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The Cardinal Moth

Fred M. White

  Produced by Al Haines.

  "'The Cardinal Moth,' Frobisher said, hoarsely." (ChapterI.)]




  Author of "The Crimson Blind," "The Weight of the Crown," "The Corner House," etc., etc.


  Made and Printed in Great Britain by WARD, LOCK & Co., LIMITED, LONDON.







  The purple darkness seemed to be filled with a nebulous suggestion ofthings beautiful; long trails and ropes of blossoms hung like starsreflected in a lake of blue. As the eye grew accustomed to the gloomthese blooms seemed to expand and beautify. There was a great orangeglobe floating on a violet mist, a patch of pink swam against an opaquewindow-pane like a flight of butterflies. Outside the throaty roar ofPiccadilly could be distinctly heard; inside was misty silence and thecoaxed and pampered atmosphere of the Orient. Then a long, slim hand--ahand with jewels on it--was extended, and the whole vast dome was bathedin brilliant light.

  For once the electric globes had lost their garish pertinacity. Therewere scores of lamps there, but every one of them was laced withdripping flowers and foliage till their softness was like that of amisty moon behind the tree-tops. And the blossoms hungeverywhere--thousands upon thousands of them, red, blue, orange, creamywhite, fantastic in shape and variegated in hue, with a diabolicalsuggestiveness about them that orchids alone possess. Up in the roof,out of a faint cloud of steam, other blossoms of purple and azurepeeped.

  Complimented upon the amazing beauty of his orchid-house, Sir ClementFrobisher cynically remarked that the folly had cost him from first tolast over a hundred thousand pounds. He passed for a man with no singlegenerous impulse or feeling of emotion; a love of flowers was the onlyweakness that Providence had vouchsafed to him, and he held it cheap atthe money. You could rob Sir Clement Frobisher or cheat him or lie tohim, and he would continue to ask you to dinner, if you were asufficiently amusing or particularly rascally fellow, but if youcasually picked one of his priceless Cypripediums----!

  He sat there in his bath of brilliant blossoms, smoking a clay pipe andsipping some peculiarly thin and aggressive Rhine wine from a long,thin-stemmed Bohemian glass. He had a fancy for that atrocious grapejuice and common ship's tobacco from a reeking clay. Otherwise he wasimmaculate, and his velvet dinner-jacket was probably the best-cutgarment of its kind in London.

  A small man, just over fifty, with a dome-like head absolutely devoid ofhair, and shiny like a billiard-ball, a ridiculously small nosesuggestive of the bill of a love-bird, a clean-shaven, humorous mouthwith a certain hard cruelty about it, a figure slight, but enormouslypowerful. For the rest, Sir Clement was that rare bird amongsthigh-born species--a man, poor originally, who had become rich. He waspopularly supposed to have been kicked out of the diplomatic serviceafter a brilliant operation connected with certain Turkish Bonds. Thescandal was an old one, and might have had no basis in fact, but thesame _Times_ that conveyed to an interested public the fact of SirClement Frobisher's retirement from the _corps diplomatique_, announcedthat the baronet in question had purchased the lease of 947, Piccadilly,for the sum of ninety-five thousand pounds. And for seven years Societyrefused to admit the existence of anybody called Sir Clement Frobisher.

  But the man had his title, his family, and his million or so wellinvested. Also he had an amazing audacity, and a moral courage beyondbelief. Also he married a lady whose social claims could not becontested. Clement Frobisher went back to the fold again at a greatdinner given at Yorkshire House. There it was that Earl Beauregard, aone-time chief of Frobisher's, roundly declared that, take him all inall, Count Whyzed was the most finished and abandoned scoundrel inEurope. Did not Frobisher think so? To which Frobisher replied that heconsidered the decision to be a personal slight to himself, who hadworked so hard for that same distinction. Beauregard laughed, and therest of the party followed suit, and Frobisher did much as he liked,ever after.

  He was looking just a little bored now, and was debating whether heshould go to bed, though it was not long after eleven o'clock, and thatin the creamy month of the London season. Down below somewhere anelectric bell was purring impatiently. The butler, an Armenian with afez on his black, sleek head, looked in and inquired if Sir Clementwould see anybody.

  "If it's a typical acquaintance, certainly not, Hafid," Frobisher said,sleepily. "If it happens to be one of my picturesque rascals, send allthe other servants to bed. But it's sure to be some commonplace,respectable caller."

  Hafid bowed and withdrew. Down below the bell was purring again. Adoor opened somewhere, letting in the strident roar of the streets likea dirge, then the din shut down again as if a lid had been clapped onit. From the dim shadow of the hall a figure emerged bearing a longwhite paper cone, handled with the care and attention one would bestowon a sick child.

  "Paul Lopez to see you," Hafid said.

  "Lopez!" Frobisher cried. "See how my virtue is rewarded. It is thereturn for all the boredom I have endured lately. Respectability reeksin my nostrils. I have been longing for a scoundrel--not necessarily astar of the first magnitude, a rival to myself. Ho, ho, Lopez!"

  The newcomer nodded and smiled. A small, dark man with restless eyes,and hands that were never still. There was something catlike, sinuous,about him, and in those restless eyes a look of profound, placid,monumental contempt for Frobisher.

  "You did not expect to see me?" he said.

  "No," Frobisher chuckled. "I began to fear that you had been hanged,friend Paul. Do you recollect the last time we were together? Itwas----"

  The voice trailed off with a muttered suggestion of wickedness beyondwords. Frobisher lay back in his chair with the tangled ropes ofblossoms about his sleek head; a great purple orchid with a livingorange eye broke from the cluster and hung as if listening. Lopezlooked round the bewildering beauty of it all with an artistic respectfor his surroundings.

  "The devil has looked after his dear friend carefully," he said, withthe same calm contempt. Frobisher indicated it all with a comprehensivehand. "Now you are jealous," he said. "Hafid, the other servants aregone to bed? Good! Then you may sit in the library till I require you.What have you got there, Paul?"

  "I have a flower, an orchid. It is at your disposal, at a price."

  "At a price, of course. What are you asking for it?"

  Paul Lopez made no reply. He proceeded to remove the paper from thelong cone, and disclosed a lank, withered-looking stem with faded budsapparently hanging thereto by attenuated threads. It might have beennothing better than a dead clematis thrown by a garden
er on thedust-heap. The root, or what passed for it, was simply attached to aslap of virgin cork by a couple of rusty nails. Frobisher watched Lopezwith half-closed eyes.

  "Of course, I am going to be disappointed," he said. "How often have Igone hunting the eagle and found it to be a tit? The rare sensation ofa new blossom has been denied me for years. Is it possible that my petsare going to have a new and lovely sister?"

  He caressed the purple bloom over his head tenderly. Lopez drew fromhis pocket a great tangle of Manilla rope, yards of it, which heproceeded to loop along one side of the orchid-house. Upon this hetwisted his faded stem, drawing it out until, with the dusty laterals,there were some forty feet of it.

  "Where is your steam-pipe?" he asked.

  Frobisher indicated the steam-cock languidly. Ever and again the nozzleworked automatically, half filling the orchid-house with the gratefulsteam which was as life to the gorgeous flowers. Lopez turned the cockfull on; there was a hiss, a white cloud that fairly enveloped hisrecent work.

  "Now you shall see what you shall see," he said in his calm, cool voice."Oh, my friend, you will be with your arms about my neck presently!"

  Already the masses of flowers were glistening with moisture. It filledup the strands of the loose Manilla rope, and drew it up tight as afiddle-string. Through the dim cloud Frobisher could see the dry stalksliterally bursting into life.

  "Aaron's rod," murmured Frobisher. "Do you know that for Aaron's rod,properly verified, and in good working order, I would give quite a lotof money?"

  "You would cut it up for firewood to possess what I shall show youpresently," said Lopez. "See here."

  He turned off the steam-cock and the thin, vapoury cloud rapidlydispelled. And then behold a miracle! The twisted, withered stalk wasa shining, joyous green, from it burst a long glistening cluster ofgreat white flowers, pink fringed, and with just a touch of the deepgreen sea in them. They ran along the stem like the foam on a summerbeach. And from them, suspended on stems so slender as to bepractically invisible to the eye, was a perfect fluttering cloud ofsmaller blossoms of the deepest cardinal red. Even in that stillatmosphere they floated and trembled for all the world like apalpitating cloud of butterflies hovering over a cluster of lilies.Anything more chaste, more weird, and at the same time morebewilderingly beautiful, it would be impossible to imagine.

  Frobisher jumped to his feet with a hoarse cry of delight. Little beadsof perspiration stood on his sleek head. The man was quivering fromhead to foot with intense excitement. With hesitating forefinger hetouched the taut Manilla rope and it hummed like a harp-string, eachstrand drawn rigid with the moisture. And all the moths there leaptwith a new, hovering life.

  "The Cardinal Moth," Frobisher said hoarsely. "Hafid, it is the CardinalMoth!"

  Hafid came, from the darkness of the study with a cry something likeFrobisher's, but it was a cry of terror. His brown face had turned to aghastly, decayed green, those lovely flowers might have been a nest ofcobras from the terror of his eye.

  "Chop it up, destroy it, burn it!" he yelled. "Put it in the fire andscatter the ashes to the four winds. Trample on it, master; crush theflower to pieces. He is mad, he has forgotten that dreadful night inStamboul!"

  "Would you mind taking that tankard of iced water and pouring it overHafid's head?" said Frobisher. "You silly, superstitious fool! TheStamboul affair was a mere coincidence. And so there was anotherCardinal Moth besides my unfortunate plant all the time! Oh, thebeauty, the gem, the auk amongst orchids! Where, where did you get itfrom?"

  "It came from quite a small collection near London."

  "The greedy ruffian! Fancy the man having a Cardinal Moth and keepingit to himself like that! The one I lost was a mere weed compared tothis. Name your price, Paul, and if it is too high, Hafid and I willmurder you between us and swear that you were a burglar shot inself-defence."

  Lopez laughed noiselessly--a strange, unpleasant laugh.

  "You would do it without the slightest hesitation," he said. "But theorchid is quite safe with you, seeing that the owner is dead, and thathis secret was all his own. And the price is a small one."

  "Ah, you are modest, friend Paul! Name it."

  "You are merely to tell a lie and to stick to it. I am in trouble, indanger. And I hold that hanging is the worst use you can put a man to.If anything happens, I came here last night at ten o'clock. I stayedtill nearly midnight. Hafid must remember the circumstances also."

  "Hafid," Frobisher said slowly, "will forget or remember anything that Iask him to."

  Hafid nodded with his eyes still fixed in fascinated horror on thepalpitating, quivering, crimson floating over its bed of snow. He heardand understood, but only by instinct.

  "I was at home all the evening, and her ladyship is away," saidFrobisher. "I was expecting a mere commonplace rascal--not an artistlike yourself, Paul--and the others had gone to bed. And you were herefor the time you said. Is not that so, Hafid?"

  "Oh, by the soul of my father, yes!" Hafid said in a frozen voice."Take it and burn it, and scatter it. What my lord says is the truth.Take it and burn it, and scatter it."

  "He'll be all right in the morning," Frobisher said. "Lopez, take thebig steps and festoon that lovely new daughter of mine across the roof.You can fasten it to those hooks. To-morrow I will have an extra steamvalve for her ladyship. Let me see--if she gets her bath of steam everynight regularly she will require no more. Aphrodite, beautiful, yourbath shall be remembered."

  He kissed his fingers gaily to the trembling flowers now hooked acrossthe roof. Already the loose Manilla rope was drying and hanging inbaggy folds that made a more artistic foil for the quivering red moths.It was only when the steaming process was going on that the thin, strongropes drew it up humming and taut as harp-strings.

  "Ah, that is like a new planet in a blue sky!" Frobisher cried. "Lopez,I am obliged to you. Come again when I am less excited and I willsuitably reward you. To-night I am _tete montee_--I am not responsiblefor my actions. And the lie shall be told for you, a veritable_chef-d'oeuvre_ amongst lies. Sit down, and the best shall not be goodenough for you."

  "I must go," Lopez said in the same even tones. "I have private businesselsewhere. I drink nothing and I smoke nothing till business isfinished. Good-night, prince of rascals, and fair dreams to you."

  Lopez passed leisurely into the black throat of the library, Hafidfollowing. Frobisher nodded and chuckled, not in the least displeased.He had not been so excited for years. The sight of those blossomsfilled him with unspeakable pleasure. For their sakes he would havecommitted murder without the slightest hesitation. He had eyes fornothing else, ears deaf to everything. He heeded not the purr of thehall bell again, he was lost to his surroundings until Hafid shook himsoundly.

  "Count Lefroy to see you, and Mr. Manfred," he said. "I told them youwere engaged, but they said that perhaps----"

  Frobisher dropped into his chair with the air of a man satiated with aplethora of good things.

  "Now what have I done to deserve all this beatitude!" he cried. "Anunique find and a brother collector to triumph over, to watch, to prickwith the needle of jealousy. But stop, I must worship alone to-night.Say that I shall particularly desire to see them at luncheon to-morrow."