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The Master of Silence: A Romance, a novel by Irving Bacheller

Chapter 8

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On the day of our appointment for dinner at Mr. Paddington's the newspapers were filled with accounts of a sensational bank robbery, which had occurred in Wall Street the night before. Between midnight and one o'clock in the morning, thieves had entered the Metropolitan Bank, overpowered the watchman, broken into the vaults and stolen half a million dollars in currency without leaving any clew behind them of the slightest value to the police. The subject interested Rayel intensely, and at our breakfast that morning we talked of little else.

"When they have found the thieves what will they do with them?" he asked.

"Send them to prison," I answered, "where thieves are kept apart from the rest of humanity."

"And yet these thieves were not in prison. They could not have robbed the bank if they had been in prison."

"True, but there are a good many thieves in the world who are not suspected. They look like honest men and are highly successful in concealing their dishonesty."

"I should think," he said thoughtfully, "that one would know a thief by his face."

"Remember," said I, "that all men are not like you. Most of them are easily deceived."

"Why, then, Kendric!" he exclaimed joyfully, "I can do some good with this power of mine."

This conversation may seem commonplace enough, but it stands in close relation to important events which will shortly claim our attention. The subject which it introduces was not soon abandoned. We talked about it on our way to the Paddingtons' that evening, where we were cordially received by our host, and introduced to a large company of ladies and gentlemen.

Rayel's wonderful skill with the brush had evidently been the subject of some discussion among Mr. Paddington's guests. It was referred to frequently, and somewhat to the embarrassment of my cousin, in the exchange of greetings that followed our introduction.

Greatly to the relief of my fears Rayel seemed quite at ease. He acknowledged the compliments paid him with gravity and self-possession, but with few words. All eyes were raised to his face, as he stood head and shoulders above a group of ladies and gentlemen who had gathered about him. Never had his presence seemed so magnetic and impressive since the first time I saw him in his father's house. Now, as then, a new inspiration was stirring his blood and charging every nerve with the wonderful magnetism of perfected manhood.

The last person presented to us was a young lady of unusual beauty, whom I noticed for some moments standing across the room in earnest conversation with our host. Presently he made his way toward us with the lady on his arm.

"My daughter, Mr. Lane, whom I shall ask you to escort to dinner," said he, addressing Rayel. After I had been introduced to the young lady she took Rayel's arm, and the company proceeded to the dining-hall. My seat at the table was almost directly opposite Rayel. His grave and dignified demeanor was made doubly conspicuous by the coquettish airs and ready tongue of the young lady who sat beside him. Under a steady fire of compliments and questions and artful glances I saw that he began to grow uneasy.

"That was a beautiful portrait you painted!" exclaimed Miss Paddington, looking sentimental.

"Thank you," said he; "my cousin also admires it, but I must own that it does not quite suit me."

"Perhaps you are an admirer of the lady it represents," said she, peering shyly into his eyes. "The Count de Montalle has fallen in love with her and has borrowed the portrait from my father."

"Ze picture--ah! monsieur, it is beautiful," said the Count, who sat near them. "But ze lady--she sat for me long ago and I had ze honor myself to paint her portrait."

He was a thin, wiry Frenchman, with small, black eyes, a forehead sloping to a bald crown, an aquiline nose and a pointed chin, adorned with an imperial. The face was almost mephistophelian in effect. He had painted her portrait! Was the man an impostor? I asked myself.

"The Count is an artist himself, you know," said Miss Paddington.

"Yes--an artist?" asked Rayel in a half-incredulous tone. Then he looked inquiringly at the gentleman referred to, as if doubtful of his own understanding of the words he had repeated.

"Yes," said the Count with emphasis. "For twenty years I have devote myself to ze art."

"To what art, sir?" asked Rayel, in a tone suggesting doubt.

I was now thoroughly frightened at the serious turn of the dialogue. Was this "Count" a pretender and one of the many bogus noblemen of whom I had read? Rayel was sounding him, that was quite evident. I saw now the mistake I had made in bringing my cousin to such a place.

"Quel impudence!" exclaimed the insulted nobleman, under his breath.

"Forgive me, sir," quickly answered Rayel, "I did not know it was wrong to ask you."

"I wish you would paint my portrait, Mr. Lane," said the young lady, who did not seem to appreciate the gravity of the situation.

"That would be easy enough," he answered.

"Would it? Ah, but I fear you would find me too plain a subject. I am not beautiful, you know, but if I wore my best clothes you might think I would do."

For some time Miss Paddington continued to spin out threads of small talk, while Rayel sat listening. The dinner was nearly over when the climax came which I had already begun to fear.

"It is strange," said Rayel thoughtfully. "You speak what is not true, Miss Paddington. You said that the Prince of Wales gave you the beautiful opal, but tell me--was it not your father who gave it you?"

He waited a moment for her answer.

"Oh, I understand now," he continued. "People do not always speak the truth--do they?"

The young lady turned red with embarrassment, while an unnatural smile played upon her lips.

"But--but what is the use of talking then?" he asked. No one seemed disposed to answer.

"It is strange," he continued, with childlike naivete, turning to the young lady sitting at his left, "you have been laughing as if you were very happy, but you have felt more like weeping. This must be a very sad world!" He ceased speaking as if some suspicion of the pain his words were causing had suddenly come to him.

The whole company turned its eyes upon the two. The young lady's face became suddenly pale and almost horror-stricken. Rayel's words were spoken in such a gentle and sympathetic manner that every one was mystified.

"Have you read about the great robbery that occurred last night?" asked Mr. Paddington, with the evident purpose of diverting attention from the young lady. "The vaults of the Metropolitan Bank on Wall Street were blown open with dynamite, and half a million dollars were stolen. No trace of the thieves has been discovered."

"Too bad!" exclaimed half a dozen of the guests seeking to enhance interest in the subject.

"Zey were very bold about it," said the Count, as he lighted a piece of sugar soaked in cognac and held it over his coffee.

Just at that moment a singular thing happened. The lights grew dim and suddenly went out, as if the gas had been turned off. The burning cognac cast a white flickering light upon the face of the man who had just spoken.

"You say there is no trace of the thieves," said Rayel. "That is strange, for one of them is in this room sitting at your table."

Only one face was visible, and all eyes were turned upon it, for now the effect of that pale light keeping it in view was indescribably weird. The eyes were suddenly turned in the direction of Rayel, and a devilish glare came in them for an instant, when the face suddenly seemed to shrink back into darkness. The ladies and some of their more gallant escorts rushed precipitately from the room. The servants hurried in with candles, but light was no sooner restored than the guests who still remained at table rose, as if by general consent, and left the dining-hall. Miss Paddington and Rayel were the last to leave the table. When they had passed out into the drawing-room her father came and took her arm, bowing coldly to my cousin. It was evident that our presence was no longer desired in the house of the Paddingtons. And no wonder!

"Let us go," I said, proceeding to the coat room. The Count met us on the way.

"You are a liar--a jackass!" he hissed into Rayel's ear.

Hastily drawing on our coats we stepped out into the chilly night air and walked leisurely down the deserted avenue. Neither of us spoke for some moments. Presently Rayel asked:

"What is a jackass?"

He stopped and took my hand as if expecting an answer of great moment.

"A man who always tells the truth in this world--he is a jackass," I replied.

I was a little irritated by the trying experiences we had been through. Perhaps that is why my answer savored so strongly of cynicism. _

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