In the three preceding episodes of this chronicle, Anthony ("Tony") Drew, a handsome, well built young man about town, told of his meeting and falling in love with Felice Carling, a very beautiful blonde Society girl who had lost a limb. For some mysterious reason Felice, though in love with Tony, agrees only to a temporary engagement. One night she brings him to an institution called 'Le Phenomene', where he meets a number of interesting people. Among them is Tina Nicholas, who had recently divorced her husband, Dr. Rene Nicholas, a famous French plastic surgeon, about whose operations many rumours are current.
Tina herself is English, young and lovely, and Tony is completely infatuated, and for the moment, even Felice is forgotten. Later that night he suddenly discovers that she has mysteriously disappeared, and he is heavily disturbed.
Next day Tony meets Tina again, and is taken by her to the house of a very beautiful Russian woman, Princess Ottilie. Here he learns of the existence of a curious society called 'The Black Butterflies', of which the Princess is the president and Tina an important officer. The members are all well-to-do ladies who have had the misfortune to miss a limb. The badge of the society is a tiny black butterfly which each member has had tattooed.
Tony is admitted to the honorary membership of the 'Butterflies', and is invited to a big party which is to be held in connection with the society at Princess Ottilie's house on the following night. Meanwhile the Princess has shown a very decided and frank interest in Tony, and obviously out to attract him. But he, though attracted, senses something strange about her.
He now continues his story.
* * *
The discussion about the following night's gathering of "Butterflies" went on, with myself as a most interested listener and then, quite unconsciously, I gave the Princess an opening for which apparently she had been looking ever since I had been introduced to her. I began to ask questions about the party, the time of arrival, etc. - particularly where exactly the masked fancy dress dance was to be held. Ottilie fastened on to that last question with the swiftness one used to seizing her opportunities the moment they offered.
"Of course," she exclaimed, turning gaily to me. "You haven't really seen over my house. Practically all you have seen so far is the swimming bath. I think I can say that the house also contains one of the finest private ballrooms in London. Come, I'll show it to you myself."
She turned smilingly to Tina and with calm, almost impudent assurance, continued:
"You won't mind if I run away with him for a few minutes, will you, darling? Please stay here with Desiree for the moment. Wanda will look after you both quite nicely."
The real intention behind this somewhat naive suggestion of the Princess's was, I am afraid, quite patent to everybody, and I felt a little embarrassed as I looked across at Tina. But she still seemed to regard my predicament as a good joke, and only flashed an amused smile at me as she cheerfully agreed to Ottilie's proposal.
I knew very well that Ottilie's suggestion about viewing the ballroom had been the merest subterfuge. She had simply made the suggestion in order to get me away from the others for a few minutes. And in her own perfectly frank way she made this quite obvious to me.
So sat down with Ottilie and then, without any preliminary at all, with a suddenness that took my breath away, her soft lips were pressed to mine in a long kiss.
But the women in her sensed something lacking, for after a while she drew away and, lying back, regarded me oddly.
"Do you know, Tony," she said slowly, "I really believe that you're just a little bit afraid of me."
I was startled; for, in a way, there was more than a suggestion of truth in her accusation. But I managed to laugh with a quite credible assumption of incredulity.
"What nonsense, Ottilie," I said. "Why on earth should I be afraid of you?"
She tossed her lovely head.
"Well, if not exactly afraid of me," she said, with a shrewd little smile, "at any rate afraid of yourself. You are saying to yourself, 'I'm not going too far. I'm not going to allow her to subjugate me.' Now, confess, isn't that exactly what you have been thinking?"
I laughed again, perhaps not quite so successfully, but without waiting for me to reply, Ottilie continued her harangue. She was utterly unconscious of anything unfeminine or egotistical in her conduct.
I understand that many Russian women are just as singleminded and direct in circumstances of this kind. If they care for a man, they say so without any beating about the bush. Certainly Ottilie was not in the least afraid of saying exactly what was in her mind.
"Why are you so afraid?" she went on rapidly. "You were most attracted as soon as your eyes fell upon me. I realised that at once. If I had not, I should not be here with you now. And now I find you - well, as I said - afraid!"
I hid my amazement at this extraordinary outburst as well as I could, and tried to reason with her.
"But Ottilie," I said, "though I admit all you say about my being thrilled, I think you forget that I owe some allegiance to - to Tina, for instance."
A mischievous little smile curved Ottilie's mobile lips.
"Or Felice Carling," she said quietly, and eyed me steadily.
I flashed the direct thrust.
"You - you know about Felice?" I stammered.
Ottilie nodded smilingly.
"Desiree told me all about Felice bringing you along to 'Le Phenomene', and also about the amusing little happiness there. Please don't think that Desiree was being malicious. She wasn't. She was merely retailing some interesting gossip, and incidentally she mentioned a good-looking boy named Tony Drew, who was not only a lover of maiden beauty, but also, apparently, a bit of a Lothario. You can't blame Desiree, Tony, dear. You know you did arrive with Felice and go away with Tina, now didn't you?"
I couldn't stammer an explanation or an excuse. I could only sit there hot with embarrassment. Ottilie had certainly scored, and scored heavily.
"It's all right, Tony," she murmured. "You see, I understand perfectly, and it is because I understand that I am just a little puzzled at your present attitude to myself. Listen. I shall try to explain what I mean. You happen to be one of that exceptional type of young man who find a curious, inexplicable fascination in the lack of a limb in a beautiful woman. You meet Felice Carling and are immediately strongly attracted. Perhaps - I don't know - you fall in love with her. Later you meet another beautiful girl, Tina Nicholas. You are even more strongly attracted by her, sufficiently so to force you to forget Felice and become infatuated with Tina."
"But Felice suddenly disappeared without warning and without explanation," I put in, with some wretched idea of excusing my utterly inexcusable conduct.
"Yes, I agree that Felice's disappearance may have had something to do with it," said Ottilie, "but the truth was that you found Tina quite irresistible; and I tell you why - at any rate, I give you my theory. It was simply because of her greater helplessness thrilled and fascinated you more powerfully. isn't that somewhere near the truth?"
"Well," I agreed slowly, "I hadn't thought about it in that way before; but perhaps there is something in what you say."
"Ah, you admit it!" cried Ottilie, triumphantly. "Then perhaps you begin to see what I am driving at?"
"Good heavens!" I said, as if the thought just struck me. "Do you know we must have been here hours? We've had time to explore fifty ballrooms. What on earth will Tina and Desiree think?"
"What does it matter what they think?" she said. "But I suppose we must get back." Then she became serious again for a moment. "Tony," she went on, "you do understand me better now, don't you?"
"Of course I do," I replied as fervently as I was able. For some odd reason I felt I must not offend her.
Then we returned to the boudoir, where we have left Tina and Desiree. It was 5 with a genuine sigh of relief that, some time later, I took Tina out to the waiting car and, having placed her carefully among the cushions, got in beside her.
The Princess had proposed our staying for dinner, but Tina had been quick enough to invent an appointment with somebody called Lotus, and Ottilie had reluctantly allowed us to go. Desiree had remained, and so we two were able at last to get away together.
"I thought it just as well to rescue you from Ottilie's clutches, my lad," said Tina, as we moved off. "I don't mind her vamping you for a few minutes, but not for whole evenings."
"She didn't get very far with her vamping as far as I was concerned," I protested, with a laugh.
"I wonder," said Tina, "You never can tell with Ottilie. She's clever and she's determined. And certainly you seemed to have had a real heart-to-heart talk. You were long enough away, at any rate."
"Oh, we had a talk all right," I agreed, "but mainly about Princess Ottilie."
I went on, I hoped, quite calmly, talking about Ottilie and her extraordinary case, and I must have been successful, for Tina's slight uneasiness vanished, and she was quite herself again. But all the time I knew that I had suddenly stumbled upon another odd fact. Somehow or other, when Ottilie had referred to the "famous French plastic surgeon," the fact had awakened no memories within my mind. But now, on referring to that gentleman myself, and in Tina's presence, I had suddenly recalled something I had heard on the night I had first been introduced to Tina.
Hadn't Tina not been married to and recently divorced from a "famous French plastic surgeon" - what was his name - a Dr. Rene Nicholas - wasn't that it? And weren't there some queer stories afloat about his out-of-the-way surgical operations?
However, after all, the whole thing was merely the concern of Ottilie and Tina. It had not, I considered, anything at all to do with me. So I thought at the time. It was only when, some time later, I encountered this extraordinary Dr. Nicholas, that I was to find with what devastating effect he was to meddle in my affairs. But I am afraid I am anticipating a little. Let me get back to Tina and myself as we rode together in the car.
Our talk drifted away from Ottilie and her affairs, and we chatted gaily about other and more interesting subjects - mainly ourselves.
"But, by the way, Tina," I said, at last, glancing out of the window of the speeding car, "where are we off to exactly? Are we just drifting, or have we something fixed up?"
"Well, first of all, dear heart," said Tina, "you are taking me out to dinner - if you don't mind?"
"Most certainly I don't mind. A most delightful idea. But" - I looked at her a little uncertainly - "where can we go?"
Tina flashed a little roguish smile at me.
"I thought of the Ritz-Carlton," she said lightly. "What do you say?"
I couldn't help showing a momentous surprise at her suggestion, but I made a quick recovery and smilingly agreed.
I confess I felt more than a touch of embarrassment as I pioneered my somewhat helpless burden through the crowded main dining-room to the table to which we were conducted.
But the meal came to an end at last; and then, as the smart, immaculately attired floor manager came up to enquire courteously if "everything had been to Madam's satisfaction," Tina, after thanking him, asked a question.
"I wonder if you would he so good as to find out for me if Miss Fane is in the hotel?" she said. "And, if so, whether she would see me for a moment or so?"
"Certainly, Madame." responded the man with a smiling bow. "As a matter of fact, Miss Fane has only just finished dinner in her own private suite, and I feel sure she will still be in the hotel. I shall have an inquiry put through at once, Madame." And he hurried away.
In some vague way, the name was familiar to me, and I said as much to Tina.
"Well, that's not surprising," laughed Tina. "Most people have heard of Lotus Fane."
"Oh, the film star!" I said, and also recalling Tina's reference to Lotus just before we left Ottilie's lounge. "I didn't know she was in England. Hasn't she been ill or something? I seem to remember hearing about a breakdown."
Tina nodded, but at the moment the information was brought that Miss Fane would be delighted to see Tina immediately, and so I had to shelve further questioning.
Eventually we arrived in the charming little ante-room of the star's suite, and here a pretty neatly attired maid received us.
"Oh, Josie," said Tina, "please tell Miss Fane that I have with me 'the boy friend', as you say in your country and ask her if I may bring him in."
There was no doubt as to the identity of the lovely girl who smiled a welcome up at us from the deep, comfortable couch on which she sat, as we were shown into the prettily appointed sitting room of the suite. I recognised her at once from her recent successful pictures. In fact, Lotus Fane was even more lovely in the flesh than ever she had seemed the on the screen. She was clad in a very revealing negligee of filmy chiffon, her beautiful white arms bare to the shoulder, and that famous 'slim young goddess' look, which is so noticeable a feature of her pictures, was just as delightfully evident now.
I said nothing. I desperately wanted to ask questions; but, of course, realised that it would he better to cross-examine Tina later than Lotus now.
We eventually took our leave. My last glimpse of Lotus was of her smiling demurely, yet in friendly fashion at me, while she daintily drew the diaphanous folds of her negligee over a puzzling element in an otherwise most interesting and thrilling visit.
As may be imagined we had hardly settled down in the car before I began probing the queer mystery of Lotus Fane.
"Isn't it an extraordinary thing about Lotus Fane?" I asked. "Why, in 'Crash', her last picture - you know, the one in which she did the parachute jump - she appeared in one part of the film in a bathing suit and it revealed a pair of limbs that any prize beauty would have been proud of."
"Yes, that's perfectly true," agreed Tina. But don't you remember what happened in connection with the production of 'Crash'?"
"Why, yes," I agreed slowly, "now you mention it, I do seem to have a vague recollection of hearing about some hitch in connection with the production - something about the thing having to he postponed because of the illness of the star - wasn't that it?"
"Yes", nodded Tina, "and the production was actually not resumed for over six month. But what really happened was known only to those working on the picture, and at Lotus's own request was kept a secret. The truth was that she insisted on doing that parachute jump herself - usually, of course, a 'ghost' is engaged to do stunts of that kind. You remember the thrill of that terrible fall in the picture. Well, it really happened exactly as photographed, though it was never intended to happen in the original story. The last-minute opening of the parachute saved Lotus's life, but her legs were so badly injured that both had eventually to be amputated.
"But, in spite of that, she did not lose her cheerfulness or her pluck, and she insisted on completing the picture when she was sufficiently well to do so. A new ending specially contrived to hide the loss, was devised and the picture was finished."
"What an extraordinary story." I commented when Tina concluded. "And even more extraordinary that nobody appears to have noticed anything wrong in the last part of the picture. It shows how skilfully the pictures are produced. And that's the end of poor Lotus Fane as a film star, I suppose?"
"In a way, yes, I suppose so, said Tina. "But I think she'll make at least one more appearance, and if she does it will certainly be a most interesting one for those privileged to see it. So far Lotus has managed to keep the secret of her misfortune. Even the hotel people think that she is still suffering only from the effect of her recent illness. But soon after her arrival in England, on holiday, she heard of our little society of 'Butterflies'. She got in touch with us and we were the first to learn the astonishing news of her condition. She was at once keen to become a 'Butterfly'.
"Well, Ottilie, who is always full of extraordinary ideas, had the inspiration that the 'Butterflies' should produce a film of their very own, with Lotus as the star. I think Lotus is highly intrigued with the idea, and we have great hopes that she will eventually content. If she does, that should be a picture worth seeing, my lad. What do you say?"
"I should think it would be!" I exclaimed enthusiastically. "And please note that I am booking a seat for the picture here and now. I wouldn't miss it for a fortune."
"But you might be asked to take a part in it, Tony," laughed Tina. "How do you fancy yourself as a film star?"
"Now, that is an idea!" I cried. "I have always had a sneaking notion that I could wipe the eye of Ronald Coleman or any of that crowd, if only I had the chance."
And then for the reminder of our journey home, we amused ourselves immensely by planning and casting this proposed amazing picture, which I suggested should be called 'Monopedia'.
(As a matter of interest, in passing, I may reveal that this film was later actually produced and shown privately to an enthusiastic audience of 'Butterflies' and their friends. It may not properly belong to this chronicle, but perhaps I may be allowed to tell you all about it at a future date.)
However, at last we arrived at Tina's flat, and there I left her after a tender and prolonged farewell and a promise to be there on time the following evening, when r was to dine quietly with her prior to going on to the big 'Butterfly' affair at Princess Ottilie's.
The following evening Tina and I duly arrived at the princess's house. Once inside, however, I forgot the crowd outside as soon as I was smilingly greeted by Nadine, the pretty maid who had attended us before. For this particular occasion she and her fellow-maid were clad in a most fetching uniform of diaphanous black silk tights worn with a short skin-tight, hip-length tunic of black velvet faced and piped with silver. That was but a opening thrill. Other thrills came in rapid succession as we made our way through the great crowd milling and eddying through the vast reception rooms, surely the most extraordinary and bizarre crowd that was ever gathered under one roof.
Everybody was masked - Tina and I had assumed ours before leaving the cloakrooms - and everybody was more or less in fancy dress. For the most part the men were more strictly in period than the ladies, running through the usual sort of cavaliers, Regency bucks, Chinamen, Mexican, bandits, gondoliers, Cossacks, Arabs, etc., with of course, a preponderance of pierrots in every possible variation of the traditional costume.
The ladies, however, had interpreted the fancy dress decree much more freely, and had subordinated even period costumes to the fullest advantage.
Ottilie, we learned on arrival, was in the great ballroom receiving the guests and towards that point Tina and I began to converge, making our way slowly and patiently through the jostling, laughing throng about us.
For my own fancy dress, by the way, I had chosen a quite conventional pierrot costume in black and white satin, with a voluminous ruffle at the throat. Tina's airy, but most dainty and exquisite costume would, I imagine, have been described as that of a Naiad, as she was clad throughout in most ethereal Nile green. The filmy wisp of frock was of ninon, floating about her more like a foaming mist than a frock, and worn over a single skin-tight garment like a bathing suite.
On her small foot was a fragile little sandal of flashing green diamante that left practically the whole foot and toes exposed, and with an extravagantly high slender heel that must have towered to over six inches.
The jewels round her slender throat, in her ears, gleaming on her toes and in her close blonde curls, were also of green, as was the little narrow silk mask she wore. And altogether she made as fascinating and alluring a picture as any in that vast throng.
I should explain that I was not now helping Tina as we made our way to the ballroom. She was actually "walking" by my side. This little feat was accomplished by means of a very simple yet ingenious contrivance of Tina's own invention. It consisted of an adjustable strap of black silk slung over my right shoulder and carrying, at about the height of the hip, a broad silken loop. By bearing on this, as she would a crutch, and with the additional support of my hand about her waist, she was able to "walk" at my side with an ease and grace that was astonishing.
So we made our way, pausing every now and then to greet Tina's multitude of friends, and eventually we reached the dais at one end of the ballroom, where Princess Ottilie sat in state, receiving her guests. She was daintily poised rather than seated on a magnificent ivory, high-backed chair, intricately carved and ornamented and rich, with the dais helped the impression that one was gazing at a queen enthroned.
On second thoughts, as I took in all the amazing details, I did not find the "enthroned queen" description entirely adequate. Rather was she like the beautiful image of some barbaric goddess stolen from an Oriental temple.
On her right, in a similar type of chair, sat Lotus Fane, the film star, looking distractingly lovely in a single tenuous sheath of priceless black lace.
Desiree, I also saw, was very appropriately and most realistically attired as a mermaid, complete with sinuous, iridescent tail. Her wonderful, uniquely formed body lent itself perfectly to such a character and no fabled mermaid could possibly have looked more naturally.
For some time after paying homage to the Princess as queen of the revels, I remained by Ottilie's side at her request, while Tina, accepting a chair on the dais, chatted with the grace of ladies there. I could see that Ottilie intended, if she could, to keep me in attendance to her; but I had no such desire, and only awaited a decent excuse to break away.
In the meantime, while we talked, I watched the thrilling and ever-changing kaleidoscope of the crowd as it wove its patterns before my interested and thrilled eyes.
Then at signal, the floor, or at any rate the center of it, began to clear quite magically, too, considering the thought that had seemed to fill it to overflowing just a moment before. The first strains from a dance band floated down from a gallery above and, seizing my chance, I slipped round to na and - as they say at the best shilling "hops" - "requested the honour."
Tina rose with that effortless grace of hers, and, once again slipping into the silken loop that hung from my shoulder, we swung out on the floor. I was, however, uncomfortably aware of the concentrated gaze of Ottilie as we moved away. Her great eyes seemed to burn their way through the eyeholes of her mask and I could almost feel the venom in them.
But I soon forgot the unpleasant sensation in the delight of the dance and in the curiously interesting nature of the scene about me.
We had been dancing some little time before I noted the man dressed as Mephistopheles. He was a tall man, for I first caught sight of the scarlet mask and the scarlet skull cap and long feather well above the heads of the rest of the crowd. The mask face was turned towards us and the gleaming eyes seemed so intent on us that at last I drew Tina's attention to the fact.
Then the dance finished, the crowd broke and the man himself, his fine figure clad throughout in scarlet tights, with a cloak of the same colour swinging from his shoulders, advanced towards us. I felt Tina stiffen slightly in my arms, but when the stranger reached us she was already herself again.
"Why, René," she said, "I did not know you were to be here."
"I did not know myself until a few hours ago," the man replied with a smile and with a decided but pleasant foreign accent. "I happened to arrive in London this afternoon, and I called for Ottilie. You see the result."
Tina laughed - perhaps only in my imagination that the laugh sounded a little forced - and then turned to me. "Monsieur Mephisto, here," she said lightly, "is my late husband Dr. René Nicholas, the famous surgeon. We parted, but we remain good friends, eh, René?"
"Most certainly", replied the doctor, with apparent heartiness, "always the best of friends. But for the moment you must both pardon me. I have only just arrived, and have still to pay my respect to Ottilie. Tina, cherie, you must save a dance or two for me, yes?"
And, with that he sauntered easily away towards the distant dais. The band broke into a gay fox-trot, and Tina and I swung once again into the dance. Tina chatted brightly, but my thoughts were busy with the stranger, Dr. René Nicholas, Tina's divorced husband, the eminent plastic surgeon.
I shivered slightly. Why, I know not. what had Dr. Nicholas to do with me? Nothing in the world. And yet for the moment I could not shake off a queer, inexplicable feeling of apprehension. The feeling passed. I smiled at my imbecility, and once again plunged into the joy of the dance.
After about the third dance Tina, naturally, tired as all her dancing was done on her one foot, and we sat out for the next few. We did not, however, return to the dais, but found a comfortable couch near that part of the room reserved for the many very entertaining cabaret "turns" which punctuated the general dancing throughout the evening.
I suppose all these cabaret items were given by "Butterflies" and, if so, there was no doubt that the society contained quite a good deal of very clever and ingenious vaudeville talent.
Tina and I had danced several dances interspersed between these various acts, and had been resting for a little while, when I saw above the crowd the now familiar long red feather and scarlet mask again approaching us. A second or two later the tall Mephistophelian figure of Dr. Nicholas was bowing to Tina and smilingly asking for a dance.
Tina agreed quite readily, and I handed over the doctor the silken sling, with the uses of which he appeared quite familiar. He adjusted it over his shoulder, and Tina threw me a gay little smile and swung off on his arms.
For a while I watched them as they danced, marvelling at the skilful and effortless way Tina fitted in her single-footed steps with his. Then, skirting the dancing throng, I made my way slowly round the room, looking for a possible partner and trying to recognise through their masks any of the few "Butterflies" I knew.
And suddenly, as I walked, I stopped dead and I knew I had gone white. The lovely, exquisite figure of a slim, masked Bacchante went floating by in the arms of her partner, and the beautiful eyes gleaming through the mask, had caught and held mine for just a pulsating second or so.
Swiftly I recovered myself; swiftly I turned and followed the pair with searching, eager eyes. The girl's divinely lovely body could scarcely have been shown to better advantage in any other costume than that she wore. Her garment was a beautifully prepared leopard skin reaching over the hips and with one thin strand across a white bare shoulder. The lovely arms, satin smooth shoulders, and one daintily slender limb - all made a perfect whole. The little flexible open sandal on the small bare foot, the glittering headdress of glittering grapes and vine leaves, and the mask revealing the upper part of her face were all she wore in addition.
There could be only one such in the world! It could only be Felice! I was sure of it, despite the disguising mask, and the fact, that not being a "Butterfly" - in fact, an avowed antagonist of the society - she had no right to be present at the reception.
The dance and its inevitable encores at last came to an end. I had kept the girl and her partner well in view, and now from a little distance, I saw the man escort her to a chair, bow and leave her. I sped across the room and stood before her.
"Felice!" I breathed, and again, "Felice!"
But the girl only raised her lovely head slowly and regarded me through the eye-holes of her mask with a smiling lack of recognition.
"Aren't you making some mistake?" she asked in soft, husky tones that were certainly unlike those I remembered so well, and yet might easily have been assumed to disguise the real voice.
I could only stand there dumbly, feeling I ought to retire, yet too stubborn to do so. And my perplexity was deepened by a significant little discovery I made as I gazed down at her.
On the smooth, white flesh was that, to me, now familiar emblem - the black butterfly! That staggered me, for I knew that Felice had never worn such a thing and was, for some reason that I had still to learn, bitterly opposed to everything the emblem stood for. Yet there it was; but I was still convinced it was Felice.
The last time I had seen Felice she was wearing the flat jewelled circlet which she had allowed me to place. Of course, one could not take for granted that she would always wear this charming and unusual token, but somehow the absence of it tonight struck another blow at my conviction.
Still I stood my ground. At any rate she was not annoyed at my persistence, for she smiled unconcernedly up at me.
"I think I understand," she said at last. You imagine I am Felice Carling."
"You know, you know, Felice!" I stammered.
"Very well," she replied calmly, "I know I'm rather like her. That's how you come to mistake me for her."
My hope sank like a stone. This was, of course, a very probable explanation. Yet I could not give up completely. I had to be absolutely sure before I retired beaten and crushed, and so I snatched at a straw.
"I'm really terribly sorry," I said, summoning up a smile by sheer force of will. "I was sure you were Felice Carling. You're certainly a double of hers. But you forgive me sufficiently to permit me to ask for a dance?"
"That's quite nice of you," she replied quite readily, "I'll be most happy to dance with you."
The band had already resumed it's rhythmic noises while we had been talking, and now the girl rose gracefully and settled herself quite confidingly in my arms. Despite her apparent calm, however, I could feel the beautiful body distinctly trembling in my embrace, and once again she had me guessing and hoping.
"Felice - you little devil!" I breathed excitedly as I laughed in her lovely eyes.
But I was met only by a questioning stare, and when I explained how, as I had imagined, I had found her out, my hopes were dashed once again by her amused laughter. She merely said: '"Dance, little gentleman, dance, and don't let your imagination run riot!"
After that I danced in exasperated and despairing silence. To tell the truth I was amazed at the tremendous effect this accidental meeting with a girl I imagined was Felice had upon me. I had never really forgotten Felice. Deep down in my breast I had been troubled about her, and in my solitary moments, deeply contemptuous of my conduct regarding her. But I had never had a chance of returning to her allegiance, for the simple reason that she had disappeared mysteriously and completely, and I was afraid for ever. With Felice gone out of my life, Tina, lovely, fascinating, had maintained her attraction. But now, when I thought that Felice had miraculously returned and was here actually in my arms, everything else, everyone else, faded in the glory of her irresistible appeal.
And it was simply agony not to be certain. If it was really Felice and she was playing with me, she was certainly entitled to do so. I deserved some punishment. If she was testing me - heavens, how I hoped she was! - she had every right to do that also. But I had to know the truth or lose my reason beneath the strain.
The dance came to an end, but feverishly I remained at her side. I was determined not to let her go. Fortunately, she was amusedly amenable and made no attempt to escape. But the dancing had tired her and she asked, in quite friendly fashion, to be allowed to miss the next one or two. I seized the opportunity with both hands.
During my tour of the house with Ottilie I remembered passing along a wide, magnificent cloister leading to one of the entrances of the hall room. Along each side of this there was a succession of little alcoves beautifully carried out in Renaissance architecture, and each forming a snug, inviting retreat. Now, I suggested a few minutes' quiet away from the noise and bustle of the ballroom; and, to my delight, my enchanting partner agreed.
She picked up the slender, jewelled crutch which rested against the back of her chair and, swinging lithely and gracefully at my side, accompanied me to the cloister.
As I might have expected, other couples had already discretely this sanctuary, and quite a number of the alcoves were occupied. However, we found an empty one and slipped into it, the girl sinking gracefully on to the comfortable depths of the big couch set within it.
After getting a laughing promise from her not to escape while I was away, I hurried off and soon returned with some refreshments I had managed to get hold of.
In a little while we just busied ourselves with the food and drink, chatting quite amiably as we did so. Then, while I was thinking out some method of returning to the attack, she suddenly helped me by re-opening the subject herself.
"Tell me," she said quietly, "why are you so terribly concerned about Felice?"
"Because - because I love her," I replied simply, but with all my heart in the words.
I thought I saw a flame glow suddenly in the beautiful eyes behind the mask. But I might have been mistaken. Perhaps it was just scorn, for she went on gently:
"And how long have you imagined you loved her? Since leaving Tina this evening, perhaps?"
I winced at the hard words.
"No," I retorted steadily, "ever since I first met her. I know that now. I admit all you would charge against me. I admit I was lured away by Tina's fascination. I admit that for the moment I thought I could do without Felice. She had gone away without a word, disappeared without a trace. I suppose I was piqued and I shrugged my shoulders and said, 'Who cares?' But I discovered the real truth to-night. You may not be Felice, but you have brought Felice back to me - in my heart."
The hearts are highly sentimental, I know; but I was in deadly earnest and tremendously moved, and I did not trouble to think whether they were "sloppy" or not.
My beautiful vis-a-vis remained perfectly still for some moments. Then, as if shaking herself free from some bond that had almost caught and held her, she sat up and allowed a little skeptical smile to curve her lips.
"And - the Princess?" she queried slowly. "Have you also managed to break away from her very potent lures to-night?"
I suppose the continued strain of the whole sequence of events since meeting my enigmatic companion had began to tell upon me. For suddenly I saw red, and I am afraid I went beyond the bounds of ordinary decorum.
"The Princess!" I exclaimed hotly. "Where did you get the idea that I had ever succumbed to her so-called potent lures? The women is nothing to me - less than nothing. I have admitted the fascination Tina had for me. I should be just as open if the Princess had never done more than intrigue me as a remarkable and unusual exhibit. To me, Princess Ottilie is just a vamp, a sinister woman, helpless - but very dangerous."
I stopped, suddenly conscious of my loss of control.
"I'm sorry," I finished lamely. "I shouldn't have let myself to be so viperish. Anyhow, you now know my real opinion of Princess Ottilie." Then I bent forward eagerly.
"Listen!" I said. "You say you know Felice very well. No doubt you know where to find her. When you see her next; tell her you met Tony here to-night and that he has at last found out the truth about himself; that nothing in the world matters but her; and that only she could find it in her heart to forgive him, not fifty Tina's nor five hundred Princess Ottilie's would ever lure him away from her dear side again. Will you tell her that?"
Suddenly the girl stood up. Her hand had gone to a breast I was sure was fluttering wildly, and the beautiful face below the mask seemed strangely set. Then she smiled deliciously, uncertainly.
"Yes," she breathed softly, "I shall be glad to tell Felice - just that."
Then, before I fully realised what she intended, she had picked up her crutch, deftly adjusted it beneath her arm, and swung off swiftly towards the ballroom.
For some moments I sat there surprised into inaction. Then, springing to my feet, I hurried after her. But she had gained the ballroom before I could reach it, and for the moment had successfully lost herself in the dancing throng. I looked round in growing dismay without locating her, and then my attention was diverted by something that I realised, even in my perturbed state, was very significant.
Through the door leading from the cloister through which I had just hurried after my late companion, came the tall figure of Dr. Nicholas and Princess Ottilie. With growing sense of uneasiness, I saw that first of all she was without a mask, and secondly that her face was literally distorted with rage. The doctor hurried her to the dais, and there after a whispered colloquy, two pages, who had been in attendance at the dais throughout the evening, lifted long silver trumpets to their lips and blew a high echoing fanfare.
The dancers stopped dead where they stood, the band ceased playing, and the general hubbub died down to an expectant hush.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced the Princess in a clear voice that carried all over the room, "I am exceedingly sorry to be compelled to interrupt your pleasure for a moment, but it has been reported to me that an intruder has ventured into our privacy, no doubt with very questionable motives. I must therefore ask everybody to unmask while an attempt is made to locate the culprit."
A sudden buzz of excited chatter followed this announcement, while the general removal of masks was taking place everybody was looking eagerly round to see who could possibly be responsible for the Princess's dramatic edict.
As for myself, a strange chill had struck my heart. I was still, of course, more than half convinced that the girl I had sat with in the alcove was Felice, and if she were - well, despite that little butterfly, she must be the interloper for which they were looking.
By some unlucky chance Ottilie and Dr. Nicholas, as I reasoned, must have occupied an adjacent alcove while my beautiful companion and I talked; and Ottilie, like myself, had suspected who she really was. What actually Ottilie could do to the girl were found to be an intruder, I could not guess; but I could not shake off a most depressing premonition of disaster.
All this flashed through my mind in the few seconds following Ottilie's announcement. Then I made a swift decision. I did not unmask. Let the searchers suspect myself, if only for a few minutes. While attention was directed to myself, the girl might he able to get away unnoticed.
Then suddenly I saw her - and she was still wearing her mask! Though people round me were staring questioningly at me, a general movement was being made towards the girl, and I started pushing my way in her direction. But before I could reach her a startling thing happened. All the lights suddenly failed, and the whole place was plunged into darkness.
The excited clatter rose to frightened clamour. Women shrieked and men shouted. Then high above the general hubbub there came a cry - urgent, fear-stricken:
It was Felice's voice! I could have picked it from a million others. So it had been she all the time, and she was obviously in danger.
In a sudden burst of anger I began fighting my way in the darkness towards the place where I had last seen her. But everybody was scrambling for the doors and had managed to wedge themselves into impenetrable blocks. And then, when the indescribable uproar was at its height, the lights came on again and the crowds blinked, laughed, and looked sheepish in the brilliant glare.
A voice that was not Ottilie's announced that everything was now all right and that dancing might be resumed. The band broke into a quick-step and the laughing crowds, their curiosity still unsatisfied, paired off and swung gaily round the floor again.
But I could only gaze around wildly, fearfully; then I began a systematic search of the room. At last I realised the truth. Felice, Ottilie and Dr. Nicholas had all vanished. The question was whither - and why?
I stood there for a few moments and feverishly thought out the situation. Just before the lights went out I remembered, Felice, still masked, had turned and had tried to get to a lofty pair of ornamental doors that let out of the ballroom at the end furthest from the big main doors. It was therefore most probable that it was through these doors that she had been hurried by her captors.
I made swiftly for the doors, and found myself alone in a big, luxurious hall or vestibule, from which, to left and right, rose a great double staircase. I darted up one sweep of this, and found myself facing a long, wide, heavily carpeted corridor, from which opened out, no doubt, various reception rooms, lounges and the like. Along this I trod warily, and then suddenly stopped dead.
I had come to what I shall describe as a "cross-roads"; in other words, a part where another wide corridor crossed that along which I had walked. And there on the carpet where two familiar objects. One was the dainty silk garter I had seen that night on Felice, and the other was the jewelled circlet I had given her what seemed ages ago.
As I picked them up, trembling with sudden excitement. I could guess what had happened. Felice had, after all, been wearing the circlet beneath and hidden by the garter, and as she was carried along the corridor the two had slipped off or she had slipped them off purposely. Her captor or captors had obviously not noticed their fall upon the thick carpet.
I slipped them into one of the two capacious pockets my costume possessed, and then stood considering silently which way I should now go. And to my ears there came from the right of the "cross-roads" the muffled sound of a voice. I crept down the corridor and softly tried the door from behind which came the voice. It was locked.
Anxiously wondering what to do now, I looked down the corridor, and at the end I saw a door with heavy glass panels, directly facing me. Led by some instinct rather than anything else, I crept to this. I opened it and found myself on a balcony overlooking the extensive grounds of the house. Peering to my left, I could just make out a tall pair of French windows, and I guessed that these were the windows of the room with the locked door.
I was out there in a moment and, to my intense joy, they opened softly at my touch. Inside the room the windows were curtained by heavy hangings. I stepped in soundlessly and, making a thin division in the hangings, peered into the room.
What I saw sent the angry blood to my head and only a natural desire to learn something about the whole extraordinary situation kept me for the moment from leaping in and dealing out summary justice.
On a couch, almost directly facing me, lay Felice - yes, there could be no doubt now that it was Felice, as she was unmasked - expertly and securely bound. She lay quite still, with closed eyes, and it was quite obvious she had been rendered unconscious, probably by some drug. Facing me in a chair by the couch sat Ottilie, and pacing up and down the room was Dr. Nicholas. He was still in costume but he had removed his mask.
"There's too much risk in this case, Ottilie," he was saying agitatedly. "Can't you see that? The girl will remember everything. You were too contentedly melodramatic as you always are, with your ordering everybody to unmask and then kidnapping the girl like this."
"I don't care," cried Ottilie, her face working with passion. I'm going to settle matters with this girl and her precious Tony, and you've got to help me. You heard what he said in the alcove. You heard his very charming description of myself! He did not know how truthfully he spoke when he said that I was 'helpless but dangerous'. They'll both find out how dangerous I can be. He shall have his Felice all right. He'll be welcome to her - or what is left of her!"
"Yes, that's all very well, Ottilie," replied Dr. Nicholas petulantly, "if we can bring it off without discovery."
Ottilie look up at him, her contempt plainly obvious in her eyes.
"You may be a world famous surgeon, René," she said, "but in an emergency you are pretty futile. Listen! A girl caught gatecrashing at private party, makes a desperate effort to escape her captors. The lights go out, and she manages to get away. But she is handicapped by the darkness and also by the fact that she has only one limb. She runs into a big speeding car and is terribly injured. She is brought back to this house where, fortunately, Dr. René Nicholas, the great French surgeon, is on the spot. Her remaining leg had to be amputated at once, and it is feared that both her arms must also go. How does that strike you?"
Nicholas suddenly stopped his restless pacing and looked down at the Princess.
"What a nice, pleasant, cheerfully fiendish person you are, Ottilie," he said with a twisted grin. "But I must say the thing begins to look more possible. With a little more careful planning we may be able to pull it off. You can, I take it, rake up some witnesses to this little 'accident'?"
"Plenty, we'll make the whole thing absolutely watertight."
As may be imagined by this time I was in a state bordering on murderous frenzy. had heard enough to gather exactly what sort of devil Ottilie was and the nature of the dreadful revenge she planned against poor Felice and myself. I could listen to no more and, without warning, I leapt into the room.
Nicholas, who had his back to me, swung round as on a pivot, amazement and fear leaping to his eyes. Without hesitation he came at me, but I caught him neatly on the point of the jaw with a terrible swing, and he dropped like a log and lay still. Working with the rapidity of extreme anger, I slipped off the cords that bound Felice, and then in a most scientific manner trussed up the unconscious doctor.
Ottilie had screamed when she saw me, and was still screaming. I put my hand brutally across her mouth and shook her until she lapsed into a terrified silence. Then, standing in front of her, I addressed her:
"I know all about you and your little game," I said. "And if I did my duty I should hand you and your infernal companion over to the police. But I don't want to dirty my hands with you or to be mixed up in your unsavoury affairs unless I am forced to. So I give you and Nicholas just twenty-four hours to clear out of the country. If you are here at the end of that time I shall let the authorities in some of his ghastly secrets. That's all!"
She was still cowering and whimpering in her chair as I tenderly lifted Felice downstairs and out to my car.
Five or ten minutes later we reached Felice's flat, and tire, with the aid of her devoted maid, we eventually brought her round. She was deadly sick for a little while; and then, reviving, was able to smile wanly, yet with all her old affection, up at me.
"I'm sorry, Tony," she whispered as I took her in my arms and told her what had happened and what Ottilie and Dr. Nicholas had been planing to do. "It was all my fault. I shouldn't have gone. But you see I wanted to see you, to talk to you, if possible. and I thought the masked dance such an excellent opportunity."
"But Felice, darling," I protested gently, "why see me and talk to me like that when you could have done so at any time in the ordinary way?"
"Well, Tony," she said, "that's all part of the whole silly business. Yes, I admit it was silly now, though I have really been trying to act for the best. I'd better begin at the beginning. You know I did not want to become properly engaged to you, and I was a little mysterious about the reason for my action. Well, it was all very simple. I was afraid of - shall I say? - the workings of your particular 'kink' and I wanted to leave you absolutely free. I felt justified - though a little heartbroken - when you met Tina; for, as you remember, you at once, as they say, 'fell for' her very fascinating attractions. And I knew that by becoming friendly you would become associated with Princess Ottilie and the Society of Black Butterflies. I mean you would be continually open to temptations; and to a person of your peculiar temperament, if I may say such a thing, Tony, such temptations might prove too strong to resist.
So, you see, I just ran away and left you free to do exactly as you wished. That's the explanation of my disappearance on the night we went to 'Le Phenomene'. But I was miserable all the time, Tony, and I could not help wondering how you were getting on and what you were doing - particularly if you were completely succumbing to the fascination of Tina, Ottilie and the others, I specially feared Ottilie. I distrusted and disliked her on sight, and I was sure there was something sinister about her. I would have nothing to do with the Society of Butterflies she founded, because I had an instinctive feeling that there was something queer behind it, especially as Ottilie was so insanely obsessed with the hatred of beautiful women."
"But what about Tina," I interrupted. "Had she no suspicions about anything wrong?"
"Tina, I knew, had the same feeling as myself," said Felice. "But she rather enjoyed being a member of the 'Butterflies', and I think Ottilie interested her keenly as a study in odd, abnormal psychology. Besides, I imagine that she felt that any members who submitted themselves to the tender mercies of Ottilie and Dr. Nicholas did so quite voluntarily. I heard myself of some who did. Tina is much more easy-going than I am, but I am sure she would never have countenanced the truth had she been aware of it.
Well, as I said, I wanted desperately to know about you, without actually thrusting myself in person in your way, and the 'Butterflies' masked dance seemed a most wonderful opportunity. I got in quite easily - my butterfly, no doubt, helped tremendously"
"But you didn't actually go to the trouble of having one tattooed just for the occasion?"
"Of course not, you silly boy. This is not tattooed. It's only what is called a transfer. Look!"
And she rubbed the butterfly design with a dainty finger until it began to peel and come away in patches.
"And that, Felice, darling." I whispered, as I held her very close, is, I hope, the end of the black butterfly emblem as far as we are concerned. I feel an absolute brute and a cad to have caused you so much heartache. The only good that resulted from it all is that I have been lead back to you with the full realisation that you, and you only, matter in this world. All the others are only so many shadows, and will remain so all my life!"
* * * *
There is very little more to tell. Tina took my desertion like the brick she was, and had not a word of reproof to offer.
"I knew all the time," she said, "that our little friendship was only an interlude, and that Felice and you would find each other again. We shall remain the very best of friends, and you both have all my heartfelt wishes for your happiness."
Princess Ottilie and Dr. Nicholas acted upon my warning at once, for the great house was shut up and London knew them no more. Where they went, into what sinister and bizarre by-ways of life they ventured, I neither knew nor cared as long as they never again crossed the path of either Felice or myself.
And so eventually I had the supreme happiness of slipping on Felice's finger the token this time of a proper, formal engagement. But after I had performed that ceremony and kissed the little hand on which the newly presented jewels sparkled I could not resist a reminder of that first enchanting night on which I met her for the first time.
I took from my pocket and held up the jewelled, gold circlet, the finding of which in the corridor of Princess Ottilie's house had led me to Felice's rescue.
"After all, Felice, darling," I whispered, "this was the first symbol of our love for each other, and has now proved to be our lucky charm. I think on a night of such happiness as this I ought to give it back to you as symbol of love that is to be ours for ever."
Then, bending forward, Felice took my face between her two soft palms and kissed me lingeringly, clingingly.
I did not deserve it, nor any part of her love. But then, which of us poor, erring, stumbling males ever does? At any rate, my strange quest was over. I had found that which through everything I had really been seeking without knowing what it was I sought!