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The House by the Lock

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CHAPTER IThe Lady in the Stage Box

"Hullo, old chap! Who would ever have thought of seeing you here to-night? What's brought you back to civilisation again?"

I turned suddenly, surprised by the sound of a familiar voice in my ear. It was the night of Christmas Eve, and I was just entering the lobby of the St. James's, the first time, as it happened, I had seen the inside of a theatre for two years.

For the fraction of a moment I could not remember where I had known the man who addressed me so jovially. My way of knocking about the world brought me into contact with so many people that it was difficult to sort my gallery of faces, and keep each one mentally ticketed. But after a second or two of staring through that convenient medium, my monocle, I was able to place the man who had accosted me. He was a rich mining king from Colorado, by the name of Harvey Farnham, whom I had met in Denver, when I had been dawdling through America three or four years ago.

I pronounced his name with a certain self-satisfaction in having so readily recalled it, and we shook each other by the hand.

"What's brought me back to civilisation?" I echoed, lazily. "I really don't know–unless it was because I'd got tired of the other thing. Adventure–change–that's what I am in search of, my dear Farnham."

"And you come back here from service as war correspondent in Egypt (where I last read of you in the papers as having been carried down a cataract for twenty-six miles before a launch ran out and saved you) in the hope of finding 'adventure' in this workaday close of the nineteenth century? That's too good."

I laughed and shrugged my shoulders. "Yes; why not? Why should there not be as great a possibility of obtaining new sensations, or at least old ones in different form, in London as anywhere else?"

It did not occur to me, as I idly spoke the words, that I was uttering a prophecy.

"How is it," I went on rather curiously, "that you remembered me, 'honouring my draft on sight,' so to speak? It must be four years since that very jolly supper you gave me in Denver one night, and I fancy I have changed considerably since then."

Farnham smiled in his comical American way, which was a humorous sentence in itself.

"Well, I guess it's not so easy to forget a face like yours. You are a little browner, your eyes rather keener perhaps, your head held a bit higher, your shoulders broader and drawn back more like a soldier's than ever; but, so far as I can see, those are the only changes. You might easily have forgotten me, and I'm immensely flattered that you haven't. But the fact is, my dear boy, you are simply the most interesting man I ever came across, in my own country or any other. You've always seemed like a sort of hero of a tale of adventure to me; and, you see, one don't let a chap like that drop out of one's recollection. I've always eagerly followed your doings, so far as one could follow them in the newspapers, and I read your African book with the greatest interest; but somehow I never got to hear much personal gossip about you. Say, are you married or anything?"

"Many things, but not married," I returned. "I haven't had time to think of women. Besides, if I had, who would take me? No money, no prospects, a man who can't be happy for a fortnight in one place! What a life I should lead a woman!"

"Ah, that's one side of the picture, of course; but here's the other, as the world sees it. You're a sort of popular hero–African traveller, war correspondent, writer of books. Polar explorer, and I don't know what besides, though you can't yet be anywhere near thirty-five. You've got the figure of a soldier, and just the sort of dark, unreadable face that women rave about....