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Title: Step in the Dark Author: Ethel Lina White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402041h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2014 Most recent update: Mar 2017 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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ACROSS the table, Georgia Yeo looked at her hostess with timid admiration.
"I wonder," she thought, "if the time will ever come when that face will be familiar to me, at meals?"
She was acutely nervous, for she realized that the little dinner-party was a formal occasion when she was on exhibition. This was her great moment—her chance to grasp a future which blinded her with its brilliancy.
At present, she felt almost breathless by the rush of events, as though she were another Alice, whirled relentlessly through the air. It was only ten days since she had left England, for the first time in her life. Since then, much had happened—and it had happened too quickly.
She had come to Brussels and met the Count.
History was made on her first night. She chose to stay at an old-established hotel, patronised by those who preferred an atmosphere of tradition to ultramodern plumbing. Once the mansion of a wealthy family, it preserved its original grandeur of yellowed marble walls and vast gilt-framed mirrors as a background for solid nineteenth-century furniture.
It was situated in the town, amid a tangle of dark narrow streets, so that Georgia was able to gaze through the revolving doors of the lounge and watch the people passing outside. A fine rain was falling so imperceptibly that it was visible only as a sliver through the darkness. It glistened on a procession of umbrellas and the statuary of a fountain, set in the middle of the road.
Inside was the brilliancy of branching electric lights—a constant flux of visitors—a babel of voices speaking an unfamiliar language. As she sat and watched, the novelty of her surroundings thrilled her to excited expectancy. For six years she had looked out, at twilight, always upon the same scene—an empty grey waste, with a distant white line of crawling foam, marking the sea.
She opened her cigarette case, which was the signal for the Count literally to leap into her life, forestalling the waiter with a match.
"Can it be really true?" he asked a minute later. "The clerk at the Bureau tells me that you are Mrs. Yeo—the celebrated writer of so many detective thrillers?"
Faster, faster... When she admitted her identity, the Count swept her away on the current of his exuberant spirits. In his stimulating company, she saw Brussels as a whirling confusion of ancient buildings, cobbled streets, statues, still life paintings of carcasses and dark arcaded dress-shops.
Out of the swarm of impressions there emerged a few indelible impressions. The mellow glory of the gilded houses of the Grand Place seen in a red, watery sunset. The twin towers of St. Gudule's floating in a silvery mist. The massive grandeur of the Palais de Justice, challenging the shock of Judgment Day. The soaring figure of St. Michael glittering in the morning sun. The horror of a picture in the Wiertz Museum—"The Age of Innocence"—which depicted two children burning a butterfly's wings.
Faster, faster... The Count rushed her from place to place, with cyclonic energy. He remained volatile, impersonal and adventurous—running risks with regulations and stamping on convention up to the moment when he formally expressed his wish that she should meet his family.
The pace increased to a breathless whirl after his relatives arrived at the hotel. Mrs. Vanderpant—aunt to the Count—was the widow of a wealthy and distinguished American. She was accompanied by an impressive-looking scientist—Professor Malfoy—and a youth named "Clair"—both connections on the American side. They were installed in the most expensive suite, from whence issued the fateful invitation.
Then, with a grinding jar, everything stopped still and Georgia found herself stationary at the dinner-table.
She was on approval.
The meal was laid in the private sitting-room, which was a chill apartment with a vast expanse of waxed parquet flooring. Starched white net curtains hung at the three long windows, framing narrow slices of cobalt-blue night sky. The golden glow of candlelight was reflected in a large Regency mirror upon the wall.
Georgia could see herself in it—small and very fair, in a backless black dinner-gown. She always looked younger than her age, but to-night, in spite of her efforts at sophistication, she appeared too immature for her writing record.
She moved her head and her reflection vanished.
"I've gone inside," she thought. "That mirror has swallowed so many faces—so many scenes."
Her dislike of seeing herself in the glass dated from her childhood, when her nurse used to hold her up before a large old-fashioned mirror. One night, she dreamed that, instead of seeing her familiar nursery, she looked into a dark smoky place, where strange people with depraved faces drank and played cards.
Her father, who always explained the connection between cause and effect, pointed out that the dream was the logical result of looking at a forbidden volume of Hogarth's engravings.
Although she accepted the moral, she always believed that the mirror had yielded up an evil page from the past.
At the present time, she was in a super-sensitive condition which was a prelude to the temperature she usually ran, as a penalty of excitement. To counteract its effect, she had taken a draught and, as a result, did not feel quite normal.
With the momentary detachment of a spectator, she looked at the others sitting round the table. Her hostess, Mrs. Vanderpant, was elderly, with a clear-cut arrogant face, pinched austere features, and a sunken mouth, expressive of intolerance and pride. In contrast with her chill personality, the Professor's vast florid clean-shaven face was benignant and his voice a melodious gong, although he rarely spoke. He had a shock of snowy curls which shadowed his black eyes, twinkling behind gold-rimmed pince-nez.
The youth, Clair, was too young to count with her. She was conscious of him merely as a sharp-faced youth, in a dinner-jacket. He spoke with an American accent, although his small hands and feet, in conjunction with smooth blue-black hair, suggested a Latin type.
There was another guest, her literary agent, Harvey Torch. He was a pleasant man, but entirely dwarfed by his neighbour. The Count's high-voltage personality eclipsed the rest of the party. He was unusually fair, with sparkling blue eyes and glittering white teeth, so that, whenever he moved or spoke, there was a constant flash and gleam.
Georgia shifted her position in order to see them reflected in the mirror—a reduced but vivid company. Above all, she was conscious of the Count flickering across the dimness of old glass, like streaks of luminous paint glimmering in the darkness.
Her vision blurred and her head began to swim.
"This moment must last," she thought. "One day—perhaps a thousands years hence—some one will look into that glass and see us all sitting round the table, just as we are now... And by then, everything that is going to happen to us, will have happened. We can do nothing then, to help or hinder."
It was this sense of imminent and unknown destiny which weighted down her spirit. She awoke to reality at the sound of her hostess's voice, which, in spite of her effort to be gracious, remained harsh and grating.
"Are you going to visit any other part of Belgium?"
"No," replied Georgia. "I'm going to stay in Brussels, all the time. At the beginning of my visit, I motored through part of the Ardennes."
"You saw some fine scenery."
"Yes, but it was too old and too cruel. There were so many ruins and prisons with horrible oubliettes. They depressed me."
"This is really amusing," laughed the Count. "You are sorry for people who have been comfortably dead for hundreds of years. Yet you are utterly ruthless to your poor characters."
"That's different. I can control my situations. My prisoners are already released."
"But some prisons are quite comfortable. At least, I have been assured so by financial, or rather, high-financial friends... Besides, you told me you had been shut up in one small place, all your life. You've been living in one room. Where is the difference?"
Although she knew he was teasing her, Georgia answered the Count's question seriously.
"The difference is this. I can leave my prison whenever I like... But it must be ghastly to know you have got to stay in one place for ever. Always seeing the same scene, like Napoleon on St. Helena."
As she spoke the room was momentarily blotted out, and she seemed to be looking at the last red gleam of a setting sun reflected on long lines of grey waves, rolling out towards the horizon.
On—on... They moved ceaselessly, but she had to stay and watch that sullen waste of water. A scene of stark desolation. No ray of hope. Doom inexorable... A prisoner.
As though he sensed his client's discomfort, Torch came to her relief with a remark on a topical subject. Released from taking further part in the conversation, she became aware that the youth, Clair, was staring at her with hard, curious eyes. Their hostile expression told her that, for some unknown reason, he disliked her intensely.
Even as the certainty flashed across her mind, she realised that the antipathy was not only mutual, but—in her case—intensified by instinctive repulsion.
His merciless scrutiny turned the meal to a social ordeal. It was a formal and elaborate affair of many courses and wines, with two waiters in constant attendance. The table was decorated with orchids and covered with a cloth of handmade lace.
As she looked at it nervously, Georgia was plunged back into her childhood, when she had been taken to lunch at the Bishop's Palace. She could see again the white damask cloth, patterned with shamrock, as well as spattered with damson juice, which was her own shameful contribution.
Still under the spell of the past, her hand shook so violently when she raised her glass, that she was childishly afraid of spilling her wine. In this company, any slip or lapse from perfect manners might ruin her hopes. She felt overwhelmed by the importance of the issue at stake—crushed by the fact that the Count's relatives were persons of birth, rank and wealth.
"I'm aiming too high," she thought hopelessly. "I'm nothing. Nobody."
She was grateful for the moral support of her agent—Harvey Torch. Although he had been annoyed by the Count's invitation, he had accepted it in obedience to his instinct to protect the interests of others. On this occasion, he was concerned lest his most lucrative client had become friendly with adventurers.
In his character of critical observer he studied his company, excepting Clair, whom he considered negligible. Mrs. Vanderpant looked a typical example of inbreeding during centuries of social prestige, while the Professor bore the hallmark of the Mayflower. The Count, too, appeared a perfect specimen of super-vitality and physical fitness. Although he was middle-aged, it was possible to picture him in earlier years, as a blond youth, running around a stadium with a flaming torch.
The agent decided that they were almost too genuine, besides having the advantages of a successful stage-setting and candlelight. Consequently, he subjected them to his usual method of debunking, which was, to dress them up—in his imaginations—in different clothes.
The mental exercise was justified by results. Stripped of his evening suit and with his hair shorn, the Professor could shape in the ring as a heavyweight bruiser. The boy, Clair, was changed into a vicious young apache, by a dirty jersey and a beret; while the Count could be any type of pleasant scoundrel, common to every quarter of the globe.
Mrs. Vanderpant, alone, defied his efforts to degrade her dignity. Although he reduced her to sordid circles of vice and squalor, she remained triumphantly, the perfect lady in adversity.
As a momentary pause jammed the flow of conversation, the social occasion was marred by a disconcerting incident. Clair, who had never removed his eyes from Georgia's face, suddenly broke his silence with a barrage of questions.
"D'you know Brussels well?" he asked.
"No," Georgia confessed. "This is my first visit."
"Gosh, how did you miss it? Haven't you travelled?"
"No. I—I've never been abroad before."
"Where d'you live?"
"In a small village, on the east coast of England."
"It's quiet for my writing."
"Got a big estate?"
"No, only a cottage."
"How d'you entertain?'
"I have so few friends. I've dropped out of things."
"My mother and my two big girls. Merle and Mavis. They are seven and eight."
Stunned by the rattle of question succeeding question, Georgia answered mechanically, like a witness bullied by cross-examination. She had expected the delicate probing of skillful leading remarks, if she were to be accepted as a member of the Count's family; but this violation of her reserve by an ill-mannered youth left her aghast.
The attack was too swift and unexpected for the others to intervene. Torch received the impression that his hosts preferred to ignore the catechism rather than to recognise any breach of manners. Although, at first, his own mind was a blank, the mention of Georgia's children gave him his chance to intervene.
"I'm one of the few privileged to have a photograph of Mrs. Yeo's little girls, taken with their mother," he said. "They look like three sisters—two from the nursery and one from the schoolroom."
He stopped talking, distracted by hearing an unusual complaint.
"Waiter," said Mrs. Vanderpant, "these knives are sharp. Bring blunt ones. That is the way to find out whether the meat is really tender."
After a swift substitution had been made and the beef had sustained the test, the Count exulted over his aunt.
"I knew it would satisfy even you. I spoke one word to the maître d'hôtel, who himself visited the kitchens and selected the joint."
The incident stirred up Torch's suspicion afresh, lest it were pre-arranged in order to demonstrate the exalted rank of guests who could command such specialised service.
The more he considered it, the less he liked the situation. He knew that circumstances had made Georgia specially vulnerable to attack. Apart from her work, her nature was pliant and credulous, while she had only just emerged from voluntary exile. This was her first holiday after years of high-pressure writing, when she had lived in the world of her own lurid imagination.
He argued that, if this family was what it represented itself to be, the Count would be too used to the society of beautiful glamorous women to fall violently in love with Georgia. Moreover, if it needed financial support, its objective would be a genuine heiress.
The fact that it appeared to angle for a best-selling novelist, put it in the class of cheap fortune-hunters. Suddenly he decided, therefore, to clarify his suspicions by a discussion on specialised motives.
"Of course, you've all read Mrs. Yeo's novels," he remarked. "Besides being her agent, I am one of her fans. At the same time, I don't think there is any comparison between real and imaginary crimes. Nothing in fiction can compare with the horror of 'The brides in the bath.'"
He turned to the Count.
"Probably you remember it? A man married several wretched women and then drowned them, to get their bit of money."
The Count looked at him with genuine interest.
"Now murder is something I can never understand," he said. "Any man who commits murder must be either a monster or a maniac. No sane person would risk his neck when there are so many ways of getting money from a woman."
"Any one who marries a stranger must accept the consequences," remarked Mrs. Vanderpant. "Of course, in our class, such a marriage is out of the question. We first insist on intimate knowledge of the family."
"All the same," persisted Torch, "any woman with money is bound to run a risk over her marriage. It must be a distressing problem in the case of some fascinating stranger. If she turns him down, she may lose a genuine love; and if she takes him, she may lose more than her money."
As he spoke, he glanced at Georgia. The candlelight stirred in the breeze from the open window and trembled on her misty web of pale hair. Her eyes were wide with apprehension, yet a smile hovered around her mouth. She looked elusive and unearthly, like a dryad escaped from her tree.
His apprehension sharpened to actual fear. While he was presenting a hypothetical case, she might be in actual danger. Even as the fear crossed his mind, Clair attacked Georgia again with a direct personal question.
"What would you do, Mrs. Yeo? You've got money."
Georgia put her hand to her throat, as though she found it difficult to reply. Dazzled by the Count's personality and position, she had avoided the intrusion of her personal matters in her romance. Her reserve had amounted almost to emotional paralysis; but now she realised that the time had come for her to take a desperate chance.
"I have no money," she said.
Remembering her royalties, Torch stared at her incredulously, while Clair flushed with anger.
"You make pots," he contradicted. "Every one knows you make pots. Are you trying to high-hat me because I asked you a question?"
"No." Again Georgia forced herself to explain. "It is true I have made quite a lot of money, although not as much as people think. Writers rarely do. But I cannot touch it. I have settled all of it on my children."
Before the youth could make any comment, Mrs. Vanderpant dismissed him.
"We shall not expect you to wait for coffee, Clair. The conversation of adults must be boring to you."
The youth grimaced but rose from the table. As he passed the Count, he laid his hand upon his shoulder with a possessive gesture which Georgia resented.
"He's jealous of me," she thought.
Meanwhile, Torch studied the general reaction to Georgia's bombshell, only to discover that no one seemed affected by it. The Count's smile was still gay and unconcerned, while the Professor devoted his entire attention to the peeling of a peach. Mrs. Vanderpant preserved the detachment of a perfect hostess.
In the face of their high social standard, the presence of an ill-bred youth at the table seemed an unfortunate choice. It made him wonder whether Clair was included in order to pump a prospective victim. If this were the case, her revelation was calculated to shatter the hopes of any fortune hunter.
He drew a breath of deep relief. Georgia was safe.
ALTHOUGH her ordeal was nearly at an end, Georgia felt that she could hardly endure the last minutes of the meal. She had a guilty sense of being there on false pretences, as though she had been masquerading in the guise of a wealthy woman, to invite hospitable overtures.
When she asked to be excused from staying for coffee, on account of her rising temperature, she was surprised at Mrs. Vanderpant's concern.
"Have you a maid?" she asked.
"No," replied Georgia. "But I know what to take for these attacks. I shall be perfectly well in the morning."
"All the same, you must not be neglected. I will speak to the floor-housekeeper and tell her that I shall regard any attention she can show you, as paid to me."
Her chin elevated in conscious pride of position, she turned to Torch, with the air of granting an audience, while the Count accompanied Georgia to the outer door of the suite. When they reached the vestibule, which was screened off from the salon by curtains of faded grass-green velvet, he smiled down at her.
"My aunt must have guessed that I wanted to speak to you alone," he said.
She waited for him to continue with a throb of intense eagerness. As she looked around, she knew that the memory of her surroundings would always remain. In after years, she would recall the ivory walls, the marble bust of Leopold I. on a pedestal, and the white sheepskin rug—all dyed a moonlight blue from the glass of a hanging lamp. She noticed, too, an incongruous drain-pipe umbrella-stand, painted with bulrushes—and a steel engraving of a Victorian skating-scene.
The Count cleared his throat.
"I want to apologise for Clair," he said. "He did not mean to be rude. You see, with us, money is nothing. He was cross, too, because he thought you were pulling his leg."
He stopped and looked at her expectantly, awaiting her comment.
"I am sorry he misunderstood," she told him. "Of course, I was speaking the truth. It saves trouble... He seems very fond of you."
"Clair?" The Count laughed indulgently. "Yes. He is a rascal, but one can't help liking him."
"Yes?" Georgia spoke vaguely in her anxiety to learn the future. "Shall I see you tomorrow?"
He dashed her hope with a regretful smile.
"I'm sorry, no. You understand. Family We must all be early birds tonight, for my aunt starts tomorrow at an unholy hour. I am expected to accompany her."
"Then—this is 'Good-bye'?"
"Oh, I may return. But if that is impossible, you will be a cherished memory. Whenever I see your novels on the stall at a railway station, I shall be able to boast, 'Ah I have met the celebrated Mrs. Yeo—and she is even more charming than her books.'"
In spite of her temperature, Georgia began to feel cold.
"I am afraid I made a poor impression on your people," she said.
"Oh, no, no. How could you? You were modest and frank. Those are qualities which appeal to my aunt."
Suddenly Georgia was urged to tell him that life-story which she withheld so persistently from the public.
"It must be wonderful not to think of money," she said. "In my case, it's been the most important thing. My grandfather was a wealthy tea-merchant. He was a self-made man, but he sent his only son to Oxford—and all the rest. Father never earned a penny in his life. He dribbled away most of his fortune on the Stock Exchange. He was hopeless, for he would buy shares on margin. Now, I'm like my grandfather over money. Really, I'm a tough old man with a stubby grey beard and a droopy eyelid."
The Count joined in her forced laughter while he paid her the tribute of absorbed attention.
"There was so much worry about money," she continued, "that we were all glad when I married an old family friend. It seemed security. And then, everything happened at once. Edward—my husband—went bankrupt and committed suicide. I was left penniless with my mother and two babies to keep."
"Your mother, too?"
"Naturally. She lost her remaining capital in one of Edward's companies. I took a job, at first, and wrote my first novel at night. I'd written all my life. A miracle happened, for it was a best-seller. After that start, I've never looked back... But you can understand why I felt I must safeguard my children. They are dependent on me and I am not immortal."
"I do indeed. I honour you for it. May I?"
The Count raised her hand to his lips.
At that moment, his homage seemed a meaningless gesture. She waited for him to speak before she broke the silence with a final appeal.
"I hope I've not bored you. I only wanted to explain. You see, your cousin made me feel ashamed—because I'd done nothing and gone nowhere. Now you know why... Goodbye."
"No, 'Good-night.' We will hope."
Although she was used to loss, the episode was one of her bitterest disappointments when she went downstairs to her bedroom—unescorted. She had been living up in the clouds with a blond and radiant lover, who brought her the supreme gift of laughter, together with a dream-title of "Countess."
As she stumbled along the narrow carpeted passages which ran round two sides of the building, she suddenly realised that she was completely exhausted and that her bed was the only thing which really mattered. She could scarcely drag her legs to her room and when she reached it at last, it seemed small and stuffy in contrast with Mrs. Vanderpant's cool and lofty salon.
She threw off her clothes and after swallowing another draught crossed to the window. Below her was the traffic of the noisy street, with illuminated tramcars bearing advertisements of unfamiliar cigarettes and mineral waters.
Beyond rose a straggling map of lights which defined the higher parts of the city. Every spot was associated with the Count. Somewhere up there was the Congress Column and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, guarded by two bronze lions at his feet. As she gazed at the slope she thought of her own village, with the sound of the tide dragging back the pebbles, and the distant line of the sea.
Although it held those she loved best, she rebelled at the idea of returning to it.
"Not now—not after this," she murmured.
Feeling hopeless and miserable she climbed into bed. Very soon her thoughts grew blurred and she forgot everything but the present. Her attacks of temperature were not unpleasant, for she lay in a dry baked heat which reminded her of basking in sun-warmed sand. The open window admitted the noise of the street and a faint light from the illuminations below, but no refreshing current of night air.
The last thing she saw before she fell asleep was her evening frock, visible as a huddle of black draperies flung over the back of a chair.
When she opened her eyes again, she was looking at it still; but she was conscious of other changes. A cool breeze blew in upon her from the window, which appeared to have moved closer. The room, too, seemed nearly doubled in size.
"This is absurd," she thought. "I must still be asleep."
She stretched out her hand to snap on the light, but the switch was no longer there. She was in the same bed, however, for she could distinguish the pattern of the printed bed-spread—blue poppies on a green ground. In further proof her watch was under her pillow, although the dial was too small for her to see the hands.
Remembering that there was a view of a church clock from her window, she slid to the polished floor and groped her way towards it, only to be baffled by further transformation. The lighted street and the traffic had sunk into the ground. In its place was a vague darkness, blotched by a suggestion of foliage.
As she tried vainly to pierce the gloom, she noticed an iron stair spiralling upwards, just beyond the window sill. The sight of it filled her with an overwhelming desire to climb up to the roof. Her favourite dream—sleeping or waking—was of a city of the Future, where buildings rose up in towering tiers and pedestrians walked high above the streets, which looped downwards to the lowest torrent of rushing traffic.
"If this is a dream," she reasoned, "it's quite safe to get out of the window. But—I feel awake."
She tried vainly to find some lucid explanation of her inexplicable predicament, but her brain was dark and torpid as though steeped in narcotic. Although the strange metamorphosis of her room seemed positive proof that she was dreaming, some submerged memory warned her to caution, as she tried to explore her surroundings.
Her eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom, but she found it difficult to locate objects. All the furniture seemed different, and to stand in unaccustomed places. Only the mirror was in its usual place above the old-fashioned marble mantelpiece.
Guided by its glimmer she groped her way towards it. The glass was so dark that at first she could see nothing. Gradually, however, she traced the outlines of tree trunks and bare branches, which seemed very far away.
Instead of meeting her own familiar reflection she was looking into the vista of a snowy forest.
"That proves it is a dream," she told herself exultantly. "Now I'll get up on the roof."
Climbing fearlessly out of the window, she stood poised upon the narrow sill. There was scarcely room for her feet, but she stretched her arms above her head and strained up towards the stars, feeling certain that she would float up into the air.
Although she did not fly, as the breeze blew through her thin sleeping suit, she felt light as a soap bubble. Filled with exhilaration, she swayed out across the narrow gulf of darkness and caught the iron rail of the stair. As she drew herself up without conscious effort she dimly realised that—owing to the drug—she was in a false dimension which was subject to the trickery of time, for she appeared to climb for hours without reaching the top.
She was also subject to frequent black-outs, when she lost all consciousness of her surroundings. Higher and higher she mounted, until the stars were so low that she instinctively moved her head aside, to avoid entangling her hair in a dangling cluster.
Presently, after a blank, she discovered that she had reached her goal, for she was walking along the elevated parapet of her city of the Future. She was so high up that she could not see the lights of the streets below, although she could hear the rising murmur of traffic like the hum of a bee. Drifting lightly along, like a leaf in a breeze, she thought that she had journeyed for miles, when she saw—at right angles to her path—the square of a lighted window.
Thrilled at the promise of fresh adventure, she pushed open the casement, and leaped inside Even as she alighted, she was arrested by the sound of voices.
Suddenly the immunity of a dreamer deserted her and the phantasy grew mercilessly real. As she realised her predicament, if she were caught in the act of entering a strange house, she felt hot with shame. But even as she darted towards the window, she checked her panic flight.
"I've been here before," she told herself.
The marble bust on a pedestal, the white sheep-skin rug, the atrocious daubs on a drain-pipe were all familiar. It was the vestibule where she had stood when the Count had slain her hope with a tender smile of farewell.
The recollection overwhelmed her with so sharp a sense of desolation that she wanted to weep in the hopeless despair of a dream. Then, with a lightning change of mood, her thoughts drifted off on another track.
"Perhaps the dinner-party is still going on," she thought. "We are all of us sitting round the table, on the other side of the curtain... If I peeped through, I might see Gustav again."
Parting the curtain cautiously she looked through the folds with the confidence of seeing a stately and well-bred company posed like statues around a formal white feast.
She was right—for they were still there, sitting at the same table. But a horrible and sinister change had taken place. The lace cloth and the orchids had gone, while the air was thick with a fog of smoke. Around a green roulette-cloth was gathered a circle of gamblers who watched the spinning wheel with greedy eyes.
As she looked at them, Georgia felt that she was viewing a scene through a distorting glass. At first she saw strangers—a gross multi-chinned man and an elderly woman with pendulous rouged cheeks. Then, to her horror, she began to recognise some of the company.
A drunken man with a snowy curling mane and a foolish red face looked like a debased caricature of the dignified Professor Malfoy. Mrs. Vanderpant—incredibly cheapened by the cigar on which she was biting—raked in counters with the clutching claws of a bird of prey. The Count, too, was there—his neck encircled by the arms of the youth, Clair, who had achieved corrupt beauty by the application of powder and lip-stick.
As Georgia shuddered with repulsion, the Count looked up suddenly, so that she seemed to meet his gaze, although he could not see the watcher.
In that moment of horror, she knew why she had been haunted by the picture at the Wiertz Museum. It was because the Count's eyes were blue and shining-like those of two lovely children, who laughed as they burned a butterfly's wings in the flame of a candle.
SEARED with horror at her vision, Georgia rushed back to the open window. Her dominant instinct was flight as she crawled out upon a ledge which encircled a pit of darkness. Although she had no sense of direction, she felt vaguely that it must lead her to the refuge of her room.
She was shivering with cold and her legs were leaden from shock. Her glorious liberty-dream had spun away from her, leaving her stranded in the familiar nightmare of being unable to make progress. She knew that she must advance, yet her will to move was smothered in inertia. As she toiled on, she felt clogged and impotent, like an insect attempting to crawl over a sticky fly-paper.
Her distress was increased by a gradual shrinkage of security. Hitherto, she had been swaddled in the protective cocoon of a dream, when she could not fall; but with her growing sense of altitude there came the threat of vertigo. Although her path was still mercifully obscured, she had recurring flashes of consciousness, when she could feel an iron grille under her bare feet.
Suddenly she slipped and nearly overbalanced on the verge of a stair which wound downwards. It was narrow and spiralled so steeply that her head whirled from continuous turning. Slipping recklessly from step to step in her haste to reach each successive window, she always found the jalousies closed against her entrance.
It was not until she had grown nearly frantic with fear of being shut out that she saw an open casement. Swinging herself across to the sill, she almost flung herself into the black interior of a room. As she stumbled blindly across it she collided violently with a chair, over which was hung a black gown, and then fell heavily across the bed, banging her head on the rail.
She remembered no more until she became drowsily aware of unseen hands which stroked the sheet in position under her chin. Opening her eyes with an effort she met the gaze of a heavily-built woman with shoulder-long dark waved hair, which made her resemble a middle-aged schoolgirl. She wore a neat dark-blue overall, and looked both kind and capable.
"You must excuse," she said in the fluent English of a War refugee; "but you were lying across the bed, with the bedclothes off you, as though you had the nightmare."
Happily aware of sunshine speckling the ceiling, Georgia laughed in her relief.
"I certainly had nightmare," she said. "I dreamed that the room had grown larger."
Then she gave a cry of astonishment.
"It is larger," she gasped.
Although the room was not the vague and vast apartment of her dream, it was twice its former size. The part in which her bed was placed was formally furnished as a sitting-room, with a sofa and chairs upholstered in amber plush, a round walnut table and an ornate chiffonier. Over the marble mantelpiece, instead of the conventional mirror, was a framed painting of a snowy landscape.
The other portion of the room contained her familiar bedroom suite. The bed, however, had been turned around to face another direction, which accounted for her failure to find the electric-light switch.
The woman laughed at her bewilderment.
"All is easily explained," she said. "I manage here, so Madame Vanderpant asked me to look after your comfort. I let myself in by my service-key after you were asleep, and found you hot—so hot, as if you had a fever. The room was like an oven, so I opened the sliding-doors of the salon. As you see, they are covered with wallpaper. That makes them invisible. Voilà."
She gave a demonstration as to how they worked, and then smiled persuasively.
"You understand, Madame," she said eagerly, "how lucky this is for you. The hotel was so full when you applied for your reservation that we had to give you the bedroom belonging to this vacant suite. Now you have proved its convenience, if you would like to engage it we can give you a ten per cent. discount on the price. There is also a bath, where you can be perfectly private."
Although Georgia considered that such an assurance should be unnecessary, she nodded in agreement.
"Then I will turn on the water at once," said the woman quickly, before she could change her mind. "You can have your bath before the waiter brings up your café complet."
Georgia raised her voice above the splashing of water.
"Was I asleep when you came in last night?" she asked.
"You slept even while I was wheeling your bed round to meet the current of air from the garden. We can keep it so now."
"Thank you. It was very kind of you."
"Oh, no, Madame, I am paid for service. It was Madame Vanderpant who arranged everything."
"But I only met her last night for the first time."
"That signifies nothing. She is a wealthy lady of rank, and such are often charitable."
"Does she come here often?"
"Not as often as we would wish. Will Madame ring for her breakfast?"
The woman went to the door, but in spite of the hint Georgia persisted in her questions.
"What time is she leaving? I should like to thank her."
"Unfortunately, you are too late. They are on the point of departure."
"Yes, the Count told me they were all going early to bed. Did they?"
Georgia spoke impulsively in a vague hope of reassurance. She realised her blunder in discussing the hotel clients when the woman's face became blank.
"So?" she commented. "Madame's bath will soon be filled."
As she closed the door, Georgia shot the bolt and went into the bathroom. It was a gloomy little cell, lighted from the passage by a small window of blue-and-amber panes, across which fell the shadows of people passing outside.
The traffic along the corridor was so continuous that she had the feeling that she was actually bathing in public, in spite of the housekeeper's pledge of privacy. Doubtful of snapping on the light without a curtain to screen the glass, she scrubbed and splashed in semi-darkness.
As she was pulling on her bathrobe again, she heard the ringing of the telephone-bell and hurried back to her bedroom. Eagerly snatching up the receiver, in the hope of speaking to the Count, she was disappointed by her agent's familiar voice.
"How are you this morning, Georgia?"
"Perfectly well," she told him.
"Good. What are you doing today?"
"Then suppose you come to Bruges with me? I've finished my business here, but I mean to stop over for a day. What about it?"
She intended to refuse the invitation, but as she hesitated she changed her mind. At least she could talk to him about the Count, and perhaps relieve her depression. Because the sun was shining there was still a ray of hope.
"I'd love to," she said gloomily.
"Then I'll come over and collect you at ten," arranged Torch.
It was the most important deal he had ever negotiated in his client's interests, but he rang off with complete unconcern.
As Georgia lay in bed waiting for her breakfast, she began to revive her impressions of the night.
"I must have been awake for a moment or so when I realised that the room was larger," she decided. "After that I dropped off to sleep again. Father always said you could trace the origin of every dream. Mine began with the mirror in Mrs. Vanderpant's salon."
Sure of her starting-point, she began to reassemble the links. The mirror had reminded her of her childish dream when she saw a crowd of foul and loathsome faces, all of which came from Hogarth's prints. This released memory in its turn had been responsible for the hideous transformation of the dinner-party guests, while her dormant horror of the Wiertz picture had kindled the cruelty which had laughed at her from the Count's eyes.
"That lonely island, too," she thought. "Of course, that was a logical result of Waterloo. It made me brood over St. Helena."
She had gone on the expedition without the Count, as an unabashed member of a tourist-party. With the counter-attraction of his personality withdrawn she had been deeply impressed by what she saw and heard. The guide made the battle appear more recent than the Great War of 1914-1918, as he explained the rusty relics in the inn of La Belle Alliance and described the ghastly carnage of the concealed trenches.
Afterwards she had climbed the steps to the top of the mount and, looking down on the peaceful sunlit fields, had reconstructed the battle in her imagination. She had sunk to complete tourist-level and bought a brass trifle engraved with the Dutch lion, which had to be concealed from the derision of the Count.
"No wonder I felt like Napoleon myself," she thought.
Satisfied by her explanation, she got out of bed and crossed to the window of the salon. Below lay a garden which bore little resemblance to the vast arboreal jungle of her dream. It was ambitiously planned for so small an area, with dusty shrubs, leaden statues, and a small fishpond filled with brown water, but the general effect was of neglect. The grass was rank, the rustic seats damply uninviting, the stone-work blackened with smuts.
A little distance away, pencilled against the sky, was the fire-escape. The stair wound up steeply to the roof, where a ledge encircled the four sides of the building around the courtyard. Viewed from Georgia's bedroom it appeared so perilous a bridge to safety that she decided that it must have been constructed on the principle of a major fear destroying a minor.
As she traced its course she noticed a large open window which was set in the angle of two walls. There was something so unpleasantly familiar about the sight of it that she failed to notice the entrance of the waiter with her breakfast tray.
He stared upwards to discover what was holding her attention.
"That high window is where you were last night," he told her.
At his words the memory of her dream flooded her mind.
"No," she protested. "That's impossible."
The man looked at her agitated face in surprise.
"But yes, Madame," he persisted. "That is Madame Vanderpant's apartment where you had dinner last evening. It is our most expensive suite because of the marvellous view of the city. Perhaps Madame looked out of the windows?... Service."
He laid down the tray and went out of the room while Georgia remained clutching the window-frame. Suddenly she was shaken by gusts of hideous doubt. Suspicions which were too fantastic to be credible clamoured for recognition on the strength of a fact.
One part of her dream had been proved true by the evidence of the enlarged room. Therefore, by what authority could she claim to know exactly when the dream had ended? Under the influence of the drug she might actually have made her perilous journey up to the roof.
She looked at the window-ledge and shivered at the thought of balancing herself upon the narrow sill. The gap which divided her from the stair involved a spring across empty space. If she had fallen, even from the first floor, she might have broken her back or neck.
"I wish I knew the truth," she thought desperately. Unfortunately there was no means of testing any theory, since she had already destroyed any proof. The light in the bathroom had been too poor for her to notice whether her hands or the soles of her feet were smutted, while her black satin pyjamas could reveal no grime.
Since a definite solution of the mystery eluded her, commonsense advised her to dismiss the matter from her mind as too improbable for acceptance. But that open window, with its suggestion of familiarity, persistently lured her further to the ghastly revelation behind the curtain.
As she shivered, the hoot of a motor-horn drew her across to the other window. Drawn up beside the pavement was a long and powerful touring-car piled with luggage. It was surrounded by the liveried small-fry of the hotel, each hopeful of pennies from heaven. The Professor and Clair were already seated inside, but Georgia was in time to witness the departure of the Count and his aunt.
As she watched the dignity with which Mrs. Vanderpant received the deferential bows of the management, the spectre of a face corroded with vulpine greed faded away. Below was a great lady whose patronage was an honour prized by the hotel.
Her heart beat faster as the Count looked up and surprised her at the window. He kissed his fingers in farewell, while the sun lit up his blue eyes, too clear for a night's debauchery.
Georgia waved her hand and went back to her neglected breakfast.
"Thank heaven it was only a dream," she told herself as she poured out her coffee. "Of course, when he was a child, he was probably a cruel little devil, like those children in the picture. His generation was not trained in kindness to animals. Now, the children instruct us."
She smiled at the recollection of her children's first puppy. Before she could deliver her little lecture on kindness to animals she was forestalled by Mavis, who had been previously coached by her governess.
"You must never be cruel to dumb creatures," she said, sternly, suspiciously regarding her parent as a specimen of adult cruelty. "Miss Jones says that you must remember that the puppy feels like you, although it doesn't look exactly like you."
"And remember," added Merle, skipping a connecting sequence, "you must never pick him up and squeeze him, or he'll have kittens."
Another hoot told her that the Count was passing out of Brussels and out of her life. She could hear the car rolling over the cobbles, and knew that he was accompanied by the wraith of a lady who had only lived in a novelist's imagination.
The Count, and the Countess, were leaving town.
WHEN Georgia Yeo went abroad for the first time, she went as a duty, to stretch her mental horizon. She was indifferent to any special country, but some one who was both travel-conscious and superior had advised her "to start with Belgium and work upward."
In spite of its implicit condescension, that choice was of vital importance to her future. If she had not gone there she would have missed the chance meeting with her agent, who was responsible for her visit to Bruges.
On the other hand, it' might be argued that she met the Count in Brussels; but the probability was that she was bound to meet him—or rather, his type—wherever she went, since nature and circumstance had marked her out as assailable.
Harvey Torch was not enthusiastic when he ran into Georgia and the Count as he was crossing the Grand Place. Although he had come over to the continent on business, he was combining it with pleasure, and he did not want to be reminded of clients, even although Georgia was also an old friend.
His feelings changed when he noticed her happy confusion and connected it with her companion. He was a small man himself, with a thin bright face which looked intellectual, although he was merely acute. His own insignificance made him exaggerate the importance of a fine physique, and was an additional reason why he made a hero of his elder brother, Osbert.
Osbert had all the gifts and graces—both mental and physical—denied to himself; but he had failed to commercialise his brain successfully and was ill-fated with a junior mastership in a public school. He made no secret of his devotion to Georgia, but had lacked the confidence to propose to her, since he feared that she regarded him only as a friend.
Torch's wish was to secure a happy married future for them both. He liked Georgia personally and had the greatest admiration for her as a writer. Her energy and competence was amazing, and also her flair for the ingredients of commercial success. Devoid alike of artistic scruple or affectation, she had an imp in her brain which enabled her to give the necessary twist to safe and unoriginal plots.
In his opinion her only flaw was her shrinking from publicity and her persistent refusal to allow press-agents to capitalise her romantic life-history.
His affection for her and his loyalty to his brother made him see the red light when she introduced her companion. Therefore her revelation of the trust at the dinner-party had not only raised his hopes again, but had also sharpened his curiosity.
When Georgia joined him in the hotel lounge he was struck by her youthful appearance. She wore a cream flannel sports frock, while her silver-blonde hair was uncovered. Her figure was slim as a schoolgirl's and the dim light showed no lines in her small-featured face.
"Need I wear gloves?" she asked plaintively before he could speak.
"That sounds as though you'd been moving in exalted circles recently," he said. "I should imagine the Count's standard was high."
She pretended not to hear him as she made another appeal.
"Must we go to Bruges?"
"No. Suggest another place."
"Oh... Bruges. It's all I can think of. I'm feeling vague."
Torch realised that she was unhappy and was trying to forget the fact, so he talked of trifles on their way to the station. It was not until the train was steaming through flat fields and willow-hung ditches that he asked her a direct question.
"Georgia, is it true about the trust?"
"Perfectly true," she replied. "I acted on advice."
"Your brother's. Osbert knew that I was worried about the children's future, because he guessed my dread of mental domination. It has always haunted me. Perhaps it is because I'm used to inventing thrilling plots that I can imagine how fatally easy it would be to give in to some one you had grown to trust implicitly. So I had to make Merle and Mavis safe, in case of my own weakness."
"All the same, big brother Osbert seems to have rather overdone his good deed."
In spite of his criticism, Torch's face glowed with pride at this proof of his brother's unworldly nobility. At the same time he regretted the loss of the tennis-court and car which he had mentally bequeathed to Osbert, as part of his marriage inheritance from a best-selling novelist.
"You don't mind my consulting him instead of you?" asked Georgia quickly. "I was afraid you would be ultra businesslike. But Osbert was wonderful. As things are arranged now there is no more financial worry. No more insecurity or fear of the future. We can all live quietly together on the interest."
She added with a forced laugh. "Of course, it would go no way if we spent our income on the Vanderpant scale."
"Um. When the girls come of age they can bag the lot and throw you out on your ear."
"They won't inherit until they are twenty-five. If they are going to turn out like the two elder Lears, I shall see the signs and save up in readiness. But they won't. One is safe with one's own."
"Exactly. Besides, you are overlooking an important fact. You are still under thirty. Plenty of time to scoop in another little fortune."
Georgia bit her lip as she looked through the window at a herd of black-and-white cattle grazing in a field. She noticed mechanically that the wood of the farm-buildings was painted an unfamiliar shade of bright blue. A girl with a cropped head and a faultless profile waded through the mud of the yard.
There was a perceptible pause before she spoke.
"Harvey, you know what my output has been. I've taken more out of myself than I can put back. I feel I am due for a very long holiday."
The news was not unexpected to Torch. Although Georgia's store of lurid adventure had seemed an inexhaustible gold-mine, he was not blind to the fact that she had dynamited the rich vein too ruthlessly. In her drive for financial security she had rammed the work of years into a comparatively small section of the calendar.
Reminding himself that the future would probably readjust itself, he accepted the blow with philosophy.
"Yes," he agreed quietly, "I think a rest would be good for you—and for your work. Lady, this is Ghent. You remember the poem you learned in the schoolroom: 'How they brought the good news.' But I shall always connect Ghent with news which was not so good."
Apparently she did not hear him, while Ghent was ignored as a murky collection of chimneys and roofs.
"Harvey," she said suddenly, "so many people marry strangers. Girls go out to winter sports and come back engaged. You met Sybil on a cruise."
His keen face grew fatuous at the reference to his wife. She was a strong and radiant sportswoman with unsporting methods of courtship, since she had potted him while he was sitting; but he was still too deeply in love to realise that his marriage had not been altogether spontaneous.
"In the main, any marriage must be a risk," he conceded.
"Mine wasn't. I played for safety. And you know how that turned out."
It was the first time she had referred to her private life, so his curiosity was too strong for him to resist a question.
"Were you unhappy?"
"No," she replied. "When a girl is married from the schoolroom she expects so little besides a wedding-dress and presents. The importance and excitement of being a bride is enough for her."
"Did Edward make you happy?"
"Oh, yes, he was always kind. Even before he did it, he asked me to forgive him for letting me down. I did not realise that he meant he was going to leave me to provide for the children. But don't forget this. I made a safe marriage."
Torch leaned forward and patted her hand.
"You must choose some one really worth while next time," he advised.
To his dismay, she acknowledged his hint with fatal bluntness.
"You mean Osbert? I can tell you now. There was no one like him, until I met Gustav. I used to wait and wonder why he didn't ask me to marry him. But now everything is changed."
Torch tried to hide his disappointment.
"If you feel like that," he said stiffly, "there is no more to be said—except this. By his advice to you over the trust, Osbert has proved himself no fortune-hunter."
"As if he could be. But Gustav has the same chance now. If he proposed to me after he knows I've nothing, that would show he was disinterested too. Harvey, do you think he will?"
He disregarded the appeal of her eyes.
"I only know he has gone away," he reminded her.
She sighed before she noticed his depression with characteristic unselfishness.
"I am so very sorry about Osbert and everything," she said. "But can't you understand? Every woman wants real life. I've had nothing."
"I should say you had more than your share of experience."
"Births, death and marriage. That wasn't experience. I was too young to feel. Things happened to me, and I accepted them. That was all. They seemed to sweep over my head without touching me, like a high wave. Harvey, do you think he will come back?"
"My dear girl, you had better ask the booking-clerk at the station. How can I tell if he took a return ticket?"
They were silent for the rest of the short journey. When Bruges was reached Torch was sorry he had proposed the excursion, because Georgia was sunk in depression. She was in no mood to appreciate antiquity. The old and picturesque streets, all the monuments of a medieval age, the treasures of art in the churches and museums, the sleepy canals, made no appeal to her.
She noticed the slime on the cobbles, the lack of colour, the thick brown water, overhung with a cloud of winged insects. To her the place was crumbling, smelly, scummy; but she knew that the Count would have revitalised it to a brave new world had he been her companion.
She lunched principally on cigarettes and made no comment on the chimes of the famous belfry.
"What do you think of Bruges?" asked Torch presently.
"It's glorious... But is it sanitary?"
"No. Judged by that standard, Bruges stands no longer where it did. We'll catch the next train, Georgia. But first we'll just hop into Notre Dame."
"Oh, my dear," protested Georgia, "I've seen so many churches that they all look alike now."
"But you must see the Michaelangelo statue. Nothing more."
When they were inside he broke his word, for he paused before two triptych shutters by Pierre Pourbus.
"I was told a funny thing about the bloke who did these," he said. "He used to sign his canvases by painting in his own portrait as one of the minor characters. Here he is in The Adoration of the Shepherds.' He's wearing a hat."
"It sounds incredible and disgusting publicity," remarked Georgia.
"To you, perhaps, because you've got a bug about that sort of thing. But I can get under his skin. The chap said to himself, 'I've given this job all I've got. I've put myself into it. So I'm here, to prove it. I'm hanged if any blighter shall steal my thunder. My portrait proves that this is my very own picture.' Do you get the personal angle now?"
Georgia smiled as she looked at his animated face.
"How kind and understanding you always are," she said.
"But not understanding enough to know what a woman's ankles feel like after she's been tramping on high heels over cobbles? All right. You can stop looking like a lost kitten. You win. We are going straight to the station."
He paused in the porch of the church to buy a picture postcard of "The Adoration of the Shepherds."
"Keep this for your record," he said.
It was raining when they left Bruges, so that even the enthusiastic Torch had to admit that the old city looked inexpressibly sad and dreary under a pall of beaten-down smoke and drizzle. He felt sorry he had dragged Georgia on such a depressing excursion, since his aim had been to raise her spirits.
They said "Good-bye" on the steps of her hotel.
"I'm crossing tonight," he told her. "Got to be back in the office tomorrow. Any message to any one?"
"Give Osbert my love."
"He will treasure it. How long are you staying?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, Sister Ann. Sister Ann."
"Why not?" She laughed defiantly. "I don't want to miss him, in case he should come back. Besides, I might go on to Sweden."
"There is England. The Count told me he is half-English."
Georgia freed her hand and began to mount the steps slowly. Mooning like a sleepwalker through the crowded vestibule, she entered the twilight of the vast lounge.
The first person she saw was the Count.
THAT evening Brussels was rebuilt for Georgia. The new city had not the blurred enchantment of the pre-dinner-party period, for she no longer walked on air, with her head in the clouds; but it had solid foundations and clear outlines in which was visible the beauty of architectural design and structure. Instead of an anonymous jumble of buildings, there were the boulevards, squares and avenues of a gracious continental city. She studied her map of it with intelligent interest, and for the first time associated it with the literary memory of Charlotte Brontë.
The restaurant was noisy and festive, as it was the scene of a public banquet to celebrate a reunion of Danish compatriots. Georgia was a thrilled spectator as she watched the guests exchange, by gradual stages, formality and silence for a babel of voices and gales of laughter. They were still drinking toasts and shouting choruses when she joined the Count in the lounge, where the orchestra was playing complimentary national music.
The pervading gaiety was as welcome to her as a bone-dry garment after the sodden misery of her day at Bruges.
She had returned feeling mildewed with decay and chilled with the threat of eternal parting; but instead of loneliness she had encountered fraternal goodfellowship.
The Count, too, was in excellent spirits as he related the strategy by which he had managed to give his relatives the slip.
"I believe you will laugh at death," said Georgia.
"Certainly, unless I've lockjaw," he promised. "I have decided my funeral shall be a joke, for I have attended too many grim affairs. There will be unlimited booze and every one must get drunk, to comply with my last wishes. And on my memorial card will be printed my favourite uncensored story, so that whenever they look at it afterwards they will laugh."
"I shouldn't laugh," said Georgia quickly.
"No, I really believe you would cry a little. You are so serious and so tender."
His own face sobered as he added, "But I am not always gay. Most of my time I am serious. I like best to be alone, with no one in sight, to breathe my air."
"Isn't that rather difficult?"
"Not for me. I have an island of my own. It is far from any coast. You can walk around it and see nothing but miles of sea. You would love it."
His yearning voice became suddenly practical as he began to describe his house with minute and unromantic domestic detail.
"It is a woman's paradise," he assured her. "Every modern convenience, labour-saving, artistic decorations. I suppose you know that it is possible to buy gas in cylinders? Or perhaps you prefer electric fires? You do? Good. We have our own plant."
He continued to show so much deference to her taste that she began to acquire a proprietorial interest.
"There is one room which is crying out for a celebrated author to write in it," he said. "Part of it is glass, and it is built out over the sea, so that you can look out of the window and see the surf dashing over the sunken rocks below. When it is very rough, the spray beats on the glass like rain."
"Don't tell me any more," implored Georgia. "You are making me envious."
"I want to make you envious. And then, perhaps, I can persuade you to stay with me. Stay for a very long time."
His eyes held such meaning that in spite of her own desires her nerves stampeded.
"Tell me about the cost of installing the heating-system," she said quickly. "I live in the wilds, too."
"Of course. I've told you about my country cottage. Tell me about yours."
"It's very nice. Nearly modern—built in 1893. We burn oil and coal, but we have company water. We are very proud to possess a bathroom, although it is not tiled. Recently I've built on two rooms, as my mother lives with us."
As he looked at her small composed face, the Count found it impossible to decide whether she spoke from bravado or with genuine simplicity. She bore no trace of the years when she had hoisted her world upon her frail shoulders and he knew instinctively that she had neither complained of her efforts nor advertised her achievement.
For the first time he received a hint of the secret of her strength. It lay in her silence.
"Was that first year very hard?" he asked.
"Oh, no. I managed to feed my family, and I didn't starve."
As she spoke, Georgia reminded herself that this man, in spite of his glamour, was a total stranger. To marry him would be like diving down into a black abyss in the bed of the ocean. She wanted to make the plunge, but she could not find the courage until she was absolutely sure of his character.
In order to test him she determined to present her financial situation in the aspect most discouraging to a fortune-hunter.
"I'm going to tell you a secret," she said. "I'm very lucky to secure a tiny income in time. I've written myself out."
The Count laughed incredulously.
"Oh, no," he said. "That would be too bad. You mean that you are stale."
"I mean I am drained of ideas. It was bound to happen, for I've never refused a commission."
"But isn't it possible to procure plots?"
"Not for me. A book has to be my very own. I've got to live in it and feel every word of it, or it wouldn't come to life."
For the first time the Count assumed interest in her literary tragedy.
"How will this affect your contracts?" he asked.
"Luckily I've only one book to clear," she explained. "When my publisher knows the circumstances he will not press for delivery. He knows that sub-standard work would only be a flop."
"Still, if I were your agent, I should invent a tale that your investments had crashed and that your children would starve. That would galvanise your lazy brain."
"If you did I should have to find other work. Don't you understand? With me, writing is not a matter of brain. It is imagination. You can't force that. Once it's gone, it's gone."
The Count's face grew thoughtful and he wrinkled his brow as if in deep thought. After a long pause he shrugged his shoulders and repeated her words.
"Yes, it's gone, and good riddance to it." He kissed his hand to an imaginary will-o'-the-wisp. "What a lucky woman you are. No money in the bank. No money here." He touched her forehead lightly. "My dear, no one could possibly wish to marry you for your wealth, like that gentleman with his brides in the bath."
As she listened to his light voice Georgia felt the chill of Bruges.
"I might still appeal," she said. "I have over a thousand on deposit.'
"A thousand?" The Count's eyes were slitted with amusement. "I'm sorry, my dear, but that would only keep me in the style I am accustomed to for about a fortnight."
Later, when Georgia walked slowly up the broad marble staircase she paused on the landing before her reflection in an enormous mirror. She had grown accustomed to greet it with a foolish whisper.
The figure in the glass was now revealed as a blatant impostor. Her smile was bitter to match her thoughts.
"I was a fool to imagine he came back for me. He was here when I came and he will be here after I'm gone. The sooner the better."
After she had switched off her lights, she stood by the window of her salon and looked out over the darkness of the garden. The memory of her dream was still so vivid that the nightmare shapes shifted again before her eyes. She saw a degraded youth with painted lips. A fat man with a wobble of chins, A harpy which peeped from under the disguise of a lady of quality. A red drunken face, sodden and moist as though it had been steeped in boiling water.
Only the Count was not there. He had gone for ever.
"Thank heaven I am safe from them," she thought.
That night she dreamed that she was married to Osbert. The children were with them and they all built a rockery in the cottage garden under the orange sky of a frosty autumn sunset. Afterwards they went indoors to tea, when she was permeated with a quiet domestic happiness, comforting as the radiance of a steady coal fire.
The glow lasted even after she had awakened the next morning.
"I wonder what will happen today," she thought. "No, I know. Nothing."
That morning the Count asked her to marry him.
AT first Georgia could not believe her good fortune. A wish had come true, contrary to the probabilities and against the force of circumstance. Yet, instead of accepting the Count's offer, she found herself putting obstacles in the way.
"I could never be a Countess," she declared. "I could never live up to the obligations. Remember, I am nobody."
"I am the nobody," the Count assured her proudly. "I bear an old title which no one sees in print, outside the society columns of the press of my country. But the name 'Georgia Yeo' is known to millions all over the globe."
"That's different," murmured Georgia, unable to explain a position which was clear to her normal vision.
She knew herself to be one of the host of social nonentities whose names are familiar to thousands, by virtue of their craft of authorship. Twice yearly they heave themselves up out of the ooze of their native Obscurity, on the flood-tide of the publishing season, to make a vigorous, or feeble, splash, and then settle back into their original privacy.
Her own output was too steady for her case to be typical since her books were absent from the advertisement pages for only short periods; yet she had contrived to secure almost complete isolation. She had never joined a literary club, never been present at any function, never been photographed or interviewed.
"You don't understand," she persisted in a panic. "I know no one. I go, nowhere. I should let you down. Besides you are making a mistake about me. You meet fashionable women-of-the-world. What can you see in me?"
"What did your husband see in you?" asked the Count.
"He watched me grow up. He and my father were at school together. He made up his mind to marry me when I was fourteen."
"How nice of him. How nice for you. Since then there must have been other men?"
"Only one. Osbert. Harvey Torch's brother."
"Good for him. Torch is a charming little chap. Is Osbert like him?"
"No. He is bigger than you."
To her bewilderment Georgia realised that she was definitely glad to snub the Count for his smiling assurance. Even while she felt the pull of his attraction, she was conscious of equally strong antipathy.
"There are my children," she went on. "They will always be my first consideration. They have decided tastes and they may not take to you."
"They will. But that is not in my favour. It is a fact that children and animals invariably attach themselves to the biggest scoundrels. See how honest I am with you. I will not win you under false colours."
Georgia twisted her wedding-ring desperately. She realised that she must keep her brain clear and not make a false decision. Although she could withdraw up to the minute before her marriage, instinct warned her of the tremendous pressure which would be exerted by the culminating power of the Count's personality.
Today she was herself, her will unatrophied, her judgment unclouded. Tomorrow she might be some one's puppet, a marionette, moved by unseen strings.
"You like me very much," said the Count confidently. "But you are also afraid of me."
"Not of you," Georgia objected. "But naturally I am afraid of making a mistake."
"That is easy to make. If you refuse me I can do nothing more about it. But when you are walking along that sad beach in the winter twilight won't you regret the bright lights of cities?... Or perhaps you will go to the cinema. On the long bus ride back through the dark country won't you remind yourself, 'I could have been glamorous as Marlene Dietrich.'... Or you meet some tiresome woman who brags of a cheap conquest. At last you will be bound to tell her, 'I could have been a Countess.' But will she believe you?"
"Don't," implored Georgia. "How do you know it all?"
He was presenting the future with such uncanny foreknowledge that every word found its target in her imagination. She could see the strips of brown ribbon seaweed on the shingle, hear the sad mewing of gulls, smell the wet waterproofs in the crowded bus.
"You know you missed me," went on the Count. "I saw your sad little face when you entered the lounge yesterday."
The psychological moment when she made her decision passed unrecognised by Georgia. With his last words the Count had won his victory. They conjured up a prospect of intolerable boredom. Drab Brussels, dead Bruges. A dull level ahead, like mud-flats left uncovered by the ebbing tide. Limping minutes, paralysed hours, and the ache of unavailing regret.
"You must be mad," she told him "And I am mad to listen to you. We are strangers."
"But what have you to lose? I have proved myself no fortune-hunter."
"I know. Let me think."
She looked around her as though seeking some guide to her destiny. They were sitting in the park, opposite to the royal palace. It was a hot blue windy day when the rusty chestnut leaves shook fans of shadow across their faces and the blown spray from the large circular fountain drifted in the air like smoke.
But the sign she sought was not there. The bandstand amid the trees was deserted, the seats empty. The winding paths amid the grove awaited the lovers' evening hour. Only some children played around a circle of stone shapes who stared from blind eyes.
The Count fixed his eyes on her troubled face.
"I am asking you to marry me today," he said. "I shall not ask you tomorrow. I want my answer now."
"Yes," she replied.
"My sweet." The Count's smile was radiant. "You will never regret it. I do not drown my brides in a bath. Indeed, I promise you shall never take a bath. We will keep coals in every bathroom."
Indifferent to the fact that he had an audience of nursemaids, he caught her in his arms and forced her head back under the pressure of his kiss.
"What startling technique," she said with forced flippancy.
"Have you never been kissed before?" asked the Count.
"Didn't I tell you I had two children?" Her voice was still breathless. "Remind me some other time to tell you I've been married."
"Married to an old man. Your husband went to school with your father."
"But he was in the lower school, while Father was a prefect."
"Then he must have been very backward."
Georgia was conscious that she tried to feel resentful, yet could not force her indignation. She watched with some dismay as the Count began to pick the small pink begonias which helped to form the pattern of a strip of carpet-bedding.
"You mustn't," she protested. "It's against the regulations."
He only laughed as he put one bloom in his buttonhole and forced the remainder inside her hand.
"A bouquet for the bride," he said, holding her fingers over the bunch. "Now I've caught you red-handed stealing the flowers. So I'm going to march you past every official in the park. They will arrest you and I shall be free again."
When he actually carried out his threat, the solitary man in uniform saluted him and apparently did not recognise the civic property. But although the incident had no disagreeable sequel, Georgia wondered vaguely whether it revealed a warning sidelight on his character—lawlessness united to a contempt of consequences.
"Lunch," said the Count, hailing a taxi. "We must celebrate."
Faster, faster... The mad flight through the air was resumed at an accelerated pace. They patronised a big modern hotel, with tubular metal furniture and swing music. The Count ordered the most expensive food, most of which was wasted upon her. She tasted caviare for the first time, and vowed it should be the last; and she drank wine which was nauseous to her taste, but which seemed to impress the waiter.
Afterwards they visited a jeweller's shop, when the Count bought an engagement-ring at an extravagant price and without deference to her taste. Fortunately, however, she was hypnotised with its splendour, so was content to be credited with the receptivity of a ventriloquist's dummy.
The pace of that bewildering day overstrung her to a pitch of unreality when she lost her identity and became a character in one of her own thrillers. The excitement lasted through dinner and during the drive through the lavender electric-starred dusk to the Opera House.
When the curtain fell upon the first act the Count began to question her about her children.
"Are they fairies like you?"
"No," she replied loyally. "They are big and handsome like their father."
"But he was old."
"That is why they are ultra-intelligent. I can't decide whether to make them journalists or estate-agents. They are mad on society weddings and house property. And you can't floor them over the ramifications of the royal family."
"I must tell them all about the grand weddings I've attended. This is my plan. I will come back to England with you, to be approved by your mother. Then I want you to return to Sweden with me and pay a visit to my island."
Georgia's face lit up with pleasure.
"Of course, the children must come too," she said.
"No." His voice was sharp. "You cannot take them away from their lessons."
"Nonsense. It won't hurt them to run wild for a few weeks. They must see their future home. You must remember you are on approval... What's the matter?"
She looked in surprise at his frowning brow and protruded underlip.
"I am rather horrified that you set such a low value on education," he said stiffly. "But if you insist, they shall come. Only remember this. If anything goes wrong afterwards, it is your doing and you will have only yourself to blame."
"What could go wrong?" she asked, chilled by his ominous words.
"One never knows." He shrugged. "Perhaps my aunt will be annoyed."
"Will she be there?"
"Naturally—as your hostess."
"But not Clair?"
"Don't you like him?"
"No. I loathed the way he put his arm around your neck."
The Count looked startled.
"Surely he never embraced me in public?" he asked.
Suddenly Georgia realised that she was thinking of her nightmare dream. Overcome with confusion at her blunder, she did not remark that the Count had also made a slip.
"Of course, I was exaggerating," she said quickly. "He only touched you when he was going out of the room. But I don't like men to paw each other."
"Then Clair will not be there. You see, you have won again."
His admission filled her with confidence. For the first time she welcomed the future without any fear.
"I know I shall love your island," she said.
"Ours," he corrected. "We both love quiet. Since you are afraid of the social obligations of your position, we will make it our permanent home. But the first moment you feel bored we will start on our travels. Vienna, Constantinople, New York, wherever you want to go. We will go there and back again. Back to our beautiful island."
THE Torch brothers received the news of Georgia's engagement from the Misses Yeo. They were spending the weekend together on the coast, but on the Sunday afternoon they motored over to the novelist's home.
"Wonder if she's back," remarked Osbert when the cottage became visible as a bee-hive against the skyline. Torch noticed that he accelerated in his eagerness to demolish the dividing miles, while his face grew tense with expectancy.
When they drew near he ran the car on to the turf which bordered the sandy road. Trails of tiny pink convolvuli and tufts of scarlet pimpernel, growing between the ruts, testified to the absence of traffic, while on either side stretched empty coast and sea. Two blue butterflies flittered over the grass and a lark sang high in the sky. Over all hung the heavy peace of Sunday afternoon, undisturbed by hikers and cyclists.
"My ideal home," said Osbert.
He glorified the place because of its association with Georgia. In reality it was a white rough-cast house, whose sloping roofs, diamond-paned casements and latched doors justified its title of "cottage"—the architect's inspired justification for small rooms; but it was well-built and commanded fine views from every aspect.
Owing to its exposed position the garden was too windswept for many flowers to flourish, in spite of the protection of a hedge and tamarisk-hedge. Both the gate and front door were open, so that the men could see a section of red-tiled hall, a grandfather's clock—which ticked no longer—and an untidy collection of hats and coats hanging on a line of pegs.
As they paused, excited shouts told them that the parked car had been recognised from the windows. Merle and Mavis galloped out of the house, racing neck to neck. They charged at Osbert, involving him in a Catherine's wheel of whirling tanned limbs, while Harvey, who was contented to be neglected in favour of his brother, stood by and smiled at the demonstration.
They were fine well-built children, with straight legs like brown pillars and manes of tawny-gold hair. Although there was ten months' difference in age, they had the appearance of twins. Their faces were impressive of strong character, and they were handsome in spite of a resemblance to their heavy-jowled father.
They wore singlets and panties of faded green Tussore and plimsols stained with sea water; yet, like their parent, they managed to present that misleading impression of opulence, which in the end had misled himself—to his ruin.
Mavis had already developed a swagger which her governess, Miss Jones, the rector's daughter, was doing her utmost to discourage. She was first to break away from the hugging competition to greet Harvey.
"Heard the news, big boy?" she asked, taking advantage of her mother's absence to air unauthorised culture.
"Shoot," he replied mechanically.
As usual she was forestalled by her young sister, who was unhampered by accuracy.
"We are all going to be Countesses," screamed Merle.
Torch glanced quickly at his brother. Osbert's face was too tanned to admit a change of colour, but its sudden rigidity told Harvey that the news was a heavy blow.
"They've got hold of some gossip," he said, trying to appear unconcerned. "I doubt if it's official."
He turned to Mavis.
"Is your mother home yet?" he asked.
"Nong," she replied. "She's still on the continong."
"Is your granny in?"
Mrs. Palfrey met them in the hall. Like her talented daughter she was small and very fair, but in contrast with Georgia's gravity, she possessed a kind of brittle gaiety. Her pretty grey hair was rough from sleep and it was obvious that she had made a hasty toilet. Her face glistened with vanishing-cream, while she wore a crumpled rose-printed house-coat and pink feathery mules on her bare feet.
"Osbert," she cried. "You dear. I'm enchanted to see you. You, too, Harvey."
She gave a hand to each, but she still clasped Osbert's fingers after she had released Harvey.
"I wish you always wore plus-fours, Osbert," she said, looking pensively at his muscular frame. "I prefer loose men."
Then she turned to Harvey with a question.
"Have you heard this ridiculous rumour?"
The adjective seemed to give the Count such meretricious ranking that his spirits were raised.
"Then it's not a fact?" he asked.
"Of course not. At least, she won't marry him. Not if I can help it. Count, indeed? Some ice cream man or gigolo. Are you ready for tea?"
"It's not tea-time," Mavis reminded her.
"It's always time for tea, midget." Mrs. Palfrey raised her voice. "Hannah, is the kettle boiling?"
"Spitting," came the answering call from the kitchen.
"Then wet the tea."
She led the way to the dining-room, which like the rest of the cottage had good solid furniture but was devoid of selective taste. The walls were cream-washed, the curtains sage-green, and there was a waste-paper basket in every room. It was the typical home of a busy novelist with no time to hunt for distinctive oddments at antique dealers.
Within a few minutes old Hannah brought a big brown teapot, breakfast cups and a large home-made cake upon a tray which she dumped in the middle of the table.
"Make a long arm," she said, which was her invitation to stretch and help themselves. They availed themselves of the permission, while the unconventional treatment made them feel part of the family, although the children did not join them.
"Now, Harvey," commanded Mrs. Palfrey, speaking with her mouth full of cake, "I want to know all. I hear you were in it too."
"She introduced him to me," said Torch defensively. "I thought nothing would come of it. He seems the genuine thing—a real gilt-edged security. It must be a case of love."
"Don't tell me. He's in love with her money."
"No. She explained—"
"I know all about the trust," interrupted Mrs. Palfrey. "But he knows there's still a fortune in her brain."
Again Torch hesitated, lest he should betray Georgia's confidence.
"One that would take too long to realise, if he really is a fortune-hunter," he said.
Mrs. Palfrey snorted as she lit a cigarette.
"The whole thing is impossible," she pronounced. "Georgia has lived here all her life. She belongs here. This is her world, and she could never be happy away from it and all of us."
"Perhaps you would live with her in Sweden?"
"No, thank you, I am not amused by mother-in-law jokes. Directly she comes home we must all of us combine to make her realise her mistake. She must have lost her head. For the first time I acknowledge the phrase 'Silly Suffolk.'"
She stopped talking as the children rushed into the room, each flourishing a recent copy of a woman's paper.
"We are settling some of the wedding," said Mavis. "We can't decide the bride's dress, for I want to copy the Duchess of Norfolk and Merle wants the Duchess of Kent. But there will be a retinue of twenty bridesmaids and the service will be fully chloral."
"At St. Margaret's, of course," broke in Merle. "The Archbishop of Canterbury will officiate, assisted by a few minors."
"Minor clergy," explained Mavis. "Just bishops and curates, you know. The bride will be led to the altar by the Lord Mayor of London, because she is a Countess and hasn't got a father. She'll wear a cornet of jewels. The reception will be held at the Leicester Square Corner House, in the big room downstairs, where Mummie took us to lunch."
"The Brassière," stated Merle proudly.
She added almost in the same breath, "I've decided about my wedding, too. I'm going to have men for my bridesmaids. Osbert and Mrs. Daly's new chauffeur and—and the Count. They will be dressed in silver tights, like acrobats. Won't they look pretty?"
Mavis gazed at her brilliant sister with envious admiration, until she pounced upon the flaw.
"Bridesmaids must be girls. You can't have men."
"I can if I dress them like girls."
The children were still carrying on the argument when Mrs. Palfrey walked with the two men to their car.
"Harvey," she murmured, "you are always so helpful. Georgia says she would be lost without you. Please find out something discreditable about this alleged Count."
"At least, I could make a few discreet inquiries," he promised, "I know a man in Stockholm, who may be able to tell me something under the hat."
"Thank you, Harvey. I know you will prove him an impostor and then everything will come right."
"What exactly has she told you?" asked Osbert with an effort.
"I've only had one short note," replied Mrs. Palfrey. "It was scrawled and incoherent, not worthy of any writer and certainly not of her, which proves she's not normal. She said she was engaged to a Count and that he was wonderful and he was coming back with her this week. Probably she is paying his fare."
When the brothers were motoring back along the coast, beside a crawling line of foam, Osbert spoke to Harvey.
"Suppose you put a call through to Stockholm at my expense? It will save time."
"Nothing doing," said Torch, poaching the idea to save his hero's purse. "I've decided not to write. These things are better done verbally as there's nothing to bring against you later. I'll let you know directly I hear."
Not long after Osbert was back at the school his brother rang him up, but his news was not of an encouraging nature.
"As far as Walker knows, the Count is O.K. But he knows very little about him. He travels most of his time, but has an island somewhere. Financial standing is good. Spends very freely and is never in debt. Also he seems a popular bloke."
There was a pause before Osbert spoke over the telephone.
"Walker may be satisfied but I'm not. I shall run over, on Sunday, and inspect this paragon. Whatever his credentials, she is taking a step in the dark."
THE Torch brothers rushed down to the coast, the following week, in a spirit of optimism for which the weather was partly responsible. The sky was covered thickly with soft white clouds, pierced continually by shafts of flickering light. A silver streak marked the union of horizon and sea, as though a concealed lime were playing upon the heaving plain of water. Windless and colourless—the firmament held a promise of excitement, withdrawn behind its mystery of dim immensity.
As they approached the cottage, they saw a group posed at the gate to welcome them. The central figure was the Count—resplendent in snowy flannels—his blond hair gleaming in a momentary sun-burst.
On either side of him, each holding one of his arms, were Mavis and Merle. They wore backless white frocks and enormous flopping hats which made them look strays from some Continental plage. Both had plundered their mother's toilet table, for Mavis's nose showed up on her sunburnt face like a white beacon, while the more adroit Merle had powdered her knees.
They waved their free hands to their visitors but did not make their customary dash towards Osbert.
"Deposed," he murmured to his brother. "Something tells me I shall never be a pretty bridesmaid in silver tights."
"Little ticks," growled Harvey, in foolish anger.
As they advanced towards the gate Mavis made a triumphant introduction, "Meet the Count."
"We call him 'Gustav,'" exulted Merle, digging her sharp little chin into the Count's neck.
"If you do that again I'll spank you," he threatened. "I only stand for that from my favourite mare."
Then he held out his hand with a smile of welcome.
"Ah, Torch, it is really good to see you again, old man. Is this the brother I have heard so much of? And every word of it good. Definitely. I am so very glad to meet you and see the truth for myself."
He continued to chat in a cordial strain, as though he were renewing an old and cherished friendship. His manner was so simple and unaffected that, in spite of his prejudice, Osbert was attracted to him. Even Harvey thawed slightly, although he noticed that the Count's eyesight seemed better adapted to focusing himself than finding the big target of his brother.
"I've something to tell you," said Mavis importantly, breaking into the conversation. "I'm jealous of Merle."
"And I'm jealous of Mavis," declared Merle.
"We both of us want to marry Gustav," continued Mavis. "I'm never going to speak to Merle again."
"I'm going to write notes to Mavis."
In spite of their threats they grinned amicably at each other, in proof that they were chiefly proud of their novel rivalry.
Torch was disgusted with their precocity, but he was sufficiently honest to admit that he would have grinned like a benevolent uncle, had Osbert been the source of their jealousy. A minute later, however, he was vexed to learn that some subtle poison had actually been clouding the friendship of the little sisters.
This was evident when Merle dug her chin provocatively into the Count's neck, before she rushed away down the garden path, screaming with excited laughter.
"Now you will get that spanking," he shouted as he ran after her.
"You won't catch me," she yelled, dashing through the open front door.
"Oh, she'll get caught," said Mavis.
There was such adult cynicism in her voice that Torch was startled. Fortunately, however, when they began to move towards the house, she forgot her grievance in gossip.
"Everything's grown queer," she confided. "It's all because of Gustav. We have lunch instead of dinner and we have tea in the drawing-room, with plates. But I must tell you the big joke. Gustav asked where his bathroom was. He thought everybody had a whole bathroom to yourself. Can you imagine it?"
"There's the sea, if that is big enough for him," suggested Torch.
"Oh, yes, he bathes twice every day. He's a fine swimmer, and he's won all the prizes you can. I'm in love with him, but he has upset things. Merle won't play fair with her houses now."
"Houses? What do you mean?"
"Osbert knows. It's our best game of all. Every morning we look at the paper and we both of us choose our house. But Mummie says we mustn't pick a house that wants a lot of servants, because we shall never have more than two. That's the Rule—and a game is spoiled if you don't keep the Rules."
"I suppose Merle has heard the Count talk about his castle and has her head turned," guessed Torch.
"O.K. She chose a country mansion today, with fourteen bedrooms and all the usual offices. That was after I'd picked an s.c. flat at ninety-five pounds per an. But she said she was going to have friends staying the whole time and everybody would do their own work. It's not fair, because she knows we haven't got any friends."
"Except us," Osbert reminded her.
"I don't count you. I'm so worried. I don't know how we shall fill St. Margaret's for the wedding, with no people."
"You must invite your mother's Public," suggested Osbert.
He was pleased when she grew cheerful again, for he was especially fond of Mavis. She was an affectionate impetuous child, devoted to animals, and very tender-hearted, in spite of her misleading swagger and bluster. As a result of her character, she was forever blundering into scrapes which were avoided by the more resourceful Merle.
Directly they entered the hall they saw the first evidence of the "queerness" which was Mavis's definition of change. The untidy clutter of hats and coats had been removed, while an imposing bowl of roses, which had obviously come from a florist, stood upon an old oak chest.
Through the open door of the dining-room they caught a glimpse of the governess laying the table with the best silver and china. Miss Jones was a plain girl in the late twenties, with a pale face and lustrous dark eyes. Her expression was habitually sad as the result of deafness, which had ruined her hope of becoming a professional singer.
"Gran," shouted Mavis, "Osbert is here."
Mrs. Palfrey clattered dangerously down the uncarpeted stairs as though she were in a hurry to confer secretly with her allies. Observant of trifles, Torch noticed that her hair was set in stiff waves, and that she wore a formal afternoon-frock.
"Will you stay for lunch?" she asked breathlessly, instead of her usual assurance that they would take pot luck.
While they were accepting her invitation she spoke with lowered voice.
"I had to see you at once. I feel so ashamed until I explain... He paid for both. Don't you remember I said Georgia would have to pay for his fare?"
At that moment, Torch realised that the Triple Alliance was dead and that he was espousing a lost cause. His face wore its fighting expression as he purposely spoke louder than usual.
"I got that report you commissioned."
His resentment on his brother's account was slightly salved by her discomfiture.
"Please, don't," she implored. "I don't want to hear one word. It was terrible of me, but—"
"But you had not met him then," finished Torch.
"No." Relieved by her confession she squeezed Osbert's hand. "It's good when old friends rally round at such a time. Excuse me while I ask Miss Jones to lay two more places."
"He's got them all on toast," commented Torch. "Fast worker."
Osbert paid no attention to him as he stared towards the staircase. Georgia was coming down the hall—slowly, as though she doubted her reception. Her face was flushed and she glanced half guiltily at Osbert before she smiled at him. She mentioned her engagement directly, even while her deprecating voice seemed to apologise for it.
"You've heard my news? I never expected anything like this when I took that holiday. Really, I didn't want to go. You made me, Harvey. But things always seem to happen to me."
"Congratulations," muttered Torch, while Osbert pressed her hand.
"As long as you are happy, Georgia," he said in a low voice. "That is all that matters."
"I'm marvellously happy. But rather confused. I shall be glad to settle down and be quiet again. We are going to live on an island, miles from anywhere and everybody."
"When are you going to be married?"
"Soon—but I don't know when. I've left it to Gustav."
"You sound fatalistic."
"Yes, I feel rather like a feather in a gale. I shan't know where I'm going until I find myself lying on the ground... Shall we see if lunch is ready?"
They hung about in an aimless manner until the Count entered the dining-room with Merle hooked to his arm. She was beginning to rub herself, for the benefit of her rival, when Mavis healed the breach.
"It's all right, Merle. We can invite all Mummie's publicans to the wedding."
Lunch was a noisy meal, although Torch contributed little to its success. Watchful for interplay, he noticed how Osbert was drawn into congenial conversation by the guest of honour's first choice of subject—the Olympic Games. He also observed the fact how—on comparison of records—the Count always contrived to be just beaten at the post.
"You are always too good for me," he admitted generously. "What was your best time for the half-mile?"
Torch was also conscious of Georgia's silence, and that she seemed content only to listen, as though hypnotised by her lover's torrent of speech. Towards the end of the meal the Count opened the champagne, which was his own admitted contribution.
"You will forgive me buying this in Ipswich," he apologised to Mrs. Palfrey. "But this is a special occasion. I am going to give the first toast. And it may not be the one you expect."
He rose and stood—glass in hand.
"My very dear Georgia's heroism needs no praise from me," he said. "You all know what she has done. But I venture to remind you that it was made possible by a second heroine. A domestic heroine who did all the thankless menial tasks... I pay homage to a very brave lady. Her mother."
He bowed to Mrs. Palfrey, who glared into vacancy with the unnatural unconcern of those who listen to public praise. She was fighting to overcome emotion, for it was the first recognition of services rendered during the worst period of her life.
Unused to domestic labour, she had done the work of the household—in addition to taking charge of two babies—in order to leave Georgia free to fill her position of bread-winner. It had proved a strenuous undertaking, and there were times when she felt faintly resentful in the absence of bouquets.
"Why didn't we think of that, instead of leaving it to this new fellow?" thought Torch irritably.
Convicted of lack of imagination and sympathy, the toast was drunk with enthusiasm suggestive of guilty consciences.
If luncheon was Mrs. Palfrey's triumph, Miss Jones entered the limelight during the afternoon, when the Count begged her to sing. She played the prelude to a song and then stopped to speak to her audience.
"I may go off the note," she warned them. "It can happen occasionally—now. It does sound funny, so if I do, remember I shan't mind one bit if you laugh."
The catastrophe did not occur and the Count was obviously enthralled by her beautiful voice. He closed his eyes to shut out the vocalist and did not open them until the song was finished.
"I should like to have you on my island," he said, "to sing only to me."
Georgia's dreamy face assumed the alert expression which was chiefly familiar to her agent.
"That's a sound idea," she said. "The children could go on with their lessons. Would you like a holiday in Sweden, Miss Jones?"
The girl's lips were eagerly parted to speak, when she was forestalled by the Count.
"Delightful but impossible," he said. "We have not enough bedrooms."
"But Gustav," broke in Mavis, "you said—"
"No—that was my castle. I am so very sorry, Miss Jones, because it is chiefly my loss."
When tea was finished—"in the drawing-room, without plates"—the brothers rose to go. Watching his chance, Osbert lingered to speak to Georgia alone.
"Still superstitious?" he asked.
"More than ever now," she replied.
"Good. I hoped this would appeal to you."
He fished from his pocket a wooden bracelet. It was composed of separate pieces, strung on elastic, and each segment was decorated with a silver emblem of good luck—a horseshoe, a wishbone, and so on.
"Wear that and you will be 'touching wood,'" he told her.
"Then I shall wear it always."
She slipped it over her wrist, and then spoke eagerly.
"Osbert, what do you think of him?"
He hesitated before his reply, partly to control the muscles of his face.
"I'm more reconciled," he said. "I've lost you, Georgia. That hurts like blazes. The bad part of it is I was only waiting for the Trust to be settled... Well, I can only hope I have lost you to a better man."
He spoke in perfect sincerity. Already he felt so dwarfed by the Count's personality that he almost welcomed his return to school, where—at least—he could sustain comparison with schoolboys.
Apart from his inferiority-complex, he could see no reason to doubt the success of the marriage, since the Count's best credentials were his lack of ulterior motives. Himself a lover—he took it for granted that Georgia's rare charm and starry elusive beauty of form and spirit, which was always visible to him, must be apparent to her future husband.
Therefore he was free from his brother's perplexity, which had been increased by the remarks of Miss Jones. As the agent watched the Count chase Mavis—to equalise the status of the rivals—he noticed that the governess was also a spectator of the scene. Her lips were compressed and her eyes so tragic that he tried to show her some sympathy.
"You are going to miss Mrs. Yeo," he said.
"I can't imagine how I shall go on without her," she declared. "She is always so wonderful to me."
"Oh, look on the bright side. It is good for your pupils. You must feel glad that the Count is fond of children."
"He is not fond of them," she said vehemently. "He never kisses them, or takes them on his knee, like your brother does. They do it all—and he lets them do it."
Torch made no comment.
"Miss Jones," he asked curiously, "whatever possessed you to make that unnecessary little speech before you sang?"
"It wasn't meant for you," she said. "It was to protect Mrs. Yeo. I didn't want her to be upset on my account, in case the Count laughed. I am sure he would."
Recalled by a warning hoot, Torch left the governess and hurried towards the car. As they drove off, both brothers looked back at the cottage.
The Count stood with one arm flung around Georgia, while Mavis hung on to the other. Merle had nearly stolen the picture by climbing up on the gate behind them—like a cherub aloft—so that her chin rested on the Count's hair while her arms clasped his neck...
Less than three weeks later, Osbert received a snapshot from Sweden, which might have been a photograph of the same group, except for the fact that they wore less clothing. But they were all still interlinked, smiling, and facing the sun.
The Count had written a message on the mount.
"Happy, though married."
IT seemed to Georgia that she had no time to realise that she was back in England, before she was on her travels again. After having been planted in one spot all her life, there was a ruthless element about this second uprooting. As her mother had truly said, she was linked to her birthplace by too many strands of association and habit, for her to escape the pangs of ruptured ties.
When she stood on the deck of the Swedish-Lloyd liner, waiting to sail, she felt unreal and almost spectral, as though she had accidentally boarded the Flying Dutchman, and were doomed to a perpetual voyage.
"I wonder when I shall see England again," she thought.
It had been a tiring day, in spite of the fact that practically no effort had been required of her beyond eating her lunch at the Ritz. The Count had controlled the situation in his habitual grand manner. Apparently independent of the obligations of time-tables and connections, she had been transported from the cottage to London, and thence—by special train—from St. Pancras to Tilbury.
The children—important in new camel-hair travel coats—stood beside her, watching the animated scene with interest. Reinforced by their company, she could not understand her own sense of loneliness as she leaned over the side of the vessel. She felt full of foreboding, as though in being wrenched from her natural element, she had made a false move.
Presently the Count joined them, to be moored instantly to the deck by his twin anchors—Merle and Mavis. He glanced at Georgia, and at once paid homage to her literary sense.
"Are you making mental notes?" he asked. "Photographing every detail on your mind? Well—what is your impression?"
"Confusion," she replied briefly.
"That all? No thrill of anticipation? Have you forgotten that we shall travel from St. Gothenburg to Stockholm by the Göta Canal? Picture it. A wonderful waterway of huge lakes and rivers all linked together by man. You sit on deck and watch green fields slide past. Sometimes the canal is so narrow that you can touch the leaves of the trees."
"That sounds peaceful," said Georgia wistfully.
"Oh, no, we shall have plenty of fun. At night, the captain turns his searchlights on the courting couples on the towing path. They bolt, but the light follows them—and we all laugh."
Only the children joined in his own shouts of amusement.
"And then Stockholm," he went on. "The most beautiful city in Europe. The Venice of the North."
"I knew you'd say that," she murmured.
"Pardon? Stockholm! There is so much for you to see there, both ancient and modern, that it will take weeks for you to know it only a little. And afterwards, the journey past the Thousand Islands—to our own home."
He glanced at his watch and instantly became practical. "Time for a snaps. You must find your cabins. Don't change for dinner."
As they fought their way along crowded gangways, Georgia felt acutely oppressed by the limited space. The corridors seemed unduly narrow and the bisections so confusing, that she was sure she could never find her way about the ship. When she reached her cabin, which was next to the children's, she looked around her in dismay.
"There's no room to unpack," she thought.
Overcome with heat and threatened with claustrophobia, she stared helplessly at the suitcases, unable to remember which one held her things for the night.
Suddenly she realised the underlying reason for her paralysis.
"I mustn't unpack," she told herself. "I am making a terrible mistake. There's still time to go ashore. I must go now."
While she was trying to summon her resolution, Mavis burst into her cabin.
"I've won the toss," she panted. "I've got the top-berth and I'm going to climb up a ladder to go to bed. This is the very best thing that's happened to me in the whole of my life."
Although she was loser, Merle was also radiant when she peeped in the doorway.
"I love an ocean life," she said, indifferent to the fact that the ship was stationary in a dock. "Come along to dinner, Mummie. I'll show you the way."
Dimly conscious of a psychological crisis, Georgia allowed herself to be tugged along by two excited children. The Count waited for them at the entrance to the dining-saloon. Georgia noticed something unfamiliar about his appearance before Merle's cry.
"You've got a glass eye."
Georgia looked at the monocle, which was screwed into his right eye.
"Are you short-sighted?" she asked.
"My sight is perfect," he replied. "But I always wear this in Stockholm, because it lends an air of distinction. You see, I am important there, so I try to live up to my reputation. All pose... Now you must be patriotic and have a snaps."
"What is that?"
"A cocktail. But it must be swallowed in one gulp, like this."
Unable to follow his example, Georgia drained her glass quickly. She was unused to stimulant, so that the snaps—which was pure alcohol, flavoured with carraway-essence—affected her head and completed her bewilderment.
She sat down at a round table, in a swivel-chair which moved with her, and stared vaguely at a crowd of diners who seemed also to revolve. There were happy faces round her—expectant visitors or home-going natives—but she was only conscious of noise and heat.
Suddenly Merle gave a shriek of delight.
At the words, the blood rushed to Georgia's head. She rose to her feet, only to sink back again. It was now too late for her to leave the ship.
The realisation turned the rest of the dinner into a fair imitation of a nightmare. Beside her was a Swedish school teacher, who talked to her about Sweden—telling her of its progress in arts and crafts, its co-operative system, its model flats for workers. Although she spoke almost faultless English, she used the word "nativity" for "birth-rate," which made Georgia wonder whether it were her duty to correct this single flaw.
She was still pondering the point, while the voice droned on like the ceaseless revolutions of an engine and all the faces within her range of vision grew flawed and uncertain. Her lids began to droop when she was aroused by the Count's voice.
"Come up on deck."
It was a relief to get out into the air, although it was too dark to see the shore. The freshening breeze and the increased motion of the ship told her that they were getting out to open sea. Leaning over the rail, she watched the light of Southend dwindle to pin-points and disappear.
England was slipping away behind her.
"I must take the children down," she said.
The Count shook off his limpets and put his arm around her.
"Come up soon," he said. "I've not been alone with you yet."
"Directly I can."
In spite of her promise, after she had seen the children in their berths, she felt too tired to go up on deck again. Undressing quickly, she added to her sense of prevailing confusion by throwing her garments on the vacant berth.
She lay awake for a long time, listening to footsteps, voices, laughter, and all the cheerful sounds of a holiday cruise. People seemed to pass her door all night, and she saw the gleam of electric light outside her cabin until she fell asleep.
She awoke to see the sun shining through her port-hole. It was a day of glorious weather, with a calm sea, like a wrinkled blue plain. The light was so brilliant that it showed up every physical defect with merciless clarity. When they were on deck, Merle—who alone sustained the exposure—was devastatingly frank in her revelations.
"Mavis has a moustache," she announced loudly, staring at the faint down on her sister's upper lip. "Mummie's got millions of teeny lines round her eyes."
"What have I got?" asked the Count confidently.
"Lots of grey hairs."
To cover her embarrassment, Mavis changed the subject and became blatantly patriotic.
"Why isn't this ship flying the Union Jack?" she asked.
"Because it's a Swedish ship," explained the Count.
"But all the sea belongs to us. England rules the waves."
As she made her boast, the sea wiped her out. Turning a sickly green, she rushed to the side of the ship.
While Georgia was secretly jarred by the Count's laughter, Merle openly resented it.
"I wish Osbert was here," she said, releasing the Count's arm. "He is kind."
The remark reminded Georgia of Osbert's unfailing tact and resource whenever Mavis exercised her talent to be sick in any kind of moving vehicle.
"What would Osbert do?" demanded the Count.
"First-aid. Don't you know it's very dangerous to be sick? If you were sick and couldn't stop and went on being sick for the rest of your life—you'd die."
As though he divined the reason for her silence, the Count turned to Georgia.
"Are you missing Osbert, too?" he asked.
"He is always helpful on these occasions," she said stiffly.
"You mean he can do what any steward would do better. But I only laugh... If one does not laugh at seasickness, it would be disgusting. So we must make it amusing... Now I am going to try out my treatment on an hysterical young lady."
"You can't blame her for being a bad sailor."
The Count smiled indulgently down at her.
"What has become of my gracious lady? You've changed into an angry she-bear, defending her cubs. Confess it was a mistake to bring them."
"I wouldn't have come without them."
"Naturally. I love them, too. Merle has all the wiles of a woman in embryo. She is pretty, too, so she can get away with it. But Mavis is only suffering from nerves. The sea is too calm for her to be sick."
To Georgia's shame he proved the truth of his words, when for the rest of the morning he paced the deck with Mavis hanging to his arm.
Although Merle proved the better sailor, the situation was equalised at lunch, when the children had their first introduction to the Smorgasbord. It was a new experience to be allowed to wander round a table loaded with a variety of hors d'oeuvres and spike whatever appealed to their fancy.
Unfortunately Merle followed the Count's selections and returned with a plate laden with strumming salmon, Swedish caviar, anchovies and sill. As the latter proved to be slices of spiced herring, floating in sweetened vinegar and flavoured with onions, she paid rather stiffly for her initiative, especially as the Count dared her to eat it.
She proved her sporting spirit, but at the expense of her stomach, and was pensive for the rest of the day.
It seemed to Georgia that the crossing was unduly short. It was a respite, when time appeared suspended between intervals of meals and gazing at the sunlit sea. After her recent emotional strain it was a relief to be free of love and lulled to mental stagnation, while she drifted imperceptibly into the future.
Towards night, the sea grew rougher and the ship began to roll. She went down to her cabin to find her porthole had been screwed fast. At the sight of a swell of dark water flecked with foam, racing past in the beam of her light, her thoughts turned to Mavis.
She hurried into the next cabin where the stewardess was tactlessly engaged in bringing out the bowls. Merle, now in possession of the coveted top berth, leaned over the rail to watch, while Mavis turned pallid in anticipation.
She moistened her lips nervously when she saw her mother.
"Mummie," she asked, "does the sea come to an end when we reach Sweden?"
"No." The stewardess, who was practising her English, answered for Georgia. "It goes on—and on again."
With a wail of dismay, Mavis clutched Georgia's arm.
"Let's go home. Don't go to the Count's island. It's not safe with all that sea everywhere."
"No, Mummie, it's not safe." As though infected by her sister's hysteria, Merle joined in the prophecy of doom. "We must go home at once. There's a back way, all land, with only a teeny bit of sea you can jump over. Miss Jones showed it us, on the map."
Ashamed to reveal her own emotion, Georgia tried to make the children laugh by a miserable joke.
"Merle's silly because she has eaten sill. I'm ashamed of my two cry-babies."
In spite of her words her heart was leaden with foreboding. She remembered a recent tragedy when the wife of a local farmer had been killed in an air crash. It was the first time she had flown, and it was said that her children had clung to her, crying piteously and begging her not to go.
The story haunted her now that she felt the strangle-hold of Mavis's arms around her neck. She told herself that children were endowed with that same instinct which warned animals of impending disaster.
They knew that this journey would end in catastrophe.
She felt that she was being offered her chance to escape, for the last time. In wretched uncertainty, she lay awake for hours, listening to the slap of the waves against the ship and the distant thud of machinery. As she strained her ears for every sound, she was tormented by the aural illusion of an orchestral accompaniment to the roar of the engines, when she was always on the point of hearing almost inaudible music.
Every roll of the liner plunged her into nervous expectancy, when she held her breath until the vessel righted itself. Terrified by the presentiment of a sea fatality, she allowed herself to be influenced by the children's fear.
As the dim dawn broke she resolved to limit her holiday to Sweden and to return to England overland.
"I will not go to the island," she said.
THE following day Georgia went to the island—willingly, and at her own request. Later—when she recalled the circumstances which led to her decision she realised the irony of the situation. After changing her plans to suit the children, she was indirectly goaded by them to reverse her arrangements.
She awoke from a few hours' sleep to find the ship stationary as an hotel at St. Gothenburg. When she came down to the dining-saloon, her family had nearly finished their breakfast. Every one seemed in excellent spirits which made her feel faintly ashamed of her recent fears, especially as the unsteadiness of the liner received no official recognition.
The dining stewardess was reproachful when she mentioned the rough night.
"Only a little movement," she corrected. "One likes to feel the ship is alive. No one would wish to cruise in a bath-tub."
"Certainly not," agreed the Count. "Bath-tubs are too dangerous."
Then the twinkle died out of his eye and he spoke gravely.
"Is this true what the children tell me? Don't you want to come to my island?"
"It isn't that," she explained hastily. "But there seems so much to do in Sweden. It's a mistake to try and see too much in one visit. I am saving up the island for the next time."
"After we are married... You see, by then, we shall know each other better and both of us be quite sure."
"But it is important that you should first see and approve the island. I hope it will be our future home."
"I know. There's plenty of time."
The Count shrugged as he changed the subject.
"I've bad news for you," he said. "We can't get cabins on the Göta Canal cruise. The steamers are too heavily booked at this season. Besides the big lakes—Vänern and Vättern—can be as rough as the sea. Mavis would be sick."
"We're going to Stockholm," broke in Mavis, "to see the shop where Greta Garbo sold hats."
"And Gustav is going to show us the diving lady and the pre-historic goats," exulted Merle.
"I promised to take them to the Skansen," explained the Count. "That is our famous open-air museum. They will see old houses with their original furniture and cooking implements—glass-making—wild and tame animals—folk-dancing—and a lot of other amusing things."
If he felt any personal disappointment, he hid it in his plans for the children's entertainment. Even on the train to Stockholm he remained good-tempered and nonchalant whenever Mavis was sick.
"She will be sick all over Sweden," he prophesied. "You will be going all the time in trains and cars. It is cleaner to be sick in the sea."
In the circumstances it was a relief to Georgia when Stockholm was reached. Although the best way to approach it is from the sea, she was enchanted with its fine modern architecture, its picturesque ancient buildings, and its linked-up stretches of water. Notwithstanding her first delight, however, the two dominating impressions of the day were, paradoxically, of waiting and rush.
The rush periods were short but concentrated and induced an irritated sense of frustration. There were so many marvels to see but no time to gather a memory; at the best she could only snatch a few stray impressions which faded as quickly as poppies clutched in a hot hand.
The first interval occurred when the Count left them to visit his bank. They remained in the car for what seemed an almost unendurable period. Her lids stiff for lack of sleep, Georgia stared down a grim vista which was much like a street in the commercial quarter of any town, while Merle stamped on her feet whenever she changed her position.
In contrast with her perpetual motion, Mavis was ominously still and silent. Although no longer in active eruption, she had achieved the dangerous status of a smoking volcano. She looked so pale that Georgia was beginning to feel uneasy again, when they were rejoined by the Count.
He was smoking a cigar and appeared in excellent spirits.
"I am distracted to have wasted your time," he apologised. "It was unavoidable. First, I had some worrying business—and then I was kidnapped by two of the directors. There were letters waiting for me, too... They want me back on the island tomorrow. Small matters are wrong there and no one competent to deal with them. My aunt is merely a Society woman."
"Are you going?" asked Georgia.
"Not for the world. I will not desert you."
He glanced at his watch and gave an order to the chauffeur.
"We must get to the Skansen now as fast as we can," he explained. "But I have arranged a route to give you a good general idea of the city. Later, you can explore it at your leisure."
In the dash that followed Georgia gave up the attempt either to memorize or localize the buildings. They crossed a confusing number of bridges and ignored any outstanding architecture or group of statuary. The chauffeur, however, stopped the car before the store where Greta Garbo sold hats.
When a massive grey stone pile of Italian Renaissance period was identified as the Royal Palace, Merle's eyes grew covetous.
"Is it s.c.?" she asked.
"What does that mean?" asked the Count.
"Self-contained, of course. You must know that. Half of you is English."
The shrewd thrust made Georgia wonder whether the Count deliberately cultivated the slight difference in his phrasing for the sake of effect. Unabashed, he pulled Merle's hair.
"Yes," he said, "the Palace has its own front door."
"Then I shall take it directly it is advertised," announced Merle defiantly. "I shall fill it with Mummie's publicans, and every one will do their own bedrooms. I'm bagging it now, Mavis. And I am playing fair."
"This little one knows what she wants better than some women," said the Count approvingly. "That is the way to get on in life."
Because of its implied reproach, the incident rankled. Georgia wondered fearfully whether she belonged to the tribe of women who were jealous of their own daughters. She felt definitely resentful when the car began to pass the town hall, which she recognised by its red brick structure, square bell-tower and triple crowns which glittered in the sunlight.
"Osbert told me specially not to miss the frieze under the cornice," she said. "Will you tell the man to stop?"
"At your service," agreed the Count with smiling nonchalance. "But we must be very quick."
He whisked them through the colonnade of the Outer Court, whose double portico led out to the garden and waterside, and into the Blue Hall. Without allowing them time to admire the pale tiles or the marble floors, he hurried them up the staircase and along corridors, to a vast and ornate chamber, with walls of gilded mosaic.
"We hold public banquets in this room," he said "I have been guest of honour here."
As though to substantiate his boast, Georgia noticed the deferential manner of the official in charge. His monocle and formal clothes seemed to have changed him into a pompous and important citizen.
Now that she had lost him she wanted her romantic stranger back again. This feeling made her better able to sympathise with Mavis who was suffering pangs of jealousy.
"Gustav likes Merle best of all," she whispered as the Count raced a jubilant Merle down the great staircase.
They reached the Skansen in record time, but only to endure a second and longer wait. Refusing to visit any of the ancient wooden houses, the children planted themselves before a strongly-smelling den, and watched a large goat with enthralled interest.
"How would you like it if somebody stared at you all the time?" remonstrated Georgia, only to be crushed by Merle's logic.
"I haven't horns."
"She knows all the answers," exulted the Count.
Georgia was aghast at her own annoyance. Yet, even as she convicted herself of incredible pettiness, she genuinely feared an ugly development. The sisters had always been devoted companions; but the Count, by his marked preference for Merle, was turning her into an objectionable child, while he embittered Mavis.
The tension was relieved when the Count invited them to watch the glass-making. Georgia was glad to be moving on; but after the first few minutes, she felt that they had made a bad exchange in leaving the fresh air for a hot dim building.
She was soon bored by the monotony of the process, which seemed a repetition of the same movements, only varied by the occasional destruction of a faulty specimen. The children however, watched the molten glass being whirled on rods with the rapt attention that they had devoted to the goat.
As she dared not entrust the children to the Count's care, lest they should be lost or kidnapped, she had to remain until they were moved on by their official timekeeper.
"We must hurry now to get good places for the children's folk-dancing," said the Count. "But you will see plenty of these old houses in Dalecarlia."
Again they rushed—and again they waited—seated on hard benches around a low wooden platform, while they watched the straggling children being collected by parents and teachers.
When at last the muster was complete and the performance began, their vigorous stamping and jumping did not come up to the terpsichorean standard of the Misses Yeo.
Unfortunately, it fostered Mavis's unworthy sense of national superiority.
"We're only a poor little village," she said with proud humility, "but our dancing-class is lots better. Shall me and Merle show them our sailor's horn-pipe?"
"Not to show off," explained Merle quickly. "Just to teach them. Miss Jones says countries must be exchanged."
When they were restrained, they discovered that they were hungry, to Georgia's annoyance. She had a generic interest in boys and regretted that she had no son. Therefore she had singled out an older boy, whose singing and dancing was above the average standard.
Wearing a large black felt hat, he played the part of a father with a number of eligible daughters. After he had married off each, in turn, to a line of boys seated on a form, he led the procession of dancing couples around the platform. Georgia was watching his triumphant pantomime with real enjoyment, when she was tugged up from the bench.
"We must hurry to get tables," urged the Count. "The restaurant is always crowded. I should have reserved our places—but the day has been a whirl."
Their dinner was served in the glass-enclosed verandah, overlooking an illuminated garden. In spite of brilliant and exhilarating surroundings it was an uncomfortable meal, as the children were obsessed by the fear of being too late to get a good view of the diving lady.
After leaving their coffee undrunk and their cigarettes smouldering in ash-trays, they hurried out to the fair grounds. Pushing their way through the crowd they were finally wedged in a position near a perilously tall ladder. It was perpendicular and was reared above so small a tank that Georgia was dismayed.
"She must miss it," she said.
"She probably will—once," agreed the Count indifferently. "It may even be tonight."
"Oo-oo," shivered the children.
Their faces looked so pale in the glare, that Georgia grew worried about them. They were getting too much excitement and not enough sleep or simple food. Apart from these considerations, the future held the prospect of continuous transport, when Mavis's talent for sickness would be well and truly tested.
As she thought about the situation she began to regret yielding to the children's premonition of disaster. She had allowed them to control the situation; and, contrary to experimental-education theory, she considered that a world ruled by children or madmen would be neither logical nor restful.
The crowd surged closer in a suffocating jam. Her heels were sucked into the mud, her feet ached, her head throbbed fiercely. She had a dread of show-grounds, due to being lost at a fair, when she was five years old. She had never forgotten the din of brass instruments, the constant pushing, the smell of paraffin, the naphtha flares, the shrieking of round-abouts, and the terrifying roar of lions in the menagerie.
Worse than all was the incredible fact that this fiendish place was her beloved Dobson's Meadow where she made daisy-chains. She only recognised it by the three oaks against the night sky, which seemed to convert it to the ultimate treachery of Nature and man.
The old memory haunted her as the pressure increased. At that moment the island appeared to her as a mirage of the unattainable—a sanctuary of peace—blessed by the elements of sun, sea and wind. Even as she yearned for it, she was recalled to her surroundings.
The diver appeared—a sturdy symmetrical figure—and began to draw herself up the rungs of the ladder in slow rhythmical movements, keeping time to the music. When she reached the small platform at the top, she remained poised and motionless, like a statue against the starlit sky.
Georgia wondered what she was thinking of as she waited, high above the crowd of upturned faces, with the night wind blowing freshly upon her. Presently she stretched her limbs and exercised her muscles, as though to prolong the ordeal of suspense.
The spectators surged closer, washed onwards by the tide of rising excitement. There was a stir of craning necks, a mutter of intelligible words. As she looked around her, Georgia received an impression of a multitude of gaping sensation-mongers—hopeful of a crowning thrill for which they had not paid.
Suddenly she was gripped by fierce and unreasonable hatred.
"They want to see her crash," she told herself.
As the thought flashed across her mind, the act was over—accomplished in an unexpected manner. The diver raised herself up on her hands, with her feet in the air, and turning over backwards, dropped down into the tank.
Georgia was only thankful for the absence of fatality, but the children made no secret of their disappointment.
"It wasn't a dive," they complained loudly. "She jumped."
"And now you'll jump home to bed," said Georgia firmly.
When their hotel was reached she turned to the Count.
"Wait for me," she said. "I want to talk to you."
A little later she descended in the lift to find him standing on the same spot.
"All this time I have not moved," he said. "That is to prove my devotion. We can talk better driving. Besides, you must see the city by night."
Relaxed in the car, with the Count's arm encircling her, Georgia surrendered herself to the healing peace. Lights shining from dark buildings were reflected in the water in long quivering streaks. The stars shone with ultra-brilliancy in the clear sky. In the foreground, a titanic nude statue postured with upraised arm, against the sprayed lustre.
"It could always be like this," whispered the Count, as though he guessed her thought.
"Not if tomorrow is like today," said Georgia. "Everything has gone wrong. Even you have been different."
"I understand what you mean. But I cannot be two things at once. I cannot be lover and courier. You wanted to bring the children. I wanted to please you. I've done today what I would do for no other woman. I am not accustomed to playing nursemaid."
His words convicted her of ingratitude combined with lack of worldly sense.
"It was a mistake," she confessed. "Gustav, may we go to the island tomorrow?"
"So soon?" He gave an excited laugh. "But are you sure you will not change your mind again?"
The darkness hid his altered expression as he added, "It is easy to leave Stockholm. It may not be so convenient to leave the island."
"I am sure," she told him. "We will go tomorrow."
The following morning, when the little steamer was leaving the quay, Georgia looked back at Stockholm.
"I've done Sweden," she said with a faint laugh. "I've seen the shop where Greta Garbo sold hats."
STANDING on the deck of the little steamer—bound for Sältsjöbaden, en route for the island—Georgia's spirit was at rest, as though she had left all her doubts and inhibitions floating behind with the refuse of the harbour.
In the past there were times when she was aware of an unappeased clamant self, rending her in its struggles for liberty. Although she had sacrificed herself to secure her children's future, her caged youth reproached her for years of wastage.
Now, as she watched the sunlight sparkling on the foaming wake below, she told herself that—in this journey—she made full atonement to that prisoner.
She took off her hat, letting the breeze ruffle her hair, which was fairer than that of any Swedish passenger, while she watched the Count with proud and happy eyes. He, too, was in holiday mood, while he strode about the little vessel as though he had commandeered her. Wearing unconventional flannels and with a black beret pulled down over one side of his head, he reminded her again of the bewildering stranger who had leaped into her life, to claim her.
He was always a striking figure and she noticed that the other women looked enviously at her when he crossed to her side.
"I'm walking on air," he told her.
In that moment she felt triumphantly justified; but when she spoke it was to mention business.
"What do I owe you?"
"Nothing," he replied.
"But you've paid for everything."
"Don't worry, my sweet. I'll send in my bill later... What is the matter with your charming daughters, madame? I am not a success today."
"They didn't want to come," she replied.
"Oh"—she hesitated—"some nonsense about danger."
A look of interest flickered into his eyes.
"That's rather odd. Once I had a mare who refused at a jump. There was a concealed quarry on the other side, so she would have broken both our necks. These foolish creatures—they know."
Georgia made no comment on an anecdote which appeared irrelevant. She was only thankful that the children were on board after a preliminary mutiny. Attracted by his uniform, Merle was shamelessly shadowing one of the steamer's officers, while Mavis was making a pencil stroke in a notebook to correspond with every island they passed.
Her expression was grim as she explained.
"I'm finding out for myself if there really are a thousand islands."
"Come and count them with me," urged the Count, boyishly clasping Georgia's hand and drawing her away.
In her emancipation from family ties, she felt unusually free and youthful, as she stood beside him, watching the islands of the Archipelago slide by. Some were merely rocks of red granite, barren of vegetation—others were sufficiently large to be sites of summer residences.
"Wait till you see mine," boasted the Count, whenever she admired a wooden villa—painted white on vermilion—sheltering amid the trees.
They churned their way through straits so narrow that their wave flooded the margins of the shore, fringing it with floating grass and bushes. Overhead a deep-blue sky was veined with streamers of feathery clouds. As one passed before the sun, dimming the green landscape, a corresponding shadow fell on Georgia's face.
"Does your aunt expect us?" she asked.
"How could she?" he twisted his lips. "If I sent her a telegram we should bring it with us. We collect our mail and supplies ourselves from Sältsjöbaden. Once you get to the island, my dear, you will find that all the wires are cut."
"But there's wireless," she reminded him with a laugh. "And I'm always reading that even England is no longer an island."
When they left the steamer at Sältsjöbaden, they lunched at a restaurant which commanded a fine view of the wooded peninsula and the busy waterways of the Skärgård. Afterwards, while they waited for the Count's motor-launch, which was to convey them to the island, they strolled along the shore to where a recumbent statue was carved on a low rock.
The children scrambled across to it and appealed to the Count to take their photographs. He unstrapped his camera and was beginning to focus them when he changed his mind.
"We will all of us pose in a group," he said. "I'll ask that chap over there to snap us."
He leaped over the seaweed draped boulders and returned, accompanied by a beaming youth in a bathing suit, who took immediate command of the situation.
"All stand together, please," he said in excellent English. "You, sir, put your arm around the lady and forget she is your wife. All of you—smile... Now."
The Count was in boisterous spirits after they had thanked the amateur photographer.
"I told him to take several exposures," he said, as they walked to the quay. "I especially want a record of our happiness today."
Georgia was to remember the incident later. At the time it was crowded out by the thrill of departure in the motor-launch. As they boarded it the Count spoke to her.
"Say 'Good-bye' to the land. We are just going to break contact."
"When are we coming back?" she asked.
"What does it matter? There's no time on the island. Directly we start I'm going to throw your watch into the sea. 'The owner has no further use for it.' We'll exchange it for a mermaid—a pretty one for me... We're off."
He shouted in excitement as they shot away, leaping out of the water in a sheet of spray. Then he turned and spoke to Mavis, who sat rigid, with every muscle taut.
"We are going so fast that you won't have time to be sick. That's the way to cheat the fishes."
His shock tactics proved successful, for as she continued to hold her breath, the pressure of the air on her face gradually acted as an anaesthetic. Her lids dropped drowsily and her head flopped heavily down on Merle's shoulder.
"Oh, you poor little thing," cried Merle, seizing her chance to dramatise the situation. "You're wanting your mother."
Georgia took no notice of her reproachful glare. Contrary to all precedent she laughed, as Merle put her arm around her elder sister with a stressed maternal gesture. In her new mood of exhilaration, she felt rebellious of all shackles, even those forged by affection.
She had sacrificed so many years to the pelican tradition—but today was hers alone.
"I made them a present of yesterday, and a fine mess they made of it," she reminded herself. "I shall never think of Stockholm without panting—or yawning."
At first they threaded their way between the islands of the Archipelago, but gradually they struck out into the open sea. The Count pulled off his beret before he took the wheel from the mechanic, and shouted to Georgia to stand beside him.
"I am a Viking," he said, "and you are a Viking's bride coming to her home."
The foam stung her eyes and caked on her lips. The sun burned her face—the wind plucked at the roots of her hair. In her ears was the sound of muffled drums—under her feet, a live pulsating craft that staggered and rolled in a frenzy of speed. She felt that she was shooting forward into her future as they dashed over a galloping blue sea, crested with a drove of white horses.
Merle's plaintive voice recalled her to the present.
"Mummie, is this really final?"
"What do you mean?" called Georgia.
"Gustav told us to say 'Good-bye.'"
She shook her head to reassure the child, although at the moment, the break seemed absolute. No land was in sight—no bird in the sky. The last rocky islet had been left behind. There was only miles and miles of water.
It was early evening when they first sighted the island as a violet smudge on the horizon, but when they reached it the last rays of the sun were still touching the olive-green waves with streaks of tangerine. Apparently three to four acres in extent, it was well wooded with pine and birch, in addition to ornamental shrubs.
The house was situated at its higher end and was built up on rising ground, so that the second-floor back rooms directly overhung the sea. It was an imposing building, white and solid, of modern architecture, with flat roofs and sun balconies, reached by a sweep of low curving steps.
Georgia, who had expected the usual wooden structure, was astounded by its size and importance.
"It must have cost you a fortune just to have the materials brought out," she said.
"I didn't," explained the Count. "Fools build houses and wise men live in them. It was built by a loopy millionaire. After his death it was a white elephant, because it was too lonely. I paid a stiff price for it, but it went for a song really. Now we are going all around it, so that you can see it from every side."
As the motor-launch drew a circle of foam around the island, Georgia saw an indistinct figure standing on a verandah. No hand was waved in welcome, so she concluded that the watcher must be a servant.
The landing-stage and the boat-house were sheltered in the mouth of a miniature bay at the low end of the island. Directly the launch was stationary the Count swung Georgia off her feet, and carried her ashore.
"The bride comes home," he said.
DIRECTLY Georgia's feet were again on the ground, the Count changed from lover to host.
"Before we go up to the house you must see the swimming pool," he said.
He led them to the left and down a flight of steps roughly cut in the rock, to a level clearing among the trees, where an open-air bath had been built. At that time of the evening, it looked dark and cold—more like a Roman relic than a Hollywood playing-ground—but the children were jubilant.
"The water here is warmed by the sun," explained the Count. "The sea is too rough and cold for the children... And now we will give my aunt a shock."
Remembering the figure on the balcony, Georgia was not so certain about the element of surprise. She knew that their arrival had been watched from the house, so she was spared the risk of making an unexpected arrival. Yet her heart fluttered with slight nervousness as they climbed up the winding path between the pines.
On either side she could see glimpses of a tossing sea, and a white tongue of foam licking the rocky base below. Soon they emerged from the trees and came out on a small lawn with flower borders, which lay in front of the house. As they were crossing it, Mrs. Vanderpant appeared and stood at the top of the steps to receive them.
In spite of her isolation from Society there was no change in her appearance. She had made no concession to Nature, but looked as formal, stately, and expensively-gowned as the hostess of the Brussels dinner-party. Her pale face was unpowdered and her white hair unruffled by the breeze.
To Georgia's surprise she held out her hand with an astringent smile. Although her natural expression was stiffened in too harsh a mould for her face to soften, she seemed to be making an effort to be gracious.
"I am pleased to receive you here," she said to Georgia. "In my opinion Gustav has made a wise choice. I congratulate you both."
Georgia smiled her thanks even while she glanced apprehensively at the children.
"I'm afraid you did not expect an invasion," she said.
"The surprise makes my pleasure the greater," Mrs. Vanderpant assured her with polite insincerity. "No house is complete without children."
The children hastily assumed their consumptive choir-boy expressions, as guarantee of future good behaviour, while Georgia—groping for a link of common interest—dared to ask a personal question.
"Have you any grandchildren?"
"My social obligations did not permit me to have any family," said Mrs. Vanderpant coldly, cutting away the essential connection with posterity.
"You must see the house," broke in the Count. "It wants to welcome its mistress... Oh, my dear aunt, have I been tactless?"
She shook her head.
"I look forward to resigning my position to Georgia," she said. "I have a heavy engagement list for the autumn."
With the detached manner of a superior caretaker—who does not want to let the house—she conducted Georgia through her future home. It was light, airy and modern, with the minimum of metal furniture, spaced to resemble a stage-setting. There was evidence everywhere of Sweden's new movements in arts and crafts, demonstrated in delicate colouring and original designs.
The best room was the last to be shown. It had built-in furniture and concealed lighting, while one end of it was composed of a huge glass alcove, built over the sea. Standing beside the window, Georgia could see the spray rising and falling, below, in the gloom.
"Yours," said the Count. "This is meant for a celebrated author."
"Ideal," murmured Georgia. "It's my idea of perfect happiness, to live here always, and write more books. If only I could find a new plot."
"I'll find you one," said the Count.
He glanced at his aunt and they exchanged an understanding look.
Later, when Georgia looked at her hostess across the dinner-table, she experienced the triumph of a dream come true. Day after day, until chaperonage became unnecessary, she would see that august face during every meal-time, until through sheer familiarity—it would lose its power to chill. She would grow to accept it merely as incidental to a member of Gustav's family—and nothing more.
That first evening, however, in spite of Mrs. Vanderpant's efforts to be hospitable, Georgia was rather overwhelmed by the austerity of her standard. They might be outside the radius of every built-in area, but their hostess had preserved the spirit of the Highway Code and the Social Register.
She ate sparingly and drank only mineral water. Later, when they were having coffee in the drawing-room, she turned to Georgia.
"I do not smoke," she said, "but I do not impose my prejudice on my guests. I hope you take a cigarette. Gustav, you will find some in that silver box."
That night, Georgia slept dreamlessly, lulled by the sound of the sea, until she was awakened by the children's voices from the adjoining bedroom. She was allowed only a few more minutes of solitude before they burst in through the connecting sun-balcony. They had brushed the tangles from their hair, but were still in their sleeping-suits and had bath-sheets draped around them.
"We're going down to the swimming-pool," announced Mavis. "We're never going to wash formally again."
"No, we're never going to use soap no more," nodded Merle joyfully. "We're going to wear bathing-suits all day long. Then one day we'll wear nothing at all. Won't it be cheap?"
They were unusually brown from the brine and sun of yesterday's cruise; but apart from this extra tan, they looked so fresh and well after a long sleep, that Georgia's spirits soared.
"What will Mrs. Vanderpant say?" she protested feebly.
"She told us to," exulted Merle. "She said 'Remember, this is Libertine Hall.'"
"Scat... I'm coming too."
Her long fair hair swinging loose as she chased them from her room, Georgia looked again like the elder sister of the photograph. After they had gone, she did not follow them immediately. Instead, she went into her sitting-room, which was swimming in dazzling crystalline light.
As she crossed over to the windows, the sun beat through the glass walls, warming the inlaid-wood floor under her bare feet. The tide was at its height, and the spray—dashing over the submerged rocks below—was flung so near to the window that it seemed to be trying to touch her.
She lingered, gazing over the sea to the gleaming line of the horizon.
"It shall always be like this," she promised herself. "Perfect."
Feeling born anew, she joined the children in the swimming-pool, where they tried to instruct her in the Australian crawl. The standard of their performance was low, since, like their mother, they had lived by the sea all their lives, but they triumphed through sheer force of exhibitionist spirit.
While they were all shouting and splashing together, the Count, wrapped in a bath-robe, passed the pool.
"I'm going to the sea," he shouted. "Too cold for you."
They watched him as—stripped to the minimum—he stood poised to dive, his torso gleaming like copper in the sunlight.
"He's dressed like a statue," remarked Mavis. "Isn't he pretty?"
"No," objected Merle. "He's got a spare tyre."
In spite of her merciless criticism he presented a type of fine manhood—his shirt open at the neck and his hair damply waving from salt water—when they met at breakfast. It was an unconventional meal of the cereal, milk-and-honey variety, and was served on a balcony overlooking the sea.
To Georgia's relief, Mrs. Vanderpant was not present.
"My aunt asks to be excused," explained the Count. "In Paris or New York you will find her a punctilious hostess. But here we all relax. Besides, already she looks upon you as mistress of the house."
"I hope it's easy to run," said Georgia.
"It runs itself. We have only a skeleton staff, all peasants. Nothing can get dirty, while every labour-saving convenience has been installed. It is easy to follow a millionaire."
"Who's going to follow you?" asked Merle.
"My son—or the police—as the case may be," replied the count.
Free from the restraint of Mrs. Vanderpant's presence, breakfast was a tumultuous meal. The children's appetites were so large that Georgia began to worry over supplies, until she was reassured by the Count.
"We could stand a siege. Once a week, we go over to the mainland. But, apart from that, we have store rooms filled with every variety of food, all in tins."
"In England we have everything pure," remarked Mavis, unable to resist a chance of boosting national prestige.
"Visitors?" asked Georgia, ignoring her patriotic daughter.
"Then I've taken the island."
The first day was a succession of happy lazy hours, until the sun went down. The children made no further attempt to monopolise the Count, but tacitly accepted him as their mother's property. Most of the time was spent in the water or sunning on mattresses beside the swimming-pool. A stout, brown-faced peasant woman, in national costume, brought out their meals, so that they lived practically in the open air.
Georgia looked forward to dressing for dinner, not only for the sake of contrast, but because of the Count's command.
"Wear your smartest gown. Remember, tonight you dress for me."
The knowledge that a lover's approval was at stake converted heir toilet into a series of breathlessly happy experiments. At the end of it, she was satisfied with her reflection in the mirror, since her claim to beauty was justified by the test of selection.
She was twisting her long coil of hair into a knot, while she looked at the bright pink sunburn on her cheeks, when Merle ran into the room.
"Visitors," she panted. "They came in a motor-boat."
"Who?" asked Georgia.
"A dark lady and a dark dog."
Georgia hurried across to the side window, which commanded a view of the steps. Then her face stiffened and lost its glow as she recognised the slim, black-haired figure below.
"That's not a lady," she said in a flat voice.
"Yes, it is a lady," persisted Merle. "Don't be silly, Mummie. Lots of ladies wear trousers."
Georgia shook her head.
"That is the Count's nephew," she said. "His name is 'Clair.'"
AT the sight of Clair, Georgia realised that she had touched a peak of happiness which she could never scale again. His presence on the island would mitigate its perfection. She would be conscious of his hostile criticism and aware of her own jealousy, while the fact that he had power to arouse such an emotion, made her feel angry and ashamed.
"He may not stay long," she thought hopefully.
Anxious to know the worst, and not to delay an unpleasant meeting, she came downstairs to the balcony. Clair—in loose dark-blue trousers and a white sleeveless sweater—was talking to the Count in too low a tone to be overheard. From his frown, however, he seemed to resent the children, who were making friends with the dark dog—a black mongrel.
To her astonishment, he gave her a comparatively friendly greeting.
"Congratulations," he said gruffly. "Of course, it should be the old wheeze—condolences. Gustav's a swell worker, except between meals."
"Were you surprised?" asked Georgia.
"Not me. That dinner at Brussels put me wise. Directly I set eyes on you I knew some one's number was up."
"These things are Fate," said the Count.
"Where is your luggage?" asked Georgia, determined to settle the direction whence blew this particular wind of destiny.
As she had suspected, the youth shook his head.
"Gosh, I've none," he said. "All my things are parked here, of course. Usual room, Gustav?"
When Clair had run up the stairs, covering three in every stride, Georgia turned to the Count.
"Will Clair come with us on our honeymoon?" she asked.
"Are you angry?" His voice was surprised. "Why? You are going to marry into my family, and I am determined that my family shall recognise you as my future wife. I should resent any slight shown to you."
"You mean he came specially to congratulate me?"
"How long will he stay?"
"How do I know? He comes and goes. But I cannot understand why you should resent him A boy... And you look so beautiful."
She allowed herself to be won over by the charm of his smile, even while she nursed a secret grudge when she remembered his promise at the opera.
In her heart she felt that the Count had betrayed her trust. Her thoughts were so bitter that she was actually grateful to Merle for a display of frank feeling, when Clair—slim and elegant in his evening-suit—sauntered downstairs.
He took the dark dog by the collar and began to lead him down the steps of the balcony.
"Isn't he staying?" wailed Merle.
"No, he's going back to the mainland with his master."
"Oh. If you can't both be spared, do you think he'd mind staying, instead of you?"
The dog saved the situation by breaking free at the sound of a distant whistle.
"You can make a fool of yourself, but you can't make a fool of him," commented Clair. "A bit like your mother, aren't you? I mean in looks, of course."
His pretence of explanation turned his comparison to a feline remark. At dinner, however, his behaviour was that of any ill-mannered youth obsessed with a craze. Mrs. Vanderpant had to reprove him for monopolising the conversation with a technical monologue on photography.
"I'm having a whack at a competition," he explained. "Subject is 'Married Love.' I warn you, you are my victims. Anticipating, you know."
He carried out his threat with such thoroughness and untiring energy that he turned himself into a public nuisance. During the next few days he hounded down Georgia and the Count, not only urging them to pose together affectionately before his camera, but pestering them to change their costumes continually.
He photographed them in bathing-slips, in evening dress, in shorts, in tweeds, in trousers, and even in furs. Sometimes he included the children as subjects, although he was indifferent to them otherwise than as accessories.
"I believe he chases us just to annoy me," said Georgia rebelliously to the Count.
"No, he is only experimenting with lighting and angles," he assured her. "He is always like this with every new hobby. A big flare—and then, pouf. It is over. But since you object, I shall forbid him to take any more photographs."
Clair received the ultimatum with a sullen shrug.
"O.K. I was only trying to immortalise a perfect union—one that is nearly as lasting and sacred as whisky and soda. That is why I wanted a seasonal record. You get the idea? Love that lasts from spring to winter. But I've got a fair bag. I can start developing."
Although he became practically invisible, except at meal times, Georgia was conscious of a change in the mental atmosphere. In spite of ideal conditions, life was a perpetual holiday rather than an idyll. The Count showed no tendency to confuse his island with a blue lagoon, in spite of opportunity. He swam, boated, and sunbathed with Georgia, but he did not resent the presence of the children or plan to be alone with her.
For consolation, she reminded herself that she would keep the memory of two perfect moments—the wonder of his proposal—the thrill of being carried ashore in his arms.
"'Many a woman has lived for less,'" she quoted to herself. "When we are married and the others gone, it will be perfect again."
She had to admit defeat, however, with regard to her hostess. Although the bleached patrician face grew familiar to her across the table, their relations remained formal. By virtue of her own example, Mrs. Vanderpant exacted a high standard of dress in the evenings, while the conversation might have been pre-arranged, to judge from her automatic lead from one conventional subject to another.
In spite of her gracious permission, renewed every evening, Georgia never ventured to smoke in her presence. She noticed that the Count and Clair abstained, as though to indicate to her the strength of Mrs. Vanderpant's objection to tobacco.
Presumably prejudiced by the incident of the dog, the children made no attempt to be friendly with Clair, who ignored them.
"He's a sissy," declared Merle scornfully. "I challenged him to a swimming match. But he wouldn't."
"Not English," explained Mavis.
Before the end of the week—which, although she did not know it, ran according to schedule—Georgia became aware of a secret undertow which rendered her uneasy, without offering grounds for any particular suspicion.
The first incident occurred at dinner, when the children had displayed embarrassing appetites.
"Going native seems to agree with them," remarked Georgia. "It's a pity they can't stay here altogether."
"What's the snag?" asked Clair.
"They must be educated. But I can't sell Gustav the idea of a resident governess."
Clair's grin was so faunish that Georgia suspected a trap. When she met Professor Malfoy at the Brussels dinner-party, she had been so confused that she only retained a vague memory of vast permeating benevolence, combined with impressive silence.
"Is his degree honorary?" she asked. "Isn't he really a scholar?"
At the question Clair became almost hysterical with laughter.
"Sure," he gasped. "It's honorary. The sort of dope that is handed out to persons of rank who can't write their own names."
"Our King and Queen wear caps and gowns sometimes," explained Mavis pompously. "But they haven't got to pass the exams first. English royalty knows everything."
Unconscious that she had relieved the tension, she was delighted with her success when the laughter became general.
But Georgia felt that she had been treated with discourtesy. Coupled with Mrs. Vanderpant's punctilious standard of behaviour, she felt baffled as well as annoyed by the incident.
"Why did Clair laugh at an ordinary question?" she asked the Count resentfully, as they strolled out in the starlit grounds, so as not to pollute the drawing-room with their cigarettes.
"Oh, he's nuts," was the careless reply.
"He's certainly incredible. It is better to be frank, Gustav. If he stays here, I shall not."
"Then, my darling, I promise you this. You, most certainly, will be the one to stay."
Inexplicably, he, too, laughed as he spoke.
The second incident was more unpleasant, since it involved her in a disagreeable episode with her hostess. The house was built up on a slope, so that there were rooms under the sweep of front steps and balcony. As she had not been shown the kitchens, she decided, one morning, as future mistress, to explore the semi-basement.
Opening the door which led downstairs, she descended some broad steps to a pleasant hall. The kitchen door was open, revealing two of the staff. One was the stout peasant woman who served their picnic meals. The other—a man—wore national dress of dirty yellow buckskin breeches, blue worsted stockings tied with tassels, a blue double-breasted frock-coat and a large black felt hat.
Under its shade, bright eyes twinkled at her in a huge red face. It seemed familiar, although she could recall no circumstances in which they had met previously.
At the sight of her he started to his feet and stumbled towards the outer door, without removing his hat. The next second she noticed that the air was thick with smoke and that he was concealing a pipe, which might account for his retreat.
She was still staring after him when she heard Mrs. Vanderpant's voice.
"If you require anything, you have only to ring and the servants will bring it."
The iced disapproval of her voice goaded Georgia to assert herself.
"Even I know the correct etiquette," she said. "I only wanted to see my future domestic domain."
"I shall be delighted to accompany you."
In spite of the small staff, the basement was clean and contained the labour-saving devices of which the Count had boasted. Nothing was seen of the ill-mannered servant, and Georgia thought it wiser not to mention him. She carried on a stilted conversation with her hostess, and escaped as soon as possible to the upper air.
The following day was one of such perfect weather that she remembered it long afterwards. The sky was so deeply blue that its reflection turned the sea to a sapphire sheet. A stiff breeze whipped up a crest of foam on every wave and boomed among the pines like a muffled fugue.
As usual, she spent the day in the open. In the morning the Count invited her to bathe with him from a boat. She could not remain long in the sea as it was too rough; and after her return to the swimming pool, although she felt invigorated by the cold salt water, she discovered that her muscles ached from her exertions.
When lunch was over she left the others and went up to the flat roof of the house. Stretched on a pile of cushions, with the sun beating down on her, and the wind sweeping overhead, she soon grew drowsy. The thunder of the surf upon the rocks and the thrashing of the pines sounded like distant artillery, until they blended imperceptibly into one murmurous swell and she fell asleep.
When she woke it was colder and the sky was covered with thick white clouds. She had no watch, so could only guess at the time. A tea-tray had been placed beside her, but to her disappointment the pot was stone cold.
"Must be getting latish," she thought. "I'd better go and dress for dinner... I wonder where the children are."
It seemed lonely and chill up on the roof alone. As she strained to hear their voices above the crash of the breaking surf, she realised how acutely she was missing them.
"I cannot stay here without them," she admitted. "If they have to go back to England for their education, I must go with them. It's no good humbugging myself any longer. I am not a fatal woman. I was never meant to be a Great Lover."
She was laughing at herself and her own pretensions as she faced the truth, that she did not want to compete with the heroines of her own invention.
"I am one of those women who put their children first," she told herself. "Very dull."
She was hungry to see them again after the lapse of only a few hours. It was as though some urgent instinct were warning her to realise their value—in time. Dragging on her beach coat she hurried down the short flight of steps which led from the roof to the landing.
Suddenly she was distracted from her purpose by a strong smell of tobacco. As it was against all precedent, she stopped to wonder who was the offender.
"I believe some one is smoking in Mrs. Vanderpant's room," she thought incredulously.
The idea suggested such outrage that she felt compelled to satisfy her curiosity. Slipping out on the sun balcony, she crept along it, until she was able to peep into the room.
Two persons were smoking and drinking together, beside a table which held a brandy bottle and glasses. One was the ill-mannered peasant she had seen yesterday in the kitchen. The other was Mrs. Vanderpant.
As Georgia stared at the cigar on which she was biting, the horror of a forbidden memory returned. At the same time, as though a film had been skinned away from over her eyes, she recognised the man. It was Professor Malfoy, with his snowy curls shorn close and without the borrowed distinction of gold-rimmed glasses and ceremonious clothes.
Her thoughts flew back to the night of the dinner-party at Brussels when she awoke to find her room changed.
"Then—it was not a dream," she told herself.
Suddenly she remembered how the children had clung to her and begged her not to come to the island. The memory paired with the Count's seemingly irrelevant anecdote about his mare had pointed it with terrible emphasis.
Their instinct had not been at fault. They knew that there was danger in store—but she had overruled them with the force of adult authority. In that moment of realisation, her strongest emotion was furious anger with herself.
"Fool! Fool!" she raged. "We must get away at once."
But, in her heart, she knew that it was already too late.
GEORGIA'S brain whirled as she rushed down the stairs in a frantic search for the children. In her overwrought state, she anticipated the pangs of bereavement. She was too stunned from the shock of Mrs. Vanderpant's metamorphosis from gentlewoman into harpy to connect it with future developments, but her instinct clamoured that she was in vicious surroundings and had involved her children in some resultant catastrophe.
Suddenly she heard their voices in the distance as they climbed the hill up from the swimming-pool. She ran across the grass to meet them, just as they emerged from the shadow of the pines. As usual, they were dressed alike in blue serge trousers and knitted jerseys. They looked such a healthy happy pair, with tangled strands of tawny-gold hair blown across their sunburnt faces, that she felt a lump rising in her throat.
It was only by exercise of considerable self control that she stopped herself from gathering them up in her arms.
"Had a good time?" she asked lightly.
"Just casual," replied Mavis gloomily. "But Merle's bursting."
"I'm right again," broke in Merle triumphantly. "When I'm a lady I'm never going to tell my little girls they are wrong."
"All my little girls will be duchesses and countesses," said Mavis, making a clumsy effort to get into the limelight.
Aware of her superior claim to distinction, Merle refused to be impressed.
"Promise me to go straight into the drawing-room, Mummie," she said. "Then you'll see I'm right again."
Feeling that she could not bear to be parted from them, Georgia walked with them back to the house. While she was in their company the incredible nightmare seemed to recede; their presence had already toned up her nerves by arousing her fighting spirit.
"I shall have it out with the Count at once," she decided. "I shall insist on leaving directly. He can't keep me against my will."
Her use of his title was the measure of the distance she had covered in her spiritual retreat. Never again would she think or speak of some one whom she had once called "Gustav." That person had become as fictitious as the unicorn.
As they climbed the steps of the balcony, she spoke to the children—feeling that, for their sakes, everything must appear normal on the surface.
"Go straight upstairs and dress for dinner. Wait for me in my room. I won't be long."
"But you've got to go into the drawing-room first," insisted Merle:
"Why?" asked Georgia who had already forgotten Merle's little mystery.
The children's faces laughed impishly at her over the rail of the staircase, as she walked through the open door of the drawing-room. At first, it appeared to be empty. Then as she looked around, she noticed that some one was lying on a divan.
Its back was turned towards her, but she could see a foot outstretched upon a chair. As she drew nearer she noticed the silver sandals and scarlet-enamelled toenails, while she became aware of a whiff of Californian poppy.
"Another of the Count's non-existent visitors," she told herself scornfully. "But it doesn't matter now."
Although she was prepared for some exotic creature, the long thin figure stretched on the divan exceeded her expectations of abandon and allure. Her head was pressed back amid the cushions, so that it was difficult to see her hair, but it was impossible to overlook the stressed attraction of her heavily made-up face.
Her lips were geranium, her cheeks carnation, her eyebrows a thin sweeping line, her lashes too luxuriant to be other than artificial. She wore a sleeveless rest-gown of filmy fuchsia and cyclamen, but no jewellery except long amethyst earrings.
Beside her, on a glass stool, was a cocktail-shaker and glasses. She blew a ring from the cigarette she was smoking, while she stared at Georgia in silence. Then she raised herself on one elbow and, with some difficulty, poured out a cocktail.
"Drink this," she commanded harshly. "And sit down. You have a shock coming to you."
Georgia pushed aside the glass as she stared incredulously at the painted girl. While her face was familiar, she fought against the horror of identification.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Come, come," said the girl. "You know."
"I don't. I don't."
"Ah, I see it's all coming back to you. Yes, you're right. I am Clair."
Georgia had known the truth a second before. This was the continuation of a dream which turned to hideous reality—the repulsive fawning youth with the painted face.
Suddenly she felt furiously angry with the person on the divan.
"How dare you?" she gasped. "Get up this instant and stop this horrible masquerade."
Clair stared at her fixedly before he raised his voice.
The curtains of the alcove were parted and the Count—already in evening dress—sauntered out of the writing-room.
"Gustav," repeated Clair. "You had better introduce me to your lady friend."
His eyes narrowed in a smile of amusement.
"Mrs. Yeo—the Countess," he said suavely.
At first Georgia thought she was going to faint. Her knees shook violently and her temples grew cold. Imprisoned within her head was a tumult of conflicting noises—great raging voices and a fanfare of trumpets, which dwindled down to a child's pipe.
"A dark lady and a dark dog... Of course, she's a lady."
As the room began to whirl around her, she instinctively put out one hand, in an effort to clutch something. Immediately everything became stationary again, and she realised that she was looking down on a strange painted girl.
In spite of her recent attack she felt quite cool again and mistress of herself. She knew that she must husband her strength, because two children were dependent on her for their safety. Besides, she had been through it all before. It seemed only yesterday that she had been bludgeoned by the double blow of death and poverty—to be galvanised to fresh life by the force of the same motive.
Her children... Her voice was steady when she spoke to the Count.
"Please make arrangements for us to leave immediately."
"Oh no," he explained. "That is quite impossible. You are my golden goose who is going to lay the golden eggs for us. When I say 'goose,' I do not mean you are silly. No, you are clever—so clever that you will earn us a useful sum."
"What do you mean?"
"It explains itself. You yourself said you could write here in these ideal surroundings. You have nothing to complain of. Your children are well and happy. You will have every comfort. No worry. Perfect quiet."
Georgia dropped down in the nearest chair and covered her eyes with her hand, in an effort to concentrate.
"Have you kidnapped me?" she asked. "Is this some crazy conspiracy? Let me know all."
"Tell her without frills," advised Clair. "It will save time."
"All right, then," agreed the Count briskly. "The position is this. I and my colleagues are members of an international firm. Our trade motto is, 'You want the best investments—we have them.'"
"Wrong," said Clair. "It is 'You have the money—we want it.'"
The Count playfully pinched one of her toes.
"She means we are swindlers," he confided with an engaging smile. "But we are not cheap pikers. Recently we were all set to pull in some big money; but the balloon went up too soon and we were left flat, after we had sunk all our capital in the preliminary arrangements. Now we have a chance to clean up, on the same lines, in Rio, but we are too broke to finance the venture... It takes time, patience and capital to create the necessary impression in a big deal. The essence of success is to create confidence."
Georgia remembered the family's extravagant scale of living at Brussels and the lavish manner in which the Count had spent money since she had met him. As—according to his story—he was then in a state of official bankruptcy, this expenditure appeared to be in the light of a desperate gamble.
"When did I come into your scheme?" she asked quietly.
"By accident," replied the Count. "I was in Brussels, trying to raise funds for the year's good cause. I tried this one—that one. All no good. When I saw your name in the hotel register, I made the necessary inquiries as to your problematical royalties. Then you told us that your savings were invested in a trust, so it was all off, until old Van hit on the idea of becoming your literary agents. And your literary heirs."
Georgia laughed faintly. Although the situation appeared too fantastic for her to accept it, she was chilled by the revelation of criminal character which followed the removal of the masks.
"We've gone into that before," she said. "I explained that I was written out. That still stands."
"But I can give you your plot," declared the Count eagerly. "Such a plot. One that you can make alive. I planned it the night before I proposed... Well? Do we understand each other?"
"I am beginning to understand you. Now you must try to understand me. I'll have nothing to do with your crazy scheme. As it depends on me, you had better arrange to send us back to England and save our living expenses."
He looked at her with bewilderment—blent with faint admiration—for he had expected a fit of hysteria. Instead of the moans of the colourless widow whom he had despised as a nonentity, he was meeting the opposition of unsuspected strength.
"What about money?" he reminded her.
"I've still a reserve. I'll cable for it."
"That? I remember. It's no good. The entire revenue for your next book won't be enough; but it will keep us afloat until we meet a more lucrative—"
"Sucker," completed Clair callously.
Georgia rose from her chair.
"Naturally, I shall not come down for dinner," she said. "I shall send the children. They must suspect nothing. Will you promise me that? After all—you owe me something."
"I do." The Count smiled. "The loss of a tender illusion. For you were very much in love with me. They always are. So I promise you the children shall be kept in the dark."
Georgia went upstairs in a faintly-hopeful frame of mind. She reasoned that—in the face of her opposition—the Count would be in the position of a man taking a horse to water, but unable to make it drink. He might drive a hard bargain, but, at that moment, any price seemed low.
The children, who were already dressed in their white party frocks were engaged in plaiting ribbons in each other's hair.
"Isn't Clair a joke?" cried Merle. "We laughed and laughed."
"You look like ponies at a fair," she told them. "First prizes for both. Now run down to dinner."
When they had gone, she decided to take advantage of being alone to begin packing; but she had only begun to collect some of the reserve clothing when the door was flung open and the children rushed inside.
In a state of mingled indignation and self pity, they sobbed out their story.
"There's no dinner. And we are so hungry."
Georgia dropped the shoes she was holding, as though her hand were suddenly paralysed, and stood staring at them with tragic eyes.
"They said they'd run out of stores," stormed Mavis. "Such a terrible thing couldn't happen in England. It isn't allowed."
"Did no one have any dinner?" asked Georgia faintly.
"No, there was nobody there at all. And there was no dinner, only spoons and forks. We ran down to the kitchen, but a big man in a black hat chased us away. Wanda tried to stop him, but he biffed her... And I'm so hungry."
"Starving," wailed Merle.
Georgia's face felt cold and stiff as a death mask, as she pictured her children trying to storm the kitchen, like little famished animals.
"Don't cry, darlings," she told them. "It's all a silly mistake. I am going to put it right."
Guided by the sound of laughter, she hurried to the Count's bedroom. As she expected, he and Clair were having their meal together. They were pulling the wishbone of a chicken apart as she entered, but they stopped to look expectantly at her.
"You kept your promise," she said to the Count. "The children know nothing—not even why they are hungry."
"Your poor birds will be hungrier tomorrow," remarked Clair, "If you play the Spartan mother and don't fill their beaks."
Ignoring her, Georgia spoke to the Count.
"I give in... What is your plot?"
"Your own story," he replied triumphantly. "What is happening to you now. This exact situation."
As she stared at him he began to laugh.
"You think me mad? You wonder I dare let you write about it, so that your friends may know? But you forget your reputation as a writer of thrillers. You can tell the world the truth, but it will be accepted as fiction."
THE following morning, directly she had breakfasted in her room, Georgia determined to put an end to her suspense by interviewing the Count. It was her first chance to speak to him in private. After she had returned from her superintendence of the children's meal, on the previous evening, he had gone with Clair, to his own suite.
The check, however, was to her advantage; although she had not slept, she felt steadier after a rest, and fitter to cope with any fresh shock.
"I must know the very worst," she resolved. "Then I shall plan how to meet it."
As she went through the connecting rooms which led to the Count's sanctum, she felt that she was seeing them again for the first time. In the radical change of her circumstance, their beauty and freshness were incongruous and made her wonder if she were the victim of some monstrous delusion.
The delicate colours of the drawing-room—mushroom, oatmeal and faintest tea-rose pink—were unfaded and immaculate as the hues of the writing-room which had dull silver panelling and a pale-grey carpet, festooned with wreaths of lavender-blue flowers. Every window and sun balcony framed a picture of greenish ocean, dappled with purple patches—like floating anemone petals—cast by the shadows of racing clouds.
The Count's special domain was the smoking-room. The rounded logs which formed its walls were polished and planed to a high glossy finish, while it was furnished with huge easy-chairs and divans, upholstered in dull geranium-red leather. The Count, too, as he rose to meet her was as suave and dignified as a super-business magnate who was sponsoring an important financial proposition.
Georgia looked at him as he wheeled forward a seat and then waited for her to speak. His clear eyes—strikingly blue in his tanned face—reminded her of yesterday, when she had tested the cold strength of the open sea. Less than twenty-four hours ago, he had held her in his arms, protecting her from the full force of the waves. At the time, she was dazzled by the sun, smothered with spray and breathless from swallowing salt water; but today, there remained only a memory of moments of elemental bliss.
"This time yesterday," she thought incredulously, "I clung to him... We kissed... It's impossible."
In his turn he examined her critically as though she were a shrivelled rosebud which he was about to remove from his buttonhole. She looked unusually small, and her eyes were sunken from want of sleep; but when she spoke, her voice was steady.
I want to have a clear understanding on every point."
"What a relief to deal with a business woman," he assured her. "I must compliment you on your morale. All this must have been a great disappointment to you, but you never cried. And you came to terms so quickly... In fact, I cannot be too grateful to you for bringing your children here. You will remember, I did not want them; but they have made you so much more responsive to reason."
The pain in her eyes told him how deeply his thrust had wounded her.
"Must you remind me?" she asked. "If I live to be a hundred I can never forget that—or forgive myself."
"Then we will pray you will not have too long a life. It must be tragic for a woman to grow old and lose her charm. But shall we return to the point? What do you want to know first?"
"The minimum sum you require from me. You will have a better chance to collect if you make it a moderate figure. Remember, there are limits even to a golden goose. I will give you my I.O.U., with my word of honour to remit it directly after my return to England."
The Count shook his head with a frank smile
"Sorry," he explained, "but honour is not in circulation here. I've none myself."
"Then, will you let me authorise my mother and agent to raise this money?"
"You mean—demand ransom, as though you were kidnapped? You must be crazy. Haven't I made it clear that confidence is the key-note of our business? My title is genuine and is one of our most important assets. I am well-known at the best hotels in every Continental capital. I spend freely and there is no question of asking for credit or being in debt. I go out in Society. You see, I must be above suspicion."
"How can you be when you defraud people?"
"Because nothing can be traced back to me. It is true that indirectly and through my personality, I relieve my girl friends of their wealth. But the actual operation is always carried out through a third party."
Georgia showed no sign of disappointment when her offers were rejected. As a matter of fact they were made in a spirit of feeble bluff. What she really wanted was to clarify the situation.
"Suppose I write this book," she said, "how do you propose to capitalise it?"
"Exactly as you would," replied the Count. "Chew it in advance, so that when it is published there's little more to come but the carcass. I gathered from friend Torch, when he was being humorous, that you are usually keen on advances... But my experience is that all women are gullible and greedy. If they were not, I should be out of business. However wealthy they are, they all want better investments."
"There was a reason in my case. I had my children to consider."
"Don't make any excuses, my dear. I am glad you are grasping. Although I shall let Torch collect, I shall carry on your tradition. As your husband—"
"Didn't you know we were married?" The Count smiled at her outraged face. "I have already sent the first intimation to England, written under the photograph of a charming family group—to show them how happy we all look."
Georgia choked back her indignation. She knew that any emotion would be wasted upon him and only be loss of valuable energy.
"Why had you to tell such a lie?" she asked coldly.
"To keep visitors away. Your mother is too bad a sailor to come at any time. And now he knows the situation, a gentleman like little Osbert would not disturb the privacy of our honeymoon."
"Osbert is not little."
"Strange—but I always think of him as small. Perhaps I confuse him with his brother."
Even at that crisis, Georgia noticed that the Count's jealousy was typical of his petty nature. Although he was not in love with her, he resented her possible admiration of any other man.
"He might come," she reminded him. "We are old friends. And he is fond of us."
She spoke more to reassure herself than to convince the Count. Faced with the threat of lost courage it helped her to believe that she was not entirely forsaken.
Waving his cigarette to point his words, the Count crushed her hope with logic.
"He will find the island too difficult to locate. He will come to Sältsjöbaden. Here he must hire a launch to take him—where? He cannot give directions or latitude. It will be no good for him to mention my name, as this island was leased by our usual third party. They could steer all day and arrive nowhere, or at the wrong place. There are over a thousand islands, and there are many summer residences."
As Georgia listened with increasing dismay, she remembered how once she had enthused to Osbert on the magical properties of an address.
"It's a talisman, Osbert. Only a few lines on an envelope, but complete strangers can get in touch with each other right across the world. Isn't it marvellous that it finds you?"
Now she was without this link to locality. She was merely a unit among the teeming inhabitants of the globe, with no more postal status than an anonymous coolie. At that moment she felt as though she were standing on the ridge of a flooded sand-bank, which was fast crumbling away under her feet. Soon, nothing solid would be left.
Suddenly she was consoled by a recollection.
"You forget," she said, "that this island must be distinctive. It is far away from the others—and I don't suppose there is another house like this one. It could be easily sighted from a plane."
"If any one were looking for it, it could be seen from the air, of course," agreed the Count. "But Osbert has no description of it. In the only letter you have written to England, you said the island was 'marvellous,' and that you would describe it later."
"How do you know that?"
"I opened your letter. That reminds me. All your mail will be censored by me, so don't seal or stamp anything. I am up to all the dodges. In future, I shall have to dictate your letters."
"Then, how will you explain this—alleged marriage?"
"That is easy. Your dread of publicity. But the first thing you must do is to get your credit transferred to my account at the Stockholm bank. This is urgent. Our stores are running very low. If they are not re-stocked soon, your children will starve in earnest."
"I will write at once," promised Georgia quickly.
"Today. Then, as soon as you can do so, you must send Torch the synopsis of your new novel, with a first instalment, for him to get the English and American serial rights commissioned."
As he explained, a faint flicker of hope—akin to the herald of fire from the friction of flints—sprang to birth in Georgia's heart.
"Were you serious about your plot?" she asked. "Am I to write Harvey an outline of this—this situation?"
"Certainly I am," the Count assured her. "I am proud of my brain-offspring. To a novelist of your ability, the book will write itself. You can describe all your own emotions and everything here will provide your local colour. It will be first-hand and vivid. You will have nothing to invent, so it should not take long to write. Time is important to me."
Georgia looked down at the polished parquet of the floor, to hide the light in her eyes. "Everything," she thought. But even as she began to glimpse the possibilities covered by the licence, the Count wrecked her hopes.
"Of course, there must be certain important differences. You must keep to the main idea, but there must be nothing to connect you with your heroine. Your best-selling novelist will be young, charming and unmarried. She is lured to her island by a fascinating scamp, who imprisons her and forces her to write thrillers for his benefit. If she refuses she will be killed. Your villain is a crude fellow and does not use strategy."
"I understand." Georgia had to fight for control of her voice as she asked a crucial question. "How is it to end?"
The Count crossed over to the window so that she could see his profile against the blue of the sky. His expression was reflective until he smiled at his own humour.
"Your heroine shall undermine the loyalty of a member of the Count's gang. He must be rather more thrilling than your little Osbert and provide the love interest. And you can please yourself about the villain's fate."
"I am not sufficiently interested to care what becomes of him. What I really want to know is this. When will you let us go back to England?"
"As soon as the book is written. But I shall not be here. Directly I am in funds through your serial advances, I must go away to find that rich sucker. The lady or gentleman who will finance our new venture."
"And to get him, you've taken all this trouble to kidnap me. It sounds too complicated to be credible."
"On the contrary, it's perfectly logical. Do you remember a fairy tale about a princess imprisoned in a tower? Her rescuer had a rope, but he was unable to throw it up to the top, while all she had to let down to him was a single hair. So he tied a strand of silk to that hair—a string to the strand—a cord to the string—a rope to the cord. All most ingenious—and a happy ending."
The Count stopped smiling as he explained.
"That is what is happening in your case. If I cannot have real money, I must have the beginnings of money. A man of my high social position and unsullied reputation cannot hold up a bank. The risk would be too great."
"Then—that seems all."
As Georgia rose from her chair the Count sprang forward to open the door.
"Be a good girl," he said, "and soon you will be back in England. I promise you on my word of honour.
"Honour?" she reminded him. "That's as much use to me here as a French franc on a London bus."
TOO shaken to face any one, Georgia crouched down amid the pallid elegance of the writing-room. Instead of relieving pressure, the interview had increased her apprehension. The Count had justified his boast of lost contact and severed wires; but while it was a shock to realise her isolation, the worst that could happen was still shrouded in uncertainty.
She was staring vaguely at the panels of pale-grey brocade inserted in the silvered walls, when Mrs. Vanderpant entered from the drawing-room. Remembering her last glimpse of her, Georgia started up, taut and silent, but the elder woman spoke to her in her usual chill voice, as though there had been no revelation.
"I understand that you are writing today? Will you come down to lunch or do you prefer to have it sent up to your room?"
"No," replied Georgia defensively. "I don't want to be shut away from my children."
"They will be perfectly safe in your absence. Some one will watch that they do not fall into the sea. Where they are concerned, our interests are the same. Only, I warn you—no tricks. Do we understand each other? You have placed a very valuable weapon in our hands."
"Do you mean they are my hostages?"
"I merely remind you that you are writing to feed them. And now we will not refer to the subject again... Greta does not understand English, but please write a note if the lunch is not what you fancy. The Count wishes you to have every comfort and consideration."
Georgia spoke mechanically, hypnotised by Mrs. Vanderpant's resumption of her masquerade as hostess. It was impossible to decide whether the woman would not relax her manufactured pose, for the sake of practice, or if the imposture had actually become second nature. But she felt her usual sense of relaxation from social obligations, when Mrs. Vanderpant went from the room, leaving her alone.
As she stared dully at the opposite wall, she noticed her reflection in a round mirror, framed in silver. Although it was modern and altogether different, it reminded her of a tarnished old looking-glass at Brussels which had swallowed up the dinner guests at a celebration-party. Since then, the clock had ticked away the precious hours of safety which divided her from her fate; yet, instead of lamenting lost opportunity, she found unexpected comfort in the memory.
They had talked of a man who had drowned his brides in a bath; and the Count had protested against the criminal folly of murder—declaring that every murderer must be either a monster or a maniac.
His words had the ring of truth, for Georgia was convinced that he valued his own life too highly to run the terrible risk of death by hanging. The ethics of her specialised work as a thrill novelist insisted that the cleverest criminal was the mark of a Detective Force whose brains were equal—if not superior—to his own. She told herself that in spite of a certain percentage of unsolved mysteries, murder must remain the most perilous undertaking, since even in a so-called perfect crime, no one could count on the unforeseen chance or the neglected flaw.
She was positive that the Count was merely an admitted scoundrel and swindler; and as she was equally sure that he could not imprison her indefinitely without arousing suspicion, there seemed a time limit to her ordeal.
Feeling faintly hopeful for the first time, she began to consider her possibilities of escape. There were only two frail hopes. She might contrive to make Torch understand that her proposed novel was actually her own tragedy; or, following the Count's derisive suggestion, she might find an ally on the island.
"Suppose Clair is involved against her will," she wondered. "But this is getting me nowhere. I'll write to the bank and pray some one will be psychic and detect something is wrong."
As she went into the drawing-room, she was arrested by the sight of Clair, curled up in a deep chair. She wore trousers, but had retained her make-up and additional eyelashes. Looking at her slender fingers and tiny ears, Georgia wondered why she had been blind to what was apparent instantly to Merle.
The girl stared aggressively at Georgia, as though expecting reproaches and ready with reprisal. As Georgia said nothing, she continued to examine her nails.
"Hell," she grumbled, "I haven't got rid of that blasted developer yet. The things we do for love. But I got a swell series of snaps to send to your folks in England. You look so happy, they'll be fooled good and plenty. We plan to send one a month, to keep them up to date. There's nothing to give away the season with a background of rocks and sea, so they won't know they were all taken about the same time. You see, we had to get the love-light in your eyes."
Georgia remembered the constant change of costume during the photographic fever and how she had been forced to wear furs on a sweltering day.
"You had it all worked out," she remarked quietly.
"Sure. We build up the details of every scheme. That's the secret of our success. But you were a champion sap."
"I was." Georgia sat down opposite to Clair. "You know all about the book," she said. "I am going to make you one of my characters. Will you give me some copy?"
"How old are you?"
"Only that... How did you get mixed up in this?"
Clair stared at her with suspicious hostile eyes.
"All right," she agreed, after a pause. "Get a load of this. I'm an orphan, half-Cuban, half-American. I inherited a fortune. Met Gustav—and he got it. But he wasn't so slick as usual and I got a line on him. I saw red. I sprang at him and we fought. Gosh, it was glorious. I bit him to the bone and he blacked both my eyes. He likes spirit. So he married me."
"Am I to congratulate you?"
"Cut out the high-hat. I am in with him in everything. I'm crazy about it all—the excitement and the risk. I could have married any clean young American with lots of life insurance, who respected me too much to sock me in the jaw. But I'd have missed Life. When it comes to the end, I'd sooner Gustav wrung my neck than send me back to the States first-class."
Georgia's hopes sank as she listened. It seemed a hopeless venture to try to tempt this passion-crazed girl from her allegiance. It paired with the smile on the Count's lips as he made the suggestion. But as Clair was now talking without reserve, she steeled her nerve to hint at her own fate.
"You say you know everything," she said. "I suppose I shall be allowed to go home, when I've finished this book?"
Clair looked away.
"Sure," she said lightly. "You found it easy to come, didn't you? It's the same way back—only you turn the boat round."
"That's not the truth. I want to know everything."
Clair inhaled and blew the smoke through her nostrils before she spoke in a contemptuous voice.
"You're a fool and I've no pity for a fool. What made you imagine Gustav could fall in love with you?"
"Perhaps because a far better man is in love with me," replied Georgia with spirit.
"I know. Some publisher with big specs. You can't compare Gustav with any other man. I've lived with him. You know nothing."
"And we don't mean the same thing when we talk of love."
The skirmish made Georgia realise that Clair was still jealous of her and that she could expect no mercy from her. When at last she spoke, the girl's eyes were pitiless.
"You've asked for it. So I'm handing it to you... I'm crackers about Gustav. He's in my blood—under my skin. But at first, he was only the bloke who'd cleaned me up. Why d'you think I married him?"
"How can I tell you that?"
"Fool. It was because I wanted to stay alive... Do you think they would let—any one—go back to tell the tale?"
Georgia's voice suddenly failed while the room grew misty. She felt the rim of a glass rattling against her teeth and mechanically swallowed some brandy before she opened her eyes.
"You couldn't take it," jeered Clair.
Stung by the contempt in her voice, Georgia struggled to her feet.
"I'm all right," she said. "It was just the waiting to hear it. But I can't believe it. You won't convince me that the Count could commit murder."
"He'll have nothing to do with it. And he'll know nothing about it. Accidents always happen when he is away and then he's always so sorry. It's old Van. She'd never risk Gustav's safety. She'll tip off the Professor—when. He's got no imagination. Killing's nothing new to him."
"How—how will he do it?"
"Easy, with all this sea handy and no neighbours. He will take you out on a boating picnic. When you are about a mile out, he will get fresh—and then, of course, you will have to walk home."
"I can't believe it. Even of them. They are human—not fiends."
"Um. Old Van's not exactly maternal. She was mixed up with a kidnapping racket in the States—and she always played for safety. She collected, but she only returned bodies that couldn't squeal... See?"
The increased pallor of Georgia's face and the horror which stared from her eyes told Clair that Georgia understood.
"My children?" she asked thickly.
"They'll be sent back to England as long as they know nothing. I'm warning you now. Don't let them have a smell of anything they can squeal about. One word would be enough for old Van. She never takes chances."
Georgia knew instinctively that Clair was telling the truth. She had not attempted to soften the blow before and she would not keep back any catastrophic news, to save her pain. The fact was that the children were unimportant as cyphers in the household. No one took any notice of them except the Swedish servants. It was only in their relationship to herself that they assumed any status—and that was only for the duration of her work.
With a throb of thanksgiving, she realised that they could furnish useful evidence of her own tragedy, if they were primed in all the details before they were returned to their grandmother. They could tell her how Mrs. Vanderpant had wept all night and how the Professor had dived until he was exhausted, in the hope of recovering her body.
"They know nothing," she said to Clair. "How could they? Only yesterday, I was unconscious of everything. And I will make it my business to keep them in the dark. They shall suspect nothing from me."
In spite of the heat of the sun, she felt stiff and cold as she walked down the balcony steps, into the small garden. She had received sentence of death as surely as if she had just left the consulting-room of a specialist; only, in her case, her personal feeling was blunted by the compulsion to play a part.
On her way down to the pool, she noticed details as though she were storing her mind with future copy; the pine-needles on the slippery path—the strips of blue-green sea through the tree trunks—the mewing of gulls—the smell of resin—were all impressed upon her memory. Then, hearing the shouts of the children, she forced herself to hum a gay tune as she approached the swimming-bath.
Merle was performing aquatic marvels and accepting the plaudits of the crowd without making any acknowledgement to her rubber steed—to whom most of the credit was due. The crowd was represented by Mavis who alternately blew a whistle, clapped and shouted encouragement.
"Ride him, cowboy."
"Who teaches you these expressions?" asked Georgia, as she sat down on the rock beside Mavis.
"Miss Jones," replied Mavis.
Remembering the care with which the rector's daughter guarded her pupil's vocabulary, Georgia protested.
"Miss Jones never says anything like that."
"She does, sometimes," declared Merle, stopping her performance. "But only when we are not listening."
In happier circumstances, Georgia would have laughed; but that morning, she felt vaguely uneasy. Like many an adult, she had forgotten how she, herself, as a child had overheard uncensored conversations, without betraying any sign of unauthorised knowledge.
While she was gazing doubtfully at her children's innocent faces, Mavis began to chuckle.
"Mummie, do you know what we thought last night, when there wasn't any dinner and we couldn't find any one—and everything was strange and funny?"
"We thought we'd come to a terrible gangster's house," broke in Merle. "Like the pictures, you know."
"You've never seen a picture like that," said Georgia sharply. "You could only be admitted to 'U' films."
"Silly old 'U' films. Rosa always took us to 'A' films. Rosa had power."
"Yes, she made the ticket man let us in," explained Mavis.
At first, Georgia could not connect the name with anyone, until she remembered a decorative and unsatisfactory maid who was in her service for only a short time, but to whom the children were devoted.
At that moment, she understood for the first time, the impulse which drives some women to thrash their children to teach them to avoid danger. Although she hated herself for frightening them, she spoke to them in a low furious voice.
"I'm disgusted with both of you. Mrs. Vanderpant is not only your hostess but a lady of high rank. She has given you a wonderful time—yet you repay her kindness by pretending she is a gangster. It isn't funny and it isn't clever. Promise me never to use that ugly word 'gangster' again."
Reproached by their startled eyes, she walked away from the pool, feeling she had reached the limit of her endurance. While she had believed the children were safe in their ignorance, in reality they were playing on a mound of gunpowder. One word would have applied the match. If anyone had overheard their talk of gangsters they would have been under suspicion of knowing that little which was too much.
WHEN her normal emotions began to function again, Georgia was vaguely surprised at her own gradual readjustment to the situation. At first, the shock was so acute that it had blasted her faculties. Each day became a test of endurance, when she forced herself to fulfil her obligations and nothing more.
Because she knew that the destructive quality of fear could corrode her mental powers and undermine her resistance, she refused to think about anything but her novel. When she was shut up in her room, with the sunlight pouring through the glass alcove and the foam bubbling over the rocks below, she experienced her customary release from actuality.
The mere process of converting her own story to fiction generated a corresponding sense of unreality. As the sharp edge of the horror was imperceptibly blunted, she found it impossible to believe that she was sentenced to death. Her doom grew vague as a fredaine conceived in some crazy harlequinade, into which she had strayed during a moment of delirium. It slipped away before her, eluding capture and drifting into the mirage of a false future—akin to the threat of the Queen of Hearts—"Off with her head."
But even if her self-control were not so much a question of moral strength as of sheer incredulity, there was a constant grind of routine which taxed her endurance to the utmost. She was forced to play a repulsive part, in order to delude the children that the island was still a lovers' paradise.
Fortunately, she met the other inmates of the house only at dinner, when the tradition of formal evening-dress and artificial conversation was maintained. Although there were no daily papers, the Count got the news on his wireless set, so he was able to talk about the political situation. Mrs. Vanderpant contributed social tabloids and Georgia contrived to provide the comments which made up her conversational quota.
At times, the imitation of a pleasant family meal was so perfect that she was hypnotised almost to accept the imposture; at others, the fang of the horror suddenly bit into her brain and she wanted to stab the air with her fork while she denounced them.
"You cheats. You kidnappers. You utterly vile creatures."
When she was not writing, she spent all her time with the children. It was then she realised the need to occupy their idle minds with some rival attractions to gangsters. She hardly knew which was the more dangerous to their combined safety; Merle was more difficult to hoodwink, but she was astute enough to suppress knowledge in her own interest, while Mavis was certain to blurt out any discovery.
Georgia wrote home to her mother, petitioning a bundle of copies of the Times, to provide fodder for their favourite hobbies of weddings and house-hunting. While she was waiting for these, she told them stories of healthy excitement—only to learn her own limitations as a novelist.
Although she was accustomed to please a large adult public she failed utterly to entertain her own children. They were so bored and critical of her tales that she had to invent Mrs. Pump.
She experimented with Merle who was the greedier of the two.
"Would you like to hear about the best tea I ever had, when I was a little girl?" she asked.
"Mavis," shouted Merle tactlessly, "come at once. Mummie is going to tell us all about the olden times."
When Mavis swam across the pool, Georgia introduced them to Mrs. Pump.
"She gave wonderful teas to the children she invited to her house. We used to begin with preserved ginger, to sharpen our appetites. After that, there was every kind of hot buttery' things—muffins, crumpets, flannel-cakes and scones."
She proceeded to describe a lavish feast, with deference to her children's special fancies, while they moistened their lips with rapt appreciation. As in her imagination, a huge table rose up before her—loaded with every kind of cake—an inconsequent jingle floated through her mind—inspired by an advertisement on the Underground.
If seven maids with seven mouths
Gobbled for half a year,
"Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could eat it clear?"
Suddenly, to her surprise, she laughed naturally for the first time in days.
Mrs. Pump's tea-party proved so successful that she determined to make the lady a permanent institution—so far as anything could be permanent in the shifting sands of her destiny.
"Suppose you take it in turns to be Mrs. Pump," she suggested, "and chose what you are going to provide for tea. Think of something new to surprise your guest."
Her mood was slightly more hopeful when she returned to her writing. She had already cast her net—in the shape of the synopsis and first instalment of her novel. While her letters to her mother and agent were too carefully edited by the Count to arouse suspicion, she told herself that Torch must surely connect her trapped heroine with herself.
"I've shown him it can happen," she thought. "There's only one step to take in the dark—and then he must ask himself the question, 'Is it happening to her?'"
When she remembered his sympathy and acumen, it seemed to her that the gulf would be bridged...
Torch swooped down on her news of the new novel with jubilation. He was not altogether surprised, as he believed that she had exaggerated her staleness. When he telephoned to his brother, he tried to be facetious to hide his real feeling.
"Shall we run down to the Cottage, Sunday afternoon? I'm curious about this marriage. I'd like to know the real history—Georgian Era. Find out why she suddenly decided to cut the Georgian Knot."
"I would like to know that, too," agreed Osbert grimly. "Perhaps she was rushed."
It was a hot week-end and the sea and sky were a blue blaze when the brothers motored to the coast. When they reached the cottage, it seemed an empty shell to Osbert. Some harebells sprang from the scorched turf of the cliff, but the flowers in the garden had bloomed and seeded, with the exception of a few nasturtiums.
Mrs. Palfrey was in excellent spirits, probably as a result of her relapse into unconventionality. She wore only a skirt and a handkerchief knotted around her neck and waist; but she merely laughed as she exhibited the chinks in her armour.
"I'm following my grandchildren," she said. "Georgia says they are wearing nothing but little bathing-drawers. And they are as brown as nutmegs... Hannah. Tea."
While they were having an informal tea in the dining-room, the children's governess, Miss Jones, peeped around the door, unannounced.
"I saw your car outside," she said breathlessly to Torch. "So I came in. I thought perhaps you might have some fresh news about Mrs. Yeo."
"I don't know whether it is fresh," he told her. "We'd better pool the lot and then we can compare it."
Before he made any contribution, he turned to Mrs. Palfrey.
"Were you surprised to hear of your daughter's secret marriage?"
"Not in the least," she replied. "It's exactly what she would do. Typical of her. You know how she always hides in the corner. But she would have to be right in the middle of the picture at her own wedding."
"The middle? Oh no, that place is always reserved by the Count," remarked Miss Jones. "Besides, she could have had a quiet village wedding, with only us present."
"But think of the disappointment to the children. They imagine that every wedding must be a grand social affair at St. Margaret's. Georgia said in her letter to me that since she had to let them down, she thought she might as well do it thoroughly and avoid any fuss. She's not had the courage to break it to them yet."
"When and where were they married?" asked Osbert stonily.
"She doesn't say—and she won't. That's Georgia all over. She thinks secrecy is romantic."
"It was a shock to me," confessed Miss Jones. "I was hoping it would come to nothing. I didn't trust the Count."
"You are prejudiced, my dear," said Mrs. Palfrey, patting her arm. "What did she write about to you, Harvey?"
When Torch gave her the news of a new novel, her small lined face puckered with pleasure.
"That shows she is normal again. She's a born novelist. She could never be happy for long without writing."
"What's it about?" asked Miss Jones.
"I brought the synopsis down with me, because I knew it would interest her mother," said Torch. "She said the plot was inspired by the island. She recognised its possibilities and she is using her own experience and local colour. I imagine she means her own reaction to love, as her heroine is unmarried. I'll read it aloud—and you can imagine you are listening-in."
When he had finished, Mrs. Palfrey—as next of kin to the author—assumed a critical air.
"Yes, she can make something of that. It should work up very nicely. You can't judge it by this bald outline. But I understand Georgia's technique and approach. I have assisted at the birth of all her novels, as an intellectual mid-wife."
"You mean, she tried it on the dog?"
"Harvey—you Untouchable... Why—what's the matter, Miss Jones? Are you feeling faint?"
They all looked at the girl whose sallow face had assumed a greenish pallor. Her eyes were strained and startled, although she tried to laugh.
"I'm all right. Too silly. But I felt I was—Oh, I can't explain... All in the darkness. It was such a terrible thought."
"What thought?" asked Torch.
"It came to me quite suddenly. Suppose that the Count really is a fraud, like Mrs. Yeo's villain, then she would be in exactly the same position as her heroine. For she's on an island, too, with no address. We don't know where she is. They collect their mail from Sältsjöbaden. If it was like that, she couldn't get in touch with us to tell us."
"And she doesn't want to get in touch with us, you may be sure." Mrs. Palfrey's voice was astringent. "She mentioned in her letter that it was just as well that they were cut off from visitors at first, for Gustav is very jealous. Now, I was old-fashioned and I took that as a compliment from her father; but modern couples have the sense to know that it doesn't make for peace or a pleasant atmosphere. Frankly, Osbert, I'm glad you won't be able to pay your wedding-call in person... More tea, Miss Jones?"
"No... Thank you."
Mrs. Palfrey caught Torch's eye before she went over to the bureau, where she burrowed amid a pile of papers. She returned to the table with a magnifying glass and the half-plate photograph of Georgia, posed with the children and the Count at Sältsjöbaden.
"I always study snap-shots through this glass," she said to Miss Jones. "You'd better do the same. And remember this. Anyone can smile You've only to stretch your lips and show your teeth. But eyes can't fool the camera... Have a good look, my dear. Now are those the eyes of a happy woman?"
"Yes. They are."
As the girl pored over the photograph with the concentration of a lover, Osbert broke his silence.
"I cannot understand why she is writing a new novel so soon, unless she is bored. Her books are not exactly contributions to literature. I thought she looked upon them as one way of making an income, not as a means of self-expression."
"My brother's a snob," broke in Torch quickly, to stem Mrs. Palfrey's indignation. "He never reads fiction under eight and six. Coming, Osbert? It's always a longer run back."
"I'll come with you," said Miss Jones.
When they reached the cliff, she spoke to the agent.
"Who typed that instalment of Mrs. Yeo's novel?"
"One of the girls in my office," he replied. "She had a job to make a fair copy. It was in pencil and some words were almost illegible."
"She thinks quickly, so she has to race. But I understand her writing. I used to do all her typing. Don't you think it would be simpler if I went on doing it? I'm not cadging a job, because I never let her pay me... I loved it so."
Torch was too kind-hearted to refuse her pleading eyes.
"It sounds an excellent arrangement," he said. "You had better write to Mrs. Yeo and ask her to send her copy direct to you. I'll O.K. it in my letter to her. I suppose I can count on prompt delivery."
She was emphatic in her assurance, before she turned to the elder brother.
"Mr. Osbert," she suggested diffidently, "have you ever thought of going to Sweden for your holiday? So many people go now and every one seems to like it. It's such a fine country—and so varied—and... "
"Why should I go?"
Osbert's voice cut sternly into her wavering arguments.
"You could see Mrs. Yeo and satisfy yourself that she is happy," she said with forced boldness.
"I am satisfied. She has done exactly what she wanted to do. If she is cut off from her friends, it is her own choice. She is also a Countess. A title would please any natural woman—and she is very feminine."
"I have no intention of butting-in on any one's honeymoon."
"You may accept that as final," said Torch proudly, looking at the resolute set of his brother's lips.
Georgia was in the minds of all, during the evening. Mrs. Palfrey thought of the Countess with maternal pride. Torch wondered how the new novel was shaping. Osbert kept courteously escorting her to the front door of his Castle in Spain, whenever she slipped in at the back. Even Miss Jones forced herself to remember the happy eyes in the photograph...
On the island, Georgia looked from her window across miles of heaving ocean.
"They are thinking of me now," she told herself. "Soon—very soon—they will come to take me away."
DURING the first days of her imprisonment, Georgia was not only hopeful, but stimulated to expectancy of a speedy rescue. It seemed to her that the personal element must protrude from her story like the eyes of a snail.
"Harvey knows I'm written out," she reasoned. "Besides, if I am married to a wealthy man, I have no need to earn money. It doesn't make sense."
She kept breaking off continually in her work, to mount to the flat roof which commanded an all-round view of the ocean. As she believed that the relief party would travel by plane, she strained her sight—staring with screwed-up eyes into the sky. She dreamed of the thrill of that first vision, buzzing like a bee over the blue and growing to the likeness of a strange bird.
It was a comforting reflection that the strategic value of isolation had been reduced by air-power. Those difficulties of locating her position—cited by the Count—applied only to visitors who would be discouraged by obstacles. Any one in urgent need of discovering it, would scour the heavens and dive down on each island on which a summer residence was sighted.
She was not disappointed by delay, for she could estimate the initial difficulties. To begin with, she did not know Torch's legal standing, although she trusted him to overcome any technicalities of the law. It seemed certain also that he must enlist additional help, in case of resistance.
But of one thing she was sure. Osbert would be first to volunteer—first to land on the island—first to find her.
While she watched and waited, she persevered with the second instalment of her novel, in the hope that it might prove wasted labour. It helped to deceive the Count and also relieved the tension. The prospect of a time-limit made it easier to write; if she slacked now, and the worst came to pass, the work would have to be resumed when creative instinct would turn to bitterest drudgery.
In the circumstances, she did not attach much importance to the arrival of the mail from England. Although she was hungry to see her mother's handwriting, she knew that the torture of hearing home news would be too poignant.
Besides, she did not expect that Torch's letter would contain anything of informative value. If he connected her with her distressed heroine, he knew that the Count must read all he wrote, so that his acknowledgement would be formal and amount to pinches of optical dust. This censorship had been included in her outline of the plot as a matter of course, since an imprisoned lady could be scarcely granted the privilege of private correspondence.
The Count and Clair started off on their trip to the mainland very early in the morning. Georgia was not sufficiently interested to watch for their return. Later, when she was engrossed in her work, the motor-launch made port, without her knowledge. It was only when urged to visit the pool by one of her maternal stabs about her children's safety, that she saw the evidence of the English mail in a pile of newspapers and pictorial weeklies, strewn on the mattresses.
The children lay on their elbows and stomachs, their heads supported by their grubby hands, as they studied advertisements of houses to be let or sold.
Merle looked up, her eyes brilliant with pleasure.
"Lots and lots of papers," she shouted. "This is the happiest day of my life—and I'm the happiest person in the world."
Although envious of her sister's monopoly of happiness, Mavis declined to compete, because of her superior claim to prestige.
"I'm never happy," she said importantly. "I'm fatal. I know I've got to die young, because I'm like my father. And he's dead."
"Well, I won't die young," declared Merle. "Dying's sad. I don't think about sad things. I expect I shall forget when it's death-time."
The conversation—which was characteristic and in the nature of a boasting competition—made Georgia's eyes darken with pain.
"What house have you chosen?" she asked quickly.
"This one," pointed Merle. "A commod resid, luxuriously fitted, with all mod amenities. Eight to nine bedrooms, basins h. and c., four reception, three bath, main drainage—"
"Too large for you to run, Merle. Find something smaller."
The children exchanged glances in a manner which told Georgia that they were feeling their way to something which piqued their curiosity.
Merle allowed Mavis to be ice-breaker.
"You were wrong about the rule of two servants," she told her mother. "This is the grandest house I've ever been in, but they haven't got a staff. Only two... And the Professor. Is he a servant? He doesn't have dinner with us."
Georgia made a swift decision.
"He works in the furnace room and the garden," she remarked. "I expect he is paid for that."
"But he can't be a servant, because Mrs. Vanderpant is a very rank lady and she's our hostess and she's very kind to us." Merle considered it safe to enter the conversation as she reeled off her mother's homily glibly. "A very grand lady wouldn't have a servant in her own room, talking to her and smoking, would she?"
Georgia felt a relapse of her former terror. Once again, the children were scooping up handfuls of gunpowder and letting it trickle carelessly through their fingers.
"Have you been listening at doors, Merle?" she asked sternly.
"No. Indeed, I've not. But I can't help hearing things. My ears are fresher than yours."
"Then I must let you into a secret," improvised Georgia. "The Professor is a poor relation, but he is proud and likes to earn his keep. You must never let him know I told you, or it would hurt his feelings and you must not talk about it to anyone."
"We won't talk," said Mavis.
Georgia did not like the gleam of intelligence which flickered from eye to eye. It said plainly as though they had spoken, "Humour her."
"Any Society weddings?" she asked.
She did not leave them until she had switched the current of their thoughts from dangerous mysteries to bridal garments. Then, with dragging feet, she toiled between the pines up to the house.
Clair shouted insolently to her from the balcony.
"Hi. You. Gustav says you might like to read your letters."
"As they are written to me, I might," said Georgia coldly. "He must be psychic."
"Reserve that for him. He'll appreciate it. Writing-room."
Georgia looked at the callous lips and hard eyes as she passed the girl. It seemed hopeless ever to count on compassion from her. She was feeling the special limpness which always afflicted her after any threat to her children's safety.
Before she went indoors, she stared desperately up at the empty sky.
Unlike the Viking who had steered his bride homewards through the spray, the Count wore a morning-suit and a smart felt hat for his trip to the mainland. His face was radiant and his smile guileless as he turned over a large business envelope and a small one.
"My dear, you are marvelous," he said. "You sent them such a small sample, but they are prepared to commission a serial. All because of your reputation. They know they can count on you. Torch is so pleased and your mother not at all surprised about our secret wedding. Would you like to read the letters?"
"If you have quite finished with them."
Georgia slipped her mother's letter into her bag, for private reading, before she drew out the contents of the large envelope. To her dismay, a typed sheet, headed, "The Patrician Lady," was clipped to Torch's report.
It told her at a glance that the agent had accepted her story as fiction and was putting over a deal. This was no blinder—but a genuine statement of conditions and terms. In further proof of his interest, he asked her to send her copy direct to Miss Jones to be typed, in order to save time.
"Who was right?" exulted the Count.
"You, of course. You always are. And you always will be, until you make that one fatal slip... But you will make it."
"And how will I slip up?"
"Perhaps you will trust some one who is fooling you. Or you might try to trap some one who is cleverer than yourself."
"Do you mean Clair is the first person and yourself the second?"
His penetration disconcerted her, for she was unused to dealing with sharp brains. She went on talking, chiefly because she felt that defiance was safer than dumb misery.
"I can't claim to be cleverer than you, after this"
"That?" The Count shrugged. "I merely took a sporting chance. I played a king and risked the ace being placed on it. The scheme was not a certainty but I play poker very well."
Not content with his victory, he wanted his victim to admire his nonchalance and nerve. Unable to endure his egotism, she was crossing to the door, when he asked her a question.
"Have I met Miss Jones?"
"Yes, several times. She teaches my children."
"Ah, I remember now. She had lustrous eyes and a liquid voice, like a nightingale. But she was deaf and dowdy. Poor girl, I was so sorry for her. I wish I could have shown her some kindness."
"You did. You refused to let her come to this island."
The Count laughed appreciatively as Georgia left him; yet his eyes were reflective while he checked the list of his enemies. Although a few were potentially dangerous, he feared none, because he was forewarned and knew how to meet every situation.
If he overlooked one person who was not hoodwinked by the glamour of his personality, she was too negligible to count, except as an object of contemptuous pity.
Outside the writing-room door, Georgia collided with Clair who rose—unabashed—from her knees.
"Listening?" asked Georgia.
"Sure, I'm snooping. The B.B.C. called 'The Listener' after me... Who is this Jones?"
"My children's governess—for the second time."
"Yes, I heard you. What's she like?"
"I couldn't even try to explain to you. We don't speak the same language. It seems so long since I met any one like her—decent and worth-while."
Clair's face grew sullen.
"There's an answer to that," she said, "but I can't make it, because Gustav's tame authoress has to be kept at the right temperature and this side up, or she might cease production... But I'll give you another tip. If your precious Jones ever comes here, she'll never go back."
"As there's no chance of her finding me, we needn't go into that."
Georgia knew it was unwise to irritate the girl, but she was feeling too miserable to care whom she alienated. It all came to the same thing in the end. In spite of her defence of Miss Jones, she felt that she had been betrayed and forsaken by her friends. No one who cared for her had the sympathy or vision to realise that she was in desperate need of help.
"I'm not a human being," she thought bitterly. "I'm nothing but a thrill-novelist."
But although she groped in the darkness, one person in England was not satisfied about Georgia's happiness. Contrary to the evidence, Miss Jones remained suspicious of the Count, although she could imagine no ulterior motive for his marriage. During the hot spell of August, she mooned about the garden, squatting on a stool under the vivid green shade of overarching scarlet-runners or standing amid the rhubarb pots, idly watching the lady-birds that crawled over her hand.
Although she had little sympathy for her daughter's devotion to another woman, Mrs. Jones realised that the ruin of her operatic hopes had blasted a hole in her life. She hoped that the girl would ultimately fill it with a good husband, the Woman's Institute, or gardening—anything which kept he out of the kitchen, which was her kingdom, and the parish over which her husband reigned.
One scorching day, over Sunday dinner of roast mutton and hot plum pie, Lydia suddenly laid down her knife and fork.
"I despise men," she declared vehemently. "There's Osbert Torch, going about pleased with his nobility. Every one knows he's always been in love with Mrs. Yeo—and he always will be; yet he has cut her out of his life as if she were a malignant growth."
"Ah, he's not like some of my parishioners," observed the Rector. "He knows I did not inspire the Tenth Commandment."
"But father, he can hold it sacred and still be a human being. If you and mother were shipwrecked, I'd sail the seven seas until I found you."
"But suppose we were having a good time with the cannibals and didn't want to come home?"
"I'd leave you to your cooking-pots. I'd only want to know you were well and happy."
Mrs. Jones tasted her custard before she poured it over her plum pie and made a note of too much laurel-leaf in its flavouring. Then she looked from her daughter's melancholy face to the daisied lawn, enclosed within ivied walls.
"I think you could do with a holiday, Lydia," she said. "Why don't you go to Sweden? While you were there, you might call on Mrs. Yea and have a nice chat."
"But I don't even know where she is," gasped her daughter.
"Oh, my dear, haven't you any gumption? Whenever I have to visit anyone in London, I always write to them first to inquire the number of the bus. Just tell her you are coming and ask her to send directions about the nearest route."
WHEN Georgia received Miss Jones' letter, she felt as though she had been jolted back to a lost Dimension. It reminded her that there was actually a world where people were kind and honest in the ordinary conduct of their lives.
Although she had always been pleasant and considerate to the governess, she had kept her outside the limited circle of her friends. Her mother had warned her that the girl's devotion might prove an embarrassment, were it encouraged. In any case, to Georgia, she was merely one of the average crowd that fills a bus or cinema; nice people—who would not dream of cheating the conductor of his fare or of slipping past the barrier of the picture house; but who were liable to reach a coveted seat first, and consequently, public enemies.
She thought of Miss Jones as she had seen her last—just one of the crowd whom she ignored; wearing a knitted cardigan-suit and a felt sport's hat, but with fidelity shining from her eyes. She contrasted the memory of Clair's Latin beauty—the pure oval of her face, the sweep of her brows, the faultless shape of her head—and a lump of longing arose in her throat.
At that moment, she would have given ten years of her life to see Miss Jones, or to mingle with an English crowd again, as she re-read her letter. It was so casual and natural that it deceived her momentarily to the facts of her case.
Dear Mrs. Yeo,
By the time you receive this, I shall be at Sältsjöbaden. Are you surprised that I followed a good example and came to Sweden for my summer holiday? (As a matter of fact, so many friends have gone lately and given me good reports.) I'm having a gorgeous time, but I shall be very disappointed if I fail to see you. This is what I propose. Next time your boat comes to Sältsjöbaden to collect mail, etc., may I he included among the parcels? I don't mind how I'm listed—old rubbish or ballast—anything. As regards the return trip, I must insist on paying for the petrol and the man's time. I'm longing to see you and my pupils again. Tell them I expect to hear them speak fluent Swedish. Just drop a line to this hotel to tell me when and where I may meet your boat.
Georgia looked at the Count who was glaring down at the letter.
"What excuse shall I make?" she asked drearily.
"Excuse? Don't be funny. You will assure her of our united pleasure in welcoming her. Tell her, I myself, in person, will meet her at Sältsjöbaden."
"Perhaps you will stop being funny too. This is not so amusing to me."
The Count dropped down upon the floor and buried his head in Clair's lap, like a sulky boy.
"Tell her, gorgeous," he urged. "Tell her in easy words. We want to attract attention to our honeymoon island—so we refuse to admit the bride's old friend who's come all the way from England."
"An Englishwoman with long teeth," scoffed Clair, "who will talk—and talk. 'What's underneath it all? Anything to hide? Perhaps dear Mrs. Yeo is not happy? Perhaps she is married to a drunkard—or a brute who beats her?'"
"I can't help that," said Georgia, with a sudden spurt of hope. "I didn't create this situation. You forced me into it."
As she tried to view the position with unprejudiced eyes, she began to see grounds for the Count's uneasiness. However plausible her excuse to entertain Miss Jones, it was bound to create an unpleasant impression. It was even possible that its repercussions might shed a floodlight on the plot of her new novel.
On the other hand, they dared not admit her on the island—unless they did not intend her to return.
She listened intently while the Count discussed arrangements with Clair in curt sentences.
"I'll run over to Sältsjöbaden tomorrow. Call at her hotel. Arrange for an early start. Five next morning. We'll be back here by eleven."
"What about me?"
"You must be round."
"Boy or girl?"
"Boy. Torch might have mentioned your name."
"What about the children?"
"I'll tip them off to lie low. Put Van and the Professor wise."
Georgia had never seen the Count so completely out of temper. He turned on her like an enraged child who had to vent his resentment on someone.
"This is your fault. I did not play you so low. I did not know you were that kind who had to have another woman hanging round your neck."
"I'm not," she said. "But since she is coming, I must know this. Will she be allowed to leave the island?"
"Yes. She will leave, the same evening, in the motor-launch, with the Professor. Whether she reaches Sältsjöbaden, depends entirely on you."
"If you try to whisper to her—or pass her a note—or anything else—there's bound to be an accident on the homeward trip."
"But that would be murder."
The Count's grim expression was replaced by a flush of outraged feeling.
"I call it by another name. Self-defence and loyalty to my friends. I am not acting in my own interests but for my—my syndicate. There is one boy who has entrusted all his savings to me. It was only a little country bank, but he did it all alone—shot the cashier and held up the rest. A courageous deed. I feel I must protect him—and others like him."
"Was the cashier armed?" asked Georgia.
"You laugh in the wrong place sometimes."
The menace of his tone reminded her of her own peril as he continued.
"If you and I are going to put over a convincing show, the day after tomorrow, we had better get together. Look at me as if you adored me, or perhaps Miss Jones may smell a rat."
"That's easy. I'm always playing a part."
In spite of her assumed assurance, Georgia knew that Miss Jones would be more difficult to cheat than the children. She remembered how—to her annoyance—the girl used to study her face when she thought she was unobserved. By now, she had learned to interpret its changes of expression and the emotions which governed them—learned to reject the false and recognise the true.'
"I can never deceive her," she thought, despairingly.
She soon discovered that the more experienced Count had been completely successful in bamboozling the children. When next she met them, they were seething with indignation. Mavis—who throve on grievances—was furious when she enlightened her mother.
"Have you heard about that mean old Jones? She wants to get us back to England, so she can go on teaching us for ever and ever. So she's coming here to see if we are deter—if we are going bad—because we are running wild."
"But we're going to give her mud in her eye," exulted Merle. "We're going to camp down at the pool all day and we're not going to say one single word to her. Then she can't tell tales to Granny."
"I think that's rather a nice plan," said Georgia weakly. "Then I shall have Miss Jones all to myself."
She knew that the children were taking advantage of her recent indulgence; but she had not the heart to correct them—feeling that their time together might be short. It was then that she first felt tempted to risk Miss Jones' safety.
"She's the link," she thought. "I shall never get another chance. How can I get a message through?"
Her thoughts vacillated with the tides which splashed over the rocks—now leaping upwards in a frantic bid for liberty—now sucked back to indecision. At one moment, she reminded herself that if she failed, she would be guilty of Miss Jones' death as surely as though she had murdered her; but directly she convicted herself of treachery, the pendulum swung across to the vital question of her children's safety.
As long as the gunpowder element persisted, their lives were in danger.
She tried to find some sure means of communication, but only to be baffled by Miss Jones' qualities. She was loyal and courageous, but she was not quick-witted, while she was too transparently honest to sustain the part she would be called upon to play. She was bound to betray herself by a question or a stare.
The least indecision, the slightest misunderstanding or inability to catch every word would be fatal. Georgia was appalled by the difficulties which confronted her. Her story was too intricate to compress it into two or three words. She had to explain not only the danger and the vital need to entrust the rescue to Torch, but also to impress upon the messenger her own peril if she were suspected of knowledge.
It was a situation which would tax even Torch's lightning perception and resource, were he her visitor; and when she remembered Miss Jones' deafness, she realised that it was hopeless.
"I can write a note," she thought. "It's not at all likely I shall get a chance of giving it to her. But one never knows. They might overlook some obvious thing."
In her need of solitude, she had climbed down to a hollow in the rocks and lay crouched inside. She was so low that the sea seemed to rise up above her in a solid green wall. It lent the illusion that the island was without roots and moored in a heavy swell, for the ocean appeared to be still, while she swayed in continual movement.
Presently the perpetual motion began to worry her. She felt a craving to stop it, as one interferes with the mechanism of a clock. It was her first experience of this sensation and she realised the danger of letting it affect her nerves.
"The island mustn't get me down," she determined.
Shutting her eyes tightly, she tried to solve the problem of the note. She would have first to conceal it herself before she attempted to transfer it to Miss Jones. Such devices as slipping it inside a bag or pocket were too elementary, while more subtle and elaborate expedients were unsafe, since they were liable to remark and premature discovery.
After discarding most of the ruses she had used in the plots of her novels, she rose to her feet and rubbed her cramped legs.
"I'll write the note now," she decided. "If I leave it to the last minute, they might not give me a chance."
She crabbed sideways up the slippery rocks, passed the patch of vegetables and flowers which were cultivated on a sheltered but perilous slope and reached the central balcony by the back way of the shrubbery.
Mrs. Vanderpant looked up from the newspaper which she was reading through a lorgnette and spoke with habitual formality.
"If you are going back to your work, Mrs. Yeo, I have a message from the Count. He thinks you will write better after a short rest."
Warned what to expect, Georgia began to rush up the shallow stairs. She reached her room and stood panting as she stared at her desk.
All her writing materials had been removed. While she had been wasting her time on the rocks, she had allowed her enemies to move first. She was still reproaching herself when Clair appeared in the balcony. Putting her hands into the pockets of her bathing-robe of white and orange towelling, she leaned against the wall.
"How am I doing?" she asked.
"Up to your own standard," said Georgia bitterly. "I imagine this is further attention to details."
"Merely a preliminary Just to put you out of the way of temptation. You won't find a pen or pencil anywhere, so you needn't look. But the day after tomorrow, we shall be really thorough."
"I am looking forward to then. I shall be meeting a decent woman again."
It afforded Georgia some slight natural satisfaction to realise that, although Mrs. Vanderpant was plated and invulnerable, both the Count and Clair were capable of being cheapened in their own estimation. The girl glared at her but said nothing further as she slouched from the room.
Unable to settle to anything, Georgia began to pace her room. She was still doing so when the children burst in, on their way to change for dinner.
"We've been having a lovely time," said Mavis. "We've been hearing horrors."
Merle—swift to notice her mother's indignation—began to explain.
"This is a good horror, cos it's a warning. You must never fall in the water when you've got no breath, for you'll sink down, down, down—and never come up again."
"Gustav told us," broke in Mavis. "It's true. There was a poor lady who went out in a motor-boat and it began to rock and she got frightened and grabbed the steering-wheel and the man wouldn't let go and she was silly and struggled and the wheel slipped out of the man's hand and spun round and hit her right in the chest and knocked her over the side into the sea and—"
"She never came up," finished Merle, who was basely waiting for her sister's breath to give out.
As Georgia listened, she felt shaken with apprehension. She knew that the story had been improvised for her own hearing and that what was false in the past, might—in the future—be true, if she tried to enlighten Miss Jones.
GEORGIA slept little the night before Miss Jones' visit. Excitement kept her awake for hours; and when, at last, she closed her eyes, she was disturbed by the sound of the sea.
Living on the coast, she was so used to it, that she had not noticed it before, save as an accompaniment to thought. Its intrusion, therefore, was a new and ominous development. The mere fact that it had power to break her rest, showed that she was losing her grip on herself.
This was not the slow monotonous boom to which she had been accustomed. Her nerves were fretted because the noises were intermittent and chopped up by the inequalities of the rocks over which the ocean broke. Sometimes there was the shattering roar of surf—succeeded by the grinding rattle of a receding wave; then, the hoarse gurgles of water licking and exploring crannies in the reef. Last—the fractional lull before the next assault.
She told herself that these sounds would be in her ears for always. She could not still them. If she let them break through her barrier of calm, she courted mental collapse—when her morbid fancies could soar through ascending stages of hysteria, to the peak of insanity.
"Sailors and coastguards are sane and sensible," she argued. "They would miss the sound of the sea if they had to live inland. It's soothing. I'm letting it get me down. I'll think about Miss Jones. Precious Miss Jones."
It seemed queer to be giving her the formality of her title at such a crisis, but she had never called her by her Christian name.
"She's put a spoke in their wheel," she thought. "It seemed fool-proof, hiding me away in this forsaken spot. I thought I was lost. But she found me quite easily. I believe they are frightened."
It was reassuring to reason that, since her kidnapping was a panic grab for essential money—and not a considered scheme—it might be full of holes. Her captors could not tell what they were up against or how to guard against an unexpected development.
Then she remembered that frightened people were dangerous, because they were desperate. They might regret that they had started this affair—since its yield might be disproportionate to its risk—but once it was begun, it would have to be carried through, at any cost, to ensure their own safety.
With a feeling that she must dull—at least—the voice of the sea, she got out of bed, to search for cotton-wool. When she had plugged her ears, she remained at her window, looking down on the thick layers of foam creaming over the concealed rocks.
"I could keep my light burning all night," she thought, "But there's no one to say, 'There's some one awake in that house.' There's not a ship—not a boat."
Only the next moment, she was glad she was not overlooked, as, suddenly, she realised that there was a way by which she could communicate with Miss Jones. The children had left one of their old newspapers lying on her chair. She could cut out letters from it and paste them together to form a short message.
Without giving herself time to reflect further, she began to compose her note. It had to be brief, so that Miss Jones could read it at a glance, yet she dared not omit any words whose absence might obscure its meaning.
Soon she was able to cut out the necessary print and reassemble the clippings on the blank space of the stop-press column, with the aid of her bottle of Stickphast.
DANGER. DON'T SPEAK TO ME WHEN YOU READ THIS. WE ARE WATCHED. ACT NATURALLY. GO AWAY IN BOAT. TELL TORCH PLOT OF NOVEL IS MY OWN STORY. IT IS HAPPENING TO ME NOW. LET NO ONE HERE GUESS YOU KNOW. DANGER TO YOU. LEAVE ALL TO TORCH.
It fretted her to put in so much explanation, but she dared not trust too much in Miss Jones' intelligence. When she had finished it, she slipped it under her pillow and fell to sleep.
She awoke hopefully and stimulated with fresh courage.
"The first half is done," she thought, as she reread her note. "Now I've got to hide this safely and think up some way of showing it to her."
At first, her resource was not equal to the strain. It could only suggest concealing it inside a book—a method which was too clumsy and too dangerous to adopt.
"They will be watching both of us all the time," she reasoned. "Besides, this has been too easy. They won't overlook the chance I've managed to write a note, somehow. Before she comes, they'll search my room and they'll search me. This mustn't be in the house or it will be found... It must be outside."
Suspended from a nail in the wall, below her window, hung a large strand of seaweed. The children had fastened it there, as a guide to weather, but, after the first few days had forgotten to feel it. It seemed an ideal place of concealment to Georgia, as she spiked the note and placed it underneath the bunch.
"Pray no one will think of looking there," she thought. "But even if they do, they'll see nothing, unless they poke the seaweed about."
It was a sparkling day with a striped blue and white sky and a rocking sea, yet Georgia could scarcely endure the suspense of waiting for the return of the launch. Shortly before eleven, it was sighted by Clair from her look-out on the roof. Dressed in trousers and blazer and looking somewhat like a member of a theatrical male chorus, she joined Georgia on the landing-stage.
"Stand still while I frisk you," she commanded.
Georgia was wearing the lightest clothing, so that the least rustle of paper would betray its hiding-place. She was so thankful that she had not tried to conceal the note on her person, that she was unconscious of indignity as Clair slapped her smartly.
Then she pounced on Georgia's bag, searched its compartments and felt the lining.
"Just another formality?" asked Georgia, when she had finished.
"Just that. I didn't take even you for such a mug as to go about loaded."
Georgia was not listening as she gazed towards the launch, kicking unsteadily through the foam. She could distinguish a bulky figure leaning over the side—waving—and guessed that Miss Jones had prepared for rough weather. At the sight of her, the horror of her imprisonment slipped away and she felt only the normal excitement of welcoming a friend.
She started as Clair clutched her arm.
"Stop grinning," she said viciously. "Listen to me. Don't try whispering to your friend. There are four of us—and we shall be somewhere, all the time. You'll never be alone with her. We shall be watching and listening."
Georgia remembered her own experience when she had crept along the veranda and surprised the privacy of Mrs. Vanderpant and the Professor. The house might have been built especially for the encouragement of eavesdropping; it was designed to trap air, sun and light; but its connecting balconies, inbuilt closets and brace of doors to a room also converted it into a gigantic Ear.
Then she thought of her own plan with renewed hope. The fact that Clair had searched her, proved that her note had not been discovered. It was still hanging outside the wall on the windward side of the island, its white flutter visible only to the gulls.
If her luck held, she could communicate still with Miss Jones, in the presence of prying eyes. She had only to invite her to watch the sea breaking on the rocks below, and then to spread out her note, holding it well below the level of the window, so that it would be invisible to any one inside the room.
Fortunately Miss Jones was long-sighted and should read it at a glance, while Georgia gripped her wrist to stress its significance. Directly she was sure that the governess had grasped her message, she would let the incriminating evidence drop down into the boil of surf below.
All the watcher could see would be two women leaning out of the window for a minute—watching the spray—before they walked away, arm-in-arm, still exclaiming at the wonder of the view.
Georgia could not see a flaw in her scheme, while there was nothing to connect her with a counter-plot. She had been careful to roll up the mutilated newspaper into a tight ball and throw it into the sea, before she went to bed; and when she looked out, in the morning, all trace of it had disappeared.
What appalled her was the fact that everything depended on Miss Jones' nerve and power to sustain a part. If she were stupid, or blundered, Georgia would be responsible indirectly for her death.
She was recalled by Clair's hoarse whisper.
"Here. Wear this—and change places with me. Curse you."
She drew off her Eternity-ring—a circle of diamonds set in platinum—and watched with jealous eyes while Georgia twisted it over her own plain gold band.
The launch was now so near that she could see the radiance of Miss Jones' expressive face. She wore a dusty pink tweed suit, a matching top-coat and a macintosh. Her hair was blown into wisps under her felt hat—her nose reddened by the wind; yet her eyes beamed with such honest affection that Georgia nearly broke down.
Here was one who would spend herself in faithful service to the end and ask no other reward. She had to conquer her impulse to fling herself into her arms, when Miss Jones made a clumsy landing.
The governess was on hand-shaking terms, so was thrilled by Georgia's unexpectedly affectionate greeting.
"It's marvellous to see you again," she said.
"Wasn't that kiss intended for me?" broke in the Count.
Reminded that she was a shadow-bride, Georgia dutifully tucked her hand inside his arm.
"We welcome you to our island, Miss Jones," she said. "Both of us."
"It's more beautiful than I imagined," beamed Miss Jones. "But where are the children?"
"In the swimming-pool. They practically live there. We expect fins to develop... Come and see them."
The Count accompanied them as they descended the rough stairs cut in the rock.
"Have you seen my mother lately?" asked Georgia wistfully.
"No, we came in earlier than we expected."
When Georgia repeated her question, Miss Jones laughed at her mistake.
"I'm really deaf today," she said. "You'll have to shout. It's this tearing across the sea, with the wind rushing into my ears. They feel all sealed up."
"So you won't be able to whisper confidences," remarked the Count. "What a pity."
When the pool was reached, the children climbed out and threw their arms around the governess, thoughtfully bestowing on her a generous sample of the water—according to plan.
"This is 'Good-bye' too," said Mavis, kissing her again. "You'll never see us again."
"They are going to have their meals down here," explained Georgia quickly. "I want to have you to myself."
"We've got to build up our strength," declared Mavis virtuously.
The governess laughed at her pathetic expression.
"You look like a pair of young gladiators," she said.
"But big people are always weak, like poor Goliath," Merle reminded her.
"Yeah, David biffed him because he ate good pulse instead of nasty meat," exulted Mavis, whose passionate love of animals prejudiced her against the butcher.
"Daniel," corrected the governess. "I shall have to give you another Scripture lesson."
Horrified by the-threat, the children splashed into the pool like a pair of water-rats chased by a dog.
TURNING away from the pool, Miss Jones spoke to Georgia.
"Are you quite well, or are you fading away, like the children? I suppose I need not ask a bride whether she is happy."
"Look at me," said Georgia.
The governess gazed at her searchingly—deeply, as though she would read her heart, before she shook her head.
"You are so brown, I can't really tell. But you must be happy. Everything is ideal. This is the first time I've envied anyone who was not a professional vocalist."
She was forcing her enthusiasm from an impulse to atone for her former suspicion. In making the double journey to bring her out to the island, the Count had slain her distrust. It seemed to her such a generous gesture of hospitality that she felt compelled to wholesale admiration.
She was seeing the island at its best, when the elements combined to endow it with beauty. There was movement and colour in the spouting waves and the flicker of breeze-tossed pine. The sea was deeply blue from the reflection of the sky—green in the shadows and purple over submerged rocks. Over all was the atmosphere of tingling expectancy—the holiday spirit which she carried with her and which insensibly affected the others.
The children were excited because they had organised a petty mutiny against authority. They expected that the governess would spend the day trying to educate them by guile—and they were determined not to be tempted from their watery stronghold.
The Count too was pleased as he realised the possibilities of Miss Jones' visit. At the cost of temporary inconvenience, they might secure immunity from future inquisition, if the herald returned to report that all was well.
In her turn Georgia fell under the munificent spell, when she was reclaimed by the past and drawn to a safe backwater of memories and associations. It was so natural to be seeing the governess again and picking up old threads, that she found it impossible to believe that she was actually a victim of the underworld. Feeling the pressure of Miss Jones' arm—hearing her musical voice—she seemed to have reached a Fourth Dimension, where time overflowed its defined divisions and spread itself out in a pervading levelling tide.
The hideous present faded to a transparency, quivering against the solid reality of friendship and the protection of yesterday. Suddenly she remembered her note—fluttering, out of sight, and felt happy and excited. Confident of a speedy issue out of all her afflictions, she drew Miss Jones up the path between the trees.
"I'm longing to show you the house," she said with a spurt of genuine eagerness.
"Good work," commented the Count. "You're doing very well."
He kept his voice low as he followed them, carrying Miss Jones' coat and waterproof; yet Georgia glanced sharply at the governess, to discover whether she had overheard him.
Her face appeared unconscious as, in her turn, she looked again closely at Georgia.
"Your eyes are tired," she said.
"I couldn't sleep last night. I was too excited Thinking of you."
"Of me?" The girl's face glowed. "I can hardly believe it. I was afraid you might think it terrible of me to gate-crash like this. I didn't give you a chance to put me off in decency. The Count has been teasing me about my courage in disturbing a honeymoon."
"I think you were rather bold," agreed Georgia. "But you are forgiven."
"Fine. Keep it up," urged the Count, from the rear.
It seemed to Georgia that he was taking unnecessary risks, in the same reckless spirit that he had picked flowers in the Park, under the nose of the keeper. He was utterly shallow without foundations—unhuman as a gilded super-scarecrow, fluttering in the gales of his own irresponsible humour.
Suddenly she wondered whether Miss Jones were as unconscious as she appeared. She might have come on a mission of rescue, to spy out the land and had feigned this increase of deafness. As a rule, she heard perfectly, provided people spoke with normal distinctness.
Again Georgia soared upwards on the wings of hope. It vibrated in her voice as she pointed to the house.
"There. Do you like it?"
"It's pluperfect. A palace."
Then the governess glanced apprehensively at the stately figure of Mrs. Vanderpant who stood posed at the top of the steps.
"I must look such a sight," she said. "I thought I was coming to the wilds. I never expected anything as grand as this."
"You must remember to describe it to them when you go back," the Count told her. "They will want to know about Georgia's home."
Although she would not spoil a good effect by going to meet her guest, Mrs. Vanderpant's reception of her was not only gracious but tinged with cordiality.
"You must be hungry after your early start," she said, "so we are having lunch at once. We are not going to be formal with you."
"She is anxious about running-repairs," put in the Count.
"Then I will take her to the ground-floor cloakroom. It will save her the stairs."
Before Georgia could volunteer, Mrs. Vanderpant escorted Miss Jones into the cloakroom. She lingered to ascertain her taste in cosmetics and to assure herself that everything was in order before she resolutely shut the door behind her and joined Georgia in the hall.
As they waited the women looked at each other. They did not speak, but the elder claimed the first victory. Georgia had to admit to herself that the house was her enemy. It would deny her any opportunity of privacy with her guest, so long as every door concealed its spy.
Presently the sounds of splashing ceased and Miss Jones came out of the cloakroom, looking very clean and tidy. Mrs. Vanderpant led the way to the dining-room, where a lavish Smörgåsbord was arranged. When they had helped themselves and were seated again, Greta entered with the next course.
She wore a plain black cloth skirt, a green velvet bodice embroidered with gay flowers and an apron striped with red, black and white. A conical cap with striped trimming was fastened with a bow to the back of her flaxen hair. Behind her came the Professor, also in native costume and carrying a pile of plates.
It struck Georgia unpleasantly that the gang had been mobilised for action. The Count and Mrs. Vanderpant were gaolers, under the flag of hospitality, while Clair had been told off for Secret Intelligence.
Miss Jones looked around the table and commented on his absence.
"I thought you had a boy staying here. I am sure I saw one standing on the landing-stage."
"My nephew," shouted the Count. "Very shy... I hear you are going to type my wife's novel?"
"Yes, I am looking forward to it. It will be like old times."
"I hope you like it. Did you know I am responsible for it? I suggested the plot. Of course, Georgia has had to build it up from my outline."
Miss Jones laughed as she shook her head.
"Are you pulling my leg?" she asked. "Mrs. Yeo—sorry, the Countess—was always having plots suggested by readers. But she always turned them down. Every book had to be her own original work."
Looking up, Georgia noticed that the Professor's twinkling black eyes were fixed on the governess. At that moment, he reminded her of a hangman, mentally estimating the weight of his subject.
"It's quite true," she said quickly. "The island was shouting to be put into a novel, but my mind was blank. So Gustav suggested this situation."
"I've just had another idea," broke in the Count. "I am going to tell Miss Jones now, so that when she reads it later, she'll have to admit it came from me."
He turned to Georgia.
"Couldn't you work Miss Jones' visit into your plot? Of course, you must turn her into the young man. The heroine must try to pass him a note, explaining that she is a prisoner. Don't you think it would be a poignant touch? He is so near to her, yet she is unable to make contact."
"Why can't she tell him?" objected Miss Jones.
"She is silent to save his life. If he knew, he would not leave the island alive."
"Nonsense. He'd fight them and knock out the lot. Heroes are specially built to be shock-resistant. You can't kill one."
Again Georgia noticed that the Professor was watching Miss Jones with specialised interest.
"You'll have to leave details to the novelist," she said. "I'll buy, Gustav. I think it will work up into something."
"But Miss Jones is still frowning," remarked the Count.
"It's rather too personal to tell you," explained the governess.
"No, no. You cannot offend us. We are all so happy and united, we do not want any clouds between us. Please."
"Then, it's this. I can't understand why Mrs.—the Countess has begun another book so soon." Miss Jones turned to Georgia. "You used to groan over your work and say you only did it for the money. But you're rich now—and you've only begun your honeymoon."
"Let me explain," said the Count eagerly. "I am afraid you are a poor psychologist. Don't you know that once a woman is used to making money, she cannot stop? Independence is in her blood. She must come to a man for pin-money, but she wants to do big things too. Shall I tell you the secret why my wife wants to make her own money quickly?"
"If she doesn't mind."
"Well then, I have just invested some capital in a mine in Alaska. The chances are very slightly in favour of losing my cash, but if I bring it off, I shall clean up a small fortune. So my wife wants to come in on the ground floor, with her own capital. I've warned her she will probably lose it."
Listening to the flow of his voice, Georgia almost believed the fabrication. It struck her that it was a clever impromptu to explain the absence of assets when her relatives inquired about her estate, after the—accident.
Although the Count had been playing on her nerves throughout lunch, Georgia hoped that his cruelty would pave the way to Miss Jones' recognition of the truth when she was shown the note. She dreaded the moment of revelation so intensely, that she could hardly bear to wait for it. In her anxiety to precipitate it, she prayed for the meal to end, so that she could offer to show the house to her guest.
But when at last they were drinking coffee on the sun-balcony she realised that she must allow Mrs. Vanderpant to make the first move. The lady was unusually gracious as she discussed the time of the governess's return journey.
"It sounds inhospitable, but we must consider you. You will not want to return to your hotel after midnight, in case you should have trouble to get in. I think you must start at five, directly after tea... And now, would you like to see the house?"
They all made the tour of the ground floor—to the accompaniment of Miss Jones' enthusiastic comments—after which, Mrs. Vanderpant led the party back to the drawing-room.
"Georgia will show you the room where she writes, later," she said. "It will give you both the chance of a private talk. You must forgive us for monopolising you, but it is a rare pleasure to have a visitor who sings."
"So beautifully too," broke in the Count. "We are going to work you mercilessly."
He carried out his threat, urging the girl on, from song to song. His enthusiasm was unforced and she responded to his appreciation. Her ingenuous face glowed with pleasure as she assured him that she was sharing his treat.
Through the open window, Georgia could see the sea breaking against the island. It was high tide, when the outstanding rocks were concealed by a bubbling greenish-white wash. It looked like a veined marble floor—solid enough to dance over—except when the suck of a receding wave revealed the points of cruel black fangs.
Suddenly a trifling incident disturbed the harmony of the concert. The Count asked Miss Jones to write down the particulars of a song, before he remembered that Clair had collected and locked away all writing materials. He had crossed to the bare desk, followed by the girl, when he realised his slip.
"A grand desk and no paper," he said with shrug. "Isn't that typical of a novelist's home?"
"There must be some in the writing-room," Miss Jones reminded him.
Before she could move to the door, he swung her round.
"No," he said harshly. "Don't waste time, when it is so short."
A minute later, Miss Jones was reseated at the piano.
The incident left Georgia severely shaken. She did not like the furtive manner in which both the Count and Mrs. Vanderpant kept Miss Jones under observation. She knew they were jumpy as unshod stallions trampling over scorched stubble, after a prairie fire; and that at the least shade of suspicion in her face, they would stampede.
She was worked up to a state of acute tension, when Mrs. Vanderpant glanced at the clock.
"Tea will soon be in," she said. "Georgia, I am sure Miss Jones would like to see your room."
She sprang to her feet and ran up the stairs in advance of the governess, lest she should take her arm and notice that she was trembling. When she reached her room, she had to exert force to open the door. The pressure of the wind was so strong that she could imagine that some one was trying to bar her entrance.
After her first exclamations, Miss Jones made a dash over to the writing-table.
"Where's the precious book?" she asked.
"Locked away," replied Georgia.
"Shame. Oh, lend me a pencil and paper, please. I want to write down the names of those songs for the Count... I can't tell you how flattered I feel because he came to fetch me. He made me feel welcome."
Georgia made a pretence of searching in an empty drawer.
"There's another famine in the land," she said. "The children seem to have cleaned me out... But do come over here and see how the foam dashes up. It nearly reaches the glass."
While she spoke, she was intensely aware of an invisible audience. She knew that in one of the closets Clair was hidden, watching every action and listening to every word. Drawing the governess over to the alcove, she pushed open the casement window, which had just blown to, with a crash.
As she did so, she saw that the friction of the wind had torn away the paper from the nail. It had slipped down nearly to the end of the bunch of seaweed, but was still fluttering against the wall—like a butterfly on a pin—held there by the pressure of the breeze.
She made a frantic dart towards it, to try to reach it, but was held back by her wooden bracelet which caught on the nail. As she wrenched it free, the elastic snapped and the wooden segments fell into the boil of foam, just after the note was whirled away.
She watched it flutter down to the sea, while Miss Jones gave a cry of dismay.
"Oh, dear. You've lost your luck."
NUMBED by the severity of her disappointment, Georgia forgot that she had still to ensure Miss Jones' safety. She was reminded of a lapse which was fraught with danger, when the governess spoke to her in a low troubled voice.
"What's the matter?"
She roused herself to speak lightly.
"I'm still superstitious, that's all. Osbert gave me that lucky bracelet. Don't tell him about this accident."
"I won't," Miss Jones came nearer. "I am so glad we are alone at last. I've something to ask you. Have you any private message to send home? They want to hear you are really happy."
As Georgia remembered the watcher who was listening to every word, she understood why this opportunity had been contrived. Miss Jones' enthusiastic praise—however genuine it sounded—was designed for the public ear. Clair's mission was to discover the sum total of her real impressions.
A life depended on her report.
Galvanised to fresh life by the necessity to play a part, Georgia did her utmost to put up a good performance.
"Of course, I am happy," she said. "Its all perfect."
"Pluperfect. Every one and everything is ultra. What worries me is this. You are alone."
"Alone? With my children and husband."
"But he's a stranger."
As the governess spoke, Georgia had the helpless feeling that the situation was developing beyond her control. It was rapidly burgeoning with dangerous possibilities, where every word was akin to a swelling knob, threatening to shoot out into rank poisonous growth. At all costs, the girl must be silenced, even if it meant crushing a devotion which was selfless and rare.
"Miss Jones," she said coldly, "will you please stop being fanciful and answer a definite question. Are my people worried about me?"
She looked into the painfully flushed face and knew that she would hear the truth. In that moment of loneliness, she was possessed by a mad longing to know that her light—flashing during sleepless nights, across miles of empty sea—had been seen by watchers on her home coast, as a faint star trembling amid the darkness.
Before she could remind herself that this assurance could only precipitate a tragedy, Miss Jones shook her head.
"To be quite candid—no. Your mother is pleased about your marriage and Harvey Torch is pleased about the new thriller. Osbert is pleased because you are happy. Every one is pleased except me... You see, it's the situation in your novel which is worrying me. I can't help feeling that it could be happening to you."
"Well—now's my chance to tell you."
Georgia looked into the faithful eyes with real affection. Although she had to slay every doubt, it comforted her to know that one person had the sympathetic intuition to understand.
"My dear," she continued, "I am afraid you have been reading too many thrillers by Georgia Yeo."
"Never heard of the woman," Miss Jones assured her. "Are we being gonged?"
As the brazen clamour sounded from the hall, Georgia took her guest's arm, with a desperate sense of finality. Even as a revolving disc of wax registers a voice, so the record of this interview could not be unmade. Everything depended now upon Clair's acumen and the quality of her suspicion.
Mercifully she was not skilled in finesse, but was crude and conscienceless, with methods as conventional as her vocabulary. Suddenly Georgia was emboldened to try and convey an eleventh-hour hint.
"It's tea time," she said. "I'm afraid it is the end to a perfect day. At least, it would have been perfect, except for your unlucky deafness."
Even as she wondered whether the girl would interpret her meaning, she noticed that Miss Jones glanced swiftly at the closet door and then from the closed bathroom to the children's room.
"Yes, I'm sorry you've had to shout," she said. "Please forgive me making such a fool of myself. I hope you won't think I've abused the Count's hospitality. I shall have wonderful things to tell them when I go home."
Mrs. Vanderpant came to meet them as they went down the stairs, arm in arm, so that Georgia's voice was never out of ear-shot. The Count, however, was absent during the first few minutes of the meal. Georgia knew that he had gone upstairs, by another way, to hear the result of her espionage from Clair. She looked keenly at him when he appeared, but could discover nothing from his frank smile of regret.
"The end," he said to Miss Jones. "No more beautiful singing for me. What a pity."
They had tea on a balcony overlooking the sea which was now darkly-blue and skeined with foam by the wind. Its whistle shrilled in the air, in warning of a rough trip to the mainland.
Because she feared his reply, Georgia dared not ask the Count whether he were going to steer the motor launch. If he went himself, it would be a guarantee of Miss Jones' safety. Recklessly eager to allay suspicion, she perched herself on the arm of his chair and nibbled the cake from his plate, as though to demonstrate the levelling influence of domestic happiness.
His frown warned her that she was over-acting.
"My dear," he said, "every one admires your dignity. Miss Jones will think I am responsible for such a deplorable lapse."
"Are you coming back with me?" asked the governess quickly.
"No. You must forgive me. I am a bridegroom. I shall be scolded if I stay out two nights running. Charles will run you across. He is the big fellow who waited at table."
"What fun. I liked the way his eyes twinkled when he looked at me. Is be a humourist?"
"He can be very funny with ladies. You made an impression on him." He looked at his watch and added, "Time to start. I am so very sorry."
The Count and Georgia accompanied their guest to the landing-stage. On their way down, they visited the swimming-pool. The children, who were disappointed by the lack of hostilities, swam across hopefully, to invite overtures.
"How are you feeling now?" she asked nonchalantly, to snub them for their neglect.
"Getting wetter every minute," replied Mavis reproachfully.
"You'll find it drier outside. Good-bye."
"Mavis once had a chesty cold," declared Merle, who always championed her sister. "She was in danger and she made the most disgusting noises."
"Yes," agreed Mavis, "I was disgusting and very dangerous."
Her voice changed as she called after the governess.
"Please give my kind respects to Mrs. Blackie and Mr. James."
"Our cat and dog," explained Miss Jones to the Count.
"She's very polite," he remarked.
"To animals. She calls my father 'Old Elijah.'"
"Doesn't that make him furious?"
"Of course not. It's not fair to notice what you are not supposed to hear."
"All the same, I would not let any child insult me."
As he glared back at Mavis, in anticipation of her rudeness, Georgia recognised the formation of a mutual antipathy. Unfortunately Mavis was like her father, who had a passion for law-suits when he had not a legal leg to stand upon. She not only delighted in warfare, but she resented the Count's marked preference for her more attractive sister.
The prospect seemed bleak and hopeless after the launch had kicked off in a smother of foam. She stood and waved to Miss Jones until she could no longer see the flutter of the governess' handkerchief. Then unaccustomed tears gathered in her eyes as she realised that she had probably said a last "Good-bye" to a faithful friend.
She had to control her emotion for the sake of the children, but as the evening wore on, she became a prey to agonising suspense. She knew that it was useless to question any one as to the fate of the governess, for she would only invite lies.
It was with feelings of finality and deadly flatness that she took her place at dinner that evening. Across the table she looked at Mrs. Vanderpant. Although the woman rarely spoke to her, she was acutely conscious of her as a petrifying influence which pervaded the house. As she stared at the pinched austere face, it was impossible to reconcile it with her two stolen glimpses of a vulture clawing her plunder, and a rake, drinking with her boon companion.
Looking now at the yellow-white mask of her face, Georgia shuddered with loathing. She remembered the dinner-party at Brussels when she had been blinded by the brilliancy of her future.
"It's come true," she thought. "Her face has grown familiar to me at meals. I am doomed to sit opposite this always at dinner, as long as I live."
Then she wondered what was happening to the governess at that minute, and whether the Professor had demonstrated the point of a joke by a staggering blow in the chest. In imagination she saw Miss Jones' eyes beam with loyalty and affection—and—and then the face began to drop down, deeper and deeper into dark water, never to rise again.
Even if no ill befell the girl, she reminded herself that her hope of rescue had fluttered away with a scrap of paper in the wind. The governess could take nothing back with her but a confused suspicion which would fade like a negative when exposed to daylight.
Unable to endure sitting still, she went upstairs to her room. Her writing materials had been restored to the table, but she felt too restless to work. While she was waiting for the children to come to bed, she wandered out of the house and down to the landing-stage.
The last red gleam of a setting sun was reflected on long lines of grey waves rolling out towards the horizon. They moved forward in a ceaseless procession, while she stood and watched the sullen waste of waters. No ray of hope. Doom inexorable. She was a prisoner...
That night, a storm raged around the island when the sea seemed to pluck at the roofs of the rocks and it was impossible to sleep through the roar of the surf. In the morning, it was still raining heavily, although the wind had subsided. From her glass alcove, Georgia looked down on a heaving grey-white swell, thick with floating seaweed. As the children could not visit the swimming-pool, they remained on the balcony of their room and discussed the rival merits of house-property advertised in their newspapers.
Suddenly it occurred to her that, although they remained faithful to their game of choosing houses, they had lost their interest in weddings.
"Who's the latest Society bride?" she called.
"Don't know and don't care," muttered Mavis. "Weddings are fun for bridesmaids, but they are dull for private girls."
The explanation made Georgia realise that, for some reason of their own, the children believed no longer in the grand wedding they had planned with such gusto. There was a further disquieting possibility that they did not want her to marry the Count.
In either case, there was a definite blight on bridal prospects which seemed to indicate that she had not deluded them with any real success.
As she was gazing thoughtfully through the sheet of driving rain which was drilling the sea, Mavis spoke in a casual voice.
"Semi-detached. No class... There was just the house for me in the Sunday Times, July the fourth. Mummie, what did you do with that page after you cut out the words?"
As she listened, the blood seemed to drain from Georgia's heart. Since she had destroyed the mutilated sheet, the children could know about her nocturnal work only if they had been watching through a chink of their door, while she sorted and pasted together the letters.
They were both curious as monkeys, so that if they spied upon her to that extent, they would carry their investigations further. It seemed almost certain that they had seen her spike the paper over the nail outside her window—in which case they would snatch the first opportunity to read it when she was out of her room.
Her memory was a blur when she tried to recollect the exact text of her message. She knew there was something about "Tell Torch" and hoped it would sound as cryptic to them as a telegram. Then, suddenly, she remembered the ominous word "Danger."
She looked at the children, only to be baffled by the blank innocence of their eyes. They knew something, yet she dared not ruffle their apparent unconsciousness, in order to warn them, lest she should awaken their fear.
At present they were revelling in the mystery of keeping a secret safe from adult knowledge. So much was proved by the fact that Mavis did not repeat her question after she had realised it as a strategical blunder.
It seemed to her that their safety lay in the certainty that they would not divulge the fruits of their gleaning, even to her. But there remained the real peril of the unguarded moment when they might reveal their dangerous knowledge.
While she stared—anguish in her eyes—at the spattered glass, Georgia noticed vaguely that Mavis was coughing. Directly she discovered that her mother had heard it, she forced a repeat performance.
"I hope you've not taken cold," said Georgia dully. "Now the weather has changed, I had better look for some woollens."
As much for the sake of occupation as from maternal anxiety, she tugged an unpacked suitcase from the closet. It was one she had taken on her Brussels holiday and it cost her an effort even to look at the labels with which it was plastered. Evidently it had been re-packed hurriedly for her second journey, for there remained a small lace collar and a picture-postcard which had not been removed from a side pocket.
As she stared at the photograph, she recalled the circumstances of its sale. Torch had bought it for her, after they had seen the original in a church at Bruges. It was called "The Adoration of the Shepherds" and he had told her an anecdote about its painter—Pierre Pourbus.
At the time she had been in such a state of misery that it had made little impression upon her. Then, she could not contemplate life apart from the Count—and now she was straining every nerve to escape from him. She had a desperate message—a frantic appeal for help—straining to free itself from the stranglehold of the Count's censorship, but every passage was barred to it.
As she was wondering over the seeming muddle and futility of Fate, a thought flashed across her mind... When one sense failed—another functioned. Eyes ceased to see, but vision was supplied by touch and hearing.
There might he still a way to reach her friends—if only one man could understand.
FOR the rest of the day Georgia stayed up in her room, at work on the new instalment of her novel. She scribbled with feverish haste—knowing that Miss Jones would decipher the most illegible script... Supposing, of course, that Miss Jones was still alive... But in any case, the novel had to be completed, since both American and British first serial rights were sold and she had never yet broken a contract.
It was still pouring in torrents, but the wind had risen again and was driving blinding sheets of rain against her windows, so that she could not see the sea, except as a rocking greyness. Walls of streaming glass enclosed her in an unreal crystal sphere—wherein she built up a frail and tenuous craft which might bring them safe into port.
Although it was almost impossible to believe in it, she was thrilled to feel this faint flicker of hope, after disciplining herself to accept her fate with a dull fortitude. Yet her cheeks burned as she scribbled and re-read the page with scornful eyes. Once she was actually on the point of scoring out part of it, but she changed her mind again.
"No," she thought, "it must be obvious. If it doesn't hit them in the eye, it's no use... Besides what does anything matter now?"
Then she picked up the picture-postcard and looked at it thoughtfully while she considered whether she should enclose it. There was only one person who could interpret her message—Harvey Torch—but she doubted if even he could decipher its meaning without the aid of a key. This reproduction of "The Adoration of the Shepherds" alone could assist his memory.
For this reason, it was so precious, that she dared not risk sending it prematurely. It was more prudent to endure a longer period of torment and suspense, while she paved the way for it by other instalments of the novel. By the end of that time, she hoped that his curiosity would be sufficiently inflamed for the picture-postcard to receive recognition.
It was true that Torch never read his clients' work—unless the case were exceptional—until it appeared in print. Miss Jones, however, when she typed it, could not fail to notice her likeness, even though she could not grasp its significance.
Her hopes of life and liberty depended on the governess' safety. Looking at the rain-spattered glass, Georgia remembered the gale of the preceding night. If any accident—whether malice of man or Act of God—had intervened, she and her children had already sunk, with her.
A prey of keenest anxiety, she waited for the Professor's return. Every time she heard raised voices or the gallop of the children's sandalled feet over the house, she wondered if the heralds were bringing her news of a tragedy. Presently she was unable to remain inactive, so she collected her papers in order to submit them to the Count's censorship.
As she was passing through the writing-room, she met the Professor. He had returned sooner than she expected and he still wore wet oilskins. Without removing his cap, he glanced at her with bright black eyes and jerked his thumb towards the smoking-room.
Georgia's anxiety was not only acute but intensified by the horror of his presence. He seemed to stand in the shoes of the executioner. Yet she knew that if she had met him, clad in the cassock of a priest, she would have accepted his blessing without question of his piety, on his face value of benignant calm.
The Count noticed her large envelope directly she entered his room, and stretched out his hand for it.
"More work?" he asked. "Nice going. You make hay while the rain falls. If you don't mind waiting, I will glance through it, in case it needs any blacking-out."
His words filled her with a glow of relief, for she knew he would have greeted her with any news of an official accident to Miss Jones.
"What time did they reach Sältsjöbaden?" she asked.
"After one. A dirty trip. The Professor took your lady-friend to her hotel, to make sure she was admitted. Instead of tipping him, she shook hands. I am afraid the compliment was wasted on him... Won't you smoke?"
Sinking down into the geranium-leather chair, she held her breath while he flipped the pages of her manuscript. It seemed to her that her ruse must be detected, because of her violation of her own code. It was proof of how little he knew of her real character, when he looked up with an impudent smile.
"Mrs. Yates is a charming character," he commented. "I should like to meet her in real life. She's worth knowing."
His words told her what she hoped to know; but her face was scarlet as she defended herself.
"I warned you my invention had dried up. I can't create minor characters to order."
"Why should you, when you can use this delightful and modest lady, with her hatred of publicity and her romantic history? Your fans should adore her."
"I don't care what people think of her if she assists my sales... Have you a postcard? I must let Harvey Torch know that I am sending another instalment to Miss Jones."
"I will write it for you. You needn't write to your mother unless you want to. I am going to send her another snapshot, to let her know how happy we are. Would you like to see it?"
She barely glanced at the photograph, which still had power to wound her, because the camera had snared a golden minute.
"When will this be mailed?" she asked.
"Tomorrow. I'll take it across in the morning."
Feeling that she had established a precedent that every batch of typing-material sent to Miss Jones, should be accompanied by a postcard of advice to Torch, Georgia was content to await developments. To her delight, things moved quickly, for the Count returned from Sältsjöbaden with a letter from Miss Jones and the news that she had returned to England.
As a matter of fact, the governess stopped to see Stockholm, so that when she arrived home, late on a Saturday night, Georgia's bulky envelope was waiting for her, at the rectory. She had no time to glance at it, either then or during the first part of Sunday, since she played the organ at church and later, took a class at Sunday-school. When she returned, the telephone bell was ringing.
"Mr. Torch and his brother have run over again to see me," explained Mrs. Palfrey. "I rather think you are the attraction. They want a first-hand account of 'the Countess.'"
With a pleasant feeling of being in the local limelight, Miss Jones cycled over to the Cottage. During tea, she reviewed her visit which—now that it was over—appeared even more attractive in retrospect.
From a wish to please Mrs. Palfrey, she gave a glowing account of the island.
"A marvellous house, built in modern Continental style, all glass and roof. The Count must be fabulously rich. Mrs. Yeo—I can't call her 'Countess'—has a writing-room, right over the sea."
"How is Georgia?" asked Osbert.
"Splendid. So happy. It's an ideal love-match. Imagine it, the Count himself came all the way to fetch me. Roughly, it's about as far as Guernsey from Weymouth."
"And my grandchildren?" asked Mrs. Palfrey.
"Not so good. They're out of hand and practically amphibian. But Merle has grown very pretty. Gorgeous colouring—like a sunset."
Torch tried to hide his yawns. He only brightened when Miss Jones told him of the parcel of manuscript which was waiting at the rectory.
"Is it wrong to type on Sunday?" he asked wistfully. "Time is a factor."
"It's never wrong to work for Mrs. Yeo," declared Miss Jones. "Besides it's only a short, rushed instalment. She's going to send a big batch next time. If you can wait about an hour, I'll rattle it off for you."
Either Miss Jones was an unusually expert typist or her material was stringently rationed, for she returned to the Cottage within sixty minutes. Her face was flushed from a stronger emotion than haste and her hands shook as she removed the typed sheets from their wrapper.
"Listen to this description of a minor character," she said. "Her name is Gertrude Yates—G.Y.—a widow with two children, Mary and Margaret... M. and M... She was married from the schoolroom, but left a widow in tragic circumstances. To support her family, she becomes a successful novelist... now, who is she?"
"Georgia Yeo," replied Torch. "But what's the big idea?"
"It means she's come to her senses at last," declared Mrs. Palfrey defiantly.
"But it's so cheap and blatant," wailed Miss Jones. "This Mrs. Gertrude Yates is small and fragile and looks too young to be the mother of her children. She's unusually shy and dislikes any sort of publicity intensely. It's not like her to advertise her own qualities. What does it mean?"
"Mrs. Palfrey has just explained what it means," said Osbert, bitterly. "Georgia has a higher opinion of the Countess than she had of Mrs. Yeo."
"Still, she wouldn't drag herself in so crudely, Even if she had lost her inferiority complex, she'd produce herself more artistically. Mr. Torch must admit that."
"Probably this change is due to the Count's influence," hinted the agent. "Marriage does things to people. I've sunk so low that I've grown to accept my wife's taste in cigars."
"The Count, plus improved circumstances," supplemented Osbert. "It must alter any woman fundamentally to live in a palace without any walls and to own a cloakroom which has inspired Miss Jones' Saga of the Sanitary Engineer."
"But I know something is wrong," wailed the governess. "I haven't told you everything. There were things I accepted against my instinct. But I can't pretend any longer. It's dangerous and it's wrong."
Mrs. Palfrey's small lined face puckered with indignation.
"What are you going to crab now?" she demanded.
Miss Jones had to summon up all her resolution before she could speak. She had a hopeless feeling of being in a minority while she was supporting an unpopular cause. As she was both sane and clear-headed, it galled her pride to know that her devotion to another woman could be regarded as proof of hysterical repression.
"I'd do it for anyone," she told herself. "If I keep silent, it's like pretending not to notice when someone is slowly sinking in a quicksand. I am the only one who has seen."
"You must concede this first," she said in her most matter of fact voice. "If Mrs. Yeo really is the victim of a conspiracy, everything would have appeared satisfactory on the surface, just as it was on my visit."
"Except that one of her friends was actually in the house," Mrs. Palfrey reminded her. "Surely she could have contrived to let you know."
"That's what worried me. She couldn't. She couldn't whisper to me, because I was so wretchedly deaf that day; and she couldn't write me a note, because there were no writing materials. I asked twice for paper and pencil to jot down the name of a song for the Count—but there were none in the drawing-room and none in her own room where she works."
As she spoke, Miss Jones noticed that while the men listened with impartial attention, Mrs. Palfrey had grown more hostile.
"If you asked me for paper now," she said, "I should have to fetch the kitchen tablets. I hope that is not proof of my criminal intentions. Besides, if my daughter wanted to get a message through, she would. She has often surprised even me by her resource. She can get her characters out of anything."
"But if she is herself a character, she will need some one outside to rescue her... But there's something more. All the time I was there, we were never left alone, except for about five minutes when Mrs. Yeo took me up to her room. Mrs. Vanderpant even showed me the cloakroom; and she's a very stately dame—the sort who always rings for a maid."
"But you admit you were alone with her. You can say a lot in five minutes."
"If no one were listening... There were four doors to the room, including the closet. And they were all closed. Mrs. Yeo had to shout to me, to make me hear. She remarked the holiday was not quite perfect, because I was so deaf."
The governess' voice quivered with conviction as she added, "I've thought and thought about that. It's not like her to comment on my deafness, as though it were a nuisance. She would be afraid of hurting my feelings. It's the last thing she would do—just as the last thing she would do is to put herself in one of her own books. Oh—can't you see it's all wrong?"
As the brothers remained silent, Mrs. Palfrey bounced up from her chair and hurried across to the bureau. It was piled high with bundles of papers and old letters, from which she selected one with a Swedish stamp.
"Gustav wrote a few lines only last mail," she said triumphantly. "But he sent this snap of Georgia and himself. You won't need a glass to see how radiantly happy she is... And if you will look at the date, you will observe it was taken after you had returned to England."
Miss Jones' face was crimson from shame as she picked up the photograph which showed Georgia in a garden-party frock of floral chiffon. As she studied it, she started and then held it closer to her eyes.
"Isn't she wearing that lucky wooden bracelet you gave her?" she asked Osbert.
"Yes," he replied.
"But that's impossible. It was lost in the sea before that photograph was taken."
When she finished her story, she looked at them expectantly, but only to see that they were unconvinced. She was up against an accumulation of mass-prejudice—not only of Public School prestige and traditional masculine standard, but also the sum-total of every mother since Eve, who—cheated in her own lifetime—recreates herself in her daughter.
"All this only proves that Gustav dated an earlier photograph, to make it appear more topical," explained Mrs. Palfrey. "I don't want to appear unkind, but I feel you are so fond of my daughter that you are jealous of closer ties."
"I agree," said Osbert. "We must not create a situation just to prove to ourselves that Georgia cannot be happy apart from us."
Looking at his brother, Torch knew that he was reasoning with himself, to subdue the tumult in his heart. He was unhappy and bitter—in a mood to climb Mount Everest. In his own turn, he spoke to the governess with kindly cynicism.
"Have you ever thought of writing fiction yourself?"
"Often," she replied. "But I couldn't invent anything, to save my life."
DAY succeeded day with no intrusion from the world outside the island. Georgia slaved at her novel, working against time in order to send the promised lengthy instalment—which also contained a brief, but pointed reference to the writer of detective thrillers—Mrs. Gertrude Yates.
Its reception was acknowledged by Torch merely in a short and friendly note, which gave general news; but that Miss Jones had recognised the original was evident from her letter.
"Although she is such a minor character," she wrote, "Mrs. Yates is pungent as mustard. She brings tears to my eyes—but you always know best."
The remark made Georgia wonder unhappily whether the governess had been wounded by her betrayal of reticence and that—out of loyalty—she would refrain from drawing the agent's attention to it. In the absence of any attempt at rescue, she was forced to conclude that her signals had been interpreted as an error of taste—in which case, she dared not throw away her last chance by sending Torch prematurely the picture-postcard from Bruges.
The responsibility of making her decision worried her when she remembered her experience at Bridge. She had little practice at the game, so was often guilty of the charge of going to bed with her ace... If she held up her winning card too long, it might be useless. It must be timed meticulously—whereas she could only act blindly, so long as her friends remained silent.
She tried to reason that if they understood the situation, it followed that they would have knowledge of the censorship, so could not communicate with her. But, in her heart, she knew that they would trust to her intelligence to recognise even the vibration of a hint. There must be some point of common knowledge—unshared with the Count—which would arouse that first stir in the air, to tell her that the pipes were swirling to her rescue.
While she waited, work was her salvation. At the beginning of her ordeal, she had believed that she could not stand the strain of living under sentence of death; but as shock succeeded shock, she realised her own capacity to endure and never questioned its failure. Now, once again, she was beginning to fear that her nerve might crash. Her courage was slowly crumbling under cumulative pressure. She could feel no longer the sand ridge under her feet, as she sank daily into deeper water.
She recognised her danger by the growing menace of the limitations of the island. It had begun to shrink beyond the area of safety. Sometimes when she lay awake, she seemed to get outside it, seeing it as in an atlas, as a black pin-prick in a wash of blue paint.
"There's not room for a dog-kennel—and we are in a house," she told herself.
Now that the rain had stopped, the weather was close and cloudy and the sea, a heavy gooseberry-green swell. Instead of spattering itself against the rocks, it rolled up in layer upon layer—piling itself up in rising mounds. There were times when the ocean appeared to be too full and she succumbed to a morbid fancy that if any one dipped his hands inside it, it would heave up instantly and submerge the island.
Her only refuge was her glass-enclosed room where she could escape into her novel and lose her identity in the unreal world of her own imagination. Much as she craved the companionship of her children, they were unused to adult supervision and she felt that—in spite of their affection for her—they would resent any check on their liberty.
Although she had to leave them to their own resources, she became aware gradually that they had established amicable relations not only with the peasant-staff but with the Professor. While she dared not arouse their suspicion by forbidding them to speak to him, she shrank from the idea of their contact with this human monster. Merle, in particular, was elusive and restless as a drop of quicksilver. It was impossible to know where she went or what she did.
One evening, Mavis appeared at dinner with red eyelids and a grim expression. Their cause was apparent when Merle warned her mother not to take any roast fowl.
"It's a private chicken," she explained in a horrified voice.
"One of Mavis' friends," laughed Clair callously. "Have some, Mavis. Nice and tender."
Mavis glared at her in impotent fury.
"Miss Jones says all foreign countries are cruel to animals," she said. "It's not allowed in England. There's a Royal Society—and it invested thirty-five thousand cases last year. Victoria the Great invented kindness to animals."
"When she was being a queen—not when she was a film-star," broke in Merle who had seen the picture.
Mavis enlarged on the subject in her most blustering tones, as she tried to subdue the quiver of her lips. Merle looked at her and then gulped in sympathy.
"I ordered the Professor to kill him very kindly," she said. "He promised he'd use chloroform and be very quick."
"Sure, he'd be quick," agreed Clair. "He's had plenty of practice in wringing necks. His last moll wasn't the first he left looking over her right shoulder permanent."
"What's a moll?" asked Merle.
"A rag-doll," said the Count quickly. "Cut it out, Clair."
Although she hoped the girl was indulging in the time-honoured pastime of trying to make their flesh creep, Georgia felt grateful when that mistress of subterfuge—Mrs. Vanderpant—changed the subject with one of her automatic remarks about the London Season. Fortunately she believed that the children had not understood the conversation, for they looked perkily knowing, instead of assuming the innocence with which they veiled their knowledge.
She spent a wretched night, worrying over their future, and trying to seal her ears against a giant mutilated Voice which attempted to articulate its triumph in every back-wash of surf over the rocks. But in spite of its misery, it proved the prelude to a day of hope. In the afternoon, she felt so slack and sticky, that she allowed Merle to tempt her to swim.
On their way down to the pool, they passed Mavis and the Swedish servant, Greta, who sat together under a pine and shared an American pictorial magazine. It was open at a coloured advertisement of a model kitchen and a decorative cook who was preparing a tempting dish from a brand of puffed rice.
Mavis was pointing to different details of the picture and naming each in her most cultured voice.
"Hand. Head. Ham. Happle. Hegg."
When Greta began to repeat the words dutifully, Georgia felt that she must protest.
"But I'm teaching her English—and it sounds grander with aitches," explained Mavis.
Merle began to imitate Greta as they slithered down the path which was perilously ribbed with roots.
"Haig," she sniggered.
"I expect Greta will end up by speaking English better than some English people," said Georgia. "It's silly to laugh at her, when you don't know any Swedish."
"Of course, I do. Lots."
"Then you can tell Greta the lesson is over as we want Mavis to swim. I should like to hear a specimen of your Swedish."
Georgia laughed as she spoke, but her scepticism was changed to amazement when Merle looked back and spoke nonchalantly to Greta with fluent unintelligibility. It was evident, however, that the Swede understood, for she grinned with relief as she walked back towards the house, carrying the magazine.
Although Merle was looking expectantly at her—rather like a puppy cadging a biscuit after performing its trick—Georgia was too stunned to applaud. She remembered then how Miss Jones had once claimed a marvellous ear for Merle, when she wanted to teach her the violin, and that she had ridiculed the idea on the score of her own lack of music.
"I've always saddled them with my limitations and forgotten they had a father," she reminded herself.
She was too exalted to feel either penitence or humility. A miracle had exploded out of the blue and she began to glimpse the outline of an opening door. She had believed herself cut off completely from humanity, by the barrier of language, although the Swedish servants looked honest and kind.
"That's famous, darling," she said. "I'm terribly proud of you... Does any one know you can speak and understand Swedish? Does Gustav know?"
Merle shook her head with her most elfin grin and a slanting glance from her eyes. Clever and imitative as a monkey, it was characteristic of her to collect knowledge in secret—unlike Mavis who was the perfect exhibitionist. Georgia smothered her rising excitement and spoke to the children in a casual voice.
"Where are the others?"
"All shut up," replied Mavis.
"Then we might take a trip on the water, Merle, go and ask Henry"—she gave the English version of the man-servant's name—"to join us at once on the landing stage. He is not to disturb any one by asking permission."
Moving noiselessly on rubber soles, she hurried back to the house and up to her bedroom, only staying long enough to snatch up warm coats and the bag which held her money. It was then she felt grateful for the special conditions of her imprisonment, which insisted that—in order to exploit her talent—she must be treated as an honoured guest.
Since the transfer of her bank balance to Stockholm, she had signed several large cheques for the Count to cash, but he had made no attempt to obtain possession of the roll of notes which she had brought with her for her journey, and which he had conserved by paying her expenses. It was merely a gesture, since she could not spend it on the island and it would become his ultimately.
In the circumstances, it was of no value to her. She had left it lying about in her room, but the Swedish servants were too trustworthy to steal. Now, however, it was revealed as a providential hoard.
Hugging it to her, she crept cautiously down the stairs, while her heart pounded and she held her breath in suspense. Every minute was of importance in this desperate bid for liberty, yet she dared not run, as her retreat had to be noiseless. When she crossed the small flower-garden, she felt that every window was an eye, watching her attempt to escape and gloating over its futility; and as she panted through the wood, she kept looking behind her, to see whether she were followed.
The other three were waiting for her on the little landing-stage. Merle had gripped the big Swede by the arm and was smiling up at him, in an effort to make a conquest. He had heavy lumpy features and tow hair—so light as to appear white. His expression was stolid and he did not look either intelligent or responsive.
"Merle," said Georgia rapidly. "Be very quick. Ask him if he can run the motor. If he can, say we want to go across to Sältsjöbaden. I will pay him this."
She peeled a wad of notes off her roll and held them before his eyes in mute bribery, while Merle acted as interpreter. Either her limited vocabulary was unequal to the strain, or he was unduly deliberate, for she did not repeat her success. Georgia waited in a fever of impatience during the explanations. At any moment, she expected to hear the crunch of pebbles on the rocky path or a voice hailing them from the gloom of the wood.
She could hardly believe in their luck when at last, Henry nodded to show he understood.
"Sältsjöbaden," she repeated, to make sure there was no mistake.
"Yes," he said, showing them that he knew one word of English.
With slow deliberate movements, he boarded the launch and began to start the engine. But if he was a methodical person—who could not be speeded-up—he had a sluggish brain to correspond, for he raised no doubts as to the trip being a lawful enterprise.
Georgia realised that the Count had never contemplated the possibility of anyone speaking Swedish, so had given the servants no indication that their visitors were to be treated as prisoners.
"He looks on us as pampered rich English," she thought, when they were all crowded together in the launch. She felt it throb like a living thing, before it leaped forward, cutting the water and leaving behind it a pathway of curling foam.
The moment was one of incredible and almost unendurable ecstasy. After being moored to one spot, she had broken free and was rushing towards the sky-line. She had left the island with its terrible associations and memories... Already there were yards of green-white water heaving between the boat and the little quay. Every moment, the distance was widening. Small waves slapped against the sides of the launch and she felt the first sting of the wind.
Soon it was blowing strongly upon them and the sharp outline of the island was growing blurred. A veil was being drawn imperceptibly over it, so that gradually it lost its form and sank down into a flat vagueness. It was little more than a shadow floating on the water, yet she could still distinguish the white blur of the house.
At one end, was a glass-enclosed room, hanging out over the sea. She felt that it must still hold its prisoner—a woman bent over her writing-pad, while she transferred her own agony to the page—broadcasting her tragedy to a world which would not believe.
She shook off the morbid fancy.
"No, I am free. I have escaped. We are safe."
She shut her eyes resolutely, accepting the rush of the wind plucking at her lids, as a benediction. When she opened them again, there was no sign of the island or the house.
She smiled at Henry, who stared back at her, but there was no room in her heart for doubt.
"I will not go back, whatever happens," she vowed. "If he doesn't know how to steer, we shall land somewhere. If we run out of petrol, we will wait until some ship picks us up. We will chance our luck."
The children huddled together for warmth, but made no comments and asked no questions. Their silence made her wonder whether they understood the situation. While they were on the island, they appeared perfectly happy and only anxious not to return to England and their lessons.
It was impossible to guess what was passing in their minds, and she dared not probe, since she knew a child's dislike of a departure from the normal.
Nothing now—but miles of empty sea. There was no other craft in sight and they had not reached any tiny islets—the outcrop of the Archipelago. The wind filled her eyes with salt and glued them together. Whenever she forced them apart, she could dimly see the spray rising in white wavering forms, like guardian angels.
Hugging the children closer, she began to make plans. It would be late when they reached the mainland, but it was only a short run by rail to Stockholm. If she could not board a steamer there, she intended to take train to Gothenburg. Not until she was on the neutral territory of the Swedish-Lloyd steamer, would she feel really safe.
She began to doze and had lost all sense of direction or place when she was awakened by Merle.
"We're nearly in, Mummie."
She opened her eyes, to see the familiar shape of the island outlined against the sunset gold.
"I said 'Sältsjöbaden,'" she said sharply.
"But Henry hadn't enough petrol to get there," explained Merle. "I told him to come back at once, or we'd be late for dinner."
"Not enough petrol," repeated Georgia. "So that is how it is done."
She realised then that she had under-estimated the Count's precautions. There would never be enough petrol in the engine for a trip to the mainland while he kept the key of the store.
His smile was gay when he met them on the quay.
"A pleasant run?" he asked Georgia.
Dulled with disappointment—too deep for rebellion—she did not reply. Turning to Merle, he spoke to her in Swedish, when she fell into his trap and replied in the same language.
"So she is a linguist," he commented, gazing after her as she scampered away. "She's a clever little baggage—but she is pretty enough to get away with it... But, my dear, this must never happen again. You have been in grave danger. Henry is not a skilled mechanic and he cannot steer a course. There is only one person, besides myself, whom I can trust to take you out in the launch."
Georgia knew the name of the paragon. It was the Professor.
ALTHOUGH she rarely saw him, Georgia's dread of the Professor continued to increase. He never spoke to her whenever they chanced to meet; but a glance from his small darting eyes had power to make her recoil.
While he did nothing to remind her of a specialised interest, she could not forget that he was the executioner.
He remained an enigma, just as his status was a mystery. She knew that he was in Mrs. Vanderpant's confidence, for, although he was habitually silent, she could hear the grate of the elderly woman's voice, when she was in the privacy of her room; but beyond the fact that he was her instrument, Georgia knew nothing of their relationship.
Like the Count, he kept fit by working in the garden, stoking the furnace and even feeding the goats and fowls. He often bathed in the sea, swimming—with a powerful stroke—so low in the water, that the dark hump of his continually submerged head reminded her of a shark shooting up after prey.
As her suspicion strengthened that he was no stranger to Merle, she plucked up courage to investigate. She knew that it would arouse dangerous curiosity to forbid any friendship and also that it was impossible to control Merle's movements. Apparently she was her sister's constant companion, but the fact that a working knowledge of Swedish is not picked up overnight by the truest ear, was proof that she often stole away on her private business.
One afternoon, Georgia dared to ask a question.
"I suppose you like the Professor," she said in a casual voice, as Merle was sunning herself beside the swimming-pool.
"Um," was the indifferent reply. "He's a very kind man. He's done a lot of killings—all for mercy."
Georgia controlled her shudder at a sudden reminder that she might actually experience this humane butchery.
"Is he sorry for them?"
The words slipped out against her will.
"No," replied Merle, "he's never sorry, cos he's too kind to hurt them. He's very very quick."
"Well, he shouldn't tell you such silly lies—and you shouldn't listen."
"But he's got to amuse me."
"Not with ugly stories that aren't true. Remember, both of you, you mustn't believe everything you hear."
"We don't. Do we, Mavis?"
As the children exchanged guilty glances, Georgia felt that her desperate propaganda to preserve their ignorance was a failure. It was plain that they shared a secret which they wanted to reveal, while they questioned their own wisdom.
Her suspense was swiftly changed to joyous relief as Merle made her confession.
"I don't believe in the Bible. I told a lie—and I didn't drop down dead."
"And I ordered a mountain to move," added Mavis impressively. "But I couldn't make it listen to me. It wouldn't do a thing."
Then she grasped Merle's outstretched hand for assurance, while both children looked around them with somewhat scared eyes, as though they expected the sea to heave up and sweep them off the island.
When nothing happened, they burst into shouts of laughter and began to wrestle with each other over the mattresses. They looked such happy healthy young pagans, as the sun gilded them to golden girls, that Georgia had not the heart to reprove them.
"The Bible is true," she said. "When you're back in England you must tell Miss Jones what you can't understand—and she will explain everything."
She walked away quickly—hot with anger at the threat of extinction to two beautiful joyous flames of life. Blinded with a blur of tears, she branched off from the path, neither knowing nor caring where she wandered, until she found she had strayed round to the vegetable patch on the sheltered side of the island.
Almost blocking her path was the Professor, absently stroking a goat as it ate from his hand. As usual, he took no notice of her except for one quick glance.
Suddenly she was urged to speak to him.
"Do you like animals?" she asked.
"They like me," he said after a long pause.
At that moment, in his earth-stained clothes, he might have been an inarticulate peasant. It seemed impossible that, at their first meeting in Brussels, she had actually credited this hulk with academic honours and had been afraid to speak, lest she exposed her ignorance. She remembered his expensive evening clothes, the black pearl studs in his shirt front, and the beaming benevolence which he had put away with his eyeglasses.
But even as then he had overawed her with his personality, so now she felt herself overwhelmed by some force stronger than sheer stupidity—as though a weight of wet earth had fallen upon her.
"Merle thinks you are her friend," she went on, struggling to conquer her repulsion and to awake some gleam of compassion. "She's a big girl for her age. But she's only seven. And she's always so happy... I don't care so much what happens to me—but it doesn't seem fair—"
As her voice failed she nerved herself to look up at the enormous red face. His eyes were watching intently the course of an insect which was crawling over the goat's coat. Suddenly his clumsy fingers dived down upon it and he nipped it between his nails.
Either he had not listened to her plea or he was demonstrating the superior importance of the capture of a flea. Crushed and beaten, she hurried away from him, foolishly talking in her mind to Mavis.
"You are right, darling. No one can move a mountain."
When she reached her room, she stood at the window, looking out at the lines of waves rolling onwards towards the horizon.
"No one can be altogether bad," she reasoned. "There must be one good spot."
Suddenly she knew that she was thinking of the characters in her own novels. Her fiction was contrary to the evidence of the crime stories in the daily press. She had turned away, shuddering, from reports of atrocious murders committed by human monsters—yet those were the facts.
But while she realised that appeal either to Mrs. Vanderpant or the Count was hopeless, there seemed a faint chance to enlist Clair's sympathies for the children, in case her own signals to her friends did not get through.
"She's not a criminal," she reminded herself. "She's one of the Count's victims herself. All this toughness is pose."
She found Clair in the drawing-room, stretched out on the divan and, as usual, smoking a cigarette. The girl presented a vivid and bizarre blotch of colour amid the faint tints of her surroundings. She wore a rest-gown of petunia, patterned with blue poppies, in combination with purple-red lipstick and ultramarine eye shadow. Around her head was wound a swathe of chiffon of which she appeared resentfully conscious.
She spoke aggressively to Georgia, as though she suspected adverse criticism.
"Yes, go on. Laugh. I had better hair than yours. I could sit on mine. Isn't it swell to have to go about cropped like a convict?"
As Georgia listened, she realised for the first time, that Clair was jealous of her own long fair plaits. It was a bad prelude to a request, but she tried to soothe the antagonistic girl.
"It's rather romantic," she said. "You remind me of a lady of the olden times who cut off her hair and dressed as a page, so as to accompany her lord on his crusade."
"A hell of a crusade," sneered Clair. "Squeezing guinea-pigs... What do you want?"
"To ask you a favour."
"Why do you hate me? I can't understand it. You've no reason to resent me."
"We are two women to one man. That's all."
"But that's ridiculous. You can't be jealous of me. You know that the Count is indifferent to me."
"And you're indifferent to him. That's what's biting him. He's not used to it. You'll end by getting him going."
As Georgia looked down on the enslaved girl, she felt almost sorry for her. Imprisoned within herself, root-bound and unable to reach down for the homely nourishing things of life—she was drawn up to forced unnatural growth by the scorching flame of passion.
"This is fantastic," she said sharply. "I have only one thought. My children."
"They're your trouble."
"I know... But if anything should happen to me, will you see that Merle and Mavis are sent back to England directly?"
"Why? It's nothing to do with me."
"But Clair—they're only children."
Clair laughed callously as she flicked the ash from her cigarette.
"That's why," she said. "I hate children. Always have. Always shall... When I was five, there was a new baby. I was a little queen till then, but I was deposed. I hated that baby. Do you know what I planned to do? One day, I was going to set fire to the mosquito-curtains of its cot. It died first—but I still hate children... I shall never have a child—and I don't want one. I can never be ill—never relax—never be away from him, or I'll lose Gustav. I don't care. As long as I'm with him, he's all I want. And when I'm not with him, I'll be dead."
As Georgia listened to the torrent of words, she knew that it was hopeless to plead any longer. Drawing away from the divan, she spoke with the stored bitterness of her heart.
"In spite of all, I wouldn't change places with you... I pity you."
"How dare you?" Clair choked with rage. "Get out of my room... Gustav."
As she raised her voice, the Count sauntered through the doorway. He wore a suit of cream silk and an orange Iceland poppy was fading in his button-hole. From his gratified smile, it was plain that he believed himself to be the source of dispute.
Suddenly his face grew sharper as he glanced towards the balcony.
"Be quiet," he commanded. "This is the Children's Hour. Some one's listening-in."
Following the direction of his eyes, Georgia looked at the elongated shadow which lay across the white floor of the balcony, betraying an invisible audience. A premonition of disaster chilled her as she wondered how long the child had been waiting outside and what she had understood.
"Pray it's Merle," she thought desperately, feeling that the situation might yet be saved by sharp wits.
As though he guessed her thought, the Count spoke.
"Come in, little lady. Is it my sweetheart?... No, it's only Mavis."
Directly she saw the child Georgia's heart sank. Her face was red and ugly and her nostrils ringed with white. Glaring hatred at the Count, she rushed to her mother and tugged her arm.
"Come away, Mummie," she said. "We must all go home."
"Why must you go?" asked the Count sharply.
Georgia tried to silence the infuriated child, although she knew that matters had passed beyond her control. She had the helpless feeling of one who had launched a ship prematurely. She alone had seen the first faint quiver, but she knew that nothing could stop its descent. Once started, it would slide downwards, gaining momentum with every foot, until it plunged into the water.
"Why?" repeated the Count, twisting Mavis away from her mother.
"She burns babies," said the child, pointing to Clair.
Striking the Count to free herself she struggled to reach Georgia.
"Come away, Mummie," she implored. "They're gangsters. This is a terrible gangster's house."
The words were received in a silence which was broken by the Count.
"What a pity... And Merle was so pretty."
ALTHOUGH no further notice was taken of Mavis' outburst, Georgia knew that the situation was passing beyond moderate control to desperate expedient. The Count's mentality resembled that of her mother's old school-mistress, who absolved herself of responsibility, when she disassociated herself from knowledge of a feline tragedy.
"Tabby is a perfect nuisance," she remarked. "I've given instructions to the servants that she is not to be at the school when I return from the holidays—but I am to be told nothing."
In like manner the Count was claiming immunity from the charge of murder, on the grounds that he was merely a passive agent. Mrs. Vanderpant, as its originator, was the active force in a desperate scheme—so unconsidered that she needed fresh victims to mop up her blunders.
Georgia began to understand how one crime can lead to another when she realised that—since an accident to herself was inevitable—a triple tragedy could be contrived with little more chance of risk while the death of her children would open up new possibilities of profit.
In the absence of a will, her husband would be able to claim the trust money. He had already won her mother's confidence, and since he would insist on allowing her an income, she would have no cause for doubt or grievance. As regarded the necessary documents to back up the fraud, he could buy the services of some unscrupulous and insolvent registrar, who would forge all entries and certificates.
Although the children were safe until no further fiction could be squeezed from her brain, she felt that she must try to establish contact with her friends before any accidental happening made it too late.
As she sat up most of the night, finishing another instalment of the novel—to justify the postcard which would accompany it—she realised that, although he might not understand it, the picture from Bruges might arouse the Count's suspicion.
"I must get the children to scribble on all the plain cards," she decided.
She had to wait for a wet day before she had a chance to suggest a new game to two imprisoned children, who were bored with choosing houses.
"Why don't you open a dress-shop?" she asked. "You may use all my things. Price everything and see who can write the best labels. Don't put 'Keen value' or 'Marvellous bargain.' Try to be original."
"I know what I'm going to write on one of mine," declared Merle instantly. "I shall print—'GOT NO MOTHER.' People will feel so sorry for the poor little frock, they'll all buy it."
"What shall we do for tickets?" asked Mavis as Merle began to explore closets.
"Postcards," suggested Georgia vaguely.
Snapping at the hint, the children swept through the house, like locusts, clearing every room of stationery. When they had returned, she spurred them on in keen competition until the last bare surface was covered.
Her hands trembled as she addressed her postcard of "The Adoration of the Shepherds" and then wrote a few lines on the minimum space which was left. When she brought it into the smoking-room however, she laid it down carelessly on top of her pile of M.S.
"When you take this over to Sältsjöbaden," she said indifferently, "you had better order more stationery. My children seem to have cleared out the lot."
"Why not?" he asked pleasantly. "Probably they know you pay for it. Mavis seems to be in every secret."
Georgia made no comment. She went out of the room, feeling that she could do nothing more but trust to luck. She dared not dwell on the odds against her. A postcard had so little commercial value. The Count might lose it, or not consider it worth a stamp. On the other hand, he might attach too much importance to it and be suspicious of its wording, which contained a slight departure from the business formula. Even if it were delivered to Torch's office it might be intercepted by a clerk and consigned to the waste-paper basket.
She could only wait and hope—not knowing that the threads of Fate are so intertangled, that every person may be a source of influence on posterity. In her case, her destiny was decided, very many years before she was born, by the fact that a certain Victorian lady had been reared in sound middle-class virtues and principles.
The Victorian lady became the mother of an Edwardian daughter who, in her turn, gave birth to a Georgian daughter, exactly one day after her marriage—and then died dutifully, to prove that "Mother was always right."
To counteract any legacy from this regrettably unpunctual lady, the child was reared by her Victorian grandmother on ultra-rigid lines and without deference to modern compromise with morality. In the end, Harvey Torch reaped some of the benefit from this training She entered his employment and—except for a refusal to lie over the telephone—she proved the perfect secretary.
She was the first person to see Georgia's postcard as she sorted out Torch's morning mail. As she had just been on a holiday to Belgium, she slipped it into her bag. She had already made a note to tell him that Miss Jones had just received a fresh supply of typing-material from Mrs. Yeo, so there was no need to trouble him to read it.
Georgia's last hope was dying like a candle in the wind, when the Victorian lady spoke sternly from the grave. The carefully cultured conscience of little Miss Williams began to reproach her for not asking permission to take personal property. It reminded her that—while ordinary postcards of advice could be consigned to the waste-paper basket, a picture from Bruges might not receive such low ranking. Mr. Torch—or his wife—might have postcard albums—in which case, she was actually guilty of theft.
Accordingly after she had taken down his dictation and received his instructions, she placed the postcard on Torch's blotter.
"This has just come from Mrs. Yeo," she said. "If you don't want it, may I keep it?"
"Of course," he agreed. "What's it about?"
Well aware that one Miss Williams was worth a mixed bag of authors to Torch, she allowed him to see her smile as she slightly accentuated its wording.
"'This is to remind you that I have just forwarded more M.S. to Miss Jones.'"
"Good," he said. "Is it Stockholm?"
"No, Bruges. It's 'The Adoration of the Shepherds,' by Pierre Pourbus. I've seen the original."
She noticed that his pupils had shrunk to pin pricks and recognised the sign that he was trying to galvanise his memory to function.
"I'll leave it out for you," he said, taking it up from his desk.
When he was alone, he sat staring into vacancy. His brain was jammed by a riot of disconnected words, making frantic efforts to cohere. "Remind." What was he to remember? "Bruges." What had happened in Bruges. He only recollected explaining that Pourbus signed his painting with his own likeness... "Likeness." Hadn't Miss Jones read out something about a minor character in Georgia's new novel who resembled herself?
He had not read any of the instalments himself, but as Miss Jones always made four copies—including the top—there would be a spare batch in the office. After he had rung for it to be brought, he raced through it, but only to find it a typical "Yeo," with no character who could be compared with its author.
As he had been hot on the trail of an idea which depended on this blatant lady of fiction for confirmation, he was annoyed with Miss Jones for wasting his time and mental energy.
"Hysteria," he reasoned. "She invented the whole thing to throw a sensation."
For several hours, the subject of Mrs. Yeo's new novel was shelved, until once again Fate intervened. An author lost his train and failed to keep his appointment, which left Torch at liberty to resurrect his grievance. In the end, he whistled down his tube.
"Get Miss Jones, please," he requested his secretary.
When the trunk-call was put through, he tackled the governess directly.
"I have been reading the first chapters of Mrs. Yeo's novel, but I can find nothing about a popular novelist called, Mrs. Gertrude Yates."
There was a pause before Miss Jones spoke in a rush of nervous defiance.
"I left her out, when I typed. She was superfluous to the plot and did not affect the action or development. I acted for the best—and entirely on my own responsibility. You see, I knew Mrs. Yeo would hate her to be left in. She only put her in to tell us something."
To her surprise, the agent did not blame her.
"I am beginning to think you showed sound judgment," he said. "Does this 'Mrs. Yates' appear in the new lot of work?"
"Then leave her in for the present. She may be wanted as evidence. I'm beginning to get on to something. Don't count too much on it, but I hope soon to give you good news of Mrs. Yeo."
Torch rang off before Miss Jones could ask any questions. He was beginning to feel the rising excitement of a hunch and when he rang up his brother, he was bubbling over with the importance of his discovery.
"We've got to act—and act quickly. I've proof that Georgia Yeo is in the clutches of a scoundrel and is being held prisoner. The Jones woman got it right... No, don't cut in. Listen. When we were in Bruges, I showed her a certain picture and explained that its painter always included himself among the minor characters on his canvas, as his special form of signature... Now she's done much the same thing—written up herself as an unimportant character in her novel... What do you make of that?"
"If it means anything at all, she's adopting an elaborate form of signature, as a joke."
"You elementary smear." For almost the first time, Torch abused his hero-brother. "You can't stick to the letter—you must accept the general idea. She's trying to say—'This novel is my own story. What is happening to my heroine, is happening to me. I've put myself in the novel to prove this is my own story.'"
He added impressively, "She has just sent me a picture postcard of the identical painting I showed her, 'The Adoration of the Shepherds.' Doesn't that clinch it?"
"It's certainly an extraordinary co-incidence."
"Co-incidence nothing. By itself, the thing is fool-proof; and when you add to it all the different points of Miss Jones' story, you've got it in the bag... If my theory is right, they are not married. It's an abduction."
If Osbert were slower to take fire he burned longer. After mercurial Harvey had approached the problem of rescue from so many different angles that he grew discouraged and sceptical of his own logic, his brother drove him on remorselessly. It was he who reminded the agent that Georgia's publisher was friendly with an assistant-commissioner of police and insisted that they should appeal for his co-operation.
At the end of the second day, Torch was worn out, mentally and physically, by the pressure of friendly scepticism. Although they badgered and harassed every one who could be of use, they met with general courtesy and patience—and nothing else. When the publisher told them of the result of his interview with the assistant-commissioner, his voice was sympathetic.
"I've put every point of yours before Marson, but I'm afraid he does not think you've got a case. There is not enough actual evidence to justify police interference. Frankly, it's all too fanciful for the Yard."
"What do you think yourself?" asked Osbert.
"I hope he is right."
"So do I. It appears the familiar angle. The police will prosecute crime, but do nothing to prevent it."
"In that case, it's up to you. If I were young and spoiling for a fight"—the publisher could recognise a lover with any one, but tactfully ignored the emotional factor—"I should take matters into my own hands."
"Well, it's bad advice and will probably land you in a mess. But I should collect a few sporting friends, about your own weight, and call on the lady. Get her own story. Act accordingly... Of course, you must be prepared to take a toss. If the Count refuses to admit visitors, you have no warrant or authority to enter. If you force your way inside, you will be on the wrong side of the Law Finally, if you make unfounded accusations to the Count about his marriage, he can bring an action."
Torch's face was lengthening perceptibly, but Osbert's eyes were lambent and he flexed his muscles as though preparing for action.
"There must be no personal assault," said the publisher quickly. "If Mrs. Yeo makes a charge, a warrant will be issued against the Count and Co., in the ordinary way. If he scuttles, it is a job for the police to get their man. Nothing to do with you."
"I'm afraid he will bluff it out and make out there was no compulsion—supposing they are not married," said Torch. "Women are so romantic."
"In that case, I should say much would depend on whether he has been dipping his fingers into her bank account," remarked the publisher. "The point of your story is that he is forcing her to write for his financial benefit. If that's true, I don't know how long he could expect to get away with it."
"Long enough for his purpose," said Osbert.
"We shall see. To my mind, the most incredible part is that he should let her write up the situation."
"Why not? We have all of us accepted it as fiction—considering the kind of stuff she writes."
"Would you have had any doubts, if you had read the book in the ordinary way?" asked Torch.
"I intend to publish it as fiction, anyway," said the publisher firmly. He turned to Osbert and added, "I'm trusting to you to ensure the happy ending."
THE sun shone brilliantly on a crisp autumn morning when the launch from Sältsjöbaden sighted the island, while the wind blew freshly and the sea spouted with strong conflicting currents. The craft carried five muscular young men, in addition to Torch who had organised the rescue party. With the exception of himself all were in excellent spirits, but he was feeling both apprehensive and worried.
While the others were still on holiday, he had to leave his business and spend valuable time on a highly speculative venture. In addition, he had been obliged to pay the expenses of his brother's friends—two young schoolmasters—and the hire of the motor-launch, which included the services of the two Swedes who ran her.
Fortunately her owner spoke English, so was able to locate the island from the description supplied to them by Miss Jones. He also told them the history of the building of the house—at present leased to a Mr. Oppenheimer.
Osbert was quietly jubilant at the suppression of the Count's name, although Torch pointed out that the fact of its being either lent or sub-let to him, was not proof of insolvency. As the other two young men were fraternising with the Swedes, he took the opportunity to caution his brother.
"No stunt. We've got to go slow. Feel our way."
Osbert had been trained to conceal his feelings and was now transmitting the tradition of national reserve to the boys under his control. His handsome face was wooden, but his eyes burned as he added, "It will depend on her. If she's got your letters, she'll be watching for us. She'll rush to meet us. Bound to."
"If she has," agreed Torch. "Wonder what she thought of my postscript. I defy any one, besides herself, to read between the lines."
He forgot his distasteful mission as he grinned over the subtlety of his message, added as an afterthought to his formal acknowledgement of her manuscript.
"Your card makes me feel I want to go to Bruges and revive old memories."
As they drew nearer to the island, the solid white structure of the house became visible. They could trace the wide sweep of the impressive flights of steps and the coloured blur of flowering shrubs planted on the slopes. Then, as they shot around one end, in a curve, Osbert drew a deep breath.
"Look. The room where she writes. She'll be there."
The sun was shining on the glass and dazzling their eyes as they strained for the sight of a face at the window. They could hear the distant roar of turbulent water and see the rise and fall of a white wall of spray against the rocks. But no one appeared to watch their arrival from the balconies which almost encircled the house.
"She'll be waiting on the landing-quay," said Osbert.
As they took a wide sweep around the island, to avoid the reef, they saw a small boat which was rowed by a big man, wearing national costume. In it were two small girls, dressed chiefly in enormous hats. The sun shone on their bronzed muscular bodies as they cast fishing lines into the sea.
"Who are the young Tarzans?" asked one of Osbert's friends.
"Mrs. Yeo's children," explained Torch.
The youth raised his brows incredulously.
"Chap must be a sportsman to include the family in his kidnapping act," he remarked. "Nice cheap holiday for the children."
"I agree," said Torch grimly. "I'm beginning to think we've come to the wrong house... It's this modern standardisation."
"Exactly. These all in a row islands are so much alike."
Unaffected by the general scepticism, Osbert was waving vigorously to the children. They acknowledged his greeting, but in the perfunctory manner of one craft hailing another. It was obvious that they neither expected nor recognised their friends; and they made such a happy holiday picture, that Torch's heart sank with fresh misgiving.
This was increased when they rounded the last bend and reached the landing-stage. No reception party awaited them except a big tow-haired Swede, wearing yellow breeches and a huge black felt hat.
He spoke to the owner of the launch who translated his message.
"He says the Count has sent him to show you the way up to the house. He is sorry he cannot come himself, but the Countess has just had a slight accident."
"What?" asked Osbert quickly.
"She has sprained her ankle... Will you be staying for the Smörgåsbord?"
"No, we shall soon be back. Wait for us here."
Leaving the Swedes on the quay, the Englishmen started to follow their guide through the wood, when they were sidetracked by one of Osbert's friends. He had discovered the rock-steps which led down to the swimming-pool and he shouted to the others to follow him.
The sun shone down on the sheltered bath, where a swollen rubber monstrosity was left in possession of the clear green water. Gay coloured cushions were piled on the mattresses which were littered with the customary accumulation of holiday trifles. It looked unlike the background to intrigue or crime and invited a longer stay. One of the young schoolmasters was visibly impressed as he spoke to Torch.
"Any chance of the bloke kidnapping me over the weekend? You might tip him off I'm a millionaire playboy."
Still untouched by doubt, Osbert strode ahead of the others impelled by the force of his desire. He had worked himself up to a fury of exaltation, when he saw himself as a Saint George—or a G-man—on a crusade of rescue. Although he lacked his brother's imagination, he kept picturing the scene of joyous reunion and release so vividly that he felt reproach of every wasted minute.
When he emerged from the trees, he waited for the exhausted and panting tail to reach the lawn. Mopping his face, Torch turned to the two young men. They were not entirely in Osbert's confidence and had come to Sweden on the vague understanding that they would "stand by in case of a scrap."
"What about parking here?" he suggested. "We shan't be long."
Having left the young men stretched out on deck chairs, the brothers were walking towards the house, when the Count hurried down the steps to meet them. His smile was cordial—his hand outstretched in welcome.
"This is famous," he said. "Delighted to see you both... Your friends too. Won't they come in?"
"No thanks," replied Torch mechanically. "We've just dropped in for a short time."
"But that is too bad. I will have drinks sent out to those young men... Come in, my dear fellow, come in. Georgia is waiting to see you."
"Where is Georgia?" asked Osbert, speaking with an effort.
He had thought so often of this meeting—visualising it through a red mist of violence; but the Count's manner had reduced them to the level of conventional guests. Instead of assault, he was hypnotised to nod to his host, although he managed to avoid the hypocrisy of shaking hands.
As the Count led the way through the cool cavern of the hall, he answered Osbert's question.
"Georgia is in the drawing-room, resting her foot. A silly little accident. She turned her ankle on the steps. It is really nothing—only she can't walk for a day or so."
Too dazed and confounded to notice details, Osbert stumbled into the drawing-room. He received a vague impression of space, air and sunlight—of delicate colours and water-reflections dancing on ceiling and walls. Every window framed a panel of rough greenish sea and the breeze carried a faint perfume of heliotrope from the garden.
To him, it appeared as a vast desert which held the oasis of Georgia's divan. The bandaged foot was outstretched on the seat, as evidence of her injury. She wore a white dress and her face looked oddly brown in contrast with her cloudy hair—pale as moonshine.
As she looked at him, he saw the light leap into her eyes. They shone like stars, glowing with love and longing... But before he reached the divan, the flame sank down and died. In a moment of shattering disillusionment, he realised that the oasis was merely a mirage, as she welcomed them with the set smile of a formal hostess.
Then he felt his brother's hand gripping his arm.
"Leave it to me," he muttered.
Torch's own voice was cheerfully unconcerned as he greeted Georgia.
"I'm so glad to see you again. What bad luck about the ankle."
"Isn't it?" Her laugh sounded artificial. "Today of all days. I'm thrilled to see you. Osbert too... But you don't know Mrs. Vanderpant."
"I do. We've met in Brussels. May I introduce my brother?"
When he was presented to an acid and dignified dowager, Osbert was reminded of certain impressive ladies he had met in Cathedral cities. He managed somehow to respond to her conventional remarks while the Count hospitably offered cigars and drinks.
"Nothing for us, thanks," said Torch quickly. "We are both on the wagon."
He was growing acutely perplexed by the situation. Georgia's attitude seemed proof that they had been misled by their imagination. She had made no signal of distress, while her welcome hinted at an intrusion on her honeymoon. There was no doubt that she was obsessed by the Count, for even while she talked to them, she kept her eyes fixed upon him.
Suddenly he began to wonder whether she feared for the safety of her friends, as in the case of Miss Jones. As he worked round to a chance to reassure her, the Count cleared the way.
"Even if you won't have a drink, you must stay to lunch. All of you. How many are in the launch?"
"Two," replied Torch. "Six of us in all. Too big a party to inflict ourselves on you uninvited."
As he spoke, he glanced expectantly at Georgia.
"That will tell her we are not outnumbered," he thought. "We are not being covered by hidden gunmen. She's got a tongue in her head. She's only got to speak."
She opened her lips—but only to inquire about her mother.
"Have you seen her lately?"
"Just before I came away. She sent her love and messages:"
"Private. I will tell you later—if the Count won't object."
"How absurd of her to be mysterious. Did Miss Jones tell you about her visit to us?"
"She told us quite a lot."
As Osbert remarked the significance of Torch's voice, he began to realise that although he himself was galled by a policy of delayed action, his little cock-sparrow brother might be wise in not rushing the situation. That he was feeling his way was evident, for his casual remarks could convey a hint or double meaning.
"The children are grand," broke in the Count, smiling at Georgia. "Did you see them in the boat?"
"I certainly saw a pair of beautiful young savages. I was afraid they might be cannibals. They did not seem to recognise us."
"Not at that distance. Besides, you were not expected."
"I'll wave to them from the balcony," said Osbert, rising from his chair.
"No." Georgia's voice was sharp. "Don't go, Osbert. I want to talk to you. When you are gone, I shall remember all the things I wanted to ask you about. How did the School Sports go off?"
Grateful of a chance to be near her, Osbert seated himself beside the divan. He did his best to entertain her, but he knew he was not holding her interest. Although he caught an occasional glimpse of the real Georgia—in a flash of glance or smile—he had the baffling sensation of a palpable barrier between them, as though he were seeing her through a sheet of thick glass.
At other times, he felt that although he could stretch out his hand and touch her, actually she was not there at all—but that he was talking only to her reflection in the mirror.
In his turn, his brother was affected by his doubt. He wondered uneasily whether Georgia were a victim of mental domination—the most insidious and difficult tyranny to overcome. It would be easier to smash a full muster of gangsters—unarmed and single-handed—than to shake her allegiance.
Something was wrong—but he could not place his finger on the spot. He noticed how Georgia suddenly bit her lip when he inquired about the nephew, Clair.
"He's at the awkward age," explained Mrs. Vanderpant. "Shy—and invisible to visitors."
Losing patience with the condition of stalemate, Torch decided to give the Count a hint of his purpose.
"I've read the first part of your novel, Georgia," he said. "I like it, but the end is too vague. If you let your heroine corrupt the loyalty of one of the gang, he might gain the sympathy of the reader, who won't like it when he gets pinched... Remember, the ethics of a thriller demand that the criminal is punished."
The Count had partially lowered a lid, so that he looked at Torch with one hard little blue eye and one big bright optic.
"Have you any suggestion to offer her?" he asked rolling his handkerchief to a ball and tossing it into the air.
"Gustav," cried Georgia shrilly, "do keep still. You are making me nervous."
"Don't be silly, darling... Well, Torch?"
"I can only throw out a vague hint," said Torch. "Georgia might let her heroine get an S.O.S. through to her agent, telling him about her jam."
"Very simple. How?"
"I'm basely leaving that to her ingenuity. Then this chap could persuade her publisher—who must have some sort of pull—to intervene with Scotland Yard and come over to the island with a small police force. How's that?"
Torch stopped, hoping that he had exposed his hand to Georgia while he bluffed the Count into believing that his visit was an official raid.
"I think," remarked the Count, "that he would find it very difficult to prove. Georgia's villain would probably take the offensive and ram them for heavy damages, if the case ever came into court."
Suddenly Osbert could endure the strain of inaction no longer. Forgetful of the others, he spoke to the woman he loved in a low voice.
"Georgia, we've come to take you home."
To his incredulous dismay, she shrank from him in horror.
"I am home," she reminded him in a small formal voice.
The Count supported her with outraged dignity.
"That is an extraordinary thing to say. You must explain it, please."
"I will," said Torch. "I'm here on an unpleasant mission. Georgia's mother is very distressed about a rumour. It is being said that her daughter is not married to you and that you are holding her here against her will."
"Ah, I'm beginning to understand," broke in the Count. "A certain lady has repaid our hospitality with venomous gossip. And yet I took the trouble to escort Miss Jones from Sältsjöbaden myself, although I had made the double-trip only the day before."
"Is it true?" asked Torch.
"Georgia had better answer that."
"It's preposterous," Georgia spoke with breathless haste. "You mean well—and it's good of you to come so far. But this is very distressing. I—I think you'd better go."
While she spoke, her eyes were fixed on the handkerchief which the Count was twisting between his fingers. She knew that he had forgotten he was holding it. Yet this reckless irresponsible marionette—jerked by each fresh twist of the situation—was juggling with her children's lives.
If he dropped that handkerchief—either accidentally or by design—Clair, who was standing outside on the verandah, would see it fall. Directly it reached the floor, she would wave her white scarf immediately as a signal to the Professor to upset the boat.
Georgia was still stunned by her swift translation from joy to agony and the incredible violence of the attack upon herself. To keep her still and silent, until the Professor could invite the children to a fishing picnic, she had been forcibly held and gagged Taking no notice of her struggles for air, the Count had pressed his hand over her face, while Clair ripped off her stocking and bound a bandage around her ankle with remorseless tightness.
The room was beginning to grow dark when the weight over her mouth was removed and a drink forced down her throat. As she swallowed mechanically, she realised that she was looking into merciless granite-grey eyes.
"Listen," said Mrs. Vanderpant, speaking slowly and distinctly, as though to a child or imbecile. "You have just sprained your ankle, so you cannot go to meet your friends. They must suspect nothing. Or your children will suffer."
"Where are they?" Georgia managed to whisper.
"Fishing. With the Professor... If you don't send your friends away, there will be an accident. There won't be a chance to rescue them. The Professor will dive first to save them. They will be held down underneath the boat."
As Georgia stared at them, terrified to open her lips, lest she should precipitate a tragedy, Clair spoke with savage hatred.
"He's my man. If—if they take him away, your children are for it."
Even in the, midst of her own agony Georgia could tell that the girl was maddened with fear. Like a jungle beast whose mate is threatened by a snare, she was past all reason or remorse.
It was this certainty of Clair's revenge which sealed Georgia's lips and forced her to try and convince her friends that all was well with her. There were times when she was on the point of breaking her silence. As her brain cleared, she reasoned that the threat was in the nature of a bluff. If she exposed the gang, the death of the children would be useless—and even dangerous—sacrifice.
It was the thought of the executioner—devoid of emotion or imagination—callously waiting for a white flutter from the balcony, which drove her on to seal her own doom.
"You had better go."
In spite of her appeal, Torch stood his ground.
"I've come a long way," he reminded them. "Before I go, I must have some definite information for Georgia's mother. Will you tell me where you were married—and when?"
"I see no reason why I should," said the Count arrogantly.
"Will you show me your marriage certificate?"
"I will not. Your request is an insult. You claim to be married yourself. Has anyone doubted it?"
"This is different. In view of the gossip, I think you would be wiser to be frank."
"Thank you. At the proper time, I shall produce the proof of my marriage—should an occasion arise."
Georgia listened to the duel with dulled despair. The bandage around her ankle was so tight that her leg was beginning to swell, but she was numbed to pain. Now that it was too late, it was torture to realise that she should have foreseen an attack which had burst like a bombshell, out of the blue. Ever since she had received Torch's letter and interpreted its postscript, she had been in a dream of happy expectancy.
"I should have been watching day and night," she told herself. "I shouldn't have let the children out of my sight. I should have locked them in my room with me."
She noticed that Harvey was looking at his brother as though to signal retreat. Instead of moving, however, Osbert turned to her.
"Let me see that lucky bracelet I gave you," he said.
"It's broken," she replied. "The day Miss Jones was here. It fell into the sea."
"Yet you were wearing it in this photograph, taken a week later, according to the date."
"Let me see."
As the Count stretched out his hand to take the snapshot, he dropped the handkerchief which he was twisting nervously in his fingers. It fluttered towards the floor, but before it could reach the carpet he recovered it in a sudden swoop.
"That's nothing," he said impatiently.
"Nothing," agreed Osbert, "except that you were able to produce the photograph of a happy woman... Look at her now."
Unable to meet their eyes, Georgia covered her face with her hands.
"Please go," she said.
"Do you want to go with them?" asked the Count. "Remember, you are a free agent. There's nothing to prevent you from walking out of this house with these men."
"Then there's nothing more to be said. Good-bye, Georgia. Come on, Osbert."
Forced to accept defeat, Torch walked towards the door; but Osbert did not follow him. He remained, looking at Georgia with eyes of longing, as though he could not bear to leave her.
Suddenly he gave a start of annoyance.
"That bandage is far too tight," he objected. "Who put it on?"
"I did," replied Mrs. Vanderpant. "A strained tendon requires to be strapped firmly."
"But you've stopped the circulation. Her leg is swollen. As you have no doctor, I'd better have a look at it. I walked King's for a year, so I know something about it."
"I will not permit such a liberty," objected the Count.
Ignoring him, Osbert looked at his brother, whose face had grown keen with suspicion.
"Considering the times Georgia and I have bathed together, how does this Victorian prudery strike you?" he asked.
"It makes me wonder if there is anything wrong with that ankle," replied Torch.
"I'll soon find out."
Georgia's eyes were fixed upon the handkerchief which the count was rolling to a ball between his palms. Tossing it to the floor, he gripped Osbert's arm...
He had forgotten the signal. Mad with terror, Georgia sprang from the divan.
"No, Clair," she screamed. "No. Don't wave. It was an accident."
As her numbed foot gave way under her, Osbert caught her in his arms; but she fought to free herself.
"My children," she cried wildly. "He's drowning my children. Let me go."
Breaking free, she staggered to the balcony and then stood—. staring out at the sea.
At a safe distance from the submerged reef, a small boat rocked gently on the waves. The children were winding up their lines, while the Professor waved a red handkerchief in response to Clair's frantic signals from the balcony.
At the sight of Georgia, he unshipped his oars and began to row around to the landing-stage.
Too stunned to move or speak, Georgia remained watching the boat. Her face was rigid as though she were unable to believe what she saw. Then suddenly she snatched up her bag, and—limping as she ran—hurried down the steps.
The Count, who had regained his composure, looked after her with a smile.
"Rank hysteria," he remarked. "I warn you, Torch, that you will find the rest of her complaints to be fabrications. The lady has such a vivid imagination."
"We will go into that later," said Torch. "And as soon as I can get going, I will relieve you of all your responsibilities."
The brothers met Georgia and the children before they reached the quay. As Merle and Mavis galloped forward, Torch braced himself to receive their charge, while Georgia flung herself into Osbert's arms. After an emotional interlude, Harvey broke loose and looked down between the pines to the sea.
"Where's the big chap who was rowing the children?" he asked.
With defiant air, Georgia pointed to the track of foam which was curling in the wake of a receding motor launch.
"The professor's just warming up the engine," explained Mavis casually.
Torch shook his head with a smile.
"Another of your untidy endings," he said. "Very faulty ethics."
Georgia did not hear his criticism for she was still groping to find a solution of the mystery. When she had pushed her bag which contained her money into the Professor's hand, he accepted it without thanks or moving a muscle of his vast red face. His little twinkling eyes told her nothing of what was passing in his mind. She would never know whether he had acted from sordid motives of self-interest, or if his criminal code included an age-limit for victims. There even remained the amazing possibility that Merle had penetrated the dark fissures of his nature and found her way into his heart.
Out of the confusion, one fact emerged. Although in her case his services had not been rendered, it was customary to fee the executioner.
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