Room 13

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Chapter 24

PETER wrote to tell of the invitation which Legge had extended to him. Johnny Gray had the letter by the first post. He sat in his big armchair, his silk dressing-gown wrapped around him, his chin on his fists; and seeing him thus, the discreet Parker did not intrude upon his thoughts until Johnny, reading the letter again, tore it in pieces and threw it into the wastepaper-basket.

He had a whimsical practice of submitting most of his problems, either in parable form or more directly, to his imperturbable manservant.

"Parker, if you were asked to take dinner in a lion's den, what dress would you wear?"

Parker looked down at him thoughtfully, biting his lip.

"It would largely depend, sir, on whether there were ladies to be present," he said. "Under those extraordinary circumstances, one should wear full dress and a white tie."

Johnny groaned.

"There have been such dinners, sir," Parker hastened to assure him in all seriousness. "I recall that, when I was a boy, a visiting menagerie came to our town, and one of the novelties was a dinner which was served in a den of ferocious lions; and I distinctly remember that the lion-tamer wore a white dress bow and a long tail coat. He also wore top boots," he said after a moment's consideration, "which, of course, no gentleman could possibly wear in evening dress. But then, he was an actor."

"But supposing the lion-tamer had a working arrangement with the lions? Wouldn't you suggest a suit of armour?" asked Johnny without smiling, and Parker considered the problem for a moment. |

"That would rather turn it into a fancy-dress affair, sir," he said, "where, of course, any costume is permissible. Personally," he added, "I should never dream of dining in a den of lions under any circumstances."

"That's the answer I've been waiting for; it is the most intelligent thing you've said this morning," said Johnny. "Nevertheless, I shall not follow your excellent advice. I will be dining at the Highlow Club on Thursday. Get me the morning newspaper: I haven't seen it."

He turned the pages apathetically, for the events which were at the moment agitating political London meant nothing in his life. On an inner page he found a brief paragraph which, however, did interest him. It was in the latest news column, and related to the arrest of a burglar, who had been caught red handed breaking into a house in Berkeley Square. The man had given his name as Fenner. Johnny shook his head sadly. He had no doubt as to the identity of the thief, for burglary was Fenner's graft. Since the news had come in the early hours of the morning, there were no details, and he put the paper aside and fell into a train of thought.

Poor Fenner! He must go back to that hell, which was only better than Keytown Jail. He would be spared the ordeal of Keytown, at any rate, if what Craig had said was true. Glancing at the clock, he saw that it was nearly eleven and jumped up. He was taking Marney to lunch and a matinee that day. Peter was bringing her up, and he was to meet them at Victoria.

Since his release from Dartmoor, Johnny had had no opportunity of a quiet talk with the girl, and this promised to be a red-letter day in his life. He had to wait some time, for the train was late; and as he stood in the broad hall, watching with abstracted interest the never-ceasing rush and movement and life about him, he observed, out of the corner of his eye, a man sidling toward him.

Johnny had that sixth sense which is alike the property of the scientist, the detective and the thief. He was immediately sensitive to what he called the approaching spirit, and long before the shabby stranger had spoken to him, he knew that he was the objective. Nearer at hand, he recognised the stranger as a man he had seen in Dartmoor, and remembered that he had come to prison at the same time as Fenner and for the same offence, though he had been released soon after Johnny had passed through that grim gateway.

"I followed you down here, Mr. Gray, but I didn't like to talk to you in the street," said the stranger, apparently immersed in an evening newspaper, and talking, as such men talk, without moving his lips.

Johnny waited, wondering what was the communication, and not doubting that it had to do with Fenner.

"Old Fenner's been 'shopped 'by Legge," said the man, "He went to knock off some silver from a house in Berkeley Square, and Shilto was waiting in the hall for him."

"How do you know Legge shopped him?" asked Johnny, interested.

"It was a 'shop' all right," said the other without troubling to explain. "If you can put in a good word for Fenner, he'd be much obliged."

"But, my dear fellow," said John with a little smile, "to whom can I put in a good word? In the present circumstances I couldn't put a word in for my own maiden aunt. I'll see what I can do."

There was no need to tell the furtive man to go. With all a thief's keen perceptions he had seen the eyes of Johnny Gray light up, and with a sidelong glance assured himself as to the cause. Johnny went toward the girl with long strides, and, oblivious to curious spectators and Peter Kane alike, took both her hands in his. Her loveliness always came to him in the nature of a glorious surprise. The grace and poise of her were indefinite quantities that he could not keep exactly in his mind, and inevitably she surpassed his impressions of her.

After he had handed the girl into a taxi, the older man beckoned him aside.

"I'm not any too sure about this Highlow dinner," he said. "Love feasts are not Emanuel's specialities, and there's a kick coming somewhere, Johnny. I hope you're prepared for it?"

Johnny nodded.

"Emanuel isn't usually so obvious," he said. "In fact, the whole thing is so patent and so crude that I can't suspect anything more than an attempt to straighten matters as far as Marney is concerned."

Peter's face clouded.

"There will be no straightening there," he said shortly. "If he has committed bigamy, he goes down for it. Understand that, Johnny. It will be very unpleasant because of Marney's name being dragged into the light, but I'm going through with it."

He turned away with a wave of his hand, and Johnny returned to the girl.

"What is the matter with father?" she asked as the taxi drew out of the station. "He is so quiet and thoughtful these days. I suppose the poor dear's worrying about me, though he needn't, for I never felt happier."

"Why?" asked Johnny, indiscreetly.

"Because—oh, well, because," she said, her face flushing the faintest shade of pink. "Because I'm unmarried, for one thing. I hated the idea, Johnny. You don't know how I hated it. I understand now poor daddy's anxiety to get me married into respectable society." Her sense of humour, always irrepressible, overcame her anxiety. "I wonder if you understand my immoral sense of importance at the discovery that poor father has done so many illegal things! I suppose it is the kink that he has transmitted to me."

"Was it a great shock to you, Marney?" interrupted the young man quietly.

She nodded. "Yes, but shocks are like blows—they hurt and they fade. It isn't pleasant to be twisted violently to another angle of view. It pains horribly, Johnny. But I think when I found—" She hesitated.

"When you found that I was a thief."

"When I found that you were—oh, Johnny, why did you? You had so many advantages; you were a University man, a gentleman—Johnny, it wasn't big of you. There's an excuse for daddy; he told me about his youth and his struggles and the fearful hardness of living. But you had opportunities that he never had. Easy money isn't good money, is it, Johnny?"

He was silent, and then, with a quick, breath-catching sigh, she smiled again.

"I haven't come out to lecture you, and I shall not even ask you if, for my sake, you will go straight in the future. Because, Johnny"—she dropped a cool palm on the back of his hand – "I'm not going to do anything like the good fairy in the storybooks and try to save you from yourself."

"I'm saved," said Johnny, with a quizzical smile. "You're perfectly right: there was no reason why I should be a thief. I was the victim of circumstances. It was possibly the fascination of the game—no, no, it wasn't that. One of these days I will tell you why I left the straight path of virtue. It is a long and curious story."

She made no further reference to his fall, and throughout the lunch was her own gay self. Looking down at her hand, Johnny saw, with satisfaction, that the platinum wedding-ring she had worn had been replaced by a small, plain gold ring, ornamented with a single turquoise, and his breath came faster. He had first met her at a gymkhana, a country fair which had been organised for charity, and the ring had been the prize he had won at a shooting match, one of the gymkhana features—though it was stretching terminology to absurd lengths so to describe the hotch-potch of contests which went to the making of the programme—and had offered it to her as whimsically as it had been accepted. Its value was something under a pound. To Johnny, all the millions in the world would not have given him the joy that its appearance upon her finger gave him now.

After luncheon she returned to the unpleasant side of things.

"Johnny, you're going to be very careful, aren't you? Daddy says that Jeff Legge hates you, and he is quite serious about it. He says that there are no lengths to which Jeffrey and his father will not go to hurt you—and me," she added.

Johnny bent over the table, lowering his voice. "Marney, when this matter is settled—I mean, the release from your marriage—will you take me—whatever I am?"

She met his eyes steadily and nodded. It was the strangest of all proposals, and Jeffrey Legge, who had watched the meeting at the station, had followed her, and now was overlooking them from one of the balconies of the restaurant, flushed a deeper red, guessing all that that scene meant.

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