The Master of Mysteries/The Lady in Taupe
THE LADY IN TAUPE
"EXCUSE me if I appear to patronize you," said the young man, "but you certainly are clever." He twisted up his blond mustache, nodded his head slowly, and smiled.
"My very dear sir," said Astro calmly, "what you call my cleverness is the product of innate gifts, years of study, and infinite thought and contemplation. You are the clever one."
"How so?" The palmist's client raised his eyebrows, as a woman might. His deep blue eyes sparkled, lighted with a strong sense of humor.
"Clever to have come here—for the purpose you did. I assure you that you could have found no better place, though I confess I shall be sorry to have my studio reproduced. I shall have to redecorate it."
"What do you think I came here for, then?" Some of the self-assurance had vanished from the young man's face.
Astro looked about calmly and pointed with the stem of his narghile as he spoke. "That granite Thoth could be easily imitated in papier-mache. One can hire rugs, and pay for the rent by advertising on the program. There should be a door there, R. U. E., of course, and the divan should be brought down front so that your leading lady can sit on it and look up over her shoulder when her lover leans on the back of it. You can't escape that sort of love scene, you know, in a modern drama."
The young man laughed heartily. Then he said, "By Jove! you've struck it! I am an actor."
"No, you're not," said Astro. "You're a playwright, and a successful one."
The young man jumped up and banged his fist on the table. "What do you think of that!" he exclaimed.
Astro smiled cryptically. Then, "With considerable literary ambition, as well."
His client sat down again as suddenly, and stared at the Seer. "See here! I want to tell you something. I had no idea of coming to you for advice. All I wanted was local color, as you've discovered. I wanted hints as to setting, props, and business. I wanted a good characterization. And, by Jove! I wish you'd play my Granthope! But never mind that. I'd just like to ask you a question about a queer experience I've had lately. You've convinced me that you know some things."
Astro handed him a small silver box. "Have one of my cigarettes," he said. "There are not more than four or five hundred left in the world. They were given me by an army officer who once helped Diaz. Now go on with your story."
"My name is Pinkard, Lionel Pinkard," said the young man, "and, as you discovered, I am a playwright. I've written a book,—too that is, it's almost finished—and it's going to make a sensation—in more ways than one. Plays are all right for making money; but half the audience doesn't know or care who's the author. I confess I want fame. By Jove! that cigarette is sweet! A bit too mild, though, for me. Well,— let's see,—it was after A Run of Luck was put on. I was working on The Chameleon—that was when I first saw the Lady in Taupe."
"The Lady in Taupe!" Astro repeated the phrase with humor.
"That's what I called her. She always used to wear that color—'taupe,' you know a sort of purplish-gray, something like what they call 'London smoke,' only lighter. A gown with good lines, too. She always wore it, usually with black lynx furs."
"Where did you see her?"
"Everywhere; that's the funny part of it. This very day I saw her breakfasting at Mouquin's, at the next table. She's always near me. About two months ago she began. I say began, because it has happened too often to be accidental. She passed me in the street. Next day she stood on a corner waiting for a car. A mighty pretty girl, too—small head—you know how that makes a girl look taller and helps her figure; most women are built like dwarfs nowadays—deep brown eyes, a delicious mouth, and a touch of originality in her expression on account of a small scar on the left side of her chin. It's positively a beauty-spot, more like a dimple than a scar, and it crinkles up when she smiles. Well, I've run into her almost every day since then—and she's never moved an eyelash to show she recognized me. But she's up to something. She's always right in my way and never notices me. She's got me going, there's no doubt about that."
"Have you ever followed her?"
"Yes, I confess I've tried several times; but she has always given me the slip, or else I was clumsy."
"Well, what do you wish me to do about it?"
"I want to know what the lady's up to."
"That's simple enough. She wants to get an engagement."
"Why doesn't she ask me, then?"
"Ah, no doubt she will. She wants to make an impression, first. You know what a hard struggle it is for a girl without influence to get an engagement. She wants to get you curious, interested. I fancy she's heard you are to have a new play produced, and though the author doesn't always have much to say as to the cast, you are established and could probably help her."
"That's true enough. In my contracts I reserve a power of veto as to members of the cast, and I naturally have some weight, though there's a terrific amount of influence in these things. But it seems an elaborate method, I must say!"
"Well, I've heard of how the girls have to struggle. It strikes me she's clever. I'm curious to know what she will say when her time comes."
"So am I. I hope she'll spring her trap soon."
"And how is your book coming on?"
"Nearly finished. It's more or less of an exposé of society, and I hope will make talk. I'll send you a copy; that is, if your diagnosis proves correct in regard to the Lady in Taupe. If not, my dear Astro, I shall conclude you are merely a clever guesser."
The tone was such that Astro could not be offended at the banter. He rose smilingly to show Pinkard out. The young man gave Valeska, who was busy in the waiting-room, a sharp glance as he left.
"How did you know he was a playwright?" she asked the Master.
"I was in my laboratory when he came into the room, and watched him unobserved. He took in the whole studio at a glance, very interestedly. He went back to the door to get the effect as it would appear in a stage set, from the orchestra. He viewed it, as few do, as a whole, not in detail. Almost every one who enters inspects the curios and furnishings one by one. He summed up the general effect. By his appearance I knew him to be a man with brains. Few men of business can afford the time for a morning call, unless they wish some definite information. He had not the appearance of the idle rich; yet he was well-off. A literary man can use his inventive faculty not more than four hours a day without excessive fatigue; consequently he has time left in which to amuse himself. And finally, when he opened his coat for a pencil, I saw a typewritten manuscript in his inside pocket."
"He might have been an actor."
"It was not a part in a play that he had; they're bound up in smaller shape. Besides, he had none of the vanity of the actor. He was so sure of himself that he didn't feel the need of impressing any one."
"He might have been reading a play for a friend."
"The manuscript was full of pencil corrections. It was not a final draft, and would be almost undecipherable, except to the author. But, as far as that goes, almost every man who writes has an unfinished play up his sleeve. It was a safe guess."
"Well, what of the Lady in Taupe, then? I'm interested in her."
"What I surmised is probably true; but I suspect something deeper than that. It's a bit elaborate, as he said. It's a clever scheme, and may turn out to be still cleverer than it looks."
"I'd like to have a look at her. It takes a woman to read women."
"True. I believe it would be amusing to have you see her. The more I think of it, the more curious I am. I'll tell you. I'll ring Pinkard up and find out what he's going to do to-morrow."
He took up the telephone that evening and had a short conversation with the playwright. The next morning he said to Valeska:
"Pinkard will leave his house on West Seventy-fifth Street to-day at about ten o'clock, go to Dayton's office, lunch at the Grill Club, attend a rehearsal of his play Wild-fire at the Monster Theater in the afternoon, then go to the Park Riding Academy, dine at the Grill Club, and go to see Marlowe this evening at the Broadway. Knowing his itinerary, you can't miss him, and you'll probably see her, as she hasn't appeared for two days, and seldom misses it longer than that."
That evening Valeska returned with her report. "I saw her!" she exclaimed exultantly. "She's a beauty, too! I liked her at first sight. I followed him to Dayton's office, and she met him in Forty-second Street, almost the first thing."
"Where did she go?"
"That's the queer part of it. After she had passed him she waited on the corner of Forty-second and Broadway. An automobile came along with a lady in it—a really swell girl—stopped, and the Lady in Taupe got in. What do you think of that?"
"Number of the automobile?"
Valeska consulted a paper in her purse. "99,954." Astro went into the little library in his waiting-room and took down the automobile list for the state of New York. He looked up the number, and then whistled softly. "Why, that was Helen Van Amsterdam!"
Valeska's eyebrows rose. "The heiress?"
"It must have been. That's the number of the Van Amsterdam's automobile, at least."
"Then I don't see why the Lady in Taupe should be looking for an engagement, if she has such rich friends."
"Oh, that doesn't signify. But there's something queer about it. Well, we can't take any more time; I have too many important things to attend to. We'll just file that information for reference. We may hear from Pinkard again."
He did hear from Pinkard, in fact, within the week. The playwright came in one morning, as handsome, confident, and debonair as ever. He took a new critical look at the studio, then sat down as Astro came in, and said:
"Well, the Lady of Taupe has called on me at last!"
"Yes?""You were quite right—as far as you went. She wanted a part in the cast of The Chameleon, and waxed eloquent over her attempts to get an engagement. You should have heard her talk! That girl has magnetism, all right. She played as pretty a scene, for an hour, in my library as I've ever watched on the stage. She did imitations of Mansfield and Cissy Lof
"She played as pretty a scene in my library as I've ever watched on the stage."
"Ah, but!" said Astro. "There was something else, then?"
"I should say so! After she had left, I went into my study, and found that it had been visited by burglars."
Astro betrayed no surprise; but his brows bent into a new tense curve. He leaned forward and looked at Pinkard intently. "And what was missing? Wait!" He suddenly raised a warning finger. "Don't tell me! I'll get it, perhaps—I have a feeling." He dropped his head into his hands for a few moments, then looked at Pinkard through half-shut eyes. "Not the manuscript of your new book?"
Pinkard slapped his hand on his knee. "By Jove! you've got it! See here, you'll have to take this on!"
"Anything else gone?"
"Nothing. I had a little safe in the wall, but it was untouched."
"A very pretty game, indeed."
"Wasn't it slick? Of course, she held me there while they worked it. I can't imagine how they ever got in, though. The back door shows no sign of having been forced, it was bolted on the inside. No fire-escapes available. It's a small apartment-house, and rather old-fashioned. But why any one should want that manuscript, I don't know."
"You have no other copy?"
"No, I wrote it on the typewriter myself, and was too lazy to make carbon copies. I haven't even my first draft of the thing. And I wouldn't attempt to rewrite it for all my hopes of fame and fortune! I'm no Carlyle. I've simply got to get it back! And there's no use going to the police for a thing like that, as you ought to know. If it isn't diamonds or money, they'll do nothing."
"Tell me something about the novel."
"Why, I hadn't decided upon a name yet; but it was by way of being a social satire. I've been about a good deal, you know, in New York, and know the fastest part of the smart set, and not a few of the others. It was pretty frank, an exposé, really, as I told you. Of course, I have toned it down in some places and raised things to a higher power in others. It's a bit sensational; but I've taken good care to change episodes and details so that no one of the characters could be identified. I'm not altogether a cad. But it's all true to life; what might happen any day in New York, and seen from the inside, too."
"How many people know that you were writing it?"
"Oh, I've made no secret of it. Any one who wanted to could have found out."
"Very well. I'll be up this afternoon to look about. The Lady in Taupe called in the evening, I take it?"
"Yes, at about eight o'clock. I'm seldom in at that hour. I can't imagine how she should know I was at home. Funny thing, too, I have almost always met her in the forenoon, usually within a half-hour of the time I left my flat."
"Did you promise her a place in The Chameleon?"
"Why, I said I'd do what I could. She interested me, and might go well for my heavy woman, though a bit too young. But of course, now, I'll see that she doesn't get in. It's not likely that she'll let me see her again, anyway."
"On the contrary," said Astro, "you'll see her as much as ever."
Astro and Valeska called at the Vanberg apartments that afternoon at three o'clock and went carefully over Pinkard's rooms. To Valeska's surprise, their call lasted only fifteen minutes, and then Astro, pleading another engagement, took his leave. She did not question him, being busy trying to puzzle out the mystery for herself; but, when he stopped at the front door down-stairs and rang the janitor's bell, she gave a little cry of triumph.
"Oh, I begin to see!" she exclaimed.
"I should hope so! It's too ridiculously simple. Half the flat burglaries in New York are done that way."
"But who helped? She couldn't do it alone."
"That's what we'll have to make sure of. I can only guess, just now. But here's the janitor. Have you any flats to rent in the building?"
The janitor looked them over before replying. "Well, there's a party wants to move out if she can find a good tenant to sublet to," he said.
"May we see the apartment?"
"She's not in, I think; but I guess it'll be all right. She's in a great hurry to rent, and I promised to help her. It's up on the third floor."
Valeska pressed Astro's arm in glee. Pinkard lived on the third floor! They were taken up, and the door unlocked.
"She's been here only a little while," said the janitor. "She didn't move in all her furniture; but you can get an idea what the place is like."
They walked rapidly through the place. Only one room was fitted up, and that but scantily, with only the requisites. The kitchen contained a few utensils, and it was evident that the occupant of the apartment took her meals outside. Astro walked to the dumb-waiter and lifted the sliding door. Opposite, only three feet away, was the corresponding door into Pinkard's kitchen. A glance at Valeska was hardly necessary. She nodded her head emphatically.
"Who lives here?" Astro asked.
"A Miss Demming. She's an actress, I hear. A pretty girl she is, too."
"Well, I'll come and see her. Much obliged, I'm sure."
"Do you think you will take it?" the janitor asked.
"I'm afraid it's too small," said the Seer, as they went out.
They were hesitating in the vestibule, and the janitor had left them, when Valeska exclaimed, "Why, there she is now!"
Astro looked out. A very pretty woman was walking toward them. By Pinkard's description alone he would have known her, even in her spring costume, for the Lady in Taupe. She held her head erect, ran up the steps, and, as they made way for her, entered the vestibule. Astro turned in time to see her open the letter-box of the third-floor suite. She took a key from her pocketbook, unlocked the door, and went upstairs without looking behind her.
"Which," said Astro, smiling, "explains how she is able to know so easily when Pinkard is at home, and when he leaves to walk abroad."
"And how the flat was entered while she held him spellbound with her talk," added Valeska.
"But not how she is able to afford an eighty-five-dollar a month flat when she's out of a job," Astro scowled.
"Nor who it was who climbed across the shaft, entered Pinkard's kitchen, and ransacked his study."
Astro finished, "For further particulars I think we'll have to apply to Miss Van Amsterdam."
"Oh!" said Valeska.
"I forgot to tell you that Pinkard was once engaged to Miss Van Amsterdam. She threw him over in a particularly nasty way two years ago, when she was engaged for a time to Count Vinola."
"How did you find that out?"
"The steward of the Grill Club owns a half interest in the Peerless Restaurant, though few of the members know it. I lunched there this noon, and gave him some tips on the stock market. Now that Mr. Calendon is a power in Wall Street, he doesn't forget his friends. The steward was duly grateful, and told me several interesting things. I shall cultivate him in the future."
"Ah!" Valeska looked up, smiling. "So Miss Van Amsterdam was afraid of being exposed in his book, was she? Well, I hope she'll read the manuscript quickly."
"Yes," said Astro, as they walked back to the studio, "I hardly think it will be necessary for us to do anything more. I venture to make a prophecy. The Lady in Taupe will call on Pinkard again within three days, and the manuscript will be returned. See if I'm not right. I'm going to write Pinkard to that effect to-night, and enclose my bill for one hundred dollars."
It was four days afterward when Pinkard made his third appearance at the studio, smiling broadly. "By Jove, Astro!" he said, "I wish really you'd tell me how you did it! I need it for my play. I'll swear it's too much for me!"
"Well, what happened?"
"I don't see why I need tell you, by Jove!" Pinkard shook his head. "You've certainly got your crystal ball well trained. I wish I could make my character Granthope as sensational as you are. I've got your studio all right; but I think I'll have to get you to take the part. You could make an audience believe anything. Of course I got the manuscript back, as you said I should."
"Is your play cast yet?"
Pinkard laughed outright. "Part of it. What do you think? We've signed the Lady in Taupe for the heavy woman, after all. She's an adventuress, all right! Talk about romance in every-day life! She made a grandstand play with me for fair!"
"Do tell me about it."
"Well, last night she turned up again, as bold as brass. I taxed her with being accessory to a felony, and she only laughed, by Jove! She swore it was all a joke, just to awaken my interest in her, and then she promised that the manuscript would be returned if I gave her a part. Well, the audacity of it tickled me just enough to accept. I wanted to see if it was a bluff. And what do you think? She said, as soon as I consented to the bargain, that I'd find the manuscript on my study table. I raced in immediately, and there it was! Here's your hundred dollars. You're a wizard. Sometimes I suspect that you were in cahoots with the Lady in Taupe and planned the whole thing yourself. But who on earth is she, anyway?"
Astro chuckled good-naturedly. "I'm not wise enough to know that. She is certainly clever, though. If you hadn't engaged her, I think I should."
"Well," said Pinkard, rising to take his leave, "there are tricks in all trades, they say. I won't inquire into yours; but if I want any more sleuthing done, I'll know where to go. I'll certainly send you a box for the opening night of The Chameleon. I'm going to rewrite that part for the Lady in Taupe, by Jove! It wasn't half good enough for her as it was."
"Well, Valeska," said Astro, "that proves again the value of a knowledge of human nature plus a friend 'below stairs.' I fancy Miss Van Amsterdam must have a rather guilty conscience to be so afraid of the revelations of Pinkard's book. She certainly secured a clever assistant in the Lady in Taupe. It must have cost nearly a thousand dollars to put that little game through. I'd rather like to know, though, whether it was the heiress herself who crawled through the door across the shaft. At any rate, it was lucky for Pinkard that he wasn't a cad, as he said. I'm afraid his book would have never seen the light, else."
Valeska placed her hand lightly on the Seer's shoulder. "But you didn't mean—I mean, you wouldn't really have engaged the Lady in Taupe as your assistant—would you?"
His answer was not in words; but Valeska was apparently satisfied. It was evident that she had no longer a fear of any such dilemma.