According to the extraordinary story he tells, a man calling himself Rudolf Muller has come to London to find the missing heiress of a recently dead German millionaire. The girl's mother, an Englishwoman, had years before fled to England with the child, after a quarrel with her husband, and bath had disappeared. A curious feature of the case is that the girl has only one leg; and upon the little stump of her absent leg is a tiny, purplish, heart-shaped birthmark.
Muller thinks he has discovered the missing heiress when he meets Elaine Hammond, a beautiful blonde with only one leg, dining with her fiance, Guy Saville, in the West End. But from Guy he learns that Elaine has no such birthmark.
Elaine, however, is in very great fear and very suspicious of the so-called Muller, because she knows only too well that she is actually the girl he is looking for; and, further, she is aware that the story the man tells is completely false, as she is not the daughter of a German millionaire, and her father had died before her mother and she had come to England. There is no doubt Muller is seeking her far no good purpose.
There is a mystery about Elaine of which only one person knows anything at all, and of which Guy himself is totally ignorant. The little birthmark is hidden in an ingenious way. Elaine has joined a society calling itself the "Society of the Black Butterflies," the members of which are all beautiful women who have lost one or more of their limbs. The emblem of the society is a tiny black butterfly, and each member has the emblem tattooed on the remaining portion of the lost leg. Elaine's butterfly is supposed to be tattooed like the others'; but actually she wears a 'transfer' of exactly similar design, and this covers and quite conceals the little birthmark.
The headquarters of the "Black Butterflies" is a luxurious and exclusive club called the "Phenomene," the membership of which includes, in addition, a large number of people interested in all kinds of strange kinks and fads. To this club Elaine and Guy take Muller - who has now accepted the supposed fact that Elaine is not the girl he is seeking - there to prosecute his search for the missing heiress, among the many crippled beauties who frequent it.
They meet there many odd and exotic types, including high-heel and dainty waist devotees, long-haired girls, tattooed girls, one-legged and legless, or armless beauties, and the like. And in particular Elaine's greatest friend, Tina Nicholas, a very beautiful girl who possess only one limb. Tina is the only individual who knows anything at all of Elaine's past, and it was she who introduced Elaine to the "Black Butterflies."
Leaving Elaine and Tina together, Guy and Muller go off for a tour of the club and, incidentally, to book a table for a cabaret; and Muller learns from Guy something of Tina's history. Tina is somewhat like Elaine and is of the same type blonde beauty, and Muller begins to wonder if Tina is not the girl he is looking for. The fact that she is now armless as well as one-legged would not affect the issue. He determines to keep an eye upon her and find out all he can about her.
Now read on.
Meanwhile, back in the lounge where Guy and Muller had left them, Elaine and Tina were deep in earnest conversation. Tina had swung round on the deep couch so that she now faced Elaine, her leg lying bent at the knee in front of her in characteristic fashion. And as they talked, the shapely, bare toes rested in Elaine's hand and gently fondled her slim white fingers.
Elaine has waited until the two men were well on their way before broaching the topic to discuss which she had sought out of Tina.
"Tina," she began, "what do you think of Muller?"
"Not a great deal, darling," replied Tina, with a little move. "Where on earth did Guy pick him up? And why bring him here? German, Isn't he? Pretty grim specimen, too. But why the concern about him?"
Elaine's fingers closed about the soft, warm toes.
"It's just this, darling," she said gravely. "The man has come to England to find me."
Tina's face became grave also.
"You are sure of that?" she asked. "It's not just a vague suspicion?"
"Oh, I'm sure all right. There isn't any doubt about it."
"What do you think he wants?" asked Tina. "Take you back with him? "
"I don't know. That's the whole trouble. You see, if he were authentic and above board, and had come to England in a perfectly straightforward manner, I could face the thing without worry though, of course, in any case I should not go back. But this man calls himself a German. He tells Guy a ridiculous trumped-up story about a search for a missing heiress - "
"Perhaps, darling, he is searching far a missing heiress," put in Tina, with an air of having made an enlightening discovery.
"An heiress exactly my age," retorted Elaine, "with an extraordinary resemblance to myself; with only on leg and with a little heart-shaped birthmark on her stump!"
Tina pursed her lips up in a little soundless whistle and nodded her head gravely.
"I see," she said. He knows all about the birthmark."
'That's what makes the whole thing so bogus," exclaimed Elaine. "If he knows about the birthmark, he knows everything about myself and poor darling mother. He knows therefore that the girl he is looking for is not the missing daughter of a German millionaire. He knows when and why my mother escaped to England with myself as a child. He must know, too, that it was because my left leg was shattered by a bullet during the fighting that it had to be amputated. He must even be aware, having heard it probably from the surgeon who operated, of the exact size of the limb that was left to me after the amputation.
Why therefore does he come secretly to England to tell this perfectly preposterous story of his search for a missing heiress? And why must this girl - if she is ever found - be kept in complete ignorance of the fact that she is being searched for? Who can he be, this pseudo German who calls himself Muller? And want does he want from me? Don't you see how sinister the whole thing is, how full of danger?"
Tina nodded slowly in grave agreement.
"It is certainly all very mysterious and frightening," she said. "But how did this man come to tell his story to Guy? Why Guy?"
Elaine explained the circumstances of Muller's encounter with Guy and herself, and of the subsequent meeting and conversation between Guy and the German.
"The fortunate thing, of course," she went on, "is that Guy has never seen the birthmark, and doesn't even know that it exists. So he was able to say quite truthfully that I had nothing of the sort, fortunately also, not thinking the matter relevant, he forgot all about my black butterfly and did not mention it. It might have occurred to an astute man like Muller that the birthmark was concealed beneath a supposedly tattooed butterfly design. That was a splendid idea of yours, Tina, darling, that I should join the 'Black Butterflies' and hide my little birthmark beneath the emblem of the Society."
"It wasn't a bad idea, I agree," laughed Tina. "But it was really one that might have occurred to any member of the Society, after hearing your story. Of course I immediately thought of the butterfly. Anybody would."
"Oh, you can set your mind at rest upon that point," said Tina, confidently. "Not another soul knows a thing about it."
"How about Princess Ottilie? I have always been a little afraid of her keen eyes and keener and very unscrupulous brain. She knows at last that I am a bit of a mystery, because I have always been dumb whenever she has shown her apparently quite affectionate interest in my affairs."
I'm not particularly trustful of the very charming head of our little Society myself," said Tina. "But I'm sure she doesn't know anything about you. You haven't told Guy anything yet, I suppose?"
"I can't tell Guy," cried Elaine, passionately. "I had hoped that he would never know - that nobody would ever know. I am sure I shall lose him the moment he discovers who I really am."
The supple bare toes were entwined with Elaine's fingers and caressed them comfortingly.
"You never know," Tina said, softly. "Guy won't want to let you go any more than you wish to lose him. But don't worry, darling. Nothing has come out yet, and we're going to see that nothing will come out. Muller has definitely crossed you off his list. He is not interested in you any more, at any rate as far as his quest is concerned. He is after other quarry. very well" - she laughed with sudden and secret amusement - "we'll see what we can do in the way of fixing up a nice little game of bluff for him."
At the moment, Tina, happening to glance down the lounge, espied two figures in the distance moving towards them.
"H'sh!" she exclaimed to Elaine as she swung round on the couch to a more normal posture. "Put on your brightest smile, darling. Guy and Muller are coming back. "
She stretched out her leg effortlessly and with expert toes selected a cigarette from the open case an the table. Accepting a light from Elaine, she lay back in lazy comfort, holding the cigarette daintily between uplifted toes. Elaine herself lit a cigarette also, and so the two girls, chatting together in smiling unconcern, awaited the approach of the two men.
The two eventually arrived at the couch, and Guy announced that he had luckily been able to secure a table on the dance floor. He suggested that they might as well get along, as the cabaret would begin very soon and they could get comfortably started an supper before the opening numbers.
Muller, as may be imagined, was all the time reading Tina with new eyes, wondering afresh at what Guy had just told him about her.
Meanwhile, Elaine has risen and had accepted her crutches from Guy; and now Tina sought for her discarded slipper with flexible toes, captured it, and slippered her foot into it. Then lightly and gracefully she rose to an easy, perfect balance on her single foot and, with the airy effortlessness of a bird, she smilingly hopped a few steps this way and that in a sort of dancing measure, obviously to impress the wide-eyed Muller with yet another example of her skill.
She answered Muller's unanswered query by hopping demurely to Guy, very much in the manner of a child that expects to be picked up and carried. Guy obviously took the matter as much for granted as Tina did, for without more ado he gathered the slim one-limbed body into his arms. Tina settled herself comfortably in his embrace, and the party made its way to the dance-floor, Elaine chatting amiably with Tina as she swung gracefully along on her crutches at Guy's side.
The dance-floor, Muller discovered, after they had descended the broad, shallow staircase and passed through the heavy curtains, was very much as are similar places in big hotels and restaurants. It was a surprisingly large oblong, charmingly decorated and discreetly lighted, each table having its own delicately shaded lamp in addition to he diffused warm glow of the indirect overhead lighting.
The tables were arranged round the sides, a balcony above, running round three walls and supported at intervals by square, mirror-faced pillars, being also set with tables. At the further end of the oblong, approached along its full width by three very shallow steps, was a low, open platform of stage, at the rear of which hung a heavy brocade curtain divided down the centre. On the left of this stage, occupying its own highly decorated platform, was the dance band, a very efficient combination of nine players led by its violinist conductor.
Guy had secured a table about half-way down the long room and conveniently situated on the edge of the dance-floor, and this the party reached at last, after running the gauntlet of the many welcoming friends they knew. They took their seats, Guy of necessity looking after Tina and seeing that she was comfortably installed, while an assiduous waiter attended Elaine and, taking her crutches, deposited them in one of the many neatly made racks placed at intervals along the walls. Then, when cocktails and food had been ordered, Muller settled down to watch with interested eyes the gay, kaleidoscopic scene about him.
It was with a little shock of surprise, though he realised almost the same time that he ought not now to be surprised at anything that happened amid these bizarre surroundings, that he saw Guy and Elaine get up from the table and, with all the naturalness in the world, swing off together into the dancing throng to the strains of a popular fox trot.
Before his experiences of this astonishing night, he would have thought it impossible for a one-legged girl even to attempt to dance. But as he watched Elaine moving effortlessly in Guy's arms, he was amazed at her easy expertness and grace. He realised, of course, that she was being firmly supported by her partner, as Guy completely encircled her slim waist with both arms, holding her body pressed closely to his.
In this way she was actually quite easily and lightly swung from Guy's body, and was thus able to fit her single-footed steps to Guy's with a perfectly natural and graceful rhythm. With her disengaged hand she had gathered up the long, clinging skirt of her frock; and Muller was thus able to follow with absorbed and charmed interest, the swift and nimble play of the little, bare-toed, sandalled foot as Elaine cleverly followed Guy through all the intricacies of the dance. Then at last they were lost in the crowd, and Muller turned his attention to other and not less interesting matters.
Incidentally, he had been so interested in Elaine's fascinating little exhibition of skill, that he had not noted the approach from a table some little distance away, of a tall, distinguished looking man who whisked Tina away on to the dance-floor. And it was only when he saw her swing past in her partner's arms, dancing just as easily and daintily as Elaine, that he missed her from the table. He followed the pair with his gaze, marvelling at this further display of one-legged virtuosity, until his eyes were caught by something new. And that happened pretty frequently during the next few minutes.
Girls tottered, rather than danced past, perched on perilously high heels, their waists so tiny that one felt that if they bent or swayed, they might snap in two. Heavily bejeweled beauties; slim, lovely girls clad only in silk tights or in the flimsiest of skin-tight swimming suits; girls whose only clothing, save for the scantiest of trunks and brassieres, was the long, shining cloak of their own wonderful hair; beautiful girls in slave costume, manacled and bound in jingling silver chains - all these and many other strange and exotic types swung past in the arms of smiling partners.
The pretty one-legged twins went by, dancing with unexpected neatness on their slender peg legs. A little, laughing blonde passed slowly and stiffly by, two slender spindles of silver revealing themselves below her short skirt instead of her absent legs. "Sylvia of the Silver Pegs" she was called, and she always insisted on "dancing" at least once or twice whenever she visited the club.
However, his musings were cut short by the return to the table by Elaine and Guy, and just about the same moment Tina floated past in the arms of her partner and came to rest at a table a little distance away.
" Oh, there's Ronnie with Tina," exclaimed Elaine as the couple past. Tina's escort waving a hand in greeting as they went by.
"Moira will be with him," went on Elaine. "Yes, there she is at the table. We must go over and say how do. Come along, Mr. Muller, and meet another of our club celebrities."
The first of the dishes ordered had already arrived, but luckily they were cold and would therefore not spoil by waiting, - a fact which comforted Muller, who was more concerned than most about the demands of a healthy appetite. He rose cheerfully enough, therefore, and followed his hosts as they threaded their way between he tables. Elaine did not worry to retrieve her crutches, but, with Guy's arm firmly about her waist and her arm encircling his, she performed her engaging little trick of "walking" at his side, neatly timing her one-footed steps with his.
At the table they found Tina chatting gaily with her handsome partner and a strikingly beautiful woman in the early thirties.
"So you have at last deigned to look our way," was the latter's smiling greeting as they came up. "We saw you come in, but we could not attract your attention."
"Terribly sorry, Moira, darling," laughed Elaine, "but we know you and Ronnie were here, and we were coming to find you sooner or later. In any case, here we are. Let me introduce Mr. Muller, a German gentleman visiting London." She turned to Muller. "Mr. Muller, this very beautiful and exacting lady is Lady Moira Pomeroy, and here is her husband Ronald."
Muller favoured each with his stiff little bow. Meanwhile a waiter had brought chairs for the newcomers and they sat down, Muller finding himself next to Lady Moira. He was about to open the conversation when an odd little bit of pantomime held him dumb. Pomeroy had picked up a cocktail glass from the table and, instead of drinking from it, he raised it to his wife's lips and she sipped daintily. Then, although he was already smoking a cigarette, he took another from his case, lit it, and after puffing it once or twice, he leaned across and placed it between his wife's lips.
Puffing her cigarette with enjoyment, Lady Moira turned to Muller to chat and at once became aware of his look of astonishment. She laughed softly in good-humoured amusement.
"You are puzzled about the drink and the cigarette, Mr. Muller?" she asked, moving the cigarette to the side of her mouth with flexible lips. "You see, circumstances compel me to use my husband's arms for all such services." And still smiling at him in her charming, enigmatic way she moved her shapely shoulders in a little dainty shrug.
Lost for the moment in his own chaotic, bewildered thoughts, Muller at last became aware that Guy was addressing him.
"Come along, Mr. Muller," Guy was saying, "we'd better run along and put on the old nosebags before the show starts.
Muller had only the vaguest idea of what connection "nosebags" could possibly have with the present situation, but he realised that his party was returning to the table and the thought of food brought him back to realities he understood and relished. They regained their table, where they disposed of the food served, Elaine and Guy fitting in two or three more dances in convenient intervals.
"And what are you thinking?" asked Tina of Muller during one of these intervals, as she accepted a cigarette and held it between uplifted toes.
Muller paused for a while, his eyes on the moving crowd of dancers. He had suddenly realised that for the moment he had Tina to himself, and here was the hoped-for opportunity of discovering something about her. When he did resume his talk with her, he flattered himself that this approach was full of subtlety.
"And your so charming self, Miss Tina," he said. "If I am not venturing on forbidden ground, I understand that you are not born as you are."
"That is so," replied Tina, quite cheerfully. "And there isn't any forbidden ground. I don't mind in the least discussing myself, if that's what you mean."
"Simply one's natural interest in a very lovely woman, with very unusual characteristics," went on Muller hastily, in apparent explanation of his very open curiosity. "You lost your leg as a child, wasn't that it, and then later had to undergo amputation of your arms?"
"I see that Guy has been gossiping," said Tina, cleverly allowing her words to convey that she did not deny the facts stated. Actually those facts were not as stated. Tina had been armless for some years before her leg was amputated; but she did not intend Muller to know that.
Muller nodded impressively, hiding his secret satisfaction.
"I have got the impression," he went on, "I don't know quite why, that you are not a native of these islands. I mean there seems to be something not quite English about you. Do I happen to be right, by any chance?"
Tina indulged in a little bit of pantomime that would have highly amused Elaine had she been there to see. She shot a quick apprehensive glance at her questioner, her eyelids fluttering swiftly. Then she looked away, her face grave and set. At last she turned and slapped her soft, bare toes over Muller's hand, looking pleadingly at him.
"Please don't think me discourteous if I don't answer that question," she said, falteringly. "You see, it's a matter I don't care to discuss. There are reasons--"
Muller could hardly keep the triumph that pulsed through him from shining out of his eyes as he patted the little foot. Surely here was the very girl he sought, sitting right at his side! To be sure she was now armless, as well as one-legged, but that did not affect that issue. He had only to find out one further important fact about her, and the whole mater would be settled. He felt he could not pursue the matter in the present circumstances, but he would learn all he wanted to know in good time. He did his best to appear gravely apologetic.
"My dear young lady," he said, "I am deeply grieved to have embarrassed you in this way. It was unpardonable of me. Please forget that I ever asked the question. And please try to forgive my impertinent curiosity."
"Of course I forgive you," cried Tina, gazing up at him in wide-eyed relief and gratitude that was extremely well done. But if there was triumph in Muller's breast, there was equal triumph in Tina's. She knew exactly what she had achieved. She had cleverly drawn a false scent across the path of the hunter. Elaine, his rightful quarry, was completely forgotten in his certainty the she (Tina) was the girl he sought.
For the time being, Elaine was safe, free perhaps to be spirited away without any suspicions attaching to her escape, while Tina led the deluded Muller further and further astray. A plan of campaign was already forming in her agile brain. The smile she gave Muller seemed very friendly. Fortunately, occupied as he was by he own exuberant feelings, he was blissfully unaware of the amused malice that lay behind it.
Meanwhile things were happening that draw their attention from their own immediate affairs. The band played an introductory fanfare, the dance-floor gradually cleared, and a master of ceremonies announced that the cabaret performance was about to begin. There was a general bustle as people from rear tables began to move forward, some to join friends at their better-placed tables, others to stand about in groups wherever they could find points of vantage. A gradual hush fell on the assembly and the band broke into the lively strains of the opening number.
(To be continued in our next double number.)