The Cabaret Rouge by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

It was a perfect autumn afternoon, one of those days when one who is normal feels the call to get out of doors and enjoy what is left of the fine weather before the onset of winter. We strode along in the bracing air until at last we turned into Broadway at the upper end of what might be called “Automobile Row.” Motor cars and taxicabs were buzzing along in an endless stream, most of them filled with women, gowned and bonneted in the latest mode.

Before the garish entrance of the Cabaret Rouge they seemed to pile up and discharge their feminine cargoes. We entered and were quickly engulfed in the tide of eager pleasure seekers. A handsome and judicious tip to the head waiter secured us a table at the far end of a sort of mezzanine gallery, from which we could look down over a railing at the various groups at the little white tables below. There we sat, careful to spend the necessary money to entitle us to stay, for to the average New Yorker the test seems to be not so much what one is getting for it as how much money is spent when out for a “good time.”

Smooth and glittering on the surface, like its little polished dancing floor in the middle of the squares of tables downstairs, the Cabaret Rouge, one could see, had treacherous undercurrents unsuspected until an insight such as we had just had revealed them.

The very atmosphere seemed vibrant with laughter and music. A string band played sharp, staccato, highly accentuated music, a band of negroes as in many of the showy and high-priced places where a keen sense of rhythm was wanted. All around us women were smoking cigarettes. Everywhere they were sipping expensive drinks. Instinctively one felt the undertow in the very atmosphere.

I wondered who they were and where they all came from, these expensively dressed, apparently refined though perhaps only veneered girls, whirling about with the pleasantest looking young men who expertly guided them through the mazes of the fox-trot and the canter waltz and a dozen other steps I knew not of. This was one of New York’s latest and most approved devices to beguile the languid afternoons of ladies of leisure.

“There she is,” pointed out Kennedy finally. “I recognize her from the pictures I’ve seen.”

I followed the direction of his eyes. The music had started and out on the floor twisting in and out among the crowded couples was one pair that seemed to attract more attention than the rest. They had come from a gay party seated in a little leather cozy corner like several about the room, evidently reserved for them, for the cozy corners seemed to be much in demand.

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Gloria was well named. She was a striking girl, not much over nineteen surely, tall, lissome, precisely the figure that the modern dances must have been especially designed to set off. I watched her attentively. In fact I could scarcely believe the impression I was gaining of her.

Already one could actually see on her marks of dissipation. One does not readily think of a girl as sowing her wild oats. Yet they often do. This is one of the strange anomalies of the new freedom of woman. A few years ago such a place would have been neither so decent nor attractive. Now it was superficially both. To it went those who never would have dared overstep the strictly conventional in the evil days when the reformer was not abroad in the land.

I watched Gloria narrowly. Clearly here was an example of a girl attracted by the glamor of the life and flattery of its satellites. What the end of it all might be I preferred not to guess.

Craig was looking about at the variegated crowd. Suddenly he jogged my elbow. There, just around the turn of the railing of the gallery, sat a young man, dark of hair and eyes, of a rather distinguished foreign appearance, his face set in a scowl as he looked down on the heads of the dancers. One could have followed the tortuous course of Gloria and her partner by his eyes, which the man never took off her, even following her back to the table in the corner when the encore of the dance was finished.

The young man’s face at least was familiar to me, though I had not met him. It was Signor Franconi, quietly watching Gloria and her gay party.

After a few moments, Craig rose, paid his check, and moved over to the table where Franconi was sitting alone. He introduced himself and Franconi, with easy politeness, invited us to join him.

I studied the man’s face attentively. Signor Franconi was still young, in spite of the honors that had been showered on him for his many inventions. I had wondered before why such a man would be interested in a girl of Gloria’s evident type. But as I studied him I fancied I understood. To his serious mind it was just the butterfly type that offered the greatest relief. An intellectual woman would have been merely carrying into another sphere the problems with which he was more than capable of wrestling. But there was no line of approval in his fine face of the butterfly and candle-singeing process that was going on here. I must say I heartily liked him.

“What are you working on now?” asked Kennedy as a preliminary step to drawing him out against the time when we might become better acquainted and put the conversation on a firmer basis.

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“A system of wireless transmission of pictures,” he returned mechanically. “I think I have vastly improved the system of Dr. Korn. You are familiar with it, I presume?”

Kennedy nodded. “I have seen it work,” he said simply.

That telephotograph apparatus, I remembered, depended on the ability of the element selenium to vary the strength of an electric current passing through it in proportion to the brightness with which the selenium is illuminated.

“That system,” he resumed, speaking as though his mind was not on the subject particularly just now, “produces positive pictures at one end of the apparatus by the successive transmission of many small parts separately. I have harnessed the alternating current in a brand-new way, I think. Instead of prolonging the operation, I do it all at once, projecting the image on a sheet of tiny selenium cells. My work is done. Now the thing to do is to convince the world of that.”

“Then you have the telephote in actual operation?” asked Kennedy.

“Yes,” he replied. “I have a little station down on the shore of the south side of the island.” He handed us a card on which he wrote the address at South Side Beach. “That will admit you there at any time, if I should not be about. I am testing it out there–have several instruments on transatlantic liners. We think it may be of use in war–sending plans, photographs of spies–and such things.”

He stopped suddenly. The music had started again and Gloria was again out on the dancing floor. It was evident that at this very important time in his career Franconi’s mind was on other things.

“Everyone seems to become easily acquainted with everyone else here,” remarked Craig, bending over the rail.

“I suppose one cannot dance without partners,” returned Franconi absently.

We continued to watch the dancers. I knew enough of these young fellows, merely by their looks, to see that most of them were essential replicas of one type. Certainly most of them could have qualified as social gangsters, without scruples, without visible means of support, without character or credit, but not without a certain vicious kind of ambition.

They seemed to have an unlimited capacity for dancing, freak foods, joy rides, and clothes. Clothes were to them what a jimmy is to a burglar. Their English coats were so tight that one wondered how they bent and swayed without bursting. Smart clothes and smart manners such as they affected were very fascinating to some women.

“Who are they all, do you suppose?” I queried.

“All sorts and conditions,” returned Kennedy. “Wall Street fellows whose pocketbooks have been thinned by dull times on the Exchange; actors out of engagements, law clerks, some of them even college students. They seem to be a new class. I don’t think of any other way they could pick up a living more easily than by this polite parasitism. None of them have any money. They don’t get anything from the owner of the cabaret, of course, except perhaps the right to sign checks for a limited amount in the hope that they may attract new business. It’s grafting, pure and simple. The women are their dupes; they pay the bills–and even now and then something for ‘private lessons’ in dancing in a ‘studio.’”

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Franconi was dividing his attention between what Kennedy was saying and watching Gloria and her partner, who seemed to be a leader of the type I have just described, tall and spare as must be the successful dancing men of today.

“There’s a fellow named Du Mond,” he put in.

“Who is he?” asked Craig, as though we had never heard of him.

“To borrow one of your Americanisms,” returned Franconi, “I think he’s the man who puts the ‘tang’ in tango. From what I hear, though, I think he borrows the ‘fox’ from fox-trot and plucks the feathers from the ‘lame duck.’”

Kennedy smiled, but immediately became interested in a tall blonde girl who had been talking to Du Mond just before the dancing began. I noticed that she was not dancing, but stood in the background most of the time giving a subtle look of appraisal to the men who sat at tables and the girls who also sat alone. Now and then she would move from one table to another with that easy, graceful glide which showed she had been a dancer from girlhood. Always after such an excursion we saw other couples who had been watching in lonely wistfulness, now made happy by a chance to join the throng.

“Who is that woman?” I asked.

“I believe her name is Bernice Bentley,” replied Franconi. “She’s the–well, they call her the official hostess–a sort of introducer. That’s the reason why, as you observed, there is no lack of friendliness and partners. She just arranges introductions, very tactfully, of course, for she’s experienced.”

I regarded her with astonishment. I had never dreamed that such a thing was possible, even in cosmopolitan New York. What could these women be thinking of? Some of them looked more than capable of taking care of themselves, but there must be many, like Gloria, who were not. What did they know of the men, except their clothes and steps?

“Soft shoe workers, tango touts,” muttered Kennedy under his breath.

As we watched we saw a slender, rather refined-looking girl come in and sit quietly at a table in the rear. I wondered what the official introducer would do about her and waited. Sure enough, it was not long before Miss Bentley appeared with one of the dancing men in tow. To my surprise the “hostess” was coldly turned down. What it was that happened I did not know, but it was evident that a change had taken place. Unobtrusively Bernice Bentley seemed to catch the roving eye of Du Mond while he was dancing and direct it toward the little table. I saw his face flush suddenly and a moment later he managed to work Gloria about to the opposite side of the dancing floor and, though the music had not stopped, on some pretext or other to join the party in the corner again.

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Gloria did not want to stop dancing, but it seemed as if Du Mond exercised some sort of influence over her, for she did just as he wished. Was she really afraid of him? Who was the little woman who had been like a skeleton at a feast?

Almost before we knew it, it seemed that the little party had tired of the Cabaret Rouge. Of course we could hear nothing, but it seemed as if Du Mond were proposing something and had carried his point. At any rate the waiter was sent on a mysterious excursion and the party made as though they were preparing to leave.

Little had been said by either Franconi or ourselves, but it was by a sort of instinct that we, too, paid our check and moved down to the coat room ahead of them. In an angle we waited, until Gloria and her party appeared. Du Mond was not with them. We looked out of the door. Before the cabaret stood a smart hired limousine which was evidently Gloria’s. She would not have dared use her own motor on such an excursion.

They drove off without seeing us and a moment later Du Mond and Bernice Bentley appeared.

“Thank you for the tip,” I heard him whisper. “I thought the best thing was to get them away without me. I’ll catch them in a taxi later. You’re off at seven? Ritter will call for you? Then we’ll wait and all go out together. It’s safer out there.”

Just what it all meant I could not say, but it interested me to know that young Ritter Smith and Bernice Bentley seemed on such good terms. Evidently the gay party were transferring the scene of their gayety to the country place of the Cabaret Rouge. But why?

We parted at the door with Franconi, who repeated his invitation to visit his shop down at the beach.

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I started to follow Franconi out, but Kennedy drew me back. “Why did you suppose I let them go?” he explained under his breath, as we retreated to the angle again. “I wanted to watch that little woman who came in alone.”

We had not long to wait. Scarcely had Du Mond disappeared when she came out and stood in the entrance while a boy summoned a taxicab for her.

Kennedy improved the opportunity by calling another for us and by the time she was ready to drive off we were able to follow her. She drove to the Prince Henry Hotel, where she dismissed the machine and entered. We did the same.

“By the way,” asked Kennedy casually, sauntering up to the desk after she had stopped to get her keys and a letter, “can you tell me who that woman was?”

The clerk ran his finger down the names on the register. At last he paused and turned the book around to us. His finger indicated: “Mrs. Katherine Du Mond, Chicago.”

Kennedy and I looked at each other in amazement. Du Mond was married and his wife was in town. She had not made a scene. She had merely watched. What could have been more evident than that she was seeking evidence and such evidence could only have been for a court of law in a divorce suit? The possibilities which the situation opened up for Gloria seemed frightful.

We left the hotel and Kennedy hurried down Broadway, turning off at the office of a young detective, Chase, whom he used often on matters of pure routine for which he had no time.

“Chase,” he instructed, when we were seated in the office, “you recall that advertisement of the lost necklace in the Star by La Rue & Co.?”

The young man nodded. Everyone knew it. “Well,” resumed Kennedy, “I want you to search the pawnshops, particularly those of the Tenderloin, for any trace you can find of it. Let me know, if it is only a rumor.”

There was nothing more that we could do that night, though Kennedy found out over the telephone, by a ruse, that, as he suspected, the country place of the Cabaret Rouge was the objective of the gay party which we had seen.

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