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Title: Cleopatra's Robe Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200511h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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"I WISH," said Cora Coventry, "I wish that I was the Queen!"
The solitary listener laughed softly. There was a shaded lamp at Cora's pearly elbow, the red drawn silk of which caused the riband across the man's breast to look like blood. As to the rest of the room, it was luxury in shadowland, refinement implied rather than accentuated. Cora Coventry was a tangle of fascinating mysteries. Not the least remarkable of these was whence came her exquisite taste. Perhaps those liquid black eyes were formed for colour, and Cora had commenced life in unmentionable purlieus.
As to the rest, it is not wise, perhaps, to inquire too closely. On the score of finance Lord Lyndon could have spoken with authority had he chosen to do so. Lyndon was rich, a diplomat, and a speaker of parts. Also he was popularly supposed to hold the first place in Cora's affections. The luxury was a costly one, but the friendship of the most fascinating woman in London is not to be obtained by constancy and five farthings.
Lyndon shot a jet of blue smoke in parallel lines from each arched nostril. He lounged back with the narrowed eyes of a connoisseur. Cora was always a picture to him. He liked expensive drawings of this kind.
"What do you want to be a queen for?" he asked.
"Only for this year. Lovely things are a passion with me, you know. And this is the sixtieth year of—O! just try and imagine the presents! I could commit a dozen murders to call them mine."
"I had no idea you had such feelings. Cora, is it possible that you have a heart concealed about you somewhere?"
"Perhaps. There used to be a man I knew once—I have not seen him for years--"
"Cora in love! A new sensation. Tell me all about it."
Cora laughed. The dragon's blood of the lampshade crept into her cheeks.
"I shall do nothing of the kind," she said. "I may never see him again. He could do with me what he pleased. O! he was a man!"
"Which means to imply, Cora?"
"What you will. When are you going to take me to see those presents? What of that wonderful robe that everybody is talking about—Cleopatra's Robe?"
"It isn't there. As you are aware, the same was a present from the Sultan in honour of the Diamond Jubilee, forwarded by a special retinue and all the rest of it. Under existing circumstances a certain gracious Lady declines to receive the gift. Without unnecessary fuss, the offering has been declined, and there is an end of it. Abdul Agiz has still hopes, however."
"Abdul Agiz is the favourite entrusted with the robe?"
"Precisely. His position is what diplomats would call a delicate one. If he goes home without accomplishing his mission he will probably find himself in a permanent berth on the Bosphorus. And he is bound to fail."
Cora followed with the deepest interest. Things rare and beautiful had a wonderful fascination for her. And of all the fabrics in the universe none had a stranger history than the robe, or rather shawl, in question.
Beyond all question the marvellous piece of workmanship had belonged to Cleopatra. Antony might have languished in its brilliant folds. Not a stitch of the remarkable blend of colours had lost a shade in tone. It was of cobweb delicacy with the strength of pliant steel, a woven picture old as the hills. And for all anyone knew to the contrary, the secret of manufacture lay under the Pyramids.
There had been war over those few yards of loomed hair and colour. For generations it had lain hidden in the treasure house at Teheran. Then by some stratagem it had passed into the possession of Turkey, where it had remained ever since. This unique possession had now been refused by a sovereign who looked coldly upon massacre and declined to recognise crime as a regal virtue.
This history Lyndon gave with the enthusiasm of the virtuoso. Cora listened with a pang of regret. She would have liked to have seen this thing, but it was too late now. She laid her hand upon the bell.
"I believe you are telling me this to annoy me," she said. "I am going to turn you out as a punishment. Go away."
Lyndon retired. He had studied the lovely and costly picture quite enough for one night. Satiety in beauty and tobacco alike cloys the palate. Hardlv had he gone when there came the pulsation of the front door bell.
"I can't see him, whoever he is," Cora told her maid.
But it was too late. The intruder was already in the room.
"You will see me," he said coolly. "Send that woman away."
"Yes, go away," Cora said in a curiously choked voice. "So it is you Paul."
The man so addressed smiled. He sank into the padded recesses of a chair with the air of one who is absolutely at home. He had a handsome, almost boyish, face—his blue eyes seemed to glitter with magnetic fire. For the present, he elected to be known as Paul Chaffers. His real name was Felix Gryde.
"You are pleased to see me, Cora?" he said.
"I am always pleased to see you," Cora responded in the same hoarse tones, "passionately pleased. And yet I am frightened also. Why do you frighten me?"
"Because I am your master, I suppose. Really, Cora, we are two wonderful people. Together we might do anything."
"Then why don't we stay together and do it?"
"Because it is the one golden rule of my life never to trust anyone but myself. Still, you are going to help me now, and I am going to help you, and you are going to be paid £10,000 for your trouble, Cora."
"What is the last piece of masterly audacity?"
"I will tell you. Everybody has heard of that wonderful Cleopatra shawl which the Sultan sent over here only to be refused. I am going to annex it."
Cora laughed. There was nothing mocking about her mirth. She was merely amused, and indeed pleased, at the audacity of the suggestion. She knew enough of Gryde to feel certain that he would succeed in his undertaking. She was absolutely in the power of this man, the man of whom she knew nothing. She did not even credit his assertion that Paul Chaffers was his real name. He came and went when he liked; of his aims and pursuits she was hopelessly ignorant. And now, after the lapse of months, he returned, masterful, assured as ever.
"That is a strange thing," she said. "I would give an eye to possess it myself."
"But the thing is absolutely impossible for you."
"And not for you. And yet I am to be your tool in the matter."
"At the rate of some £3,000 per hour, which is a fancy price, Cora. The Persian Government would pay anything in reason for that glorified rag, and so far as I am concerned, the matter is a purely commercial transaction."
"And I am going to pull the chestnut out of the fire."
"Not so as to burn your fingers, beautiful one. Come, Cora, when I say a thing, you know it has to be done."
Cora nodded. A fluttering sigh escaped from her red lips.
"Very well," she said, as if speaking against her will. "Tell me your plans."
"Presently. You asked me just now where I had been lately. For some months I have been located in Pera and Adrianople. I have been learning weaving—look at this."
So saying, Gryde took from his waistcoat pocket a small square of fabric folded many times. With a dexterous movement he shot out his hand, and then, as if by magic, the casket was covered with yards of some exquisitely beautiful material. Cora pounced upon it with a cry of wild delight.
"O, is it not marvellous?" she almost screamed. "Did anyone ever see such exquisite colours and such blending of shades? Look at me, Paul."
She caught up the diaphanous folds of spun daylight and twisted them about her graceful form. The Serpent of Old Nile herself was not more fascinating.
"Paul," she cried, "you wonderful man! This is the Robe of Cleopatra."
"No," Gryde replied, "merely a facsimile of the same. A remarkable old Syrian at Pera told me that. Goodness knows it cost trouble and money enough to get it. That unique weaver has actually repaired the real article (he said one of his ancestors from whom he got the secret actually made it), and he surreptitiously copied the pattern. But for the historic value, one is quite as precious as the other."
"Imprisoned sunshine," said Cora. "Is—is this for me?"
Gryde shook his head with a smile.
"O, no," he said, "that is part of the cosmic scheme. I did not dwell qua Mussulman in one of the dirtiest dens in Europe for weeks to spoil everything by an act of foolish good nature. You are going to the Covent Garden fancy dress ball on Thursday?"
Cora nodded. This sudden change of conversation did not surprise her. And all the time she kept her hold upon the dazzling fabric as if loth to part with it.
"You can keep that till Thursday night if you like!" said Gryde, who seemed to read Cora's mind like an open book, "and when the evening comes you are to take it along, properly hidden. I will give you full instructions when the time comes. To-morrow night you are going to entertain myself and a friend to dinner."
"As you will. I have another engagement, which I will put off. And who may be your victim?— I mean friend — who is coming here?"
Gryde rose and lighted a cigarette. The ghost of a smile flickered about his lips. Cora liked to see him smile; it was, she said, the only assurance she had that he was human.
"The name," she repeated imperiously, "the name?"
"Abdul Agiz," Gryde said drily. "Good-night, fair charmer."
THE weakest part of a man's armour is the strongest, otherwise ordinary mortals would lack the gratifying knowledge that even great men are guilty of doing foolish things. Without doubt Prince Abdul Agiz was one of the astutest subjects of the Ruler of Turkey, but Gryde, who had already formed his acquaintance, had discovered the weak. spot and laid his plans accordingly.
The poetic vein in Abdul Agiz' nature rendered him extremely susceptible where the fair sex were concerned. On a previous occasion he had enjoyed the advantage of a two years' residence in England, so that he was no stranger to our language and customs. Nor had he been here on his present mission long before Cora Coventry had caught his critical eye. And when Gryde offered an introduction, he accepted the offer eagerly.
The evening appointed, Gryde called round at the hotel for his friend. Several times already had he been in the Prince's private room. He knew where the precious robe lay concealed and how jealously it was guarded by Abdul Agiz' suite. The latter received Gryde with effusion.
"You promised to tell me something about a certain charming lady," he said.
"O, yes—about Mrs. Coventry. She is not a widow, as you seem to imagine. Her husband is a distinguished Oriental scholar and diplomatist who is now on his way home from the East; indeed, he may arrive at any time. Next week I could hardly have promised you the privilege I have managed to secure for you to-night."
"Then the lady probably is acquainted with the East as well."
"By no means," Gryde replied. "For some reason or another she detests all mention of it. And yet, strange to say, her favourite servant is a Persian with only a limited knowledge of English. You may get a chance to converse with her. There she is."
By this time the cab had been dismissed, and Gryde and his companion were standing amongst the flowers and ferns in Cora Coventry's vestibule. At the same moment a typical Eastern figure crossed the floor and disappeared.
"It makes one feel quite homely," Abdul Agiz muttered.
In the dimly-lighted drawing-room Cora received them. Abdul was conscious of some white dazzling dream floating around a pair of great liquid eyes that seemed to set him gasping and helpless for the time. Cora took possession of his soul and played with it like a toy. Gryde said little—his chair was a stall, he was watching a play of his own writing. This snake and bird business pleased him.
Then they went into dinner. It is, perhaps, sufficient to say that when Abdul was pressed to take wine he did so. Subsequently he had no recollection of doing anything of the kind. It was all part of the same poetic dream.
Cora rose at length. Abdul's dark eyes followed her rapturously. He remained in a kind of daze, till Gryde suggested a move to the drawing-room. Here cigarettes and coffee after Abdul's own heart awaited them. There was only one crease in the glorious roseleaf; it seemed to the Oriental that Gryde was superfluous.
Almost before Abdul could formulate this thought a servant entered bearing upon a tray a telegram, which he handed to Gryde. The latter read with a gesture of annoyance.
"I am afraid I shall have to leave you," he said. "My message is most peremptory."
Figments of the condemnatory side of the Koran came to Abdul's lips. Then he lolled in the lap of Paradise again as Cora bade him stay. Why should he go because Gryde was called away? she asked. Gryde echoed the sentiment.
Then followed the most dreamy, delightful hour Abdul Agiz had ever passed in his life. He made no attempt to stem the stream of fascination; on the contrary, he lay down and allowed it to flow over him.
Cora put forth all her powers. Her claims were silken; but then beauty leads us by a single hair. Abdul never quite realised himself till he felt the cool night breeze on his face as he turned homeward.
He had promised to do something. What was it? The dream began to slowly disentangle itself from its rosy intricate folds. How wonderfully seductive the music had been! What marvellous eyes Cora had!
O, yes, Abdul had it at last. He promised to aid and abet Cora in a delightful escapade. She was going alone and incognito on Thursday to a fancy dress ball at Covent Garden. Abdul had received minute instructions as to what she was going to wear. She would go unmasked, and then--
A look from the luminous eyes filled the hiatus. Would Abdul try and be there? Might dogs defile the grave of his revered grandmother if he failed. To put it plainly, no lunatic on the right side of Bedlam was ever more helplessly lost in love than Abdul at that moment. There was a lightness in his head, a strange elasticity of limb. The stars seem to bend and whisper of Cora to him. A day with her was worth a cycle of Cathay—or any other place for the matter of that. Constantinople and the Sultan's wrath, the doom of failure receded in the roseate mist.
"Will I not be there!" Abdul murmured. "Will I not! Surely such a creature never drew the breath of life... and I am not without experience. To kiss those lips... I suppose they have been kissed. Who knows but what I—but that is nonsense. I exist merely till Thursday—till then a clod, a vegetable."
All of which goes to prove that Abdul Agiz was very far gone indeed.
* * * * *
A thousand lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men. Very seldom had Covent Garden presented a more brilliant and attractive appearance—a trifle shoddy, perhaps, if analysed, but it does not do to be hypercritical in such matters.
Nathless, the band was perfection, a great proportion of the dresses striking and original. Well-known faces looked from the boxes, a few society people on the floor leavened the lump. Half in shadow, a tall, graceful figure in black, with startling white splashes on her dress, stood as if waiting for someone. Her features were partially concealed in a lace shawl. A vivid smile gave expression to the scarlet lips.
Presently there passed by her a slightly almond-eyed foreigner. He, too, seemed on the look-out for someone. He started as he saw the magpie figure. Despite his outward calm he thrilled to his finger tips.
"You?" he whispered, tentatively.
Cora laughed. With a caressing gesture she slipped her fingers under Abdul's arm.
"I thought you had forsaken me," she whispered. "Shall we dance?"
But, alas! in this respect Abdul's education had been neglected. Still, so long as Cora graciously inclined to palmy seclusion and tender confidence, it mattered little. Abdul was annoyed presently to find it supper-time. He begged for another few minutes, but Cora was obdurate.
"I am mortal," she said, flashing her teeth in a brilliant smile, "and you are insatiable. Come! I will give you a little time afterwards, and perhaps--"
Abdul understood, or thought he did, which came to the same thing. The honied treasure of the scarlet lips might yet be his. As for the supper, it was a mere frittering away of golden moments. Cora chattered idly, Abdul listening.
"Is not this delightful?" she said. "Gather your- Ah!"
The words seemed to be frozen on her lips, her eyes filled with terror. Some person or thing there seemed to fascinate Cora.
"What is it?" Abdul asked.
"Ah! You see that man, the big man with the stern face supping alone by the side of that oleander, yonder? Don't stare, look."
"I see the man. Why should you be afraid of him?"
"For the best of all possible reasons. He is my husband."
Abdul started. The climax bid fair to be a dramatic one.
"Your husband has returned unexpectedly," he said lamely.
"O, yes. That is one of his virtues, you understand. If Jasper was to discover I had visited a place like this alone he would kill me. And yet he must suspect something. You cannot possibly imagine how jealous he is. And he knows this dress."
"We can escape by yonder door. Then I could get you a conveyance of--"
"And perhaps meet one of his spies in the entrance. One never knows. Jealousy amounts to a disease with my husband. But we must get out of this."
Trembling in every limb, Cora rose and hurried from the supper room, Abdul following. A brief backward glance proved the fact that the jealous one had noticed nothing. In a secluded corner, the darker for the contrast with the brilliant arcs beyond, Cora sat shivering.
"What can I do for you?" Abdul asked.
"Hush!" Cora replied sharply, "I am thinking. I begin to see a way. You have a servant somewhere. I know you never go far without one."
"My faithful Assan is even now down in the portico."
"Then bring him up at once. There will be no attempt made to prevent you, and then I can show you a way to save me. Go!"
Abdul turned away. He came back presently, Assan following behind.
"I am going to send your servant for a disguise," Cora explained, "only he understands no English and I can write no Turkish. Is it not providential that you can do it for me? You have a pencil and tablet? Good! Now write."
Cora proceeded to dictate as follows:
"There is a plot on foot to deprive me of my most valued possession. You understand. Ask no questions, but give bearer the case at once. It is on the second shelf in the safe in my room. I shall be with you as soon as I can."
"That is all?" Abdul asked.
"It is quite sufficient," Cora said significantly. "Had I not you to do this for me I know not what might have happened. Give me the paper, quick!"
She snatched it from Abdul's hands and placed it in those of the messenger. Then she bent and whispered a word or two in the latter's ear in his own language. They were all the Turkish she knew, but they had been carefully rehearsed
"To jour master's hotel, to Ben Ali at once," she said. "Go, slave!"
Abdul did not catch the words. He did not seek to detain his servant, but suffered him to go instanter. He was to return to the same spot.
"You are no longer frightened?" Abdul asked.
"Not now. You understand that I see my way clear. My husband may deem me to be here, but when my disguise comes I could pass him boldly if I saw him searching for me as I passed. And but for you, there would have been no escape."
"What are you going to give me for a reward?" Abdul asked.
Cora held her head back with a caressing smile. Three-quarters of an hour had passed, and it was high time the messenger returned. Then Cora's eyes lighted as she detected Assan threading his way through the glittering kaleidoscope.
"We are a commercial people," she said, "and pay by results. You can send in your bill, and then—call for payment. Ah, here he is!"
Assan came forward, carrying a flat, shabby-looking case in his hand. Cora snatched the case from the messenger and bade him begone. A minute later the case was open, and the tiny recess filled with yards of some wonderful diaphanous fabric.
"This is not mine," Cora cried. "What has the fool done?"
Abdul was not slow to grasp the mystery.
"I know," he said, in thick, agitated tones. "He made a mistake; he did not understand the address from you. He took the letter written by me to my subordinate, and the latter has sent me—Cleopatra's Robe. After all, the mistake was a natural one. Give it me; give it up at once, I say."
Cora laughed defiantly. She had already wound the priceless stuff around her in sinuous folds like that of a snake.
"I will not," she said. "Touch me and I will bring the hoard down upon you. You dare to threaten me when my very life, my reputation, is in danger!"
"But my master, the Sultan!"
"A fig for your master. O, I know what this is—-I read the papers. Personally, I would not give a penny a yard for it. All the same, it is going to keep me safe till I reach the portico. You fool, follow me and all will be well."
Abdul followed hopelessly. Like a flash of light, Cora made her way to the portico.
"Call me a cab," she said to Abdul; "then take one yourself, and drive off first. Tell the man to put you down by the corner near my house. I will do the same, and then I will return your gaudy rag. Give me the case."
Abdul obeyed. The next twenty minutes were singularly unhappy ones He would have been more unhappy still could he have been in the same cab with Cora and watched her movements.
First of all she took from the bosom of her dress the facsimile of the Cleopatra Robe as supplied to her by Gryde. This she proceeded to place in the case. Then the real treasure was folded up and securely hidden where the copy had come from. When Abdul joined Cora she handed the box to him with a smile.
"There!" she said, "nothing to make such a fuss about, after all. I have to thank you for a perfect disguise, despite yourself. And I shall be obliged if you will open the box under this lamp, and make sure I have not robbed you."
One glance satisfied Abdul. When he looked up again Cora was a fleeting shadow.
"Stop!" he cried. "When shall I see you again? I cannot--"
But the dull bang of a street-door was the one chilly response.
* * * * *
"There!" Cora was remarking a little later, as she sat opposite Gryde. "Who shall say I have not fulfilled your instructions to the letter? You have that priceless relic, and Abdul has gone off quite easy in his mind. If it is found out?"
"It will not be found out," Gryde said calmly. "The imitation is too marvellous for anyone but an expert. Abdul will return home to be bowstrung in consequence of the failure of his mission, and the robe will be placed in the treasury for perhaps the next century to come. And, after all, the trick was a very simple one."
"But the triumph of the Persian Government in the recovery of--"
"There will be no triumph. The Oriental nature is not like ours. The mere possession of the thing will suffice, without boasting of it. There is a deal of miserly secretiveness in your Eastern type of man."
"You will make a deal of money out of it?" Cora asked.
"About half a million," Gryde responded, "unless those people save unnecessary trouble by cutting my throat as a settlement in full. But they will find me quite prepared for that kind of thing."
"You are a wonderful man," Cora said, admiringly.
Gryde smiled as he rose to go.
"Really I am," he said. "And now I must take myself off, for fear of coming in contact with the jealous husband. Good-night, Cora!"
"Good-night! But I shall see you again to-morrow?"
"I fear not," said Gryde. "I start early on my way for Teheran. But before I go I shall not fail to send you your share of the plunder."
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