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Title: Collected Twilight Stories, Vol. II Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300701h.html Language: English Date first posted: Feb 2013 Most recent update: Feb 2018 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat and Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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NOTHING could have been more neutral, more dull; the scene was the lecture hall of one of our most learned societies, as austere and grim a place as the cold mind and lifeless taste of Science could conceive, or anyhow did conceive and execute in the days when this hall, and many others, was built.
A lecture was in progress.
A man as austere, as grim as the hall, but in the same way rather grand and imposing, was in the rostrum, talking about hygiene and sanitation.
Like the hall, like the society, he seemed, in his disdain of any concession to the lighter graces, dreary and forbidding, ageless, featureless, drab.
I wondered why I had come; Minnie Levine had brought me; she was one of those women who try, and quite successfully, to make good works fashionable.
This had brought her into the chill and lofty circle where Sir William Torrance moved, and, somehow, to this lecture.
Not altogether purposelessly, for afterwards we were to take the great man back to Minnie's reception and introduce him to a number of other earnest and charming workers in the cause of health and happiness for others.
Minnie had said a great deal about the personality of the lecturer, but to me he seemed to have no personality; he was part of the remote classic decorations of that depressing room, something almost dehumanized.
Yet, as I studied the man (for there was nothing else to do since I could not concentrate on the matter of his speech), I discovered that he was not by any means unattractive, though subdued to the drab dignity of his surroundings, eclipsed by the sombre correctness of his orthodox clothes, those dull blacks, greys and icy white linen.
He was not so old though his hair was ash coloured, his face haggard, not so old, I was sure, perhaps forty-eight, fifty. Handsome features, aquiline, dark, with a narrow high nose and full lips, bluish eyes, cold and clever, a figure that would have been graceful enough if he had not so carefully refrained from any movement, any gesture, if he had not held himself with such monotonous stateliness.
The lecture was over; I thought I caught Minnie's sigh of relief.
I, too, was glad to leave, though it was a cruel winter's day without, colourless, biting, grim.
We waited for the lecturer; he carefully and gravely answered the earnest questioners who came timidly up to the platform, then waited for us, methodically rolling up his charts of 'Drainage Systems for Country Houses' that he had been showing us.
He was presented to me and I felt further depressed by his lifeless courtesy; perhaps he had heard of me as a foolish trifler in dreams and visions, a writer of stories fantastical and strange; I felt uncomfortable thinking how he must despise me; of course I didn't believe he had any right to despise me, yet, unreasonably it made me wince to realize that he probably did, he had so much weight about him, an air of being unassailable.
He hadn't much to say as we went home in Minnie's car; I believe he was wondering why he had consented to come. I've often seen that surprised resentment lurking in the eyes of Minnie's celebrated guests.
What he did say was heavy and wise, fragments of his lecture.
'Instructive but not amusing,' whispered Minnie, 'but rather a dear, don't you think?'
'No, I really don't. He knows too much—he's quite dried up.'
'But so good-looking,' insisted Minnie. 'And not married—'
'A lucky escape for some woman'—the obvious gibe came sincerely to my lips. 'Think of being married to a treatise on Sanitation—'
'Oh, he's much more than that,' said Minnie earnestly, 'a really great doctor, you know.'
I did know, but I was quite vague as to his actual achievements; one generally is vague as to the achievements of those outside one's own world.
I noticed him once or twice, impassive, bored, grave, among the guests; I was surprised not to see the familiar gesture of the hand to the watch, the murmur of 'an appointment' which is such a man's usual escape from a crowd of women.
But he stayed.
When tea was over and dancing had begun, he, alone for a moment, looked round as if searching for someone.
He caught my eye and came so directly over to me that my companion rose at once and wandered off.
Sir William took the vacant chair; I was more overwhelmed than flattered.
'You must have been very bored this afternoon,' he said seriously.
I replied that I rather made a point of never being bored, but that I'd been depressed—and understood very little; I paid him the compliment of not trying to 'play up' to him.
'Of course you were. You write, don't you?'
'Only a little. As an amateur.'
'I've read them. Phantasmagoria.'
This was amazing.
'Yes, they're phantasmagoria—don't you love the word? But strange you should bother with them, Sir William.'
'Do you think so?'
'Well—I shouldn't have thought you'd have much time for that kind of thing.'
He looked at me, wistfully, I thought.
'Yet I could tell you something.'
And then he was silent, as if I had discouraged him; he seemed so remote from the scene, the warm, shaded room, the dancers, the hot-house flowers, that he made me too feel detached.
We were sitting a little apart in one of Minnie's famous alcoves lit by a painted alabaster lamp; we were left alone, because all the others were enjoying themselves.
Minnie glanced at me and nodded cheerfully; I think that she was rather glad to have the great man taken off her hands.
As for him, I really think he was as unconscious of his surroundings now as he had been during his lecture, he never asked if I danced, he never seemed to notice that anyone was dancing.
He spoke again, almost in a challenging tone.
'Do I seem to you very alien to all that?' he asked.
I was at a loss as to what thought he was finishing with this sentence, and so I said, 'All—what?'
'Romance is perhaps the word.'
Even to me that word was rather profaned.
'I use it,' said Sir William stiffly, 'in the purest sense. It has of course been cheapened by our lesser writers. Like several other beautiful words—love, lovely, and others. They become clichés, slick, disgusting. Think, however, what Romance would mean to a lonely man who never saw a newspaper or heard a gossip and never read a book that was less than two hundred years old.'
I agreed that everything was overdone.
'Nothing fresh is left,' I lamented, 'every story has been told and staled.'
Sir William corrected me.
'You should know better. Told, but not staled. What of a kiss, the rose's scent? You've been kissed before, if you're lucky; you've smelt a rose before, if you've any sense—yet you are just as eager for the present kiss, the present rose.
'And with Romance. It is always the same Romance, of course, but only a fool seeks for novelty.'
He spoke abstractedly, dryly, and his words, so at variance with his manner, surprised me a great deal.
'It is quite true,' I said, 'but I hardly thought you would know as much, Sir William.'
I did not know how to explain to him how remote, how stern, how impressive and cold he seemed.
'You're too wise,' I said, 'you know too much to know that.'
'Exactly. "With all thy wisdom get understanding", eh? Yes, I know too much, and none of it much use. But I know that too. A materialist may have his glimpses into spiritual matters.'
'Not if he's really a materialist, Sir William.'
He ignored that.
'I came here to speak to you,' he said in a coldly impersonal tone, 'because of some things of yours I've read. I thought I'd like to tell you something that happened to me, perhaps get you to write it down as a sort of record. One ages, memory weakens. I always fear that what is so vivid today tomorrow may be dim. That is,' he added with perfunctory politeness, 'if it interests you.'
I said with truth that it did interest me. Of course.
'That's good of you. And then, on my death—I am considerably your senior—you might publish the story, as—a lesson to other people.'
He looked at his watch (the familiar gesture at last!) and excused himself in conventional tones.
Another time perhaps he might tell me the story? Or, no, there wasn't a story. I hoped he wouldn't forget, but thought he would.
Three days later he rang up to ask for an appointment; I begged him to come that afternoon; I should be alone.
He came; immaculate, stately, unsmiling, very impressive.
And, after an apology for tea, he began speaking, looking into the fire the while just as if I wasn't there; I saw at once that he was intensely lonely and that it was an immense joy and relief for him to speak, which he did carefully and without a trace of emotion, in a concise, stately language.
'It's twenty years ago, 1905, exactly twenty years, in the winter. I was very hard-working, very absorbed and very successful for a youngster. I had no ties and a little money of my own, I'd taken all the degrees and honours I could take, and I'd just finished a rather stiff German course in Munich—physical chemistry—and I was rather worn out.
'I had not begun to practise and I decided to rest before I did so.
'I recognized in myself those dangerous symptoms of fatigue, lack of interest in everything and a nervous distrust of my powers. And by nature I was fairly confident, even, I daresay, arrogant.
'While I was still in Munich a cousin I had almost forgotten, died and left me a house and furniture.
'Not of much value and in a very out-of-the-way place.
'I thought the bequest queer and paid no attention to it; of course I was rather pleased, but I decided to sell.
'I meant to live in London and I had not the least intention of an early marriage, nor indeed of any marriage at all.
'I was nearly thirty and sufficiently resolute and self-contained.
'When I returned to London and consulted my lawyers about the sale of the house, which was called "Stranger's End", they advised that I should see it first and check the inventories of the contents.
'They said that there were some curious old pieces there I might care to keep; I did not think this likely, as I had no interest in such things, but I thought I would go to see the house.
'I was too tired for pleasure or amusement; one can be, you know.
'The thought of this lonely, quiet house attracted me; it was near Christmas and I dreaded the so-called festivities, the invitations of friends, the upset to routine.
'I went to "Stranger's End" and my first impression justified my lawyers' warning; it was not a very saleable property.
'The house stood one end of a lonely Derbyshire valley, on the site of one much older that had been burnt down.
'The style was classic-Palladian, purplish brick, white pilasters, hard, square, ugly, more like Kent than Wren.
'The garden had been very formal, with broderie beds, but was neglected, the stucco summer-houses, statues and fountains being in a dilapidated condition, and the parterres a tangle of wild growth.
'The situation was lonely in the extreme, really isolated; the railway had missed the valley and there was no passable motor road near; the approaches to "Stranger's End" were mean tracks across moor and mountain.'
Sir William Torrance was silent here; he seemed to sink into deep abstraction, as he stared into the fire.
And I, too, could see what he was seeing, that solitary, pretentious, ugly and neglected mansion in the Derbyshire dales.
'It sounds haunted,' I suggested.
He roused himself.
'No, it wasn't. I never heard the least suggestion of that. There was no story about the place at all. It had come to my cousin through his father's people; our connection was through the female side, and they had been quiet, prosperous folk who hadn't for a hundred years lived much at "Stranger's End". But my cousin, an eccentric sort of man, had taken a liking to the place.'
'Why did he leave it to you?'
'I don't know. We had been slightly friendly as boys, but he was queer. We went such different ways. He was a little older than I. And died rather tragically, through an accident. Well, there was the place. I liked it.
'Really relished the isolation; I was terrified of a breakdown, of losing my capacity, my zest for work; I thought—whatever I do, I'll get fit.
'That was a very severe winter, at least in Derbyshire; the fells and dales were covered with snow, and all that cracked stucco frippery in the garden, those sham deities of the eighteenth century, were outlined in white and masked in ice.
'I had no personal servant in those days; the caretaker, an old man, and his widowed daughter looked after me; they were rather a dour couple but efficient enough and seemed attached to "Stranger's End", for they asked if I would "speak for them" to my purchaser who did not yet exist.
'The house was furnished exactly as you would expect it to be, panelled walls, heavy walnut furniture, indigo blue green tapestry, gilt wood mirrors, and pictures of the schools of Van Dyck and Kneller.
'It was a large house, much larger than you would think from that stern façade, and I was there a while before I knew all the rooms.
'I enjoyed, with a sense of irony, the grandeur of the state bedroom which probably had chiefly been used for the "lying in state" of defunct owners.
'The four-poster was adorned by dusky plumes and curtains stiff with needlework, rotting at the cracks and faded a peculiar dove-like colour.'
Sir William spoke with a lingering relish curious to hear.
'Strange,' I thought, 'that he should remember all these details, strange, too, that this is the man who gave that drab lecture in that drab hall.'
He seemed to want no encouragement nor comment from me, and continued in his level, pleasant tones that were so virile and powerful even when muted as they were now.
'I found, during those first few days, several odd pieces in the house. Of course I had nothing to do but look for them.
'It was ferociously cold and snowed steadily; all prospect from the windows even was blotted out.
'Among other things I found a little box of blue velvet sewn with a very intricate design in seed pearl and embroidered in gold thread—"Made by mee, Darke Ann". Impossible to describe how that fascinated me!
'An empty, trifling sort of box, rather worn, odorous of some aromatic—musk or tonquin.
'Made by "Darke Ann"!
'Why should she so describe herself, in that formal age to which she belonged?
'There was no date, but I thought the thing went back to the time of my grandmother.
'It was because, perhaps, my brain was so exhausted, because I was so studiously keeping it free from all serious matter, that this absurd detail so obsessed me; I had never had any imagination nor cared for fanciful things, I'd worked too hard.
'But now, when my mind was empty this seized on it—"Darke Ann."
'I had no difficulty in visualizing her; I could see her moving about the house, bending over that box, looking out of the windows on to the snow.'
'The house, then, was haunted after all,' I suggested.
Sir William denied this earnestly.
'No. I have been trying to convey to you that it was not.
'Nothing of the kind. It was merely that I, shut up alone in this queer (to me) house in this great solitude, was able to picture, very clearly, this creature of my fancy.
'Purely of my fancy:
'You know how the snow will give one that enclosed feeling, shut in alone, remote, softly imprisoned.
'So few people came to the house, and those few I never saw.
'Then one night—it could not have been long before Christmas, of which festival I took no account—I went up to my room holding a lamp—there was no other means of lighting in the old house—and glancing at the bed I saw there—'
He paused, and when he continued I had the strangest sensation, for this man, so dry, so austere, so conventionally clothed, whom I had heard lecturing on 'Sanitation', whose reputation was so lofty, whose life and career were well known to have been so dry, cold and laborious, spoke like a poet making an embroidery of beautiful words.
'A woman,' he went on with infinite tenderness. 'She lay lightly to one side with her arms crossed, so that the delicate fingers rested on her rounded elbows, but so lightly! She wore a plain robe and a cap, with a crimped edge, tied under her chin; tucked into her breast was a posy of flowers, winter flowers, aconite, I think. She was so fine, so airy that she did not press the bed at all, but rested there, as a little bird might rest on a water flower without rippling the pool.
'She smiled; her face was soft and dimpled, her eyes closed, yet not so completely that a streak of azure did not show beneath the fragile lids; her lips were full, but pale—the whole colour of her pearl and mist, merged into the faded tarnish of the bed.'
Sir William, who had been gazing into the fire, suddenly looked at me.
'Not a ghost,' he said. 'I knew she was not there. I knew the bed was empty. Hallucination is perhaps the word. I had been over-working. Mind and nerves were strained.
'I told myself that she was not there, and I seated myself with my needless lamp beside the bed and looked at her; I say, needless lamp, for when I had extinguished it, I saw her in the dark as easily, as precisely.
'Then the window must rattle at the pane and make me look round with a start, and when I looked back again she was gone.
'The next day I examined my casket of blue velvet with even greater tenderness, and chancing to pull at a little odd thread, ripped the stuff, so old and perished it was, so that there was an ugly slit across the lid.
'I was looking at this in much chagrin when my caretaker entered.
"Who would this be?" I asked, as lightly as I could. "Darke Ann"?
"That would be Lady Ann Marly, sir," he answered sullenly. "There's her portrait upstairs."
"Where?" I was startled.
"In the attics. I don't think you've been up to the attics, sir."
'I went; that bitter, windy day I went up to the attics of "Stranger's End". The snow had ceased and I could see the valley white from end to end, and the hills, sombre against a sky like a grey goose's breast.
'There was the portrait, standing with others amid dusty lumber, cobwebs and decay.
'It was she, of course, Dark Ann, but as I turned the picture round I was shocked.
'She was so much further away than I had thought.
'A hundred years, I had guessed, but the costume was that of the first Charles, a tight gown of grey satin, monstrous pearls at throat and ears, a confusion of jet black ringlets and the face that I had seen in my—hallucination.
'It was a fine painting by that sterling artist, Janssens van Ceulen, and I wondered why it had been banished to that sad obscurity.
'On the black background was painted "The Lady Ann Marly, aetat. 25, 'Darke Ann.'"
'Dark she was, as a gipsy, as a Spaniard, in eyes and hair, yet pure and clear in her complexion as a lily, as a rose.
'I had the picture taken downstairs and hung in the room where I usually sat. The man, old Doveton, knew nothing of the portrait, or of the Lady Ann Marly, only what I could see for myself, the names on canvas and casket, but he told me that the Marlys were buried in Baswell Church and probably this "black Madam" amongst them, and also that there was an antique shop in the same town where I could get my casket repaired.
'I will not bother you,' said Sir William at this part of his extraordinary narrative, 'with any of my feelings, moods, or states of mind. I will merely tell you the facts.
'The first day it was fit to leave the house (for the snow had fallen again in great abundance), I went down across the valley to Baswell, a town so small, so old, so grim and silent, that it seemed to me like a thing imagined, not seen.
'The church, heavy, mutilated, dark, squatted on a little slope and was flanked by tombs so gaunt, monstrous, ponderous and grim as to seem a very army of death; the snow touched them here and there with a ghastly white, and the ivy on the tower was a green darker than black against that pallid winter sky.
'Inside, the place was musty, dull, crowded with tombs, knights, priests, ladies, children in busts and effigies—so much dust on everything!
'As if it had risen from the vaults below to choke the holy air!
'The pale dimness of the faint December light struggled through panes of old, dingy glass in withered reds and blues, only to be blocked by melancholy pillars and frowning arches.
'I found her tomb; a gigantic rococo urn draped with a fringed cloth with boastful letters setting forth her prides and virtues, and a Latin epigram, florid and luscious, punning on her name of "Dark Ann" and the eternal Darkness that had swallowed her loveliness.
'She had died, unmarried, "of a sudden feaver" in her 25th year, 1648.
'The year the portrait was painted.
'I had the casket in my pocket and I set out to find the antique shop.
'There was only one, in a side street, in a house as old, as sad, as grim as the church, with a tiny window, crowded by melancholy lumber, the broken toys and faded vanities of the dead.
'Clocks that had stopped for ever, rusty vessels from which no one would drink again, queer necklaces no woman would ever again clasp round her throat, snapped swords and chipped tea cups—oh, a very medley of pathetic rubbish!
'I pulled the bell, for the door was locked, and was opened immediately by a woman who stood smiling and asking me in out of the uncharitable afternoon.
'It was Dark Ann—or, as my common sense assured me, a creature exactly like her.
"What is your name?" I asked stupidly.
"Ann Marly," she replied in the sweetest accents.
"Why, I've just been looking at your tomb."
'She smiled, not, though, surprised.
'"I believe there is such a name in the churstory-many of them, indeed. The Marlys were great people round about here. And yet we have been long away and only just returned."
'As she spoke she held the door for me and I entered the low, dusky shop, which was piled with lumber and lit by only a twilight greyness.
'"Long away?" I echoed.
'"Yes, a long time," she smiled. "And, please what did you want?"
'In a delicious amaze I handed her the casket; she looked at it and sighed.
'"You want that mended?"
'"Yes, please—she was called Dark Ann and that should be your name too, you know."
'She did not answer this, but said gravely that the box could be mended—she herself would do the exquisite stitching.
'I could look at nothing but the lady—I must use this word; neither woman nor girl will express this creature.
'She wore a dark dress that might have been of any period, low in the neck, and the clouds of her dark ringlets were lightly confined by a comb I could not see.
'She asked me into an old room at the back of the shop, and there she gave me tea in shallow yellow cups.
'The whole place was old, she said—the high-backed cane chairs in which we sat, the boards beneath our feet, the beams above our heads, the dark pictures of carnations and gillyflowers in gilt bronze frames, the sea green glass mirror in red tortoiseshell, all these things were old.
'She and her grandfather had opened the little shop only lately, and only, it seemed, because they wanted to come back to Baswell; she told me nothing more of herself, nor did I speak of myself.
'I could not think of her as another than the Dark Ann of the portrait, the casket, the tomb; I did not wish to think of her as another; hallucination and reality blended in one.
'I went over every day to see her; it was understood we were lovers, that we should marry and live in "Stranger's End" all our lives.
'Understood but not spoken of—
'Once I brought her up to the ugly, queer house that now I no longer had any intention of selling.
'I had found an old pair of tiny gauntlets in a chest, much worn, fringed with gold; she slipped them on, and they fitted to the very creases.
'Enough of this.
'As you know, one can't describe a rapture—sometimes, when I stood near her, there was a sense of radiance, well—
'With every year it becomes more difficult to recall, sometimes I forget it altogether, and yet I know it was there, it actually happened—that time of ecstasy.'
He was silent for a little, and in my quiet room I could see the glittering evanescent gleams of a vision that would not wholly vanish through all the prosaic years.
'And I suppose,' I said, 'that you forgot your work and your ambitions.'
He looked at me sharply.
'That was exactly what happened. I remembered nothing, I lived in the moment, I hardly thought even of the future, though that was to be spent with her. I lived in that queer, ugly house in that lonely valley, and I went to and fro that grim, silent little town, accompanied by snow, wind and clouds, to sit in the little dim parlour behind the huddled shop and drink tea with Ann Marly out of those flat yellow cups, beneath the old beams, the old pictures, lit by a clear fire that glittered on the smooth surface of bluish tiles with puce-coloured landscapes, and the mellow radiance of wax candles in heavy plated sticks that showed the red copper through where they were worn.'
'You remember it all very distinctly, Sir William.'
'Even the threads in her dress—where the sleeve was sewn to the bodice—a little lighter than the silk.
'I said I would keep to the facts,' he sighed. 'So let all that go. One day I received a telegram.
'I read it as if it had been in an unknown language at first.
'When I came to understand it, I remembered who I was, where I was, what I had been and hoped to be, what was expected of me.
'It was from a friend, a man I greatly admired and respected, a really eminent, brilliant doctor—
'It was a long telegram.
'At that time Medicine was beginning to be very interested in Encephalitis Lethargica and a Swiss doctor claimed to have found a—what you would call a cure. Would I go, with three other men and investigate, report, and if need be, learn the treatment?
'I was excited, alert; I wired back an acceptance; in twenty-four hours I was in London.
'I had been tremendously interested in this disease, so rare, deadly and horrible, with its terrible sequelae, of dementia praecox, change of character and loss of memory, and I was again the careful, keen man of science, trained to test, to doubt, to explore—
'We were in the train for Geneva before I thought of Dark Ann.
'I wired her from the first stop; I didn't really know her address, I had never noticed the name of the shop or the street, but I put "Miss Ann Marly, Baswell, Derby"; the place was so small I had no doubt it would find her; I wrote from Geneva, I said I was coming back.
'I wrote and wired often enough during three weeks.
'But she never sent me any message.
'I blamed myself; my flight had been atrocious, I could not explain it to myself, it was extraordinary, incredible. I had started off like a man wakened from a dream!
'She was offended, angry. I thought it reasonable that she should be, I thought of her always as waiting for me.
'It was a month before I got back—the Swiss doctor's work was interesting, but there was nothing in it, really.
'I returned to Derbyshire.
'It was still cold, grey, iron-like in earth and sky.
'"Why on earth is this house called 'Stranger's End'?" I asked old Doveton.
'"I don't know, sir. But it was a fancy in those old days, I think."
'I went to Baswell.
'And this is pretty well the end of my story,' said Sir William ironically.
'She was dead?'
'I could not find the shop. In the street where I could have sworn it was, stood an old empty house; the neighbours said it had been empty a long time, they remembered no antique shop, no Ann Marly—they were vague, stupid, unfriendly.
'I ransacked the town; she, her grandfather, the shop with that delicious parlour had utterly disappeared.
'I went to the post office and they showed me the last of my little heap of letters; the others had travelled back to Switzerland through the dead letter office and must now be waiting for me at my London address.
'"There's a name like this in the church," said the postmaster sullenly, looking at me queerly, "on a tomb. I've never heard of another here."
'I brought Doveton in to Baswell and made him point out the shop he had recommended for the repair of the velvet box.
'He showed me a dingy furniture shop in the High Street where they did upholstering.
'I asked him if he remembered the lady who had come to "Stranger's End".
'And the sulky fellow said that he did not, which may have been true, for I brought her and took her away myself and I do not think she met either of the servants.'
I knew that he had never found her; the room seemed full of a miasma of regret, of remorse, of yearning.
'So you went back to your work,' I said tentatively, for I was not sure of his control.
'Yes, I did. I sold the house and all the contents.' He looked at me wildly. 'I burnt the portrait, I could not endure it. I sold the house to the neighbouring lord who wanted the ground for his shooting—it was just in his way, that old garden, that old ugly house. He destroyed both. I wouldn't have sold to anyone who had not promised to destroy.'
He looked withered, shrunk.
'I have the little blue box, so neatly mended, full of dead aconites, like she held against her breast—'
'You're confusing the vision and the reality,' I said; 'that—hallucination must have been the first Ann—after death, I rather think.'
'After death,' repeated Sir William.
'You've done good work,' I reminded him, 'devoted yourself to real, fine, man's work—she would have spoilt you for that, perhaps.'
He said drearily:
'Yes, I've had my work. And nothing else.'
'Well, fame, applause, gratitude, money, honours.'
'Oh, those,' he looked at me vaguely, 'but I never had another dream. Not one. Now if that telegram hadn't come—'
He paused and I finished for him:
'It broke the spell, you mean. It restored you to your normal self—it made you return to your normal life.'
'Exactly.' He was now composed, austere, even ironic again. 'I would give all I've ever gained since to have that moment again, to have that choice—the dream or the bread and water. And at the moment I didn't know it was a choice.'
'You wish you hadn't gone?'
'Do I wish I hadn't gone! Haven't I told you the story as a warning? That was the only real thing that ever happened to me.'
He turned to the door.
'But Ann, Ann Marly?' I asked. 'What of her? Why did she disappear?'
'Why did she come, you mean,' he answered dryly. 'I lost her, because I forgot how to dream.'
'You mean—she didn't really exist?' I felt a pang of fear.
Sir William Torrance smiled.
'I'm due the other end of London at six—I've talked you to death. Good-bye.'
His manner was correct, lifeless again; I knew from the papers that he was lecturing on 'Bacteriology in Food' at some institute.
I let him go, there was nothing to be said.
I want to write it down at once, to get it 'out of my head' as they say, though why one should suppose these things are in one's head, I don't know—they seem to me all about us, flavouring the food we eat, colouring the sky.
Of course I've got the journalist's habit of scribbling too, it is so much easier to jot things down than explain them by speech.
To us, at least.
And you are so far away it is a good excuse to send 'newsy' letters. Only, I've got a feeling that in Lima this will read, well, queer.
Still you must be interested and I must write, no, I forestall your objection, it won't do for 'copy'. I'm not spoiling a good 'scoop'.
What I have got to say can never be published.
Nor written to anyone but yourself—and you won't speak of it, I know.
Good Lord, you won't want to.
You'll remember the people as they would you—we were all in the same 'set' together for so long—I think you were the first to break away when you got this Lima job, weren't you?
And soon after that came the marriage of Cedric Halston.
You heard all about it, I sent you the 'cuttings' written by our own colleagues—you were rather fond of Halston, I think.
So was I.
Of course we were rather prejudiced by his being called Cedric and writing poetry, but it was such good stuff and he was such a decent sort and, of course, being so palpably ruined in Fleet Street! Much too good for what was too good for the rest of us, wasn't he?
And rather more poverty-stricken than anyone ought to be it seemed to me.
Lord! The sheer sordidness of Halston, 'hard-upishness'!
He couldn't write his stuff for grind and worry and despair—but the little bits that struggled through as it were, were jolly fine.
Even the old Die-hards that 'slam the door in the face of youth', etc., etc., said he was—well, the right stuff.
None of your crazy, mazy, jig-saw, jazzy poets, poison green and liver yellow, but the 'real thing'.
Of course there ought to have been money in a stunt like that, being the real thing, I mean, and starving, but poor old Halston never could work it, could he? He just—starved.
Not very picturesquely.
Till he met Jennifer Harden.
(Did you ever think how wrong that 'Jennifer' was? I'd never seen the name before except signing one of those articles that begin, 'It's ever so crowded on the Riviera now, and oh my dear'—you know the patter—and the people who write it!)
You know they married—one rather wanted to jeer, but couldn't—we all sat back and looked humble.
It was so tremendous you could only describe it in terms of claptrap, 'Abelard and Heloise' a 'grande passion' and 'immortal love', 'eternal devotion', 'twin souls' and all the rest of the good old frayed symbols, old chap, but they are getting worn—I'm thinking.
You remember I sent you her photo? One of those misty affairs looking like—well, not like Jennifer Harden.
Still, she was beautiful, but out of drawing—lots of money, lots of taste, not too young, by any means—and then the 'love of a lifetime' thrown in.
She didn't mind using that phrase about him—publicly, in the woman's club she ran, and where she had met him—lured to gas on 'Truth in relation to Modesty' by the bribe of a good dinner. She also said she worshipped him—I admired her for that—you know they take a bit of saying, those sort of things now-a-days!
And he raved about her—got the rose-coloured spectacles firmly fixed and took her on as she was, 'Jennifer' and all—dashed into poetry and spread himself out over ivory pomegranates, roses, and all the rest of the irrelevant stuff we drag in to say a woman's a woman. Do you remember the old Italian who saw his beloved at the fountain and said:
'She alone of all the world is worthy to be called a woman?'
That is the prettiest compliment I know of.
Well, to return to the Halstons, they were married and I don't suppose you ever heard any more of them.
It is three years ago.
You know how lucky we all thought him—she really had such a lot of money.
And money had always been just what Halston wanted.
Of course they were very wonderful about it: he was 'so humble in his great happiness, he could not let paltry pride stand in the way', and she only 'valued her fortune in that it could minister to his genius'—a pity how all these fine sentiments slip into 'clichés'.
I suppose someone believes them, or means them, sometimes.
Well, they cleared out. She bought a place in Herts and called it 'Enchantment'. Why not, after all? You might really feel that, I suppose.
Well, they shut themselves in this Paradise—never came to town, hardly ever wrote—sometimes a few 'choice' poems from him, the kind that goes with handmade paper and silk ties and you keep reading over feeling sure that it means much more than it possibly could—and sometimes letters from her to 'privileged' friends (they really thought they were) letters that are like screams of happiness.
Of course we all thought it rather wonderful that they could stay shut up like that and enjoy it—it was quite a blow for the real cynics.
'A case in a million' was all they could say.
He never wrote to anyone and there was not one of us who would not have thought it cheek to write to him, we even sank to seriously thinking of him as 'a God-sent genius'.
Well, here comes what I must set down—only to you, Lorimer.
Halston and I knew you best of all in the old days and you are the only person I can tell.
Forgive the preamble, but I have a sense of your being so far away—I imagine you saying: 'Who is Halston?'
I haven't mentioned him for so long—there was nothing to mention—'Happy nations', etc. Here is the story.
I was sent down to Hertford town a few weeks ago to investigate some ghost story, you know what a rage that sort of thing is with us just now, all of us shouting things you can hardly say in a whisper and trying to disprove what no one can prove.
The case was interesting and kept me some time—the day before I was due back in London I met Halston in the High Street. He seemed very cordial and prosperous, had a good car waiting, was rather too well dressed in uncommon kind of clothes—sort of peasant handicraft and Savile Row combined. But I did not think he looked well, strained, aged and thin—but this he explained by the fact that he was writing an Epic.
(Why do you smile, Lorimer, people have written Epics, you know.)
That was why he had been shut away all the time—that great work might grow under the beautiful ministrations of his wife...Jennifer, I gathered, was really running a little Paradise for his special benefit...she had just snatched him away from all that was ugly or crude or mean or distressing and lapped him in Love and Beauty and Service...
Of course I grinned...but I was ashamed of grinning.
Halston did not seem to notice; he actually asked me over to 'Enchantment' to stay a few days.
Being a free lance I could accept and did—you can imagine my curiosity—a vulgar thing to admit to, but don't you think it will be our first emotion if we ever step into Heaven?
Imagine the relish of being able to settle those questions—'What is God really like?' and 'those robes and crowns?' and the 'many mansions?'—and little private pet queries of your own.
That was how I felt as I motored over to 'Enchantment' which was known to the outsider as a very delightful Tudor Farm House, completely brought up to date, that had formerly been called Eversley Lodge and run by a city gentleman, whose reputation was more noted for lustre than solidity. I found the place (which was isolated, a great way from the station, a good way from the road) perfect.
Rather like the 'Ideal Homes' they make so much of just now, still they are ideal, aren't they?
Well, here it all was, 'pleasance', 'pleached walk', sunk ponds, statues, peacock, arbours, box hedges, astrolabes, sundials—all the bag of tricks and inside everything done by electricity and servants so efficient you forgot they were there. Wonderfully comfortable.
Everything right—flowers, pictures, furniture, food—the last word in little contrivances for ease and luxury—three cars, I think, electric bells disguised as lanthorns and telephones concealed in sedan chairs, wood fires to 'look nice' and steam heating. Elzivirs to tone with the walls and modern books slipped into brocade covers to read, you know the kind of thing!
But really perfect!
Halston had a wing built on specially for himself—specially for the epic, I ought to say, perhaps.
The most marvellous writing-room and library. I don't know what he hadn't got.
It was all 'choice'; I hate the word but no other will do.
All really 'choice' and as I was gaping round, in came Jennifer.
And she was 'choice' too.
Just a rough silk dress, a girdle of queer stones no one else would have liked, leather shoes simply asserting they were hand-made—and a manner.
She was gracious—sweeter than anyone need or ought to be, I thought, but I hadn't quite got the atmosphere.
'Our first guest,' she murmured, holding out both hands. 'How strange Cedric should meet you. He so seldom goes to the town, or ever leaves the house. He doesn't care to,' she added with a thrill in her voice.
She looked at him and he looked at her and murmured, 'Jennifer.'
While we had dinner—all excellent—that evening I observed her; she absolutely fascinated me and I want to describe her to you, Lorimer.
She is tall, with wide shoulders and a full Rosetti sort of neck, and a head rather nicely set, dark waved hair gathered in a knot at her nape and good forehead and dark rather flat eyes—then the nose tight, the lips hard and crooked, the complexion harsh and grained with red and the chin too small, running with a bad line into the Rosetti throat.
She lisped a little and showed more of her teeth than her lips when she talked.
Graceful enough she somehow gave an impression as I have said of beauty; she had a still yet enthusiastic manner and an air of almost incredible fastidiousness and refinement.
The conversation was delicately 'high-brow', and afterwards she played to us (yes, it was a Scriabine, and someone else, unknown to me who makes even Scriabine seem old-fashioned!) then he played and she stood behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders, and when it was over raised his face with slow fingers and kissed him.
There was a lot of this sort of thing; she, Jennifer, looked through me, with a sort of 'divine pity'—but she was kind, very kind.
I soon learnt that Halston's 'sanctum' was 'just for writing' upstairs they shared the same room; he hadn't a corner, not even in the 'sanctum' for she would glide in there and sit in place of the banal secretary who could not have been tolerated in 'Enchantment'.
Not a corner—the woman pervaded the whole house—but why not?
You don't want corners in Paradise.
There was a day or two of this; I don't know why I stayed save that I was really rather fascinated.
Wanting to pick holes and not able to—you know.
I'm not sneering when I say again that it was really perfect.
Comfort, beauty, ease, leisure—every book, picture, magazine you could think of, the exquisite garden, the marvellous service (the servants were all in some quarters of their own, I believe, so seldom did one see them). And always Jennifer in tasteful gowns, in pretty poses moving lightly about doing useless beautiful things.
And always Cedric in his good quiet clothes with his fountain pen and his smile, and his running his fingers through his hair and his one or two dropped words that she understood so perfectly and took up with that bright brave smile 'one soul signalling to another along the ramparts of eternity'—that was Jennifer's smile.
She knew it and so did I; but I wished she had prettier teeth.
Of course, I should not have been noticing teeth, or the way she whitened her rather red throat, or the quick glitter of her eyes so out of harmony with her slow speech...but I still had not quite got the atmosphere.
Of course also there were no callers or callings, the mere thought was like a blasphemy, the isolation was as complete as the rarefied air...it was really rather wonderful how they did it.
You will have guessed there were no children, what an intrusion children would have been in such a life!
One rather wondered...it is always the important things one mustn't touch on isn't it? The things that matter most, that fill our souls, our minds, even our eyes...I'm always amazed at our eternal reticences...well, there were no children and I am queer in my views on marriage without children, it is a tricky business this mating...one knows too much...you've got to be jolly careful the people you marry to each other or, well, sometimes I've felt nauseated.
Anyhow, here were two carrying it off beautifully—all grossness purged away, they would tell you, the souls in perfect communion—all lovely and delicate, serving Art—beauty, nature, God. Yes, but why didn't she give the poor devil a corner to himself?
I don't believe he was alone for five minutes of the day or night—she used to speak of 'our bedroom' and carry up flowers and fountain pens and biscuits, for the table beside their bed...ugh! I became uneasy at meeting his glance, I don't know why.
Then...I was coming in from the garden the fourth evening she was playing as usual, in a white gown that didn't suit her, and he was seated on his pure coloured chair with a Danish book of poetry.
As I entered the room I was assailed by a smell, so creeping, so foetid I could hardly forbear an exclamation—yet this was so obviously bad manners that I was silent.
I thought of course of drains or even dead birds in the chimney and that the discomfortable thing would be marked and removed. But neither of them noticed it and it died away presently.
Still, though it hung round us the whole evening now faint, now stronger...always indescribably awful.
It was not in my own room, yet I woke up in the night drenched with it, sick and shuddering with the horror of it...potent as a live thing it filled the lovely chamber. Lord! what a smell...I was retching as I staggered out to shut the window.
But it was in the house for the closed window made no difference...I passed a night of torment...by the morning it was gone.
I won't bore you with my next day's work, which was to trace that smell.
The garden, the drains, the kitchens, all furtively examined were in perfect order.
How could one suspect anything else in such a house?
Yet with evening...that loathsome terror again.
It so saturated the rooms that everything seemed tainted with it, like a fog dirties and dims, so this smell blighted and smeared every lovely thing in the place.
And there were lovely things, I'd envied some of them really.
But it was all spoilt for me now—even when the ghastly odour wasn't there everything reminded me of it...I was in a state of perpetual nausea.
Naturally I resolved to clear out.
But it couldn't be done at less than a couple of days' notice, for I had come for a fortnight.
I mentioned the smell, actually dared to Jennifer (I shall always think of her as that, never as 'Mrs Halston', I know) and she was so distantly sweet about it that I felt I had been very impertinent.
'Of course there is nothing,' she said kindly. 'Cedric is so particular about—perfumes—sensitive people are, are they not? Perhaps you have fancies? Cedric used to...that is where I was able to...help him.'
Again the little thrill on the last two words: 'help him!' poor brute. Yes she has helped him all right...but where to.
I could do nothing but agree.
Jennifer gazed at me and I could see she meant to be very soothing.
'I banished everything ugly out of Cedric's life...Someday you will meet a woman who will do that for you—'then, with that natural brightness she used to mask her sacred emotions, 'Will you come and look at the rose bushes? I think I have got some teeny weeny buds for you to see—'
Yes, she had and must needs pick me one and give it me gravely...as a symbol of something or other, I'm sure. But it was no good; her 'teeny weeny' buds stank, my God, Lorimer, that is the only word for it stank to Heaven.
That day it was awful, the smell I mean. I took two long walks to get rid of it, the countryside was sweet and clean enough...the abomination was in the house, clinging to everything.
After dinner I asked them if they meant to live this life always, asked it bluntly, I suppose.
'Dear friend,' said Jennifer, 'you don't quite understand, does he, Cedric? This is...just home...ours...
'Home?' I was worse than blunt, but the smell was torturing me. 'What have you got in it?'
They both looked at me.
'Each other, haven't we, Cedric?' her smile was transcendent.
'Oh, yes,' I echoed, 'you've got each other—one can see that—feel it—sm—'
I stopped; what was I going to say?—what was slipping out?
I bit my tongue; but now I knew and it rather frightened me.
I cleared...I remember she said: 'And the Epic', but I just cleared out into the garden like a lunatic and walked as I was into Hertford to the hotel where they knew me.
Do you see it, Lorimer? It was all dead, love, ambition, kindness, the souls themselves, shut in, stagnant, he sold for money, his comforts, she sold for her satisfied lusts, each exacting the price...each hating the other—no children, nothing let in, nothing going on—putrid, rotten...each caged and caught by the other—and, Lorimer, stinking themselves to Hell.
THE wedding feast was nearly over.
The bride sat apart in her own chamber, even her maids dismissed, and listened to the last harps and violins whose sad music echoed through the old palazzo and quivered across the lagoon.
She sat in the dusk which obscured her splendour; her brocaded gown was unlaced and showed her shoulders and bosom rising from loose lace and lawn; her shoes were off and her stockings were of silk so fine as to show every line in her feet—which were crossed on a footstool of rose-coloured damask.
Most of the powder had been shaken from her hair which fell over her shoulders in fine curls of gold; she wore a chaplet, and necklace and earrings of pearls; the dimly seen furniture showed richly in the shadows, bouquets of roses, lilies, and carnations were on the dressing-table, on the chairs and on the floor.
On the bride's lap were trails of syringa, verbena, and orange and lemon, from her hair fell the blooms of the bridal coronal and mingled with these.
Once or twice she stretched herself and yawned, her body moving softly in the silken clothes.
Could anyone have flashed a candle or a lamp through the gloom and revealed that head and face adorned with flowers and jewels, he would have seen a wicked countenance look up at him from the shadows, a countenance as firm in outline and as soft in colour as tinted alabaster, a low, smooth brow, beautiful, hard eyes, scornful nostrils to a straight, small nose, a beautiful curved, greedy mouth, a smooth white chin.
So she sat, Giudetta Grimaldi, while her bridegroom entertained the last guests, sat and mused in the darkness.
And waited for her lover.
Waited patiently with languid self-composure, and did not trouble to listen for the chiming of the little silver clock out of the darkness.
Men had never kept Giudetta waiting; she was so sure of all of them; this security made her disdainful; she had never cared for any of her lovers save for this man for whom she waited on her wedding night.
When she heard the splash of oars beneath her window she did not move, when she heard his feet on the stone façade, climbing up to her, she did not turn her head.
Only when his figure appeared on the balcony did she move, and gathering all her blossoms to her bosom, come, breathing sweetness, to the open window.
Darkness concealed him; the infant moon was but enough to cast a sparkle on the dark waters of the canal and show the dark outlines of the crowded, silent palaces against the pale darkness of the sky.
'So Giudetta is married,' he said.
She leant on his heart; her flowers, falling through careless fingers, fell on the balcony and through the iron railings on to the waters below.
'They would marry me,' she said, 'as well he as another. How silent the city is tonight.'
'The plague is spreading.'
'It is not near us?'
'Nay, the other end of Venice, but the mere name frightens people.'
He did not offer to caress her; his cold love-making had always served to increase her passion, she took him by the shoulder and drawing his head down, almost roughly kissed his cheek.
'Listen,' her words came quickly, yet softly, like an accompaniment to the harp and violins, 'we have never had more than a few moments together, you and I—I have played with you long enough, I love you, Astorre, I love you—I can be free tonight—take me, take me away—'
Her surrender was almost fierce; the man who held her shuddered.
'I meant to ask you for tonight—your wedding night,' he said, whispering through her hair that curtained his ear, 'tonight I will show you how I love you, Giudetta, Giudetta—'
She smiled; she hated her husband and his family, it pleased her to insult them; voluptuously, playing with her own pleasure, she passed her little hand slowly over the face of her lover and let it rest on his lips to receive his kiss.
'You will come with me in my gondola tonight?' he whispered.
'Leave that to me—how shall I get down to you?'
'I have a rope ladder—you will be safe with me.'
'And before dawn you will bring me back?'
'You shall come back,' he said, 'when you wish.'
The music ceased.
Giudetta drew softly away and tiptoed back into the room.
Feeling her way to the dressing-table she found a box that she knew by the silk surface and the raised design of seed pearls.
Opening this she drew out a little package.
Swiftly and with a delicate touch she found a goblet of wine, which she had placed carefully on the little table by the window.
Into this she dropped the contents of the package, a white powder that fell heavily and quickly dissolved.
With this still in her hand she unlocked the door, listened, and hearing footsteps retreated behind the heavy folds of the silk bed curtain.
Her husband entered.
'Dark—dark?' he said.
'I am abed,' answered Giudetta from the curtains, 'I was weary.'
The Marchese paused; he was not sure of his bride nor of his own fortune in having married a great beauty; the feast had left him depressed, a heavy weight hung about his heart.
'Where are your candles, Giudetta?' he asked.
She put her head down so that the sound of her voice came from the pillow.
'Leave the candles, my eyes are tired.'
Carefully in the darkness she was holding upright the goblet, holding it steadily so that the liquid should not spill.
She heard him coming towards her; he moved the curtains and she saw his dark shape between her and the dimness of the window.
She laughed, and the laughter enticed him; he bent down, peering for her through the dark.
Noiselessly she sat erect on the bed, gently and accurately she held the glass to his lips.
'Drink this to our wedding—it is fine Greek wine; I have been waiting for you to drink with me.'
He took the glass from her, she heard the rim clink against his teeth.
His hand felt for her blindly; she evaded him, slipping easily into the room.
The Marchese sat on the edge of the bed.
His voice was low and held a dull note of accusation; she watched the dark bulk of his figure slip sideways.
She turned and supported him so that he should make no noise in falling.
Gently she let him slide to the ground.
He lay there motionless.
She could see the white patches made by his wrist ruffles and the lace at his bosom.
Cautiously she waited, standing over the drugged man, then she went again to her dressing-table and the blue silk box, and took out strings of jewels which she fastened round her neck and waist and wrists.
Then she found her slippers by the chair where she had been sitting, and feeling along the couch found a cloak which she cast over her shoulders.
Laughing under her breath, she came out on to the balcony.
The night was serene and melancholy.
Black were the palaces rising against the sky, black the shadows they cast into the waters of the canals, remote were the stars, and as remote seemed the little yellow lights that flamed up here and there in distant windows.
Giudetta clung to her lover.
He turned from where he had been leaning over the iron railing.
'Ah, you are ready?'
'He sleeps—the poppy-seed is swift.'
'Sleeps he already? You have used more than poppy-seed.'
'That other drug they gave me, too—he fell like a dead man.'
'Would you have cared if he had been dead, my Giudetta?'
She laughed again.
'Why should I care?'
'You care for me?'
'I have told you.'
'Will you come now?'
'Take me away.'
She shivered when he showed her the rope ladder hanging over the balcony, but she climbed over the iron work without assistance.
With her shoes under one arm and her skirts gathered under the other, the beautiful Giudetta descended into the darkness.
The rope ladder was held taut, the gondolier received her in his arms and she sank into the cushions of the light, swaying boat.
Breathing heavily, she sat silent, watching the dark ripples the feeble lamp at the prow showed beating on the rocking gondola.
The palazzo towered so far above her it seemed as if she was at the bottom of a well; all these great buildings overwhelmed the frail boat with their heavy shadows.
When he joined her she gave a little sigh of gladness; the boat shot away out on to the canal.
Giudetta looked up at the open window of her bridal chamber, and a sense of danger touched her hard heart.
But she had managed intrigues as perilous as this before—only the fact that this time she was in love unnerved her courage.
She leant forward.
'Where are we going?'
He said the word quickly and quietly out of the darkness.
She moved luxuriously on the cushions and looked up at the stars which were so low and brilliant it seemed as if every minute they would fall in a shower on the dark city.
The gondola sped out into the Grand Canal; there were few lights in the windows and those few were dim, not the bright flame of festivals.
Only here and there lanterns hung on the mooring poles outside the palaces.
The state barges rocked at anchor by the broad stone steps; in this city of music there was no music tonight.
'How melancholy,' said Giudetta.
It was a melancholy that pleased her, as it rendered the more exquisite the contrast of her own happiness in being with the man whom she loved, her pleasure in being engaged on this delicious adventure on her wedding night.
They turned from the sea and the islands and towards the Rialto.
'How silent,' said Giudetta.
She liked this silence which seemed to make the world hers to fill with her own thoughts of love, not a breath intruded on her reveries; her passion could dominate the night undisturbed; she wished that they might move indefinitely between these dark palaces over the dark water and under the vivid stars.
They passed a shrine near the bridge; the Madonna holding the Child in an alcove in the wall of a palace.
A feeble lamp showed her dull blue and pink gown and the placid face of the Child.
Giudetta felt sorry for the Madonna who sat holding her Babe all day and all night, and never came down to row over the lagoons.
'How still it is,' she whispered.
'The plague,' said Astorre.
They were passing under the Rialto, in complete darkness.
Giudetta wished that he had not used that word—'the plague'.
'This morning I saw many houses marked with the red cross,' continued Astorre, 'and many pale faces looking from upper windows for assistance.'
'And no one went?'
'The priests or the nuns. But there are not enough. The people die so fast, the black gondolas are laden to the water edge, and there are no more coffins in the city.'
'Why do you tell me this?' asked Giudetta. 'We should not be abroad.'
'Where I take you is safe from infection. You are not aftaid?'
'Have I proved myself a coward?'
She took his right hand in both of hers and drew it down to her bosom.
He looked at her; she could see the pale oval of his face, nothing more; the darkness began to tease her, it was like a veil between them.
'Take me into the light,' she whispered, 'and you will see how I am adorned for you.'
'For me!' he repeated the words in a strange tone. 'Do you remember when you loved Rosario?' he added abruptly.
'Rosario,' she murmured the name lazily, playing with the memory it evoked.
'Oh, I remember—did you think I had forgotten? But you are mistaken, I never cared for him.'
'He loved you.'
She laughed, not vexed at this conversation; it pleased her to remember the men who had loved her, and it pleased her to think Astorre was jealous.
'He loved you,' repeated the man thoughtfully.
'He broke his heart for you.'
'You know it.'
'There have been so many,' smiled Giudetta. 'And this was—last year. I sent him away after I met you.'
'You played with him for three months.'
'He was a pretty gentleman and adored me in good faith.'
'He forsook Rosina for you.'
'You know that, also.'
'I had forgotten.'
'She loved him.'
'But he loved only me. Poor Rosina!' Giudetta laughed again.
'And he forsook her for you. They were betrothed.'
'The marriage day fixed.'
'I suppose it amused you to part them and then fling him aside?'
She released his hand and caressed it softly as she answered.
'I suppose so. But that is in the past, nothing amuses me now but to be with you. Is it not as if we had wings and flew between water and sky?'
'To what goal do we travel, you and I, O Giudetta?'
'To what goal! The future is dark, like the night!'
'I cannot dream what my life will be. I have never loved before.'
'Love is powerful.'
'Too powerful,' she shuddered; 'it disturbs me. I wish I did not love.'
'Why, Giudetta, why?'
'Because I know not where it will lead me—I feel as if it would ruin my life and even cause my death.'
'Love is like that. I also am in the talons of love which drives me to anything—even perhaps to crime.'
She shivered with joy to hear him say this.
'You think of my husband?'
Astorre was silent.
They had turned off the Grand Canal and entered one smaller and almost totally dark, where the water lapped at weed-hung steps and the rust of gratings of lower windows.
'Suppose you killed him,' murmured Giudetta; 'such things have been done for a woman.'
'Yes, murder has been done for a woman.'
She pressed close to him.
'You—could you do that?'
He answered strongly.
The warm arms from which cloak and sleeves had fallen, encircled him.
She laid her cheek on his shoulder.
'You would kill for love?'
'Without pity or hesitation?'
'Ah, you know how to love! You are like what a lover should be.'
'I know how to love, Giudetta—I have given my life for love.'
'We shall be happy, my dearest, we shall be happy!'
They passed a church now; either side was a wall covered with roses; the yellow light from the wide open door showed these flowers and the circular wet steps and the bowed forms of the worshippers; for a second, too, it showed the small flushed face of Giudetta and the jewels on her bosom.
The darkness engulfed them again.
'Do you ever pray, Giudetta?'
'I prayed once.'
'For what boon?'
'After I had first seen you, beloved, I prayed you might love me.'
He answered fiercely.
'I prayed for that too, on my knees, fasting I prayed you might love me!'
'Some kind saint listened—I have burnt many candles at many shrines.' Her arms slipped from his neck, she sat upright, adjusting her thrown-back hair which lay in coils inside her hood.
The gondola stopped.
For a moment it shook to and fro as the man fastened it to the post, then rocked steadily at the moorings.
'We are there?' asked Giudetta.
She felt that all this had happened before in a dream; the narrow doorway with the steep steps rising out of the water, the two grated windows and the high-placed iron lamp that shed a dismal light over the masonry were all familiar to her.
'This is not your house?' she whispered.
'No, the house of one of my friends—empty for the moment. But I have all ready for this night's feast.'
'It looks gloomy,' said Giudetta. She stood up, drawing her cloak about her shoulders.
Astorre laid a plank from the gondola to the steps and handed her ashore.
A long passage was before her, damp and narrow, the house seemed mean and neglected.
Giudetta turned to her lover who was quickly beside her.
'You said you were bringing me to your home—here I would not have come.'
'This is my true home—not in the great palace, I have prepared it for you—'
She was unconvinced, and hesitated.
'You cannot turn back now,' he said, gently taking her arm, 'here it is safe—no one will come to seek you here.'
'That is true,' she admitted.
'And you are with me.'
'Lead me,' she said, 'and light! light! We have been in the dark so long!'
He took her hand and led her down the passage which was high and dark and damp and narrow—the entrance of a poor and neglected house, Giudetta thought.
Resentment touched her heart like a little flame; her adventure was spoilt by these sordid surroundings, her love was no longer what it had been on the balcony of her own beautiful chamber or in the gondola under the stars.
'Where are you leading me?' she asked, and her hand stiffened in his grasp.
The passage seemed endless.
Now they reached some steps, he guided her up, opened a door and ushered her into a lit room. It was a fair-sized apartment with painted walls and ceiling; the two windows were open; a chandelier of coloured glass gave the soft yellow light.
Beneath stood a table elegantly laid with two covers and two purple velvet chairs; for the rest the furniture was of a bedroom; a bed draped with purple and rose-coloured hangings stood on a dais, there were coffers, mirrors and a dressing-table.
Giudetta did not like the room.
It was not the setting she had imagined or wished for her love.
The chamber seemed to her unpleasant, even fearful, yet there was nothing strange about the place, it was like so many other Venetian rooms, rich, sombre, a little heavy in furnishing.
Astorre handed her into one of the velvet chairs and turned to leave her.
'Prince,' she said imperiously, 'I do not like this house.'
He stood, with his hand on the open door, looking at her intently.
Now at last he was revealed to her, after the long concealment of the dark; she forgot her vexation as she looked at him.
His was the extreme handsomeness of face and body that is the passport to all worldly pleasures, handsomeness of dark warm colouring, of beautiful eyes, masculine and passionate, of a haughty mouth, curved and sensitive, handsomeness of movement and gestures, bearing and pose.
His curled black hair was only slightly powdered and he wore no hat; a double caped cloak hung open to show his suit of dark crimson; he wore diamonds in his cravat that twinkled under the clasp of his mantle.
Giudetta, looking at him, smiled.
She loved him, she was proud of him—they were together.
What did the background matter?
She put her fair head back against the velvet back of the chair.
'Why do you leave me, Astorre?' she asked in a gentler tone.
He had been fixing her with an intense scrutiny, drinking in her jewelled beauty as she was his, she believed.
At her words he drew himself together with a little start, as if awakened out of some dream or reverie.
'I go to fetch your supper, Giudetta,' he answered. 'Tonight I wait on you.'
Without waiting for her consent, he left her quickly.
Giudetta sat still awhile playing with the pearls on her bosom and the sweet thoughts in her mind.
Then she rose and went to the window as people always will in a strange room.
She was at the back of the house and the stagnant waters of a little-used canal sucked at the bricks two feet below the windows, opposite the blank walls of crowded houses blocked out the night.
It was silent and desolate—Giudetta did not find this silence soft and pleasing as had been that on the canals, but rather dreary and sinister.
She moved back into the room, went to one of the mirrors and surveyed her own gorgeous fairness, pearl and diamond bedecked, to give her courage.
She was beautiful, no doubts could obscure that fact—she was beautiful, and what had beauty to fear?—in her experience, nothing.
Now she moved to the door and opened it—without the utter darkness of the corridor.
Quickly she closed it; horror, like a palpable presence, rose and confronted her.
'What is the matter with this room?' she asked herself.
Fear suddenly rose from all sides, engulfing her like waves.
She seemed to stand in isolation assailed by a thousand phantoms of horror, terror, and wrath; deeper fear and dismay than she had imagined possible to experience were now poured into her heart as water into a cup.
She had a glimpse into regions of infernal melancholy and unclean blackness, which was as if she peered suddenly into a chasm darker and deeper than eternity.
She seemed to be sinking down the steep walls of hell into an abyss where she would be for ever lost, lost to all she had ever loved or enjoyed.
Buried through long aeons with the sins of a hundred million years lying heavy on her heart...Then the great horror passed; she fell on her knees beside the chair from which she had risen sick and shivering.
Clasping her hands tightly she called on her love.
'Astorre, why do you leave me?'
Now she had no desire for love, no appetite for pleasure, but she called on the only human being whom she thought to be near.
What was the matter with the room—what had happened here, why was she imprisoned here between the open windows with the lapping black waters beneath and the open door with the black passage without?
She turned round about like one confined, and though she was free of action and surrounded by space, her movement was as if she beat against bars.
Her straining ears heard a step and she moved to her feet, stumbling in her long gown and shaking the pearls and diamonds on her bosom.
She scarcely saw him with gladness; he seemed to have changed since they had entered the house; even his beauty was no longer pleasant, but had in it something horrible; as a handsome face will look from a design of hideous forms and partake of their terror, so he seemed to have been absorbed into the atmosphere of the house, robbed of charm and invested with horror.
'Prince,' said Giudetta feebly, 'take me away from here.'
He pointed to the untouched table.
'We have not supped.'
'I could not eat.'
'What has happened, Giudetta?'
She made a great effort over her fears, but the earlier joyousness of the evening was not to be recaptured.
'Nothing has happened—but I feel as if I was going to lose all I cared for.'
He seated himself at the table, and taking his face in his hands looked at her.
'All you ever cared for? What have you ever cared for?'
She could not answer—what, in truth, was there she was afraid to lose?
To escape from this house she would have gladly forgone Astorre and found herself at home beside the drugged husband, for at the touch of personal fear, passion had died, and other days would bring another love.
'Myself,' she said at last. 'I fear to lose myself, my life, my existence—'
'That in truth,' answered Astorre, 'is all that you have to lose.'
She noticed now the difference in his tone; not with this had he spoken to her in the gondola.
Another and dreadful fear possessed her now.
'Astorre, why have you brought me here?'
'You ask me that now? Was it not for your sweet company?'
She supported herself by the chair and looked from him to the two open windows.
'I do not like this place,' she said almost as if to herself.
'Close the windows,' she continued, 'the air from the water is damp.'
'The night is warm, Giudetta.'
'But I feel the house chill.'
She looked round for the cloak she had brought with her; it was brocade, the colour of faded red roses, lined with lemon-coloured satin, her marriage cloak...
She thought of her husband...she pictured him, very vividly, lying beside the bed in the dark room, with the bridal flowers scattered near.
Her fingers trembled as she fingered the mantle; what a perverse fool she was—she might as well have loved the Marchese, he was as personable a man as the one she had chosen—why had she risked so much for Astorre?—if she was not back before the palace was awake she was lost, lost before all Venice.
Why had she done this foolish thing, she asked herself dully—she could not now understand the passion that had prompted her to this adventure.
Thinking only of her own safety and her own terrors, she sank huddled into the chair and stared at Astorre.
The door was pushed open gently and a woman entered bearing a salver on which were various dishes.
She wore a plain cloth dress that might have been that of any servant, but over her face was a thick mask with slits for the mouth and eyes; made of grey silk and spotted with scarlet, it was one of the fantastic vizards of carnival.
'What is your jest?' asked Giudetta.
The woman put the dishes on the table; meat, pastries, and fruit on carved silver, and tall bottles of wine in cases of filigree.
'What jest?' repeated Giudetta.
'There is no jest,' said Astorre.
Giudetta rose in wild terror.
'A plot, there is some plot—this food is poisoned, I can swear it!'
'You shall not eat if you do not wish,' he showed no surprise at her fears.
The masked woman remained standing inside the door, the salver in her hands.
Giudetta lowered at both of them.
'Take me home,' she said between her teeth, 'or on my soul you shall pay for it!'
'Certainly I shall pay for this night's work,' he replied; he began unconcernedly to drink his wine and eat his supper.
Now she trembled with supplication.
'What harm have I ever done to you? You loved me, did you not? But a little while ago.'
'Prince,' she continued desperately, 'what is this you have against me?'
'What should I have against you?'
Another thought came to her.
'You are mad, mad,' she pointed to the silent third, 'that woman is mad also!'
'Not mad, Giudetta.'
'Then take me home.
All her energy was now concentrated on that, to get away, to escape, to be free of them both, to be back in her own place.
Astorre rose, his glass in his hand.
'To your good health, Giudetta.'
He drank to her gravely, mockingly, she thought, his fine hand flushed red from the reflection of the wine cast by the candles above his head, which filtered their light through sparkling glass.
She waited, helpless.
'Why are you frightened? asked Astorre. 'I swear I shall never touch you.'
'Why should you, what have you against me?' through all her terrors she fumbled with the wonder of it all...a little while ago they had been lovers.
The woman now came forward to remove the plates.
'Take off your mask,' said Astorre.
She did so and looked at Giudetta with a pale, mournful face.
'You know her?' asked Astorre.
'It is Rosina.'
'Rosina! Changed, oh, Heaven, changed!' cried Giudetta.
'You remember her?' smiled Astorre. 'She was betrothed to Rosario—he left her for you—he amused you—and she—'
'You never thought of me, did you?' asked Rosina, 'nor of all the other women whose hearts you rifled?'
'Is this a vendetta?' asked Giudetta swiftly.
'I swear that we shall not touch you,' repeated Astorre.
This did not reassure her nor lift the black cloud of terror that hung over her soul; the sight of the woman whom she had so wantonly and maliciously and contemptuously wronged, filled her with unavailing rage and deeper dread.
She turned to Astorre, something of her beauty, blanched and withered through fear, returned in the flush of her anger.
'Why do you champion her,' she demanded, 'was your brother so much to you?'
'He was much and she was more. I always loved Rosina, as she loved Rosario.'
Giudetta flung her head back and looked at him out of half closed eyes from which gleamed hatred.
'How I loathe you,' she said.
His beauty was now to her like the gorgeous skin of the serpent, a thing to be detested and destroyed.
She would gladly have killed him and stepped over his dead body to freedom.
Her helplessness made her sick with fury.
'Come away,' said Rosina.
She slipped her hand inside Astorre's.
'Good-night, Giudetta,' said Astorre.
Relief soothed her when they were gone; she thought they meant to ruin her by leaving her there so that she could not return in time.
But she believed her wits were equal to this dilemma.
They locked the door after them as she had expected.
But there were the windows.
Mounting on a chair she detached one of the candles from the chandelier, and hurrying to the first window, thrust the light out and stared about her.
She had enough jewels to bribe half Venice—there must be someone who would come to her rescue.
The flame burned straight in the still air, it showed the waters below—the walls of the house; nothing else.
No boat, no passing gondola, no light in an opposite window encouraged her to hope.
The place was deserted.
Still she moved the candle to and fro and peered to right and left.
Suddenly she ceased this movement of her arm, she continued to stare and her face became as lifeless as the stone window that framed her terror.
She had seen between the two windows, coarsely marked on the rough wall, the scarlet cross, the warning and the sign of a plague-stricken house.
The candle dropped through her fingers, the little flame hissed to extinction in the sucking black waters.
Slowly she moved back into the room; physical nausea seized her; her jewels galled her like ropes of lead.
She tottered to the bed to stretch her fainting limbs there.
When her shaking hands had contrived to draw the curtains, shriek after shriek left her lips and echoed through the doomed house.
There lay Rosario, stiff and awful on the neat pillows; his livid, mottled face showing the manner of his death.
No one knew who had admitted the old man. He was suddenly there, in the chimney corner, warming his hands before the glow of the Yule log. The guests were a little weary with singing and laughing. They had fallen on a silence disturbed only by the chatter of the children who sat on the floor playing with tinsel ornaments.
The Yule wreath hung overhead, stuck with apples, holly and candles. Everyone dreamed differently as they looked at it; some were too drowsy to dream at all.
One asked his neighbour: 'Who is the old man?'
Another was curious enough to ask this question of the master of the house. He sent for the porter, who knew nothing. But then, the gates had stood wide all day; who could be refused admission during the Christmas Festival? The master of the house agreed, adding, 'Perhaps he has come with one of the children, there are so many, one invites another—'
It was a large house, justly famous for its hospitality. For weeks the cooks had been baking biscuits, cakes and sweetmeats. The air was rich with the scent of spices, from open fires, symbolic of the offerings of the Magi.
The musicians had just left the upper gallery. There were no lights save the candles on the Yule wreath, whose flames tapered upwards into the darkness of the large room. The brocade curtains had not been drawn across the long oriel windows. Without could be seen the unceasing snow flakes.
The old man was handsome, upright and stately. Yet he continued to warm his hands as if he had come a long way, on a far cold journey.
The Master of the house approached him, offering him a cup of wine, as if, now he had perceived him, he welcomed him.
The old man declined, with a courteous inclination of his massive head.
Everyone was now looking at him, even the children who played on the floor.
'I like to spend Christmas in company,' he said in a voice touched with a strange, perhaps a foreign, accent. He glanced round the circle of faces. 'Do you think of Christmas as merely a festival?' he asked.
No one answered the direct question.
'The twelve days of Christmas,' murmured a young girl, 'it is a merry holiday.'
'Ah,' exclaimed the old man looking at her sharply. 'Those pretty flowers you wear; it was I who brought them to England.'
The girl put her hands to the wreath as if she feared it would dissolve, like fairy blooms, and the company, smiling, conceded the old man's whim, to describe himself as a magician.
But he continued quietly: 'I am a botanist. Years ago, before you were born, my dear young lady, I brought some roots of that little blossom from Asia, and now it grows at Christmas in your stone houses.'
'You have earned your place at the fireside for that alone,' said the master of the house, smiling.
'No,' replied the old man. 'I have my place out of charity.'
They all protested, languidly. He was harmless, perhaps distinguished. The master of the house thought: 'Perhaps it was a stupid indiscretion not to have invited him.'
'I must explain myself. I am a professor of natural history. I have outlived all my friends, and I never married. Until last Christmas I found, however, company. This year I was obliged to come among strangers.'
'You are truly welcome,' cried the master of the house, glancing at his wife. And she half rose from her sofa and repeated, 'You are truly welcome, but excuse me, sir, I do not remember seeing you in these parts.'
'I live the other side of the forest,' said the professor, 'and I seldom go abroad. I amuse myself with writing, or with going over my collections. I have travelled, of course, over the whole world.'
'Some old fellow,' whispered a youth, 'in his second childhood, and already forgotten by everyone.'
Yet the company seemed to circle round him, as if he were the person everyone had come to see. The snowflakes fell softly on the diamond panes of the window; the night showed purple beyond the warm lit room.
The small children fell asleep on their mother's laps, and the older children stared at the professor of natural history.
His clothes were very old-fashioned, but neat and fresh. The Yule log was sinking into fiery particles; it had burnt for three days. The room was so hot that the master of the house did not order any more wood to be piled on the hearth. The steady glow filled the room, making warm shadows behind the group of people, glinting in glasses and decanters, shining in brown and gold locks and on the folds of silk and satin gowns.
They all wished that the old naturalist would go; he made them and their merrymaking seem foolish.
'Yesterday,' he said, 'I was out alone, walking beyond the forest; all seemed dark, dead, sombre, with the snow coming on, and one solitary jay screaming, when I found some goldilocks moss, just at my feet. And it reminded me—'
'Ay, tell us a tale!' cried a boy looking up from a castle he was building of toy bricks.
'—how I nearly became a murderer on Christmas Day,' added the old man.
Everyone was now silent. The mimic tower fell over. Time seemed to glide away swiftly as if all Christmas sports were now over. The mistress of the house rose quietly and drew the curtains over the storm. The wind had risen and a certain shudder was felt even in this serene room. The garlands of mistletoe, ivy and holly shivered in their places.
'The weather was like this,' said the old man. 'A blustering storm rising, everything frozen, and, as I recall, a giant yew cast down in the churchyard. You know a fruit tree can be overthrown and then propped up, but a yew tree—never. It dies at once.'
'Where was the place and when was the time?' asked the master of the house.'
'Far, far from here,' was the reply, 'on the wild coast of Wales. And in time, I do not know how long; I have ceased to count the years.'
He settled himself to his tale, that he gave as a gift or offering, and as such they took it, while the gale increased and scattered the sparks on the hearth and struggled at the firmly bolted door.
The house was believed to be haunted, though no one spoke of that. But there were those in the group gathered round the fire who thought of this now, of invisible beings who might be peering over their shoulders or floating in the dark air above the circle of candles.
'I was coming home,' said the professor of natural history, 'after several years of wandering. I had been in China and Tibet. There were some curiosities I was resolved to have.'
'You must,' said the master of the house, 'have met with many adventures.'
'By land and sea. One can become obsessed, of course, by such a quest. I fell ill. I lost my basket of specimens. I was robbed.'
'All for a few flowers!' murmured the girl with the wreath. 'And we have enough at home—'
'Who is ever content with what he has at home? Besides, I was not searching for new ornaments, but for medicinal plants—some gallant and universal balm.' He changed his tone abruptly, and added in a firm voice that seemed that of a much younger man, 'But I always corresponded with Isabelle Blount.'
'A love story,' said the mistress of the house with a little sigh. Her own had been a very happy one but she was conscious of the passing of the years.
'We were betrothed.' The old man used the formal word with a flourish. 'I had money and a fine house, and so had her brother; as children we played together. It was early understood between us that we were to be married as soon as my wanderings were over—'
'Ah, you were the tyrant and set the choice,' said one of the ladies thoughtfully.
'Not at all—she was willing to wait. Even wishful to prolong her childhood. At first there were her parents to be considered, then her brother. It was something we looked forward to—our marriage—as a golden certainty.'
'You must have been a sober pair,' said the master of the house.
'No,' said the old man distinctly, 'we were full of zest and enthusiasm. I wished to fulfil my destiny as I was pleased to name it. Isabelle learned every accomplishment. Ours was to be a planned, a leisured happiness. She shared my interests. The stone house built for her was filled by the treasures I had brought home. Every month she wrote me accounts of our native flowers—even from the first of the year, the dark red nettle, the grass groundsell, the daisy—all manner of little conceits and fancies we shared. She would write to me of the prickly furze, glazed with the hoar frost, and I of a valley filled with azaleas the colours of corals and shells.'
'And did you write of nothing else?' asked one of the listeners.
'We wrote of everything else,' replied the old man with dignity. 'Whatever peril or discomfort I might be in, I kept calm by the remembrance of Isabelle Blount. We intended to settle in our Welsh home and to live—'
'Happily ever after,' put in the boy with the bricks that he had now piled into the semblance of a palace.
'Why not?' asked the old man patiently. 'There was no flaw in our scheme. I encountered much weariness. I have rested, exhausted, by an abandoned gilt pagoda in the jungle to think of Isabelle wandering among my native rocks to pick the sea mallow.'
'Very poetic, sir, but I think the lady was left too much alone.'
The old man looked coolly at the speaker, a brisk youth helping himself to wine.
'Isabelle was never alone. She had her family, her duties. I was successful and not without honour. I received awards, gold and silver medals. I lectured to distinguished audiences. She had reason to be proud of me, as my reputation settled into a steady brilliance.'
'Come, sir!' cried the young man finishing his wine. 'This was to be a murderer's story.'
The old man ignored this. He took a pair of spectacles from his forehead, polished them and set them on his nose.
'It was a settled frost when I said goodbye to her. We walked along the stream; the sedges sparkled with ice; the night before had been clear blue weather with a missel thrush singing. Now the wind parted her hair as she laid her hand in mine; mosses, such as I saw today, glowed on the twisted trunks of the oak trees. We renewed our vows. One year more—and I should be free.'
'It was a pretty picture,' said the mistress of the house.
And in truth the old man had that much art, that he could make them all, idle as they were, see the young lovers by the wintry stream.
'She went with me over my home, suggesting changes here and there, and said that if she were not mistress there by next Christmas, she would be by the Christmas after. She chose the room that should be hers, and I at once planned how I would see that it was always filled by the choicest plants I brought from the East. A kingfisher was startled from our path as we parted by the stream, halfway between her house and mine. I took that blue-winged flash to be an augury.
'I went to China and I found the plant for which I was searching.'
'Tell us what it was,' asked several idle voices.
'It has remained nameless and useless,' the old man replied. 'Because—cannot you have guessed? The name it should have had was her name, and the benefits it should have conferred on mankind should have seemed to come from her—'
'Do you want to tell this story?' asked the mistress of the house gently. 'Shall we not rather sing a hymn or a carol before we go in to dinner?'
'It is a tale that must be told,' insisted the old man. He folded his hands in the bosom of his coat, as if they were sufficiently warmed, or perhaps chilled beyond any hope of warmth.
The company was lulled; a servant appeared in the doorway with candles but was waved aside by the master of the house.
The glow of the Yule log was sufficient for the telling of this tale.
'I was captured by some imperious mandarins who supposed I had gazed too long at some rarities in their gardens. They enclosed me in a tower. From my window I could see some misty peaks, broken by dark hollows that made me long to set out on my explorations again.
'I was well fed, and, I suppose, discovered to be harmless, for after some months I was released. And not without some words of wisdom as to limiting my curiosity. And not without some reward for my patience under punishment. The mandarins had been through my specimens and declared that I had loaded myself up with trim weeds of no consequence. The package that they put into my hand as they set me on my way contained the exquisite plant of almost magical properties that I intended to name after my Isabelle.'
Each of the company sought to remember what this flower might be, but their thoughts were sluggish.
The candles flickered out on the Yule wreath where the red apples bobbed, and only the vast glow from the hearth lit the room.
The master of the house begged the old man to take a more comfortable chair, but he had settled in his chimney comer and continued in his tale.
'My precious plants, like so many dried anatomies, were placed in a sandalwood box, wrapped in mosses, and I set out for England.
'There were several delays in my journey. I cannot even call them to mind. Indeed, from the moment I left the hands of my considerate captors, my adventures took on a dream-like quality. I seemed to meet with some very queer companions and to put up at some very odd places.'
'Do tell us!' cried one of the children, suddenly awaking.
The old man frowned.
'It was a long way and I lost count of time; there was winter, but no snow fell. I lost my servant; he was bribed away, I think, by a wealthy nabob, but of that I cannot be sure. Somehow there was always money in my pocket. I found myself in London the day before Christmas Eve.
'I had my treasured plants with me safely and as I looked on the magnificent array of jewels, laces, flowers and other costly gifts in the merchants' displays, I was proud because I had something much rarer than those to offer my Isabelle.
'Owing to my rapid moving about I had not heard from her for several weeks. The greater surprise and delight should therefore mark our meeting. This time it would be never to part again.
'I stayed at a hotel in a street off the Strand where I was not known, and reposed myself after my fatigues and troubles. Snow fell in the evening, but the morning shone clearly over the Thames, and the people hurried up and down with their parcels, wreaths of holly and clusters of mistletoe.
'Imagination made my dried plants bloom. My musty chamber was filled with the scent of a thousand silver stars. This peculiar flower was said by the Chinese to be the flower of the dead that ghosts came to smell at. For the living it has no perfume. Think of me then, as alone in London, secure in this obscure hotel, with the great treasure in my possession, the wonderful plant that should bear the name of my beloved and bring me the final glory of my already honoured career.'
As he spoke these words the old man held up his head with an almost infernal pride and his frame, still powerful in outline, trembled with fatigue and passion. He seemed to observe the impression he made on his listeners and that they shrank a little from him.
'What is a man,' he demanded, 'but a ruined archangel? I certainly felt that I was possessed of supernatural powers, having in that humble box I kept under lock and key, the powers of life and death.' Lowering his voice he added in a confidential tone that yet carried to every corner of the room, 'But when I came to consult my calendar, I found I was out of my calculations. Most abominably deceived! Where had I lost the time?'
'Can one lose time?' asked the master of the house thoughtfully.
'I had lost two years. In prison, in travel, in hallucinations. I was that much out of my reckoning.'
'We never have as much time as we hope,' said the master of the house.
'But who realises that?' asked his wife with a sad tenderness.
'None of us,' put in the old man. 'We play with delusions all the time.'
One of his listeners, secure in youth and happiness, protested with a smile. He was sure of himself, and the girl beside him and their future.
Ignoring this, the old man continued, with an increasing eagerness:
'Very few people make the miscalculations I did—I had lost two years—'
'Still, in so long a life—' murmured one of the youths pertly.
The professor of natural history took up the challenge.
'I should not miss them you think? But they were those particular years, you see, just those during which Isabelle was waiting for me.'
'Her letters?' asked the master of the house. 'There must have been some confusion there.'
They all felt a kindness for this Isabelle, as if they would have liked to have asked her to join the circle, to draw up to the fire, and tell her side of the tale of all the years when she was waiting in a lonely home for a man greedy for wealth and honour.
'Yes, her letters,' agreed the old man slowly. 'I told you there was a gap when I did not receive any at all. Then she had a habit of not putting dates—only Monday or Tuesday. Some must have been very much delayed; some I never got at all.'
He put aside this subject with impatience.
'I was talking of my stay in London. No one thought of anything but Christmas. The manager of the hotel put a ticket into my hand and told me a ball was being held in the house at the end of the street. I had a whim to go to this. Of course there were many people in London who would have been glad to receive me. But I felt shy. Perhaps I was changed. I did not know how to adjust myself to those lost years. I sent a letter to Isabelle, saying I would be with her on Christmas Day—'
'Did it not occur to you that she might be surprised, perhaps dismayed by your long disappearances?' asked the master of the house.
'Sir, it did not. I thought I had explained that we loved one another.'
'Oh,' cried a lady who had been half asleep, 'if you think that covers everything!'
'I thought so then.' He gave a stiff bow. 'I hope you think so now.' With a brusque glance at his host he added, 'Perhaps you find my tale tedious?'
But no, everyone wanted him to continue. The story was like a spell to hold them together, an excuse rather for not moving, for not having the candles in, for not calling for wraps and going home. The horses were warm in the stables, the coachmen in the servants' hall; it seemed a pity to break up the party.
So thought the visitors, while the host and his wife, who were childless, had no wish to be left alone in the house that was supposed to be haunted. If need be, everyone could be accommodated for the night. So the old man was encouraged to tell them of the ball he had attended, during the festival, so many years before.
'You can,' he said, 'imagine my feeling, filled for so many years with Isabelle, rare plants, and the various incidents of my curious journeys. Who, I asked myself, were all these people? The women had hot-house flowers, quite dead, pinned with diamonds to their rich falls of laces; some of their little slippers were quite worn out; as they rested, I saw the fine satin rubbed through at the toes. The room had become overheated and someone had pulled back the curtains to let in the icy light of dawn. The sheen from the river was reflected in the mirrors, and in the drops from the candelabra, where the last candles were guttering. The musicians drooped in their places, but continued to scrape out waltzes, when they began on carols as a reminder that the dance was at an end. I made my escape. No one had noticed me. What humbug this festival is! I reflected. Of course I was soon proved wrong, and that is why I am telling you this story.
'I secretly confounded all such gaiety where I had not been made welcome, and dwelt with pleasure on the self-contained lives that I and Isabelle would lead with our exclusive interests.
'It was late on Christmas Eve when I arrived at my house. I had not remembered that it was in such a lonely situation. It had taken the contents of my wallet to induce a coachman to take me from the railway station.
'There was no sign of welcome, but that was my own fault; I had sent no letters in advance. Still I had always pictured the house as ready and waiting for my return. Surely they could have, at least, kept a light in the hall. The hackney soon departed, leaving me and my simple baggage on the doorstep. I had to ring several times before a person unknown to me, with a tallow dip in his hand, cautiously responded to my bell ringing. He explained that he was the caretaker, I, that I was the master of the house.
'Dubiously, he at length admitted me. What he had to say was trivial, but exasperating. My heirs-at-law, distant cousins whom I disliked, were claiming my property. My lawyers were playing a delaying game and had searched for me all over the world.
'When it came to it, I had no recollection of having written to them for years. There was that unpleasant lapse of time, you see. My excellent steward, my good servants had all left. My lawyers would not be at their expense. As I passed from one room to another, partly dismantled, partly neglected, followed by my grim unwilling guide, I became angry, mainly with myself. Why had I not made a will, leaving everything to Isabelle? For the first time in my life, I admitted that I was an eccentric fellow and managed my affairs in a peculiar way.
'Still, that was all over now. The house and the estate would soon be set to rights, and I should become a very decent member of the county.
My familiarity with the house had convinced the caretaker that I knew the place; the sight of my name on some foreign passports and letters satisfied him that I was indeed the owner. Or so he pretended, for I soon discovered that he had a reason for this complacence. Some plan had fallen through at the last moment whereby he had this charge alone, on Christmas Eve; high wage and some sense of duty had obliged him to keep trust. Now he saw his chance. He lived near—near to him who knew all the woodland paths—and as I had returned to claim my property, could I not excuse his service?
'I at once granted this favour; before the man had spoken, I had resolved to exchange my forlorn dwelling for that of Isabelle and her brother. There, there would be warmth and light and probably merriment, for they must have had my letter.
'So I gladly let the man go, and as he was eagerly lighting his storm lantern, I mentioned, for the pleasure of hearing it, the name of my beloved. The nature of our attachment had been kept secret, but I suppose there might have been some talk. My caretaker looked at me a little oddly, and told me that Isabelle had been married, for two years or more.
'I detained him, grasping his greatcoat with a strength that seemed other than my own.
'But, though utterly alarmed by my demeanour, he had little more to tell me. The brother was dead, the man she had married of a station below her own. They were living in her old home.
'On hearing this, I at once knew what to do. Disguising my fury, I sent the caretaker off with a gold piece and good wishes.
'The night was too wild for me to remain at the open door, but drawing aside the slightly tattered curtains of an upper window, I watched the light of the storm lantern disappear into the bare woods.
'Thus it came that I was alone in my deserted home on Christmas Eve, determined on murder, and lit only by a rush light.
'I had at once decided to kill Isabelle's husband.'
'Being forsaken of God and man,' said the mistress of the house, glancing about to see if the children were all asleep. And so they were, save those who had crept away, and whose distant laughter could be faintly heard.
'Yes,' responded the old man vigorously. 'I believe I was thus forsaken. Consider how many curious circumstances had led to my being there, alone, at that precise hour, with that precise news. I was beyond reason. I merely recalled to mind several incidents of my travels that would be considered barbarous in England. I found I had become hardened to ideas of cruelty and violence. I was no longer the civilised creature I had been when I left Cambridge University. It seemed obvious that my supplanter was not fit to live, and that it was I who must remove him from the earth. I went into one of the kitchens, the place most likely to be furnished with what I needed. And there, indeed, I found food and wine and a long, thin knife, such as cooks use for the slicing of meat.
'It had recently been in use and was well sharpened. I regarded it as put directly into my hand. My plan was simple. I would call on this faithless couple, and keep this weapon hidden in my cloak. Then I would kill him, in front of her. I had learned how such deeds were done. Indeed, although I had always acted in self-defence, I was no novice in the use of steel.
'There was an oil lamp in the kitchen. I lit that, as the tallow candle was sputtering out and took it up to the great library I knew so well, and where some of my happiest hours had been passed.
'I was disgusted to see that the caretaker had used this noble apartment as a sleeping place, for, in an alcove where I had kept an elegant Etruscan vase, a rude bed, with heavy blankets, had been rigged up.
'I dropped the green moiré curtain, still in place though frayed, across the unsightly couch, and sat down at my familiar desk. I wished to be entirely cool, but really there was very little to think about. My victims would, of course, admit me joyfully or with pretence of joy, and in a matter of moments I should have my revenge. I recalled my letter, addressed to Isabelle in her maiden name and in endearing terms. Would that put them to an embarrassment? I doubted it. I doubted much, even if I had written that letter. That lapse of time—which would be argued in their defence—tormented me. I ran into the hall, half fearing I should find it empty, save for the mouldering furniture. But there was my modest luggage and sandalwood box. What was I to do with my precious plants? I took the box into the library and set it on the desk. Brooding over it, I imagined the dry anatomies it contained, spreading into a million stars or florets, like the glittering sparkles, like the diamonds worn by tired dancers, like the reflection in the mirrors in the riverside ballroom. Was there not a virtue in this plant that made it almost a universal panacea?
'But now that I had lost Isabelle, I cared nothing for humanity.
'At one time I had thought that the heavenly powers had directed me in my perils and labours; now I was about to tear open the box and destroy the contents, when a knock sounded through the house.
'Already guilty in intention, I started fearfully. But I soon reassured myself. This could be no other than the stupid caretaker, who had lost his way in the wood, or forgotten something. I should soon be rid of him. So I went smoothly to the door, and there was an old fellow, a tramp or vagabond, hardly to be seen in the starlight or the gleam of the lamp I held.
'"It is Christmas Eve," he said. "Can you give me a lodging?"
'I thought that I heard church bells in the distance, and this rather confounded me. As I hesitated, the old fellow had slipped into the hall. He looked so miserable that I said—what could the offer cost me?—"You may stay here with what hospitality you can find. As for me, I have an errand, I must abroad—"
'"First show me the bed that in your great kindness you offer," said he with a beautiful courtesy.
'I led the way to the library. I thought it odd that a stranger knocked at such an hour.
'I was a little jostled in my thoughts. Setting the lamp on the desk, I regarded him closely. Not only was he poor, dejected and old, but he seemed maimed as if beneath his ragged garments he was crushed or twisted. He shuffled along with difficulty to the bed in the alcove that I exposed by lifting the curtain. As he crept painfully under the coverlets, I said, "I shall go down to the kitchen and heat you some wine."
"Can your errand wait, then?" he asked softly.
"As long as that," I replied.
'I took the lamp, leaving him in darkness, blew up the charcoal in the grate, heated the wine, and took it upstairs with some biscuits I found.
'As soon as the lamp was replaced on the desk, I glanced at the alcove. The curtain still hung in place. I forced myself to think of Isabelle and what I intended to do. "How vexing," I thought, "that the coming of this stranger should have diverted me, for one single instant, from what I had planned so instantly and so positively."
'"Yes, I am right," I declared aloud. "I have been forsaken and betrayed."
'"Peace on earth to men of good will," said my visitor.
"I thank you," I replied, and I was surprised that there was anyone to give me this ancient greeting.
'"Come and fetch your wine—I'll not pamper you," I said toughly, in order to harden myself against him. I began searching for the knife, but I could not find it. Compelled to be quite composed, I sat down, took my head in my hands and tried to think it all out.
'First, I must find the knife. Perhaps I had left it in the kitchen. How foolish to allow myself to be disturbed by the fact that a stranger knocked.
'Perhaps it would be best to destroy the plants first. I could do that with my bare hands.
'I opened the sandalwood box.
'How often I had gloated over those dry twig-like objects and the benefits to humanity they contained. How often I had dwelt on Isabelle's rapture when she should bestow her name on the marvellous plant!
'Now hatred should destroy what love had found.
'I voiced that sentiment to myself, thinking how fine it sounded and seized the rootlets in their moss wrappings. They began to twist and swell in my grasp, as if they had been so many snakes.
'I dropped them in a rage and heard myself crying out: "This is your doing!"
'There was no answer from the alcove, now lapped in shadow.
'Meanwhile the plants were becoming unmanageable. They twisted out of my hands, and flew upwards like rockets, into a shower of stars. Or so I thought—or so I thought! I retreated hastily from the desk, and pulled aside the curtain of the alcove. And there, calmly watching me, was the most beautiful, beautiful being—'
The old man shaded his eyes and whispered to himself: 'Such wings!'
'You think it was a dream?' asked the master of the house kindly.
The old man smiled to himself and shook his head.
'It was morning. I put my sandalwood box under my arm. It was Christmas morning, and I called on my old friend with a present. She was pleased to see me, for she had thought me dead long ago. She accepted the plants, now dry again in their dry mosses—and with them some hope, for her husband was dying of a lung disease.
'The chemists compounded the roots, and they cured my rival. I forgot that I had ever hated either of them; we always used to spend Christmas Day together.'
'But who reposed in your alcove?' asked the master of the house. 'It is he to whom you owe everything.'
'I never saw him again,' said the old man. 'He might visit you any time. Especially I think when you feel most forsaken.'
'He was also a dream,' said one of the youths.
'No, sir, for look what I found on that humble pillow.'
He pulled out his watch chain and they gathered round to see a feather that seemed to be of the finest gold, but delicate beyond all mortal workmanship.
Ada Trimble was bored with the sittings. She had been persuaded to attend against her better judgment, and the large dingy Bloomsbury house depressed and disgusted her; the atmosphere did not seem to her in the least spiritual and was always tainted with the smell of stale frying.
The medium named herself Astra Destiny. She was a big, loose woman with a massive face expressing power and cunning. Her garments were made of upholstery material and round her cropped yellowish curls she wore a tinsel belt. Her fat feet bulged through the straps of cheap gilt shoes.
She had written a large number of books on subjects she termed 'esoteric' and talked more nonsense in half an hour than Ada Trimble had heard in a lifetime. Yet madame gave an impression of shrewd sense and considerable experience; a formidable and implacable spirit looked through her small grey eyes and defied anyone to pierce the cloud of humbug in which she chose to wrap herself.
'I think she is detestable,' said Ada Trimble; but Helen Trent, the woman who had introduced her to the big Bloomsbury Temple insisted that, odious as the setting was, odd things did happen at the sittings.
'It sounds like hens,' said Miss Trimble, 'but séances are worse.'
'Well, it is easy to make jokes. And I know it is pretty repulsive. But there are unexplained things. They puzzle me. I should like your opinion on them.'
'I haven't seen anything yet I can't explain, the woman is a charlatan, making money out of fools. She suspects us and might get unpleasant, I think.'
But Helen Trent insisted: 'Well, if you'd been going as often as I have, and noticing carefully, like I've been noticing...'
'Helen—why have you been interested in this nonsense?'
The younger woman answered seriously: 'Because I do think there is something in it.'
Ada Trimble respected her friend's judgment; they were both intelligent, middle-aged, cheerful and independent in the sense that they had unearned incomes. Miss Trimble enjoyed every moment of her life and therefore grudged those spent in going from her Knightsbridge flat to the grubby Bloomsbury Temple. Not even Helen's persistency could induce Ada to continue the private sittings that wasted money as well as time. Besides, Miss Trimble really disliked being shut up in the stuffy, ugly room while Madame Destiny sat in a trance and the control, a Red Indian called Purple Stream babbled in her voice and in pidgin English about the New Atlantis, the brotherhood of man and a few catch phrases that could have been taken from any cheap handbook on philosophy or the religions of the world.
But Helen persuaded her to join in some experiments in what were termed typtology and lucidity that were being conducted by Madame Destiny and a circle of choice friends. These experiments proved to be what Ada Trimble had called in her youth 'table turning'. Five people were present, besides Ada and Madame Destiny. The table moved, gave raps, and conversations with various spirits followed. A code was used, the raps corresponding in number to the letters of the alphabet, one for 'a' and so on to twenty-six for 'z'. The method was tedious and nothing, Miss Trimble thought, could have been more dull. All manner of unlikely spirits appeared, a Fleming of the twelfth century, a President of a South American Republic, late nineteenth century, an Englishman who had been clerk to residency at Tonkin, and who had been killed by a tiger a few years before, a young schoolmaster who had thrown himself in front of a train in Devonshire, a murderer who announced in classic phrase that he had 'perished on the scaffold', a factory hand who had died of drink in Manchester, and a retired schoolmistress recently 'passed over'.
The spirit of a postman and that of a young girl 'badly brought up, who had learnt to swear', said the medium, also spoke through the rap code. These people gave short accounts of themselves and of their deaths and some vague generalizations about their present state. 'I am happy.' 'I am unhappy.' 'It is wonderful here.' 'God does not die.' 'I remain a Christian.' 'When I first died it was as if I was stunned. Now I am used to it—' and so on.
They were never asked about the future, who would win the Derby, the results of the next election or anything of that kind. 'It wouldn't be fair,' smiled Madame Destiny. 'Besides, they probably don't know.'
The more important spirits were quickly identified by references to the National Dictionary of Biography for the English celebrities and Larousse for the foreign. The Temple provided potted editions of each work. These reliable tomes confirmed all that the spirits said as to their careers and ends. The obscure spirits if they gave dates and place names were traced by enquiries of Town Clerks and Registrars. This method always worked out, too.
Madame Destiny sometimes showed the letters that proved that the spirits had once had, as she hideously quoted 'a local habitation and a name'.
'I can't think why you are interested,' said Ada Trimble to Helen Trent as they drove home together. 'It is such an easy fraud. Clever, of course, but she has only to keep all the stuff in her head.'
'You mean that she looks up the references first?"
'Of course.' Ada Trimble was a little surprised that Helen should ask so simple a question. 'And those postmen and servant girls could be got up, too, quite easily.'
'It would be expensive. And she doesn't charge much.'
'She makes a living out of it,' said Ada Trimble sharply. 'Between the lectures, the healings, the services, the sittings, the lending library and those ninepenny teas, I think the Temple of Eastern Psycho-Physiological Studies does pretty well...' She looked quickly at her companion and in a changed voice asked: 'You're not getting—drawn in—are you, Helen?'
'Oh no! At least I don't think so, but last year, when you were in France, I was rather impressed—it was the direct voice. I wish it would happen again, I should like your opinion—' Helen Trent's voice faltered and stopped; it was a cold night, she drew her collar and scarf up more closely round her delicate face. The smart comfortable little car was passing over the bridge. The two women looked out at the street and ink-blue pattern of the Serpentine, the bare trees on the banks, the piled buildings beyond, stuck with vermilion and orange lights. The November wind struck icy across Ada Trimble's face.
'I don't know why I forgot the window,' she said, rapidly closing it. 'I suggest that we leave Madame Destiny alone, Helen. I don't believe that sort of thing is any good, it might easily get on one's nerves.'
'Well,' said Helen irrelevantly, 'what are dreams, anyway?'
Ada remembered how little she knew of the early life of her cultured, elegant friend and how much she had forgotten of her own youthful experiences that had once seemed so warm, so important, so terrible.
'Come next Tuesday, at least,' pleaded Helen as she left the car for the wet pavement. 'She has promised the direct voice.'
'I ought to go, because of Helen,' thought Ada Trimble. 'She is beginning to be affected by this nonsense. Those rogues know that she has money.'
So on the Tuesday the two charming women in their rich, quiet clothes, with their tasteful veils, handbags, furs and posies of violets and gardenias were seated in the upper room in the Bloomsbury Temple with the queer shoddy folk who made up Madame Destiny's audience.
Ada Trimble settled into her chair; it was comfortable like all the chairs in the Temple and she amused herself by looking round the room. The Victorian wallpaper had been covered by dark serge, clumsily pinned up; dusty crimson chenille curtains concealed the tall windows. Worn linoleum was on the floor, the table stood in the centre of the room and on it was a small, old-fashioned gramophone with a horn. By it was a small red lamp; this, and the light from the cheerful gas fire, was the only illumination in the room.
A joss stick smouldered in a brass vase on the mantelpiece but this sickly perfume could not disguise the eternal smell of stew and onions that hung about the Temple.
'I suppose they live on a permanent hot-pot,' thought Ada Trimble vaguely as she looked round on the gathered company.
The medium lay sprawled in the largest chair; she appeared to be already in a trance; her head was sunk on her broad breast and her snorting breath disturbed the feather edging on her brocade robe. The cheap belt round her head, the cheap gilt shoes, exasperated Ada Trimble once more. 'For a woman of sense—', she thought.
Near the medium was a husband, who called himself Lemoine. He was a turnip-coloured nondescript man, wearing a dirty collar and slippers; his manner hesitated between the shamefaced and the insolent. He was not very often seen, but Ada sometimes suspected him of being the leader of the whole concern.
She speculated with a shudder, and not for the first time, on the private lives of this repulsive couple. What were they like when they were alone together? What did they say when they dropped the gibberish and the posing? Were they ever quite sincere or quite clean? She had heard they lived in a 'flat' at the top of the house and had turned a bleak Victorian bathroom into a kitchen and that they had 'difficulties with servants'.
Beside Mr Lemoine was Essie Clark, a stringy, cheerful woman who was Madame Destiny's secretary, and as Ada Trimble supposed, maid-of-all-work, too. She had been 'caught' sweeping the stairs and Ada thought that she mixed the permanent stew.
Essie's taste had stopped, dead as a smashed clock, in childhood and she wore straight gowns of faded green that fifty years before had been termed 'artistic' by frustrated suburban spinsters, and bunches of little toys and posies made of nuts and leather.
The circle was completed by the people well known to Ada: a common overdressed little woman who called spiritualism her 'hobby' and who was on intimate terms with the spirit of her late husband, and a damp, depressed man, Mr Maple, who had very little to say for himself beyond an occasional admission that he was 'investigating and couldn't be sure'.
The little woman, Mrs Penfleet, said cheerfully: 'I am certain dear Arthur will come today. I dreamt of him last night,' and she eyed the trumpet coyly.
'We don't know who will come, if anyone,' objected Mr Maple gloomily. 'We've got to keep open minds.'
Mr Lemoine begged for silence and Miss Clark put on a disc that played 'Rock of Ages'.
Ada Trimble's mind flashed to the consumptive Calvinist who had written that hymn; she felt slightly sick and glanced at Helen, dreamy, elegant, sunk in her black velvet collar.
Ada looked at the trumpet, at the medium, and whispered 'Ventriloquism' as she bent to drop and pick up her handkerchief, but Helen whispered back: 'Wait.'
Essie Clark took off the record and returned to her chair with a smile of pleased expectancy. It was all in the day's work for her, like cheapening the food off the barrows in the Portobello Road. Ada Trimble kept her glance from the fire and the lamp, lest, comfortable and drowsy as she was, she should be hypnotised with delusions—'Though I don't think it likely here,' she said to herself, 'in these sordid surroundings.'
There was a pause; the obviously dramatic prelude to the drama. Madame Destiny appeared to be unconscious. Ada thought: 'There ought to be a doctor here to make sure.' A humming sound came from the painted horn that had curled-back petals like a metallic flower. 'Arthur!' came from Mrs Penfleet and 'Hush!' from Mr Maple. Ada felt dull, a party to a cheap, ignoble fraud. 'How dare they!' she thought indignantly, 'fool with such things—supposing one of the dead did return.' The gramophone was making incoherent noises, hummings and sighings.
'The psychic force is manifest,' whispered Mr Lemoine reverently in familiar phrase.
There was another pause; Ada Trimble's attention wandered to obtrusive details, the pattern of the braid encircling Madame Destiny's bent head, a dull yellow in the lamp's red glow, and the firmness with which her podgy fingers gripped the pad and pencil, even though she was supposed to be in a state of trance.
Suddenly a deep masculine voice said:
'Beautus qui intelligit super egenum et pauperem.'
Ada was utterly startled; she felt as if another personality was in the room, she sat forward and looked around; she felt Helen's cold fingers clutch hers; she had not more than half understood the Latin; nor, it seemed, had anyone else. Only Mr Lemoine remained cool, almost indifferent. Leaning forward he addressed the gramophone:
'That is a proverb or quotation?'
The deep voice replied:
'It is my epitaph.'
'It is, perhaps, on your tomb?' asked Mr Lemoine gently.
'Where is your tomb?'
'I do not choose to disclose.' The voice was speaking with a marked accent. It now added in French: 'Is there no one here that speaks my language?'
'Yes,' said Ada Trimble, almost without her own volition. French was very familiar to her and she could not disregard the direct appeal.
'Eh, bien!' the voice which had always an arrogant, scornful tone, seemed gratified and ran on at once in French. 'I have a very fine tomb—a monument, I should say, shaded with chestnut trees. Every year, on my anniversary, it is covered with wreaths.'
'Who are you?' asked Ada Trimble faintly, but Mr Lemoine gently interposed:
'As the other members of our circle don't speak French,' he told the gramophone, 'will you talk in English?'
'Any language is easy to me,' boasted the voice in English, 'but I prefer my own tongue.'
'Thank you,' said Mr Lemoine. 'The lady asked you who you were—will you tell us?'
'Would you translate your epitaph?'
'Blessed is he who understands the poor and has pity on the unfortunate.'
'What were you?'
'When did you die?'
'A hundred years ago. May 12th, 1837.'
'Will you tell us something more about yourself?'
The voice was harsh and scornful.
'It would take a long time to relate my exploits. I was a professor, a peer, a philosopher, a man of action. I have left my many works behind me.'
'Please give the titles.' Mr Lemoine, who had always been so effaced and who looked so incompetent was proving himself cool and skilful at this question and answer with the voice.
'There are too many.'
'You had pupils?'
'Many famous men.'
'Will you give the names?'
'You continually ask me to break your rules,' scolded the voice.
'The rules spirits have to obey.'
'You are a Christian?'
'I have never been ashamed to call myself so.'
'Where—in the Gospels—is the rule of which you speak?' asked Mr Lemoine sharply. 'There are special rules for spirits?'
So the dialogue went on, more or less on orthodox lines, but Ada Trimble was held and fascinated by the quality and accent of the voice. It was rough, harsh, intensely masculine, with a definite foreign accent. The tone was boastful and arrogant to an insufferable extent. Ada Trimble detested this pompous, insistent personality; she felt odd, a little dazed, a little confused; the orange glow of the gas fire, the red glow of the lamp, the metallic gleams on the horn fused into a fiery pattern before her eyes. She felt as if she were being drawn into a void in which nothing existed but the voice.
Even Mr Lemoine's thin tones, faintly questioning, seemed a long way off, a thread of sound compared to the deep boom of the voice. The conversation was like a ball being deftly thrown to and fro. Mr Lemoine asked: 'What do you understand by faith?' And the voice, steadily rising to a roar, replied: 'The Faith as taught by the Gospel.'
'Does not the Gospel contain moral precepts rather than dogma?'
'Why that remark?'
'Because narrow or puerile practices have been built on this basis.'
'A clear conscience sees further than practices.'
'I see that you are a believer,' said Mr Lemoine placidly. 'What is your present situation?'
'Explain!' shouted the voice.
'Are you in Heaven, Hell or purgatory?' rapped out Mr Lemoine.
'I am in Heaven!'
'How is it that you are in Heaven and here at the same time?'
'You are a fool,' said the voice stridently. 'Visit my grave and you will understand more about me.'
'Once more, where is your grave?'
The horn gave a groan of derision and was silent; Mr Lemoine repeated his question, there was no answer; he then wiped his forehead and turned to his wife who was heaving back to consciousness.
'That is all for today,' he smiled round the little circle; no one save Ada and Helen seemed affected by the experience; Mr Maple made some gloomy sceptical remarks; Mrs Penfleet complained because Arthur had not spoken and Essie Clark indifferently and efficiently put away the gramophone and the records.
When the red lamp was extinguished and the light switched on, Ada looked at Madame Destiny who was rubbing her eyes and smiling with an exasperating shrewd blandness.
'It was Gabriel Letourneau,' her husband told her mildly. 'You remember I told you he came some months ago?' He glanced at Ada. 'The medium never knows what spirit speaks.'
Ada glanced at Helen who sat quiet and downcast, then mechanically gathered up her gloves and handbag.
'Did you find this person in Larousse?' she asked.
'No. We tried other sources too, but never could discover anything. Very likely he is a liar, quite a number of them are, you know. I always ask him the same questions, but as you heard, there is no satisfaction to be got.'
'He always boasts so,' complained Mr Maple, 'and particularly about his grave.'
'Oh,' smiled Mr Lemoine rising to indicate that the sitting was at an end. 'He is a common type, a snob. When he was alive he boasted about his distinctions, visits to court and so on; now he is dead he boasts of having seen God, being in Heaven and the marvels of his grave.'
When they were out in the wind-swept evening Helen clasped Ada's arm.
'Now, what do you make of that? Ventriloquism? It is a personality.'
'It is odd, certainly. I was watching the woman. Her lips didn't move—save just for snorting or groaning now and then.'
'Oh, I dare say it could be done,' said Helen impatiently. 'But I don't think it is a trick. I can't feel that it is. Can you? That is what I wanted you to hear. There have been other queer things, but this is the queerest. What do you think?'
'Oh, Helen, dear, I don't know!' Ada was slightly trembling. 'I never thought that I could be moved by anything like this.'
'That is it, isn't it?' interrupted Helen, clinging to her as they passed along the cold street. 'Moved—and what by?'
'Intense dislike—the man is loathsome!'
'There! You said man. It was a voice only!'
They walked in silence to the waiting car and when inside began to talk again in low tones, pressed together. No, there was no explanation possible, any attempt at one landed you in a bog of difficulties.
'He spoke to me,' sighed Ada Trimble, 'and, you know I quite forgot that he wasn't there—I wish that I could have gone on talking to him, I feel that I should have been sufficiently insistent—'
'To make him say something definite about himself—'
'It's crazy, Ada! It lets loose all kinds of dreadful thoughts. He might be here now, riding with us.'
'Well, he can't talk without the trumpet.' Then both women laughed uneasily.
'My dear, we are getting foolish!' said Helen, and Ada answered: 'Yes. Foolish either way—to talk of it all if we think it was a fraud—and not to be more serious if we don't think it a fraud.'
But as people usually will when in this kind of dilemma, they compromised; they discussed the thing and decided to put it to the test once again.
They became frequent visitors to the Bloomsbury Temple and began to pay to have private sittings with the direct voice.
Busy as they were, Madame Destiny and Mr Lemoine 'fitted in' a good number of these and the harsh voice that called itself Gabriel Letourneau usually spoke, though there were annoying occasions when Persian sages, Polish revolutionaries and feebleminded girls of unknown nationality, insisted on expounding colourless views.
By the spring the personality of Gabriel Letourneau was complete to Ada and Helen. They had been able to build him up, partly from details he had supplied himself and partly out of their own uneasy imaginations. He had been—or was now, but they dare not speculate upon his present shape—a tall, dark, gaunt Frenchman, with side whiskers and a blue chin, the kind of brown eyes known as 'piercing' and a fanatical, grim expression.
Ada had often spoken to him in French but she could never penetrate his identity. A professor, a peer in the reign of Louis Philippe? It was impossible for her to attempt to trace so elusive a person. At first she did not try; she told herself that she had other things to do and she tried to keep the thing out of her mind, or at least to keep it reduced to proper proportions. But this soon proved impossible and sensible, charming, broad-minded Ada Trimble at length found herself in the grip of an obsession.
The voice and her hatred of the voice. It was useless for her to tell herself, as she frequently did, that the voice was only that of the woman who called herself Astra Destiny and not a personality at all. This was hopeless, she believed in Gabriel Letourneau. He had, she was sure, a bad effect on her character and on that of Helen. But opposite effects. Whereas Helen became limp, distracted, nervous and talked vaguely of being 'Haunted', Ada felt as if active evil was clouding her soul.
Why should she hate the voice? She had always been afraid of hatred. She knew that the person who hates, not the person who is hated, is the one who is destroyed. When she disliked a person or a thing she had always avoided it, making exceptions only in the cases of cruelty and fanaticism. There she had allowed hate to impel her to exertions foreign to her reserved nature. And now there was hatred of Gabriel Letourneau possessing her like a poison. He hated her, too. When she spoke to him he told her in his rapid French that Helen could not follow, his scornful opinion of her; he called her an 'aging woman'; he said she was pretension, facile, a silly little atheist while 'I am in Heaven.'
He made acid comments on her carefully chosen clothes, on her charmingly arranged hair, her little armoury of wit and culture, on her delicate illusions and vague, romantic hopes. She felt stripped and defaced after one of these dialogues in which she could not hold her own. Sometimes she tried to shake herself out of 'this nonsense'. She would look sharply at the entranced medium; Ada had never made the mistake of undervaluing the intelligence of Astra Destiny and surely the conversation of Gabriel Letourneau was flavoured with feminine malice?
Out in the street with Helen she would say: 'We really are fools! It is only an out-of-date gramophone.'
'Is it?' asked Helen bleakly. 'And ventriloquism?' Then she added: 'Where does she—that awful woman—get that fluent French?'
'Oh, when you begin asking questions!' cried Ada.
She examined the subject from all angles, she went to people who, she thought, 'ought to know', but she could get no satisfaction; it was a matter on which the wisest said the least.
'If only he wouldn't keep boasting!' she complained to Helen. 'His grave—that now—he says it is a marvellous monument and that people keep putting wreaths on it, that they make pilgrimages to it—and Helen, why should I mind? I ought to be pleased that he has that satisfaction or—at least, be indifferent—but I'm not.'
'He's been hateful to you, to us,' said Helen simply. 'I loathe him, too—let us try to get away from him.'
Helen went; she drifted out of Ada's life with a shivering reluctance to leave her, but with a definite inability to face the situation created by Gabriel Letourneau. She wrote from Cairo and presently did not write at all. Ada, left alone with her obsession, no longer struggled against it; she pitted herself deliberately against the voice. Sometimes, as she came and went in the Bloomsbury Temple, she would catch a glint in the dull eyes of Mr Lemoine or the flinty eyes of Madame Destiny that made her reflect how many guineas she had paid them. But even these flashes of conviction that she was being the worst type of fool did not save her; she had reached the point when she had to give rein to her fortune.
In September she went to France; countless friends helped her to search archives; there was no member of the Chamber of Peers under Louis Philippe named Letourneau. She wrote to the keepers of the famous cemeteries, she visited these repulsive places herself; there were Letourneaus, not a few, but none with pre-name Gabriel, or with the inscription quoted by the voice. Nor was there anywhere an imposing monument, covered with wreaths and visited by pilgrims, to a professor peer who had died in 1837.
'Fraud,' she kept telling herself, 'that wretched couple just practised a very clever fraud on me. But why? What an odd personality for people like that to invent! And the deep masculine voice and the idiomatic French—clever is hardly the word. I suppose they got the data from Larousse.' The courteous friends helped her to make enquiries at the Sorbonne. No professors of that name there, or at any of the other big universities.
Ada Trimble believed that she was relieved from her burden of credulity and hate; perhaps if she kept away from the Bloomsbury Temple the thing would pass out of her mind. She was in this mood when she received an answer to a letter she had written to the keeper of the cemetery at Sceaux. She had written to so many officials and it had been so long since she had written to Sceaux and she had such little expectation of any result from her enquiries that she scarcely took much interest in opening the letter.
It read thus:
Madame, In reply to your letter of November 30th, I have the honour to inform you that I have made a search for the Letourneau tomb which fortunately I found and I have copied the epitaph cut on the tomb.
Gabriel Letourneau Man of Letters
Died at Sceaux June 10th 1858.
Beatus qui intelligit
Super egenum et pauperem.
This neglected grave was in a miserable condition covered by weeds; in order to send you the above information it was necessary to undertake cleaning that occupied an hour, and this merely on the portion that bears the inscription. According to the registry this Letourneau was a poor tutor; his eccentric habits are still remembered in the quarter where he lived. He has become a legend—and 'he boasts like a Gabriel Letourneau' is often said of a braggart. He has left no descendants and no one has visited his grave. He left a small sum of money to pay for the epitaph.
Keeper of the Cemetery at Sceaux.
231 Rue Louis le Grand,
Ada Trimble went at once to Sceaux. She arrived there on a day of chill, small rain, similar to that on which she had first heard the voice in the Bloomsbury Temple. There was a large, black cemetery, a row of bare chestnut-trees overlooking the walls, an ornate gate. The conscientious keeper, M. Robert, conducted her to the abandoned grave in the comer of the large graveyard; the rotting, dank rubbish of last year's weeds had been cut away above the inscription that Ada had first heard in the Bloomsbury Temple a year ago.
She gazed and went away, full of strange terror. What was the solution of the miserable problem? There were many ways in which the Lemoine couple might have chanced to hear of the poor tutor of Sceaux, but how had they come to know of the epitaph for years concealed behind ivy, bramble and moss? M. Robert, who was so evidently honest, declared that he never remembered anyone making enquiries about the Letourneau grave and he had been years in this post. He doubted, he said, whether even the people to whom the name of the eccentric was a proverb knew of the existence of his grave. Then, the shuffling of the dates, 1858 instead of 1837, the lies about the state of the grave and the position that Letourneau had held while in life.
Ada had a sickly qualm when she reflected how this fitted in with the character she had been given of a slightly unhinged braggart with ego mania. A peerage, the Sorbonne, the monument—all lies?
Ada returned to England and asked Madame Destiny to arrange another sitting for her with the direct voice. She also asked for as large a circle as possible to be invited, all the people who had ever heard Gabriel Letourneau.
'Oh, that will be a large number,' said Madame Destiny quickly, 'he is one of the spirits who visits us most frequently.'
'Never mind, the large room, please, and I will pay all expenses. I think I have found out something about that gentleman.'
'How interesting,' said Madame Destiny, with civil blankness.
'Can she possibly know where I have been?' thought Ada Trimble, but it seemed absurd to suppose that this hard-up couple, existing by shifts, should have the means to employ spies and detectives. The meeting was arranged and as all the seats were free, the room was full.
The gramophone was on a raised platform; it was placed on a table beside which sat Madame Destiny to the right and her husband to the left. The red lamp was in place. A dark curtain, badly pinned up, formed the back cloth. Save for the gas fire, the room—a large Victorian salon—was in darkness. Ada Trimble sat on one of the Bentwood chairs in the front row. 'He won't come,' she thought. 'I shall never hear the voice again. And the whole absurdity will be over.'
But the medium was no sooner twitching in a trance than the voice came rushing from the tin horn. It spoke directly to Ada Trimble and she felt her heart heave with horror as she heard the cringing tone.
'Good evening, madame, and how charming you are tonight! Your travels have improved you—you recall my little jokes, my quips? Only to test your wit, dear lady, I have always admired you so much—'
Ada could not reply, the one thought beat in her mind, half paralysing her, 'He knows what I found out—he is trying to flatter me so that I don't give him away.'
The voice's opening remarks had been in French and for this Mr Lemoine called him to order; the usual verbal duel followed, Lemoine pressing the spirit to give proof of his identity, the spirit arrogantly defending his secrets. The audience that had heard this parrying between Lemoine and Letourneau before so often was not interested and Ada Trimble did not hear anything, she was fiercely concerned with her own terror and bewilderment. Then the voice, impatiently breaking off the bitter sparring, addressed her directly in oily, flattering accents.
'What a pleasure that we meet again, how charming to see you here! The time has been very long since I saw you last.'
Ada roused herself; she began to speak in a thick voice that she could scarcely have recognised as her own.
'Yes, one is drawn to what one dislikes as surely as towards what one hates. I have been too much concerned with you, I hope now that I shall be free.'
'Miss Trimble,' protested Mr Lemoine, 'there are others present, pray speak in English. I think you said that you had been able to identify this spirit quite precisely.'
In French the gramophone harshly whispered: 'Take care.'
'Well,' said Mr Lemoine briskly, 'this lady says she found your grave, what have you to say to that?'
'I beg the lady not to talk of my private affairs'; voice and accent were alike thick, with agitation, perhaps despair.
'But you have often spoken of your tomb, the wreaths, the pilgrimages, you have talked of your peerage, your professorship, your pupils. As you would never give us corroborative details, this lady took the trouble to find them out.'
'Let her give them,' said the voice, 'when we are alone—she and I.'
'What would be the sense of that?' demanded Mr Lemoine. 'All these people know you well, they are interested—now Miss Trimble.'
'I found the grave in Sceaux cemetery,' began Ada.
The voice interrupted her furiously: 'You are doing a very foolish thing!'
'I see,' said Mr Lemoine coolly, 'you are still an earthbound spirit. You are afraid that something hurtful to your vanity is about to be revealed...'
'You should be free from this material delusion. We,' added the turnip-faced man pompously, 'are neither noble nor learned. We shall not think the less of you if it is true you have boasted.'
'I am not a boaster!' stormed the voice.
'Your grave is in the cemetery at Sceaux,' said Ada Trimble rapidly. 'You died in 1858, not 1837; you were neither peer nor professor—no one visits your grave. It is miserable, neglected, covered with weeds. It took the keeper an hour's work even to cut away the rubbish sufficiently to see your epitaph.'
'Now we know that,' said Mr Lemoine smoothly, 'we can help you to shake off these earthly chains.'
'These are lies.' The voice rose to a hum like the sound of a spinning top. 'Lies—'
'No,' cried Ada. 'You have lied, you have never seen God, either.'
'You may,' suggested Mr Lemoine, 'have seen a fluid personage in a bright illumination, but how could you have been sure it was God?'
The humming sound grew louder, then the horn flew over, as if wrenched off and toppled on to the table, then on to the floor. Mr Lemoine crossed the platform and switched on the light.
'An evil spirit,' he said in his routine voice, 'now that he has been exposed I don't suppose that he will trouble us again.' And he congratulated Ada on her shrewd and careful investigations, though the stare he gave her through his glasses seemed to express a mild wonder as to why she had taken so much trouble. The meeting broke up; there was coffee for a few chosen guests upstairs in the room lined with books on the 'occult'; no one seemed impressed by the meeting; they talked of other things, only Ada Trimble was profoundly moved.
This was the first time she had come to these banal coffee-drinkings. Hardly knowing what she did she had come upstairs with these queer, self-possessed people who seemed to own something she had not got. They were neither obsessed nor afraid. Was she afraid? Had not Gabriel Letourneau vanished for ever? Had he not broken the means of communication between them? Undoubtedly she had exorcized him, she would be free now of this miserable, humiliating and expensive obsession. She tried to feel triumphant, released, but her spirit would not soar. In the back of her mind surged self-contempt. 'Why did I do it? There was no need. His lies hurt no one. To impress these people was his one pleasure—perhaps he is in hell, and that was his one freedom from torment—but I must think sanely.'
This was not easy to do; she seemed to have lost all will-power, all judgment. 'I wish Helen had not escaped,' she used the last word unconsciously; her fingers were cold round the thick cup, her face in the dingy mirror above the fireplace looked blurred and odd. She tried to steady herself by staring at the complacent features of Astra Destiny, who was being distantly gracious to a circle of admirers, and then by talking to commonplace Mr Lemoine whose indifference was certainly soothing. 'Oh, yes,' he said politely, 'we get a good deal of that sort of thing. Malicious spirits—evil influences—'
'Aren't you afraid?' asked Ada faintly.
'Afraid?' asked Mr Lemoine as if he did not know what the word meant. 'Oh, dear no, we are quite safe—' he added, then said: 'Of course, if one was afraid, if one didn't quite believe, there might be danger. Any weakness on one's own part always gives the spirits a certain power over one.'
All this was, Ada knew, merely 'patter'; she had heard it, and similar talk, often enough and never paid much attention to it; now it seemed to trickle through her inner consciousness like a flow of icy water. She was afraid, she didn't quite believe; yet how could she even but think that? Now she must believe. Astra Destiny could not have 'faked' Gabriel Letourneau. Well, then, he was a real person—a real spirit? Ada Trimble's mind that once had been so cool and composed, so neat and tidy, now throbbed in confusion.
'Where do they go?' she asked childishly. 'These evil spirits? I mean—today—will he come again?'
'I don't suppose so, not here. He will try to do all he can elsewhere. Perhaps he will try to impose on other people. I'm afraid he has wasted a good deal of our time.'
'How can you say "wasted!"' whispered Ada Trimble bleakly. 'He proves that the dead return.'
'We don't need such proof,' said Mr Lemoine, meekly confident and palely smiling.
'I had better go home now,' said Ada; she longed to escape and yet dreaded to leave the warmth, the light, the company; perhaps these people were protected and so were safe from the loathed, prowling, outcast spirit. She said goodbye to Madame Destiny who was pleasant, as usual, without being effusive, and then to the others. She could not resist saying to Essie Clark: 'Do you think that I did right?'
'Right?' the overworked woman smiled mechanically, the chipped green coffee-pot suspended in her hand.
'In exposing—the voice—the spirit?'
'Oh, that! Of course. You couldn't have done anything else, could you?' And Miss Clark poured her coffee and handed the cup, with a tired pleasantry, to a tall Indian who was the only elegant looking person present. Ada Trimble went out on to the landing; the smell of frying, of stew, filled the gaunt stairway; evidently one of the transient servants was in residence; through the half-open door behind her, Ada could hear the babble of voices, then another voice, deep, harsh, that whispered in her ear:
She started forward, missed her foot-hold and fell.
Mr Lemoine, always efficient, was the first to reach the foot of the stairs. Ada Trimble had broken her neck.
'A pure accident,' said Astra Destiny, pale, but mistress of the situation. 'Everyone is witness that she was quite alone at the time. She has been very nervous lately and those high heels...'
They said each Brent had his folly, a horse, a woman, a building, an idea, but the present Brent outshone his ancestors by the blatant coarseness of his particular caprice.
When his father had seriously encumbered the estates to build on another wing with a massive ballroom that accorded ill with the Tudor Manor house, the county had remarked that the historic folly of the Brents had passed the limits of the picturesque and romantic and become very like stupidity.
The next Brent, however, excelled the foolish action of his father, for his folly took the form of flesh and blood; to make a mistake about a woman, said the county, was worse than to make a mistake about a building, though there were some cynics who declared that the latter error was worse because the woman passed with her generation and was easily forgotten, whereas the stone and brick remained a lasting annoyance till someone had the courage, time, and money to remove it.
But while she was there, certainly the woman was the greater cause for marvel, the greater shame to the good taste and intelligence of the Brents.
If she had been outrageous, impossible, an actress, a foreigner, a milkmaid, it might have been a folly forgiven and even admired.
If she had been ugly and very rich, or beautiful and very poor, it would have been a thing condoned—an action with at least a motive, some reason to explain the extravagance, the departure from the usual which was more or less expected of the Brents.
But here there was nothing of wonderful, nothing of romantic—nothing to make people startle and stare.
She was the younger daughter of a dull, middle-class family of correct education and morals, neither plain nor pretty, with bad health and a lethargic temperament, and most dismal dull in company.
She excelled in nothing, her taste was of the worst, she could not manage her servants nor her acquaintances, she was jealous and sullen and entirely indifferent to all that makes the fire and colour of life.
And she was five years older than her husband, and after many years of marriage was still childless.
And this was the folly of the last Brent, Sir Roger, handsome, accomplished, brilliant, wealthy.
People asked each other what hidden motive had induced him to offer all to this woman who could not even appreciate what he gave.
Of all the follies of the Brents this was the most inexplicable.
If she had been only wicked, the thing might have been understood, if she had shown the least sign of any of the arts and graces of an enchantress he would have stood excused.
But she was neutral, she was nothing, she had not a single charm that would have induced an ordinary man to choose her for the love of a season, and instead Roger Brent had chosen her for his wife—this was what was neither understood nor forgiven.
The county disapproved and showed its disapproval; Sir Roger lost many friends; he became a gloomy self-absorbed man, withdrawn slightly from his fellows.
He rarely left Brent Manor; he was a good landlord, a good neighbour, a fine figure among the country gentry—if it had not been for his marriage.
But that had ruined all; Sir Roger at forty was considered as a man with no longer any possibilities before him; he would live and die the squire of Brent Manor, nothing more.
For, like damp ashes on fire, his wife seemed to have choked and stifled all that was eager, ambitious and ardent in Sir Roger; he had sacrificed to this nullity all that a man could sacrifice to beauty and worth.
When Charles Denton, who had known and envied Sir Roger in the days of their common youth, returned to England from Spain, where he had been fulfilling honourable and profitable duties for His Majesty's Government, he heard from several the story of the folly of the last of the Brents.
The last of the Brents and the last of the follies it appeared, since there was no one of the name to carry on the family and the family traditions.
Denton was sorry; he had almost loved Sir Roger, they had been constantly together until Denton's foreign appointment had separated them.
He wrote to Sir Roger and asked if he might spend some of his leave at Brent Manor; Sir Roger responded cordially, and Denton went down to Brent with a little ache of regret at his heart for the fate of his friend.
He found him as much changed as the reports in London had led him to believe he would be, and despite his preparation he was shocked, almost startled.
Sir Roger, for whom 'brilliant' had always seemed the most fitting epithet, had become almost dull; he was silent, almost shy, even with the old friend whom he had seemed so glad to welcome.
His clothes were of an ancient pattern, he was listless in his manner, the unpowdered hair was plentifully sprinkled with grey, the handsome face hard and lined.
The Manor house, too, seemed ill-kept and gloomy.
Denton had an impression of gloom from all his surroundings.
At supper he saw the lady of the house. She was neatly dressed in a gay sacque; her manner was dull and civil.
Denton eyed her in vain for a single merit; her figure was ill-shaped and slightly stooping, her hands and feet were large, her complexion was of an ugly pallor, her features soft and heavy, eyes and hair of a colourless brown, her movements without meaning, her words without grace.
Denton inwardly sighed and the supper hour passed heavily.
She left them early and Denton, spurred by a deep impulse, turned swiftly to his host and asked:
'Why did you marry her?'
Sir Roger was sitting in a dejected attitude with his head a little lowered.
As his friend spoke he looked up, and a smile touched his sombre features.
'You are the first who has had the courage to demand that question,' he responded.
'Or the bad taste,' apologized Denton.
Sir Roger shrugged his shoulders.
'The others were silent and stayed away, you speak and come,' he said.
Denton was indignant for his friend.
'Why should they stay away? The lady is well enough.'
'She blights,' said Sir Roger decisively.
Denton wondered that such a mediocrity should have that power—but it was what he had heard in London.
'A woman,' he replied, 'can keep in a woman's place—why should she interfere with your friends?'
Sir Roger smiled again.
'She is so dull, she deadens, so stupid she frightens, so unlovely she depresses.'
'And yet you married her!'
'Yes, I married her.'
'Why, Roger, why?'
'Who would not wonder, you who had everything, might have married a Princess, you might have had the best of life—instead—'
'This!' finished Sir Roger.
'There must be a reason.'
'You think so?'
'Would you like to hear it?'
'Certainly—I came here to hear it,' smiled Denton.
Sir Roger for a while was silent; he was turning over the incidents of his past as one turns the leaves of a long closed book, with wonder and a little sadness at ancient things that once meant so much and now mean so little.
'Is it worth while?' he asked at length.
He rested his elbows on the table and looked rather drearily at his friend.
'To tell you—to tell anyone how it happened,' replied Sir Roger.
Denton looked with profound compassion at his lined face, his bowed figure, his gray sprinkled hair, his careless dress.
And Brent looked with a dull envy at the neat elegance of his friend, who, powdered, fashionable, alert, seemed indeed to come from another world than that duty circle which comprised the life of Brent Manor.
'Tell me,' said Denton quietly.
Sir Roger laughed.
'Tell you why I married Lily Walters?' he asked.
Sir Roger shrugged his shoulders.
'Why not?' he answered.
He turned his eyes, still handsome but lustreless, towards the log fire which flickered in the sculptured chimney place, and his fine hands dropped and clasped slackly on the dark surface of the sombre oak table, where stood the glasses and the fruit and the bottles of old wine.
Then, like one who reads aloud slowly, and with a certain difficulty, he began his strange relation.
'I greatly loved my life. I had everything to make existence pleasant. Health, name, money—wits—you know what I had, my friend.'
'Everything. But I wished for more. I had a lust for knowledge, for power, for experience—I wished to reach the limits of every sensation.
'For me there was no wine powerful enough, no woman beautiful enough, no gold bright enough—
'I wished to prove everything—to see everything—to know everything.
'For five years I travelled from one country to another; I had enough money to obtain all my desires.
'I had friends, lovers, horses, houses, ships, I travelled sometimes in a coach and six, sometimes on foot, sometimes I lodged in palaces, sometimes I slept in a ditch. I kissed princesses by the light of a hundred candles, and peasant girls by the dewy light of dawn, I stayed at the most dissolute courts in Italy, and I shut myself for months in the austerity of a Spanish convent.
'I experienced poverty, luxury, every day I gained knowledge.
'I practised in music, poetry, botany, medicine, painting, sculpture, astronomy—I sat at the feet of wise men and drew crude knowledge from the unlettered of all countries.
'Still I was not satisfied.
'My health remained vigorous and my mind restless.
'So far I had not found one woman whom I could not replace, one friend whose company was a necessity, one art or science to which I wished to devote my life.
'Then at The Hague I met a certain Doctor Strass, and under his guidance I began to seriously study alchemy and occultism.
'In this I found at last something that absorbed my whole being.
'Here was the love, the passion that should absorb my life.
'For three years I lived for nothing else. I resolved to find the elixir of life.'
Denton moved back out of the candlelight, so that he might more clearly see his friend's face, but Sir Roger was absolutely grave.
He spoke as a man who, with quiet deliberation, relates sober sense.
'The elixir of life,' he repeated. 'The magic powder that should confer on me eternal youth and eternal enjoyment.'
'A strange whim,' said Denton quietly. 'You who had everything.'
'I wished to keep everything,' responded Sir Roger, 'but more than that even, I wished for power.'
'The last temptation of the Devil!' smiled his friend.
'I wished for power,' repeated Brent, 'but I cannot explain. Enough that the thing took hold of me.
'I lived for that alone. Occult studies absorbed my time and largely my fortune and my health.
'I seemed ever on the verge of a discovery; but I attained nothing.'
He paused, and a bitter sadness darkened his sensitive face.
'Nothing,' he repeated. 'I but underlined the failures of others, but repeated once more the tale of delusion and disappointment.
'But in this I had more strength than some, in that I resolved to cease the fruitless and perilous study that had fascinated my entire soul.
'I determined to free myself from what was becoming an incubus.
'I was frightened by the fate of others whom I saw as half mad, half idiotic old men fumbling with their philtres and muttering over their furnaces; in short, I vowed to free myself from what I at last saw as but a net or device of the devil to draw me away from a useful and enjoyable life.
'With this resolve strong within me I returned to England, and my desire for the normal desires of my former life was increased by the sight of familiar faces and sights.
'I made up my mind to enter politics, and was on the point of taking steps in this direction, when an event occurred which again altered everything.'
He paused and pressed the palms of his hands to his brows. Denton was regarding him curiously.
'One day a sober-looking person came to see me. He seemed a doctor or a lawyer of the better sort.
'He was not English; I took him to be a Dutchman or of the Low German nationality—he was habited very neatly and very precise in his speech.
'"I hear," said he without preamble, "that you have studied alchemy."
'"For a while," said I, "but I have left that business."
'Whereat he smiled quietly and drew from his pocket a little box of tortoiseshell like a gentleman's box for snuff, and opening it, he drew out, wrapped in two foldings of scarlet silk, a piece of stone the size of a walnut and the colour of amber. "This is what you have been looking for," he said calmly; "this is what the vulgar called the Philosopher's Stone."
'At these words all the blood went back on my heart, and I begged for a portion with tears in my eyes.
'Whereupon he very comfortably took off a paring with his nail, for the stone was soft like soap, and laid it in the palm of my hand.
'And while I was yet too amazed to speak he left me.
'I had yet with me my retorts and crucibles, and that night I very eagerly tested the portion of the stone on a piece of lead, and when in the morning I poured it forth it was pure rich gold. When this was set I took it round to the jeweller who worked for the court, and asked him what it was, and he told me that it was indeed gold of a finer quality than he had ever handled before.
'I was like a madman, for I had no means of finding my stranger, but that day he came again, and without preamble asked me if I was satisfied, and what I would do to possess the secret which, he declared, had become indifferent to him, as he had passed on to higher studies.
'And he told me about the wonders of this stone, how a few drops of it dissolved in water, if allowed to stand, would leave great rubies and pearls at the bottom, and if taken would confer youth and beauty on him who drank.
'And presently he showed me this experiment, and we sat up all night talking, and in the morning there were the jewels hard and glistening in our hands.
'And then he propounded to me what he would have me do—take some poor mean creature to wife, and with the elixir make her into a goddess.'
Brent paused thoughtfully; Denton was still looking at him with intent eyes.
Sir Roger continued:
'I was to marry her first, to show my trust. I was to present her to the town, and afterwards transform her. The idea pleased me beyond words; it was what no man had ever done before.
'My stranger presented me to Lily Walters. I easily obtained the consent of her family—in brief, I made a match that confounded all my friends.
'My Dutchman was at the church, and afterwards presented me with a packet, which he said contained the recipe for the famous stone.
'Such was my impatience that I opened it in the coach ere we had reached home.
'It was blank paper.
'I left my bride to run to the stranger's lodging, but he had left.
'I never saw him again.'
Sir Roger ended abruptly and turned his straight gaze on his friend's serious face.
'And that is why I married Lily Walters,' he concluded.
'And the rubies?' asked Denton, quietly.
'She wears them now and then, set in the gold I made with the paring of stone.'
Denton was silent.
'I have searched Europe for that man,' continued Sir Roger sullenly. 'I hope yet to kill him before I die.'
'You would be justified,' said Denton, easily. He rose and crossed to the fire, still looking covertly and intently at his friend.
Sir Roger muttered to himself a little, and presently fell asleep with his head bowed on his heart.
Denton softly left the room.
He was startled to see Lady Brent waiting in the shadows of the great hall.
'I don't think Sir Roger is very well,' said Denton, quietly.
Her plain face quivered and her short-sighted eyes narrowed.
'I always wait up when there is anyone here,' she said simply. 'I never know what he will do.'
They looked at each other.
'He had a strange life before I married him,' continued Lady Brent. 'He brought me a ruby necklace, and told me it had been made by the Philosopher's Stone.'
'Those studies turn a man's brain,' said Denton.
'Oh!' answered Lady Brent in her thin ugly voice. 'Roger has been mad a long time; no one knows the life I lead with him.'
Mr Robert Sekforde, a rather damaged man of fashion, entered, with a lurching step, his mansion near the tavern of the Black Bull, High Holborn. He was still known as 'Beau Sekforde', and was still dressed in the extreme of the fashion of this year 1710, with wide brocade skirts, an immense peruke, and a quantity of lace and paste ornaments that were nearly as brilliant as diamonds.
About Mr Sekforde himself was a good deal of this spurious gorgeousness; from a little distance he still looked the magnificent man he once had been, but a closer view showed him raddled with powder and rouge like a woman, heavy about the eyes and jaw, livid in the cheeks; a handsome man yet, but one deeply marked by years of idleness, good living, and the cheap dissipations of a nature at once brutal and effeminate. In the well-shaped features and dark eyes there was not a contour or a shadow that did not help towards the presentment of a type vicious and worthless; yet he had an air of breeding, of gallantry and grace that had hitherto never failed to win him facile admiration and help him over awkward places in his career. This air was also spurious—spurious as the diamonds at his throat and in his shoe-buckles; he was not even of gentle birth; the obscurity that hung round his origin was proof of the shame he felt at the dismal beginning of a career that had been so brilliant.
He entered his mansion, that was modest but elegant, and called for candles to be brought into his study.
Taking off slowly his white, scented gloves, he stared thoughtfully at his plump, smooth hands, and then at the walnut desk scattered with silver and ebony stand dishes, pens and taper-holders, and a great number of little notes on gilt-edged and perfumed papers.
There were a great many others, neither gilt-edged nor perfumed; Mr Sekforde knew that these last were bills as surely as he knew the first were insipid invitations to rather third-rate balls and routs.
Everything in Mr Sekforde's world was becoming rather third-rate now.
He looked round the room desperately with that ugly glance of defiance which is not courage but cowardice brought to bay.
Nothing in the house was paid for; and his credit would not last much longer; this had been a last venture to float his shaky raft on the waters of London Society; he could foresee himself going very comfortably to the bottom.
Unless he could again carry off some successful 'coup' at cards; and this was unlikely; he was too well-known now.
Every resource that could, at any pinch, afford means of livelihood to an unscrupulous rogue and yet permit him to move among the people on whom he preyed, had already been played by Mr Sekforde.
The sound of the opening door caused him to look up; he dreaded duns, and was not sure of the unpaid servants.
But it was his wife who entered; at the sight of her, Beau Sekforde cursed in a fashion that would have surprised his genteel admirers, over whose tea-tables he languished so prettily.
'Oh, pray, keep civil,' said the lady, in a mincing tone.
She trailed to the fireplace and looked discontentedly at the logs that were falling into ashes.
'The upholsterer came,' she added, 'with a bill for near a thousand guineas—I had difficulty in sending him away; is nothing in the house paid for?'
She looked at him with a contempt that was more for herself than for him; she was quite callous and heartless; a sense of humour, a nice appreciation of men and things alone prevented her from being odious.
'Lord!' she smiled. 'To live to be fooled by Beau Sekforde!'
She was a Countess in her own right; her patent was from Charles II and explained her career; she still had the air of a beauty, and wore the gowns usually affected by loveliness, but she was old with the terrible old age of a wanton, soulless woman.
Her reputation was bad even for her type; she had cheated at everything from love to cards, and no tenderness or regret had ever softened her ugly actions. At the end of her career as presiding goddess of a gambling saloon she had married Robert Sekforde, thinking he had money or at least the wits to get it, and a little betrayed by his glib tongue that had flattered her into thinking her beauty not lost, her charm not dead, only to find him an adventurer worse off than herself, who had not even paid for the clothes in which he had come to woo her; her sole satisfaction was that he had also been deceived.
He had thought her the prudent guardian of the spoils of a lifetime; instead, selfishness had caused her to scatter what greed had gained, and for her, too, this marriage had been seized as a chance to avert ruin.
Haggard and painted, a dark wig on her head, false pearls round her throat, and a dirty satin gown hanging gracefully round a figure still upright and elegant, she stared at the fire.
'We shall have to disappear,' she remarked dryly.
He looked at her with eyes of hate.
'You must have some money,' he said bluntly.
Avarice, the vice of old age, flashed in her glance as jealousy would have gleamed in that of a younger woman.
'What little I have I need,' she retorted. 'The man has turned simple.' She grinned at her reflection in the glass above the fireplace.
'Well, leave me, then,' he said bitterly; could he be rid of her, he felt it would gild his misfortune.
But my lady had come to the end of all her admirers; she could not even any longer dazzle boys with the wicked glory of her past; she had no one save Mr Sekforde, and she meant to cling to him; he was a man, and twenty years younger than herself; he ought, she thought, to be useful.
Besides, this woman who had never had a friend of her own sex, shuddered to think of the last loneliness it would be to live without a man attached to her—little better the grave, and of that she had all the horror of the true atheist.
'You talk folly,' she said with a dreadful ogle. 'I shall remain.'
'Then you will starve, my lady!' he flung out violently.
'Oh, fie, sir, one does not starve.'
He could not endure to look at her, but staring at the desk began to tear up the notes before him.
'Will you not go to a mask tonight?' she asked querulously.
'I have no money to pay for a chair,' he sneered.
'We might win something at cards.'
'People are very wary.'
'You were very clever at tricking me,' remarked the Countess, 'cannot you trick someone else, Mr Sekforde?'
He wheeled round on her with concentrated venom.
'Ah, madam, if I were a bachelor—'
She quailed a little before his wrath, but rallied to reply with the spirit of the woman who had been spoilt by a king:
'You think you are so charming? Wealthy matches are particular. Look in the glass, sir; your face is as ruined as your reputation.'
He advanced on her and she began to shriek in a dreadful fashion; the town woman showed through the airs of the great lady.
'I'll call the watch!' she shrilled.
He fell back with a heavy step and stood glaring at her.
'A pair of fools,' said my lady bitterly.
Then her cynical humour triumphed over her disgust.
'Your first wife would smile to see us now,' she remarked.
Beau Sekforde turned to her a face suddenly livid.
'What do you know about my first wife?' he demanded fiercely.
'Nothing at all,' replied my lady. 'You kept her rather in the background, did you not? But one can guess.'
Mr Sekforde raged; he loathed any reference to the woman he had married in his obscurity, and who had been his drudge in the background through all his shifting fortunes; her worn face, her wagging tongue, her rude manners, had combined to make the thorn in the rose-bed of his softest days.
He had hated her, and believed that she had hated him; she was a Scotchwoman, a shrew, thrifty, honest, plain, and a good housekeeper; she had always made him very comfortable at home, though she had shamed him on the rare occasions when she had forced him to take her abroad.
She had died only a few months before his present marriage.
'One can guess,' repeated the Countess, showing teeth dark in a ghastly grin behind rouged lips, 'that you made her life very pleasant.'
He sprang up and faced her, a big, heavy bully for all his satins and French peruke.
'Oh,' she shrilled, frightened but defiant, 'you look like murder!'
He turned away sharply and muttered some hideous words under his breath.
'What are you going to do?' asked my lady, with a quizzical gaze round the tawdry splendour that had been hired to lure her into marriage, and that now would be so shortly rent away.
Beau Sekforde controlled his wrath against the terrible woman who had deceived him into losing his last chance of retrieving ruin.
'Where are the servants?' he asked.
'All gone. I think they have taken some of the plate and all the wine. There is some food downstairs.'
Mr Sekforde had seen it as he came up; a hacked piece of fat ham on a dirty dish, a stained cloth, and a jagged loaf had been laid out on the dining-room table.
'I have had my dinner,' remarked the Countess.
Her husband rudely left the room; he was hungry and forced to search for food, but the remembrance of the meal waiting nauseated him; he was delicate in his habits, and as he descended the stairs he thought of his late wife—she had been a wonderful housekeeper—even in poverty she had never failed to secure comfort.
As he opened the door of the dining-room he was agreeably surprised.
Evidently one of the servants had remained after all.
The hearth had been swept and a neat fire burnt pleasantly; a clean cloth was on the table, and the service was set out exactly; a fresh loaf, butter, fruit, a dish of hot meat, of cheese, of eggs stood ready; there was wine and brightly polished glasses.
'I did not know,' Mr Sekforde muttered, 'that any of the hussies in this house could work like this.'
He admired the spotless linen, the brilliant china, the gleaming glasses, the fresh and appetizing food, and ate and drank with a pleasure that made him forget for the moment his troubles.
One thing only slightly disturbed his meal; among the dishes was a plate of goblin scones; they were of a peculiar shape and taste, and he had never known anyone make them but the late Jane Sekforde.
When he had finished he rang the bell for candles, for the short November day was closing in.
There was no answer.
Surprised and slightly curious to see the servant who had been so deft, Mr Sekforde went to the head of the basement stairs and shouted lustily; still there was no reply.
He returned to the dining-room; the candles were lit and set precisely on the table. Mr Sekforde ran upstairs to his wife.
'Who is in this house?' he asked in a tone of some agitation.
The Countess was by the fire, seated on a low chair; before her on the floor was a wheel of playing cards from which she was telling her fortune.
'Who is in the house?' she sneered. 'A drunken ruffian.'
Misery was wearing thin the courtier-like manner from both of them.
'You old, wicked jade,' he replied, 'there is someone hiding in this house.'
She rose, scattering the cards with the worn toe of her little satin shoe.
'There is no one in the house,' she said, 'not a baggage of them all would stay. I am going out. I want lights and amusement. Your house is too dull, Mr Sekforde.'
With this speech and an air that was a caricature of the graces of a young and beautiful woman she swept out of the room.
Even her own maid, a disreputable Frenchwoman, had left her, having moved out of the impending crash; but my lady had never lacked spirit; she attired herself, put all the money she had in her bosom, and left the house to pass the evening with one of her cronies, who kept an establishment similar to that which she had been forced to abandon.
Even the departure of her vindictive presence did not sweeten for Beau Sekforde the house that was the temple of his failure.
He glared at the furniture that should have been paid for by bills on his wife's fortune, and went to his chamber.
He, too, knew haunts, dark and gloomy, where health and money, wits and time might be steadily consumed, and where one who was bankrupt in all these things might be for the time tolerated if he had a flattering and servile tongue and an appearance that lent some dignity to mean vices and ignoble sins.
He found a fire in his bedchamber, the curtains drawn, his cloak, evening rapier, and gloves put ready for him, the candles lit on his dressing-table.
He dressed himself rather soberly and went downstairs.
The meal was cleared away in the dining-room, the fire covered, the chairs put back in their places.
Beau Sekforde swore.
'If I had not seen her fastened down in her coffin I should have sworn that Jane was in this house,' he muttered, and his bloodshot eyes winced a little from the gloom of the empty house.
Again he went to the head of the basement stairs and listened.
He could hear faintly the sound of someone moving about—the sound of dishes, of brisk footsteps, of clattering irons.
'Some wench has remained,' he said uneasily, but he did not offer to investigate those concealed kitchen premises.
That evening his companions found him changed—a quiet sullen, dangerous mood was on him; they could easily understand this, as tales of the disaster of his marriage had already leaked abroad.
But something deeper and more terrible even than his almost accomplished ruin was troubling Robert Sekforde.
He returned very late to the mansion in High Holborn; he had drunk as much wine as his friends would pay for, and there was little of the elegant gallant about the heavy figure in the stained coat with wig awry, and the flushed, swollen face, who stumbled into the wretched place he named home with unconscious sarcasm.
A light stood ready for him in the hall; he took this up and staggered upstairs, spilling the candle-grease over his lace ruffles.
Half-way up he paused, suddenly wondering who had thought to leave the light.
'Not my lady wife—not my royal Countess,' he grinned.
Then a sudden pang of horror almost sobered him. Jane had never forgotten to put a candle in the hall.
He paused, as if expecting to hear her shrill, nagging voice.
'You're drunk,' he said to himself fiercely; 'she is dead, dead, dead.'
He went upstairs.
The fire in his room was bright, the bed stood ready, his slippers and bedgown were warming, a cup of posset stood steaming on the side-table.
Mr Sekforde snatched up his candle and hurried to the room of the Countess.
He violently entered and stood confronting her great bed with the red damask hangings.
With a shriek she sat up; her cheeks were still rouged, the false pearls dangled in her ears, the laced gown was open on her skinny throat; a cap with pink ribbons concealed her scant grey hair.
She flung herself with claw-like hands on an embroidered purse on the quilt, and thrust it under her pillow; it contained her night's winnings at cards.
'Have you come to rob me?' she screamed.
Terror robbed her of all dignity; she crouched in the shadows of the huge bed, away from the red light cast on her dreadful face by the candle her husband held.
Beau Sekforde was not thinking of money now, and her words passed unheeded.
'Who is in this house?' he demanded.
'You are mad,' she said, a little recovering her composure, but keeping her hands very firmly on the purse beneath the pillow; 'there is no one in this house.'
'Did you put a candle for me and prepare my room and light the fire and place the posset?'
He spoke thickly and leant against the bedpost; the candle, now almost guttered away, sent a spill of grease on the heavy quilt.
'You are drunk, you monstrous man!' screamed my lady. 'If you are not away instantly I'll put my head out of the window and screech the neighbourhood up!'
Beau Sekforde, regarding her with dull eyes, remained at his original point.
'There was someone in the kitchen this afternoon,' he insisted. 'I heard sounds—'
'Rats,' said my lady; 'the house is full of 'em.'
A look of relief passed over the man's sodden features.
'Of course, rats,' he muttered.
'What else could it be?' asked the Countess, sufficiently impressed by his strange manner momentarily to forget her grievance against him.
'What else?' he repeated; then suddenly turned on her with fury, lurching the candle into her face.
'Could rats have sent this for me?' he shouted.
The Countess shrank back; when agitated her head trembled with incipient palsy, and now it trembled so that the false pearls rattled hollow against her bony neck.
'You will fire the bed-curtains!' she shrilled desperately.
He trembled with a loathing of her that was like a panic fear of fury.
'You time-foundered creature!' he cried. 'You bitter horror! And 'twas for you I did it!'
She sprang to her knees in the bed, her hands crooked as if ready for his face; there was nothing left now of the fine dame nurtured in courts, the beauty nursed in the laps of princes. She had reverted to the wench of Drury Lane, screaming abuse from alley to alley.
'If you are disappointed, what about me?' she shrieked. 'Have I not tied myself to a low, ugly fool?'
He stepped back from her as if he did not understand her, and, muttering, staggered back into his own room.
There he lit all the candles, piled up the fire with more fuel, glanced with horror at the bed, flung off his coat and wig, and settled himself in the chair with arms before the fire to sleep.
The Countess, roused and angered, could sleep no more.
She rose, flung on a chamber-robe of yellow satin lined with marten's fur, that was a relic of her court days and threadbare and moth-eaten in places, though giving the effect of much splendour.
Without striking a light she went cautiously out into the corridor, saw the door of her husband's room ajar, a bright glow from it failing across the darkness, and crept steadily in.
He was, as she had supposed, in an intoxicated stupor of sleep by the fire.
His head had sunk forward on the stained and untied lace cravat on his breast; his wigless head showed fat and shaven and grey over the temples; his face was a dull purple, and his mouth hung open.
His great frame was almost as loose as that of a man newly dead, his hands hung slack, and his chest heaved with his noisy breathing. My lady was herself a horrid object, but that did not prevent her giving him a glance of genuine disgust.
'Beau Sekforde indeed!' she muttered.
She put out all the candles save two on the dressing-table, found the coat her husband had flung off, and began going swiftly through the pockets.
He had been, as she had hoped, fortunate at cards that night; he was indeed, like herself, of a type who seldom was unfortunate, since he only played with fools or honest men, neither of whom had any chance against the peculiar talents of the sharper.
The Countess found sundry pieces of gold and silver, which she knotted up in her handkerchief with much satisfaction.
She knew that nothing but money would ever be able to be of any service to her in this world.
Pleased with her success, she looked round to see if there were anything else of which she could despoil her husband.
Keeping her cunning old eyes constantly on him, she crept to the dressing-table and went over the drawers and boxes.
Most of the ornaments that she turned out glittered and gleamed heavily in the candlelight. But she knew that they were as false as the pearls trembling in her own ears; one or two things, however, she added to the money in the handkerchief, and she was about to investigate further when a little sound, like a cough, caused her to look sharply round.
The room was full of warm shadows, the fire was sinking low and only cast a dim light on the heavy, sleeping figure on the hearth, while the candlesticks on the dressing-table served only to illuminate the bent figure of the Countess in her brilliant wrap.
As she looked round she found herself staring straight at the figure of a woman, who was observing her from the other side of the bed.
This woman was dressed in a grey tabinet fashioned like the dress of an upper servant. Her hair was smoothly banded, and her features were pale and sharp; her hands, that she held rather awkwardly in front of her, were rough and work-worn.
Across one cheek was a long scratch.
The Countess dropped her spoils; she remembered her husband's words that she had taken for the babbling of a drunkard.
So there was someone in the house.
'How dare you?' she quavered, and in a low tone, for she did not wish to rouse her husband. 'How dare you come here?'
Without replying, the woman moved across to the sleeping man and looked down at him with an extraordinary expression of mingled malice and protection, as if she would defend him from any evil save that she chose to deal herself.
So sinister was this expression and the woman's whole attitude that the Countess was frightened as she never had been in the course of her wicked life.
She stood staring; the handkerchief, full of money and ornaments, dropped on the dressing-table unheeded.
Beau Sekforde moved in his sleep and fetched a deep groan.
'You impertinent creature!' whispered the Countess, taking courage. 'Will you not go before I wake my husband?'
At these last words the woman raised her head; she did not seem to speak, yet, as if there were an echo in the room, the Countess distinctly heard the words 'My husband!' repeated after her in a tone of bitter mockery.
A sense of unreality such as she had never known before touched the Countess; she felt as if her sight were growing dim and her hearing failing her; she made a movement as if to brush something from before her eyes.
When she looked again at Beau Sekforde he was alone; no one was beside him.
In dreaming, tortured sleep he groaned and tossed.
'The baggage has slipped off,' muttered the Countess; 'belike it is some ancient dear of his own. I will send her packing in the morning.'
She crept back to her own room, forgetting her spoils.
She did not sleep, and Mr Sekforde did not wake till the pale winter dawn showed between the curtains.
The Countess looked round on a chamber in disorder, but for Beau Sekforde everything was arranged, shaving water ready, his breakfast hot and tempting on a tray, his clothes laid out.
When he had dressed and come downstairs he found his wife yawning over a copy of the Gazette.
She remembered last night quite clearly, and considerably regretted what she had in her confusion left behind in Beau Sekford's room.
She gave him a glance, vicious with the sense of an opportunity lost.
He flung at her the question he had shouted last night:
'Who is in this house?'
'Some woman has stayed,' she answered. 'I think it was Joanna the housekeeper, but I did not see very clearly. She must be out now, as I have rung the bell and there has been no answer.'
'My breakfast was brought up to me,' said Mr Sekforde. 'So it is Joanna Mills, is it?'
The Countess was angry; she had had to go to the kitchen and pick among yesterday's scraps for her own food.
'And who is she?'
'You said, madam, the housekeeper.'
'She must be very fond of you,' sneered my lady.
He started at that and turned on her with a ghastly look.
'Oh, don't think I am jealous!' she grinned cynically.
'It was the word you used,' he muttered. 'I do not think anyone has been fond of me save one—'
He paused and passed his hand over his weary, heavy eyes.
'I dreamt of her last night.'
'Jane, my wife.'
The Countess remembered the ugly echo of her words last night.
'Your wife—do you forget that I and no other am your wife?'
'I do,' he replied sullenly; 'to me, Jane is always my wife.'
'A pity,' said my lady sarcastically, 'that she did not live longer.'
He gave her a queer look.
'And now we have got to think of ourselves,' he said abruptly. 'I cannot keep these things much longer—you had better go.'
'What do I care?' he answered cruelly.
'I stay here,' she replied. 'Is the rent paid?'
'Well, they will not disturb us till quarter-day,' said my lady calmly. 'You do not want to be parted from your loving wife, do you, dear?'
He stared at her as if her words had a double meaning.
'Cannot you be quiet about my wife?' he exclaimed.
'La! The man is off his head!' shrilled my lady. 'Jane Sekforde is dead!'
'That is why I think about her,' he retorted grimly.
'A model husband,' jeered the Countess, eyeing him viciously. 'I am sorry I never knew the sweet creature you regret so keenly and so touchingly.'
He raged at her like a man whose nerves are overwrought.
'Will you not let the matter be? Think of yourself, you monstrous horror! You will soon be in the Fleet!'
This picture was sufficiently realistic to make the Countess shiver.
'What are you going to do?' she asked with sudden feebleness.
He did not know; brooding and black-browed, he withdrew to the window-place and stared out at the leaden November sky that hung so heavily over the London streets.
'I suppose if you were free of me you would take your handsome face to market again?' added my lady, with a sudden lash of new fury.
He gave her a red look, at which she shrank away.
'Well, still we do not decide on anything,' she quavered.
He would not answer her, but flung out of the house.
His unsteady steps were directed to St Andrew's Church.
It was a long time since Beau Sekforde had been near a church.
Even when his wife had been buried here he had not attended the service.
He stood now in the porch, biting his thumb; then presently he entered.
Hesitating and furtive he went round the walls until he came to the new, cheap tablet with the badly-cut, draped urn and the florid Latin setting forth the virtues of Jane Sekforde.
'They don't say anything about her being a good housekeeper,' he found himself saying aloud. 'Why, she told me once she would come back from the grave to set her house in order.'
He looked round as if to seek the answer of some companion, then laughed sullenly, drew his hat over his eyes, and left the church.
Towards dusk he wandered home.
The dining-room was neat and clean, the fire attended to, the dinner on the table. He managed to eat some of the food, but without appetite. The Countess was out; there was no trace anywhere of her slovenly splendour.
The whole house was as clean and precise as it had been when that neglected drudge, Jane Sekforde, had ruled over it.
When the Countess returned he was almost glad to see her—he had been thinking so much, too much, of Jane.
He had thought of her as he had seen her last, cold in her bed, clothed in her best grey gown, and how he had stared at her and hung over her and drawn suddenly away, so sharply that the button of cut steel on his cuff had left a scratch on her dead cheek.
'Where is Joanna Mills?' he abruptly asked his wife.
She stared at him; in such a moment as this could he think of nothing but the housekeeper? Was he losing his wits?
But she did not now much care; she had found a crony willing to shelter her and exploit her ancient glories.
'I am going away,' she said. 'I do not know who is in the house—I have seen no one.'
He seemed to pay no attention at all to her first remark.
'What was that woman you saw last night like?'
'A very plain, shrewish-looking creature,' replied my lady, with some bitterness, as she recalled how she had been startled into dropping the filched money.
'Are you sure it was a woman?' asked Beau Sekforde, with a ghastly grin.
'Why, what else could it have been?' she replied curiously.
'I do not think it has been a woman for—some months,' he said.
'Why, do you imagine there is a spectre in the place?'
He would not, could not, answer; he left her, and went from room to room throwing everything into disorder, taking a horrid pleasure in making a confusion in the neatness of the house.
And then he flung himself away from the dreary mansion, leaving the Countess, like an old, weary bird of prey, wandering among the untidy rooms to see if there were anything worth taking away.
When he returned in the dark hours before the dawn he found the candle on the hall-table.
'Curse you!' he screamed. 'Cannot you let me alone?'
He hastened upstairs; everything was neat, his bed, his fire, his posset ready, his shoes warming, his candles lit.
His terrified eyes cast a horrid glance round the room.
'The medicine cupboard—has she tidied that?' he muttered.
He crossed to where it hung in one comer, opened the door, and looked at the rows of pots and bottles.
One he knew well had been stained—had been left with a broken stopper...a bottle of peculiar, ugly look, holding a yellow liquid that stained linen purple.
Such a stain, very tiny, had been on Jane Sekforde's pillow.
As he stared into the cupboard he saw that the bottle had been cleaned and set in its place, while a new, neat label had been pasted on the front.
The writing was the writing of Jane Sekforde—it said in clear letters: 'Poison'.
Beau Sekforde dropped the candle and ran into the Countess's room.
'Wake up!' he shouted. 'Wake up and hear me! She has come back. I want to confess. I murdered her! Let them take me away—somewhere where—where she cannot tidy for me.'
The room was empty; the Countess had fled; an unnatural light came from the unshuttered windows and showed a woman sitting up in the great bed.
She had a pale, shrewish face, wore a grey garment, and had a scratch across her cheek.
As the shrieks of Beau Sekforde's confession echoed into the night and drew the watch to thunder on the door, the woman smiled.
A YOUNG MAN was coming slowly down the wide staircase of a palace in the Rue de Vaugirard. It was, by the new reckoning, the 13th of Brumaire; evening, and cold, moonlit, and clear; these things being the same by any reckoning, as the young man thought, pausing by the tall window on the landing-place that looked out on to the blue-shadowed, silent street.
There was a ball overhead in the great state rooms, and he could hear the music, violins, flutes and harpsichord, distinctly, though he had closed the door behind him. He was one of the guests, and had the watchful, furtive air of one who has stolen away unperceived, and fears that he may be discovered. He seemed now to have stopped with an idea of ascertaining if anyone was abroad, for he leant over the smooth gilt banisters and listened. The great staircase was empty, and empty the vast hall below.
Opposite the landing window was a long mirror, with three branched candles before it. The young man turned to this quickly and noiselessly, and pulled from the pocket of his coat a strip of gilt-edged paper, folded tightly. He unrolled this and read the message it contained, written in a light pencil.
"At half-past ten knock four times on the folding doors. Do not be late; every moment is one of terror. I am afraid of HIM."
The last two sentences were underlined, the last word twice.
The young man looked up and down the stairs, twisted the paper up, and was about to thrust it into the flame of one of the candles, when he caught sight of himself in the tall mirror, and stood staring at the image with the paper held out in his hand.
He saw a figure that to his thinking was that of a mountebank, for it had once been that of the Due de Jaurès—Citizen Jaurès now—courtier of his one-time Christian Majesty Louis XVI., beheaded recently as Louis Capet in the great square now called by the people the Place de la Revolution.
The People had altered everything, even the person of M. de Jaurès, who wore the classic mode beloved of liberty—the fashion of this year one of freedom, hair à la Titus and a black stock swathing the chin. His face was without colour, the black, hollow eyes and black hair accentuating this pallor; his countenance, though sombre in expression, was beautiful by reason of the exquisite lines of the mouth and nostrils, and something elevated and noble in the turn of the head. As he stared at himself a slow flush of terrible shame overspread his paleness; with something like a suppressed shudder, he gave the paper to the flame, and scattered the ashes down the stairs.
Then he pulled out the watch hanging from the black watered-silk fob.
It wanted ten minutes to half-past ten. The dance music ceased overhead; in its place came laughter, loud talking, and presently a woman singing in a rapt and excited fashion.
Monsieur de Jaurès paced to and fro on the landing. He loathed these people he mixed with, so like him in dress and appearance, but bourgeois and canaille all of them; some butchers of the Terror, some smug deputies, some one-time servants, some soldiers, some dancers from the opera, some provincials and their wives—all, by the grace of the People, free and equal.
The Citizen de Jaurès, aristocrat by virtue of birth, tradition, temper, and qualities, bit his under-lip fiercely to hear these people rioting in this house. The late owner, his once dear friend, had been massacred in the prison of La Force a month ago, and the house now belonged to a deputy from Lyons, married to the daughter of a nobleman long since sent to the guillotine.
The note that M. de Jaurès had burnt was from this lady. They had known each other before the rule of chaos, and when the revolution brought him out of the prison, where he had been consigned for a political offence by the late King's ministers, and he had found her, terror-subdued, mistress of a revolutionary salon, the similarity between their positions, the common memories of another world, the sense of kinship amidst a society so alien, so monstrous, so hideous, had grown into a sad but strong love.
She was spared because she had married one of the tyrants, and pretended to forget her father's murder; he, because he had been a prisoner of the King, and affected to subscribe to the new rule of the people. Both had tasted of shame, and together they sought to redeem themselves.
Fired by their mutual sympathy, the horror of what they daily saw round them, the desire to redeem their acquiescence in the overthrow of their order, to redeem, at the risk of death, the lives they should never have consented to save, they had been the instigators of one of the many desperate plots against the Government, the object of which was to rescue the Austrian Queen from the Temple and the ultimate guillotine.
To-night the intrigue, evolved with skill and secrecy, and materially helped by the knowledge Hortense was enabled to obtain through her husband's position, was to be put into execution, and they were either to fly across the frontier with the rescued Queen, or to give up life together, as aristocrats, upon the scaffold.
M. de Jaurès, on the threshold of this hazard, felt that chill suspension of all the faculties which fills that waiting pause before the plunge into great actions. He was conscious of neither exaltation nor despair, but of a strange sense that time had stopped, or had never been, and that all the events which so oppressed his brain were but pictures, that would clear away and reveal at last—reality.
The dance music began again; the noisy music of the People, with its distinct rise and fall. He and Hortense had been present at the opera the night they had played Richard Coeur de Lion and the audience had risen in a frenzy of devotion at the strains of "O Richard, O mon roi."
He recalled the Queen with her children, worshipped and very stately, and Hortense with powdered hair and a hoop festooned with roses; then he thought of the wretched captive in the Temple, and the haggard woman in a Greek gown with a fillet through her flowing hair, waiting for him downstairs behind the folding doors.
Pacing to and fro, facing now the cold street and bitter night, now his own reflection in the glass, the inner agony of suspense, regret, remorse, broke through the dazed control of his overwrought passions. He gave a little sound, caught into the whirl of the dance music unheard, and stepped back sideways against the gleaming white wall, his hand instinctively to his heart.
The next second he was master of himself, and wondering wildly what had caused him that sudden utter pang of terror, a terror beyond fear of death or any definition, awful, hideous. He listened, as men will in great dread, and heard what seemed a curious short cry, like the echo of his own, that rose above the dance-beat. He thought it came from the street, and softly opened the window.
Everything was still, but in the distance, where the moonlight fell between two houses, three of the Republican soldiers were dragging a man along, and a girl in a blue gown was following, wringing her hands.
A second, and the little group had passed out of sight. M. de Jaurès closed the window, feeling strangely relieved that his emotion had been caused by such a common thing as the cry of a poor creature following a suspect to the Abbaye. He must, unconsciously, have heard her cry before, and this had given him that sensation of terror.
The dance music fell to a softer measure; a clock struck the half-hour, and Camille de Jaurès descended to the salon on the next floor.
He entered softly, yet confident of being neither interrupted nor observed.
The room was large, with great windows looking on to the street. It had once been painted with flowers, and shepherds asleep with their flocks, and nymphs seated beside fountains, but had lately been painted white from floor to ceiling by a Republican who detested these remnants of aristocracy. White, with stiff wreaths of classic laurel, candles in plain sconces shaded with dead-hued silk, straight grey curtains before the windows, and very little furniture to cumber the polished floor and that little, simple, bare-legged, and comprising a couch of Grecian shape, covered with striped brocade, such as ladies, dressed in the fashions of the year one of liberty, loved to recline on.
A cold, bare room, with a glimmer from the shaded light like the moon-glow, and with no colour, nor gleam, nor brightness. The wall that faced the window was almost entirely occupied by high, white folding doors with crystal knobs. M. de Jaurès' glance fell at once on these; they led to the private apartments of Hortense, and through them, by the back way across the garden, they were to escape to-night. He advanced, and was about to knock, when one leaf was opened sharply in his face, and a man stepped out.
It was Citizen Durosoy, husband of Hortense. M. de Jaurès stepped back; he saw that the room beyond the folding doors was dark, but close where the light penetrated he noticed a fold of soft satin with a pearl border, and an empty white shoe softly rounded to the shape of a foot, lying sideways, as if it had just been taken off. Hortense was there, then, he knew, waiting for him. He straightened himself to meet the unlooked-for interruption.
He was quite composed as Durosoy closed the doors.
"Your room upstairs is very close," he said, "and I suppose I am not in a festival mood—it is pleasantly cool here."
"Cool!" echoed the Deputy of Lyons. "It seems to me cold," he laughed. "Perhaps it is the singing of La Marguerite, which is so bad for the nerves, for my wife has a headache, and must lie down in the dark."
M. de Jaurès smiled. He felt such a contempt for this man that it put him absolutely at his ease. The Deputy had been a poor provincial lawyer, to whom the late de Jaurès had been kind. He affected to remember this now, and was warmly friendly, even patronising, to his old patron's son. The aristocrat hated him doubly for it, scorned him that no echo of this hatred seemed ever to awake in his mind; for the Deputy was almost familiar in his manner to M. de Jaurès. He was quiet and modest with everybody.
"I hope my wife is not delicate," he said with an air of anxiety. "I have thought lately that she was in ill-health."
"I have not noticed it," answered the other.
He seated himself on the striped couch, and looked carelessly at the grate, where a pale fire burnt. The Deputy crossed to the hearth, and stood looking at his guest with an amiable smile. He was a slight man, brown-haired and well looking, but of a common appearance. He wore a grey cloth coat, with a black sash up under his armpits, and white breeches. This dress, and the stiff, long straggling locks that fell on to his bullion-stitched collar, gave him an appearance of anarchy and wildness not in keeping with his pleasant countenance.
He stood so long smiling at M. de Jaurès, that a feeling of impatience came over the nobleman. He glanced at the pendule clock on the mantelpiece, and wondered how long the fool would stay.
"It is unfortunate that you and the Citizeness should both be absent at once," he remarked. He had still the tone of an aristocrat when speaking to Durosoy.
The Deputy held out his right hand.
"I cut my finger with a fruit knife," he answered, "and came down to Hortense to tie it up; but she seemed so to wish to be alone I did not like to press her; her head hurt so, she said."
A handkerchief was twisted about his hand, and he began to unwind it as he spoke. "Now you are here," he added, "perhaps you could help me tie it up; it really is bleeding damnably."
M. de Jaurès rose slowly. He let his glance rest for a moment on the folding doors. It was as if he could see Hortense standing at the other side in the dark, listening, waiting for her husband to go.
Durosoy held up his bare hand. There was a deep cut on the forefinger, and the blood was running down the palm and staining the close frill of muslin at his wrist.
"A severe wound for a silver knife," remarked M. de Jaurès, taking him by the wrist.
"A steel knife," said the Deputy—"steel as sharp as La Guillotine—you see, mon ami," and he smiled, "what comes of trying to cut a peach with a steel knife."
M. de Jaurès slowly tore his own handkerchief into strips and carefully bound up the wound. He was wondering the while if Hortense had been delayed by the unexpected visit of her husband; if she was venturing to change her clothes before he finally returned to their guests. By the white shoe he had seen through the folding doors, he thought she had done so.
"Thank you, Camille," said the Deputy. He had a trick of using Christian names, odious to M. de Jaurès. "It is astonishing how faint the loss of a little blood makes one."
"This from our modern Brutus!" exclaimed M. de Jaurès. That term had been given once, in the Convention, to the Deputy, and the man whose dupe he was dared to quote it ironically, knowing the stupidity of the provincial. As he had expected, the Deputy seemed pleased; he shrugged modestly.
"Oh, one's own blood, you know, not that of other people. I can endure the loss of that with great equanimity." He smiled, as if he had made a joke, and the aristocrat smiled too, for other reasons. "Will you drink with me—down here? It is, as you say, very close upstairs."
"I fear to detain you, Citizen."
Durosoy rang the bell, then seated himself by the fire.
"No, I am tired of their chatter. I would rather talk with a sensible man like yourself, my dear Camille."
M. de Jaurès did not move from his easy attitude on the brocade couch.
"But we shall disturb the Citizeness," he said. His idea was that if he could make Durosoy leave with him, he could, more or less easily, get rid of him upstairs and return.
The Deputy smiled. "Hortense is not so ill. Besides, the doors are thick enough."
M. de Jaurès wondered—how thick? Could she hear their talk? Would she understand the delay? His straining ears could catch no sound of her movements.
The Deputy continued in a kind of fatuous self-satisfaction.
"I hope she will be well enough to return soon to the ball. When one has a beautiful wife one likes to show her off."
He paused, put his head on one side, and added:
"You do think her beautiful, do you not, Camille?"
M. de Jaurès looked at him coldly. He felt he could afford to despise this man, since in a few moments he and she would be riding away from his house for ever.
A citizen servant entered, and the Deputy ordered wine.
"I must not stay," said M. de Jaurès. He raised his voice a little that she might hear. "One glass, and I will go back to make my adieux."
Durosoy appeared mildly surprised.
"So early! You cannot have any business this time of night."
The wine was brought in and placed on a thin-legged table by the hearth. M. de Jaurès glanced at the clock. The hand was creeping on towards eleven. His contempt of the Deputy was beginning to change to an impatient hatred of the creature's very presence.
"A matter of mood, not of time," he answered. "I am in no merry-making vein to-night."
The Deputy, pouring out wine, looked at him critically.
"You are too lazy, my friend. You do nothing from one day's end to another—naturally you are wearied. And it is dangerous, too."
M. de Jaurès took the glass offered him. "How dangerous?"
Durosoy lifted his common brown eyes. "Those who will not serve the Republic are apt to be considered her enemies."
The young noble smiled.
"Oh, as to that, I am a very good friend to France, but I lack the qualities to be of any use."
He sipped his wine, and looked indifferently past the Deputy at the folding doors. His thoughts were: 'The time is getting on. How long will a carriage take from here to the rue du Temple? Half an hour, allowing for the pace we must go and the crowd coming out of the opera.'
"No use!" exclaimed the Deputy. "Why, you are a soldier, are you not?"
"Once—that seems a long time ago."
Durosoy laughed and poured out more wine. The tinkling of the glass on the silver stand had the same thin quality as his voice.
"There is always Toulon," he said. "The Royalists there are giving us a good deal of trouble."
"I do not fancy going there to be hewn down by a lot of rascals. I leave that to braver men," smiled de Jaurès lazily; but his blood leapt with the desire to be with these same Royalists in Toulon, with his sword drawn against such as this Deputy, whose wine seemed to scorch and choke to-night. When would the man go? The carriage that was waiting at the back might be noticed. The servant in the plot would begin to wonder at the delay; and she, could she hear? She must be undergoing torture—as he was.
"Then there is the revolt in Caen," said the Deputy; "we want good men there."
"I've no fancy to go soldiering."
"You are dull to-night, Citizen. Does the business of the Widow Capet interest you? It is to come on this month."
"Ah! The trial?"
"I heard something of it. No, I am not interested."
When would this babbling cease? Ten minutes past eleven, and the rendezvous in the rue du Temple at twelve.
"Not interested?" echoed the Deputy. "Now if I might hazard a guess, my friend, I should say that you were rather too interested."
M. de Jaurès looked at him steadily.
"How—too interested?" he asked in accents painfully calm.
"I do not think you would like the Widow Capet to take the same journey to the Place de la Révolution as her husband did."
"Why should I trouble?" answered M. de Jaurès, who for one instant had thought himself suspected. He drew his breath a little unevenly; the delay, the suspense, were beginning to tell on him, were becoming serious, too. He remembered that the hour had been altered at the last moment from one to twelve, and that he had had no opportunity of telling Hortense so. They had to be so careful, there had been so few chances for them to meet at all. Hortense would think they had an hour longer than was the case.
The Deputy was taking his third glass; he seemed to be settled comfortably in his chair. It appeared as if he might maunder on with his idle talk for another hour; and the delay of another hour would be fatal to M. de Jaurès.
"It must seem very strange to you," said the Deputy reflectively, "this year one of liberty."
M. de Jaurès sat forward on the couch. Durosoy had never taken this tone of gravity with him before.
"No stranger to me than to you," he answered. He finished the wine, and set the glass back on the table.
"Well, then, strange to me and to you."
M. de Jaurès laughed; he could not control himself.
"What makes you say that?" he asked. The Deputy shrugged.
"The thought will occur—sitting here in this palace that I used to pass with awe—talking to you whom I used to regard with awe—married to Hortense! Yes, you are right, it is strange to me."
The noble's mouth tightened; a black shame overwhelmed him that he was sitting here listening to this man.
"You," continued the Deputy, "used to know the former owner of this house, did you not?"
M. de Jaurès rose.
"I knew him."
"He was killed at La Force, was he not?"
"I believe so; why do you recall him?" M. de Jaurès leant against the mantelpiece. The cold, white room, the inane Deputy, were fast becoming intolerable. He began to be hideously conscious of two things: the clock whose hands were coming round slowly to the half-hour, and the folding doors behind which Hortense waited. The interruption, of which he had thought nothing at first, was like to prove fatal. Could he do it in less than half an hour? Merciful God! it was not possible! Some of them were already at the rendezvous—the Queen was ready.
"Let us go back upstairs," he said. "It is, after all, rather doleful here."
"On the contrary, I am very comfortable," smiled the Deputy, crossing his legs.
"You will be missed," said M. de Jaurès. His thoughts were racing furiously. How could he convey to Hortense that the time had been altered—that he could not wait?
The Deputy nodded towards the high ceiling. "Missed? You hear the music? I think they are enjoying themselves."
To abandon her, or to miss the appointment in the rue du Temple; to break faith with his friends or with her, to lose all chance of redemption, to jeopardise the Queen's escape, or to forsake Hortense (for success meant that he must be across the frontier, and failure meant death; either way he was useless to her)—it was fast narrowing to these terrible decisions.
He looked at his face in the large mirror above the mantelpiece, and was almost startled to see how white it was above the close cravat and blue striped waistcoat. Surely Durosoy must notice!
The Deputy sat looking into the fire. M. de Jaurès, glancing at him out of furtive eyes, observed that he, too, was pale.
A pause of silence was broken by the shrill chimes of the gilt clock striking the half-hour.
M. de Jaurès could not restrain a start. He must go. He could come back for her if alive; his honour (Heaven help him! he still thought of that) was the pledge to them, his affection to her—she would understand. Perhaps by the servant waiting with the carriage at the back entrance he could convey a message, telling her of the changed time.
"You will forgive me," he said with that ease with which breed enabled him to cover his agony, "but I am due at my chambers"—he raised his voice for her to hear—"the truth is I have business—important business to-night. Good-evening, Durosoy."
He went towards the door; it would be quick running to make the rue du Temple in time. Heaven enlighten her as to the cause of his desertion.
"Business?" said the Deputy good-humouredly. "There is no business nowadays but politics or plots. I hope you are not engaged in the latter, my dear Camille."
M. de Jaurès had his hand on the door-knob. "This is private business," he answered, "about my property. I am trying to save some of it."
The Deputy turned in his chair.
"Why, I did not know that your estates were confiscated. Why did not you tell me? I might have helped you."
M. de Jaurès opened the door.
"You are such a busy man, Durosoy. I think I shall manage the affair satisfactorily."
"Monseigneur le Duc."
At that title he turned sharply, and saw the Deputy standing before the fire looking at him.
"Why do you say that?" he asked, and his nostrils widened.
"Forgive me, the expression slipped out. I still think of you as Monseigneur le Duc. It is an astonishing thing, but I believe I am still in awe of you, as I used to be in my little office in Lyons." He smiled fatuously, lowered his eyes to the floor and shook his head.
"Why did you call me?"
"Well, I wanted to speak to you. Take another glass of wine; it is still early."
"Indeed, it is impossible for me to stay. I have an appointment."
"Bah! Make him wait."
"It is a rendezvous that I would rather keep."
"A strange hour for a business appointment. Are you sure it is not a lady that you are so anxious to see?"
"Say a lady, then," said M. de Jaurès; "but, believe me that I must go." He was leaving on that, when the Deputy called after him.
"I entreat you to stay. It is also a lady of whom I wish to speak."
M. de Jaurès turned slowly and closed the door.
"Come," smiled the Deputy, "another glass."
"What have you to say to me, Durosoy?" He felt as if the hand of fate were on his shoulder, dragging him back into the room; yet every moment—nay, every second—was precious, fast becoming doubly precious.
The Deputy was pouring out the wine. His grey and black figure was illumined by the increasing glow of the fire. He moved bottles and glasses clumsily by reason of the bandaged forefinger of his right hand; behind him the clock showed twenty minutes to twelve.
M. de Jaurès crossed the long room to the hearth.
"What did you wish to say?" he asked, "nay"—he put the glass aside—"of what was it that you wished to speak?"
The noble's first thought was—'This man is not a fool'; his second, 'He suspects'—accompanied with a sense of stupor and confusion.
"You," continued Durosoy, "have known her longer than I have; she was very much admired, was she not, when she was at the Court?"
"She was admired, naturally. A strange question! I never knew her well," answered M. de Jaurès. He was sure the fellow suspected, not the plot but the elopement. He desperately readjusted his plans. He could not leave her now; he must forsake his friends sooner. Had she not said, "I am afraid of him."
"Well, that is all," said the Deputy. "Go and keep your appointment, my friend"—his eyes suddenly gleamed—"and I will finish my wine and presently go and fetch Hortense back to the ballroom."
M. de Jaurès answered his look. "No, I will stay," he said with a kind of cold calm.
"Ah! Now why have you changed your mind?"
"Because you," was the grim reply, "are so amusing."
He was wondering in his anguish why she did not come out. Surely she might have made some diversion with her presence. Yet she had probably changed her gown. Could she hear—could she understand?
The man was playing with him; he might even know of the plot. He must suspect, else why did he remain here, and why did the guests not notice his or her absence, if they had not been prepared? It was too late to get to the rue du Temple now. The governor of the prison was to be abroad for an hour, from twelve to one, and in that time they were to make their attempt. They would make it without him. He could not leave Hortense now. It was certain death ahead of him; he would be denounced to-morrow, and dishonoured, for he had forsaken his friends.
So raced the thoughts of M. de Jaurès, keeping time to the music of the quadrille coming from the room overhead, while he stood impassive by the head of the brocade sofa, and gazed at the Deputy, who sipped his wine and blinked into the fire.
Two men went by shouting in the street. When their voices had sunk into the distance the Deputy spoke:
"You are rather imprudent, Citizen."
M. de Jaurès was silent; if he had but some manner of weapon he would kill this man—perhaps with his bare hands even—he came a step nearer.
"I see," continued the Deputy, still looking into the fire, "that you have a coronet on this handkerchief. Now, do not you think that very imprudent?"
M. de Jaurès stood arrested. Was this creature, after all, only a fool? He would, in any case, have killed him; but the days were gone when noblemen wore swords. Besides, the Deputy sat very near the bell, and was a strong man. Traditions, too, were a clog on the young man's passions. He could not use his hands.
"My dear Camille," exclaimed the Deputy, suddenly glancing up, "you look very pale."
The aristocrat, with the instinct of his breed, was silent under agony. He gazed at the Deputy straightly.
"Are you going to keep this on your linen?" asked Durosoy, pointing to the coronet on the blood-stained bandage.
"Are you," answered M. de Jaurès, "going to denounce me?"
The Deputy smiled.
"Because of this? Why, no, how absurd!" he laughed. "As if you, of all men, had not given proof of your love for the people by becoming plain Citizen Jaurès. Not so many aristocrats did that."
M. de Jaurès fixed his eyes on the folding doors. It was the one thing that gave him courage to endure, thinking of her waiting there, thinking that he would share the inevitable end with her; thinking she would know he had waited.
The quadrille music took on another measure. The clock gave a little whirr and struck twelve. The aristocrat shuddered, but held himself erect. Durosoy suddenly grinned up at him.
"What about your appointment?" he asked.
"I am keeping a more important one," said M. de Jaurès through cold lips.
The Deputy rose.
"Do you not think that I act very well?" he said in a changed tone.
M. de Jaurès smiled superbly.
"My opinion of you is unchanged, Monsieur."
He had now no longer anything to gain or lose by adopting the manner of the people. The two men took a step towards the middle of the room, still facing each other.
"Your appointment," repeated Durosoy. "Why did you not keep it?"
M. de Jaurès raised his right hand to his heart and retreated a pace backwards. He hardly heard the words; the speaker's presence offended him indescribably; he lowered his eyes in instinctive disgust, withdrawn into his own soul. The attempt in the rue du Temple had failed or succeeded without him; he had lost the glory of rescuing the Queen, or the glory of being with the aristocrats in La Force. They would justly despise him as a coward and a man of broken faith, but the thing that had induced him to act thus was the thing that rewarded him—the thought of Hortense. Waiting behind the folding doors, she must have heard his and her fate. She knew perhaps before he came that Durosoy suspected and their chance was over; she knew now that he had preferred her even to his word, his pledged honour, for surely that was gone unless it would be some honour for them to die together—he hoped it would be the guillotine, not butchery in the prison yard—as befell, good God—as befell Charles de Maury, with whom he had once eaten and drunk in this very room——
He steadied his reeling senses with a jerking shudder and caught the back of the chair near him. That brute Durosoy was watching him, waiting for him to betray himself, being, no doubt, very sure of both of them, the man before him and the woman behind the folding doors.
M. de Jaurès smiled.
"What are you and I looking at each other like this for, eh?" he asked.
A soldier went past singing Ça ira; it mingled with the monotonous repeated music of the quadrille; the coals fell together with a little crash; the Deputy stood in a slack attitude surveying his victim.
M. de Jaurès laughed.
"We will see," said Durosoy slowly, "if Hortense is recovered from her headache."
He turned towards the folding doors. M. de Jaurès longed for them to open; at least he would have that moment when she came forth and walked straight to him, all disguises over.
The Deputy turned the crystal handle and opened the door a little way; he looked over his shoulder and said one word:
"Yes," answered M. de Jaurès. "She and I—both aristocrats."
Durosoy pushed the door a little wider open; his dull, foolish manner was changing to a deep breathing ferocity.
"The Widow Capet is still in the Temple, aristocrat," he said, "and your friends are in La Force by now."
M. de Jaurès kept his head high.
"So you knew," he said softly. "You are a cunning rat, Citizen Durosoy."
The Deputy's eyes were suddenly flushed with blood.
"Hortense must thank you, aristocrat, for breaking your appointment for her sake."
M. de Jaurès came nearer. There was darkness beyond the folding doors—the white shoe in the same position and the fold of pearl-braided satin.
The Deputy suddenly flung the other leaf wide.
"I am a cunning rat, am I not?" he said with a sob of hate. "My wife! My wife!" he cried, pointing to her.
She sat just inside the doors, facing them. There was a long red streak down the bosom of her white bodice, her eyes were fixed and her jaw dropped; across her knee was a knife stained with marks like rust.
The Deputy stood looking at M. de Jaurès.
"You see, I have been cutting peaches with a steel knife...."