in quivering tones. “That I don’t know what to do. I am in a difficulty too big for me. That’s the truth.”

Hanaud looked at the young man keenly. It seemed to Ricardo that he took in every excited gesture, every twitching feature, in one comprehensive glance. Then he said in a friendlier voice:

“Sit down and tell me”–and he himself drew up a chair to the table.

“I was at the Semiramis last night,” said Calladine, naming one of the great hotels upon the Embankment. “There was a fancy-dress ball.”

All this happened, by the way, in those far-off days before the war–nearly, in fact, three years ago today–when London, flinging aside its reticence, its shy self-consciousness, had become a city of carnivals and masquerades, rivalling its neighbours on the Continent in the spirit of its gaiety, and exceeding them by its stupendous luxury. “I went by the merest chance. My rooms are in the Adelphi Terrace.”

“There!” cried Mr. Ricardo in surprise, and Hanaud lifted a hand to check his interruptions.

“Yes,” continued Calladine. “The night was warm, the music floated through my open windows and stirred old memories. I happened to have a ticket. I went.”

Calladine drew up a chair opposite to Hanaud and, seating himself, told, with many nervous starts and in troubled tones, a story which, to Mr. Ricardo’s thinking, was as fabulous as any out of the “Arabian Nights.”

“I had a ticket,” he began, “but no domino. I was consequently stopped by an attendant in the lounge at the top of the staircase leading down to the ballroom.

“‘You can hire a domino in the cloakroom, Mr. Calladine,’ he said to me. I had already begun to regret the impulse which had brought me, and I welcomed the excuse with which the absence of a costume provided me. I was, indeed, turning back to the door, when a girl who had at that moment run down from the stairs of the hotel into the lounge, cried gaily: ‘That’s not necessary’; and at the same moment she flung to me a long scarlet cloak which she had been wearing over her own dress. She was young, fair, rather tall, slim, and very pretty; her hair was drawn back from her face with a ribbon, and rippled down her shoulders in heavy curls; and she was dressed in a satin coat and knee-breeches of pale green and gold, with a white waistcoat and silk stockings and scarlet heels to her satin shoes. She was as straight-limbed as a boy, and exquisite like a figure in Dresden china. I caught the cloak and turned to thank her. But she did not wait. With a laugh she ran down the stairs a supple and shining figure, and was lost in the throng at the doorway of the ballroom. I was stirred by the prospect of an adventure. I ran down after her. She was standing just inside the room alone, and she was gazing at the scene with parted lips and dancing eyes. She laughed again as she saw the cloak about my shoulders, a delicious gurgle of amusement, and I said to her:

“‘May I dance with you?’

“‘Oh, do!’ she cried, with a little jump, and clasping her hands. She was of a high and joyous spirit and not difficult in the matter of an introduction. ‘This gentleman will do very well to present us,’ she said, leading me in front of a bust of the God Pan which stood in a niche of the wall. ‘I am, as you see, straight out of an opera. My name is Celymène or anything with an eighteenth century sound to it. You are–what you will. For this evening we are friends.’

“‘And for to-morrow?’ I asked.

“‘I will tell you about that later on,’ she replied, and she began to dance with a light step and a passion in her dancing which earned me many an envious glance from the other men. I was in luck, for Celymène knew no one, and though, of course, I saw the faces of a great many people whom I remembered, I kept them all at a distance. We had been dancing for about half an hour when the first queerish thing happened. She stopped suddenly in the midst of a sentence with a little gasp. I spoke to her, but she did not hear. She was gazing past me, her eyes wide open, and such a rapt look upon her face as I had never seen. She was lost in a miraculous vision. I followed the direction of her eyes and, to my astonishment, I saw nothing more than a stout, short, middle-aged woman, egregiously over-dressed as Marie Antoinette.

“‘So you do know someone here?’ I said, and I had to repeat the words sharply before my friend withdrew her eyes. But even then she was not aware of me. It was as if a voice had spoken to her whilst she was asleep and had disturbed, but not wakened her. Then she came to–there’s really no other word I can think of which describes her at that moment–she came to with a deep sigh.

“‘No,’ she answered. ‘She is a Mrs. Blumenstein from Chicago, a widow with ambitions and a great deal of money. But I don’t know her.’

“‘Yet you know all about her,’ I remarked.

“‘She crossed in the same boat with me,’ Celymène replied. ‘Did I tell you that I landed at Liverpool this morning? She is staying at the Semiramis too. Oh, let us dance!’

“She twitched my sleeve impatiently, and danced with a kind of violence and wildness as if she wished to banish some sinister thought. And she did undoubtedly banish it. We supped together and grew confidential, as under such conditions people will. She told me her real name. It was Joan Carew.

“‘I have come over to get an engagement if I can at Covent Garden. I am supposed to sing all right. But I don’t know anyone. I have been brought up in Italy.’

“‘You have some letters of introduction, I suppose?’ I asked.

“‘Oh, yes. One from my teacher in Milan. One from an American manager.’

“In my turn I told her my name and where I lived, and I gave her my card. I thought, you see, that since I used to know a good many operatic people, I might be able to help her.

“‘Thank you,’ she said, and at that moment Mrs. Blumenstein, followed by a party, chiefly those lap-dog young men who always seem to gather about that kind of person, came into the supper-room and took a table close to us. There was at once an end of all confidences–indeed, of all conversation. Joan Carew lost all the lightness of her spirit; she talked at random, and her eyes were drawn again and again to the grotesque slander on Marie Antoinette. Finally I became annoyed.

“‘Shall we go?’ I suggested impatiently, and to my surprise she whispered passionately:

“‘Yes. Please! Let us go.’

“Her voice was actually shaking, her small hands clenched. We went back to the ballroom, but Joan Carew did not recover her gaiety, and half-way through a dance, when we were near to the door, she stopped abruptly–extraordinarily abruptly.

“‘I shall go,’ she said abruptly. ‘I am tired. I have grown dull.’

“I protested, but she made a little grimace.

“‘You’ll hate me in half an hour. Let’s be wise and stop now while we are friends,’ she said, and whilst I removed the domino from my shoulders she stooped very quickly. It seemed to me that she picked up something which had lain hidden beneath the sole of her slipper. She certainly moved her foot, and I certainly saw something small and bright flash in the palm of her glove as she raised herself again. But I imagined merely that it was some object which she had dropped.

“‘Yes, we’ll go,’ she said, and we went up the stairs into the lobby. Certainly all the sparkle had gone out of our adventure. I recognized her wisdom.

“‘But I shall meet you again?’ I asked.

“‘Yes. I have your address. I’ll write and fix a time when you will be sure to find me in. Good-night, and a thousand thanks. I should have been bored to tears if you hadn’t come without a domino.’

“She was speaking lightly as she held out her hand, but her grip tightened a little and–clung. Her eyes darkened and grew troubled, her mouth trembled. The shadow of a great trouble had suddenly closed about her. She shivered.

“‘I am half inclined to ask you to stay, however dull I am; and dance with me till daylight–the safe daylight,’ she said.

“It was an extraordinary phrase for her to use, and it moved me.

“‘Let us go back then!’ I urged. She gave me an impression suddenly of someone quite forlorn. But Joan Carew recovered her courage. ‘No, no,’ she answered quickly. She snatched her hand away and ran lightly up the staircase, turning at the corner to wave her hand and smile. It was then half-past one in the morning.”

So far Calladine had spoken without an interruption. Mr. Ricardo, it is true, was bursting to break in with the most important questions, but a salutary fear of Hanaud restrained him. Now, however, he had an opportunity, for Calladine paused.

“Half-past one,” he said sagely. “Ah!”

“And when did you go home?” Hanaud asked of Calladine.

“True,” said Mr. Ricardo. “It is of the greatest consequence.”

Calladine was not sure. His partner had left behind her the strangest medley of sensations in his breast. He was puzzled, haunted, and charmed. He had to think about her; he was a trifle uplifted; sleep was impossible. He wandered for a while about the ballroom. Then he walked to his chambers along the echoing streets and sat at his window; and some time afterwards the hoot of a motor-horn broke the silence and a car stopped and whirred in the street below. A moment later his bell rang.

He ran down the stairs in a queer excitement, unlocked the street door and opened it. Joan Carew, still in her masquerade dress with her scarlet cloak about her shoulders, slipped through the opening.

“Shut the door,” she whispered, drawing herself apart in a corner.

“Your cab?” asked Calladine.

“It has gone.”

Calladine latched the door. Above, in the well of the stairs, the light spread out from the open door of his flat. Down here all was dark. He could just see the glimmer of her white face, the glitter of her dress, but she drew her breath like one who has run far. They mounted the stairs cautiously. He did not say a word until they were both safely in his parlour; and even then it was in a low voice.

“What has happened?”

“You remember the woman I stared at? You didn’t know why I stared, but any girl would have understood. She was wearing the loveliest pearls I ever saw in my life.”

Joan was standing by the edge of the table. She was tracing with her finger a pattern on the cloth as she spoke. Calladine started with a horrible presentiment.

“Yes,” she said. “I worship pearls. I always have done. For one thing, they improve on me. I haven’t got any, of course. I have no money. But friends of mine who do own pearls have sometimes given theirs to me to wear when they were going sick, and they have always got back their lustre. I think that has had a little to do with my love of them. Oh, I have always longed for them–just a little string. Sometimes I have felt that I would have given my soul for them.”

She was speaking in a dull, monotonous voice. But Calladine recalled the ecstasy which had shone in her face when her eyes first had fallen on the pearls, the longing which had swept her quite into another world, the passion with which she had danced to throw the obsession off.

“And I never noticed them at all,” he said.

“Yet they were wonderful. The colour! The lustre! All the evening they tempted me. I was furious that a fat, coarse creature like that should have such exquisite things. Oh, I was mad.”

She covered her face suddenly with her hands and swayed. Calladine sprang towards her. But she held out her hand.

“No, I am all right.” And though he asked her to sit down she would not. “You remember when I stopped dancing suddenly?”

“Yes. You had something hidden under your foot?”

The girl nodded.

“Her key!” And under his breath Calladine uttered a startled cry.

For the first time since she had entered the room Joan Carew raised her head and looked at him. Her eyes were full of terror, and with the terror was mixed an incredulity as though she could not possibly believe that that had happened which she knew had happened.

“A little Yale key,” the girl continued. “I saw Mrs. Blumenstein looking on the floor for something, and then I saw it shining on the very spot. Mrs. Blumenstein’s suite was on the same floor as mine, and her maid slept above. All the maids do. I knew that. Oh, it seemed to me as if I had sold my soul and was being paid.”

Now Calladine understood what she had meant by her strange phrase–“the safe daylight.”

“I went up to my little suite,” Joan Carew continued. “I sat there with the key burning through my glove until I had given her time enough to fall asleep”–and though she hesitated before she spoke the words, she did speak them, not looking at Calladine, and with a shudder of remorse making her confession complete. “Then I crept out. The corridor was dimly lit. Far away below the music was throbbing. Up here it was as silent as the grave. I opened the door–her door. I found myself in a lobby. The suite, though bigger, was arranged like mine. I slipped in and closed the door behind me. I listened in the darkness. I couldn’t hear a sound. I crept forward to the door in front of me. I stood with my fingers on the handle and my heart beating fast enough to choke me. I had still time to turn back. But I couldn’t. There were those pearls in front of my eyes, lustrous and wonderful. I opened the door gently an inch or so–and then–it all happened in a second.”

Joan Carew faltered. The night was too near to her, its memory too poignant with terror. She shut her eyes tightly and cowered down in a chair. With the movement her cloak slipped from her shoulders and dropped on to the ground. Calladine leaned forward with an exclamation of horror; Joan Carew started up.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Nothing. Go on.”

“I found myself inside the room with the door shut behind me. I had shut it myself in a spasm of terror. And I dared not turn round to open it. I was helpless.”

“What do you mean? She was awake?”

Joan Carew shook her head.

“There were others in the room before me, and on the same errand–men!”

Calladine drew back, his eyes searching the girl’s face.

“Yes?” he said slowly.

“I didn’t see them at first. I didn’t hear them. The room was quite dark except for one jet of fierce white light which beat upon the door of a safe. And as I shut the door the jet moved swiftly and the light reached me and stopped. I was blinded. I stood in the full glare of it, drawn up against the panels of the door, shivering, sick with fear. Then I heard a quiet laugh, and someone moved softly towards me. Oh, it was terrible! I recovered the use of my limbs; in a panic I turned to the door, but I was too late. Whilst I fumbled with the handle I was seized; a hand covered my mouth. I was lifted to the centre of the room. The jet went out, the electric lights were turned on. There were two men dressed as apaches in velvet trousers and red scarves, like a hundred others in the ballroom below, and both were masked. I struggled furiously; but, of course, I was like a child in their grasp. ‘Tie her legs,’ the man whispered who was holding me; ‘she’s making too much noise.’ I kicked and fought, but the other man stooped and tied my ankles, and I fainted.”

Calladine nodded his head.

“Yes?” he said.

“When I came to, the lights were still burning, the door of the safe was open, the room empty; I had been flung on to a couch at the foot of the bed. I was lying there quite free.”

“Was the safe empty?” asked Calladine suddenly.

“I didn’t look,” she answered. “Oh!”–and she covered her face spasmodically with her hands. “I looked at the bed. Someone was lying there–under a sheet and quite still. There was a clock ticking in the room; it was the only sound. I was terrified. I was going mad with fear. If I didn’t get out of the room at once I felt that I should go mad, that I should scream and bring everyone to find me alone with–what was under the sheet in the bed. I ran to the door and looked out through a slit into the corridor. It was still quite empty, and below the music still throbbed in the ballroom. I crept down the stairs, meeting no one until I reached the hall. I looked into the ballroom as if I was searching for someone. I stayed long enough to show myself. Then I got a cab and came to you.”

A short silence followed. Joan Carew looked at her companion in appeal. “You are the only one I could come to,” she added. “I know no one else.”

Calladine sat watching the girl in silence. Then he asked, and his voice was hard:

“And is that all you have to tell me?”

“Yes.”

“You are quite sure?”

Joan Carew looked at him perplexed by the urgency of his question. She reflected for a moment or two.

“Quite.”

Calladine rose to his feet and stood beside her.

“Then how do you come to be wearing this?” he asked, and he lifted a chain of platinum and diamonds which she was wearing about her shoulders. “You weren’t wearing it when you danced with me.”

Joan Carew stared at the chain.

“No. It’s not mine. I have never seen it before.” Then a light came into her eyes. “The two men–they must have thrown it over my head when I was on the couch–before they went.” She looked at it more closely. “That’s it. The chain’s not very valuable. They could spare it, and–it would accuse me–of what they did.”

“Yes, that’s very good reasoning,” said Calladine coldly.

Joan Carew looked quickly up into his face.

“Oh, you don’t believe me,” she cried. “You think–oh, it’s impossible.” And, holding him by the edge of his coat, she burst into a storm of passionate denials.

“But you went to steal, you know,” he said gently, and she answered him at once:

“Yes, I did, but not this.” And she held up the necklace. “Should I have stolen this, should I have come to you wearing it, if I had stolen the pearls, if I had”–and she stopped–“if my story were not true?”

Calladine weighed her argument, and it affected him.

“No, I think you wouldn’t,” he said frankly.

Most crimes, no doubt, were brought home because the criminal had made some incomprehensibly stupid mistake; incomprehensibly stupid, that is, by the standards of normal life. Nevertheless, Calladine was inclined to believe her. He looked at her. That she should have murdered was absurd. Moreover, she was not making a parade of remorse, she was not playing the unctuous penitent; she had yielded to a temptation, had got herself into desperate straits, and was at her wits’ ends how to escape from them. She was frank about herself.

Calladine looked at the clock. It was nearly five o’clock in the morning, and though the music could still be heard from the ballroom in the Semiramis, the night had begun to wane upon the river.

“You must go back,” he said. “I’ll walk with you.”

They crept silently down the stairs and into the street. It was only a step to the Semiramis. They met no one until they reached the Strand. There many, like Joan Carew in masquerade, were standing about, or walking hither and thither in search of carriages and cabs. The whole street was in a bustle, what with drivers shouting and people coming away.

“You can slip in unnoticed,” said Calladine as he looked into the thronged courtyard. “I’ll telephone to you in the morning.”

“You will?” she cried eagerly, clinging for a moment to his arm.

“Yes, for certain,” he replied. “Wait in until you hear from me. I’ll think it over. I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you,” she said fervently.

He watched her scarlet cloak flitting here and there in the crowd until it vanished through the doorway. Then, for the second time, he walked back to his chambers, while the morning crept up the river from the sea.

* * * * *

This was the story which Calladine told in Mr. Ricardo’s library. Mr. Ricardo heard it out with varying emotions. He began with a thrill of expectation like a man on a dark threshold of great excitements. The setting of the story appealed to him, too, by a sort of brilliant bizarrerie which he found in it. But, as it went on, he grew puzzled and a trifle disheartened. There were flaws and chinks; he began to bubble with unspoken criticisms, then swift and clever thrusts which he dared not deliver. He looked upon the young man with disfavour, as upon one who had half opened a door upon a theatre of great promise and shown him a spectacle not up to the mark. Hanaud, on the other hand, listened imperturbably, without an expression upon his face, until the end. Then he pointed a finger at Calladine and asked him what to Ricardo’s mind was a most irrelevant question.

“You got back to your rooms, then, before five, Mr. Calladine, and it is now nine o’clock less a few minutes.”

“Yes.”

“Yet you have not changed your clothes. Explain to me that. What did you do between five and half-past eight?”

Calladine looked down at his rumpled shirt front.

“Upon my word, I never thought of it,” he cried. “I was worried out of my mind. I couldn’t decide what to do. Finally, I determined to talk to Mr. Ricardo, and after I had come to that conclusion I just waited impatiently until I could come round with decency.”

Hanaud rose from his chair. His manner was grave, but conveyed no single hint of an opinion. He turned to Ricardo.

“Let us go round to your young friend’s rooms in the Adelphi,” he said; and the three men drove thither at once.

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Categories: English Literature

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