"La Belle Monopede" (Miss Sonia Merrill) the famous and beautiful one-legged dancer, already introduced to our readers in the amazing adventure of "The Tattooed Butterfly" gives in the following narrative another of her truly astonishing experiences. Lest the reader should think that the extraordinary establishment described in this story is an effort of the imagination it will interest him to know that it did actually exist, on the Continent, before the war. Undoubtedly others of a much smaller and less elaborate character are in existence in various parts of the world today. - W. S.
This story, I must freely admit at the onset is a confession of folly, folly into which I plunged with my eyes open and for which, ultimately, I paid. I make no excuses. I asked for trouble, and I got it, and having made that clear, let me tell the story.
It all began with a very foolish quarrel with Tony Carden. You will remember Tony, the handsome young American to whom I became engaged at the end of "The Tattooed Butterfly" adventure; and you will also recall that Tony was very much against my remaining on the stage, though I managed to win from him a grudging consent to my doing so.
Very well. my next theatrical engagements were in America, whither I sailed in company of Tony, and I am gratified to record that on my first appearance in New York my act met with instantaneous and unqualified success. But Tony could not, or would not, share my delight. Though he himself unreservedly admired my incomplete charms, he could not bear the thought of my appearing in front of applauding thousands, clad only in my filmy silk tights exposing my shapely single leg, and the plump, rounded stump just below my right hip.
However, the trouble might never have come to a head had I not adopted a suggestion of my American manager, the outcome of which was that, during my second week's engagement, I introduced several daring and new dances, in which I appeared with a bare leg.
I'm afraid this drove poor Tony to the limit of his endurance; and the resulting publicity, which included the appearance in the newspapers of scores of photographs of myself in every variety of pose, didn't help matters. We quarreled bitterly, foolishly.
Tony, who was to leave New York on a business trip, went off in a tearing rage, and I - quite as much a young fool as poor, darling Tony - just shrugged my shapely shoulders, laughed a little cynically and, in my supposed disillusionment, plunged recklessly into the gaiety and hectic life of New York.
My success on the stage, and the immense publicity given to my act had very naturally, made me a very much sought after and very popular person. I was made a tremendous fuss of, and feted in a variety of ways. My slim, beautifully dressed one-legged figure was the latest and "cutest" thing in Broadway, and I became the toast or the moment or New York's guilded youth.
And I must confess that I loved it all, playing up to it with the greatest possihle zest, a fact which has its own bearing on the unnerving adventure into which I was soon to be plunged.
You will no doubt have realised by now that I am not in the least sensitive or tcoubled about my lack of a leg. I have always been of a gay, care-free disposition; and having lost my leg when quite a child I grew up to accept the fact much as I did any other characteristic that I possessed. I just didn't worry about it all. Then when later, I took the somewhat daring course of going on the stage and made a wonderful success as a dancer, I gradually came to regard my loss as something in its way oddly fortunate, and to look upon my one leg and stump as quite definite assets to my dancing career.
My leg was slim and shapely, tapering to a slender ankle and small dainty foot. My stump barely four inches in length from the hip, was a perfect oval in contour, rounded and plump, the flesh white and firm, and now after the lapse of years, quite free from blemish or scar. Added to all this, I was a beautiful blonde, with a perfectly proportioned figure. So it is perhaps not so surprising that as I attained international fame as a dancer, I began to make the most of my charms, both on and off the stage; to revel in the display of them; to get a queer delicious thrill when I knew that my slimr beauti fully-gowened one-legged figure was the object of attention.
All this will explain, to some extent my perhaps rather naive reactions to my wonderful reception by Mew York society. As I have said, I "played up" to it all with the utmost zest. When attending the various functions arranged in my honour, I consciously made myself as fascinating and alluring as possible; aqqeared in a succession of daring and stunning gowns; made every possible display of my unique, exotic and unfinished beauty.
It was all in its way, very natural, but nevertheless it was folly. And my folly had only just begun. I had still a long way to go down the perilous road upon which I had started so gaily and irresponsibly.
It was while at the height of my popularity that I met Clifford Dalroy. He was a rich clubman, or at any rate he had the appearance and style of that type, spending money lavishly and giving himself and his friends a good time generally. He was older than the usual run of gilded youth that flocked to my parties, but still young enough to be accepted by them as one of themselves. He was dangerously attractive, very handsome in a dark, foreign way, always faultlessly dressed and extremely popular, especially with women.
I was conscious of his special interest in me from the first, and I was as thrilled by the honour as any lovesick schoolgirl could be. I knew too that this interest of his was radically different from the rather boisterous camaraderie of my host of youthful admirers; there was in it something strange and exotic that I admit had its very dangerous attraction for me.
Very soon we came together, and, in an incredibly short time, were to be seen everywhere in each other's company. I tried to keep our friendship as impersonal as possible, but I could not altogether prevent him making discreet but strange love to me that thrilled me in spite of an intuitive misgiving. And I realised more and more that his outlook was not altogether normal, that I possessed for him a curious, unusual attraction that satisfied some odd kink in his mind. Unlike Tony, he was never better pleased than when I was displaying my charms, both on and off the stage, and he encouraged and delighted in all the little tricks I employed to draw attention to myself.
Our deepening and yet disturbing friendship was about five or six weeks old - I had in fact just finished my New York engagement and was due, after a short holiday, to appear on the Chicago stage, when Clifford made the first mention of the 'Moignon D'or'. We were having tea together in a tiny, very exclusive and highly expensive cafe, when, after helping himself to a perfumed cigarette from my case, he leaned a little confidentially across the table towards me.
"Sonia, darling," he said in his low-toned agreeable voice, "have you ever heard of the 'Moignon D'Or'?"
I shook my head smilingly. "No, Cliff," I replied, "Should I have done so? What exactly is it - the latest dance or a new cabaret?"
He laughed responsively. "Well, not quite," he said, "though you are a little near in one respect. But suppose we investigate? I can promise you an entirely new thrill."
"A little surprise for my last day in New York - is that it?" I asked gaily.
"Yes, that's about it," he replied, though I noticed the little smile that twisted his lips, its peculiar enigmatic quality escaped me at the time. I had spoken more truly than I knew. He had waited purposely for my last day in New York before springing on me that little surprise!
A couple of hours later we were speeding along in Clifford's luxurious limousine, through the moonlit night out of New York and towards the open country. We sped smoothly along in the powerful car and, naturally, it never occurred to me to take a note of our course, even had I been able to. Neither was I conscious of the passing of the time, caught up as I was in the fascination of Clifford's company. We must have been on the road considerably over an hour, traveling at high speed before I awoke to the realization of the fact. But before I could put a sudden apprehensive question to Clifford, the car began to slow down and we were swung round, off the road and through a pair of high, shadowy gates.
Here in the dim, tree-bordered drive, we paused while Clifford held a whispered colloquy wlth a couple of gigantic negroes in rich but quite unostentatious livery. Then we continued our way along the dark, winding drive, through a well wooded park for another mile or more, and finally drew up at an imposing mansion, which I imagined at forst to be in complete darkness, but which,in fact, wasn't, its windows being merely carefully shuttered. Clifford, as he liked to do, lifted me solicitously from the car and then. as I stood upright, adjusted my crutch beneath my right arm.
"This, Sonia," he said, as we approached the great doorway, "is the 'Moignon D'0r'. I don't suppose you have ever dreamt of such a place, and you are hardly ever likely to strike anything quite like it again."
Meanwhile, the big double doors swung open, letting out a sudden stream of brilliant light and a rush of warm, perfumed air. The next moment already thrilling in anticipation, I had passed with Clifford over the mysterious threshold, and the great doors closed silently behind us. We were in a magnificently and luxuriously appointed vestibule or hall, heavily carpeted and lit by a soft, diffused, rose-red light, while all about floated the subtle, sensuous perfume that had been wafted to us through the doorway.
A tall, suave, slightly Oriental-looking man in faultless evening dress approached Clifford with a smile of welcome shook hands with him, and bowed gracefully over my fingers. Then, at a sign from him, two immense negroes, who might have been blood brothers of the pair we had encountered at the park gates, and who were clad in an exactly similar uniform, came forward noiselessly and relieved us of our outer things.
"I have reserved a table, Mr. Dalroy," said the smiling manager - for such I took it he was - and preceding us he crossed the great hall to a pair of magnificently carved doors, and with a bow ushered us through them. we passed down a shallow, but very broad and ornate, marble staircase that opened directly into a wonderful dining-room, as luxuriously appointed as was the rest of this amazing place, softly lit by cunningly hidden cornice lights adrift with the exotic perfume that seemed to be everywhere.
The smart, dainty tables, agleam with crystal and immaculately white napery, every one apparently designed for a couple of diners, were nearly all occupied, and as we passed to our table I had glimpses on every side of beautiful women, exquisitely and daringly gowned, vis-a-vis with faultlessly dressed, well-groomed male partners. A liveried negro deftly placed chairs for us as we reached our table and then quite calmly, and without any suggestion from me, he took my crutch and noiselessly disappeared with it through a doorway close by. Clifford only laughed as I looked after him in faint surprise.
"It's all right, Sonia," he said. He's only putting your crutch safely by. It will be back the very moment you need it. The service here is perfect in every particular."
The negro's action had occasioned but a momentary surprise, but the next moment I had an utterly unexpected and genuine shock. On entering the dining room, I had noted, casually, a number of unusually pretty girls, neatly attired in black georgette, dotted about all over the room, obviously, of course, waitresses, and very charming waitresses at that. Except, however, for a fleeting feeling of surprise that they should be employed in such a magnificently run place instead of waiters, I had paid no particular attention to them after my first casual glance.
But now, one of them approached our table, and I gazed at her in blank and incredulous amazement. She was extremely pretty, with blonde, closely shingled hair and small, perfect features.But it was not her dainty prettiness, nor the very daring nature of her frock, that caused my amazement. The astonishing, almost incredible, thing was that she swung gracefully and effortlessly towards us on a single, slender, black crutch, the reason for which was at once apparent; for below her brief skirt, only one shapely, black silk-clad leg was revealed.
I still gazed at her uncomprehendingly, while she calmly and efficiently took Clifford's order for food, my eyes taking in all the beauties of her gracefully poised figure and noting, with a little thrill how the thin silk of the brief skirt was disturbed, every now and then, just below the hip, by the rounded outline of a plump, well shaped stump. Then, as a startling idea suddenly flashed through my brain, I let my eyes travel swiftly round the room. Yes, astonishing as it seemed, my little half-formed suspicion proved correct. Every waitress, without exception - and they were dotted about all over the spacious dining room - was onelegged, and each was supported by a neat, black crutch, on which she swung about with a graceful skill born of long practice. For a moment or so I sat there wondering into what strange, uncharted haunt Clifford had brought me. Then, for the first time, I began to take an interest in my fellow-diners, and almost at once I got another thrill. A couple, some five or six tables away, were preparing to move as my roving glance fell on them.
The man was middle-aged, opulent, obviously a wealthy businessmen; the girl was in her early twenties, a pretty and fascinating brunette.
At the moment one of the ubiquitous liveried negroes came swiftly and noiselessly forward, in his hands a slender, beautifully fashioned, jeweled crutch. the girl now risen; the negro deftly adjusted the crutch beneath her arm, and she swung gracefully off with her partner, her slim knee-length frock revealing the fact that she too had only one leg!
Thrilled now to the very core of my being, I watched the pair, with fascinated eyes, out of the room, and then resumed my eager survey of my neighbours . At the next table to our own l had already casually noted a gay young couple, a handsome immaculately dressed boy and a very pretty blonde of not more than nineteen or so. They were seated so that l was able to see them in profile, the girl on my side of the table, a fact which gave me a very complete view of her. They seemed very happy together, and the girl's bubbling infectious laughter rose very pleasantly every now and then, above the subdued hum of general conversation that buzzed round the room.
My first very casual glance, just as we reached our table, had revealed nothing out of the ordinary; but now as I examined her more closely I had suddenly to suppress a gasp of sheer astonishment.
Her body, incredibly as it may seem, actually ended at the hips, the trunk being beautifully rounded off just by the hipjoints, not even stumps remained to mar the perfection of hercomplete leglessness!
I confess the little legless beauty completely fascinated me as I watched her resting quite comfortably in her chair on the soft, flat cushions of flesh that I guessed were all she had in the way of stumps and for a time I could not take my eyes off her. She was so charmingly gay and bright, despite the fact that she possessed only half of her beautiful body and so obviously unconcerned about her deficiency.
But my by now extremely excited interest in the rest of my fellow-diners at last reasserted itself, and I again gazedeagerly around in search of further thrills. I got several in quick succession. A number of other ladies began to leave their tables at intervals, some young and very pretty, others a little more mature but with a more striking beauty, and all I saw were supported by slender, daintily fashioned crutches and revealed shapely single legs below extremely short frocks. Then, some tables away, a good-looking man bent over a pretty little Eton-cropped girl and picked her up tenderly in his arms. And as he carried her past, I saw, with a sudden little leap of the pulses, that her brief filmy frock hung slack and empty from the hips, only a curvy outline indicating the presence of twin, rounded stumps just below the hips. Another legless girl in this strange fantastic place, in addition to the many one-legged ladies I had seen! What queer secrets were still to be revealed to me?
Once again my wandering gaze was arrested this time by a couple a little distance away. I had first of all been attracted by the gay, piquant face of the girl, who was seated directly opposite me with the table in front of her and I wondered whether her beautiful body was incomplete in any way. As I watched her I seemed to sense something odd, something not quite right and then suddenly I saw what it was.
Her beautiful white bust and shapely shoulders blossomed from the very low cut frock like some magnificent flower, no shoulderstraps marring the beauty of the satin flesh; and what I had suddenly realized was that those shapely, perfectly fashioned shoulders were actually all that she possessed in the way of upper limbs! She was entirely, most wonderfully armless; for not a single trace of arms was evident, the smooth and rounded flesh at the shoulder - ends merely undulating slightly and then merging perfectly into the gently curving bust.
I had just made this fascinating discovery when another little thrill pulsed through me. The girl's partner took a cigarette from his case and, placing it between her lips, lit it for her. Then I saw what for just a moment, I took to be a delicate and shapely hand approach her lips and remove the cigarette while she exuded the smoke. But the moment I realized the truth. It was not a hand but a foot! With an ease and grace that was delightful to watch, the girl was using her right foot in lieu of a hand, taking the cigarette between long, shapely, beautifully manicured toes, upon several of which gleamed costly jeweled rings, exactly as if she were using the fingers!
I thought at first that the small slender foot and what portion I could see of shapely ankle above the table were bare; but a closer examination showed me that the dainty limb was clad in a flesh-coloured silk stocking, delicately "mittened" to leave the toes bare.
I have described my various thrilling and amazing experiences in this most astonishing of dining-rooms at such length that the reader may imagine that I sat there in my chair, staring about me for an indefinite period, while Clifford, the dinner he had ordered, and everything else, were entirely forgotten. But as a matter of fact, my survey of the room and its wonderful occupants had only taken a comparatively short time and, in fact, it was not until I was watching the beautiful armless girl smoking her cigarette, that the first course of our meal was served.
I turned to Clifford and found him looking at me with an amused smile on his face.
"Well, sweetness," he cried, "what do you think of it all? Has it given you the thrill I promised you?"
"But Clifford," I breathed excitedly, ignoring the question in my eager desire for explanations. "What is the meaning of it all? Why are so many of the ladies here one-legged or legless or armless?"
"There's really no great mystery about it, Sonia," he replied. I thought perhaps you might have guessed something when I mentioned the name of this place. You remember I told you it was the 'Moignon D'Or'. Didn't that convey anything?"
"Candidly it didn't - much. I knew, of course, that it meant the golden something, but what, exactly, I could not make out."
"Well 'Moignon' is, of course, the French for 'stump', and the name of the place, therefore in plain English, is the 'golden Stump'. It is, in one way, just a fanciful, descriptive title, just as is given to so many cabarets, clubs, etc., but it also has its own obvious reference when applied to an establishment like this. The 'Moignon D'Or', my dear Sonia, is one of the most remarkable places of its kind in the world. It is a combination of exclusive club and luxurious hotel, and was founded for the extreme purpose of providing a delightful and secluded rendezvous for beautiful women who, like your own lovely self, are - shall we say? - charmingly incomplete.
"What an extraordinary idea!" I exclaimed. "And yet, at the same time, it is in its way, rather splendid, isn't it? Is this club open to such ladies only?"
Clifford nodded smilingly.
"That's all," he said, "The right to use the club is strictly confined to ladies who have lost one or more limbs- And such ladies, by the way, must be attractive, too, with nothing in the least displeasing about their lack of limbs. The club is very fastidious about those points. It is also very strict about male visitors each of whom must be known to and approved by the management, or, if a stranger, vouched for by a recognized habitue.
The club is, naturally, not known to the general public at all, and is frequented only by men who find an interest and fascination in a rendezvous of this unique and exotic character. It is no resort for the poor man, either, as the club is run on the most luxurious and expensive lines, the charges being very much higher than those of the most exclusive and fashionable New York hotels."
"What an amazing place the world is, Cliff," I said, as he concluded his explanations. "If you had told me that a club of this kind existed, I should have suspected you were very crudely pulling my one and only leg! Even now I can hardly believe it."
I sat back in my chair and let my eyes wander once again the beautifully appointed room, still filled with animated diners. "It doesn't seem possible, and yet I suppose it must be a fact," I said, "that all these pretty girls and lovely women are, as you put it, incomplete in some way."
Clifford leaned smilingly across the table towards me.
"There isn't any doubt about it, Sonia," he said, "extraordinary as it may seem. That little flapper over there" - he indicated a pretty little bunch of mischief close by, who was busily engaged in teasing her boy friend in all sorts of ways - "she's only sixteen, and a regular little devil. You wouldn't think it possible that a jolly little kid like her could be quite legless? But it's true all the same, and she doesn't care a rap."
"That girl in pale green... that beautiful women near the big palm... that little beauty with the copped curls" - he indicated, in succession over a dozen ladies in various parts of the room - "they are all one-legged, as, of course, are the majority of the ladies here. You noticed, by the way, that all the waitresses are one-legged. So is every girl attendant in the club - all the chambermaids, lift-girls, page-girls - every single one. Amazing and rather intriguing, isn't it?"
"You see that very beautiful women," he went on, continuing his extraordinary fascinating record, "about the middle of the room, with the distinguished looking white-haired gentlemen?" I located the women immediately, a dark, striking beauty in her early thirties.
"She is the Marquise de l'Hautooise, "explained Clifford," and the gentleman is her husband. She was on exhibition in Vienna when he met her and fell violently in love with her."
"On exhibition!" I exclaimed wonderingly. "How do you mean - on exhibition?"
"Well, you can see her shoulders, for instance, very well from here. Do you notice anything unusual about them?"
My eyes were still intent on the women, and, with a thrill, I understood. The dark beauty was quite armless, very much in the same way as the girl I have already described. And, as I watched I saw the white-haired gentleman lift a glass of wine to her lip and hold it there while she drank.
"Did you notice that," asked Clifford quickly. "If you watch, you'll see him help her to food in just the same way."
"How fascinating!" I exclaimed. "She doesn't use her feet, then, like that other armless girl over there?"
"She can't," said Clifford quietly. "You see, she doesn't happen to have any. The lovely Marquise is entirely without arms and legs. She is merely a beautiful fragment of a women, a perfectly fashioned trunk, and nothing more! She is a Rumanian, born without limbs, and it was while on exhibition as the 'Limbless Venus' that the Marquis saw her, fell in love with her and married her within a month. They eventually settled in America, and have made this club their home. It is, naturally, ideally suited to a woman situated as she is, and she is a perfectly charmingly woman, and very popular with everybody."
"Amazing!" I declared. "Are - are there any others like her - entirely limbless, I mean?"
"No," replied Clifford with a shake of the head. "She happens to be the only one. There are, as a matter of fact, only three or four such women - that is, born so - in existence, in various parts of the world. But as interesting a case, and in some respects even more intriguing, is that girl sitting facing you few tables away." And he pointed out the pretty armless girl to whom l have already referred, and whose dainty, flexible toes still held a cigarette.
"I had already noticed her," I said again regarding the girl with interest. "You mean because she is so perfectly armless?"
"Not altogether that. Actually three armless ladies, irrespective of the Marquise, frequent the club and quite a number of foreign armless beauties, have visited at various times when on exhibition in around New York. But this girl is unique; probably the only living example of her kind at present living. You see, she is not only armless, but has only one leg! She, too, was born like that and yet, in its way, her body is perfect in its unfinished beauty. Her only limb is her right leg, and there is not the slightest trace of any other limb - not even a stump!"
This last revelation left me a trifle breathless. I could only stare at the girl in frank wonderment, watching her as she deftly flicked the ash from her cigarette with a slender, shapely toe of what I now realized was her only foot, and marveling at the laughing unconcern with which she accepted her condition.
A little amused chuckle from Clifford at last recalled me to myself.
"Fascinating, isn't she?" he said. "But what about a little change? We'll have our coffee and liqueurs in the Rose Lounge - what do you say? It is very charming there - and even more entertaining!"
I agreed quite readily, and we prepared to move. Almost immediately, it seemed, a tall negro was at my side bearing my crutch, which, after assisting me to rise, he placed under my arm. Then, with my disengaged hand resting lightly in the crook of Clifford's arm, I swung along at his side out of the room to whatever further adventures were in store for me.
We did not ascend the marble staircase but made our exit by another door and, crossing a wide, luxuriously carpeted corridor, we ushered by one of the ubiquitous negro attendants into the Rose Lounge.
Like everything else in this dream palace, it was exquisitely beautiful in all its appointments, the color scheme of furniture, tapestried walls, hangings, and rich, heavily piled carpet being carried out entirely of a soft, delicate rose-pink, the effect of which was further enhanced by the very subdued rose-red lighting that gave both room and its occupants a shadowy, ethereal radiance. And all about drifted the inevitable sensuous perfume that seemed to be the prevailing characteristic of the place.
Scattered in profusion about the spacious room, their outlines softened and blurred in the richly dim light, were luxurious, deep-seated and many-cushioned couches, all apparently, intended to hold just a couple comfortably and with high concave backs,cunningly designed to screen their occupants from a too impertinent scrutiny.
Exquisite little lacquer tables stood by each couch, bearing tiny fragile cups of thick Turkish coffee, or fluted, crystal, miniature glasses containing many colored liqueurs. And ensconced in the deep recesses of the couches, couples lounged and chatted idly over their cigarettes and drinks.
Threading their way silently and efficiently between the couches and tables, pretty one-legged waitresses, in their pleasingly brief black silk frocks, and swinging effortlessly about on their single black crutches, attended to the requirements of the various couples. At a sign from Clifford one of them approached and, after giving our order, we sank luxuriously into the comfortable depths of our couch, from which I noted with pleasure, we had an excellent view on the lounge an most of its occupants. l did not rebuke Clifford, though my complacence pricked my conscience a little, when he softly slid an arm about my shoulders and drew me to him.
Of course he had kissed me before, lightly, gaily, usually at greeting and parting. But this was different, it as passionate, possessive, a seal, as it were, with which he claimed me as his own. For the moment I did not know how to deal with the situation. The feeling uppermost in my mind was one of misgiving hardly fear at yet, though that was lurking somewhere at the bottom of my consciousness. Then, as my emotions stabilized, I chose, for better or worse, to treat the whole matter lightly.
"Is that the way they kiss at the 'Moignon D'Or'?" I asked him with mock severity, as I lay back in my corner, just out of reach of his arms.
"Quite frequently," he replied responsively, "as you will see if you look about you."
I was only too glad of the chance his reply offered me of avoiding a continuation of his ardent attentions, and I gazed about eagerly.
Clifford had certainly not been far wrong about the occupants of the lounge. From where I sat I could see, on every side, couples held close in each others' arm punctuating their lowtoned confidences with lingering kisses, completely unconcerned about possibly interested and prying eyes. Of course, the shrouding, subdued, rose-red light lent a sort of privacy to everything, but nevertheless to a stranger the sight was sufficiently astonishing.
A thing, too, that heightened my own interest and curiosity, was the daring displayed in so many of the girls' costumes, all the more remarkable when one took into consideration the fact that every girl was deficient of one or more limbs! I had had an instance of this daring in the skin-tight costume, to which I had already referred worn by the pretty legless girl in the dining room, and now I saw that it was by no means a solitary example. Facing me, for instance, a strikingly pretty one-legged girl lounged indolently in a corner of her couch, smoking a cigarette,while her boy, sitting sideways leaned intimately towards her. From her shoulders hung a filmy, silken wrap, which no doubt she gathered about her when walking, but which, at the moment, was flung wide open, revealing the intriguing fact that she was clad only in flesh-pink tights!
Accustomed as I was to my own one-legged form and the familiar sight of my stump in every variety of dress and undress yet this frank exposure, by the girl, of her slim leg and the short, very shapely stump just below the right hip, was, to me, unexpectedly startling. And that the revelation was not in the least distasteful to her boyfriend was also evident from the fact that,as he chatted with her, his hand lay lightly on the rounded stump, his fingers idly smoothing the taut silk over the soft flesh.
Equally frank and in its way even more startling, was the display of her charms by another lady close by. A very beautiful woman of about thirty, she lay quite happily and unashamedly in her partner's arms, lifting her lips to his every now and then intimate, clinging kisses. She wore a very low cut, close fitting frock of black ninon, the very short and clinging skirt of which was completely transparent. And through the latter, softly veiled by the merest film of silk, I could see the white very plump and perfectly rounded bulbs of twin stumps at her hips.
I could not, of course, be sure, but I imagined that the little stumps, save for the diaphanous covering afforded by the skirt, were quite bare, though possibly they were clad in the thinnest and most gossamer of nude silk 'stump socks'. But in any case, the lady's display of her leglessness could not have been more complete, and was, in its way, even more daring than if she had elected to appear only in tights.
Other costumes, of varying degrees of daring, I noted all about me, and meanwhile couples were arriving at intervals from the dining-room and other parts of the club affording one fresh insight into the manners and modes of this amazing rendezvous.
Two or three of several one-legged ladies, who entered with their partners, were, I noticed, stockingless, one wearing a heavy jeweled anklet round her bare ankle, and another wearing a gilded extremely high heeled sandal that left her pink, beautifully manicured toes bare . And all the frocks were of the briefest and skimpiest description, usually well above the knee, and in no case coming below it.
Two more legless girls were carried in the arms of their escorts- one of them being the girl in the skin-tight costume who had dined at the next table to ours - making already six completely legless women I had so far encountered. A little later one of the three armless girls, whom Clifford had mentioned as frequenting the club, entered, an unusually pretty girl of no more than seventeen or eighteen. It was strange in that odd assembly, to see her walking normally on two legs, which, by the way, were very well displayed, for she wore no skirts, only very short, close fitting satin knickers and fine meshed silk stockings.
The formation of her shoulders differed from that of the other armless ladies I had seen in the dining room, for she possessed very short, perfectly formed stumps, on each of which she wore a broad, flat bracelet of gold filigree. It was fascinating to see her throw off her little high heeled slippers as she sank into the couch beside her boy friend, select, with her bare, shapely toes, a chocolate from a box he held out, and convey it with the utmost ease to her mouth. And more than a little thrilling when, taking another chocolate, she placed it deftly in the boy's mouth, pressing the dainty white toes caressingly against his lips as she did so.
Then I had another and separate thrill, for there entered born tenderly in the arms of her escort, the beautiful armless and one-legged girl who had so intrigued me in the dining room. I followed her progress with eager eyes, and was immensely pleased when she was carried to a coach close by, where I was able to study her to my heart's content. I now saw her in detail for the first time, and I could only marvel at her wonderful body, so exquisitely proportioned and yet so startlingly incomplete.
At first sight her costume might have appeared, in the circumstances, very daring; but a moment's consideration made one only realize that it was really quite seemly, and eminently suited to her peculiar requirements. It consisted, in the first place, of a sort of tunic of the palest flesh-coloured silk, that just barely reached the hips, leaving the beautiful white swelling bust and perfect armless shoulders very fully exposed, and moulding, closely and smoothly, the small, rounded waist and curving hips.
From this tunic there emerged, on the ride side, the beautiful and only leg, fully revealed in silk tights, all of pale flesh colour. But on the left side nothing at all protruded, not even the merest stump; only when the girl, shortly after being settled among the cushions, raised her leg to use her toes, I could see, below the tunic, the pale silk of her tights smoothly molding the perfectly rounded off-end of the trunk of the left side. On the little foot, when not in use, she wore a soft, close-fitting, low-cut, silken slipper of the prevailing colour, made entirely without a heel.
In spite of everything, she was one of the gayest in the room, this little one-limbed beauty, her laughing ringing out at intervals and provoking responsive smiles from her neighbours, with whom she was obviously an immense favourite. That she was, too quite unexpectedly able to take care of herself, she revealed when, in a laughing struggle with her boy, who was too eager for kisses, she was able to hold him off with her leg and foot, and finally to administer a quite effective if playful, smack across the cheek with those skillful toes of hers.
She had lifted a cocktail to her lips, holding the glass daintily in her benigned toes, that were as slender and shapely and almost as long as the fingers of a small, delicately fashioned hand, and suddenly she raised the glass slightly and smiled gaily across at me.
With a flush of pleasure I lifted my glass and smiled back at her. She drained her glass and then with a characteristically impulsive gesture, she felt with her toes, for her little heelless slipper, which lay on the carpet, where she had thrown it off, and slipped her foot into it. Then raising, quite easily and unaided, she hoped swiftly and effortlessly towards our couch and stood smilingly down at us, perfectly poised on he slim, single leg and foot.
She exchanged greetings with Clifford, and then turned to me with charming friendliness.
"Do I intrude?" she asked laughingly.
"Not in the least," I replied, and hastened to make room for her on the couch. She sank down, with easy grace, beside me. Clifford watching us with smiling interest from the other corner.
"Only for a moment," she said in her quick, volatile way, "and then I must go. But I had to come and talk to you, my dear. Something in your face attracted me. What shall we call it - friendship at first sight, eh? But no matter. You are a stranger here, aren't you? And what do you think of the 'Moignon D'0r'?"
"Well.. it would be hard to put into words exactly what I do think." I replied laughingly. "It is all so strange, so utterly unusual, so amazing, so thrilling - "
She gave me a quick, quizzical glance, and then nodded gaily.
"Yes, isn't it?" she agreed, and then, with a little touch of charming pride, she added, "you don't often see such an extraordinary person as myself, for instance, do you? They must have had a fit of absent-mindedness when they made me, and forgot most of the parts. I'm hardly a person at all - just a fragment.
"But a very beautiful fragment," I said warmly, and it was delightful to see the pleasure my obviously sincere compliment gave her, shining in her eyes.
"And you, my dear," she responded, leaning towards me, while, with a little thrill, I felt the soft caress of her flexible, bare toes, smoothing an ankle affectionately. "You are very lovely yourself, and very charming, and I like you very much. My name is Clare, by the way."
"And mine, Sonia," I put in.
"Well, Sonia, dear," she went on, I must be going, delightful as it is to be with you. My boy will think I'm deserting him. So, for the present, good bye." And smilingly she held up her lips. My fingers closed caressingly round the beautiful, bare, armless shoulders, savouring the satiny smoothness of the soft, white skin, and pressing my lips to hers. I kissed her affectionately.
Then as she drew her lips away, with her face still close to mine, she spoke again, this time in a rapid whisper that was only just audible.
"I don't know whether you quite realize where you are," she said. "If you do, all right; nothing more to be said. If you don't, this is just a tiny word of warning. Don't say a word of this to anyone."
Then, brushing my cheek with her soft lips, she once again sought for her slipper with her toes and rising swiftly, smilingly took her leave from Clifford, hopped gaily and expertly back to her own couch.
For a moment or so, I could only stare in her direction, conscious of my utter surprise and consternation. Then, realising the necessity for immediate control, l was able to get myself in hand and to turn to Clifford with as unconcerned a smile on my lips as I could master. I thought, for just an uncertain second, that I caught a dark scowl in his face, but I wasn't at all sure as, whatever it was, it vanished like a flash and he presented to me the amiable, smiling face I knew so well.
"Made a hit with Clare, didn't you?" he remarked pleasantly. She's a charming girl, too."
He made no reference to Clare's rapid whisper, and I could not he sure whether he missed the little scene entirely, or, having noticed it, dismissed it as just a bit of whispered gossip between to girls, and therefore insignificant.
And that doubt left me in a quandary. Clare's whispered words had clearly conveyed a warning - but of what? And was Clifford included in the mysterious menace against which she had warned me? I did not know, though looking at him as he sat there smiling so openly at me I felt it somehow absurd to mistrust him, at any rate to the length of thinking he would bring me in actual danger.
What I did know, however, was that I had suddenly become very restless and ill at ease. I had a desperate desire to be speeding safely towards New York with the 'Moignon D'Or' far behind me.But still I kept my nonchalant pose, and puffed calmly at my cigarette as if I hadn't a care in the world.
It was Clifford who made the next move. He stubbed his cigarette in the little gold ash-tray, and then turned to me.
"How about a little stroll about, Sonia?" he suggested. "You haven't really seen the club yet, and it's a most wonderful place. What do you say?"
I agreed eagerly. Anything was better than inaction at that I moment. Besides, it would be as well to get some idea of the club's interior plan, in case of anything untoward happening. Clare's eyes caught mine as we made our way to one of the many doors of the lounge, and we exchanged a swift, understanding glance, instantly masked by her with a gay smile of farewell.
We passed into one of the wide, spacious, richly carpeted corridors, which seemed to be a feature of this luxurious and nobly planned palace, and I at once got a vivid impression of how full of life the whole club was. Instead of being silent and more or less empty, as one would have expected, the corridor was like a busy thoroughfare. Couples proceeded leisurely on their way to various rooms... . Groups stood about laughing and gossiping... Pretty girls swinging gracefully along on neat crutches, sometimes together, but mainly with male escorts, promenaded up and down, their chatter punctuated by outthrusts of merriment... A charming legless girl, passing in the arms of her escort, was halted and gaily greeted by a couple of onelegged girl friends.
As we made our way slowly through the gay throng, I saw, approaching us an unusually high, very slender, and delicately built chair, cunning smoothly and soundlessly along on low, pneumatic-tyred wheels. The next moment I realised, with a thrill, that the chair's occupant was the beautiful limbless Marquise, whom Clifford had pointed out to me whilst at dinner, and that it was being gently propelled forward by her handsome white-haired husband.
As we drew abreast the old gentleman caught sight of Clifford, and halted with a smile of greeting. Clifford, who was apparently on quite friendly terms with the couple - as he was with most of the habitues - made the necessary introductions, and while he was, for the moment, monopolised by the old gentleman, I chatted agreeably with the Marquise undeniably thrilled by the event, in spite of my newly revived fears and my desire for escape. For, to see her thus in actual detail was certainly an amazing experience. To anyone unaware of the fact that such a women as she are occasionally born into the world, she must have appeared well-nigh incredible. Yet she rested smilingly and contentedly in her dainty, deep-cushioned chair, not merely very much alive, but an alluringly beautiful and attractive woman.
One pathetic little thing I noted brought a mist of sympathetic moisture, momentarily, in my eyes. From a short, close fitting necklace of tiny pearls, that spanned her beautiful throat, there hung a thin gold circlet - her wedding-ring! She could only wear it in some such way, and that moving little fact brought home to me, as much as anything, the devastating completeness of her lack of limbs.
For some minutes we all four chatted together, and then, with mutual expressions of regard, Clifford and I took our leave. The tall, slender chair, with its remarkable occupant, moved smoothly on its way, to be halted again almost immediately by a fresh group of friends.
We continued our interrupted stroll through the club, which certainly was a most wonderful place, the most comfortable of its kind I have ever encountered. We passed into a beautiful winter garden, a magnificent airy place, topped by a great crystal dome through which artificial sunlight poured in rich profusion.
Slender, towering palms and masses of exotic blooms were on every side. Dotting the marble floor were dainty little tables, at which couples consumed ices or delicious drinks in long cool glasses. The super-heated atmosphere, in conjunction with everything else, gave the complete illusion of tropical summer Somewhere behind bowers of roses, a hidden orchestra discoursed languid, dreamy music.
We drifted out again and were whirled to a floor above in a luxurious lift, in charge of a dainty girl attendant in a neat uniform of blue and gold tunic and silk tights. I noted, too, that in common with all other girl lift attendants, she had no crutch, but performed her duties in the lift quite expertly poised on her single leg, hopping out and in, when necessary, with an ease and grace that I myself could not better.
Arrived at the upper floor, we found ourselves in a completely equipped set of gaming salons, with central hall and smaller salons radiating from it. The rooms were crowded with both men and women, and here was evident very little of the gaiety that was so noticeable in other parts of the club. And as in the majority of gambling resorts, everything was subordinated to the serious business in hand.
Down again in a lift we shot swiftly and noiselessly this time to the basement. Here, in a great marble, brightly lit salon, occupying the whole length of the immense building, was a magnificent swimming bath, filled with warm, perfumed water, in which a laughing crowd of mixed bathers splashed out in noisy enjoyment.
A number of spectators of both sexes sat about on luxurious lounges, clad, like ourselves, in ordinary evening dress, but everybody else was in swimming costume, the ladies making a gorgeous display in hip-length, skin-tight, silk costumes of every variety of colour, with natty, close-fitting capas and dainty rubber slippers to match.
It was fascinating to watch the many slim, one-legged beauties moving skillfully about, each poised on a shapely single leg, diving and swimming expertly or standing talking to their friends, perfectly balanced on one tiny foot.
As we lingered in the pleasant and gay atmosphere, my misgivings, if not quite forgotten, at any rate dampened down. Then Clifford as agreeably as ever, suggested a move, and as we left, all my fears crowded back like so many demons. They were all the more potent for being so vague. I knew not what I feared, nor from what source of danger, if any, was to come.
We had used the swift, luxurious lifts, with their pretty one-legged attendants, many times during our tour; and now as we again entered one and shot noiselessly upwards, I had no particular qualms, apart from my general feeling of apprehension.Yet, though I did not know it, I was approaching a crisis, which was even then developing, as we made our way along yet another wide and luxurious corridor. It was, too, curious and somewhat ironical, that I myself provided Clifford with the excuse for which, as I realised later, he was at that particular moment, seeking.
We had been rambling about a good deal since leaving the Rose Lounge, and I was now beginning to feel the fatigue of swinging along for so long upon a single crutch. The corridor was quite deserted, as we were now upon one of the upper rooms, and I took the opportunity of a momentary rest. I paused, straightened up and, balancing myself on my foot, somewhat precariously, as the very slender heel of my slipper was nearly four inches high, slipped my crutch from beneath my arm, and so stood, for a short breathing space, glad of the welcome relief.
"You're tired, darling," said Clifford, with quick solicitousness. "I am a brute, for being so thoughtless. But we'll soon put that right."
He turned quickly to a door behind him and, opening it, switched on the electric light within the room. Then before I could offer any protest, he took my crutch and, picking me up in his arms, carried me into the room and deposited me gently on a soft, deep-cushioned couch. Placing my crutch in a specially made rack - ornate 'crutch-racks' were a feature of nearly all rooms - he sank down beside me and smiled at me in a manner that seemed almost paternal.
The room, I had noticed swiftly, was small and cosy, exquisitely furnished and softly lighted,r more like the dainty boudoir of a beautiful woman than anything else. But I had only given the room a passing glance, for I was at the moment more concerned with Clifford than with my own surroundings.
Incidentally - and this too, I am afraid, had its bearing upon that which followed - the fatigue of rambling about the club had resulted, as often happens when I get tired, in a dull, throbbing ache in my stump.
As I turned, with a smiling word of explanation, to Clifford, I was at once aware of that intent look of his, to which I had already referred, and upon his half-veiled gaze fixed upon my moving hand. Then, suddenly, an arm went about me drawing me to him.
"Poor darling," he murmured, his lips perilously close to mine. "Let me soothe away the pain." And I found my hand pushed gently aside by one of his, and the soft caress of his fingers.
How long I lay there I do not know, but eventually my reeling senses steadied. I came to myself and began to struggle desperately within Clifford's encircling arm.
"It's no use, Sonia," he said softly, yet with an intonation that chilled me. "You're mine, and you might as well realise the fact once and for all. You have played with me long enough, and I've stood it all like a good little boy. I've opened my mouth, shut my eyes, and swallowed the little sugar plums you tossed me now and then, and been properly grateful for your generosity. And you imagined all the time that sugar plums were quite adequate payment for all I had done for you. Didn't it ever occur to you that sugar plums are very poor nourishment for a grown man? If it didn't - well let me assure you of the fact."
"You - you brute!" I stammered, when at last I could think coherently.
"Brute!" he echoed, a cynical little smile twisting his lips. "Why brute? Surely, Sonia, you are not going to pose a little innocent at this time of the day? You haven't just come out of a convent, you know. You're a woman of the world, a famous variety star. There is not much about life or its temptations that you're ignorant of. You're surely not going to ask me to believe that you didn't fully realise exactly what you were doing?"
I could only stare at up him, the colour flooding my cheeks. Cruel as it was, his indictment was so eminently just. I had played with fire, and now I was crying out when the flames burnt my fingers.
"He laughed again in grim amusement, while I felt myself growing white. The real significance of Clare's whispered warning came to me in one devastating flash! A rendezvous, Clifford had called the 'Moignon D'Or' among other things, when giving me his roseate description of it in the dining room. Oh! yes, it was a rendezvous, all right, and one not even as normal as those of the usual type! I allowed myself to be led blithely into it without even guessing its real nature. What a blind fool I was! What a blind, childish fool!
"For just a second or so I feared that hysteria would get me in its grip, but I was able, with a mighty effort, to hold myself in check. Then I faced Clifford with, at any rate, an appearance of calm.
"Clifford," I said quietly, "this has gone far enough. You know only too well that, if I'd had the remotest notion of the kind of place this is, wild horses would never had dragged me here. Will you kindly take me back to New York at once - or am I to make a scene which I have no doubt would not he at all to the liking of the people who run this club?"
But my courage ebbed within me, even while I was speaking. for Clifford, nonchalantly taking out a cigarette, regarded me with open amusement, as he tapped the little cylinder on the flat gold case.
"Go ahead, Sonia, dear," he said mockingly. "Make a row. I assure you nobody will take the slightest notice of you."
Panic surged through me then. "Clifford," I cried. "Don't be so utterly absurd. You know I can't stay here. You can't keep me here against my will." And I half rose, with the idea of hopping, as well as I could on my little high-heeled slipper, across the room to the crutch-rack, snatching my crutch, and so attempting to escape. But Clifford stood over me and gently, yet quite firmly, pushed me back again amongst my cushions.
"Look here, Sonia," he said and the amusement had died out of his eyes, "you might as well realise, once and for all, exactly how matters stand. I'm mad about you, have been ever since I first set eyes on you. And you've known that all the time. You've led me on, played with me, taken everything I had to offer, and given me in return - sugar plums! Well, a woman can get away with that sort of thing for a time, but not all the time - at any rate not with me. I thought it time to call a halt".
"Now, listen, Sonia, and believe me, what I'm telling you is gospel. You got into the 'Moignon D'Or' mighty easily - but you'll find it very hard to get out. I have a little pull with the management, and if I want you to stay - well, you stay. No, you won't be locked in a room of anything so silly or crude as that. You'll have the full run of the club, grounds and all - but you won't be able even to bribe your way out until I say the word.
"It will be of no use appealing to any women here, not even to your new-found friend Clare, who no doubt gave you a little bit of advice when she whispered into your ear - oh yes, I noticed that. You'll find they can do nothing, or, what is more to point, I will be very unwilling to do anything."
"What utter, ridiculous nonsense!" I was able to fling at him, though my lip quivered and cold fear was in my heart.
"Very well," said Clifford, suavely, "it's all ridiculous nonsense as you say; but try to get away, and see what success you have. Think for a moment. Nobody in New York knows you are here. Nobody in New York or anywhere else, for that matter, is worrying in the slightest about you. You've finished your theatrical engagements in New York, and are now supposed to be holidaying somewhere or another. Even after your holiday, you are not returning to New York, but going to Chicago, so who's going to trouble about you? Who's going to the police to report you missing?"
"My maid," I cried, snatching at just that straw of hope.
"Your maid was engaged by you simply for your New York season. She was discharged some hours ago, shortly after we arrived here, in fact. She was paid in full, with a handsome monetary present in addition. Your hotel bill has been paid too, and all your clothes and belongings were collected and conveyed here. This room, by the way, is part of your own suite here, that door over there leads into your bedroom."
I did not doubt him. It was obviously only to terribly true. I could only stare at him, white-faced and wide-eyed.
"Now, Sonia, darling," he went on imperturbably, "it's up to you. You can, if you like, make your stay here a pleasant holiday, after which you will be perfectly free to go on to Chicago and fulfill your engagements there, or" - he spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders - "well, I hardly like to picture the alternative. But you won't care to stay here indefinitely, would you?
Just one word more. I don't want to rush you into this. I want to give you plenty of time to make up your mind. As it happens, I have to go away at once, and will he away over the week-end- So you'll have all the time I'm away to think the matter over and come to a wise decision. After all, bear in mind, if you are reasonable, not a single hair of your dear little head will come to harm. I'm only madly in love with you - and I want some return. Good night, and - au revoir."
"With a little bow, he turned, crossed lightly to the door, and was gone.
How to describe my thoughts and emotions after the extraordinary interview? I don't think I will ever fully recall what I felt during those first few moments after Clifford's departure. My body was numb, my mind blank. But gradually I came to myself and while my fears still overwhelmed me, I set myself to face the situation. Surely there was some way out of the labyrinth in which I had so needlessly allowed myself to be trapped! I could not actually be kept a prisoner in a club - even a club of so peculiar and secret a nature as that of the 'Moignon D'Or'! I kicked off my slipper, and hopping swiftly across the room, secured my crutch from the rack, then resuming my slipper, I paid a hurried visit to the bedroom - a beautiful room, daintily appointed. So far Clifford had told the truth, for all my things were there as he had said.
I passed through the sitting room again, and was relieved to find that the door was unlocked as I had feared it might be. Within a few minutes, I had reached the main floor, still full of life and jollity, as I had left it, and with breaking heart, I swung into the Rose Lounge and looked about me. With a sudden thrill I espied Clare curled up on a big couch in a far corner of the lounge and, miraculously, alone!
A waitress had just placed a cocktail on the little table at the side of the couch and was daintily lifting the fragile glass on those marvelous toes of hers, flexing her shapely leg as one would an arm, when she caught sight of me and beckoned me with uplifted glass.
"So you're got rid of your satyr, for the moment," she said in low, even tones as I sat down besides her. "How did you manage it?"
In a few words, I explained all that had happened, all my unhappiness, all my fears. Then leaned forward ingenuously.
"Oh, Clare!, I breathed, "can you help me in any way? What can I do?"
To my utter surprise and consternation, a look of uneasy embarrassment came over her expressive face and, with a little helpless shrug of her pretty armless shoulders, she looked away.
Then, as I was still in the throes of my bitter disappointment, she turned to me again, still with that half-sulky look on her face, and began to talk in low tones.
"Don't take the slightest notice of how I'm looking," I heard her say. "But listen to me carefully. We can't talk here. It is quite certain we are being watched, as Dalroy would expect you to come to me. That's why I'm acting like this."
In my sudden relief, despite my desperate straits, I very nearly spoiled everything by laughing . Clare's acting was so lifelike. To all appearances she was telling me she could do nothing to help, that I had made my bed and had better lump it.
"Listen!" she went on. "Heaven knows whether I shall be able to help you or not, but I'm willing to do all I can, especially against that beast Clifford Dalroy. Did you notice the number of your suite, by the way?"
"No. 105," I replied promptly, glad that I had noted the number when I left.
"Well, that's one thing to the good, anyway," she said.
"You're on my floor. My suite is 110. To-night, about midnight, slip over to my room and we'll talk things over. We may find a way, though you might just as well realise at once it's going to be pretty difficult. And that must be all for the moment. Don't hang round. Just get up, looking pretty sorry for yourself, and slink off."
She sank back, the sulky look still on her face, and I rose and slunk off as she had commanded. But in my heart was flowering a new bud of hope. Clare was a brick, a real, staunch pal, and it was something to have found a friend in this queer, warped world into which I had inadvertently strayed.
It was shortly after midnight that I softly opened Clare's door and slipped into her sitting room. All was silent and deserted in the corridor, though sounds of revelry ascended from below. I had, for comfort's sake, removed my frock and slipped on a dainty peignoir over my silk tights, replacing my high heeled slipper with one of my soft, heel-less slippers of flesh-coloured silk.
I found Clare deep in the recesses of a big comfortable couch, before a cosy fire. She, too, was wrapped in a filmy, clinging peignoir, and from her toes dangled a tiny, fluffy boudoir slipper, which she kicked off at my entrance, offering the tiny little foot for a welcoming "handshake". The shapely leg and foot, I noted, were bare, and I could not help marveling afresh I at the exquisite perfection of their modeling and the soft, smooth whiteness of the satiny skin.
"Everything O.K.?" she asked as I sank down beside her and helped myself to a cigarette at her invitation. "Nobody see you?
"Not a soul," I replied. "The corridor was quite empty."
"Good! Well, now, Sonia, my child. I've been thinking about this little trouble, and so far - well, there's no use blinking the fact that you're up against it."
"But surely, Clare, I can,t be kept here indefinitely against my will! You - you girls are not prisoners, are you?"
"Good heavens, no! A good many of us live here permanently, others use the place as club and rendezvous; but, of course, we are all free to come and go as we please. The girls here are recruited from all part of the world, and you couldn't keep such a crowd behind locked doors, even if you wanted to, without a most unholy row developing. But, believe me, if Dalroy wants to keep a stranger like you here, he can do so quite easily."
"But, the management!"
Dalroy is the management! He's the power behind the throne, though that's not generally known. That's where his money comes from. And, Sonia, it'g hard to have to say it, but you can't expect help - that is open help - from the girls, not even from me. This place is our life. We can't afford to give its secrets away. And we'd be surely barred if we were suspected of playing false. It's all rotten - but there it is."
"I see," I said dully. "And I quite understand, Clare. I think it fine of you to do what you are doing, under the circumstances. You are running a risk for a perfect stranger, and I'm very, very grateful."
"That's all right, dear," said Clare, her eyes suspiciously bright. "Any of the girls would do as much . But the problems remains to be solved. It's quite obvious you won't be able to get away openly. You'll have to be smuggled out in some way, and the question is, how?"
She reached out mechanically for the big, silver cigarettebox that lay open on a small Moorish table on the couch, a thoughtful frown wrinkling her pretty brow and, choosing a cigarette expertly with her long, slender toes, tapped it slowly on the table top. The filmy peignoir clung to her only very precariously and, as she raised her leg to put the cigarette in her mouth, I had a frank glimpse of the nude beauties of her of her unique figure, the perfectly moulded, armless shoulders, the firm rounded breasts, and the smooth unblemished contour of the rounded off end of the trunk on the left side, that revealed not the slightest trace not even of a stump. Anxious and worn as I was, I could not help feeling once again the strange fascination that this wonderful, onelimbed beauty was able to exercise.
Clare, however, brought me back to the business in hand by suddenly addressing me again.
"Sonia, dear," she said, "push that bell over there, will you, please? I've just thought of Lotus. She's a good sport and would do anything for anybody in the world. We might be able to think out something between us if we can get hold of her.
Obediently I leant across and pressed the little bell-push by the side of the fireplace. Within a few minutes there entered a very pretty maid in neat black silk, with a spotlessly white cap and natty little frilled apron, a slim black crutch beneath her arm, and her very brief skirt revealing the inevitable single black silk-clad leg.
"Maisie," said Clare, in her friendly tone, "do you know whether Miss Fare all about at all? Has she been upstairs recently?"
"I think she's in her room," the maid replied amiably. "If she's there shall I send her along?"
"Do, please, Maisie, and ever so many thanks."
The maid retired and after another brief interval the door again opened, and girl came in whom I immediately recognised. She was the girl who, it may be remembered, had attracted my attention in the Rose Lounge by the fact that she was clad - except for her evening wrap - only in silk tights . She now swung in with slow, lazy grace, upon a single crutch, a cigarette between her lips, and with her disengaged hand, holding a lacy negligee loosely about her. "Hello, Clare, my child, and what is all the trouble?" she
began, when she caught sight of me and, halting, looked from one to the other of us.
"Lotus, darling," began Clare at once, "sit down and put your thinking cap on, if you brought such a thing with you. There's work to be done, and something rather worse than a crossword puzzle to solve. This is Miss Sonia Merrill, whom you may have noticed earlier in the evening."
Lotus nodded cheerfully. She had in the meantime put her crutch in the rack and dropped into a big comfortable chair by the fire, facing us.
"Yes, I noticed you, Miss Merrill," she said in her easy way, "to be quite candid, I wondered who was the latest charmer that devil Dalroy had got hold of!"
Briefly Clare outlined the situation, and at the closer we all three sat in silence, free to face with what still appeared to be an utterly insoluble problem.
Now, it so happened that when Lotus sank into her chair, her thin negligee had slipped apart, and as she now lay back lazily in the chair's comfortable depths, her shapely figurer still clad only in the 'union' suit of flesh-pink silk tights, was very fully displayed, and as she puffed thoughtfully at her cigarette, with her eyes fixed on vacancy, her rounded stump, just below the right hip, seemed never to remain still, but kept up an irregular, restless movement - a frequent habit with one-legged people - in a manner that naturally drew attention to it. I watched it for some time, and then, absent-mindedly, pulled aside my peignoir, exposed my own shapely stump encased in thin, skin tight silk, and began comparing it with Lotus's. There wasn't much to choose between them. Mine was, perhaps, slightly shorter and rather more plump.
I was engaged in this abstract and rather odd occupation, when I became aware that Clare was watching me with a little amused smile on her lips. I came out of my daydream with a start, and smiled a trifle confusedly at Clare, as I slid the soft silk of the peignoir over my stump again. Clare was going to make some little joking comments, when suddenly some turn of her thoughts drove the amusement out of her face, leaving it tense. She looked across at Lotus and then again at me, and the her face lit up.
"Gee!" she breathed, "I wonder if we could do it?" Lotus drew her head down with a snap, and I watched Clare in sudden excitement.
"What's the big idea, Clare?" asked Lotus.
"It's quite good," said Clare," and d - d risky; but - well, listen."
"We listened, with gradually growing amazement, to the scheme outlined with much eager excitement, by Clare, and then, at the conclusion, looked at each other expectantly.
"It's a brain wave, Clare!" cried Lotus, now completely aroused from her usual easy nonchalance. "The only things is, can we pull it off? Anyhow you can reckon on me to do my damnedest.
And the beauty of it is that if we do bring it off, Dalroy won't get within miles how it was done."
We fell at once to discussing details, and within a short time we had the whole scheme cut and dried. The parting, when at last Lotus and I rose to go, was a little tearful, though we strove to look as gay as we could, for none of us knew whether success or disaster awaited us, and part of the plot was that I, for one, l was not to be seen with either of the others until the curtain was about to be rung down on the last act. However, we kissed affectionately and with many fervent good wishes for the success of our project, slipped off to our respective rooms to await the morning and the staging of the first act of the drama.
The next day I felt sure was one of the longest I have ever experienced. Nothing was due to happen till the evening, though certain preparatory matters to be seen to before then. Lotus left the club shortly after breakfast, in accordance with her pact in the plot, and my only contact with Clare was confined to a curt, aggrieved little nod of recognition, which Clare received with a shrug of indifference.
At last the leaden hours crept by, and the longed-for hours of action arrived. I went down to dinner in a perfect agony of apprehension and, choosing a little table in remote corner, made a valiant attempt to eat the food I ordered.
The beautiful room gradually filled with the usual couples, the girls either swinging easily along on their crutches or being carried in in the arms of their partners. And at last, with a swift intake of breath, I saw the party for which I was waiting, descending the wide marble staircase.
It consisted of three - Clare, clad in her very becoming costume of tunic and tights, this time of delicate gold tissue; Bobby, her boy-friend, who, of course, was carrying her in his arms; and another boy, a very handsome youth, with sleek, black hair and a short clipped moustache who, curiously enough, had himself only one leg, and swung along on a pair of slender black crutches. This last fact, however, did not make him as conspicuous as might be imagined, as there were several one-legged male habitues of the club. Both the boys were, of course, in immaculate evening dress.
The party took a table not very far from mine, but, of course, made no sign of friendliness towards me. I waited for just a decent interval, and then, rising unhurriedly, left the dining room. entering one or the lifts, I gained my own floor above and, to my great relief, found the corridor deserted, I hurried along, and after a swift glance about me, sped past my own room and entered that of Lotus. And here I made myself at home and waited.
Once again I had to undergo the ordeal of sitting quiet and doing nothing. The thing could not be hurried; the whole affair had to look natural. Then at last the door of the sitting room softly opened, and in came - the one-legged boy.
He closed the door quietly after him, swung into the room, and then, throwing his crutches aside, sank into a chair and began to laugh softly, yet with intense glee.
"End of the first act, Sonia," he said, "and everything going splendidly." Then, in two swift movements, he pulled his little moustache and stripped off his black wig, disclosing the laughing face of - Lotus.
"Old Clare ought to he a movie director," she said, still enjoying the joke. "Fancy this little plot occurring to her when she noticed that not only had we two lost the right leg, but that our stumps were about the same size! But we're not out of the wood yet. We'd better get on with it."
Swiftly she began to strip, flinging the various garments at me, as she pulled them off. I had already thrown off my frock, leaving myself only in my silk tights, and as Lotus discarded each garment I hastily donned it. The whole outfit had been borrowed from Bobby, Clare's boy, in whose flat Lotus had changed, and was an excellent fit for me, as it had been for Lotus, the right trouser-leg had been looped up to provide a sort of pocket which fitted my stump snugly and neatly.
I was fully dressed at last, and then added the last touches by pulling on the dark, sleek wig over my closely shingled curls, and attaching the little clipped moustache to my upper lip. Lotus, standing effortlessly poised, in her slim silk tights, looked me over and declared me a perfect boy. She quickly slipped into evening frock and slipper, caught up my crutch, which of course, I now had to discard, and declared herself ready. I picked up the pair of crutches she had brought and adjusted them.
Then together we started off to face the next ordeal that confronted us, doing our best to hide the sick excitement that beat in our respective breasts.
We soon reached the Rose Lounge, where it had been decided we should all meet, and there in a corner we found Clare and Bobby occupying one of the cosy, high-backed couches . Nobody took more than a passing interest in us . So far everything had gone absolutely according to plan. All that had happened, getting a had any outsider been interested in the various moves of the game, was that the handsome one-legged newcomer had gone up to Lotus's room for her and brought her down with him.
That little piece of bluff had succeeded admirably, but the final test remained, and as we all four sat together, getting a little Dutch courage from the cocktails Bobby had ordered, we could really think of little else. We had, too, to allow a decent interval to elapse before we made the final move, so that not the slightest suspicion might arise. So we sat there, apparently a merry, care-free quartette, our strained nerves in reality on the very edge of complete collapse.
At last Bobby shot out his wrist and looked at his wristwatch.
"Jerusalem, Clare," he exclaimed. "just look at the time, will you? Derek, my son, - I was 'Derek', by the way - "we'll have to step on the gas if we are to make that appointment.
Sorry, Clare, darling, I'll probably be along to-morrow night."
"That's all right, old dear," said Clare evenly. Then with a little bust of that sly humour of hers, she added, "Bring Derek along with you again, if he cares to come."
"Sure," said Bobby; and the general laugh relieved all our feelings to some extent.
The good-byes were said, Clare slipped her soft little foot into my hand and drew me towards her, her eyes misty.
"Good-bye, - 'Derek'," she said softly. "And good luck. You may kiss me like a good boy."
I bent down and kissed her warmly on the lips, whispering my grateful thanks as I did so . Then I kissed Lotus with, I hope, properly loverly passion.
And so at last Bobby and I left the Rose Lounge and made our way, with beating hearts, to the great main doors, through which I had come with such happy and innocent anticipation only twentyfour hours ago.
We reached the doors. The gigantic negro attendant, in his resplendent livery, smiled and bowed as he pocketed our generous tips. Obviously he had not the slightest idea that Bobby's goodlooking one-legged companion was not the same individual he had admitted only a short time before.
The doors opened. We passed through, still, as it were, with bated breath into the darkness beyond. The doors closed behind us. Within a few minutes I was sitting beside Bobby, in his big limousine, speeding down the long, winding drive.
One more river still to cross! The two negro guardians at the gate came forward as we slowed up, and while bidding us good night and gratefully accepting our tips, eyed us both keenly. they fell back, however, with a parting salute. We had passed the last test, and the big iron gates swung open. Then, as we slid through and, turning, sped down the road, something snapped within me and I fell in a dead faint against Bobby's shoulder.
So I left the 'Moignon D'Or'!
* * *
There is very little more to tell. One of Lotus's tasks that morning had been to smuggle several of my frocks, hats, slippers etc., out of the club, and these she had taken to Bobby's flat.
It was to Bobby's flat we now drove, and there I thankfully assumed my own garments again, and after some needed refreshment was escorted by Bobby to a neighbouring hotel.
A few days later I engineered the return of my trunks and all my belongings, by the simple expedient by writing boldly to Clifford Dalroy - who, by the way, never discovered the method of my escape - and threatening complete exposure if a single thing was retained. These was however the merest bluff on my part, as I dared not carry out my threat, dearly as I would liked to do so.
In the first place, there was my loyalty to Clare and Lotus to think of; and in the second, there was Tony, who I fervently prayed would never learn of my worse than imbecilic escapade. So Dalroy went Scot free, as far as I was concerned, though it is gratifying to be able to record that Nemesis overtook him some time later, when he met his death in the hands of one of his many victims.
Clare, Lotus, Bobby and I had a very joyful, if secret reunion just before I left New York for Chicago, and I was overjoyed to hear, a few month later, that Bobby had found his love big and fine enough to enable him to scorn the conventions and marry the fascinating, armless and one-legged beauty. The wedding was, naturally, one of the red-hot sensations of New York Society. As for me, I found my darling Tony waiting for me in Chicago, as penitent as I was for myself, and my ecstasy may be imagined when I found myself safe in the haven of his dear arms.
So that was the fortunate ending of that particular adventure, one of the strangest in which I have ever been involved. But strange experiences have been my lot of life, and perhaps I may permitted to relate some of the most extraordinary of them in these pages during the coming year.