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From
roof to basement its every window was blind with shades close-drawn.
The front doors were closed, the basement grating likewise. An
atmospheric accumulation of street debris littered the area
flagstones, together with one or two empty and battered ash-cans, in
whose shadows an emaciated cat skulked apprehensively. The one thing
lacking to signify that the Penfield ménage had moved bodily to the
country, was the shield of a burglar protective association in one of
the parlour windows. P. Sybarite looked for that in vain.

Disappointed in the conviction that he had drawn a false lead, the
little man strolled on eastward a little distance, then on sheer
impulse, gave up his project and, swinging about, started to go home.
But now, as he approached Number 97 the second time, a taxicab turned
in from Sixth Avenue, slid to the curb before that dwelling, and set
down a smallish young man dressed in the extreme of fashion--a person
of physical characteristics by no means to be confused with those of
the man with the twisted mouth--who, negligently handing a bill to the
chauffeur, ran nimbly up the steps, rang the door-bell, and promptly
letting himself into the vestibule, closed the door behind him.

The taxicab swung round and made off. Not so P. Sybarite. Profoundly
intrigued, he waited hopefully for this second midnight caller to
reappear, as baffled as himself. But though he dawdled away a patient
five minutes, nothing of the sort occurred. The front doors remained
closed and undisturbed, as little communicative as the darkened
windows.

Here was mystery within mystery, indeed! The circumstances annoyed P.
Sybarite intensely. And why (he asked himself, with impatience) need
he remain outside when another entered without let or hindrance?

Upon this thought he turned boldly up the steps, pressed the
bell-button; laid hold of the door-knob, and entered into a vestibule
as dark as his bewilderment and as empty as the palm of his hand;
proving that the young gentleman of fashion had experienced no
difficulty in penetrating farther into fastnesses of this singular
establishment. And reflecting that where one had gone, another might
follow, P. Sybarite pulled the door to behind him.

Instantly the bare and narrow vestibule was flooded with the merciless
glare of half a dozen electric bulbs; and at the same time he found
himself sustaining the intent scrutiny of a pair of inhospitable dark
eyes set in an impassive dark face--this last abruptly disclosed in
the frame of a small grille in one of the inner doors.

Though far too dumfounded for speech, he contrived to return the stare
with aggressive interest, and to such effect that he presently wore
through the patience of the other.

"Well?" he was gruffly asked.

"The Saints be praised!" returned P. Sybarite. "I find myself so. And
yourself?" he added civilly: not to be outdone, as the saying is.

"What do you want?"

Irritating discourtesy inhered in the speaker's tone. P. Sybarite
stiffened his neck.

"To see Mr. Penfield," he returned firmly--"of course!"

"What Mr. Penfield?" asked the other, after a pause so transient that
it was little more than distinguishable, but which to P. Sybarite
indicated beyond question that at least one Mr. Penfield was known to
his cautious interlocutor.

"Mr. Bailey Penfield," he replied. "Who else?"

During a pause slightly longer than the first, the hostile and
suspicious eyes summed him up a second time.

"No such party here," was the verdict. The man drew back and made as
if to shut the grille.

"Nonsense!" P. Sybarite insisted sharply. "I have his card with this
number--got it from him only to-night."

"Card?" The face returned to the grille.

P. Sybarite made no bones about displaying his alleged credential.

"I believe you'll find that authentic," he observed with asperity.

By way of answer, the grille closed with a snap; but his inclination
to kick the door was nullified when, without further delay, it opened
to admit him. Nose in air, he strutted in, and the door clanged behind
him.

"Gimme another slant at that card," the guardian insisted.

Surrendering it with elaborate indifference, P. Sybarite treated
himself to a comprehensive survey of the place.

He stood in the main hall of an old-fashioned residence. To his right,
a double doorway revealed a drawing-room luxuriously furnished but, as
far as he could determine, quite untenanted. On the left, a long
staircase hugged the wall, with a glow of warm light at its head. To
the rear, the hall ended in a single doorway through which he could
see a handsome mahogany buffet elaborately arranged with shimmering
damask, silver, and crystal.

"It's all right," announced the warden of the grille, his suspicions
to all seeming completely allayed. "Mr. Penfield ain't in just at
present, but"--here he grinned shrewdly--"I reckon you ain't so dead
set on seein' him as you made out."

"On the contrary," P. Sybarite retorted stiffly, "my business is
immediate and personal with Mr. Penfield. I will wait."

"Sure." Into the accents of the other there crept magically a trace of
geniality. "Will you go right on up, or would you like a bite of
somethin' to eat first?"

At the mere hint of food, a frightful pang of hunger transfixed P.
Sybarite. He winked furtively, afraid to trust Iris tongue to speech.

"What d'ya say?" insinuated the doorkeeper. "Just a bit of a snack,
eh? Say a caviare sandwich and a thimbleful of the grape?"

Abandoning false pride, P. Sybarite yielded:

"I don't mind if I do, thank you."

"Straight on back; Pete'll take care of you, all right."

A thumb indicated the door in the rear of the hall. Thither P.
Sybarite betook himself on the instant, spurred by the demands of an
appetite insatiable once it had won recognition.

He found the back room one of good proportions: whatever the
architect's original intention, now serving as a combined lounge and
grill, richly and comfortably furnished in sober, masculine fashion,
boasting in all three buffets set forth with a lavish display of food
and drink. In one of many deeply upholstered club chairs a gentleman
of mature years and heavy body, with a scarlet face and a crumpled,
wine-stained shirt-bosom, was slumbering serenely, two-thirds of an
extravagant cigar cold between his fingers. In others two young men
were confabulating quietly but with a most dissipated air, heads
together over a brace of glasses. At a corner service table a negro in
a white jacket was busy with a silver chafing-dish which exhaled a
tantalising aroma. This last, at the entrance of P. Sybarite, glanced
quickly over his shoulder, and seeing a strange face, clapped the
cover on the steaming chafing-dish and discovered a round black
countenance bisected by a complete mouthful of the most brilliant
teeth imaginable.

"Yas-suh--comin'!" he gabbled cheerfully. "It's sho' a pleasure to see
yo' again."

"At least," suggested P. Sybarite, dropping into a chair, "it will be,
next time."

"Tha's right, suh--that's the troof!" The negro placed a small table
adjacent to his elbow. "Tha's what Ah allus says to strange gemmun,
fust time they comes hyeh, suh; makes 'em feel more at home like. Jus'
lemme know what Ah kin do for yo' to-night. That 'ere lobstuh
Newburg's jus' about prime fo' eatin' this very minute, ef yo' feel a
bit peckish."

"I do," P. Sybarite admitted. "Just a spoonful--"

"An' uh lil drink, suh? Jus' one lil innercent cocktail to fix yo'
mouf right?"

"If you insist, Pete--if you insist."

"Yas-suh; and wif the lobstuh, suh, Ah venture to sug-gest a nice cold
lil ha'f-pint of Cliquot, Yallah Label? How that strike yo' fancy,
suh? Er mebbe yo'd perfuh--"

"Enough!" said P. Sybarite firmly. "A mere bite and a glass are enough
to sustain life."

"Ain't that the troof?"

Chuckling, the negro waddled away, returned, and offered the guest a
glass brimming with amber-tinted liquid.

Poising the vessel delicately between thumb and forefinger, P.
Sybarite treated himself to one small sip--an instant of lingering
delectation--another sip. So only, it is asserted, must the victim of
the desert begin to allay his burning thirst; with discretion--a sip
at a time--gingerly.

It was years since P. Sybarite had tasted a cocktail artfully
concocted.

Dreamily he closed his eyes halfway. From a point in his anatomy a
degree or two south of his diaphragm, a sensation of the most warm
congratulation began to pervade his famished system: as if (he
thought) his domestic economy were organising a torchlight procession
by way of appropriate celebration.

Tender morsels of lobster smothered in cream and sherry (piping hot)
daintiest possible wafers of bread-and-butter embracing leaves of pale
lettuce, a hollow-stemmed glass effervescent with liquid sunlight of a
most excellent bouquet, and then another: these served not in the
least to subdue his occult jubilation.

Finally "the house," through the medium of its servitor, insisted that
he top off with a cigar.

Ten years since his teeth had gripped a Fancy Tales of Smoke!...

Now it mustn't be understood that P. Sybarite entertained any
misapprehensions as to the nature of the institution into which he had
stumbled. He had not needed the sound, sometimes in quieter moments
audible from upstairs, of a prolonged whirr ending in several staccato
clicks, to make him shrewdly cognisant of its questionable character.

So at length, satiate and a little weary--drawn by curiosity
besides--he rose, endowed Pete lavishly with a handful of small change
(something over fifty cents; all he had in the world aside from his
cherished five dollars), and with an impressive air of the most
thorough-paced sophistication (nodding genially to the doorkeeper _en
passant_) slowly ascended to the second floor.

Here, in remodelling the house for its present purposes, partitions
had arbitrarily been dispensed with, aside from that enclosing the
well of the stairway; the floor was one large room, wholly devoted to
some half a dozen games of chance. With but few of these was P.
Sybarite familiar; but on information and belief he marked down a faro
layout, the device with which his reading had made him acquainted
under the designation of _les petits chevaux_, and at either end of
the saloon, immense roulette tables.

Upon all the gaming tables massive electric domes concentrated their
light.



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