The Silent Barrier
“Yes, sir; just arrived. What name?”
“Charles K. Spencer.”
The letter clerk seized a batch of correspondence and sorted it with nimble fingers. The form of the question told him that Spencer was interested in letters stamped for the greater part with bland presentments of bygone Presidents of the United States. In any event, he would have known, by long experience of the type, that the well dressed, straight limbed, strong faced young man on the other side of the counter was an American. He withdrew four missives from the bundle. His quick eyes saw that three bore the Denver postmark, and the fourth hailed from Leadville.
“That is all at present, sir,” he said. “Would you like your mail sent to your room in future, or shall I keep it here?”
“Right here, please, in No. 20 slot. I could receive a reply by cable while I was going and coming along my corridor.”
The clerk smiled deferentially. He appreciated not only the length of the corridor, but the price paid by the tenant of a second floor suite overlooking the river.
“Very well, sir,” he said, glancing again at Spencer, “I will attend to it;” and he took a mental portrait of the man who could afford to hire apartments that ranked among the most expensive in the hotel. Obviously, the American was a recent arrival. His suite had been vacated by a Frankfort banker only three days earlier, and this was the first time he had asked for letters. Even the disillusioned official was amused by the difference between the two latest occupants of No. 20, – Herr Bamberger, a tub of a man, bald headed and bespectacled, and this alert, sinewy youngster, with the cleancut features of a Greek statue, and the brilliant, deep set, earnest eyes of one to whom thought and action were alike familiar.
Spencer, fully aware that he was posing for a necessary picture, examined the dates on his letters, nipped the end off a green cigar, helped himself to a match from a box tendered by a watchful boy, crossed the entrance hall, and descended a few steps leading to the inner foyer and restaurant. At the foot of the stairs he looked about for a quiet corner. The luncheon hour was almost ended. Groups of smokers and coffee drinkers were scattered throughout the larger room, which widened out below a second short flight of carpeted steps. The smaller anteroom in which he stood was empty, save for a few people passing that way from the restaurant, and he decided that a nook near a palm shaded balcony offered the retreat he sought.
He little dreamed that he was choosing the starting point of the most thrilling adventure in a life already adventurous; that the soft carpet of the Embankment Hotel might waft him to scenes not within the common scope. That is ever the way of true romance. Your knight errant may wander in the forest for a day or a year, – he never knows the moment when the enchanted glade shall open before his eyes; nay, he scarce has seen the weeping maiden bound to a tree ere he is called in to couch his lance and ride a-tilt at the fire breathing dragon. It was so when men and maids dwelt in a young world; it is so now; and it will be so till the crack of doom. Manners may change, and costume; but hearts filled with the wine of life are not to be altered. They are fashioned that way, and the world does not vary, else Eve might regain Paradise, and all the fret and fume have an end.
Charles K. Spencer, then, would certainly have been the most astonished, though perhaps the most self possessed, man in London had some guardian sprite whispered low in his ear what strange hazard lay in his choice of a chair. If such whisper were vouchsafed to him he paid no heed. Perhaps his occupancy of that particular corner was preordained. It was inviting, secluded, an upholstered backwash in the stream of fashion; so he sat there, nearly stunned a waiter by asking for a glass of water, and composed himself to read his letters.
The waiter hesitated. He was a Frenchman, and feared he had not heard aright.
“What sort of water, sir,” he asked, – “Vichy, St. Galmier, Apollinaris?”
Spencer looked up. He thought the man had gone. “No, none of those,” he said. “Just plain, unemotional water, —eau naturelle, – straight from the pipe, – the microbe laden fluid that runs off London tiles most days. I haven’t been outside the hotel during the last hour; but if you happen to pass the door I guess you’ll see the kind of essence I mean dripping off umbrellas. If you don’t keep it in the house, try to borrow a policeman’s cape and shoot a quart into a decanter.”
The quelled waiter hurried away and brought a carafe. Spencer professed to be so pleased with his rare intelligence that he gave him a shilling. Then he opened the envelop with the Leadville postmark. It contained a draft for 205 pounds, 15 shillings, 11 pence, and the accompanying letter from a firm of solicitors showed that the remittance of a thousand dollars was the moiety of the proceeds of a clean-up on certain tailings taken over by the purchasers of the Battle Mountain tunnel. The sum was not a large one; but it seemed to give its recipient such satisfaction that the movement of chairs on the floor of the big room just beneath failed to draw his attention from the lawyer’s statement.
A woman’s languid, well bred voice broke in on this apparently pleasant reverie.
“Shall we sit here, Helen?”
“Anywhere you like, dear. It is all the same to me. Thanks to you, I am passing an afternoon in wonderland. I find my surroundings so novel and entertaining that I should still be excited if you were to put me in the refrigerator.”
The eager vivacity of the second speaker – the note of undiluted and almost childlike glee with which she acknowledged that a visit to a luxurious hotel was a red letter day in her life – caused the man to glance at the two young women who had unconsciously disturbed him. Evidently, they had just risen from luncheon in the restaurant, and meant to dispose themselves for a chat. It was equally clear that each word they uttered in an ordinary conversational tone must be audible to him. They were appropriating chairs which would place the plumes of their hats within a few inches of his feet. When seated, their faces would be hidden from him, save for a possible glimpse of a profile as one or other turned toward her companion. But for a few seconds he had a good view of both, and he was young enough to find the scrutiny to his liking.
At the first glance, the girl who was acting as hostess might be deemed the more attractive of the pair. She was tall, slender, charmingly dressed, and carried herself with an assured elegance that hinted of the stage. Spencer caught a glint of corn flower blue eyes beneath long lashes, and a woman would have deduced from their color the correct explanation of a blue sunshade, a blue straw hat, and a light cape of Myosotis blue silk that fell from shapely shoulders over a white lace gown.
The other girl, – she who answered to the name of Helen, – though nearly as tall and quite as graceful, was robed so simply in muslin that she might have provided an intentional contrast. In the man’s esteem she lost nothing thereby. He appraised her by the fine contour of her oval face, the wealth of glossy brown hair that clustered under her hat, and the gleam of white teeth between lips of healthy redness. Again, had he looked through a woman’s eyes, he would have seen how the difference between Bond-st. and Kilburn as shopping centers might be sharply accentuated. But that distinction did not trouble him. Beneath a cold exterior he had an artist’s soul, and “Helen” met an ideal.
“Pretty as a peach!” he said to himself, and he continued to gaze at her. Indeed, for an instant he forgot himself, and it was not until she spoke again that he realized how utterly oblivious were both girls of his nearness.
“I suppose everybody who comes here is very rich,” was her rather awe-stricken comment.
Her companion laughed. “How nice of you to put it that way! It makes me feel quite important. I lunch or dine or sup here often, and the direct inference is that I am rolling in wealth.”
“Well, dear, you earn a great deal of money – ”
“I get twenty pounds a week, and this frock I am wearing cost twenty-five. Really, Helen, you are the sweetest little goose I ever met. You live in London, but are not of it. You haven’t grasped the first principle of social existence. If I dressed within my means, and never spent a sovereign until it was in my purse, I should not even earn the sovereign. I simply must mix with this crowd whether I can afford it or not.”
“But surely you are paid for your art, not as a mannikin. You are almost in the front rank of musical comedy. I have seen you occasionally at the theater, and I thought you were the best dancer in the company.”
“What about my singing?”
“You have a very agreeable and well trained voice.”
“I’m afraid you are incorrigible. You ought to have said that I sang better than I danced, and the fib would have pleased me immensely; we women like to hear ourselves praised for accomplishments we don’t possess. No, my dear, rule art out of the cast and substitute advertisement. Did you notice a dowdy creature who was lunching with two men on your right? She wore a brown Tussore silk and a turban – well, she writes the ‘Pars About People’ in ‘The Daily Journal.’ I’ll bet you a pair of gloves that you will see something like this in to-morrow’s paper: ‘Lord Archie Beaumanoir entertained a party of friends at the Embankment Hotel yesterday. At the next table Miss Millicent Jaques, of the Wellington Theater, was lunching with a pretty girl whom I did not know. Miss Jaques wore an exquisite,’ etc., etc. Fill in full details of my personal appearance, and you have the complete paragraph. The public, the stupid, addle-headed public, fatten on that sort of thing, and it keeps me going far more effectively than my feeble attempts to warble a couple of songs which you could sing far better if only you made up your mind to come on the stage. But there! After such unwonted candor I must have a smoke. You won’t try a cigarette? Well, don’t look so shocked. This isn’t a church, you know.”
Spencer, who had listened with interest to Miss Jaques’s outspoken views, suddenly awoke to the fact that he was playing the part of an eavesdropper. He had all an American’s chivalrous instincts where women were concerned, and his first impulse was to betake himself and his letters to his own room. Yet, when all was said and done, he was in a hotel; the girls were strangers, and likely to remain so; and it was their own affair if they chose to indulge in unguarded confidences. So he compromised with his scruples by pouring out a glass of water, replacing the decanter on its tray with some degree of noise. Then he struck an unnecessary match and applied it to his cigar before opening the first of the Denver letters.
As his glance was momentarily diverted, he did not grasp the essential fact that neither of the pair was disturbed by his well meant efforts. Millicent Jaques was lighting a cigarette, and this, to a woman, is an all absorbing achievement, while her friend was so new to her palatial surroundings that she had not the least notion of the existence of another open floor just above the level of her eyes.
“I don’t know how in the world you manage to exist,” went on the actress, tilting herself back in her chair to watch the smoke curling lazily upward. “What was it you said the other day when we met? You are some sort of secretary and amanuensis to a scientist? Does that mean typewriting? And what is the science?”
“Professor von Eulenberg is a well known man,” was the quiet reply. “I type his essays and reports, it is true; but I also assist in his classification work, and it is very interesting.”
“What does he classify?”
“Oh, how horrid! Do you ever see any?”
“I should find one enough. If it is a fair question, what does your professor pay you?”
“Thirty shillings a week. In his own way he is as poor as I am.”
“And do you mean to tell me that you can live in those nice rooms you took me to, and dress decently on that sum?”
“I do, as a matter of fact; but I have a small pension, and I earn a little by writing titbits of scientific gossip for ‘The Firefly.’ Herr von Eulenberg helps. He translates interesting paragraphs from the foreign technical papers, and I jot them down, and by that means I pick up sufficient to buy an extra hat or wrap, and go to a theater or a concert. But I have to be careful, as my employer is absent each summer for two months. He goes abroad to hunt new specimens, and of course I am not paid then.”
“Is he away now?”
“And how do you pass your time?”