It was four o’clock on a cheerless February afternoon; a hopeless drizzle descended upon London, and a gaunt old woman, wrapped in a knitted shawl, stood at the window of a boarding-house, peering into the street. Although she nodded her head, and blinked her eyes approvingly, there was not much to see—in fact, the outlook was as dull and devoid of interest as the lady’s own existence. A row of ugly houses, a leaden sky, a scanty procession of umbrellas, cabs and carts, and one miserable lost dog, frightened and famishing. Nothing lively or fashionable ever found its way into this dreary locality; nevertheless, to Miss Thom it was an agreeable change, to stand and contemplate the outer world, instead of sitting in an arm-chair listening to the incessant grumbling of a fellow-inmate, who, in a high, bleating voice, railed at bad food and slack attendance, as she cowered by a fire, over which she extended a pair of skinny, claw-like hands. A third lady, seated with pomp and dignity on a sofa, aloof from fire and window, was playing patience on a green board (her private property). She wore an air of complete detachment, and a well-fitting black gown; her grey hair was carefully dressed, and the long thin fingers which held the cards glittered with fine Brazilian diamonds. This exclusive personage was Mrs Ramage, widow of an Indian general, sixty years of age, disagreeable, self-centred and well-connected—an occasional guest at Blessington Place when short of invitations or funds.
Mrs Ramage kept the other boarders at haughty arm’s-length, and ignored their presence to the best of her ability. She breakfasted alone, and when compelled to descend to the common drawing-room occupied herself with a novel or cards. To her, Miss Thom, Miss Mullett and the rest of the crowd were generally as though they were not. And yet, notwithstanding the fact that she rudely snubbed these ladies, and much as they feared her, her fellow-boarders were unfeignedly proud of Mrs Ramage and her relatives; they referred to her with respect and reticence, boasted of the fine places she visited, of the matches her nieces had made, and the sums she paid for her dresses, when they entertained one or two friends to tea, or foregathered of a morning in The Grove. 131 Blessington Place, W., was, as the hostess declared, “such a good address.” Unfortunately this “good address” was the sole satisfactory item connected with the establishment, where everything was cheap, squalid and makeshift; but then the terms were low—from one to two guineas a week inclusive, according to room and floor. It was whispered that “Mrs General Ramage” enjoyed a special arrangement, and a comfortable apartment, in consideration of the fact that her patronage conferred a high distinction upon her abode and surroundings.
The watcher in the window was a permanent resident. Fifteen years previously the subsidence of investments and the death of relatives had left Miss Thom stranded in Blessington Place. She was a plain old woman, and frequently confided to her intimates that “I was never a pretty girl, dears,” adding the saving clause, “but considered very bright, and had a nice figure.” The nice figure was now deplorably bent and shrunken, but if Miss Thom had bulging brown eyes and a nose which was an obvious misfit, she was endowed with a large and kindly heart.
As she stood at her post, blinking her eyelids, and spasmodically clutching her pink shawl, she maintained a running comment on every sight she deemed worthy of notice.
Why, I do declare if there isn’t a nurse going into 88—blue cloak and all; someone must be ill, or perhaps she is just making a friendly call, eh?”
The tame suggestion fell upon deaf ears.
“Now, there’s that fat woman going down the area steps opposite,” she continued. “I’m sure she is the cook’s mother. I see her regularly once or twice a week. She always has a basket—that basket could tell a tale; and only think, the Smiths at the corner are getting in a piano—such a day to be moving it, too!” After a short silence: “Here is a splendid yellow motor—oh, such a big one! and—” stepping back and throwing out her hands, “why, I do declare, if it isn’t stopping here—yes—and a smart lady is getting out. She must have mistaken the number, unless—” Here Miss Thom turned round and glanced respectfully at Mrs Ramage, who, totally unmoved by this thrilling intelligence, was deliberating card in hand.
After a pause of breathless expectation, the door was thrown open by Hans,—a foreign youth, whose shrunken black coat sleeves discovered many inches of long red wrist.
“Please to sit,” he said, “and I vill go and see.”
At the word “sit” a fashionable woman rustled into the room, hesitated, looked about her, and finally selected a lame little settee, which was propped against the wall for necessary support; then with her hands locked in her huge sable muff—a muff imparts consequence—she proceeded to make an inspection of her surroundings with a pair of bright dark eyes. Her gaze travelled from the majestic and isolated card-player to the slatternly object by the fire (who instantly let fall her dress, which had been turned back over a striped petticoat), thence to the figure in the pink shawl, who on her entrance had hastily dropped into a chair. Finally, she surveyed the lofty ceiling and well-proportioned walls, covered with an irregular assortment of chromos (the spoil of auction rooms). Her eyes descended to the chimney-piece, which displayed various horrors in imitation china, a derelict clock and other rubbish; the rickety sofas and chairs, clothed with faded chintz covers many sizes too large—in exchange for those “lost in the wash”—a venerable piano, used as hold—all for books and parcels. A frousty odour of old furniture, dead flowers and dust hung in the atmosphere, and the visitor held her delicate handkerchief to her delicate nose, and shuddered beneath her costly furs.
“What shocking weather,” she observed, suddenly flinging this remark among the company to be, so to speak, scrambled for. Mrs Ramage looked hard at a knave of clubs, then raised her head, and glanced sideways at the speaker.
Miss Mullett, by the fire, hastily swallowed a peppermint, but Miss Thom was naturally the first to find her tongue.
“Oh, now just isn’t it?” she agreed, in a tone of affectionate confidence; “and we have had such a wet winter—ahem!—I remember nothing like it since ’90, the year I was with friends in Wales, when it poured for a whole month, but I suppose Wales is a wet country. I remember Mrs Griffiths saying to me—”
What Mrs Griffiths said to Miss Thom was never divulged, for at this moment Hans, the man-servant (or more correctly speaking, boy-servant), re-entered and announced:
Miss Broome—she is not in de house.”
“Oh, really,” said the stranger, rising. “I am so sorry to miss her,” and with a comprehensive inclination she sailed out of the room, followed into the dark landing by clumsy Hans, floundering over her train.
Miss Thom rose and hurried to her post in the window, where she was immediately joined by Miss Mullett.
“A splendid car, isn’t it?” said the former with a touch of proprietorship. “Big enough to dine and sleep in; and a footman as well as chauffeur. Dear me, how cross they both look! I do hope the Smiths have seen this motor stopping here. They are always bragging of the Dobson carriage, just a one-horse brougham, and not even a cockade or boots!”
"That is a Daimler," announced Mrs Ramage, putting up her long-handled eye-glasses; "it is the same pattern as the King's, and must have cost a pretty penny.”
"Ah, there it goes!" exclaimed Miss Thom in regretful tones. "I wonder if she will call again—a most agreeable woman—a somebody."
“Somebodys do not visit here,” sneered Mrs Ramage in her thin, refined voice. “I must say I am thankful the settee did not collapse with the visitor—luckily she was a light weight.”
“Oh, Mrs Ramage, did you notice her furs?” asked Miss Thom, excitedly. “Her great stole and muff—and such tails! “
“Imagine a Daimler car, and sables to match, coming to call on Miss Broome!” said Miss Mullett, resuming her seat and turning up her skirt as she spoke. “Now she will be ‘Katherine the Arrogant’ more than ever. I wonder what it means?”
"A situation," suggested Mrs Ramage, who was busily collecting her cards. "Miss Mullett, as you are the nearest, will you ring for tea?”
"Tea," stretching forth her arm and jerking the bell with violence. "No such thing as tea here,—you mean hay. As for the bread and butter, the one is so stale I can't get my teeth into it, and the other like ointment—pah!" and she made a face.
"Well, you know, dear, we cannot expect much for twenty-one shillings a week," expostulated Miss Thom in a conciliatory key; "everything is so terribly dear, poor Mrs Beard finds it very hard to make ends meet—coal, butter, taxes, all rising. When the dinners are really too—well—not very nice, I just run out and buy a couple of buns—buns are so satisfying; and then, dear, you must think of the position, and the good address."
"I'd much rather have a good table," grumbled Miss Mullett. Really, a woman of my age requires proper nourishment."
“They say we all eat too much," remarked Mrs Ramage, "and the older we grow the less we require; for my part I never touch meat—when I'm here—"
"That I can quite understand," agreed Miss Mullett with considerable asperity. "I'm sure our meat is bought at some horrible place in the East End in lumps and bits—you never see a real joint, except on Sunday."
“Well, well, dear, we must just make the best of things," urged Miss Thom, patting the grumbler's knee with her long, wrinkled hand. "I know I have much to be thankful for—I've a good appetite and never pain or ache. Let us talk of a more interesting topic than butcher's meat; of Katherine Broome, for instance. I do hope some good fortune is coming to her, poor thing; perhaps this lady is a relative, what do you think? Ahem, I remember once, long ago, a friend used to stay with us when we were all girls together—she was so badly off we gave her our old bonnets and dresses. Well, one fine day—”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted Mrs Ramage, impatiently, “we know, an Indian uncle turned up. Nothing of that sort is going to happen to Miss Broome—her relations ignore her existence.”
“Oh, then you know something about her?” said Miss Thom, eagerly. “Now that is really interesting,” and she edged her chair a few inches nearer to Mrs Ramage, and spread out her hands like star fishes on her knees—ever a signal of acute curiosity. “Do please tell us—she has been here a year and we have all been so puzzled. Katherine Broome dropped in one day in time for dinner, just as if she fell from the clouds. She never has a visitor, very few letters, and is so close about herself. Of course, anyone can see she is a lady, and awfully poor.”
“Yes, any fool can see that,” rejoined Mrs Ramage in her brusquest manner, “but I am sorry I have raised your expectations, for I have not much to tell. Ah, here comes tea. When Hans departs you shall hear all there is to be known.”
“What a treat!” exclaimed Miss Thom, lifting the cover of a dish. “Buttered muffins, I do declare. If there is one thing I love, it’s a nice hot muffin. Hans,” turning to him, “did the lady leave any message for Miss Broome?”
“She zaid she vould write.”
“Oh, well, that will do, you may go. Now,” turning to Mrs Ramage, “we can be nice and cosy—one lump, I think?” holding up the sugar-tongs. The lady nodded a dignified assent.
“Then do please begin,” urged Miss Mullett, between two bites of muffin, “for Katherine the Arrogant may come in at any moment this wet day.”
“Why do you call her Katherine the Arrogant?” inquired Mrs Ramage, peevishly. “I know you are fond of giving nicknames, Miss Mullett, but this one is a bad fit.”
“There I do not agree with you,” replied Miss Mullett in her sharpest bleat. “If you saw as much of the young woman as we do, you’d be the first to censure her pride. She does not give herself grand airs to us, and indeed she has been very good to old Signor Vasco, making his poultices on her little oil stove, and she bought him a warm vest, and talks to him in Italian.” Here, as Mrs Ramage made a gesture of irritation, she hurried on: “It is the young men boarders that are in of an evening and would like music and cards, she won’t meet them half way, or indeed any way. She just turns them to stone.”
“Yes, indeed,” supplemented Miss Thom, who always spoke in a humming tone, unbroken by a pause—it had precisely the same effect as reading aloud without punctuation—“I sometimes feel sorry for the poor fellows; there is that nice young Armenian who is learning English, and the little Jap, and Mr Muller, who has a fine voice and is so clever at card tricks. I know he offered to take her to a theatre—the upper circle—for I overheard him. Any of these, are nice, kind young men—I’m quite fond of them myself—but Miss Katherine is so haughty and unaccommodating. She goes up and sits in her room in the cold sooner than join games or play Muller’s accompaniments, I really call it foolish pride,” and she paused, completely out of breath.
“Oh, well,” said Miss Mullett, “you see yourself the sort of people who visit her: and I happen to know that one night young Arathoon did his best to kiss her in the hall. Now she won’t speak to him, no, not even to ask him to pass the salt. She won’t be beholden to anyone for a pin, and oh, if you were to see how she looks at some of them, and the way she gets up and walks out of a room, you’d agree with me, Mrs Ramage. Why, we call her Katherine the Arrogant to her face. I think she rather likes it than otherwise.”
“Oh, yes,” corroborated Miss Thom, “but although I asked her straight out, and I’m really fond of her, she won’t allow me to call her ‘Katherine’; to everyone in this house she is always just ‘Miss Broome.’”
“I must confess I was surprised to find Miss Broome here when I arrived a fortnight ago,” began Mrs Ramage, as she stirred her tea with an air of grave reflection. “I did not know her personally—but I knew of her.”
“Yes, yes?” murmured the two listeners, who were literally hanging on every word; it was so seldom that Mrs General Ramage thawed or was “talky” and like other people.
She is an orphan, a Plantagenet-Broome, and well connected on her father’s side.”
“Her father’s side—yes,” echoed Miss Thom; “she has an aristocratic air, and always dresses for dinner.”
“Colonel Broome was a bit unsteady and reckless,” resumed Mrs Ramage. Miss Mullet moved an inch or two nearer, her little eyes sparkled, and she breathed through her nose.
“Perhaps reckless is too strong an expression. He was selfish, extravagant, and very attractive to women. He married in India a most fascinating lady, who had divorced her husband.”
“A divorcée—yes, yes!”
“No, no; she divorced him—you understand?” and she looked into the two eager faces, one full of malice, the other of simple, foolish good-nature.
“However, in spite of her beauty and fascination his family would have nothing to say to her—they are a strait-laced pack; so the couple remained abroad—he was in an Indian cavalry regiment—and together they led an uncommonly gay life, squandered a good deal of money, and never saved one penny. I recollect I met them once or twice, when the dear general was alive. She was remarkably good-looking—all the men adored her; she was quite a Society leader; even up at Quetta we heard of Mrs Broome’s wonderful toilettes, her husband’s racing stable, and how they entertained. Their one little girl they sent to school in England, and rushed to and fro to see her. When she was about nine her mother died of cholera, and some years later Colonel Broome left the Service. He and his daughter lived on the Continent; he hated our climate, and was crazy about golf and bridge—a well-set-up, wonderfully young-looking man, and popular. To make a long story short—❞
“Oh, now don’t, don’t make it short, dear Mrs Ramage,” protested Miss Thom in a tone of earnest entreaty.
“Well, when he died last year—pneumonia—and of course his good pension died with him—he left the girl all but penniless. He had never insured his life—these gay Society men never do—and he spent whatever he could lay hands on, and owed the rest.”
Miss Thom threw up her eyes and hands. “Now I remember an exactly similar case—an uncle of mine who—”
“I suppose he expected to have married her off in their wanderings,” interrupted Mrs Ramage, “but a girl without a fortune—”
“You may well say so—or good looks,” added Miss Mullett, “has no chance of getting settled anywhere.”
“As to good looks—they are all right,” declared Mrs Ramage; “it would be extraordinary if the daughter of ‘Beauty’ Broome was plain.”
“She has rather pretty eyes,” admitted Miss Mullett, “but no complexion—complexion is everything!” It had once been the strong point of this yellow, wizened old woman. “When she is animated she is not so bad.”
“Not much to animate her here, is there? “sneered Mrs Ramage. “Hers are the most dangerous type of all good looks. For days she is merely a graceful, well-bred girl; then suddenly she blazes into surprising beauty; her eyes shine, her colour is brilliant; she becomes another creature; she has a dual personality. Such a type is twice as attractive to a man as the girl who is the same day after day. She has the glamour of the unexpected.”
“Oh, give me everyday good looks,” declared Miss Mullett, pronouncing her words deliberately.
“It is a curious coincidence,” pursued Mrs Ramage, “that I’ve been lately staying in a country house where people were talking of this very girl. They had known her at Cannes, and said she was delightful—--so accomplished, so amusing, and such a hostess.”
“Hostess!” repeated the listeners in a duet.
“Yes; Colonel Broome gave charming little dinners and bridge parties, and his daughter was socially in great request—so pretty and lively, and so exquisitely dressed. The Plantagenet-Broomes are her nearest relations, but they would have nothing to do with her parents, and will not acknowledge this girl—they have seven daughters unmarried, so you really cannot blame them; they say, she has enjoyed a good time for years on the Continent, that she has had an expensive education, and can easily earn her bread.”
“I think she is doing something now,” imparted Miss Mullett in a mysterious voice. “She stays up in her room working—sewing, I fancy—and she often goes out for hours and comes in looking dead beat.”
“She seems a sensible girl,” remarked Mrs Ramage, “and I should say had a strong character. I suppose she is about three-and-twenty?
“A capital guess!” cried Miss Thom, “for I asked her her age; but she is not confidential—no, not at all. I can get nothing out of her, beyond the weather and the shops; and, goodness knows, I’ve been open enough and told her all my affairs,—and even about my will and investments. I must say she is very handy and good-natured, and trimmed up my old toque so that you would not know it again—it looks quite French!”
“That I can hardly believe!” scoffed Miss Mullett. “I suppose you asked her to trim it,” she added jealously. “I know she is clever with her fingers and I shall get her to do a little job for me. And so her relations are quite County people, Mrs Ramage?”
“County, since the time of Edward the First,” she responded with impressive solemnity.
“Then no wonder, she would not let young Arathoon kiss her, and that she is as proud as Lucifer,” said Miss Thom. “Well, there’s no pride about me, dears, though my father was an archdeacon, and my mother a Booth.”
“And her mother a divorcée,” added Miss Mullett.
“No, no; now please don’t run away with that idea,” protested Mrs Ramage, in her high, dictatorial voice. “Mrs Broome divorced her husband; he was impossible; he drank—he beat her—he—”
At this moment, she received a sharp, familiar nudge, which caused her cup to stagger in its saucer. Lazy Hans never closed a door properly, and the subject of their cosy chat was actually upon them, a tall, slim girl in a black coat and skirt. Her head, which was well set on her shoulders, was poised a little high, and crowned by a shabby sailor hat; she was handsome, but for a certain worn, emaciated air, and a lack of roundness, and bloom. Katherine the Arrogant looked white and weary, as she stood by the table, divesting her thin hands carefully of their damp gloves.
“Tea!” she exclaimed; “oh, I do hope you have left me a cup.”
“Several cups, my dear,” said Miss Thom, emptying, as she spoke, a jug of tepid water into the teapot. “My child, you are wet, and you’ve got your dress all muddy. Dear—dear!”
“Yes, from chasing motor ’buses.”
“Oh”—--handing a cup of cold tea—“did Hans tell you?”
“That I was running after motor ’buses!”
“No, no, but that such a smart lady has been to call on you—she came in a motor.”
“To call on me!—nonsense!”
“Yes; she said she’d write—she had no card.”
“What was she like?” asked the girl as she reached for the last piece of muffin.
Not exactly old—only in these days you never can tell—grey hair, fine carriage, hooked nose, magnificent sables and big turquoise earrings; she walked a little lame.”
“Then I think I know who it is.”
“Do you? She seemed most agreeable. Who is she, dear?”
Miss Broome put down her empty cup, and said:
“An old friend of my father’s.”
“And her name?”
“Dear Miss Thom,” and she looked at her with a twinkle in her eye, “you do take such an interest in my acquaintance—but I really must run away now and change my wet boots.”
“That young woman will get through the world all right,” remarked Mrs Ramage as Ramage as the door closed.
“I must say she was shockingly rude,” said Miss Mullett explosively; “Margaret only meant it kindly.”
“She gave me a very just rebuke,” declared Margaret; “I am too fond of talking and asking questions—it’s a habit. But I take an interest in Katherine, though she did refuse to let me call her by her Christian name.”
“Oh, she will get on,” repeated Mrs Ramage, now rising to shake her crumbs into the fender.
“What! without money, or home, or beauty?” bleated Miss Mullett. “I had connections, and beauty, and here I am, stranded in a cheap boarding-house, only for a fortnight in summer with my sister—and then, the servants’ tips cost me more than a couple of weeks at the seaside—and no compliment! As for Miss Broome’s good looks, I must confess I cannot see them: her nose is too short; she has no colour; I grant you her eyes and teeth.”
“Thank you, Miss Mullett, I wish I could take both.”
“Oh, you know what I mean,” she protested crossly.
“I knew a lady once,” began Miss Thom, “she had the most beautiful teeth in the world. She was my mother’s cousin once removed—no, let me see, second cousin—and one day, she went out bathing—”
“Here comes Hans to take away the tea-things,” broke in Miss Mullett. “Bring up another scuttle of coal, the fire is nearly out; “and, Hans, when I say coal I do not mean slack or cinders—you understand?” Turning to her companions she added: “This room is a vault—no fire till three o’clock. Old Mrs Tompkins tells me she stays in bed to keep warm, and pretends she has lumbago. She will be up presently, and so sorry to have missed Miss Broome’s visitor.”
Two hours later, Miss Thom and Miss Mullett foregathered in the drawing-room; they had dressed for dinner, and wore similar white lace fichus, decked with coloured bows,—over shabby black silk gowns.
“Mrs Ramage was like anybody else to-day,” remarked Miss Mullett, “quite joky, and pleasant.”
“Yes indeed, dear, as nice and friendly as could be. She borrowed a magazine from me, and half a dozen halfpenny stamps.”
And to-morrow, she will stalk into the room and look as if she had never seen either of us before! I hate such up and down manners.”
“There was a letter for Miss Broome,” announced Miss Thom in a mysterious voice. “I saw it on the hall table just now; it had Ritz Hotel on it.”
“Let us go downstairs—I think Hans is just about to sound the gong. I believe it’s curry again—the second time this week.”
“And God only knows what it is made of!” exclaimed the other lady as, arm-in-arm, they descended to the dining-room, from whence a penetrating odour of curry and cabbage had already advanced to welcome them.
Κatherine the Arrogant, supremely indifferent to the summons of a gong—many times too imperious for the meal it announced—stood by her dressing-table reading a letter. The dressing-table was a deal chest of drawers, the drawers so constructed that they either yielded so suddenly as to come out entirely and upset one’s balance, or else resisted the combined strength of two able-bodied women. A clean newspaper officiated as toilet-cover vice—a soiled object discarded; a small mean glass seemed out of countenance in the society of silver-backed brushes and pincushion; and the same incongruity pervaded the room. A common iron bed was covered with a silken counterpane; on the rickety door hung a delicate frilled dressing-gown; the wooden mantel-shelf was laden with choice books and several charming photographs, and in an open work-basket lay a half-finished piece of exquisite embroidery. A delicious down cushion, also private property, defiantly contrasted with strips of faded carpet and a crooked basket-chair. But the most inconsistent feature was Katherine herself, who, despite her shabby black evening gown and plainly dressed hair, looked strangely out of her element in the squalid little attic, her temporary haven. Here she lived in her pride and loneliness, disclaiming the sympathy of her fellow-inmates, whom, without acknowledging it to herself, she secretly despised. By the light of one bare gas burner she is reading a note, and we can inspect her in its searching glare. Her face is well shaped and has the indispensable attribute of youth; her figure is slim and graceful. All these are points in Katherine’s favour; but there are worn lines about the mouth, the rounded cheeks have fallen in; care and privation have laid their hands on youth and beauty. Miss Broome’s hair is dark and abundant, her nose is straight and well shaped, her upper lip is short, the mouth beautifully cut but somewhat severe; heavy lids and long lashes hide her eyes; when she raises them they prove to be dark blue—beautiful eyes that look back at their reflection in the glass and smile as she folds up the letter. This brief, hastily-scrawled note said:
“I discovered your lair and went to see you to-day. I am passing through town. Do come and lunch to-morrow (Saturday) at the Ritz at one o’clock. I’ll send the car to fetch you. So much to tell and hear.
“Your affectionate friend,
“Much to hear indeed,” muttered the girl, addressing her reflection. “We have not met for three years. She is a good-natured old thing and was fond of father. How I hope she will help me to say good-bye to you all,” and she waved her hand to her shabby surroundings. Then, pocketing the note, ran quickly down the six flights which lay between her and the event of the day.
The company were already seated and numbered ten in all. Mrs Tompkins, Mrs Ramage, Miss Thom and Miss Mullett, were divided by Signor Vasco, Herr Muller, the little Jap, and Mr J. Arathoon. Mrs Beard, the full-bodied hostess, whose complexion recalled the kitchen fire, was helping a dish of shepherd’s pie, which was supported by a plat of curry and rice. One sickly green plant, standing on a paper mat, decorated the centre of the board, and each corner of a week-end tablecloth was flanked by salt and a carafe of water.
The late comer stole into her seat with a murmured apology; soup was a thing of the past, and she made her dinner of wet potatoes, and dry tapioca pudding. Meanwhile she talked to the little Jap and Papa Vasco, and skilfully fenced with Miss Thom’s questions. Her beaming announcement, “So you got your letter, dear? I hope it was a pleasant one?” proved barren of result. The general conversation was chiefly of “sales,” lumbago, and the weather, and as soon as coffee had been handed round—a concession to the foreign element—Katherine once more escaped to her attic in order to look over and refurbish her most presentable toilette.
By half-past twelve the following day, she was ready awaiting the car; twelve forty-five, one o’clock, and still no motor.
“She has forgotten, of course; oh, how stupid of me!” thought the girl, and snatching up her umbrella, she flew downstairs and signalled for a hansom. It would cost eighteenpence she said to herself, but was worth the outlay; she dared not miss this opportunity of meeting one of her few friends, and a friend who might help her to earn her livelihood; one who, being clever and worldly wise, might at least give her some valuable advice.
Lady Warbeck was notoriously erratic and forgetful; she had, however, a kind heart and a long purse. Katherine opened her own, and thoughtfully examined its contents. Two half-crowns, one shilling and a penny stamp; this, with a sovereign in her little jewel box, represented her worldly all till Easter, when her pension came due.
Yes, Lady Warbeck could and should assist her; such was the guest’s stern determination as she was whirled up Piccadilly and deposited at the entrance to the Ritz. The courteous hall-porter informed Miss Broome that “Lady Warbeck was not in at present,” and suggested that she should “wait in the lounge; and in the lounge Katherine spent what seemed to her an exceptionally tedious half-hour. At last her hostess appeared, flurried and breathless. “Oh, my dear child, I am so ashamed,” kissing her French fashion. “I forgot all about you till I heard there was a lady asking for me. I’ve had such a busy morning. I hardly know what I’m doing, but since you’ve come it’s all right. Mrs Mabbett, whom I met at Monte Carlo, lent me her car for two or three days as she has the ‘flu,’ and early this morning I went shopping, and of course I wanted to make the very most of it. I had to go into the City too, and down to Richmond and back to Bond Street for a fitting, and I clean forgot you. Now come along, my dear,” patting her hand and drawing it under her arm; “I’ve my own little table, and I want to hear all your news. Why, it’s years and years since we met.”
As she talked, they were walking into the dining-room, which was already full of people.
“Yes, nearly three years,” said the girl, as she seated herself, and her hostess snatched up the ménu.
“Oysters, Katherine? I know young people do not like them—oysters for one,” to the waiter. A little soup, Katherine, or what? Some cold pressed beef or a cutlet?”
“A cutlet, please.”
“I am ravenous—been out since nine o’clock.” Then, looking steadily at her guest she said, “My dear child, how thin you are, and you’ve lost all your pretty colour! It is evident that London does not agree with you—you really should get away. A few weeks on the Riviera would set you up.”
Katherine gave a short, hysterical laugh as she helped herself to potatoes. “Riviera trips are not for me, Lady Warbeck; I am most painfully poor.”
“Yes, yes, dear, so I understood. Your dear, delightful father was a bad manager; far too hospitable and generous. Last time we met, I remember I lunched with him at Ciro’s, you had such a smart party. Oh, do look at this woman coming in! She has the whole poultry yard on her head. Did you ever behold such an object? These large hats never suit me, and I still stick to my toque, you see.”
Katherine glanced indifferently at the great feathered hat.
“It is rather startling; but please do tell me how you found me out?”
“I met a woman lately, who knew where you had stayed in London, and I wrote to the landlady and she sent me your address.”
“It was so kind of you to come and see me.”
“Not at all. I’d like to be kind to you, Kitsie. I’ve known you since you wore short frocks, and your father and I were such old, old friends. Dear me, what a pity it was that he quarrelled with his people.”
“I suppose it was,” agreed the girl gravely; “but you know it takes two to make a quarrel.”
“And you have no relations, and only a large circle of hotel acquaintances, and they don’t count?”
Katherine’s mind flew back to some fair-weather friends who now avoided her so pointedly; perhaps she was ultra-sensitive, but it seemed to her that certain former intimates crossed the streets or disappeared into shops, when her shabby personality loomed on their horizon.
“No, they soon forget one, like fellow-passengers, and why not? I am anxious to find a situation and get something to do. See,” holding them out, “these are my very last pair of gloves; it will be months before I ever can replace them.”
“Oh, nonsense, I’ll buy you a dozen pairs to-day—no, not to-day, the shops shut at two.”
“If you could help me to a situation somewhere out of London, it would be—”
“Ah, Mrs Corben!” exclaimed Lady Warbeck, extending her hand to a tall, well-dressed woman, “delighted to see you. Are you lunching here alone?”
“I have lunched; but if I may I’ll come and sit at your table for a few minutes, and enjoy a little chat.”
“Oh, yes, do by all means; this is my young friend, Miss Broome—Mrs Corben.”
Mrs Corben gave the girl a sharp glance and inclined her feathers half an inch, then turning to Lady Warbeck burst into animated conversation.
Katherine’s heart sank, she felt herself completely effaced; as soon secure Lady Warbeck and hold her attention to serious talk as catch a butterfly. She looked at her supplanter, who, judging by her toilette and carriage, was a personage of affluence and social importance. She had a bold, imperious expression, a pair of prominent grey eyes, the colour of granite; these and their black lashes were generally seen through a long-handled lorgnette; a well-cut, aquiline nose and a fine flat-backed figure, entitled Mrs Montagu Corben to the description of “a handsome woman in the early forties.”
The two ladies volubly discussed a new bridge club, an engagement, a divorce, then Lady Warbeck suddenly asked for “Monty.”
“Oh, the dear boy is doing splendidly, so clever; this new crammer thinks him brilliant, but he is rather delicate; he cannot work much. He will be so flattered to hear you inquired for him. You know he is devoted to you, and often talks of the splendid times we all had at Montreux. Where are you going to just now?”
“My dear, I am so busy and rushed. I am due at an At Home at 4.30, and to dine out at the Berkeley, and do a theatre.”
“Oh, I was hoping you’d come to us to-night. To-morrow I am motoring down to Brighton with a party.”
“Tuesday I go to the Barres. After that I’m off abroad, I cannot stand an English spring. I’ve engaged my rooms for March.”
“And where will you be meanwhile, you dear bird of passage?”
“I shall put in a month at the Barres. I never think it worth while to go there for less. This new fashion of a three days’ visit is preposterous. What is it called? ‘Rest, dressed, pressed.’ So whoever invites me knows what to expect; they won’t get rid of me under a fortnight or three weeks.”
“And I’m sure, dearest Lady Warbeck, you are besieged with invitations; everyone is only too thankful to claim you and keep you,” and she leant over and pressed her hand.
“Well, I must say my friends are very kind and hospitable,” admitted the lady with a little complacent laugh.
During the conversation, Lady Warbeck had made two or three attempts to draw Katherine into the talk, saying, “Miss Broome knows the Riviera and Italy so well,” “Miss Broome plays delightfully,” but these efforts were steadily opposed by Mrs Corben, whose cold, immovable eyes scrutinised the girl, and put her down as a poor relation; her black gown was cheap; she was doubtless one of the wealthy old widow’s hungry parasites, and as such, should be discountenanced and ignored. At last she consulted her watch and exclaimed:
“Half-past two! I am due at a matinée at three, and I must rush. Time does fly talking to you.” Then rising and putting back her veil she bent down and kissed Lady Warbeck, saying, “I am so glad to have had just this peep of you! Don’t be too surprised if we meet at Bargrave,” and with a wave of her white-gloved hand, and without any form of adieu to Miss Broome, Mrs Corben trailed forth.
“Oh, dear, I thought she never was going,” remarked Lady Warbeck with an air of profound relief.
“But isn’t she a great friend of yours?”
“Um—well, I’ve known her for twenty years. We are always meeting; we both play bridge, and we have mutual acquaintances. The Honourable Mrs Corben is a widow; her husband was one of Lord Ravenbill’s family, and she has one son, whom she idolises. She has a little flat which she lets, and visits about a good deal, and goes to Monte Carlo every season. Altogether a most possessive lady, who tries to take me under her wing. Also a miracle of energy; no woman’s club is got together without her name; she slaves at bazaars and charity matinées, and is for ever in the eye of the public. But now come along to my room—it’s on the fourth floor, and looks into the Green Park, and we will have a nice comfortable private chat.”
“See here,” said Lady Warbeck, opening the door as she spoke into a large, bright apartment, “we shall have no interruptions. My maid Fiske is ill, so very tiresome for me; I don’t think she is returning for a month, if ever, and I’ve got to look out for a ‘job’; there is one coming at seven o’clock to interview me and take up my character. There! I’ve put a match to the fire, so now take your hat off, sit down in that comfy chair, my dear, and tell me all about yourself.”
“Now, my dear, begin at the very beginning,” said Lady Warbeck, producing her cigarette-case; you don’t smoke, I remember.”
“But it is such a long tale,” protested the girl, “and it is all a dull, sordid topic—poverty, struggling, and debt.”
“Debt!” repeated her listener in a sharper key.
“Yes; you know the pater was so open-handed, so generous and extravagant. He always paid for everything himself—even my dresses. I did not see the bills. He just gave me a few louis now and then for gloves, and flowers, and books, and so I never really understood about money—or wanted it.”
“And now I suppose you want it badly?”
“Few people could want it more than I do.”
“His death was sudden, and a terrible shock to you; I must say I felt it a good deal myself.”
“Yes; he was perfectly well on Monday and buried that day week. He caught a chill on the Links, which turned to pneumonia. Oh, such suffering!” and Katherine’s eyes filled. “It was all like a bad dream. I awoke and he was gone.”
Lady Warbeck nodded sympathetically.
“People were kind, so very, very kind, and the funeral was immense, they were obliged to have an extra carriage for the wreaths. The Brownes took me to their villa, and then after a little time, I had to bestir myself, and move our things from the hotel. Of course the announcement was put in the Morning Post, and letters poured in—piles. I had to look through father’s papers—it was supposed I would be quite rich. There was no will, no money, and crowds of bills and angry duns. Oh!”—covering her face with her thin hands—some of these were too terrible. How father could keep up his spirits and laugh and joke! Well, everyone is different. I went over to London at once, and saw our man of business, who said that I was not responsible for the debts. Father had died bankrupt, yet several acquaintances owed him money.—Oh, you’d be astonished at all that he had lent, to rich people. However, there remained nothing, but his unpaid bills and my pension.”
“Oh, my dear, my dear!” ejaculated her listener.
“Yes; and so now I’ve been working for my daily bread. The kind, good Brownes begged me to return to them when I’d arranged matters, and the Dashwoods were also very pressing. But how could I live on people? I must live on myself.”
‘My poor, brave child.”
“The bills for my dresses seemed enormous to me—father was so particular about my frocks, and he never would allow me to wear a pair of cleaned gloves or a faded hat; but I contrived to settle the milliners’ bills, as they seemed my affair. I sold my string of pearls and mother’s rings, and diamond wings for the hair, and though I only got quarter their value, it paid off some. I also sold my furs and all my nice things. This was when I came over to London and had discovered the worst. The lawyer was helpful and friendly but he could not do much. I paid for the funeral and tombstone, but not the dreadful hotel charges. Do you know that it is most expensive to die in France? There is still a claim for new furniture and carpets and papering our suite—and yet he was only ill five days.”
“Yes, yes—they always charge,” muttered Lady Warbeck. “I must try and arrange to die in England. I suppose the Plantagenet-Broomes have never written to you?”
“Never,” was the brief reply.
“And tell me, with all these debts, and money owing, how you have lived.”
“I only realised by degrees, how horribly poor I was. At first I stayed at an expensive place, a nice private hotel in De Vere Gardens, but I was obliged to retrench; and then I went to Blessington Place, where I pay twenty-one shillings a week. I have a pension of forty pounds a year.”
“Of course you cannot live on that.”
“No, much less half of it. I assigned twenty pounds of this year’s payment to a creditor for the tombstone; and the question is, what am I to live on? I’ve tried so many things; answered advertisements till I was sick—sick of offices and tramping up and down dirty stairs and wet streets.”
“What were you looking for?”
“A post as secretary, reader, accompanist. I also interviewed some of the leading dressmakers.”
Lady Warbeck made a gesture of impatience.
“At one establishment I was received by a most elegant, ladylike woman. As I’d no experience she said she’d take me for a year as apprentice, hours from nine till seven, fee £200, paid in advance. She seemed perfectly serious—it was not a joke. I laughed and thanked her and bowed myself out. Then I went to another—a Court milliner. Here I could be in the showroom, she said, as I had a nice figure and appearance. She offered to give me afternoon tea, hours eight to six, fee £100—so that was no good. Then I thought of trying the stage.”
“Yes, but unfortunately the stage would not try me. I’ve no experience or interest, and I am not sufficiently striking for a ‘walk-on’ lady, or a chorus-girl.”
“I remember as a little girl you had the most beautiful legs; as to your feet and ankles—”
“One office was enough,” interrupted Katherine. “I daresay it was a bad experience. I saw a horrible man go up to a girl and put two fingers under her chin and say, ‘You are a fine animal!’ and he walked on.”
“My dear, how shocking! You should not enter such places.”
“Of course not, but needs must, and I can take care of myself. Latterly I have been giving music-lessons to three little girls—sixpence an hour; and I’ve done embroidery for a shop, and I make blouses and silk trimmings; but I cannot get my money, and I am afraid the shop is going to smash. They owe me, and I owe Mrs Beard, my landlady, for two weeks. Well, now you know all, and you see there is not much open to me, is there?”
“Teaching—a good place—what do you think?”
“No, I am too ignorant myself.”
“But, my dear Katherine, you had a most expensive education.”
“That is true; but I was educated to be rich, and spend, not to earn, money. I am a really good pianist, but good pianists are a drug in the market. I can dance beautifully, and play bridge, and golf, and ride, but none of these accomplishments will earn me a livelihood. In these days competition is so desperately keen, and I am only a clever amateur.”
“Oh, what an awful calamity it is that you are not married; and really, Katherine, you had such wonderful chances; your father went everywhere—so well-bred, cheery and popular, especially with men.”
‘Yes, but unfortunately I was not popular with men.”
“What do you mean? I know you were terribly fastidious and would have nothing to say to old Sir Leonard Larking, who was positively rolling in money, and wild about you.”
“He was just like a rabbit.”
“And little Gregory Hackney?”
“He was like a groom.”
“But not a bridegroom, eh? There were dozens of men your father’s daughter could have married—you, so well-born, well-dressed, young, charming and amusing.”
“No, no, dear Lady Warbeck; my charms never lasted—I always see the ridiculous side of things and I have a sharp tongue. I know that I scared away many an eligible admirer. Men hate being laughed at, and I really could not resist it. I was giddy and young and believed I was rich—but anyway, I would never marry for money.”
“So then old Larking did propose?
“Oh, yes—four times; it became a confirmed habit.”
“Katey! and he has twenty thousand pounds a year!”
“Two millions would not buy me.”
“You were always so proud—even as a child you held your head high and looked down your nose.”
“Yes, most of my pride was cheap, and now it is brought low, even to the dust, as it says in the Psalms. I deserved to suffer. I thought Miss Broome was a somebody—--now I know that she is a penniless nobody, and I hope order myself in a humble and lowly way to all my betters. I lunch on buns, I travel third, I clean my boots and make my own bed, but there is one thing I will never do—marry a man I do not love for money. All his riches would never repay me for the loss of my self-respect.”
“Dearest child, I declare you are quite excited, and I fully understand that you could not do this; but think of a lovely old country place, and a town house, motors, diamonds—all the world at your feet.”
The girl shrugged her shoulders and said:
“No, I could not do it. But there are one or two things I can do; I can dress hair, trim hats and make blouses out of next to nothing.”
“Yes?” The “yes was interrogative, as were Lady Warbeck’s eyebrows.
“So I shall take a situation as lady’s—maid. Now, am I proud?”
Her companion opened her mouth, but her astonishment failed to find words.
“That is to say if you will recommend me.”
Again Lady Warbeck’s mouth opened.
“A maid has not half a bad time,” continued the girl, with an air of conviction.
“Ka—therine!” ejaculated her friend at last.
“Now, dear, please do listen. I shall write an advertisement something like this: ‘As maid to a young married lady, town and country. Accustomed to travel, speaks fluent French and Italian, good packer and hairdresser.’ Yes, I really am. I’d get forty pounds and the wardrobe, all expenses paid, lodging, board, and no end of entertainment.”
“And think of your associates! The girl is raving mad—mad!”
And Lady Warbeck suddenly took the pins out of her toque, and flung it violently on a sofa.
“I may enjoy life below stairs, and seeing the world from the other side of the curtain. I have learned sense this last year, and I really can hold my tongue.”
“And I suppose your uncle will do nothing for you.”
“I shall never ask him; the only person who can really help me is myself—and you.”
“Me! Yes, of course, but I am such a wanderer—a rolling stone.”
“Still, you can do me one great favour.”
“Then consider it done, my dear Katherine.”
“Take me as your maid to Bargrave on Tuesday.”
“Maid to Bargrave!—not for millions!” throwing up her hands; “you’d be found out—and I’d be turned out.”
“No, no, you will never be found out—and I’d really make you a decent maid. I will practise on you and then get a permanent situation.”
“Practise on me, my dear lunatic! You don’t know what you are talking about; think of the menservants—they will all make love to you.”
“No”—with a little foreign gesture—“they will not; I am not their style.”
“Your real character will be suspected.”
“Not at all. I’ll eat with my knife and say ‘Lor’!’ But upper servants have good table manners. I shall certainly expect to play bridge in the housekeeper’s room, and I hope we will have a little music. I remember hearing that the butler’s wife at Carneford, who lived in a charming cottage ornee, had ‘At Homes’ on Sunday afternoons, tea and music, and the head housemaid played the violincello. Now,” rising, “I know you will soon be going out, so please come over to the glass and place yourself in my hands, and let me do your hair.”
Thus invited Lady Warbeck reluctantly submitted, whilst Katherine placed a wrapper over her shoulders, and boldly unpinned a certain portion of the lady’s tresses with deft and rapid fingers.
Her subject surrendered, mutely resistant, meanwhile glaring at her own reflection with a moody face. How she was ageing! What pouches under her eyes! what lines! Alas! youth!—youth!—--youth!
Of course, she must help this self-willed girl—but how? She disliked offering money, and was, in spite of her heavy purse, by no means open-handed. After a long and reflective silence, a triumphant voice said:
“Now tell me, have you ever looked better? See how nicely I’ve fluffed your hair over your ears, and no one would dream that the front was not growing on your head. I’ve done it better than Fiske, and it really is rather becoming—see?” offering a hand-glass.
“Ah!—um!—yes, yes,” murmured Lady Warbeck, “you really are clever, and I don’t feel a single hairpin. Sometimes with Fiske my day is one long torture.”
“Now, what next? Will you wear this mauve toque again? No—the one in the box, yes—what a duck! Please let me arrange this, and your veil—so!”
“I see! I’m just your dummy,” exclaimed Lady Warbeck; but the dummy enjoyed being beautified by delicate and capable fingers.
“Now what else can I do for you?”
“You will do for yourself, Katherine.”
“No, please do humour me. I’ll come to you for nothing, and I’ll guarantee satisfaction, and not give myself away. I can be useful; you see I can dress hair, put on a veil—a great art. I can read aloud, write your notes, which Fiske could not do—she only reads your letters. Now I want you to wire to the ‘job’ and say you are suited.”
“My dear child, you take my breath away—you want to rush things.”
“I confess I want to rush out of Blessington Place. You cannot blame me for that, can you?”
“Blessington Place—ugh! It smelt like a cheap eating-house. My poor child!—and those awful old women. Well, Katherine”—addressing her reflection in the glass—“if I take you to Bargrave on your head be it! But you shall be maid-companion and have your meals upstairs alone. I simply won’t hear of your going below. Why, if we meet in another world, do you think I could ever face your father, if he knew I’d employed his daughter—my old friend’s daughter—--as my maid? A girl who had some of the best English blood in her veins, and was a well-known elegante on the Riviera!”
“Yes, but is now a pauper, dear, kind friend. Oh, if you will just start me and take me out of town, into a clean air, and a clean house, your petitioner will ever pray,” and she stooped and kissed her hand.
“I must confess I think it is a most foolish business.”
“To take me as maid—companion—oh, no! Now I want you to wire to the ‘job.’ Here, I see a form on your writing-table—do, please. This means so much to me,,” she urged earnestly. “Life in London, and indeed everywhere, is hard, and oh! if you could only guess at the awful difficulties of a girl, a poor girl, who tries to hold up her head and earn her bread honestly. I want to escape into the quiet, decent country, where when I get out of a ’bus, I am not followed and accosted by dyed old men, with waxed moustaches and red faces, who ask if they may see me home?”
“Oh, yes, I could tell you a good deal that would make you exclaim ‘Katherine, Katherine, and again Katherine.’ But I won’t. I will only just mention the dapper little elderly gentleman who advertised for a lady accompanist for his songs, and who engaged me. The same evening I received a wire asking me to be at his flat at half-past eight. I was rather surprised to find him entirely alone. I had expected a party. He talked and wanted me to sit beside him on the sofa, but I opened the piano and said I had not come for conversation but to play his accompaniments, and then he laughed and said, ‘Lord bless you, I can’t sing for nuts. You are my pretty little caged bird!’ It appeared that there was to be no song, only a little supper for two. I—--well—--I need not go on—” The colour mounted to Katherine’s face, and her voice trembled. “I want to forget this. I must forget it,” and she put her hand over her eyes “I am young and strong—that horrible wretch will never forget me. I fought my way out. I believe I broke his arm. Oh, you may well gasp! Poverty brings one strange experiences. Now I ask you not to change your mind, dear kind friend of my good days, when I tell you of my evil days.” And the girl slipped to her knees, and taking a little ugly white hand in hers laid it against her cheek. “Do help me. I’ve no relations, and you seem near, because I’ve known you for so long, and in so many places. Do, do please write this wire to the ‘job’”
When, after considerable hesitation, the telegram was written in pencil, Katherine folded it up and said: “I’ll come to-morrow and pack all your things, and I’ll meet you at the station on Wednesday.”
“Very well, and you must let me advance you some money, Katherine. If I am to take you as my companion and maid you shall have £20 a year, washing and all expenses, and now and then a frock or gloves. You see next year there will be the whole of your pension, so that will be sixty, and here is a five-pound note to settle with your landlady, and do get yourself a decent hat.”
“This is too kind of you, but I wanted to come for nothing.”
“Oh, my dear, that is nonsense, and you must dress. Get the hat and any other little thing. Remember that though you will not be of the party, you are Miss Broome, and Bargrave is such a smart house.”
“I am delighted to hear it. I want to begin well.”
“You know Bobby Barre is enormously rich, and hospitable, and Lady Constance, my cousin, is a dear. There will be a number of people—the Duchess of Varesi for one. There are to be two meets and two balls. I’ll write to-night to Connie Barre and tell her I’m bringing you as companion, and maid, and ask to have you put near me. I’ll give your name; she won’t know Broome from Besom. Kent is not your county.”
“No, I have no county and no home—ancestral or otherwise.”
“Nonsense! The Broomes belong to Nottinghamshire.”
“Do—they? Well, the country post goes out at six, so if you’ll scribble a line now to Lady Barre, I will post it. Here is your writing-pad, paper, and a pen.”
“What a practical, go-ahead young woman,” and Lady Warbeck wrote rapidly, blotted the paper, and read aloud to Katherine, who had meanwhile looked out a feather boa, and a pair of new gloves.
“A hurried line to say that instead of Fiske, who is ill, I bring a young friend, Miss Broome, who will be secretary-companion and maid to me. I’ve known her for years. She will be no extra trouble; just put her anywhere to sleep, and give her a dressing-room next to me for her meals, and to sit and work in, for instance the old schoolroom. She is easily pleased, and a treasure to your affectionate cousin,
“There,” handing it over, “that’s done.”
“And here are your feather boa and gloves. It is four o’clock and you must start soon. Shall I return and dress you for dinner?”
“No, no, no. Here is the letter addressed; you can get a stamp below. Have you a penny?”
“Yes. Well, then, good-bye, dear friend-in-need. I’ll come to-morrow after lunch to pack. A thousand thanks,” kissing her; and Katherine, armed with letters and telegram, effected a precipitate departure.
A moment later Lady Warbeck was suddenly assailed by second thoughts. She rose to her feet and hurried to the door, but only just in time to hear the click and rattle of the descending lift.
Well, it was too late to change her mind now; and after all she was bound to do something for Louis Broome’s daughter. As Louis Broome’s daughter had elected to be her companion and maid, she must make the best of it. After all, if Katherine proved as efficient as she promised, and filled the post of companion, secretary, courier and confidante, her services would be cheap at twenty pounds a year.
In obedience to the reiterated commands of Lady Warbeck, Katherine employed two days in making preparations for her impending departure. As her first necessity was money, early on Monday she called at the workshop, and to her delighted surprise was paid in full. Indeed, when she had settled her debt to Mrs Beard, quite a respectable balance remained in hand, part of which was judiciously invested in a hat, gloves, and an umbrella.
On Tuesday afternoon Katherine, wrapped in an old motor coat, sat in her attic diligently stitching, surrounded by the remains or refuse of what had once been an elegant and expensive wardrobe. When the fingers of cold poverty had begun to pinch with irresistible cruelty, she summoned the author of an attractive advertisement for “cast-off clothes,” and after a brief interview had parted with a number of dainty gowns, blouses, and silk petticoats,—in exchange for a few pounds.
“It was one thing to buy, another to sell,” the Jew assured her. “Times were bad, and he often loaded up his premises, from motives of pure charity, with absolutely unsaleable rubbish.”
The white cloth with fur, the blue and silver ball gown, the lovely opera cloak, were tossed about and maltreated, but subsequently purchased. As for a certain black crêpe-de-chine and a white satin—both considerably worn—the buyer offered four shillings apiece. “It was all they were worth to him,” he growled, turning over the bodices, examining the tails of the skirts, and flinging them scornfully aside.
These dresses happened to be old friends, and the indignities they suffered were painful to Katherine; their associations represented more than eight shillings, and poverty-stricken Miss Broome retained them. The white satin had been one of the most successful toilettes at the Duchess of Casabianca’s ball in Rome, the other was her father’s favourite.
“Nothing,” he declared, “was so distinguished for a restaurant dinner as a really good black frock,” and subsequently his daughter, in looking over bills, had turned pale when she had become acquainted with the price of that simple item “To one black crêpe-de-chine evening gown.”
As companion to Lady Warbeck, Katherine was aware that a dinner toilette was essential; and she now congratulated herself that the crêpe-de-chine still remained in her possession, and that when the dealer had, as an afterthought, thrust his head in at the door and said, “I give you six shillings for the black,” she had signalled a negative and waved him away. She had tried on the garment before commencing operations and repairs. It required taking in—oh, ever so much taking in—but even in old age a “Doucet” dress retains its graceful shape, and undoubtedly this had been an artist’s masterpiece.
The black was finished, and neatly folded away, and Katherine, humming a gay little French air, was occupied with the bodice of the white satin, when she was surprised by a muffled thump upon her door. Being on the top floor, she was far above the reach of callers. Who could it be? In reply to her shrill “Come in!” the handle was turned, and Miss Thom, dangerously out of breath, presented herself on the threshold. The old lady was dressed for walking, her bonnet was even more crooked than usual, and to Katherine’s amazement, over her black dolman was draped a fur mantle which imparted to its wearer an almost regal appearance.
“I see you are busy,” panted the visitor in an apologetic key. “I do hope I am not disturbing you, but I just ran up to have a little chat.”
“No, no; do, please, sit down,” said Katherine, taking a pin out of her mouth, and pushing forward a chair.
“I know it’s your last day, and you are packing.” Miss Thom’s eyes wandered over the low shabby walls, the open boxes, the piles of neatly folded underclothing on the bed. “I just wanted to mention how we shall all miss you, myself especially.”
“Then indeed, Miss Thom, it is very kind of you to say so, and I’m afraid I do not deserve your regrets. I know I’ve often been sharp and offhand.”
“Oh, my child, now please don’t, don’t; we all have our little fits of impatience.”
“That is a lovely cape you are wearing—sable. Where have you kept it all this time? Or did you buy it?”
“Me buy it! No, dear, I’ll tell you the truth,” removing it as she spoke; “it was my mother’s, given to her by a brother, who got it at the sacking of the Winter Palace at Pekin, and being the only unmarried girl left at home, when she died, it came to me, and now I’m going to give it to you.”
“To me!” Katherine laid down her work and stared incredulously at her visitor, whilst Miss Thom, now speaking very rapidly, resumed:
“You know I’ve never worn it. It would not go with my things, and would be a little remarkable in a ’bus. I could not sell what my mother was so proud of, and it looks right well in a carriage on a cold day. So there it was under my bed in an old tin box, and always a terrible trouble, and anxiety, for fear of the moth; and cost me a fortune in camphor and powder; indeed, I am afraid it is rather spoiled in places. I puzzled to think what I could give you—and the sable cape just flashed into my brain; it will make you an elegant stole, and a big muff,—--the same as your friend’s, and when you wear it, you will look more like a princess than ever.”
Here the visitor being absolutely compelled to pause for breath, her companion was at last permitted to speak.
“But indeed, indeed, Miss Thom, you do not realise what the cape is worth. I could not accept such a valuable gift,” she protested. “I am most grateful to you for thinking of me; you are too kind, but I could not take it.”
“Yes, you will, my dear,” rising to throw it round her. “If you refuse you will do what you never did yet, and that is, hurt an old woman’s feelings. From the first you have always been nice to me, and I’ll never forget how you sat up two nights when I had the pleurisy, and how you made the linseed poultices, and bought me grapes, and it was you taught me to knit. No, no, I’m greatly in your debt; you must take the cape. You will show it off finely.”
“Well, if I must, Miss Thom, I must,” said Katherine, rising and kissing the donor on both cheeks. “You are far too generous. I really do not know what to say, or how I can thank you. I love sable, and this is fit for a queen,” and she stroked it affectionately. “I wish I could think of something, that would give you as much pleasure.”
“Nothing easier, dear,” promptly replied Miss Thom; “let me call you Katherine.”
Certainly you shall call me Katherine,” and she laughed and turned about, and her eyes sparkled as they glanced at her reflection, “and I shall look as arrogant as I please in this imperial sable.”
“You will write to me, dear?” pleaded the visitor, “and tell me how you get on, and all about the nice foreign places you visit. Your letters will be a real pleasure.”
“Poor Miss Thom, I would gladly do something more than that. You have a dreary life here; if I could only brighten it in some way.”
“You did brighten it, my dear, with your music and singing, and your funny talk, and yes—even your—er—airs--and you always seem so full of energy. As to my life being dreary, the Lord has been very good to me, and I have much to be thankful for—--a warm house over my head, kind friends, never a pain or ache, though seventy-three this March; but, don’t for your life mention my age below stairs. If Mrs Beard thought I was so old, she’d turn me out for fear I’d die here. Am I tiring you with all this talk?”
“No, indeed, please go on. I like listening.”
“There is one thing I confess I do regret—my poor education. I’ve no resources in myself; indeed I never was what you might call clever. In my young days the girls were not thought of. It was only the sons who had all the money spent on them and were sent out into the world, and the sisters sat at home, and did wool-work and antimacassars. They never learnt much, or went about and saw things, travelled and were independent, as you are now. We scarcely stirred without a governess at our heels; my mother was delicate, so we seldom went into company. We never had any money either. I had to go to my father for every single sixpence, and he always wondered how I could spend it? Girls were expected to content themselves at home with fancy work, duets and gardening, and maybe one dance in the winter. Their only chance of a change was getting married; and if they were old maids, when their parents died, the eldest brother succeeded to the property; he generally had a family, and out the sisters had to go into the world, elderly and poor.”
“That was hard indeed.”
“I am a case myself,” continued Miss Thom with renewed eloquence. “I lived at home year in, year out, for forty-seven years, and here I am, a helpless, solitary, ignorant old woman. I could not earn a sixpence if you were to shoot me. My brother’s wife hated Ashfield, and by some new law, he was able to sell it. Well, they are both gone, poor things, and it’s a shame for me to be grumbling. If I’d had a good education, and a little money I’d have seen the world and have had something to think about. Would you believe it, dear, I’ve never seen the sea.”
“Never seen the sea! I am surprised at that.”
“I wanted to go to Hastings last August with Miss Mullett, but she put me off. I know I’m a tiresome old body, I talk too much, and I’m rather inquisitive. Oh, I’m aware of my faults, but you see, dear, I cannot read much; I’ve an empty mind, and I’m more interested in people than books. Many a person’s life is a real novel. Why, look at Mrs Beard herself. Her first husband was murdered by blacks in Australia, her second ran away from her, and she has seen a ghost.”
“Perhaps her second husband saw it too and that was why he left,” said the girl, flippantly. “But do tell me, Miss Thom, had you never a love affair in all your life?”
“No, dear, I can’t say truthfully I had. I was always thought lively and pleasant, but I’m plain—--my nose, you see, was against me. Now if I’d had a pretty nose like Charlotte, my sister, who knows what might have happened? But they do say a turkey cock frightened my mother before I was born. There, there! that’s not proper sort of talk for a young girl’s ears. My sister Charlotte was greatly admired. Mr Wolfe—she married him—and indeed he was not what she expected—paid her attention for a long time, though he knew she had only a couple of thousand pounds, but once—now this is quite a story—Charlotte was on the point of making a really splendid, a wonderful match. Shall I tell you about it, or am I bothering you?
“No, no, not at all. I enjoy listening if you don’t mind my sewing all the time. I’ve got to have my things ready by to-morrow.”
“Yes, dear. How quickly you stitch. That is a lovely satin. Well now,” clasping her hands tightly in her lap, and preparing to enjoy herself, “did you ever hear of a family down in Kent, called Damer of Kingsbourne?”
Katherine shook her head.
“My dear, they were there before the Norman Conquest, and as proud as Lucifer, and Kingsbourne Place was old and beautiful, and to be a Damer was a grand thing. They fought in the Crusades, and all the other wars, till at last there was but one Damer left. He met Charlotte at a ball at Chatham and was immediately struck. He rode over next day to call, fifteen miles, and he invited us to Kingsbourne, and was really most particular to Charlotte. We were so delighted—such a match!—the Damer men generally married titled ladies. Well, after philandering for weeks, he went up to London—I believe to buy a present—and there he met a lovely girl. She was half foreign, a Hungarian countess, and she just carried him off; I think Charlotte felt it a good deal; indeed we all did, though nothing had been said, or settled. So he married the beauty, and brought her down. My! I never saw such eyes; like dark stars, and full of expression. She died young, leaving two very handsome boys; they were nice little fellows. I remember we spent a day at Kingsbourne after Charlotte was married: Mrs Damer played the piano wonderfully. Some people said she gave it a soul, her own soul, but to me she looked drooping like a sick bird. The eldest of the boys went into the Army, and was terribly wild. He gambled and betted, squandered thousands, and nearly ruined his father, who was obliged to mortgage Kingsbourne. Then he was killed in a race, and there were oh, such debts! It was thought all the place would be sold up, and the heirlooms, and pictures, scattered. The Damers worship their home, and make a sort of god of it, all but this wild young officer, who had his mother’s blood in him, and only cared for horses and cards. So it seemed there was nothing for it, but a rich marriage for Anthony Damer, the younger son, who was in the Diplomatic Service; and his father made up a match between him, and a wealthy woman. She was ill-bred, and peculiar and plain. He had no wish to marry her, and I believe held out for a long time; but she was crazy about him, he was so handsome, and in the end, he had to sacrifice himself to save the property.”
“Wretched young man!” exclaimed Katherine. “How could he do it? How could he sell himself?”
“My dear, if you knew old Mr Damer, and if you’d ever seen Kingsbourne Place, you’d understand all about it.”
“Do you think I would?” standing up. “Please go on. I must just try on this skirt and bodice; it wanted a lot of alteration.”
As she stepped out of her dress Miss Thom surveyed the girl’s slender figure, her thin, bare arms, and the graceful curve of her neck.
“My! I declare you look like a child in your petticoats!” she exclaimed. Katherine glanced down and smiled as she said,
“More like a study in anatomy. But do, please, continue, and tell me what became of Anthony Damer.”
Miss Thom, only too enchanted, and thoroughly appreciating the novelty of a first-rate listener, continued with increasing volubility.
“The old man died happy, and then in a terrible motor smash in France Mrs Damer all but lost her life. She injured her spine and is a helpless invalid, with nurses and doctors, a villa on the Riviera, and every possible luxury and indulgence. They say she has an awful temper, and declares that her husband caused the accident, which is not true, and she leads him a shocking life, being very jealous. Soon after the accident, she lost every penny of her money in some great mining speculation in America or Africa, and so, instead of her keeping up Kingsbourne, Kingsbourne is let for the first time, to support her! and I understand that she is very expensive. Anthony belongs to some Embassy, and works for his bread. I am told he is wonderfully good to his wife, just an angel of patience, but that he is a broken-hearted man. It is a blighted life.”
“So much for his father’s schemes,” said Katherine briskly. “Now, please tell me, how does my dress look?” turning round as she spoke. A curious picture, this slight girl in a Paris gown, with a background of hideous wall-paper and decrepit furniture, her critic and companion a shabby old woman with nodding head and crooked bonnet, but wearing an expression of profound interest and affection on her wrinkled face.
“Just splendid, my dear; you might be going to Court or to a party.”
“Then, as the children say, ‘Let us pretend,’ and you and I will have a party, and I will wear my party cloak,” and she fastened the clasps of the cape round her throat. ‘Now I’m going to give you some coffee.”
“What? Here? How? Suppose Mrs Beard came up.”
“Never mind Mrs Beard. You will soon see,” and Katherine cleared the little table and produced two spoons, a cup and saucer, plate, tumbler, and a tin of Marie biscuits. Then she lit a spirit lamp and proceeded to boil the kettle. She was remarkably quick and deft in her operations, and in a short time Miss Thom held in her hand a cup of steaming hot coffee.
“This is my going-away, my breaking-up party,” said Katherine. “Miss Thom, your very good health!—no heels taps,” and she drained her tumbler. “You must have some more biscuits. Are they not good?”
“They are just delicious,” said Miss Thom, whose face shone and beamed with a sense of the surreptitious, and who was enjoying the refreshment like a child, “a feast indeed.”
“And now,” continued her hostess, “I wish to leave you a legacy of my two comforts—my hot-water bottle, and this spirit-lamp and kettle.”
“No, no, no,” protested Miss Thom, waving her hand and biscuit, “on no account.”
“Yes, yes, you must and shall accept them. Also my knitting bag, and this nice fat blue cushion. I cannot carry it about, and it really is a dear; and what else?” looking round.
“If you ask me, Katherine, I’d like your photograph better than anything,” glancing at the mantelpiece.
“I believe I have just one left, and I’ll put it in a nice frame. This,” handing the portrait of a good-looking, dapper gentleman in a Homburg hat, was father.”
“Goodness me, you don’t say so! Why, how young he was, and so handsome.”
“He looked years less than his age. He was very erect and active, and such a favourite.”
“I suppose he lost his money?”
“Um, yes,” turning away to replace the frame.
“I see some officer man in uniform, may I look?”
“Oh, yes, Prince Carl Sedlitz, and the Duke and Duchess of Muralto. We knew them at Cannes.”
Miss Thom nodded her head, as she handled them reverently. This was, indeed, a happy moment.
“Any special young man, my dear?” she enquired, with her head on one side, and still holding the treasures.
“No, not one.”
“Oh, come, fie, I’m quite sure you had no end of admirers.”
“I never was in love in my life, not for more than two minutes; and you, Miss Thom?”
“Ah, well, dear, there was a nice fellow—our rector’s son. I really did like him. I’ll tell no lie to either myself or you. He gave me a bunch of forget-me-nots, and a kiss once, and then he went out to the West Indies, and died of yellow fever.”
“So that was your romance, Miss Thom! I wonder what mine will be like, or if I shall ever have one?”
“You will make a great match. I don’t like saying it just to your face, but you are very pretty and graceful and—”
“Oh, Miss Thom! I’m a scarecrow! Just look at my arms and neck. Well, if I am ever engaged you shall be the first to hear of it.”
“That’s a bargain.”
“Yes, and now for another bargain. You say you know your own faults, if they are faults. Do tell me mine.”
“Oh, my dear,” backing away—--“no, no, no, I really couldn’t.”
“Yes, please, you could if you tried. I insist!”
“You won’t be offended, surely?”
“No, on my word of honour as a lady.”
“Well, you are terribly proud, and yes, dear, sometimes a little hard, and scornful. Miss Mullett hit you off well calling you Katherine the Arrogant.”
“Yes, and she can hit hard. I know I’m proud. I do battle with pride, and try to keep it under, but it was born with me, and is my tyrant. I have joined the round games and played accompaniments downstairs, but when Miss Casson is here, and shouts and snatches and scuffles with the men, and talks of ‘bally rot’ and rotten cards, and South Ken., I simply can hardly stay in the room and be civil; but I am always trying, I assure you.’
“I know, dear; you are a good girl, and you’ve had a hard time. I hope better days are coming, and now,” rising, “I’m going.”
“But not without your legacies. The photograph, the knitting-bag, the blue cushion, and the comforts.”
“I declare I am overwhelmed, and I want nothing to remind me of you, Katherine, my dear, but don’t you think—” She hesitated.
“You’d like to give the cushion to poor Miss Mullett?”
“No, I’m perfectly certain I should not.” Katherine’s voice was dry.
“Well but, dear, she will be so hurt; she will see my stove and bag, and it will be a little awkward.”
“But I do not care for Miss Mullett.”
“I know, I know, no one cares for her but me, and that is so sad. I admit she is cross and snappy, but then, dear, she is old and poor, and has had bad health and rheumatism, and nothing to look forward to, and not much to look back on. She is often terribly sharp with me, but I just take no notice. I’d rather she had the cushion. I’d rather, dear. Just,” in a coaxing voice and with her hand on Katherine’s arm, “to give her a bit of pleasure.”
“Oh, very well then, Miss Thom, to please you.”
“That’s a good girl, God bless you! Now I really am going,” reaching for the cushion as she spoke. “Now, don’t come down, now don’t.”
“I certainly will. I shall not meet anyone, and I’d like to put the comforts in your room myself, and see that you really keep them. If you give them away, remember I’ll never speak to you again,” at which threat they both laughed heartily.
The little Jap, flying upstairs, was surprised to encounter Miss Thom, bearing in her arms a blue cushion with an air of stately triumph, and he was still more amazed to see that she was followed by Miss Broome, in a flowing white gown and a sable cloak, carrying in one hand a hot-water bottle, and in the other a tin kettle.
On Wednesday afternoon, Miss Broome awaited her patroness at Charing Cross Station. The old lady, who had arrived late in a ’bus heavily laden with luggage, seemed a good deal flustered as she signalled to Katherine, and called out:
“Oh, there you are! I’m afraid I’ve run it rather fine. Just take my bag and umbrella, and get a porter, and pay the ’bus; here is the money—four shillings—no occasion to tip the man. I’ll just see about the tickets.” And she melted into the crowd.
Presently she reappeared, radiant.
“Oh, my dear, such a nice party going down! Here is your ticket—second—I hope you’ll be all right. Mind you keep my bag; don’t let it out of your sight, or out of your hands.”
As she concluded, a large and merry group came by and swept her along with them into a saloon car. Katherine, grasping a weighty dressing-bag, scrambled hastily into a carriage, and found herself the sixth in the compartment, as she took the only spare seat. Directly opposite was a polite little Frenchwoman, with plaintive grey eyes, who assisted her with the clumsy bag. By the windows next to the platform were two prim women in black, one with a red leather jewel-case on her knees, the other nursing a tiny dog.
“Maids,” said Katherine to herself. In the further corners sat two elderly ladies much muffled up; one of these displayed a formidable-looking ear-trumpet, through which her companion shouted remarks about hot-water tins and porters’ tips.
Evening papers were produced as the train glided out of London, and ran through the ugly, squalid suburbs, and presently the maids, who appeared to be old acquaintances, began to converse.
“So you are going to Bargrave, Miss Tilly?”
“Yes,” assented the one with the red bag. “I was hoping to the last we’d cry off. Lors! I do hate the country in winter, but the frost is gone. Colonel Bothwell accepted, and of course that settled us.”
“I too am going to Bargrave,” volunteered the little Frenchwoman, who had caught the name.
“Oh, are you indeed?” rejoined Miss Tilly, haughtily, as she slowly turned her head to inspect the speaker. “And who may your lady be?”
“Oh, a ver’ nice lady—we come from Paris this morning.”
“Laws! what a journey!” ejaculated the English woman.
“Can I offer you some grapes?” said the foreigner, opening a basket as she spoke.
Miss Tilly looked at them doubtfully. “No thanks, I never touch any but ’ot’ouse.”
“Oh, then I’m sorry,” murmured the other, abashed and she subsided into silence as the person who despised her offering, turned to her vis-à-vis and said: ‘Funny thing, last time you and me met, Miss Gart, was on the boat coming back from Homburg.”
“Yes, so it was—Humbug I call it. I do loathe them foreign cures.”
“Unless you take it yourself—--as I do,” Miss Tilly replied.
“Such early rising, and a lot of bathing and dressing.”
“That’s true. Miss Martin was on the same steamer. Have you heard of her lately?”
“No, we don’t correspond now,” answered Miss Gart, tartly. “She took a place in Wales, and besides maiding the lady, she mends for her little boy and makes his blouses—does nurse, and maid. I call that lowering herself, I do, and so I told her straight.”
“Yes, and taking the bread out of other folk’s mouths. You are quite right—one must draw the line,” agreed Miss Tilly. “And what has become of Miss Duke?”
“Oh, she’s in a rare good place—town and country and Monte Carlo. No dressmaking—such a smart lady—just her own size, and style, and complexion. She gets the wardrobe, of course.”
“That sort of luck never comes in my way! I only wish it did,” grumbled Miss Tilly. “Wouldn’t I cut a dash? Them new French styles suits me.”
Katherine could scarcely control her countenance. The picture of this plain woman of forty, with a long, melancholy nose, pink at the tip, her stooping, narrow-chested figure, “cutting a dash” anywhere or in anything, was too absurd to contemplate with gravity.
“I believe this is a big party at Bargrave,” remarked the other. “We don’t get in till late—not much time for unpacking and dressing.”
“Undressing, you mean. Just wait till you see my lady’s new Directoire gown!”
“I noticed her on the platform with Colonel Bothwell. My word, she is a gay one!” said Miss Gart.
“Not worse than others in the hunting set,” rejoined her employée, loftily. “She is lively—--always laughing and talking, and so amusin’. I like that sort myself, and I must say, she is a credit when she is dressed. We’re taking two hunters. I did not see your lady on the platform—Lady Glenmore. Did she miss the train?”
“Well, no.” Then with evident reluctance Miss Gart added, “She is motoring down with old Sir Joseph.”
“Ah!” There was a volume of significance in the ejaculation. “Then I take it, she is a bit hard up again?”
“I should say so! We have not paid Paquin this two years, and as for Woolland’s bill—--well, you know I’m pretty hardened, but I can tell you I am frightened to think of it. She just goes in and orders, orders, orders, but it’s not pay, pay, pay!”
Katherine was extremely anxious to avoid overhearing this conversation, but the voices were aggressively loud, and the two maids serenely indifferent to their audience.
“And I suppose you are for Bargrave too?” Miss Gart suddenly addressed her, with a sharp glance at the bag on her knee.
“Yes,” she answered in an icy tone.
Miss Gart glared at her, then sniffed, sniggered, and turning to her vis-à-vis with a wink, remarked:
“So you have the little dog—it’s a little darling!”
“Oh, is it?” said the other, snappishly; “it’s a little devil, that’s what it is, and must have such combing and feeding and attention—--the horrid little silly! I wish it was dead. I’d pay five shillings to throw it out of the train.”
“Lord Vigors gave it to Lady Glenmore, didn’t he?”
“Yes; he gave it first of all to his fiancée, and she quarrelled with him over my lady and gave it back—yes, and all his presents and letters.”
“What I do think is so bad of her ladyship is her interfering between young folks. They do say she can cut in and carry off any man, with her flattering tongue and bold eyes.”
“That’s true; they are as crazy about her as if she was a dancer; and the presents she gets!—--and the letters!—I think they’d astonish you.”
“So she leaves them about, eh? Mrs Vallance never writes—she telephones.”
“Shows her sense! Lady Glen is awfully wild and rash, but there’s no real harm in her. She likes dressing and dancing and being run after—and lor’, how the dowagers hate her!”
“Talking of dowagers, I see old Becky among the crowd; she has everyone round her, like flies about a honey-pot.”
“I don’t know about the honey—seems more like glue to me,” rejoined Miss Gart, with a sniff. “Wherever she goes she sticks; for all her money she gets more than she gives—visiting here, visiting there, and lent motors and carriages, and villas and flats, doing and saying whatever she jolly well pleases—and just because of her money. It’s little enough she spends—never a penny she can help. When she goes shopping, or travelling with another lady, as often as not she forgets her purse. Oh, it’s a fine game!”
“It’s the way of them rich people—they never think of money.”
“That’s all very well—but she is mean. I know an upper housemaid in a place she stays at; the old beast was there three weeks—breakfast in bed, hot malted milk last thing at night, and every sort of trouble she could give, and what did she hand out when she left?”—here she paused dramatically—“why, half a crown.”
Miss Tilly cast up her eyes.
“It’s the poor servants who know the true characters of people! To think of her blazing with jewels fit for a duchess, and the lace on her gown value for a thousand pounds—and half a crown!”
“Yes. I see Mrs Corben and the son going down too; they are always after her. Poor gentry on the make, talking big and dressing grand, and ordering other people’s servants and carriages. I’ve no patience with them sort of Society beggars, and they are nothing else.”
“Well, I don’t know about beggars,” objected Miss Gart. “Mrs Corben has a fine figure, though getting a little thick, and is always beautifully dressed.”
“Bah! she buys her clothes second-hand, at a smart place I know. I’ve seen her in one of my lady’s gowns—all black paillettes; it cost us thirty-eight—--she paid seven.”
“Ha! ha! I’m afraid you know too much!” giggled her friend.
“Well, maybe I do; and as for that young fellow—I can’t stomach him. I mind hearing a terrible ruction one afternoon—the very last time he was at Bargrave—someone catching it hot; and wasn’t it this impudent young puppy blowing up a poor footman for not keeping the fire agoing in his bedroom all day! And the way he used to fill his pockets with cigars and smoke them there, was a caution; and there wasn’t a housemaid he hasn’t kissed. His mother thinks he is an angel, but I tell you he is just a regular young fiend.”
“Oh, my dear, all young men are the same. I know them. I could tell you a story—”
Here, as the train slowed down, Miss Gart’s revelation was providentially interrupted, and Katherine rising to her feet, seizing bag and umbrella, leant forward to open the door. Her face was rather red, her lips tightly compressed; she determined to get out and travel, if necessary, in a luggage van, or empty cattle truck—anywhere that she could be beyond the sound of these women’s tongues.
“We don’t change here, miss, if you are for Bargrave,” volunteered Miss Gart, and she looked the girl up and down.
“I change here,” was the resolute answer, as she opened the door, and sprang out on the platform.
“Why, I—I declare—if she isn’t going to get into another carriage!” announced Miss Tilly, drawing in her head. “That’s queer!” glancing at her acquaintance. Company not good enough, eh—my word!”
“I do not tink she like to hear your talk,” boldly adventured the Frenchwoman. “Perhaps it was of her friends.”
Miss Tilly gave a loud, scornful laugh. “Our talk was private conversation.”
“Not so private,” rejoined the other. “It is not convenable to say so much in public.”
“If I was you I’d keep your opinion and your remarks till they was asked for,” rudely retorted Miss Tilly. “Never mind her“—now addressing her friend—”I’ll order a tea-basket, now we have a bit of room, and we can be nice and comfortable, with no eavesdroppers about.”
It was considerably after six o’clock when the station nearest to Bargrave was reached, a little humble stopping-place, more remarkable for roses than resources. Here quantities of luggage was hurled out upon the platform, to the indignation and bewilderment of one venerable porter and a boy. Around this vast pile maids and valets promptly assembled, whilst various ladies and gentlemen were conducted to the motor-cars dispatched to meet them.
Prominent among the trunks were several imposing boxes bearing a ducal coronet and the letters “A. de V.” These were claimed by the little Frenchwoman, who, it now appeared, was in the service of the Duchesse de Varesi. Her Grace was motoring to Bargrave in the character of chief guest. English by birth, and related to Lady Constance, she was one of the most admired and exclusive of the grandes dames in Society; young, charming, wealthy, Antoinette de Varesi was undoubtedly a social power.
As Katherine took her place in the circle Miss Tilly and Miss Gart looked her up and down with stern, judicial eyes, and subsequently exchanged expressive glances and superior smiles. “So, for all her grand airs, she was just in service like themselves!”
When the big cane boxes marked “C. W.” had been duly claimed, Lady Warbeck’s maid humbly followed the crowd to a large omnibus allotted to their use. There were nine passengers, and she and the Frenchwoman were seated at the far end, opposite to their late travelling companions. Impulsive mademoiselle, in order to testify her complete sympathy and goodwill, seized Katherine’s hand surreptitiously and squeezed it hard, which pressure was adequately repaid; but the other women ostentatiously ignored her presence, and immediately fell into brisk conversation with two valets; even the Frenchwoman found a fluent compatriot, and Miss Broome was abandoned to her own reflections. These thoughts were unspeakably gloomy; she was sensible of a hard lump in her throat and burning tears in her eyes. Pride was wounded, self-respect was crushed.
“Why are you so angry and so stupid?” demanded a sharp inner voice. “Have you forgotten how you worried Lady Warbeck to engage you—how you all but forced her to say ‘Yes’? You knew she was forgetful and erratic; did you expect her to look after her own luggage, or to offer you a seat in the electric brougham? Here is your chance of escape from squalor and London—your one chance. Do have some command over yourself, and a little sense, or you will deserve to go back to Blessington Place—there to live—and die.”
“It’s six miles from Bargrave,” announced a gentleman’s gentleman. “Must say I couldn’t fancy living at such a distance from the train myself. Give me town.”
During these six miles, Katherine affected sleep. She sat very upright, with Lady Warbeck’s heavy dressing-case resting on her knees, her hands clenched upon it and her eyes closed, yet fully alive to the laughing and talking and general sociability in her vicinity. All the time she was disciplining Katherine the Arrogant, and resolving to bring a stout heart, and a smiling face to these new duties, and endeavour to suit herself to her company, with this mental reservation—--any company but the present.
At last the wheels of the omnibus seemed to leave the road and bowl along a smooth avenue; presently they ceased to move, and came to a standstill before a great rambling white house, with a lofty pillared porch and open door, from whence poured a stream of light.
Here, in a noble entrance-hall, they were politely welcomed by a stout gentlemanly butler, and separately drafted off in various directions.
Katherine was accosted by a powdered footman in silk stockings and black satin breeches.
“Whose maid are you, miss?” he blandly inquired.
“Lady Warbeck’s,” she murmured.
“All right then, this way if you please; the luggage will be up immediately.”
And with overpowering dignity he preceded her to a back staircase, where he consigned her to a smart housemaid, saying, “Miss Baker, this young person is Lady Warbeck’s maid. Be so good as to take her up.”
“All right, Mr Wing. You come along with me,” to Katherine; and she conducted her, with considerable rustling of silk petticoats, to a large bedroom on the second floor, illuminated by an electric light, and an immense fire of blazing logs.
“Your lady’s luggage will be here directly,” she announced. “Shall I get you the keys?”
“Thank you,” said Katherine, “I believe I have them all, and need not trouble you.”
“You were twenty minutes late, and dinner is at eight sharp on account of bridge. Do you play?”
“Yes, occasionally, and you?”
“My word, yes, I do love it! I won eighteen shillings last week. These men are tedious with the boxes. You’d better come down, and have your tea comfortable before you start unpacking.”
“Thank you, no. I’d like to begin at once,” replied Katherine, removing her hat and jacket, as she spoke.
“Oh, well, you please yourself,” said the smart housemaid, surveying her with her hands on her hips. Miss Baker wore a well-made gown, which admirably set off her remarkably trim figure. “You do look fagged, I will say—just wore out,” and she continued to stare with an air of half-pitiful curiosity at the shabby young woman, who had the unmistakable carriage of a lady.
“Yes, I am tired, but I would like to get things a little settled first and rest later. Ah!” as there was a heavy bang at the door. “Here comes the luggage.”
Katherine had begun to unpack and sort and fold and arrange, and was surrounded by a sea of skirts, when the door opened and the friendly Miss Baker reappeared, bearing a tray and tea-pot.
“So you are hard at it,” she exclaimed, setting down her burden. “I thought you’d like a good cup of tea.”
“Yes, of all things. How kind of you to bring it.” The young woman nodded with some complacency. “I thought I’d carry it up myself. You see them others would be passing remarks if they knew. I saw you were different to that crowd. That’s the worst of a big house and visitors; you are called on to associate with such a low class. Been long with old Warbeck? she inquired, as Katherine helped herself to tea and bread-and-butter.
“I have known Lady Warbeck for some years,” she answered stiffly.
“Ay, she’s a rare old girl!” resumed the other, totally unabashed; “so active, always dressing and talking, and writing. I heard a lady say, she was well over seventy. My word, she is a game one! I’ll bet you sixpence she wears a low dress to-night, and a cock’s feather in her hair. Never say die! Why, there’s my grandmother, seventy-five and bedridden, and Lady Warbeck dances still. Yes, two summers ago I saw her playing tennis, and that’s as true as my name is Emma Baker.”
Lady Warbeck has a splendid constitution; she has always been most kind to me.”
“Oh, yes, she is mighty kind in talk—talk is cheap. But, of course, you know her,” and she nodded with terrible significance. “She is queer though. Last time she came she brought six weeks’ washing. Think of it! We have our own steam laundry, and she said as she was looking forward to it. We do wash wonderful, and no charge!” and Miss Baker broke into a laugh, which was both loud and long.
“I suppose the house is full?” said Katherine; a lengthy silence seemed to call for some remark.
“Lord, yes, packed, and two of them come squeezing in at the last hour. We have the Duchess here. Now that’s a real grand lady. Never a word against her character, though the Duke is old enough to be her grandfather. She has such a sweet temper; not like Lady Maria Becke—five maids in a fortnight; burnt one with the curling tongs, and was summoned. We have her sometimes. I tell you she’s a treat. There, that’s the pink room bell. I’m off,” and she vanished.
Tea had exercised its well-known qualities on Katherine, who, after warming herself at the glowing fire, resumed operations, and was hard at work when her patroness entered.
“Well, Katherine!” she exclaimed, in her high cheerful voice, “so here you are, and busy. That’s all right. How are you getting on? Nearly done? Capital! I wonder where they have put you?”
“I do not know yet.”
“Not far away, I hope. I see you have had your tea.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“The Duchess lost her way, and only arrived ten minutes ago. She is charming, perfectly charming, and here for four days—two balls. I believe we shall be great friends. Now,” looking round reflectively, “let me see. I think for to-night my purple velvet and amethysts. Nothing like first impressions, eh? Are you tired?” she asked suddenly, realising the girl’s haggard appearance.
“Only a little.”
“Come, come,” she said irritably. “This will never do! A maid has an easy place, and you have been sitting for hours. By the way, I hope you went to Marshall & Snelgrove’s about the silk, and changed the feathers at Harrod’s?”
“Then here is the key of my jewel-case. Look out purple velvet shoes, and pale grey suède gloves. Yes, now for my hair,” and as she spoke Lady Warbeck settled herself complacently before the glass, and began to remove her pin curls.
“Rather high to take the ornament,” she continued. “We had great fun coming down—played bridge all the way, and I won five pounds, so you and I travelled for nothing, or rather at Mrs Corben’s expense. The silly woman went no trumps on a weak hand, and my partner doubled. Don’t let me forget my purse, there will be bridge after dinner. Miss Balance, the great authority, is here. I am dying to see her play, and if she makes the heart convention, and weak from weak or not? Um—yes, my hair is very nice indeed. You are quite a professional, I see. Now just a little touch of colour. There! purple does make me look so yellow.”
Katherine, with cold and tremulous fingers, laced up the somewhat tight velvet corsage, arranged ornaments, handed purse, fan, gloves, and had the satisfaction of beholding her lady examining the result of her labours in a long glass, with broad and complacent smiles.
“Yes, I declare I do look smart,” she announced. “Katherine, you did not overpraise yourself. You are a treasure. Well, now, there is plenty for you to do; hang up the rest of my dresses for fear of creases, sort my gloves and laces, and be sure you put tissue paper between all the bodices. Only I am late I’d dictate a couple of notes, but I must fly. Ta! ta! take care of yourself, my dear child,” and she swept forth.
Katherine’s head and back ached, nevertheless she stuck to her task womanfully, hung up and put away all the most delicate and costly items of her employer’s wardrobe. After all, she said to herself, “Surely this is better than the wet street or an icy cold garret, and living on buns and snubs.”
Her labours concluded, she walked over to the long mirror and gazed thoughtfully at her reflection. How pale and careworn she looked! “Katherine the Arrogant,” she murmured. “Katherine the Abigail!” “Katherine the Hungry.” Well, food was not everything, though some more bread-and-butter would be most acceptable. Here was a large airy room, a luxurious sofa and a splendid fire. As time paced on and brought no sound but the closing of a distant door, the muttering and spitting of the oaken logs, Katherine succumbed to the allurements of the sofa, extinguished the lamp, and was soon fast asleep. From the land of dreams she was suddenly recalled by the sound of chattering voices and several loudly-repeated kisses. She sprang up and turned on the light, as Lady Warbeck—looking ten years older than when she departed—slowly entered, followed by a tall, handsome woman, wearing a yellow gown, and many diamonds.
“I must just peep in, and see if you have all you want, dear?” said the stranger. Then, as her eyes fell on Katherine, haggard and dishevelled, she paused interrogatively.
“Why, I do declare I forgot all about you, and you have waited up!” exclaimed Lady Warbeck, half laughing. “This is Lady Constance Barre;” and to her hostess, “Here is Miss Broome, my companion. I wrote to you, you know.”
“Yes, of course,” assented Lady Constance, coming forward and addressing herself to Katherine. “We thought you had not arrived. There has been such confusion this evening. Lady Glendower lost her luggage, the duchess lost her way. But oh, Miss Broome, have you dined?”
“No, but it really does not matter.”
“But how terrible! Of course you are starving. I’ll see about something at once—a little supper in the schoolroom.”
“I’m not really hungry,” protested the girl. “Oh, please, do not trouble about me.”
But already Lady Constance had hurried to a telephone in the corridor. Meanwhile Lady Warbeck sat down yawning on the sofa, and proceeded to kick off her shoes.
“I feel so miserably guilty,” said the hostess as she re-entered. “I’d made all arrangements. You are next door in the dressing-room, and I’d given you the schoolroom for yourself. It is just across the passage, where for the present you will have your meals, and order whatever you wish.”
Lady Constance paused, a little daunted by this maid-companion, who looked so tired, so dignified, and so resigned.
“Oh, but you really need not bother about Katherine,” protested her employer in a peevish voice, secretly irritated by all these explanations and apologies. “Miss Broome does not expect attention, and does not mind being overlooked. She has had a nice fire and an armchair, nothing to do. What more could she want? Katherine, my dear, whilst you are waiting you can unlace me, and put these away,” handing necklace and bracelets. “Oh,” yawning, “I am so sleepy. When you have had a sandwich you had better go to bed. Call me at eight o’clock with my tea and letters. Just hang up my skirt carefully. That is all. Goodnight,” and she tendered a faded cheek for Katherine’s salute.
Lady Constance, waiting in the background, was a silent witness of the little scene. So old Cousin Caroline had secured this graceful, ladylike girl, as maid and companion! How clever of her! The poor thing seemed strangely cowed and subdued; fancy a real maid suffering herself to remain dinnerless and forgotten.
“Please come across the corridor with me,” urged a clear, full voice. “Yes, here is something—better late than never—--a little soup and cold chicken. That will do, Frederick,” to the servant. “I hope you understand, that I did expect you, Miss Broome. There was a fire, you see,” pointing to the embers, “but what with Lady Glendower’s distraction and hysterics about her diamonds and dresses, and people suggesting that the duchess had met with a bad accident, everything went out of my mind.”
It seemed to be Katherine’s fate to slip out of people’s memories. First Lady Warbeck, and now this charming, friendly woman, who stood by the table looking so concerned, and so distinguished, with her sweeping satin draperies and small, well-poised head, with glittering ornaments flashing in her dark hair.
‘You look positively dead,” she added. “Let me see you drink this claret.”
“Thank you,” said Katherine, as she sipped it. “I had no lunch. There was some shopping to do for Lady Warbeck, and I came away rather in a hurry. Indeed, my coming here was a sudden project. It was only arranged on Saturday.”
“Do let me give you some more chicken? Is this your first experience as—er—companion?”
“Yes. No more, thank you.”
“Well, remember, that this is your castle. Your own private sitting-room. Here you can read,” waving a taper hand towards rows of shelves, “write, play the piano. Just now we are a house full, on account of these balls. Every nook is packed, and I could not make another place at table, were it for an archbishop, but next week I shall look forward to seeing you among us. Lady Warbeck will be here for some time. I’ll send you up lots of papers and magazines, and you must find your way into the hot-houses, and the park.”
“You are too kind, and I am most grateful, but I shall not have any leisure. There will be Lady Warbeck’s dressing and sewing, and her correspondence.”
“Her correspondence! Oh, you poor thing! I do not envy you that!” said Lady Constance with a gay laugh. “Now I really must go. Your room is opposite, and next to Lady Warbeck’s. It is small but faces south. Good-night. I have no doubt you will sleep well,” and she smiled herself out.
After this interview, Katherine was sensible of feeling physically and mentally better; much revived by kindly words, not to speak of soup and claret. In her own apartment she found her luggage (thoughtfully unstrapped) and a good fire. It was a dainty bower. The furniture white, the walls and hangings pink. She noticed a writing-table, books, a spacious wardrobe, and a pervading atmosphere of fresh air and lavender. Oh, what a change from Blessington Place! She felt so tired, that all her bones ached, otherwise matters were improving; but for her own stiff-necked self-importance, her prospects were distinctly fair. She had the use of a comfortable sitting-room, a piano, books, and this delicious bed. Oh, such a bed! She had not rested in the like since she had left the south of France, and it had the big square pillows to memory dear. In an astonishingly short time the head that rested on these same pillows was lost in dreams, and thus ended Katherine Broome’s first day, as companion-maid.
It happened that Lady Constance’s agreeable prophecy was fulfilled, and Katherine slept till she was aroused by the sound of stealthy footsteps, and the rustling of a starched print gown, moving about her room, opening shutters, and arranging a bath, with the rapid, decisive movements of long experience. When a dainty pink and white tea-service was placed beside her bed, she could not remember for a moment where she was. Had her immediate past been a bad dream? Had she now opened her eyes on her former luxurious existence?
The maid was also puzzled, and surveyed the young lady attentively. Was this pretty, drowsy girl, with the long heavy plaits, and elaborate lace-trimmed nightgown, the miserably cold and weary young person she had befriended the previous evening? Yes, she was a lady, lady’s-maid. Her hands, her voice, her looks, spoke for themselves, and the housekeeper had given most particular orders about the schoolroom attendance.
“I’ve took her tea in to Lady Warbeck, miss,” she announced in a confidential tone. “So you need not stir just yet.”
“Oh,” sitting erect, with a face of consternation, and remembering everything in one flash, “I must be dreadfully late.”
“Her ladyship is asleep still, and your breakfast is ordered for nine, so there’s no need to hurry,” and with this information Baker took her departure. As the door closed, Katherine flew out of bed and began to make a rapid toilette. When she peeped into the next room there was Lady Warbeck just awake, fretful, injured and grumbling. “Her tea was cold, and where was the post?” Never was woman so greedy of letters as Caroline Warbeck. She would have welcomed a delivery at least every hour, with telegrams at frequent intervals. Fresh tea and her correspondence produced a soothing effect, and presently she declared that she had rested badly, scarcely closed her eyes, and would have the room darkened and try and sleep till luncheon time, if she was not disturbed. So Katherine, dismissed and set free, went across to her own castle, where breakfast awaited her. The schoolroom overlooked a great flat park sprinkled with clumps of fine timber, but nothing either picturesque or interesting met the eye. No four-legged animal, whether deer or donkey, was to be seen, only a few temporarily reprieved cock pheasants stalking stealthily under the bare trees. By daylight the apartment was shabby, lined with shelves, laden with blue books, and many bound numbers of venerable magazines. A writing-table stood in the window, and against one wall was a large old-fashioned sofa and a small cottage piano. A round table, and several chairs covered with wool work, a framed collection of butterflies, another of birds’ eggs, and a map of the world completed the most remarkable contents of the apartment. Although it was one which spoke of the occupations and interests of a bygone generation, the atmosphere was congenial to Katherine, who felt herself contented, and at home. She fetched her writing-case, her work-basket, her little clock, and set up, so to speak, her humble household gods.
By-and-by she noticed a number of people, singly and in groups, riding across the park, and Lady Constance, in her habit, put her head in at the door.
“Good-morning, Miss Broome,” she said briskly. “I hope you are rested? The Meet here is at eleven. Would you not like to go out and see it?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Then you will find it at the other side of the house. I am late,” and she vanished.
Katherine was speedily equipped, and having made her way downstairs ventured across the great hall, which seemed full of men in red coats and women in smart habits, steered carefully through the crowd, and found herself in front of the entrance, where were numbers of new arrivals in carriages, motors, or on horseback, and a vast assembly of spectators on foot. The hounds and hunt servants had already arrived, and were naturally the centre of attraction. Katherine studied them with interest. The big, well-bred horses, the anxious, restless hounds, the wiry-looking men. Then she took up a position near an old elm, from which post she had a capital view of all comers. The children on ponies, waggonettes containing whole families, solemn-faced couples riding to and fro, discussing tariff reform, or the characters of their neighbours’ horses. A floppy girl, with untidy hair, gauntlet gloves and a bright blue habit, the perfectly-equipped horsewoman, sporting the sacred Hunt button, and here came the house-party. Mentally she endeavoured to identify them. The slight woman admirably turned out, with an expressive, weather-beaten face, riding a long-tailed thoroughbred, must be Mrs Vallance. She was talking to two attendant cavaliers with great animation, and managing her animated hunter with supreme address. A lovely vision clad in chinchilla, and accompanied by an old dandy, glided by in a large yellow motor. Could she be Lady Glendower? Here, at any rate, was Lady Constance, mounted on a raking bay animal. She was followed by Mrs Corben in ermine, sharing a victoria with another important matron. The Master, a late arrival, dashed up in his motor, mounted a fine chestnut hunter, and in another moment the hounds were trotting towards the cover and the crowd was in motion, some driving by the avenue, others jogging across the park.
Katherine noticed one unhappy youth in a brand new red coat, whose steed was evidently his master; a keen, impulsive, Irish horse, full of spirit and crazy to be with the hounds. His rider was a complete contrast.
There was no enthusiasm in his expression, he looked white and nervous and rode abominably; his knees and hands high, his balance maintained by the reins, especially the curb—his sheet anchor. The distracted hunter flung his head about and sidled and jerked, and tossed great flakes of foam over the smart pink coat, and as the ill-matched pair passed close to Katherine, she could not fail to hear the angry snorts of the horse, and his rider’s curses, which were both loud and deep.
Gradually the gay scene changed, the last carriage disappeared, and the pedestrians, gardeners and stablemen reluctantly returned to their work, and Katherine was alone. As it was not yet twelve o’clock, she set out to explore the park. A country walk, even in winter, was a real pleasure; the sky was blue, the air was pure, the scene was novel. Her spirits rose as she stepped along briskly over the short, springy grass; to-day life was worth living; the frozen spirit of youth, was stirring in her veins.
She proceeded some distance, and then halted to look back at Bargrave. It was an ugly residence in shape, recalling the outline of a stout individual who, caring more for ease than appearance, had suffered her figure to spread. A high, pillared porch was the sole object that broke the monotonous rows of windows; no picturesque stacks of chimneys or stately terrace added to its dignity. The mansion even lacked a clocktower, and the plain, commonplace exterior gave little hint of the treasures and luxuries within its walls.
The explorer continued to aimlessly wander in the direction of the entrance, till the sound of clattering hoofs suddenly arrested her attention. Through the gates, with reins and stirrup leathers flying, there appeared a riderless horse, galloping at the top of his speed. He tore past her at racing pace, and eventually disappeared in the direction of the stables.
Presently a limping figure came in sight—undoubtedly the discarded rider. Katherine hastened in his direction. As they approached one another she noticed that his hat was crushed, his coat and leathers covered with mud; altogether he presented a pitiable spectacle.
“I hope you are not badly hurt?” she called out. “I see your horse has got away.”
“No, no thanks,” he answered in a drawling voice. “Just a bit shaken. Awful brute that. I’d like to shoot him. Got rid of me in the road, put his head down and bucked like mad. No one could sit him. There’s not a man in the place can ride him. I must say I can’t understand Barre keeping such an infernal devil—er, I beg pardon, but I’ve lost a good run. It’s enough to make a parson swear,” he took off his hat and examined it thoughtfully. He was a deplorable object. His face, and elegant white necktie were splashed with mud, his locks hung in rats’ tails.
Katherine had difficulty in keeping a serious face as she looked at him.
He was a slim young man of two or three-and-twenty, with dark hair, a clean-shaven face, and a pair of twinkling little dark eyes. A well-shaped nose and white teeth were his best points; perhaps with these and a certain amount of assurance, he might contrive to pass himself off as quite a good-looking fellow. At the moment, he was anxiously fumbling for his handkerchief.
“I’m afraid I’ve lost it. I’m sure my face is in a beastly mess.”
“Will you borrow mine? “suggested the young lady. ‘There is a great splash on the end of your nose, and another in the middle of your forehead.”
“Thanks awfully,” he said, accepting the loan. “Don’t I look as if I’d been ploughing?” casting his eyes over his leathers and boots. “I must sneak in and hide till I’m presentable. I shall be frightfully stiff for the ball to-night. You are staying here, of course?”
“Then, if you are not ashamed to be seen with me, shall we toddle back together?” He glanced at her sharply as he added, “I don’t seem to remember your face at dinner last night?”
“No, it did not happen to be present.”
“But—” Then he came to a halt and exclaimed, “By Jove! I thought I recognised you, and I remember now,” his voice was triumphant. “It was at Mentone two years ago. Aren’t you Miss Broome?”
Miss Broome coloured slowly as she nodded assent. “And you were at that big picnic at Santa Agnese given by the Prince of Carrabas. Why, of course I remember you—--the queen of the day—and your father, such a ripping good sort. Corben is my name—Montagu Corben. My mother and Lady Con are tremendous pals. They were at school together, and are awfully chummy.”
“Oh, are they?” murmured Katherine.
So before her, with battered hat and streaky face, stood the hero of the bedroom fire story!
By George!” he resumed, now walking on. “Now I do call this a bit of luck. I suppose you only arrived late last night. Why are you not riding?”
“I do not belong to the house-party,” she replied. “I came with Lady Warbeck. I am her companion,” she glanced at him sideways as she added, “and maid.”
“What! Oh, come,” he remonstrated, “I say, this is some of your jokes.”
“It is no joke to me, I can assure you.”
“But look here,” he spluttered, “I don’t understand. You were such a screaming success—quite on the tree top.”
She flushed a little as she replied:
“And now I have tumbled to the bottom, cradle and all. Please forget that I was ever what you call ‘a screaming success’. My father died eighteen months ago, and I am woefully poor.”
“I say, what beastly hard lines! Well, I shall always see you as the beautiful Miss Broome.”
“Please don’t talk nonsense!” she said impatiently.
“And fancy you engaging with Becky—I mean Lady Warbeck. I am afraid you will have a rough time.”
“Not at all,” she rejoined. “I have known her for years, and I am most grateful to her for having me.”
“Take care she doesn’t ‘have you’ in more ways than one,” he burst out with a laugh. “She is as rich as a Jew, as deep as the sea. Well, here we are. I must go and clean myself. We shall meet at lunch.”
“No, I think not,” and she nodded a brief farewell, and ran up the steps, leaving her companion to the compassion, or derision, of the footmen.
Lady Warbeck had special reasons for rest and retirement. It was her preparation for the grand ball, and she only emerged from her room in time to encounter all the cheery, hunting folk, who, reminiscent and exultant over their day’s sport, were regaled with tea and poached eggs.
Monty Corben, sleek, scented, and spruce, in a remarkable smoking-jacket, lounged by the fire—the target of gibes and inquiries.
“Well, all I can say is, that not a man in the place could stick to that brute if I could not,” he declared, “and I rather fancy that I know what I am talking about.”
Monty, cigarette in hand, laying down the law to a grinning, hard-riding audience, was a sight for the gods and his mother. His effrontery and complacency were colossal. They had long since ceased to irritate. They merely amused.
“Not ride Kilkenny! Not a man in the place! Bosh, Monty,” said his host. “He is safe as a house, keen as mustard. He only wants to go. Why, my wife rides him for choice.”
“Oh, does she? He would not be my choice,” declared Monty, totally unabashed.
“Or you his,” jeered a voice.
“Well, you see, Lady Con rides at least three stone heavier than I do,” argued the irrepressible. “I suppose you will allow that that makes a difference.”
“Pray who is talking about my weight?” inquired Lady Constance as she entered. “It is a most delicate subject.” But Monty turned a deaf ear to the question, and hastened to hand the toasted teacake to Lady Glendower.
Katherine was busily engaged in repairing a gorgeous ball-dress, spread out on the bed, when its future wearer entered, accompanied by Mrs Corben.
“This is Miss Broome,” she explained. “You have met already.”
Mrs Corben on this occasion smiled and bowed.
“Oh, yes, in town the other day,” she replied. “My son tells me he had the pleasure of knowing you on the Riviera. So,” turning to Lady Warbeck, “this is your dress—green sequins—exquisite. My dear, it is simply quite. You will cut us all out. But these sequins are too tiresome, are they not? How cleverly you are putting them on, Miss Broome.”
“Katherine,” broke in her employer, “as soon as you have finished I want you to do a little job for Mrs Corben.” She looked up interrogatively.
“Yes, dear Miss Broome. I’ve not brought my maid because the house is so full, and I am hopelessly stupid with my fingers. I shall be for ever grateful if you will do a tiny favour for me,” said Mrs Corben in smooth, persuasive tones. “It is a very slight alteration. Won’t take you three minutes—the sleeves of my ball-gown. Will you?”
The lady was so gushing, and so gracious, that of course Miss Broome could but declare that nothing would afford her greater pleasure.
“So good of you. I’ll just fetch it,” and she went out of the room.
“What do you think,” began Lady Warbeck. “Funnily enough Constance has taken quite a fancy to you, Katherine, and she is most anxious that you should appear at the ball to-night—the ball here. They have built out a great room and are having ‘Iffs’ band from London. Money can do everything. Never have I seen such flowers and decorations. They expect seven hundred guests—and oh! er—yes, about you. I told her that I was sure you would not care about it. You would know no one, and you hadn’t a gown, but it was kind of her. Connie has a large heart. It is wonderful how she thinks of everybody, and she was quite miserable about you getting no dinner till twelve o’clock, but I told her it did not matter.”
“Now, here is my little job,” said Mrs Corben, sweeping in with a gold and black corsage in her hand. Katherine listened to instructions, carefully examined the suggested alterations, which involved at least an hour’s work, and having assured Mrs Corben that she would “do her best,” the lady departed with her mind happily at ease, and her arm encircling Lady Warbeck’s somewhat solid waist.
There were sounds of preparations for revelry that night. Katherine, as she stitched, received the impression of the subdued energies of a great establishment, marshalling all its resources into working order. She listened to footsteps, bells, voices, the swishing of silk dresses and petticoats, finally the grate of carriage wheels on the sweep below the schoolroom.
Oh, it was weary work! but by half-past ten o’clock Lady Warbeck was accoutred, and expressed herself satisfied with her toilette. Looking at her dispassionately, she was a marvellously-preserved woman for her age, and presented a noble and resplendent appearance. Her hair, becomingly arranged, was crowned with a splendid tiara of emeralds and diamonds; the same stones glittered on her neck, her wrists, and in her ears. A superb, an historical parure. The little “touch” had been given to her cheeks, her Paquin robe of shimmering green was finished with costly lace, and in her hand she held a fan that had once been carried by a Queen of Spain. “Well, yes, I have never looked better,” she declared, “but fine feathers make fine birds. Katherine, I’m sure you would like to see the other birds’ feathers, so come and stand with me in the gallery and we will watch the company passing down. I shall go last. I always like to make an effective entree.”
Bearing a fur tippet and a gold bridge bag, Katherine followed her from the room, and was presently a witness of the brilliant procession which descended from the first floor.
“See, there goes Lady Glendower,” said her companion, as a slim, erect figure appeared. Her toilette of pink with elaborate silver embroideries was perfect in every detail.
A murmur of admiration from the assembled maids in the upper corridor acclaimed this radiant vision. The beauty’s dark eyes shone with triumph. She raised them to the spectators with a glance of insolent acknowledgment as she made a leisurely, and stately descent.
“What a combination of audacity and diamonds! A French toilette and hard, brilliant beauty,” commented Lady Warbeck. Such a perfect figure, and inside its ribs, oh! such a wicked little heart. They say Glendower has gone to West Africa to put himself in the way of lions and the climate. If they do not carry him off, he will sue for a divorce.”
The next to appear on the scene was the Honourable Mrs Corben, a fine woman with a wonderful neck, and a solid tread. Her black-and-gold gown looked magnificent at a distance.
“Clara Corben will soon be fat, if she does not take care,” was the verdict of her friend and critic. “That is a stylish gown—a work of art! Paris its native city. Now I wonder where she got it?”
Mrs Corben was immediately succeeded by two pretty sisters in white, the Misses Somers, and their mother—a tight-laced martyr in black velvet, and diamonds. Next, a tall, dowdy woman with a crushed purple gown, and dishevelled grey hair. “Lady Levantine,” whispered Katherine’s instructor. “She keeps no maid. They say, her servants are obliged to call her by her Christian name, and dine with her once a week. They hate it! Just look at her head; and her clothes, put on with a shoe-horn. Oh, here is Constance—yes, in her Court gown. How she does love yellow—and it suits her. Mrs Vallance in mauve—awfully smart; but hunting women should never wear low necks. You would think her brown face, and throat, did not belong to the rest of her body. Miss Balance, the bridger, in a ball-gown. Did you ever behold such arms? They are for all the world like the legs of a chicken. Ah! the duchess at last.”
Her Grace was the embodiment of grace. The ideal duchess, tall and slender; she wore a white picture gown, an all-round crown of splendid diamonds, and ropes of pearls.
An audible appreciation was wafted from the upper regions as she floated from its gaze.
“She looks charmin’, doesn’t she? So good, and such a contrast to that handsome vixen, Lady Glendower. Well, now, I really must go,” and snatching a cape and bag from Katherine, Lady Warbeck presently made her appearance on the staircase, a vision of a shimmering gown and astonishing jewels. Slowly and self-consciously she trailed down with a subdued murmur of admiration in her flattered ears.
It was five o’clock in the morning when she knocked at Katherine’s door—a limp, haggard, battered old woman, with ragged skirts, and implored her to rise, and slip on something, unlace her and put her to bed.
“I feel as if I would never get up again,” she groaned. “At first we had bridge, then supper, then a cotillion, and Monty made me join. I have the will, and skill, to waltz as well as ever—but age—is cruel!—After the cotillion, a second supper, and here I am! I believe this ball to-night will be my end. I am sorry now, I did not let you dance instead of me; if I’d been wise, I’d have remained here comfortably with a novel, and a little turtle soup: at seventy-three, it is time to shake one’s head at German waltzes and lobster mayonnaise.”
The combined results of dissipation and dancing compelled Lady Warbeck to keep her room for two days. Loudly and bitterly did she bewail a fate whose supreme hardship lay in her repeated complaint that “she was missing the duchess.” It was perhaps open to a question if the duchess missed her.
However, the invalid made use of her enforced retirement (and of Katherine) by paying off long arrears of correspondence. The writing-table was furnished with an ample supply of the very best note-paper, but the stamp box proved empty! Here was a grave oversight.
“I do think it so extraordinary,” declared Lady Warbeck. “At Longworth all the letters go into the receptacle in the hall unstamped. I sent twenty or thirty a day when I was there. Hugo Barre is just as rich—indeed better off; he has no children and twenty thousand a year. He ought to supply postage. I shall give Cousin Con a word. It is just their one little meanness.” (How many little meannesses were hers?)
The notes dictated to Katherine were sometimes such as made her bite her lips, and even blush. Here is a specimen:
“Dearest Lady Hautcours,
I came to this delightful place a few days ago and have been enjoying the time of my life. The house is crammed with smart people, including the Duchess de Varesi, Lady Marbell, Lord Fontenoy—you know the set. We have had two meets for the hunting folk, and two balls; one of them in this house, and needless to tell you an immense success. The Barres do everything so well—‘Iff’s’ band from town, flowers from the south of France, guests from all parts. The Duchess is Constance’s cousin and is all that one hears of her—lovely, witty, and charming. You will smile when I tell you, that she seems to have taken quite a fancy to me. Everyone has remarked it. She has kindly promised me her latest photo taken from her portrait in the Academy—you remember how I raved over it last season?—and invited me to Beau Rivage. I do hope to fit in the visit next summer.”
This was the original copy of the contents of at least twenty letters, duly despatched north, south, east and west. How could Lady Warbeck be so absurd? Katherine asked herself, but the old campaigner knew her world, and anticipated a nice crop of invitations in due time and season.
Besides “gossiping” and what Katherine felt were “booming” epistles, many were the replies to begging letters. Some pleading for help on the most curious grounds; all asking for money, of which, as was no secret, the recipient had a great store. But to one and all the same polite and stereotyped answer was despatched: “Lady Warbeck (more or less) presented her compliments, and begged to say, that the numbers of her subscriptions to charities was already so large, that she much regretted that it was out of her power to increase them.” Apparently she was one of those who “did good by stealth, and feared to find it fame,” for no donation or letter enclosing cheque, was ever suffered to pass through the hand of her secretary.
The duchess and most of the party had left Bargrave, and a place at table was found for Katherine, who ceased to take her meals in solitude. People discovered that Miss Broome was a nice-looking, ladylike girl, who could cut in at bridge, play accompaniments at sight, was always ready (when at liberty) to take a little turn, or do a good one. Her patroness was warmly complimented with respect to her young friend, and one lady remarked to another:
“That singularly lucky and crafty old woman gets a companion, lady’s-maid, amanuensis and slave, a very tabloid of perfection, for next to nothing, and I give Clementine sixty, and my gowns, and she is dissatisfied and grumbling.”
“Ah!” rejoined her friend, “but remember, my dear, that you are young and gay and active; you go to balls, and races,—you hunt, you keep late hours. With Lady Warbeck it is a different affair;—so much is put on. Oh, I know her,” and she laughed derisively. Katherine also knew Lady Warbeck in a closer and more intimate character, than that of a pleasant acquaintance with whom she had come in contact in full dress, as a favoured guest. Seen at close quarters she was good-tempered, had a keen sense of the ridiculous, an eager young spirit in an old frame, and a frank and candid tongue. But she was hopelessly erratic, inconsiderate, a bit of a snob, and passionately fond of money. The stamp grievance rankled in her heart like a poisoned arrow, and every time she sent a batch of letters to the hall, her complaints were out of all proportion to the expenditure of a few shillings.
Nevertheless Lady Warbeck could be liberal in a certain way; her generosity took the form of lending. She would gladly lend a fur, an ornament, a book, or even a pattern. She offered the services of Katherine with eager good-will, saying:
“Oh, my dear Miss Somers, Katherine will mend that lace for you. She has positively nothing to do,” or “Con, Katherine will make you a lamp-shade with the greatest pleasure. She has such taste. Do let her try. I know she is longing to be at it.”
The consequence of this was that many and various little odd jobs found their way to the schoolroom, from trimming a bodice, to filling a fountain pen. Katherine never had a spare moment; she was truly a maid-of-all work, between letter-writing, sewing, dressing, and reading aloud to her employer. She did think it a little unreasonable to be required to do needlework for Mrs Corben, who would steal into the schoolroom with a pathetic expression, and a garment in her hand. “Only just two stitches, clever, clever Miss Broome,” she would plead. Then, as a rule, she took a seat and watched Katherine’s quick fingers, and asked not a few probing questions respecting her past, and examined her exhaustively on the extent of her acquaintance with Lady Warbeck, and her knowledge of her affairs—her money affairs.
“And so, Miss Broome, you have known Lady Warbeck for years and years and liked her?” she said one day.
“She is rather an old dear! Wonderfully bright and active, and popular, and so rich, eh, Miss Broome?”
Miss Broome replied that Lady Warbeck was presumably well off, but never spoke of her business matters.
“Nor her will? I often wonder if she has made it.” This was evidently a question that greatly excited the curiosity of her visitor. Unfortunately Katherine could give no definite information.
“It is so important,” declared Mrs Corben, with an emphasis that was almost tragic. “She has no relatives. It would be positively shocking if she died intestate, would it not? Think of all her money going to the Crown! People,” continued the lady, speaking with eagerness, “say she has at least £100,000. She gets all her gowns in Paris, and stays at the best hotels. The value of her jewels is fabulous. I am positive she wore £15,000 worth the night of the ball. Pray, who is to have these?”
Katherine’s shoulders shrugged in true foreign fashion.
Stung by such indifference, Mrs Corben became urgent, even eloquent.
“Someone really should speak to her seriously, and ask her about her affairs. She is far over seventy, and although her elasticity is marvellous, people see her greatly changed—indeed, Mrs Lowther thinks she is breaking.” Then in a soft, caressing key “Would you speak, dear Miss Broome? or even give her a little hint?”
“I? Oh, no, not for worlds.”
“I do admire your charming discretion, but you might surely put out a tiny feeler? Lady Warbeck would take it from you. She is so fond of you, we all know.”
“I don’t honestly see how Lady Warbeck’s money matters concern me,” said Katherine, threading her needle with deliberate care, “and to tell you the truth they have no interest for me whatever.”
“How much does she pay you?” abruptly demanded Mrs Corben.
The girl looked at her for a moment, and answered with a smile:
“That is a dead, dead secret between us.”
“Oh, then it is something big, of course. A hundred —a hundred and fifty?”
Katherine broke into such an hysterical laugh, that her inquisitor hastily reduced the salary to forty.
The house—party changed every few days with the exception of Lady Warbeck, Mrs Corben, her son, and a certain General Bright, a wiry old soldier, a keen bridger, and a capital shot. Lady Warbeck breakfasted in her room, and subsequently dictated letters and looked out little tasks for Katherine. After lunch she went for a drive, or a stroll on the sunny side of the garden, and spent her evening at the bridge table. She played wisely and well, and never increased her stakes beyond half-a-crown a hundred. She did not talk or bore her partner, had a first-rate card memory, and, amazing to relate, was a cheerful loser. Consequently when people cut Lady Warbeck their faces were serene. Mrs Corben was more enterprising; she preferred ten shilling points, and though a good player, was unpleasantly sharp, and not a particularly gracious ally, especially when luck went against her. Then her cheeks burned, her eyes became hard and fixed, and woe, woe, to the unhappy partner who made a mistake.
As Katherine could not venture to play for money she was naturally “out of it”, but was ever ready to lend a sympathetic ear to long descriptions of lost rubbers, and bad hands.
Next to the ardour of the game, Lady Warbeck enjoyed fighting her battles over again, and whilst her toilet was in progress, occasionally put some posing questions to her companion.
“Now, do tell me, what would you have done, Katherine?”
“Gone spades,” she answered, after listening to the vivid description of a shocking fiasco.
“Oh, nonsense, you have no enterprise or spirit.”
“No, I prefer to play for safety.”
“More than Mrs Corben does. I can’t make out how she dares to risk going no trumps on such weak hands. And she is out of luck too. She lost eighteen pounds last week, and she owes me seven. I must say I think it always ought to be money on the table. I suppose she is hard up. I cannot understand how she contrives to carry on—visiting at smart houses and wearing good gowns, and playing bridge for such points, and always the Riviera every winter. I know she has small means, and there is Monty apparently doing nothing, and on her hands. It’s my opinion he will never be off them! Dear me, what a self-indulgent, greedy boy it is!—last night I saw him eat four peaches at dessert. His mother thinks him brilliantly clever, and is always quoting him and saying, ‘Monty says this, and Monty says that,’ but her swan—is a goose!”
Monty had discovered the schoolroom, or rather he had accompanied his mother there, and become a daily visitor, much to Katherine’s suppressed annoyance. There was no doubt that it was impossible for him to believe himself otherwise than welcome at any hour, and any place. He had been ruined by an injudicious parent, who imagined that he was a second Daniel, and marvellously talented. Ever since he was able to feed himself with a spoon, his praises had been on her lips, and her talk was of all the wonderful things that Monty thought, and did, or would do. However, up to the present, his performance proved disappointing in the extreme. He began his career by running away from a preparatory school. He was a dunce and a duffer at Marlborough, where he was to have accomplished marvels. From there, he went to one crammer after the other, and failed over and over again to pass into the Army. He remained, nevertheless, fearlessly and persistently egotistical, attributing his ill-success to mere bad luck; his mother put it to the score of ill-health, and held firmly to the delusion that he was both clever and popular.
Latterly people heard less of his genius, and more of his qualities as a son, and his attachment to themselves—if aged and wealthy, or young and beautiful,—for Mrs Corben’s schemes now took the shape of an heiress, a legacy, or both. Meanwhile Monty enjoyed life, danced, played billiards, raced, dressed carefully, and talked copiously on every subject under the sun.
He was no sportsman, loathed cricket, footer, rowing and even tennis. His favourite exercise was croquet; his relaxation the racecourse, and the music-halls; his literature the Pink ’Un. To see him in his element was to behold him sauntering in the Row, or at Hurlingham, admirably turned out, accompanied by some smart, well-dressed woman, who thought him “rather a dear boy,” and believed every word of the prattle with which he entertained her.
Men declared him to be an idle, bragging, good-for-nothing young ass, who lived on his mother and gave himself the airs of the heir to a throne. In his eyes the halo of former days still encircled Katherine. As he watched her sewing steadily, surrounded with stockings and gloves, his mental vision beheld the elegant Miss Broome, the centre of attraction in another climate. He liked to stroll into the schoolroom and fling himself prone on the old sofa and talk, expounding his views of life, and his amazing ignorance. He was impervious to snubs, and when Katherine remonstrated he calmly replied:
“I’m beastly tired. I’ve no sofa in my room, and I can’t do this sort of thing downstairs. Old Barre would kick. You never use this ancient bench yourself, you don’t really mind. It’s such a luxury to lie here and watch you,—and it’s a luxury that costs you nothing.”
On the contrary, it cost Katherine a painful effort to control her tongue. How dared he lounge into her room uninvited? and loll and gabble at his ease? or, what was almost as bad, stand on the rug with his back to the fire and deliver lectures on Monty Corben. He and Katherine were about the same age, but she looked on him as years her junior; his education was deficient, his intellect was that of a dull boy of fourteen, he had no manners, never handed anything, never opened a door for a lady, always secured the best chair, and carried the newest magazines and books into his own room, where he devoured them at his leisure. Like his mother he asked many questions, chiefly with respect to Lady Warbeck and her movements, or about the Barres, their income and plans. One day, as he was honouring the school-room with his presence, he announced:
“Miss Broome, you and I are old friends in a way. I say, may I smoke?”
“No, indeed, you know you may not. If you really wish to smoke,—why not go somewhere else?”
“Because I should not have your company. You know I do admire and like you most awfully, don’t you?”
“Now, look here, Mr Corben,” she said sharply, “if you talk to me like this, you must take your departure.”
“All right, Mr Corben will go,—but Monty will stay,” he answered playfully. Well, I won’t talk of you. I will talk of Ella Somers; she is rather a nice little thing and has asked me to write to her.”
“You mean that you asked her to write to you.”
“Of course I know she likes me, but I never could get a look in with that ruffian, young Barre, and perhaps it was just as well. I’d have old Mother Somers asking my intentions, and I shouldn’t dream of marrying one of her girls.”
Katherine glanced at the recumbent figure, and burst into a peal of hearty laughter. Three weeks of country air, and good fare, had made a difference in her looks, and her spirits. She had quite a colour.
“You ridiculous boy! Why, one of the Somers’ would not look at you. If she did her mother would have a fit. Pray, what have you to offer?”
“Great expectations,” he replied with his hands under his head, and contemplating the ceiling.
“Blessed are they that don’t expect. You cannot live on expectations, and even if you were wealthy, what are you?”
“I am Montagu Beaufort Corben, the nephew of Lord Ravenbill.”
“Isn’t that good enough for anybody?”
“No. No good at all.”
“Upon my word,” turning his head to confront her, “what more do you want?”
“I think you want a little wholesome plain speaking, for you never hear the truth. You slouch about the world with your ears stopped, and your hands in your pockets. What have you done with your life so far? What have you to show but failures?”
Monty raised his head. “Oh, go on, go on!” he urged in a choked voice.
“Instead of lolling on sofas, reading bad novels, and living on your mother, you ought to be out in the world earning your bread like a man. I’ve more respect for one of the stablemen than for you. At least they are independent, and self-supporting.”
Here Monty sat erect. Could he believe his ears?
“Look at other young fellows of your age,” pursued the girl, “all doing something. Teddy Barre is in the Service, Eric Somers is going to the Bar. You can’t even shoot or ride, you are so effeminate. When you brag of your shooting and fishing, men look hard at one another and wink. Yes, I’ve seen them. The other night in the hall, when you stood with your back to the fire and asked all the company, ‘Shall I tell you how to make money?’—men double and treble your age, and successful men—I thought some of them would have had an apoplectic seizure. You surely must be able to do some one thing. Go and do it, and be a man, and not a tailor’s dummy. Think of your mother.”
“There, that will do,” he broke in furiously. “I think my mother would be rather astonished if she heard this lecture—such insolence. As it happens, she is very well off, and it is her greatest pleasure to provide for me—and why shouldn’t she? I am her only son. Think of my mother! By Jove! I wonder what she’d think of you!“ and with a flaming face he strode heavily across the room, tore open the door, and blundered forth headlong.
Katherine’s harangue was bold—her words barbed. She believed she had spoken for this young man’s good, and had incidentally rid herself of his company for ever. As she was pondering over the recent scene, and telling herself she was a fool to interfere and not keep her opinions to herself, the door gently opened to admit Mrs Corben.
“I’ve just brought you a little job, Miss Broome, the trimming on my blouse. Do you mind? Or am I too, too encroaching? I cannot see very well or I’d do it myself.”
“Oh, I will do it in a few minutes.”
“You are always so kind and helpful to everyone—such a darling. I feel as if I’d known you for years,” and Mrs Corben sat down, and contemplated her with thoughtful eyes. Presently she said, “Dear Miss Broome, what have you been saying to Monty? I met the poor boy just now, and he seemed terribly upset. Have you been quarrelling? I do hope not. He thinks so much of you, and enjoys his little visits here.”
“I—well—I am afraid I let my tongue run away with me. It is a bad habit, and I do my best to curb it. I spoke on a sudden impulse, and now I am sorry.”
“But, my dear Miss Broome, what did you say?”
“I told him he ought to be up and doing like other young men instead of idling—losing his best days, and wasting his life.”
“His best days! Oh, my dear girl, surely you do not grudge the poor boy his youth? ‘la jeunesse n’a qu’un temps,’ and he does so enjoy life.”
“So do other young men of his age, and they are out in the world, working and independent.”
“True, but my poor dear boy is not strong—never has been strong since he had the measles. He has the brain all right, but not the bodily energy. It will come. I will not rush him. His heart is in the right place, but physically weak.”
“I must confess, he looks the picture of health, sleeps and eats well.”
“Yes, poor boy, I know he has a large appetite, but that and drowsiness, are part of his disease. A winter or two more in a warm climate, and a real rest, and he will be making a start—possibly become a great man.”
As Katherine remained silent she continued: “Great minds mature slowly. I could, if I had a good memory, quote you the names of numbers of celebrated men, who started in life and fame, quite late. Let me see, most politicians and statesmen are not heard of, till they are fifty. Was it the Duke of Wellington who was forty when he fought in the Peninsular? and Goethe fifty when he wrote Faust?“
“I do not think your son is cut out for a statesman, soldier or poet.—Nelson and Clive made their mark when very young.”
“At any rate, he has written several capital stories and won Limericks, and acrostics. My cousin, Mrs Montacute, who is so clever—you’ve often heard me speak of her says he has talent.”
“She may be right, and it was no business of mine to lecture him and speak so strongly,—--and you must tell him so, please.”
“I hope you won’t breathe a word of this little talk to Lady Warbeck. She is fond of Monty; he is a prime favourite of hers, you know, and she has more than once hinted to me that she has a good deal in her power. We all know what that means,” and Mrs Corben looked volumes. “A clairvoyant I consulted lately, assured me, among other matters, some of which have already come true, that I had an only son who would suddenly become a widely-known man, rich and famous.”
“Who knows, perhaps he may,” said Katherine, snipping off a bit of silk. “It must be delightful to have fame and money.”
Mrs Corben made no reply; she sat for some time in reflective silence, her eyes following the action of Katherine’s brisk needle. At last she said:
“Miss Broome, you are so kind and good natured, I wonder if you could do me a great, great favour?”
Katherine looked up; there was something unusual—something serious in Mrs Corben’s voice.
“Do you think, you could lend me ten pounds, my dear?”
“I, Mrs Corben,” and she coloured to her hair.
“Yes, it is my experience, that the poor it is who help one another. You are poor—just now, only for the moment—so am I. You have no appearances to keep up, and may have a few spare pounds, which of course I shall return. This week I am terribly short. I’ve been so unlucky at bridge, and that you know is money down always. And I simply dare not ask Lady Warbeck. She’d never speak to me again.” Her breath came quickly, as she added, “And so I come to you, who have known the want of money, to ask if you can spare me ten pounds. It will be a favour I will never forget.”
As she paused her face was mottled with deep red patches, and working with emotion.
“I am afraid I have not so much,” faltered Katherine, “but if five would be of any use—?”
“Of great use, you kind, good girl; you really are a darling.”
Katherine rose, and went to her writing-case, and produced one nice, crisp, five-pound note.
“A million thanks. You shall have it without fail next week. I think I know, where I can get the other fiver.”
Then for a moment, she stood gazing at Katherine as if she was making up her mind to kiss her; the girl read the intention in her eyes, and her face froze.
“Well, au revoir, you generous angel!” said Mrs Corben, and with a smiling nod, she patted her on the shoulder, and hurried away.
The great drawing-room at Bargrave was a stately apartment, full of space. The walls were panelled in silk—yellow, Lady Constance’s colour, the pervading shade. The furniture was real Louis XVI. Doubtless some of the ancient noblesse had sat upon these selfsame dainty couches and chairs. Possibly one or two wits and beauties had risen from them to make their way to the Temple, the conciergerie, and subsequently the guillotine. The parquet floor was spread with beautiful rugs. There were Watteau screens, silken curtains, and graceful cabinets (full of Sevrès china), mirrors, pictures, flowers and bibelots, and over all a soft primrose glow, from the carefully-shaded electric lights.
Two bridge tables had just broken up, and a group of players still hung round them, arguing, remonstrating, demonstrating. Katherine Broome, ensconced in a delightful Bergère, was reading a novel, which she reluctantly closed as Lady Constance suddenly addressed the company.
“Mrs Boundly has written to invite a party of us to lunch at Kingsbourne and see the place. Those old people do enjoy showing it off. I thought we might lunch there, and go on afterwards to the theatricals at Marwood Town Hall. They begin at three o’clock. Who is coming? Now please don’t all speak at once.”
“I am not,” announced Mr Barre with instant decision. “We want to finish off those pheasants in the upper wood—the General, Sir Walter Strong, young Charlton and myself.”
“But we must have some men,” protested his wife. “We cannot go quite a hen party. Monty,” and she turned to look at him interrogatively.
Monty weighed his answer with all the responsibility of a Cabinet Minister. At last he drawled:
“Well, no, thanks; old houses are not much in my line. I’ll shoot.”
“Monty is so keen,” declared his mother with a radiant smile; “and a good shot too, eh, Mr Barre?”
“He fires off plenty of cartridges at any rate,” rejoined his host. “What was it the other day?—--a hundred and ten. I think, Monty, you’d better go with the ladies. They must have some escort.”
Mr Barre did not care for Monty. He tolerated him with civil forbearance because Connie had rather a soft spot for her old schoolfellow. Undoubtedly Mrs Corben was a weak and foolish mother, otherwise he liked her. She was a pleasant guest in the house, always smart and in good spirits. To tell the truth, he was not altogether insensible to her delicately-seasoned flatteries.
“Rupert, too,” added Lady Constance. “Lady Warbeck, I may count on you, Mrs Corben, myself and Miss Broome. We shall be six, and just fill the car nicely.”
“I’ll go with you, please, if you have room for a little one,” volunteered the General as he moved an inch nearer to Lady Warbeck. “I’d enjoy it of all things.”
“Not you,” declared Mr Barre with emphasis. “That is just your chivalry. But I wont allow you to sacrifice yourself in this way. You are booked for the shoot. I want a couple of good guns—not,” and he glanced at Monty, “a whole lot of wounded birds.” Monty, entirely indifferent to the stab, was preening himself before the fire, with complacent sidelong glances at his reflection in a mirror.
“But ’pon my word, bar chaff—I’d like it,” stammered the General as he twisted his moustache; quite an expedition—and—interesting.”
“Interesting,” echoed Mr Barre. “What has come to you, Bright? If there is one thing you are keen on, it’s a hot corner. You have always barred motoring and sight-seeing. I know your mind better than you do yourself. You don’t go. Consider that is settled.”
“And Rupert is coming with us,” said his aunt. “Now, Rupert, I’ll make up your mind. The theatricals will be really entertaining; there have been squabbles. Though there is lots of ardent love-making scarcely any of the company speak to one another off the stage. The youngest Somers girl has a part.”
“All right,” agreed Rupert with a forced laugh. “I suppose I must submit, Aunt Con, your will is law.”
“Who are these Bounders, or Boundlys?” inquired Lady Warbeck, rubbing her gold glasses with a lace handkerchief, and replacing them on her nose.
“An enormously wealthy couple from the north,” replied Lady Constance. “He is self-made in iron. They have rented one of the most historical old places in Kent. They don’t pretend to be anything but what they are people of the people—hospitable, charitable, quite respectable. He is a rough, brusque old fellow, an amazingly good judge of antiquities, an authority on heraldry and armour, and coats-of-arms. Why, I believe he actually writes on the subject.”
“Perhaps it is the atmosphere of Kingsbourne that has gone to his head,” suggested Rupert Barre. “It is rusty and dusty enough for anything, and swarming with ghosts.”
“Oh, how delicious!” exclaimed Mrs Corben, with an affected shudder.
“Poor dear Mrs Boundly is crazy about embroideries,” resumed Lady Constance. “Such samplers, and banners, and stoles, never were seen.”
“And what has become of young Damer?” asked the General suddenly. “I used to know his brother.”
“He is married and done for,” replied Mr Barre. “An invalid wife—bed-ridden in fact, and no money. I believe he is in an Embassy—Ispahan, or Jericho, or somewhere. It is really melancholy to see a fine old place and property crumbling away from a family who have held it for eight centuries.”
“Eight centuries,” repeated Lady Warbeck. “How tenacious they must have been! I thought two centuries was about the limit of a line direct?”
“Yes, eight centuries. The race often came to grief, were imprisoned, beheaded, hanged, but somehow they contrived to remain on their own ground, precisely like a dandelion, that, no matter how it’s scotched, crops up and flourishes. However, the Damer régime is ended. The eldest son went the pace; the property is mortgaged to the chimneys.”
“I must say, the Boundlys keep it up in wonderful style,” added Lady Constance. “I am told there are twenty gardeners, and that one day one of them was asked what he was doing idling, broom in hand. And he answered, ‘I’m just waiting for a leaf!‘ There is the same principle indoors. I believe the maids dust behind all the tapestries every morning. The Boundlys keep the house like a museum.”
“Which contains no greater curiosities than themselves,” supplemented young Barre.
“You would like to see it, would you not, Katherine?” asked Lady Warbeck, turning to her; and she added in a lower key, “You have finished my white satin blouse and deserve a holiday.”
“Nothing I should like better,” she answered.
Kingsbourne was the scene of Miss Thom’s tale; how strange a coincidence that it would chance to be the first historical old house she should happen to visit.
At half-past twelve the following day Mrs Corben and Miss Broome were the first to arrive in the hall, in answer to the gong announcing that the motor was awaiting them. Mrs Corben, very smart, carefully powdered and scented, was wearing her black fox furs, and a mighty hat bristling with coloured wings. Katherine appeared in her sable set—cap, stole and muff—most charmingly becoming, and worn for the first time. Her companion opened her grey eyes, and stared at her incredulously. The girl must have coaxed them from old Becky! How extraordinary! how clever! Miss Katherine evidently had influence—far greater influence than she would acknowledge. The furs raised the girl many degrees in value in the eyes of Mrs Corben. They were proof positive of her importance. She was no mere hanger-on, but a power to be reckoned with, conciliated, and respected.
“Ah, here is the motor,” she said aloud. “We shall just fit nicely.”
“Six happy souls, and all agog to dash through thick and thin,” quoted Katherine.
“One would-be happy soul, has been obliged to shoot,” replied Mrs Corben. “I mean the General. Really, it was too amusing last night. The poor fellow did his best to come.” Seeing Katherine’s expression of astonishment, “You don’t mean to say you have not noticed his attentions to Lady Warbeck. Where are your eyes? He is always sitting next to her, or escorting her to see the dear horses, or the pretty greenhouses, and playing bridge or paying compliments.”
Katherine burst into a laugh. “Well, if it amuses them both—”
“Amuses! My good, simple girl it means business. The old gentleman wants to marry her, can’t you see it?”
“No, indeed, I cannot,” she answered resolutely.
“Well, I can assure you that he does. Although he is so spruce and well dressed, he is as poor as a rat. I happen to know, that he lives in two rooms near his Club, and has little besides his pension. A rich wife would be a delightful solace to his declining years.”
Katherine smiled incredulously.
“I don’t believe she would have him,” continued Mrs Corben, “though she loves him as a bridge partner. Still,” she added reflectively, “‘there is no fool like an old one,’ and you never can tell. Of course, if she married him, then everything would go to—hush! here they are!”
As the motor bowled along on the frosty road, the inmates talked at intervals.
“I don’t care for these musty old places,” declared Monty, who was in a bad temper. “Not my idea of comfort.”
“And what, Monty, is your idea of comfort?” asked Lady Warbeck.
“Oh, a ripping good grouse moor and lodge, near a station, all fitted up—electric lights, baths, telephones,—a French chef.”
“Ah, like Lord Cockpen,—but all he asks is a deer forest, and a good cook.”
Katherine was looking out of the window. Monty’s likes and dislikes were not as interesting to her, as the thatched cottages with quaint windows, the straggling villages, the solid, red-tiled farms, by which they skimmed. At last they came to a brick wall overhung with trees, and, skirting by this, to a pair of elaborate iron gates with the arms of a family carved on their lofty pillars; through these gates, they slid into a great undulating park, and presently the house came in view. A red brick Tudor, with projecting mullioned windows, and a long terrace overhanging the gardens. Mr Boundly, who, with old-fashioned hospitality, received them at the door, was a squarely-built, robust old man, with a thick grey beard, shrewd kindly eyes, dressed in a suit of black, with a full-skirted frock-coat, and black satin stock. In a deep, uncultivated voice, and with a north-country burr, he bade them welcome, and ushered them across a paved hall, full of carvings and stands of armour, and lighted with stained glass, to where Mrs Boundly, in purple silk and an early Victorian cap, awaited them in the drawing-room. She was a stout, comely woman with a bright complexion and glossy side curls.
“Now, I do call this very neighbourly of you, coming on such a short invitation, Lady Constance, and bringing your nice friends,” she said. “But my good man and I thought you’d be going to the theatricals, and might break the journey here, and we have a few new things to show you.”
After the guests had been presented, they all trooped into a stately dining-room, lined with tapestry and fine family portraits. Here a most excellent lunch awaited them, to which Monty did ample justice. He ate and drank, but was not merry, and made no effort to support conversation. To tell the truth, he considered these common people entirely beneath his notice. “The old woman was like a cook, and the man a shopkeeper in his Sunday best.” His answers were briefly “Yes” and “No,” or “I daresay,” but he paid marked attention to the menu and wine.
However, Mrs Corben more than supplied her son’s deficiencies. She was even effusive to Mrs Boundly, and repeatedly assured her that she adored old embroideries, and old families, and old furniture—in short, everything that was old.
“My cousin, Lady Montacute, is a well—known collector—perhaps you have heard of her?”
“Montacute—Montacute,” muttered Mr Boundly. Ay, I know a contractor of that name. He made a good bit of money, and got knighted. Lord, how the old heralds would stare, if they could see some of our knights now!”
“I hear you are deeply interested in heraldry?”
“Yes, I know the histories of most families. It’s interesting—oh, a very interesting study!”
“The Damers, for instance?” suggested the lady.
“Oh, ay, they held these lands long before the Conquest, and claim to be descended from Aldric, King of Kent. Later on, Kingsbourne is in the survey of the Doomsday Book, and was held by one knight’s service.”
“Oh, dear! Now, there’s my husband started off on his hobby,” said Mrs Boundly, throwing up her fat little hands. He loves Kingsbourne as if it were his own, and as for ancestors—”
“Ay, if I were a Japanese, I’d worship mine—that is to say if I knew anything about them,” he answered with a grin, “and don’t you talk, Susan. Wait till Lady Constance sees your grand new bedspread, and the lace in a glass case, and I could tell worse tales than that. There is some sense in old walls, and old armour, but what about a craze for old cardboard boxes, and old letters? I have you there, ma’am.”
“My grandmother’s family were said to be one of the oldest in Kent,” resumed Mrs Corben—” at least, so we have always understood—the Crevecoeurs,” and she tilted her massive chin.
“Crevecoeurs!” repeated Mr Boundly, hastily putting down his fork. “You must be making some mistake, ma’am. They are as extinct as the Dodo—extinct this hundred and fifty years.”
Mrs Corben raised her painted eyebrows. “I think I ought at least to know my own pedigree.”
“Very sorry to contradict a guest, but I can show you all about the Crevecoeurs in black and white. I’ve the history of every old Kentish family at my finger ends.”
“But,” declared the lady, with heightened colour, “I can only assure you, that my great-grandmother was a Crevecoeur. It was her maiden name.”
“Oh, likely enough! likely enough!” nodding his head. “She or her parents may have tacked it on to their Brown or Smith, and then dropped Brown or Smith. I know many instances, ma’am—families all over the place setting up for the—say—Howards or Talbots, and when an expert comes to look into the matter—pouff! no nearer to the real family, than Tom-Fool.”
“Robert!” remonstrated his wife. “Now, Mrs Corben, please be so kind as not to mind him. When he begins to talk of pedigrees, he is not himself, and often is shockingly rude. I say it to his face.”
“I confess I feel strongly on the subject,” he admitted, cooling down. “I am touchy about pedigree. Old names should be copyrighted and stealing them made a criminal offence. You’ll excuse my heat, ma’am?” turning to Mrs Corben, who was swelling with indignation, and crimson.
“Oh, certainly, certainly, everyone has their weakness, their vulnerable point. It surprises me, however, that you,” and she gave him a fierce glance, “should care about race, ancestors, gentle blood, and chivalry.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” he admitted with a gesture of depreciation. “Yes, I allow it is surprising.” His wife’s eyes were steadily fixed on him, as she rose from the table and said:
“We will have coffee in the gallery-room, Lady Constance, and I will just have time to show you my new samplers, before you start for the theatricals.”
After a brief but animated discussion, it was decided that Mrs Corben and Miss Broome should remain behind. They were to be “left till called for” by the rest of the party, who had engaged to be present at the theatricals. The wealthy and charitable were always a source of interest to Mrs Corben, who professed herself to be anxious to examine all the marvellous needlework in Mrs Boundly’s celebrated collection, and Katherine had asked permission to look round the antiquities, and make herself acquainted with the pictures and heirlooms.
“Yes, I’ll take you with pleasure,” said Mr Boundly, eagerly, “and though I say it, as should not, you could not have a better guide. I know far more about the house than Damer himself.”
“Is it long since you came to live here?” she asked.
“About six years. We took it soon after the old man died. I always had my eye on it—yes,” in answer to her look of frank surprise, “I see you are astonished, but I had read about it. I knew that, though not a big place, it was full of interest and heirlooms—real ones. I came down to buy at the smash up, and it ended in my taking over the property, lock, stock and barrel. Now we will go up to the gallery.”
This, which ran in a circle completely round the hall, was richly carved, and approached by a wide and very shallow staircase.
“You may think it odd for an old gaffer like me to have such a sense—such a non-sense, and passion for historical and ancient matters,” resumed Mr Boundly as they stood together in the gallery. “I, who, as that sham Crevecoeur lady implied, have no forebears, who began life as a pony-boy in a pit; but I’ve always had an impression, a feeling in my veins, that, long centuries back, my forefathers held high place, and great honours. Isn’t it enough to make you laugh? But I believe that accounts for my rage for pedigree, and why I revere another man’s ancestors, and take another man’s place, as to the manner born! I am just a bearded, black-coated old cuckoo,—--and I find this nest uncommonly warm and homelike.”
“You keep it in beautiful order, not a twig out of place,” said Katherine, in the same key, as she looked about her.
“Yes, I do my best. You, too, have ancestors, young woman. I’ve noticed your hand, how delicate and pointed and well-bred it is. Now,” boldly extending his own, “look at mine beside it!” (It was clean, but rough and blunted, the hand of one accustomed to hard manual labour.) “You appear at home. You might belong to this place, and be my lady, and have come down off the wall. No, certainly I do not match with my surroundings, but I feel entirely at my ease: ‘Every king the son of a slave, every slave the son of a king.’ You have read that? Far away in the mists of the past I know I had a pedigree. Now I’m pedigree mad, so my good lady says, and perhaps you may think me mad enough without the pedigree! Ha! ha!”
“Between ourselves,” rejoined the young visitor, in a gay, confidential tone, “I, too, love pedigree, and historical places, and the relics of the splendid deeds of former days, but I have spent most of my life abroad, and never been in a beautiful old Elizabethan home.”
“Early Tudor,” he corrected.
“Early Tudor house.”
“No? Well, you’ve begun well. Now to business. Let us start with the pictures. This good-looking boy is Elric Damer, killed in his twenty-fourth year at a tournament at Woodstock, said to have been a youth of noble nature, and much lamented by the Court. The next is Robert, who led the vanguard of the King’s army, and was killed at Bannockburn, otherwise Strivelin. Here is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, painted by Zucherro, and supposed to have been presented by herself, but in my opinion it is just a copy of the one at Hardwicke. You see I am an honest old man.”
“What immense hoops and high heels. I can’t imagine how she managed to walk or sit.”
“She managed to get about a good deal somehow. She was constantly gadding—making royal progresses. I believe her uneasy example originally started the ‘week-end’ idea. She stayed a week here; she was fond of Kent, you know, and owned Knole, and Leeds Castle, and Westenhanger.”
“Those are the Damer arms in the window, are they not?”
“Yes, gules on bent argent, three leopards vert, a scallop shell within a crescent, for the Crusades, and the motto, ‘Foi et Roi.’ Do you see this long-waisted, faded lady? She is Auria, wife of Harold, knight banneret at the siege of Boulogne, but afterwards executed for high treason. Madam,” to the picture, “you need not sneer, your husband was hanged at Tyburn. The Damers came of a fighting, restless stock. They seem to have been in the thick of every plot, and to have fought in every war. This handsome fellow is Anthony; the present Anthony resembles him—painted by Vandyke in his earlier manner—isn’t it a fine picture?”
Katherine gazed at the dark-eyed cavalier leaning on his sword, and nodded assent.
“He perished at Roundaway Down,” continued her guide. “This next, Alfric, was out in ’45, and barely escaped to France with his head.”
“They were a handsome race,” she remarked.
“Yes, and a gallant lot. To think of them coming down to a cast-iron old fellow like the late Damer, whose selfishness and wilfulness were incredible. The only romance about him, was his marriage with a beautiful, penniless Hungarian. I believe she had the blood of some Magyar prince in her veins. When she discovered the real Damer, his dulness, narrowness, and obstinacy, she gave up the ghost. Her sad life was amply avenged by a wild son, who openly defied his father and ran through the property, and had no more respect for his ancestors than my wife’s black tom-cat. Now,” opening a door, “here we come to Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom—no self-respecting house lacks this chamber. She reposed here,” and he indicated a majestic four-poster, hung with stiffly-embroidered velvet curtains; “and a counterpane, as you see,” said Mr Boundly, “a wonderful piece of needlework, so they tell me, worked by Queen Johanna, widow of Henry IV., a flighty lady by all accounts. However, her fingers knew their business; the quilt is considered a miracle of sewing, and I believe my wife creeps in, and kneels to it, every Sunday.”
“What ages and ages of patience went to make it,’ said Katherine, examining the stitches, “a life’s work.”
“And some folk have not as much as that to show for their life’s work,” remarked her companion. “What do you think of the bed?”
“Magnificent to look at.”
“Or lie on in state! Give me a good box mattress, and a clean white counterpane. The next room, through this little narrow door, is Lucetta’s bower—Lucetta Vane. She brought the family a great fortune and no end of misfortune. She broke her husband’s heart. Her hand and temper have been handed down, though her thousands of acres have melted. They say it is unlucky for a Damer to marry money.—The present man did it to his cost.”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“Yes, and he is a nice gentlemanly fellow, but hard up. He came here once about selling a picture, and cutting some timber. I bought both. I cannot part with an inch of canvas, or one stick.”
“What a remarkable tenant,” and she studied him with laughing eyes.
“Yes, a unique, and valuable specimen. I shall expect a statue to commemorate my worth. If it were summer, I’d like to show you the gardens. The yew hedges and the stew ponds. Perhaps you will come again later on?”
“I wish I could, but I am only Lady Warbeck’s companion, and not my own mistress.”
“Ah! I was my own master at your age—twenty-five.”
“You look more. I did not catch your name?”
“A new Broome—er—or a Plantagenet-Broome?” and his face assumed a look of inquiring gravity. She hesitated for a moment and then replied:
“Groatford—Notts. I know—intermarried with the De la Poles—Arthur Eustace of Groatford Hall. Family of daughters—no son—one brother—Louis, officer in the Army.”
“My father. He died a year and a half ago.”
“Really? Funny thing, I happened to be looking up the Broomes only yesterday. Your uncle has a fine property.”
“I suppose so. I have never seen him.”
“Not a feud. My dear young lady, that is so out of date.”
“Well, I am afraid something like it,” she answered with a half-confused smile.
“I see. And so you have to make your own way, and I think you will do it. It is not often that I come across such an intelligent visitor. The things that interest me, seem to interest you—antiquities, pictures, history.”
“I have travelled a good deal in France and Italy.”
“I wish you could travel here, and pay us a long visit.”
“I wish I might, but I’m afraid Lady Warbeck could not spare me.”
“You’d be such a help to me with the new catalogue. I am making it myself; you’d be surprised if you knew all the work there is in it. That Crevecoeur lady did rub me up. I am afraid I was not over polite, and Susan will nag me, but I cannot bear to hear of folk stealing good names, that the families have toiled, and sweated, and given their very lives for. These Crevecoeurs have their arms in Canterbury Cathedral. They once owned leagues of Kent and are now extinct. I believe I am of French descent too! Now don’t laugh, or laugh in your muff if you must—Bor-de-Lys, boiled down to Boundly. I can’t think how we ever got up among the pits and furnaces, but I found the names in an old Mass Book that belonged to us—French aristocrats and Catholics by rights, yet I am by birth an English working man, and a Baptist. How on earth did I come into what they call ‘cette galere’?”
“Bor-de-Lys is a pretty name. Why do you not take it back? “
“Because all the world would make fun of the old boiler-maker; but I always think of myself, and this,” raising his hand expressively, “is a dead secret between you and me—as Robert Bor-de-Lys.”
The two enthusiasts had lingered a long time in looking at pictures, chests, and armour,—opening cabinets, examining books. The former owners of the Hall had collected and brought home spoils of war in the shape of pictures, missals, jewelled cups, tapestries and carvings. The last generation had merely gathered trophies of the chase—elephant tusks, antlers, and tiger skins.
Kingsbourne itself had a savour of antiquity, which came partly from association, partly from the glamour which age had given it.
“Have you a ghost?” inquired Katherine with grave eyes.
“Why, my dear young woman, what do you take us for? Our Green girl is a celebrity. If we could sell her to America, we would make our fortunes. On wintry nights she sings and plays the harp or viol in the long gallery. I’ve heard her myself—either her or cats—but she is never seen except by a Damer. If she were, we would not keep a servant. As it is our record is a poor one. It is not so long since two full-grown skeletons were dug up in the park, said to be the victims of a duel a la morte.”
As they talked the pair were sitting together in a deep window-seat, entirely oblivious of cold or afternoon tea. Katherine had the faculty of listening intently, and in the present case, with a gratifying eagerness to all her companion had to tell of the tombs in the church, and their odd inscriptions, the blackletter books in the library, and illuminated missals,—the work of a Damer who had been a priest.
“Well,” said Mr Boundly, rising at last, “I’m afraid we must go down to the company. All the modern pictures and Italian cabinets are in the drawing-room.”
“What a time you have been!” cried his wife, setting down the teapot as they entered. “Oh, my poor, dear young lady, you have had a terrible dose of the family; but I can answer for it that Mr Boundly has enjoyed himself.”
“And so did I, quite as much if not more. I would gladly have remained longer. There is so much to see.”
Mrs Corben glanced at the girl sharply. Yes, actually she was in deadly earnest, and the odious old man was evidently delighted with his victim, and looked positively radiant and elated.
“We, too, have had a delightful time,” she said. “I’ve been shown the most wonderful needlework almost in the whole world—bits of embroidery by Maria de Medici, and Marie Queen of Scots.”
“Poor soul, she had lots of time for sewing,” remarked Mr Boundly as he stirred his tea.
“She wrote too,” added Katherine, slyly.
“And embroidery done by Matilda of Normandy,” resumed the speaker. “And oh, such exquisite lace from the Spanish Netherlands. You really ought to have an exhibition, dearest Mrs Boundly.”
Dearest Mrs Boundly was flushed with pride. “I did send some to the Needlework Show once,” she admitted shyly.
“Some. You should show it all. It is a lesson in art.”
“Mrs Corben has been telling me such interesting things about poor ladies who work, Robert, and are so terribly badly off,” said his wife. “Think of an old, old woman, older than me, just sewing the rest of her sight away for a few shillings, and young girls far gone in consumption, sitting up in bed stitching in the bitter cold.”
He nodded his head in sympathy.
“I’ve been very pleased to give her a little assistance,” continued the old lady.
“Indeed, dear Mrs Boundly has been extravagantly generous,” said Mrs Corben, colouring, and putting her hand on her gilt bag. “She will make one or two poor women very, very, happy. My goodness, Miss Broome, here comes the motor! You know we promised not to detain them,” she said, and rising with significant alacrity, she took an impressive leave of the Boundlys and departed, accompanied by Katherine.
“Tell me, how did you get on?” she asked her, after the theatrical talk, and local gossip, had been exhausted.
“Oh, I enjoyed myself immensely; the time flew,” replied Katherine. “It is such a beautiful old house.”
“And I was simply so bored by the old lady’s show, that I was nearly crying—tent stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch, linen, crewel and lace. Oh, oh, oh!” and she threw back her head, and closed her eyes.
“My poor Clara! but you recollect you insisted on offering to stay,” said Lady Constance. “I knew how it would be. I suppose you thought it seemed rather ungracious for us all, to desert her.”
“Miss Broome made quite a conquest of the old bear, did you not?” addressing her. “I saw him in the hall endowing you with a catalogue, and heard his pressing invite to you to return, and pay a visit there or in London.”
“Oh! That is simply out of the question,” protested Lady Warbeck. They are nice, good—natured, vulgar people; “one could not possibly know them in town, but I daresay we shall all meet in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“I hope I shall meet Mr Boundly before that,” said Katherine, “he is a mine of information. He showed me wonderful things.”
“Did he by any chance show you his hands?” sneered Monty. “I never sat at the same table with such paws.”
“Yes, he did. He is excessively proud of them—the hands of a working man. Did you see the old carvings, the pictures and the swords, and the standard taken at the battle of Cressy?”
“In the reign of Henry VII.,” said Mrs Corben complacently.
“Mother! How you do give yourself away! You really ought not to display your ignorance,” said Monty, crossly. “Any school-girl of seven, knows better than that.”
“My dear boy, you are nearly as rude as old Mr Boundly,” and she laughed with her usual indulgence.
“Yes, he rather sat on you about those Crevecoeurs. Beastly cheek I call it. Ah, here we are! Came back in clipping good pace. What a lark if we had fallen into a police trap!”
That night, Lady Warbeck seemed excessively put out and agitated as she prepared for bed. She took off her bodice and put it on again, and brushed her teeth twice over. Her manner was so strange and distrait that Katherine began to fear that the old lady was on the brink of some mental seizure.
“No, no, I really can’t bottle it up any longer, Kath,” she said at last. “I must speak! I know you’ll scream, when I tell you. Only fancy, General Bright proposed to me this evening. Are you not flabbergasted?”
“No—o, not so much as I might have been. I noticed him sitting by you on the library sofa after dinner. He looked as if he wanted me to go away, and stay away.”
“I am sure he must have taken too much. I never experienced such a shock, as when he began mumbling about ‘the vale of years, and lonely lives, and hand in hand.’ It’s ages since I had a proposal, and I had not the presence of mind to interrupt him in time. He seized my fingers and kissed them. I’m positive that Constance saw him. He said we might be so happy together the same tastes—we both liked bridge, both liked the same savouries, both liked the Riviera. We could do London in the season, and then Cannes or Nice, and he would take such tender care of me, and we would enjoy an Indian summer. I always understood that an Indian summer was too warm to be pleasant. He went on to say, that we had known one another for a long time, and he hoped I’d consider his suit—his suit! as if it was a hand of cards—and he added, ‘Do let us make it hearts,’ and then he tried to put his arm round my waist.”
“And what did you do?” asked the girl as she studied the old lady with dancing eyes, “Box his ears?”
“I got up and said, ‘General, I think you must be out of your mind. I’ve been a widow twenty years, and a widow I remain,’ and I just walked off and left him standing. I am so thankful he didn’t try to go down on his knees. He might be there still!”
“And you’d have had to call a footman to help him to rise,” suggested Katherine with audacious flippancy.
“Oh, yes, you may laugh, you saucy girl, but I’m most dreadfully upset. The idea! As if I would marry an old padded thing like that, although he has four war medals, and is better with a poor hand than anyone I know. I have lost a good bridge partner and a friend,” she sniffed, and seemed on the verge of tears. “And what was awfully awkward, Connie came, and said, ‘Now we are all waiting for you two,’ so we were obliged to go and play, and be partners. And I revoked, and he went spades, on a no trumper. I shall never sleep a wink this night, and scarcely know what I am saying or doing. I intend to leave the day after to-morrow—a whole week sooner than I had arranged. It is too bad to be driven away like this, but the General won’t move, for Bob wants him to shoot, and,” with a sudden irrepressible sob, “he will never give me any more nice little dinners or theatre tickets, or play bridge with me,” and her emotion was almost uncontrollable. “You and I must go to some cheap little hotel for a few days. Our rooms at Cannes are only taken from the 5th.”
“Very well, I’ll pack at once, and have everything ready,” said Katherine. “Don’t upset yourself.”
“And oh! just look here. In my flurry and agitation I forgot. Only imagine, Mrs Corben paid her debts to-night.” And from her purse, she triumphantly produced two sovereigns wrapped in a five-pound note. How thankful I am now, that I did not remind her. She is a woman of honour—eh, Katherine, what do you think?”
Katherine was silent. She was hastily putting two and two together. No, no, it would be absolutely impossible to share with Lady Warbeck, her thoughts and her suspicions.
All her life the east wind and Lady Warbeck had been mortal foes. If it were in her power to have worked its utter and complete destruction, the east wind would cease to exist. She was confident that by its medium, carried on its blasts, her death would ultimately arrive; and so sensitive was she, that she was able to announce its presence and say, “Oh, there is an east wind to-day!” before she had left her bed of a morning, much less looked out or consulted a weather-glass, and it must be confessed, that her ladyship’s premonition rarely failed.
It was this keen enemy that expelled Lady Warbeck from her native land, in the sharp early spring: accompanied by Katherine she fled to Pau, where for three happy months she led a life after her own devices, a life of continual excitement, mixing in society with heart-whole enjoyment, motoring by day, and playing bridge by night.
Towards the end of the season her companion began to hear fretful complaints of “expense,” a “run of bad luck,” “a disappointment in payments.” The truth was, that Lady Warbeck, flushed by success, had become over-bold and even reckless. She no longer limited herself to half-a-crown a hundred, and had lost large sums, carried ever onwards by the elusive hope of regaining them. In short, she was several hundreds out of pocket. “After all, to a woman of her wealth, what were a few hundred pounds?” Her friends assured one another that, even if she had lost five hundred, she had a certain amount of compensation to show for it. But this was by no means the old lady’s own view, when she discussed the matter with Katherine. To hear her, one would suppose that she was on the brink of ruin.
“There was nothing for it,” she declared, “but the most rigid economy. I confess, I have been extremely foolish, and must pay for my folly. Of course, I shall say nothing of this to anyone but you, Katherine, and I shall allow people to suppose that I am going to Aix as usual, but I have decided to spend the summer and autumn at a cheap little place in Switzerland. It will be my penance, and after all, no doubt the fine Swiss air, plain fare, and rest, will be as good for my old body as either Aix or Homburg.”
The cheap little place in Switzerland proved to be Chablette in the Oberland, where it lay in the lap of a rich valley. The green lower slopes of the surrounding mountains were patterned with pine woods and dotted with chalets; above these, the bare grey or pansy-blue summits, pointed or serrated; and beyond, dominating the district, one towering white peak, which sometimes glowed in rose colour, gleamed ghostly in moonlight, or shrouded its head in mist. The valley was carpeted with meadows gay with flowers, and divided by a wide, articulate river. Here, at the Hotel Fleur de Lys, Lady Warbeck spent no less than four delightful months at surprisingly small expense (seven francs a day pension; lights twenty-five centimes), inhaling fresh air and health, enjoying nice level walks through sunny fields, and fragrant pine woods, economising largely, and, despite retirement from the world, enabled to keep her fingers on the pulse of life.
The Fleur de Lys, though unknown to fame and tourists, was the yearly resort of several French families, who found the mountain air, the freedom, and beauty of the valley entirely to their taste. It was also patronised by a few English,—--chiefly drawn thither by the attractions of Chablette, and the amazingly modest prices of the Fleur de Lys.
Among her fellow-guests, Lady Warbeck found several individuals whom she felt she could permit herself to recognise,—--especially among the French visitors. Monsieur and Madame de Montfaucon, who brought with them a large brood, escorted by bonnes, to run wild during vacation, whilst Monsieur botanised and climbed, and Madame sat under the trees in the hotel parc, reading novels, or trifling with embroidery. There were also their friends, the Giraults, and the Giraults’ cousins, the Goddillots, and Madame de Flens, a stately dame, whose handsome, worn face and picturesque white hair instantly arrested attention.
Once a personality at the French Court in its gayest hours, now a lonely widow with narrow income, who had outlived her age and friends, but not her memories. Madame la Contesse and Lady Warbeck foregathered at once; they found many mutual acquaintances―--alas! dead and gone—mutual tastes and opinions. They played piquet, they promenaded, and when on rare occasions Lady Warbeck hired a carriage there was always a seat for Madame de Flens on her right hand. Lady Warbeck was established in the French set. She spoke the language with amazing courage, and volubility, and discussed various topics with vivacious matrons, topics that were not intended for the ears of une jeune fille, and Katherine, when the post had gone out, enjoyed many happy hours as her own mistress, climbing the slopes, and wandering through the meadows, or making friends with the children and dogs of the villagers. It was understood, that she was merely a demoiselle de compagnie, that she made Madame’s blouses and dressed Madame’s hair, and although the French ladies were polite, and agreeable, it was evident that her position had not been too clearly defined. She was a typical Anglaise, stiff and difficile, but all the little French boys and girls adored her, and she played in the parc with them till she was breathless and almost unrecognisable, with her loosened hair and tumbled cotton frock.
The hotel was a rambling brown wooden erection with one small salon, and an immense verandah enclosed in glass. Here all meals were served, and guests were thus enabled to indulge their palate and their eyes at one and the same time. Life at the Fleur de Lys was an out-of-door existence. Its guests sat in the great porch, or in the parc, a wild but delightful enclosure of grass and trees (and at one end a straggling maze of currant bushes, beds of rose trees and long stretches of salad). Here, under the shade, were many chairs and little painted tables, and here people foregathered to work, and talk, smoke, and drink coffee. Here Lady Warbeck had her own special seat, and held her little court, with La Contesse as her supporter. She liked to feel important, and never relaxed a certain amount of dignity; this, she only discarded at night with her pin curls. She was “Miladi”, she had a companion, wonderful jewels and lace, agreeable and adaptable manners, and was accordingly popular, and an acknowledged leader in the hotel society.
“Miladi” was accustomed to invite parties to coffee under the trees, to ramble down the road after dinner with a gay escort, above all to make up a little table of bridge in her private sitting-room. The high road, the evening promenade, ran at the back of the hotel, where was also the great porch and entrance, completely enshrouded by a crimson rambler. To the left, this road led into the village—one long, scrupulously clean street, at the end of which stood sentry on a mound, a grim old Protestant church. To the right, the road wound down into the valley, and the station of a little mountain railway. During the season many were the laden carriages which passed the Fleur de Lys on their way to a well-known Alpine Mecca.
The world clattered by in clouds of dust, little dreaming of the delights of ignored Chablette. Here was breathed a spirit of profound peace, and a certain amount of prosperity. Undoubtedly the dwellers in the land worked from dawn till dusk, but they worked as if they enjoyed it; they sang, they laughed, they joked with one another, and there was an air of friendliness and well-being over the entire community that seemed to embrace the very cows and dogs.
Nothing lasts—tout passe!—fine weather, congenial society, peace. In the present instance the peace was broken by two old Englishwomen, yearly arrivals at the Fleur de Lys. They were bitterly poor, ill-natured and envious, and to some degree, the Misses Gann were the terror of the establishment—the proprietress herself and head waiter not excepted.
The elder was a bent little old woman with white hair, a shawl, and a high-pitched, reedy voice. Miss Victoria, considerably younger, was stout and florid, wore her grey hair short, and generally affected a checked dress. Her manner was brusque to rudeness, her temper fiery and aggressive. On the strength of a ten years’ patronage of the hotel, the sisters Gann had come to acquire what they deemed certain “rights”; for instance, a table at the corner, commanding the best view of the snow, the pick of the papers, the exclusive use of particular chairs in the garden, and one little top room was, so they declared, “their own.”
It was the custom of Miss Gann and Miss Vic, to seize on all newcomers and instruct them in what they should do, what they must see, how much they must pay, relate the histories of the rest of the company, share carriages and arrange excursions, till they were found out, and the new arrivals discovered that to be friends with the Gann sisters implied a deadly enmity with most of the other hotel inmates.
They talked as if they were people of great position, who had met with reverses and withdrawn, so to speak, from life. It was true, that their father had been a clerk in a bank, a perfectly upright man, who left his two daughters a tiny income, and as money went further abroad, twenty years previously, they had abandoned their lodgings in Fulham, and fared forth to the Continent, where they vibrated between a cheap pension on the Riviera, and a cheap pension in Switzerland. They had numerous acquaintances in both countries,—hotel acquaintances—--who dared not drop the Ganns for very fear of losing their character. Miss Gann elder, the little old woman, was capable of inventing the most appalling, yet interesting biographies, for those unfortunates who had paid her “no attention.” If was always a crux in her mind, if people “paid her attention” or otherwise. Practical individuals asked themselves, why they should show civility to a venomous old woman, whose selfishness, and egotism were widely celebrated? But weaker minds succumbed, and wrote to dearest Miss Gann, and sent her novels, and woollen slippers and picture postcards, hoping that their offerings might propitiate her, and induce her to spare them.
The sisters looked on Katherine with undisguised contempt, and spoke of her as “the maid,”—--and possibly the illegitimate daughter,—--of the wicked, gambling old Englishwoman, who was hand in glove with the fast French set. They, too, had their little following, and sat apart in garden and porch. They even gave occasional parties, providing weak tea and stale currant cakes, but spicy conversation, and were much given to exchanging and lending ancient illustrated papers and religious works.
Katherine detested them. She was deeply ashamed of the fact that these women were of her own nationality, when she observed their rudeness to servants and to the villagers. Their manners and their furious temper made them painfully conspicuous,—--especially at meal times. With her own eyes, she had seen Miss Victoria bounce up from her place at dinner, and snatch a dish from a neighbouring table, exclaiming, as she glared around, “We get no attention or waiting, just because we don’t take wine!” (“No,” said a man, sotto voce, they have whisky in their rooms.”)
And Miss Gann was yet worse. Once she shouted out, “Come here. What do you mean, you idiot, by giving me a gluey egg, when I eat mine hard?”
The Swiss waitress was scantily equipped with English.
“A—gluey—egg—qu’est que cela veut dire?”
She was about to advance it to her nose, when it was violently snatched from her hand. At first it looked as if the egg would find a target in the girl’s face, but spectators were relieved when, with a torrent of abuse, it was hurled far, far away into the deep meadow below the verandah, where it subsequently made a succulent meal for a hungry crow.
The climax arrived, when a desperate altercation with Madame La Contesse took place over the simple matter of a garden chair. The innocent offender had removed it from its place, and actually seated herself upon it.
“The chair was their chair,” declared a loud duet of voices. But Madame failed to understand this. “Was it not the property of the hotel?” she blandly inquired.
“Hotel! They had used it for ten years. They were regular clients, and much esteemed, and to thrust them from their place without a word, was of a piece with Madame’s insolence.” The concentrated envy, hatred and malice of the entire season was liberated at last. Party spirit had been evoked. Madame, the grande dame, her class, her country, were roundly abused. The fact that the Contesse, although polite, had studiously ignored these two ill-bred women, had everything to say to the battle of the chair. They shook, they gasped, they screamed with passion; her cool attitude, and icy monosyllables were as oil to the flame; the fury, the raised voices were on one side, the surprise and dignity on the other. Madame felt disinclined to cope with ces femmes; never had she seen such creatures, it was absolutely impossible to remain longer at L’Hotel de Fleur de Lys; the mere sight of the women gave her a severe attack of nerves.
When she took leave the following day, two wrinkled faces from a top window over the porch witnessed her departure with mutual congratulations, but the French families and Lady Warbeck, were grief-stricken. The proprietress, too, had her regrets, but she was a philosopher, and consoled herself with the reflection that the Ganns arrived every year, they would return for certain. The French lady had come but once, and it was evident that the Fleur de Lys would see her no more. The flight of La Contesse proved the beginning of the end. September waned. It was the limit of children’s holidays, of return tickets, and patience. Some were a little tired of the quiet and monotony of Chablette. The Montfaucons, the Godillots, the Du Moulins, and the Giraults had left. Many chairs were vacant under the trees and at table. Lady Warbeck was about to follow the grand exodus, when she was seized upon by an old enemy, bronchitis, and there she lay in bed, fighting a bad attack, by means of a kettle, eucalyptus oil and hot stupes; listening, as she lay in a fever of impatience, to the wheels of carriages that were carrying off more fortunate folk. In a day or two the hotel was empty. Even the Ganns, after a furious dispute over their bill, took their departure, and Katherine had the great verandah, and the little salon entirely to herself, for Lady Warbeck, ever prudent, had relinquished her private sitting-room, the moment she was compelled to take to her bed.
The little salon was a dull apartment; it boasted, however, a piano, a fireplace and two arm-chairs. The round table was littered with ancient railway guides and hotel advertisements, and Katherine preferred to sit in the quiet verandah, and gaze across the valley on a view of which she never wearied; whether in the early morning, when the long shadows were sharp upon the mountains, or in the evening, as the lights broke out one after another from the chalets on the hills.
Lady Warbeck’s illness proved unexpectedly tedious. Late hours, a life of hurry and fashion, were beginning to tell on a fine constitution, and her system showed little signs of resistance. Katherine spent most of her time in the sick-room, nursing the invalid, reading aloud, writing letters, and endeavouring to amuse the sick woman with “draw” bridge. During the last eight months she had arrived at a tolerably clear comprehension of her employer’s character. She knew her to be the oddest mixture of grim economy and wild display, of saving and spending. Energetic, good-natured, and impulsive, underneath all this lay, a hard substratum, that nothing could touch, much less move; au fond, she was absolutely indifferent to all the world, though too shrewd to display this phase of her character, but it was a fact, that the troubles, misfortunes, and death of friends, left Lady Warbeck entirely unaffected.
“Why should I wear myself out in grief and tears?” demanded this aged philosopher. “It does the dead no good, and it is extremely injurious to a woman of my years. I must go. We all must go one day. Why cry out as if it was not the common lot? I write on mourning paper, and wear a little black, and decency and fashion are respected.
“People flatter me,” she announced in one of her moments of expansion, “and I must confess, that I enjoy it, though all the time I am aware that it is only offered in hopes of ‘benefits to come’ at my death. Oh, yes, my friends realise that I’ve a good deal in my power, and there is something so delightful and easy-going in a fat legacy—unearned increment, you know. The offer of a seat in church, the loan of an umbrella, has made some people rich before now. What shall I leave you, Katherine?” and she stared at her over her glasses.
“Your good will, that is all I want.”
“Proud girl! Katherine the Arrogant! And yet you know, my dear, you have not a penny or any prospect. Now suppose anything were to happen to me, where would you be?”
Katherine looked at her gravely, then she replied: “Why talk of such a subject? I have a stronger position than I had last year. I believe I can still fight along, and you know you are much better.”
“Oh, yes, I’m recovering, but I am an old woman—older than people suppose.” (Here she was in error.) “I am seventy-four. Yes, when I’m dressed of an evening I look fifty! Energy, enthusiasm, vanity have kept me going. ‘Live while you live’ has been my motto, and I have acted up to it with all my soul, and all my strength. Dear me, how dull it is after our pleasant time, and those charming French people. I am sorry for you, Kathie. I wish some interesting travellers would come to the Fleur de Lys for your sake.”
“Thank you very much,” she replied, “but I am afraid it is too late for interesting travellers. The tourists and the travellers have flown. Madame is closing most of the rooms, putting away quantities of forks and spoons, and has dismissed two maids. There is nothing to hope for now, before the winter season. People break the journey here, you know; you must not mind me, I am quite happy alone in my glory.”
You are such an odd creature, and love your own company. Now I detest mine; my sub-conscious self is such an odious, carping, nagging old hag. You like scenery, and studying sunsets, and people in the abstract, don’t you?”
“Yes, I love this valley, and I like the people who live in it. They are so upright and good-tempered and industrious. I could stay here for ages.”
“Upon my word I believe you could! but it would soon be the death of me. Now I’ll have my cocoa, and then you can pull down the blinds and go for one of your long rambles. I may possibly accompany you in my dreams; for I shall sleep.”
Soon after this conversation, Katherine escaped from an atmosphere of eucalyptus, and linseed, and started for her daily walk. It was a lovely afternoon; the climate was now perfect, the air so pure and invigorating, with just a little nip of autumn in the early morning. She crossed the valley and the river, and climbed with her alpenstock to a certain favourite altitude, from where, between two mountains, she could catch a view of the lower country, and the narrow gleam of an azure lake. The afternoon was so seductive that she wandered much further than she had ever done before. At last she seated herself on a flat stone by the edge of the rugged path, and suffered her thoughts to carry her whither they would.
Yes, she was living in the moment, and the hour, and enjoyed it to the full; but if anything were to happen to her friend, what would be her future? Another situation—or Blessington Place? Oh, please God, never again Blessington Place! She had now gathered time and experience; twenty pounds lay to her credit in the bank, not including the five pounds borrowed by Mrs Corben. She had a good wardrobe, recovered health and self-confidence; although Lady Warbeck was forgetful, exacting, and left her position to the imagination of her associates, yet when she remembered her, she was kind, and spoke of her with affection as the daughter of an old friend.
Whilst staying at Pau, Katherine had come across several former acquaintances, who seemed genuinely pleased to see her, and had pressed her to visit them, but this was impossible. How could she leave her situation to drift about from house to house, a precarious and penniless visitor? No, as long as Lady Warbeck befriended her, she would stand fast, for in a way she represented part of a former life, and a species of travelling home. Katherine fell into a profound reverie; she sat with her elbows on her knees, her alpenstock at her side, her face buried in her hands. Was ever any girl so truly solitary, so adrift from family ties, so utterly desolate, and alone? A tumult of vague longings rushed upon her, sad thoughts stirred the depths of her being, and a few hot tears trickled through her fingers. Presently she recovered herself, looked up, and became aware that the clouds, which had veiled the mountains, had suddenly descended, and on all sides she was encompassed by thick white mist, through which her eyes penetrated with difficulty. She rose, and prepared to return at once, and make the best of her dim light. Gradually the fog grew denser and denser as with the aid of her alpenstock she began to grope her way downwards, slowly and cautiously, as a blind woman. She had heard tragic tales of these mountain fogs, and felt not a little nervous.
It would be so easy to lose one’s way, and if she were to fall down a precipice and be killed—well, death would solve all her difficulties. If her life were ended in the valley, they must lay her to rest in the pretty peaceful acre beyond the church; in all the world, she could not have chosen a better spot. There, as she lay, she might fancy she could still hear the cowbells, and the voices of the village children. These lugubrious thoughts brought Katherine to a narrow bit of path—or was it a path? There seemed to be scarcely any foothold. Was she lost? As she stood irresolute, anxious to catch the slightest sound that might guide her, she became aware, in the thin mountain air, of the approach of distant footsteps. As she waited she realised that she was listening to the firm tread of a man, who was advancing with evident precaution.
As Katherine waited in anxious uncertainty in the ever-increasing mist, she suddenly uttered a sharp exclamation, for something—an animal—had brushed quickly by her. Then from the midst of the clouds, a man called out imperatively: “Bob, come here!”
Another moment, and the same voice was offering a brief apology in fluent German.
“I am English,” she answered, addressing the voice. “Your dog did not frighten me much, but I have lost my way, and have no idea where I am.”
“I am not very clear myself,” rejoined the invisible individual, “but I believe this to be the Chablette valley.”
“Yes, I can answer for that.”
Whilst she spoke, the unseen stranger seemed to be carefully examining the ground with his alpenstock, and there was an odd inflection in his tones, as he said:
“Would you mind moving back two steps towards me—here, take hold.”
She stretched out her hand, as if she were blind, and it as instantly received in a firm grasp, and she felt herself drawn towards the figure, a blurred outline about half a head taller than herself.
“Now,” he resumed, still exploring with his alpenstock, “if you sit on this rock for a moment, I will try and make out our bearings.”
“Have you any idea where we are?” she asked.
“Yes, and I am afraid we shall have a stiff bit of climbing as we are off the track; but I have been hereabouts before, and think I can manage, if you will trust yourself to me entirely.”
“You are too kind,” she murmured. “I am not accustomed to real climbing. I am afraid you will find me a terrible encumbrance.”
“Now, if you don’t mind, shall we make a start? Hold on to your alpenstock just at first, and I will give you a hand.”
As they proceeded, their progress became every moment more precipitous. There was no vestige of a path, only slippery rocks, steep and difficult, offering scarcely any foothold. In fact, so sheer was the descent that the invisible figure on several occasions, without a word of excuse, had taken her bodily in his arms—how his rough coat did smell of tobacco!—and lifted her to his own level. For a considerable time, he had ceased to speak beyond such sentences as:
“Let me place your foot. Now, give me both your hands. Lean on me. Don’t be frightened. It’s all right. I must carry you.”
The voice was imperative, and than a voice there is no surer index to character; the hand-grasp was firm, and Katherine felt herself as a mere mechanical puppet, a doll, in this unseen stranger’s power. The slowness of their progress, the increasing difficulties of the way, the still impenetrable whiteness of their surroundings, this man’s prolonged silence, were to Katherine a sufficient testimony to the gravity of their situation, and yet she was not alarmed; in her own mind, she felt an assurance that all would yet be well. This strong and steady guide, who was, no doubt, some Alpine climber, inspired her with courage, and she trusted herself absolutely to him. This figure she could not see carefully placed her feet in niches, supported her weight, and lifted her bodily with apparent ease. After one terrible moment, when they seemed to swing together in mid air, and she could feel the pounding of the man’s heart, his quickened breath—--the result of prolonged and extraordinary exertion—she exclaimed:
“Oh, do leave me here! This place feels wide and secure. When daylight comes, I know they will send for me, and I really—” But she was cut short with a stern:
“Please don’t talk.”
And the descent was resumed in silence.
“Ah!” he exclaimed at last in a different key, “now I know where we are! I can hear the river.”
“Yes,” she assented, finding herself once more mistress of her own limbs, “and the clouds are clearing.”
“Or rather we are below them,” he answered. “It will be all right from here.”
In a short time the fog had lifted sufficiently for Katherine to discern that her guide wore a brown tweed suit, and leather leggings, and carried a knapsack. His head was covered by a soft felt hat, in which was stuck a sprig of Edelweiss. As to his personal appearance, his hair was close-cropped and dark, his shoulders square, his figure slight, and well knit.
In continued silence, and full evening light the couple reached a place, where two paths crossed.
“It was here you went astray,” explained the guide, as he halted, and turned to confront his companion. No, she was not a weather-beaten, elderly spinster, but a tall, slim girl, with a delicate, refined face and a pair of marvellous blue eyes. The traveller was no stranger to beauty; he had an acquaintance among lovely women in London and Vienna, but there was something in this particular face that he had never seen in all his world-wide wanderings.
“We are well out of that!” he remarked, taking off his hat and wiping his forehead—his tone implied infinite relief.
“Yes,” she answered, “it seemed a terribly difficult descent, and I am no climber, as you have discovered. The afternoon tempted me on, till at last I found myself among the clouds.”
“But surely you saw them coming down?”
“No, I must confess that I was not thinking of any such contingency. I was resting on a rock, and in the clouds myself—my own clouds.”
“Then your own clouds did you a bad turn, and handed you over to the others.”
“Yes, for if you had not overtaken me I should have spent the night on the mountains.”
“I suppose they would have sent out a search party from your hotel?”
“There will probably be one, as it is, if I do not hurry. I am staying at the Fleur de Lys. I am not accustomed to mountaineering, and I feel surprisingly tired, and stiff,—as if I’d been beaten all over.”
Was this beautiful young woman, who talked so lightly of their past experience, aware that she had strayed up one of the most dangerous Moraines, and had just made the descent of the celebrated Pas du Diable?
“Can you tell me what time it is?” she added.
He opened and consulted an expensive-looking watch and replied:
“A quarter to seven.”
“To seven,” she echoed incredulously.
“Yes, it took us an hour to come down that bad bit.”
“Really. Did it? I should not have thought it.”
“So you were not terrified?” and he surveyed her with critical eyes.
“No, I felt somehow that I was safe with you—--that you knew all about it, and there was no danger.”
“No danger,” he repeated under his breath.
“We dine at seven—or rather,” correcting herself, “I dine at seven.”
“I hope I may find a room, for I am also bound for the Fleur de Lys.”
“Twenty,” she answered. “The hotel is all but empty; they are putting away the coffee-pots and spoons. My friend and I are the remnant of the season. She has been laid up with bronchitis for several days, or we too would have departed.”
“I have been doing some climbing,” he volunteered. “This has been a very late year, and I’ve come over the Gemmi now, to meet a man at the Fleur de Lys. Apparently he has not yet arrived?”
“There have been no arrivals; nothing but departures this last week.”
They were now close to the river, a boisterous mountain torrent, crossed by a long bridge, which was roofed over Swiss fashion. As they mounted the steps he said:
“I am always interested in looking at a thundering, headlong river,” and he rested his arm on the railing. “This is so bent on working its way to the lake. There it will be lost. Here, it is the pride and sensation of the valley.”
“Yes, it recalls some little country celebrity frenzied to go to London.”
“Exactly,” he said, turning directly towards her. He was a man of thirty or more, with a thin, tanned face, and dark, expressive eyes.
“Come here, Bob!” he called to Bob, a small sheepdog. “Those cattle are not your affair; you are a sheep-dog.”
“Why, so he is!” exclaimed Katherine in a tone of astonishment.
“He followed me in London—a lost dog, possibly from Smithfield, or turned adrift because his poor owner could not afford the licence and had not the heart to destroy him. Bob was very much at a loose end, and I took him in. He is a character, eccentric but faithful; an ignorant, humble, poor chap, but honest as the sun.”
“Talking of the sun, it set some time ago, and I really must be getting on,” said Katherine. “I have more than a mile to go yet.”
“May it be we have more than a mile? he suggested. “You see I am a stranger in the land.”
“Oh, of course, and I will be your guide on this occasion with pleasure. We must hurry!”
“And if the sun has set, we have the moon. After all, why need we hurry,” he continued in a lazy voice, “as the dinner guests—the entire company—are represented by you? You are a host in yourself.”
“That is true; but my friend is an old lady and will be wondering what has become of me,” rejoined Katherine, as she walked quickly across the resounding wooden bridge.
“Have you been long at the Fleur de Lys?” he asked as he promptly overtook her.
“Nearly four months.”
“Rather a spell, for such an out-of-the-world spot?”
“Not too long for me. I am fond of Chablette.”
“In what way does it appeal to you, may I ask?”
“It’s beauty, its aloofness from the rush and hustling, its primitive, peaceful life. I have a large circle of acquaintance in the village, and many favourite haunts, that I shall be truly sorry to leave.”
“For instance, the glade in the woods, where on fine days the women come and sit and work in a group, and the children play together among the flowers and grass, instead of, as in England, being cooped up indoors, or in some horrid street slum or village back garden.”
“A Watteau picture complete. And what else?”
“The old, old castle at the elbow of the valley, perched on a hill to guard the place. I like to go there and invent its history.”
“I am not sure that a good deal of history is not invented. Have you ever done a mountain?”
“No, never, and never wish to. I am sure the mountain would do for me.”
“Ah, mountain climbing is not an acquired taste. I like climbing. That is what brings me every year to Switzerland or the Tyrol. I know the Dolomites from end to end.”
“I suppose it is fine, but to me mountaineering conveys nothing but danger, dreadful hardship, risk, exertion. Now for instance to-day—of course we were coming down, which I believe is easier than going up—but the effort, and scrambling, and uncertainty. After all, what is it? Just to reach the highest peak, and then find yourself in the clouds.”
“It is the uncertainty which has its fascination,” he replied, “arriving at the summit, that is the real thing. To conquer what others have striven for and never attained—to surmount difficulties, and trample them under foot. Don’t you see it is the hill itself that is so stimulating, so alluring, and once a climber a climber always. And then the wonderful sights. Above all the silence, the stillness—the mountains are another world—do you see?”
“I think I understand what you mean. You enjoy the isolation, the scenes, the silences, the enormous difficulties, but those are not what would stir me. I prefer to struggle on the plains, to meet personal opposition, and obtain moral victories.”
“Yes, the great bloodless campaigns,” he said; then, as if speaking to himself, “The battle of life.”
“Now here we are,” said the lady. “These are the lights of the Fleur de Lys. Thank you so much for your help.”
(Undoubtedly she did not realise how valuable that help had been, that together, they had but recently escaped from the jaws of Death.)
“I hope you will find your friend and something to eat. I am afraid dinner will be rather scanty.”
“And Bob and I are famishing.”
“Well, you must hope for the best! I go by the garden as an old resident, but you will present yourself at the front door. There it is.”
“Why not allow me to accompany you? Your good-will as an old resident may secure me an honourable reception, and a suitable addition to the ménu for one.”
“Oh, very well,” she consented, as she led the way by the gravel paths up the park, under the thick trees in the garden, and into a lower entrance. Here Franz the expectant, hearing the clatter of an alpenstock being thrust into its place, hurried out in time to see Mademoiselle Broome emerge into the blaze of the electric-lit hall, immediately followed by a bronzed stranger, and a hairy, hungry-looking foreign dog.
Two minutes later Katherine entered Lady Warbeck’s room. The old lady was sitting up in bed, spectacles on nose, painfully endeavouring to read a novel by a dim lamp.
“So there you are at last!” she said. “How late. It’s after seven. What kept you?”
“An adventure,” announced the girl, coming forward.
“An adventure—oh, nonsense!” but she flung down the book with such energy, that it tumbled off the bed and fell on the floor with a resounding bang. “Tell me all about it.”
“Yes, everything, after dinner, but Franz’s patience is at its last gasp. However, I’ve brought him a hungry customer—in fact, two customers.”
“Oh, do go on! How can you torment me, you tiresome girl,” urged Lady Warbeck in a fretful voice.
“I was lost in the mist. You know how it sometimes comes down into the valley?” and she briefly related her experience.
“What do you say? An English gentleman—an Alpine climber rescued you and piloted you down. Really, my dear Katherine, it sounds most promising. How I wish I could see him and make his acquaintance. Now I wonder who he is?”
“So do I.”
“Well, we can easily find out all about him at the bureau. I’ve had my dinner. Rosette brought it up. Dear me; how sick I am of soup and slops; if only I might have some caviare toast, and champagne. I wish I could dress and go down and find out if this newcomer plays bridge. Even ‘cut-throat’ is better than nothing. I really do want some change. If anyone ever deserved it I do.” Her voice actually shook with self-pity as she added, “I lie here day after day with not even a wall-paper to look at—nothing but wood, wood, wood. Oh, when will I be out of it? Well, run away, Katherine, or Franz will be desperate, and remember, I look to you to bring me the name, address and history of this interesting stranger.”
Κatherine lost no time in making a change. She hastily discarded her strong shoes and rough, tweed skirt, and slipped into her usual evening gown. Perhaps unconsciously she gave her toilette a few little extra touches, ere she hurried below to her accustomed seat at the solitary round table that boasted a ménu and a bunch of flowers. But to-night the little table was laid for two people, and Franz, rubbing his hands and bowing his bald head, came forward, and speaking in a tone of mysterious confidence said:
“If mademoiselle has no objection the gentleman she brought back wid her will sit at her table; it looks more friendly in a big salle-à-manger, than having dinner à part.”
Katherine merely bowed assent and sat down and began to eat her soup. After all, it was a table d’hôte. Yes, and a companion would be welcome and amusing after a whole week of solitude and silence. She had advanced to the fish stage, when the stranger was ushered in. He had evidently delayed in order to make considerable changes in his dress, and wore a highly-glazed white shirt and black dinner tie.
“I see they have placed me at your table,” he said, with his hand on the chair. Have I permission to share your salt?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I think as we walked here together, Franz expects us to be sociable.”
“It is not our accepted national attitude, is it?” and he smiled. He had a pleasant smile and looked a gentleman every inch. Katherine, as she glanced at his immaculate shirt, secretly marvelled at the size and resources of his knapsack. He appeared to divine her thoughts, for he remarked:
“Yes, it holds more than you would suppose—my knapsack, and unless I’m on the summit of a mountain, or shooting in the desert, I always change for dinner. It is a habit acquired when I was a kid, and had my face and hands washed, and a clean pinny for my nursery tea.”
Katherine made no reply, but suffered him to finish his potage aux legumes in silence. Then she said, “I am sorry to say the evenings are closing in.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, but we have a moon. There must be a glorious view from this verandah.”
“There is, and a week ago this deserted verandah was crowded. You could scarcely have found a place.”
“Then I am in great luck.” As he spoke he looked critically at his vis-à-vis. An undoubted aristocrat, endowed with a distinguished air and carriage; her head was small, and well set upon a long throat; she wore a graceful white blouse, and a bunch of red roses at her waist. Although frank and agreeable, he was sensible of something indefinable and aloof in the young woman’s attitude. She was a grande demoiselle, yes, he was well acquainted with her type—a demoiselle, for there was no wedding-ring upon her slim white hand. And they, two absolute strangers, who had lately fought with death, were tête-à-tête in a remote inn in Switzerland. The situation was both piquant and interesting. The girl was lovely. What a brilliant complexion, what chiselled lines of face and profile. But for all that, she was no doubt a prim, insular “mees.” Her beautiful eyes were the eyes of the cloister; her voice had now a cool, and distant intonation. Who would suppose that but two hours ago, he had clasped that erect and graceful figure in his arms, that his hands had guided her delicate footsteps? Oh, yes, she was a princess, who took everything as her sovereign right, and looked on her servitors as a race apart.
“This seems an out-of-the-way spot,” he remarked. “Far from the madding crowd.”
“But the madding crowd pour by, all day long in the season; we are on the direct road between Alberg and the railway.”
“Yes, and so you have never ventured to climb even the lower slopes near here?”
“I only scramble about the cow-paths, and in the woods. I have no head—none.”
“Then possibly,” and he looked into her eyes, “you are all heart!”
“Indeed, no; it was only yesterday my friend declared that mine, if I had one, was of the size and consistency of a golf ball.”
“Then perhaps kind Nature has recompensed you with an extra large brain?”
The lady merely shook her head, as she selected a bit of cheese. Franz stood by in close attendance and served the pair in person. He liked Miss Broome, and constituted himself her chaperone.—Could she have divined his thoughts, how much they would have amused her!
“I hope your friend was not anxious?” inquired the stranger, politely.
“Oh, no, not very. She was much interested to hear of an arrival, you know. Any event looms large here. She wondered if you play bridge.”
“Do I sleep? Do I eat? Even in far Fiji it is the craze. Why, of course I play—and you?”
“Comme ca!” with a little foreign shrug; “but my friend is devoted to it, and worships the Grand Slam.”
“So do many. It is the great national resource.” Then he leant back in his chair, and quoted, “‘A youth of folly, an old age of cards.’”
“Please do not include my companion in your sweeping opinion.”
“Certainly not. I am incapable of such rudeness. Naturally,” he paused, “I was thinking of my own sex.”
The frugal meal of few courses was passing rapidly; they had touched on such topics as motoring, a new singer, a new book, and the more the girl talked, the more the man felt attracted. She pleased his senses, and she stirred his mind. At last she said suddenly: “But what about your dog?”
“Much obliged for your kind inquiry. The poor fellow is tied up outside awaiting instructions. I would have brought him in, had I dared.”
“As far as I am concerned he is most welcome, and I am sure Madame won’t object. We had half a dozen poodles here in the summer.”
The dog’s owner rose at once, and presently returned leading Bob, looking somewhat abject and apologetic.
“Shall I make up his dinner?” suggested the lady. “I think I know exactly what he would like. Lots of gravy, potatoes, some nice bits of meat, a little salt, and as dessert a bone.”
“Precisely his own idea. You are really too kind,” and a flash of something bright came into the man’s grave, dark eyes. “Bob is honoured; it is the first time in his life that he has been served by a lady.”
“And now,” she said, as she placed an appetising plateful on the ground, “I must go and attend to someone else, and I wish Bob a good appetite, and you a good night.”
“Oh, must you really leave us so soon? I am very sorry,” he said, rising and walking to the door, he held it open as she passed out.
“He bowed like a foreigner,” she said to herself as she raced upstairs. “He has a charming voice, a voice one could trust, and what a pair of dark eyes.”
“Dear me, what a time you have been!” grumbled Lady Warbeck as Katherine entered. “Well?” There was a whole volume of queries in that one syllable. “Have you found out who he is, and all about him? Nothing?” in a key of high incredulity. “What, nothing?” as Katherine shook her head.
“Oh, if I only had your opportunities! Surely you must have some ideas? Did you dine together?”
“Yes, we did, as if we were the same party—tête-à-tête; and we had in his dog and fed it—--a nice creature called Bob. Bob’s master is an Alpine climber, and travels about, and I gathered that he is not married.”
“Come, come, that is better! And pray, how did you learn that fact? A bachelor is ten times more interesting than a married man.”
“He seemed independent, and, I cannot explain—solitary; he gave me the impression that he lived alone by preference, and of course he would not do this were he married.”
Lady Warbeck’s cynical answer, was a sudden hard laugh, resembling a postman’s knock.
“He said his dog had never before been fed by a lady.”
“So you were the first. Come, you are getting on.”
“I’d finished my dinner,” said Katherine, excusing herself with heightened colour, “and I did not like to walk off abruptly, and leave him sitting there quite alone. I asked if he played bridge; he does, but is not keen.”
“Does he look a gentleman?”
“He will be hideously bored here, poor fellow. What can he do with himself all this long evening? It is only half-past eight. Well, my dear, I am a little tired, and when I have had my dose, you can make up the fire and settle me for the night.”
As soon as Katherine had tidied the room and arranged fire and night-light, she withdrew from the already drowsy patient, and went and stood in the big lobby window overlooking the porch, and wondered how she was to pass the evening? What was she to do with herself? She did not wish to go downstairs and stroll up and down the road as usual, or play on the little Bord piano in the salon. Something indefinable withheld her; she wondered if she was shy, and why? She had lived in this hotel for four months and walked and practised as a matter of course, and now merely because one stranger had dropped in, she was reluctant to show herself in public.
But why must she be condemned to a long, dull evening on account of a passing traveller? It was really too ridiculous. Yes, if she went below as she had always done hitherto, he might imagine all sorts of uncomfortable things—that she was thrusting herself on him, seeking his society. He certainly was not the least shy, his manners were excellent, and he spoke to her with as much ease as if their acquaintance was to be reckoned by months, instead of hours.
It was now moonlight. The mists were dispersed, and the snow shone forth with dazzling brilliancy against a gentian blue sky. Katherine approached the open window, and beheld the stranger. He was pacing up and down the road, bare-headed, smoking a cigar (a good cigar), slowly attended by the faithful Bob. As he came directly beneath the porch, he raised his eyes to the wonderful clusters of red rambler that fell over that side of the house in a rich crimson veil. Then his glance travelled upwards to the lobby window,—--where stood Katherine in the full moonlight, as it were framed in roses. He came to a full stop, as he looked at her, and with a smile of recognition waved his hand. Instantly she drew back, startled and half affronted, nevertheless the air seemed full of whispers, and romance. A strange inward voice was urging:
“How delightful it would be, to stroll up and down this perfect night with an agreeable companion instead of sitting indoors in a stuffy little bedroom, trying to read a dull book by an annoyingly dim light.” But in spite of its reiterated arguments, the eager little voice did not prevail.
Meanwhile, the man pacing to and fro with leisurely independence thought of many things; less of the girl than the girl of him. When his mind did dwell on her he said:
“She never dreams that to-day her life hung by a thread; and but for Bob, she would be lying at the bottom of a crevasse. Bob and I saved her from being killed. She might come down and help me, to kill time. A charming girl, different from the usual ruck, but a prude, and afraid of me. Surely in this little out-of-the-way inn, she need not have the fear of Mrs Grundy before her eyes. All the same, I am confident that she is sitting indoors this exquisite night, in quaking terror of us both.”
Τhe following day proved one of those, which are occasionally experienced, and permanently dreaded in Alpine districts.
With the rise of the sun a storm awoke in the mountains; it descended the slopes, screaming in furious gusts, shook the Fleur de Lys till its timbers creaked, clapping its wooden shutters with angry violence, overturning all the harmless little garden chairs, and sweeping the roses from the face of the porch. However, this mighty wind soon sobbed itself, like a naughty child, into other regions, and was succeeded by a moving deluge of rain. The valley was wrapped in damp clouds and the village street became a rushing stream.
Whilst Katherine listened to the monotonous drip, drip, she sewed or wrote certain uninteresting letters to London shops for patterns and prices, or long dictated lamentations to some of Lady Warbeck's more important friends—inwardly conscious of a momentary dreariness of soul, a blankness and depression. Heigho! life to-day seemed laborious uphill work. She did not venture downstairs till twelve o'clock, the hour of déjeuner. The stranger (and Bob) was already present. He rose to meet her as she entered.
“What weather!” he exclaimed. “I hope you won’t think I brought it with me? Have you been out?”
“No; and you?”
"Of course. Bob and I have been to inspect the village, and we are going to the station after déjeuner to send a wire. Can I do anything for you or your friend?”
“No, thank you,” she answered with an air of cold reserve.
He looked at her attentively. Why was she so irresponsive? She seemed a little pale and dejected. “I am afraid this rain has damped your spirits,” he continued. “There is really nothing like getting out. If I stayed indoors, I know I’d do something desperate; I should feel suicidal.”
Yes, it is depressing, but I cannot admit that a wet day will upset my mental balance,” and she smiled faintly. “If you expect on your return, to find me hanging from a hook in the hall, I must prepare you for a disappointment.”
“Oh, if that tragedy were to occur, I should instantly string up Bob and then myself to keep you company. But bar jokes, there is absolutely nothing for idle hands to do, and I shall possibly get into mischief. I hate letter-writing; I can’t sew; and what is there to read but railway guides, and a Figaro a fortnight old?”
“Yes, all the papers were stopped some days ago.”
“And I suppose the butcher and the baker are a mere question of date. I’ve a batch of literature and letters at Interlaken; not much good to me here, and yet I know if I wire, my friend is bound to arrive to carry me off.”
“We can lend you some English papers—The Spectator and Punch.”
“That will be kind. I’ve not looked into a paper for a week, and we live so rapidly nowadays that I daresay I have missed some extraordinary invention, scandal or catastrophe. Now observe Bob, how happy and indifferent he is to news or weather.”
“All the same I would not change places with him,” said Katherine, gaily.
“Why did you not come down, and accept our escort after dinner?” As the stranger surveyed her with amused, questioning eyes, she felt herself actually blushing. “It was a lovely night; such a moon, such air, with a whiff of the pine woods, and all the stars out for the evening. I am a bit of a star-gazer.”
She nodded her head.
“The study of the heavens has a fascination for many. I should like to point out my favourite constellation, but I am afraid the weather is against it. Perhaps I may have another opportunity?”
As Katherine’s smile was dubious his expression changed. “You think it impertinent of me to invite you to star gaze? But after all, we two educated people might find one or two ideas to exchange, especially when there is not much choice of society for you, and in this little mountain inn, surrounded by such glorious scenery, surely we need not think of convention, need we? Bob will play third party, and not interrupt our talk.” And then suddenly dropping his air of gay banter, and in a different key, he said: “I think it was really cruel of you to abandon me, and leave me to spend the whole of last evening alone.”
This bold, abrupt accusation, took away the young lady’s breath. A colour flickered into her cheeks. After a moment’s hesitation she said:
“So you do not enjoy your own society?”
“I do, but at the same time, I am thankful to escape from myself occasionally. I’ve been listening to nothing but the voice of my own conscience for the last fortnight, and I should like to hear something else; it is too bad of me to bore you with my jabber. I am talking for talking’s sake. I knew a man once, who was on a job in South America, and for months never heard his own language. When he came into the Buenos Ayres club, his tongue resembled a cataract let loose. We were sorry for the poor fellow, but we fled. You will regret, that you shared your board with me, and took compassion on Bob.”
“I—I—” and she gave a half embarrassed laugh—“I am not just so prim as you suppose, only a little dull. I have had a trying, I mean a busy, morning, and my head aches. Of course, as you say, we are here, the only two guests, tête-à-tête, and it would be extremely stupid to sit dumb and glum, because we have not been formally introduced.”
“Yes; and besides, the situation contains a certain amount of romance. In complete ignorance of one’s casual acquaintance—their name, fame, means of livelihood, taste, religion—the field for speculation is delightfully wide! For instance I, for all you know to the contrary, may be an absconding scoundrel, who has descended from his fastness to recuperate, and communicate with confederates.”
“Now you really are talking nonsense,” she said with a laugh.
“The English attitude towards strangers is invariably hostile. We are always prepared to think the worst of others. I have been ‘had’ over people myself. I’ve taken a well-known statesman for a comedy actor, and a society beauty for a notorious adventuress. Now I can discriminate.”
“Oh, I am naturally too cautious to share all my tips, but I look at a man’s boots, and a woman’s hands.”
“I think the face is the best introduction.”
“Do you? Come here, Bob, and show your honest phiz, and be presented and introduced in form. Robert Shepherd at your service, madam. Bob, give the lady your right paw.”
“I have lived a good deal on the continent,” said Katherine, after she and the dog had shaken hands, “and I am not British in some ways. I like to exchange ideas and impressions with other travellers in the trains and on steamers, people I have never seen before and may never see again, a sort of greeting and pass on, which has given me no end of pleasant memories.”
“Then perhaps you will figuratively shake hands with me.”
“Yes, and if it is a fine night, after dinner I promise to walk down to the forty-seventh milestone with you and Bob.”
“A safe promise! The waiter announces that it is going to rain for the next three days and three nights!”
Katherine’s heart sank; she dreaded being cooped up indoors. Oh, three whole wet days, with Lady Warbeck’s impatience, irritability, and exactions increasing hour by hour.
“If the worst comes to the worst we might play beggar-my-neighbour,” she suggested.
“Thank you, but I’m going out,” he answered. “If the worst comes to the worst I can swim.”
How lucky to be a man to go, and come as he pleased, thought Katherine, as, descending with the promised papers, she found the stranger in the hall, struggling into a damp mackintosh.
“Thank you a thousand times,” he said. “Please keep them for me. I shall be back for dinner. I want to see what the river is making such a noise about.”
Then, raising his cap, he and Bob started off at a brisk pace, and Katherine returned to the invalid, to repeat (by order) all she could remember of the conversation at lunch, for Lady Warbeck’s curiosity respecting the stranger was insatiable.
“I think he talks pleasant nonsense like a man of the world, thankful to come on a well-bred girl in this miserable hole,” remarked the old lady, indulgently. And there is no reason why you should not amuse one another. You have my full permission to continue the tête-à-tête; you are not a schoolgirl or a bread-and-butter missy, and thoroughly well able to take care of yourself. I hope you will discover something about him; it seems so funny that his name is not in the bureau. He did not give it. They have only the number of his room—number eleven.”
“Yes, is that so? she answered, smiling.
“I asked Rosette to bring me up the visitors’ book while you were at déjeuner. It is full of rubbish and poetry and compliments, but he has not written in it. It is too bad; nor has he had any letters, for I especially asked. I suppose there’s no sign of the friend?”
“No, but I hear he is expected. There were some letters in the rack; they came this morning. I noticed them when I went for yours.”
“And did you not read the address? Oh, you stupid girl!”
“I rather think they were to an earl of something.”
“Earl!” repeated Lady Warbeck, springing up in bed with the alacrity of fifteen. “Please ring for Rosette at once.”
As the femme de chambre entered, she said:
“Rosette, ma bonne fille, allez cherchez toutes de suites, les lettres qui viennent d’arriver ce matin. Vite, vite, vite!” and she clapped her hands.
“Oh, Lady Warbeck!” protested Katherine.
“Allez, allez, allez!” waving her hand to Rosette. “Now, Katherine, you need not pretend to be shocked. Where is the harm in reading the outside of people’s correspondence? Everyone does that in hotels when they get the chance. I always examine letters as a matter of course; it tells me of expected arrivals, possibly of my own friends.”
“Tiens, miladi, voici!“ said Rosette, much out of breath, as she handed over two letters.
“To the Earl of Crosshaven, Hotel de Venise, Geneva. To be forwarded,” Lady Warbeck read aloud with a triumph that was blatant. “This is either his lawyer’s letter, or a bill. And here,” taking up another, “is one from the Carlton Club. So Crosshaven is the man’s friend. We have never met personally, but I know of Crosshaven. He is all right. Tell me your company, and I’ll tell you who you are. The Nameless Man is safe! You have my good leave to dine with him, walk with him,” and with a loud chuckle, and a twinkling eye, “perhaps marry him! Now run down and restore these letters, and tell them to send up another basket of wood.”
The nameless friend of the Earl of Crosshaven returned in excellent time, and presented himself at dinner (accompanied by Bob, who had been previously rubbed down and dried in the kitchen). He announced that his friend was ill, but hoped to join him in a few days. He discussed his expedition, the papers, and some recent books; evidently he was travelled and well read, and Katherine gathered that he had been educated at Eton and Oxford. On the whole, it was a pleasant genial little dinner, from whence they adjourned to the salon, where a fire had been kindled. As Katherine was about to leave the room, he interposed between her and the door.
“Is this good-night?” he asked, and his voice was tragic.
“No, I am only going to see if my friend has all she requires. I shall come down again, and if you don’t mind I will play—the little piano is quite good. I play to myself every evening.”
“Mind! I am crazy about music; your playing will be not merely a pleasure, but an act of charity to a fellow-creature.”
It struck Katherine, that Lady Warbeck seemed a little flushed and nervous as she entered. She wore somehow an air of guilt, and Katherine had passed Rosette carrying what looked like a bundle in the darkness of the staircase.
“Did you meet Rosette?” inquired the invalid. “How you will laugh, when you hear what I’ve been doing. Vague speculation is a waste of time, so I made her bring up the man’s knapsack when you were at dinner. I was sure his name would be on that, but there was nothing, not even a label, and of course it was empty.”
But far from laughing, Miss Broome looked unusually grave.
“Oh, Lady Warbeck, how could you?” she expostulated.
“Do not say ‘Oh, Lady Warbeck!’ my good chaperone. Why grudge me a little excitement and amusement? You have the man himself downstairs, and I’ve only seen his knapsack. I am indeed hard up for some diversion. What is he doing now?”
“I fancy he is smoking in the porch, or reading the papers.”
“And impatient for the return of Miss Broome, eh?”
“Well, if you like to put it in that flattering light, he probably is. I am going down, chaperone or no chaperone. I really cannot spend another solitary evening in my bedroom. I’ve not even a book, someone has torn off the last half of my Tauchnitz novel. I shall play a little; he says he will not mind.”
“Ah,” and Lady Warbeck drew in her breath, and her little eyes gleamed with malicious significance, “if he has been at all epris so far, this will clinch the matter. There is something in your music, Katherine, that catches people by the heart, though your own heart is like a paving-stone. Give him those delicious Spanish dances, and then the Moonlight Sonata, or a water-piece to suit the weather, and be sure you conclude with that serenade by Saint Saens. It will play the mischief with his emotions, poor fellow; he will grovel on the carpet, and kiss your shoes.”
“If you had ever seen the man, how you would laugh at your own description! He is an extremely cool and self-possessed individual,—--and not the least emotional.”
“Pray, how can you tell what he is like, after three meals?”
But Katherine had closed the door very softly, and taken her departure.
The stranger was neither smoking nor yet reading; he had opened the little Bord piano, and stood with his back to the fire, patiently awaiting the arrival of the musician.
“Now I wonder what you would prefer?” she asked, sinking into the seat before the instrument, and drawing her hand lightly along the keyboard.
“Beethoven, Chopin, Saint Saens?”
“Anything, everything; I leave the choice to you.” First she played a little thing by Grieg, and as the opening bars informed her companion that here was no ordinary performer, with a little sigh of contentment, he sat down near the fire, and surrendered his senses to her charm. Grieg was succeeded by Liszt. She played “Mes soirées a Vienne” magnificently.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “how appropriate! You could not guess, how many evenings I have spent in Vienna.”
She smiled and nodded, and began without a moment’s pause to play one of Chopin’s waltzes. The wild, passionate rhythm of the music, gave the listener a delicious sense of being borne along upon a current of sweet delicious sounds; as it ended he said:
“Now for something Hungarian! I know I am shamelessly greedy, but we have had Norway, and Poland.”
“There is a lovely thing of Brahms,” she said. “If I only could remember it, and it is so hideously difficult. However, I can but try.” Her fingers wandered over the keys for a moment, and then broke into a mad, reckless dance, wild as the west wind, with a chasing medley of clashing chords, then, stealing through mysteries of sweetness, into an exquisite love-song full of melancholy cadences, and dreamy wistfulness.
The little Bord piano appeared to be bewitched, and gave out notes of unexpected power and velvet softness; undoubtedly it had become an inspired instrument. Meanwhile, the stranger remained motionless near the fireplace, his hands locked, his gaze fixed on some inward vision. Here in this lonely little inn, whilst the torrents poured outside, he was lost in a thronging host of thoughts and recollections. This black-haired girl was playing wild alien music, that awoke in him long sleeping memories; once more, he was a boy of twelve, and another dark woman was the musician. There was no word of thanks or appreciation as the music ceased, and Katherine threw a glance over her shoulder at her silent audience. He seemed to be buried in a deep reverie, entirely unconscious of her presence—yes, undoubtedly his thoughts were far, far, away. She closed the instrument noiselessly, and as she rose, he made an effort to recover himself, sat up abruptly, and said, with an evident struggle:
“Do please forgive me. This evening is an event in my life. Your music—that thing of Brahms—set me thinking of my mother.”
The handsome dark eyes that never smiled, looked a little dim as he added:
“She played that piece precisely as you do,—--and I had not heard it for years. My mother was everything—the only woman in the world for me. Thank you a thousand times. You have given me both pain—and pleasure.”
For a moment Katherine was at a loss to find some appropriate remark; before she could speak, in a totally different tone, and as if it were another personality, he continued:
“Allow me to bring up this comfortable chair; the rain and storm outside but add to one’s enjoyment of a fire. Let us talk; discussion is as good for the mind, as confession is for the soul.”
“Yes,” she answered as she seated herself, “but what shall we talk about?”
“Ourselves, the most interesting of topics.”
“I gather, that you are musical, are you not?”
“Yes, I love music, and sometimes to the right people, I sing.”
“I hope I am a right person, and that you will sing to me?”
“To-morrow. To-night let us end with that wild Hungarian music. Let us, as I say, talk for once frankly and candidly to one another. Let us state our real opinions, not our shop window ones, and relate experiences, ask and answer questions, boldly and without fear. Tell me of your life, and I will tell you of mine.”
“What do you mean?” she said with raised, astonished eyebrows.
“Precisely what I say; do you begin.”
“But why should I begin?” she asked authoritatively.
“Because you are the youngest.”
“Then I am afraid my life, if it were written, would be horribly dull, and not fill two pages. Some lives have no insides, and I have not travelled far and wide like you. No, I really have nothing to tell you.”
“Still, you have lived a certain number of years, and these are milestones.”
“Yes, death, and trouble leave cairns.” She hesitated. He looked at her interrogatively, and she felt impelled to continue: “I was born in India, sent to school in England when very, very small, and my father and mother came home at intervals to see me. She was beautiful. I can remember her dressed for a ball, a vision of loveliness, but one year father returned alone. I lost her when I was seven. After father retired from the Service we two lived on the Continent, and enjoyed a delightful, gay, sunny sort of life. He died suddenly at Cannes, and with his death everything came to an end—the sunshine, gay doings, friends and money. I am alone in the world, and very poor.”
“Poor! You astonish me!” and he looked at her with a perplexed steadiness of gaze.
“But why should my poverty astonish you?”
“Because, you convey the impression of opulent ease and leisure. If I were told you were a princess I would not have been surprised. You carry yourself like one.”
“A princess—leisure!” she repeated. “Ease! I am a self-supporting young woman, with no past, present or future.”
“Your future is before you; may it be happy and glorious.”
“Gloriously happy,” she corrected with a laugh. “Do you know, that I believe I have seen you before?”
“Seen me! Never!”
“What flat contradiction! Pray, why are you so positive?”
“Because of course I would have remembered you,” he answered with the emphasis of conviction.
“If you try to pay me compliments, let me warn you that I shall retire to my friend upstairs; I am her companion.”
He looked incredulous.
“And maid,” she added.
“Now, who is talking nonsense?” he asked impatiently.
“It is the truth,” she said simply.
After a moment’s pause, he began in a different tone:
“Then tell me about your friend. What is she like?”
“She is young in taste, energy, and spirits, but old in body. She is seventy-four—there! how base of me to tell you! Please forget it. She looks about fifty.”
“No doubt; you see so much depends on one’s age when born.”
“Then she is still in her teens; delights in gaieties and amusement. ‘Whenever,’ as they say, ‘a candle is lighted she is present,’ and I am her chaperone.”
“Is she kind and motherly?”
“Not motherly—how she would scream at the bare idea—but she is kind.”
“I suppose she is married. And you?”
“I shall not tell you,” she answered with a wave of her hand. “It is true that I display no wedding-ring, but I may wear it round my neck. Such things have happened. One never knows if a man is married; he wears no badge. I think it gives him a most unfair advantage—unless his wife is with him.”
The stranger threw her a quick glance, and then bent his eyes upon the fire.
“Now it is your turn to speak, and for me to listen,” she said. “Turn about is fair play.”
“What can I say?” and he sighed and paused reflectively. “I have neither father, or mother, brothers, or sisters, aunts, or uncles. I like music, and Alpine climbing, as you already know. I enjoy society and sport, especially hunting; owing to circumstances I have few close friends. I am a solitary individual, and have no fixed home.” His voice, and look, impressed the idea of a really forlorn, and desolate existence.
“You say that your life has had no great events. In my life there was one event. I made a mistake—how great I never realised at the time, but its effects, like that of a stone flung into a still pool, have left vast circles that seem endless. I have only myself to blame. I was weak, and over-persuaded.”
“You do not look weak,” she remarked, as she glanced at his firmly-cut and rather thin lips.
“No nor am I. My one weakness has proved costly. My future is beyond redemption. Sometimes I am weary of the curse of living.”
His own words startled him. Here he was talking with the utmost frankness, to this absolutely strange girl, who, with her hands folded in her lap, and her sympathetic eyes resting on his, seemed to have the power of drawing his soul towards her.
“I am a lonely man; my desolation was brought home to me to-night, by my mother’s music. That, and something else, has driven me to talking to you, as I have never done in all my life.”
“What is the other—the something?”
The fact that yesterday you and I, faced death together.” He pronounced the words deliberately, watching their effect upon her.
Apparently this girl did not realise that he had saved her life, and it was a tie that seemed to give him a right over her. Yes, he felt more and more conscious of this every moment—but for him, the beautiful young woman, who sat opposite in an attitude of restful peace, would probably be a hideously crushed mass lying at the foot of a neighbouring precipice.
“What!” now half rising, and leaning forward, her face paling. “Was it so serious—so terrible as that?”
He nodded gravely.
“And I am so inexperienced, I could not even see the danger. How was it possible in the fog?”
“To-morrow, you shall see the actual place where we descended, and I believe you will think the feat incredible. You had no idea how far you had strayed, and the further you went, the worse it had become. You stood, when I found you, on the sheer edge of a precipice.”
“You saved my life, and I never dreamt of that, or how much you risked for me. How am I ever to thank you?” and she looked at him, with awed and wistful eyes.
“I will tell you. Give me your friendship for two days. Two days of genuine companionship. Let me walk with you, talk to you, and listen to your music. Do not think of me as a man, and your natural enemy, but as if your spirit and mine were comrades, together as we climb ‘the hill difficulty.’”
The rain came spitting down the chimney on the logs, and Bob stretched on the rug between them, herded a flock in dreams.
Why not? She was mortally lonely—--and to this stranger and his dog, she owed her life.
“Yes,” she answered, “my time, as you know, is not my own, but as much as can be spared, is yours for two days; my gratitude yours always.”
“Ah, you are thinking of the mountain. Do not weight yourself with any obligation towards me, and do not let us mention our adventure in the hotel. It would be in every Swiss paper. Say nothing to your old lady. She would be horribly alarmed, and afraid to trust you out of her sight.”
“Oh, but I do assure you, she is never the least nervous about me. I should love to tell her. I know she would be so enormously interested; she enjoys being thrilled. May I?”
“No, I would rather you kept the experience to ourselves. A penny shocker will supply the thrills in better form, and with more complete details.
“Impossible. She prefers her incidents to be fresh, and at first hand, as well as startling.”
“I see, a very up-to-date old lady. Can you form any idea of who, or what, I am?”
“And, if I cannot is it my fault? You have not told me much of yourself,” she complained. “It is not fair; you evade our bargain, and talk of penny stories.”
“What is your impression of me? Can you form no conjecture? I will answer truly, honour bright. Somehow it is not easy to yarn about oneself.”
“Ah, but you think it comes natural to a woman to yarn about herself, don’t you?” she answered with a flash of impatience. “I imagine, if I may speak my mind, as you wish, that you have met with some moral catastrophe—--a love affair—--yes.”
“No, I never had a love affair of the sort you mean, so you must guess again.”
“There is no doubt you are a prosperous gentleman,—an officer in the Army.”
“No, I am not a soldier,” turning his grave, dark eyes upon her.
“Then you are a member of Parliament?”
“Neither now nor ever.”
“A country gentleman living on your estate?”
(There was a wistful inflection in his voice, which caught her attention.)
“An author, dramatic, or otherwise?”
He laughed and shook his head as he replied:
“Not my line at all, though sometimes I have to do with fiction.”
“One thing at least you cannot deny.”
“Then I am all attention,” standing up as he spoke.
“That you are a singularly reserved individual, wrapped in mystery like the hero of a melodrama.”
“Yes, that is true. I shall not even tell you my name, or ask for yours.” He looked at her steadily, and there was an odd, strained note in his tone, as he added, “I must not come into your life.”
“You really are the strangest stranger I have ever met.”
“No doubt of that; and although appearances are against me, I am sane; merely a queer mixture of two characters, and two races—--and a compound of caution, and impulse.”
“And a perplexing enigma that I have failed to solve! I see Franz has been lingering about, and looking in,” she added. “He wants to put the lights out and shut up, so I must depart,” and she rose, and offered her hand.
“Good-night, my friend,” he said, as he stooped and raised it to his lips.
As Lady Warbeck lay in bed, with no particular subject for her active mind, she permitted her thoughts to busy themselves round the nameless stranger. Under the pretence of a "love of dear English dogs" she persuaded Katherine to bring Bob to her room in order that she might make his acquaintance. To humour her Bob was decoyed upstairs, being now devoted to the kind lady who fed him,—--and to Katherine's surprise she found that what was really required was not so much the animal as his collar! This, unfortunately, bore no name but "Bob," and offered no clue to Bob's master.
"Dear me, how tiresome," peevishly ejaculated Lady Warbeck as she thrust the visitor rudely aside.
"It is no use, we shall never know," said Katherine. “He hinted to me last night that he would not ask my name, nor would he tell me his."
Lady Warbeck threw up her wrinkled hands.
"My dear, do you suppose he is all there, and not an escaped lunatic hiding from his keeper?"
“He is as sane as I am."
“Well, I call him most eccentric. I wish I could have a peep at him. I may be able to sit up this evening, and to-morrow be well enough to struggle downstairs. So you are going for a walk?"
"Yes, I promised to show him the village and the old castle."
“I hope he is not mad, Katherine, that is all I can say. For my part I should feel decidedly nervous in his society. Lunatics are tricky, and so treacherous. If he should attack you do not lose your head; a hat-pin will be better than nothing.”
When they met at déjeuner the mysterious man looked over at Katherine with reproachful eyes.
"I asked for two days and half of one is gone."
"You shall have this afternoon," she answered briskly, “and I will show you our sights—--the village, the church and the castle. Remember that my time is not my own; it really belongs to someone else."
"Time was made for slaves. Are you a slave?"
“Only the slave of circumstances."
"Very well, I will depend on your honour and await you in the porch."
It was a beautiful day late in September, the atmosphere was clear, the leaves just beginning to turn as the couple walked up the long clean street, attended by Bob, who, being in society, ignored with grave dignity the advances and rudenesses of various odd-looking Swiss dogs.
As the two passed along, Miss Broome smiled and nodded to her various acquaintances. Some of these cast significant glances at her companion, glances which said, "All through summer the young lady has been alone; to-day her lover is with her—--a handsome fellow!" Katherine read this conviction in several pairs of eyes and blushed vividly. How could she undeceive these good, well-meaning people? And all the time the stranger was talking to her so eagerly, and with such an air of proprietorship; it was his afternoon.
She showed him The Krone, a fine old posting inn of noble and substantial proportions (a severe contrast to the Fleur de Lys with its flimsy balconies and modern verandah), now only frequented by villagers and country folk.
"Here is a funny name—Spendmule.’" She pointed to a shop.
"Do they spend mules here?"
"No, they are kind to animals, and the animals are their friends; look at this woman pushing the cart to help the horse up that bit of hill. See how they all work and sing and are cheerful. For instance, this little fellow with the milk cans, such a responsible individual; and have you noticed the charming gardens, and even orchards, at the back?"
"Yes, and have you ever noticed a Swiss garden without the homely onion?”
“A useful detail! Market day I never miss,” she continued, “if only to be there a few minutes. Country people flock down from the chalets, and one sees such quaint sights and bargains. I could have bought a dozen chickens for a sous each, and a calf for fifteen francs.”
“And you resisted?”
“I did indeed. I longed to have them, and I knew they longed for me to buy them, but my little room would not accommodate such a party. I wish you could have seen this place on the 1st of August. It was en fête: the church bells rang, there were bonfires on the hills, and the distant chalets sent up rockets. Here, in the town, we had a grand procession with lanterns and singing. We made a party; some of the young people from the hotel walked in the crowd, and sang too.”
“I see that you love this place and believe it is Arcadia itself.”
“I think it is a delightful nook, far above the noise and dust and scuffling of the world—--the frantic battle of life.”
“Oh, but you will have to descend to the arena some day.”
“Yes, and soon.”
“So must I. Well, I hope we shall play our parts bravely, and fight a good fight.”
“I am no fighter,” she protested.
“Then you mean to say you would fling yourself down with your shield over your head, and surrender?”
“No, no, no. I am not so base. For some things I’d fight till my last breath, but I hate what are called high words, scenes, explosions, violent quarrels; sooner than take part in such, I succumb at once.”
“How unfeminine! Am I to believe that you have no craving for the last word?”
“No, nor the first blow. I gather,” and she looked at him shyly, “that you have not an exalted opinion of women. Do you despise us?”
“By no means. I am merely afraid of you. There is no end to a woman’s influence on our life; it is at the bottom of everything that happens to us. Ah! here is the church. Do you attend it?”
“Yes, every Sunday,” she replied, as they walked up a winding avenue and entered a deep porch. Around the base of the little hill lay the village dead, their neat graves and headstones so embowered in flowers and shrubs, that the cemetery resembled a garden. A pathway lay across it where two women walked together, talking with loud animation. The interior of the edifice was in sharp contrast to its surroundings, being dark and gloomy, with high wooden pews and a bare pulpit.
“Puritan!” exclaimed the stranger as he took off his cap and stepped within. “Are you religious?” he inquired, turning to his companion.
“Yes, though not perhaps orthodox. I have lived so much abroad, and heard so many diverse opinions. I am not exactly Protestant, nor do I belong to the High Church party. I can pray anywhere. You see, I was born in India, and perhaps a little of the Eastern atmosphere still clings to me.”
“Ah, the East!” he exclaimed. “The founders of all great religions were of Asiatic origin, and religion is a more vital force in Asia than elsewhere.”
“They have not our awful horror of death.”
“No, they are so positively sure of another existence, a change for the better. Here,” looking round, “they prepare for a change for the worse.”
“Still, no doubt the souls of many faithful people have uttered their prayers and hopes under this roof.”
“And the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” he quoted. “Do you believe in a future state?”
“I do,” she answered, looking at him steadily; “everyone does in their heart of hearts. ‘I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’ And you?”
“Every soul has its own creed,” turning away. “I say, look at all these people flocking in. Why, I declare it is a wedding-party!”
“Yes, so it is. Observe the dejected young man with the large white satin tie. He must be the bridegroom,” she said, “and I see the parson coming out of his house, but where is the bride?” and her eyes roamed over the various groups that were trooping into the church.
“There,” said her companion, indicating with a motion of his hand a tall, gaunt woman of forty. She might be younger; the Swiss peasant works hard, and ages with unnatural rapidity. The bride wore a silk gown, large gold cross and earrings, and an air of wealth and prosperity; holding up her chin she glanced from side to side, with an ill-concealed expression of satisfaction, not to say exultation.
“Oh, Lord!” murmured the stranger. “Poor boy, no wonder he looks as if he wanted to rush out and hang himself. He is about to be married to her money; his father had a hand in it. Do you see that old man in grey, with the red face radiating smiles? Yes, I believe I can tell you all about it. The bride is probably a widow. She has cows and a good round sum of money in the bank at Berne. He, poor chap, has nothing but his youth, manhood, and good looks. God help him in the years to come. His fate is written on her face!”
“No, no, do not prophesy such evil things,” protested Katherine. “I have known marriages where the woman was the elder, that have turned out a great success.”
“It is a rich wedding,” he resumed; “there will be rare junketing and merry-making. This crowd are evidently looking forward to a noble feast of veal, and strong beer.”
“I suppose so,” assented Katherine; “and since you can draw on your imagination I will endeavour to do likewise. Do you notice that pretty girl with the yellow hair, standing near the side door? She looks ghastly; do you think—?”
“Do I think that she is broken-hearted? Not she! Women always get over these things. A heavy gold chain would raise her to the seventh heaven.”
“Then I only wish I could buy her one!” said Katherine, impulsively. “But I know her far better than you, who hold women in such contempt—you cannot deny it.”
“No,” returning her glance, “we agreed to speak the truth and nothing but the truth—no shop window lies. I confess, that I have not a lofty estimate of your sex.”
“So much the worse for you! If that pale girl over there has given her love to the young man, this is a dark, dark hour; a cartload of gold chains would not console her.”
The church was filling fast, the pastor had taken his place and the wedding group was straggling towards the Communion Table.
“Come, let us clear out,” urged the stranger, putting on his cap as he spoke.
“But I think I would like to remain,” she protested.
“No, no, this is my day, or rather my half-day,” he declared; “we are not going to spend the best part of it at a wedding. Let us continue our ramble.”
How precipitately you retired,” she said, as he ran down the steps. “You remind me of the story of the man who never entered a church, because he had been married there.”
“Must I again repeat, that this is my day and we are losing valuable time? I abhor weddings. I’d almost as soon attend a funeral. I expect that wretched Swiss youth wishes he was dead,” he added, as he strode down the sharp little hill and out into the highway in silence. To Katherine, it seemed as if he were hurrying from the sounds of merry bells and the crowds of gay, chattering people, who were still swarming up towards the grim old church.
“Now for the castle,” he said. “Which way?”
“It is through this side street, past the mill and along the valley road. You can see it from here—--that old grey thing on the hill.”
Arrived beneath the old grey thing—a fortress of the thirteenth century—they toiled up a steep incline, through several fields, and finally arrived at the ruins of a great square keep, perched on a high promontory and dominating two valleys. Here they sat down on a low broken wall, and the man produced a briar pipe and his tobacco-pouch.
Several children were playing on the slopes, and two or three women sat clustered in a knot, knitting and gossiping. Through the cool, thin air, audible above the murmuring of tongues and the shouts of playmates, the sound of distant wedding bells was still wafted to the ear.
“What are you thinking off?” Katherine’s companion asked abruptly.
“I suppose you conclude that you have a right even to my thoughts,” she said, rousing herself, “and you shall hear them. I was thinking that in our bargain you have had more than the lion’s share of questions. You have inquired about my state of life, my tastes, my religious views. I know very little of you.”
“Excepting that I am a solitary, cynical, embittered man, who has shown you a side of his character absolutely unknown to others.”
“I wonder what your everyday other side is like?”
“Extremely courteous, and reserved,” he returned imperturbably. “To you I am neither. Here am I, smoking without permission; I bullied you out of the church; I talk to you as frankly as to my own heart.”
“Now I wonder if you do?“ she said musingly. “I have an instinct, that there is one chamber in your mind which is locked—yes, and double locked.”
“A Bluebeard’s closet, of course, festooned with the heads of women,” he answered coolly, and smoked for some time in silence. Then, hastily knocking the ashes out of his pipe on a stone, he turned about and said:
“You were so deeply affected by the pale girl in the church yonder, so eloquent on the subject of her sorrows, one could almost suppose that you had shared her experience?”
“Then your imagination would mislead you,” rejoined Katherine, as she crossed her knees and one well-shaped and artistically-shod foot poised itself in view, “and permit me to say, that you strain your prerogative of asking blunt questions to the limit.”
“I am aware of that. I believe you are speaking the truth.”
“Now you are not going to be indignant, are you?”
“No, no, not yet.”
But it occurs to me as extraordinary, that a girl of your air and type should never have had at least one little, little love-story—one?—only one.”
“No, not one.”
“But men have been in love with you?”
She glanced at him with a gleam of amusement, turned her head away, and made no reply.
“Answer me,” he said quietly.
“Why, yes, of course.”
“And so you flouted them, mademoiselle?”
“It was in the good old gay times, when father was alive. Some fancied that they adored me, but it did not last. I had—--a—--a mocking tongue, a sense of humour--—these are terrible drawbacks to a demoiselle à marier. I could mimic and say sharp things. Love-making in earnest struck me as so ludicrous then. It is a fact that I could never resist laughing at these kind, stupid, well-meaning, young and old men,—--and they fled.”
“For good? Are none of these unhappy persons awaiting a reprieve?” and he looked at her fixedly.
She shook her head, smiling back into his clear dark face.
“Well, I confess I am rather glad I did not come across you in those gay days. And so you have no romance to tell me—you are not making a mental reservation, are you?”
Katherine coloured brilliantly.
“Ah, I see, if I venture further, you will say something sharp to me. Forgive me.”
“If I forgive you for so coolly doubting my word you must entertain me in return. Tell me something interesting. We have had enough of personalities. Tell me of your travels, and adventures in Mexico or Persia.”
“All right,” he agreed, and he threw himself at full length on the grass, “but I am rather a duffer at storytelling.”
“What is your forte?”
“I believe the art of obtaining much for little.”
She nodded emphatically.
“Of discovering another’s feelings, plans, intentions, and successfully concealing my own; of bringing off important results with apparent ease.”
“Yes, yes, yes. That is your gift, your special faculty. Now tell me something about Ispahan—--a Persian day entertainment. Describe the daily life.”
It soon became evident that the unknown had command of an ample, terse vocabulary, a quick eye, a retentive memory, and the vivid picture tales he spread before his listener assured her of his capacities, and remained impressed on her mind in all their first freshness for many years. Then in the glow of the sunset, laughing and talking, they two strolled down the hill, and returned to Chablette, where the wedding bells were still ringing merrily.
It was striking six o’clock, as Katherine entered Lady Warbeck’s room. She paused in the act of closing the door, when she descried the old lady actually sitting at the fire, wrapped in a purple silk dressing-gown, with a fur rug over her knees.
“Well, my dear,” she called out, “so you are back at last.”
“And you are up. I am so glad. But how did you manage alone?”
“Oh, Rosette helped, and the force of curiosity carried me bodily out of bed. I was determined; even if I died of it, to have a look at the Nameless Man.”
“Do you think it was worth the risk?”
“Yes, I do. I was at the window when you came in. My dear Katherine,” half turning in her chair in order to survey her better, “how is it that you never told me he is so handsome?
“I—oh—well,” colouring, “I never thought of it. Do you think he is?”
“There could not be two opinions; such an air of distinction, such an expressive face, such a pair of heart-breaking dark eyes; and I’ll tell you something else, Miss K.”—here she paused dramatically and Katherine waited. “He is in love with you.”
“No, no, no. Now, please don’t say such a dreadful thing. You know you do not mean it. We only met the day before yesterday. We do not even know one another’s names. The very idea would spoil everything and make it so uncomfortable for me,” and she looked distressed. “Please say it is only one of your jokes,”
“Very well, then, it is only one of my jokes! I hope you had a pleasant afternoon. Pray, what did you do?”
“We walked round the village and saw a wedding, then we went to the old castle, and he told me stories.”
“Of course all men tell stories to pretty girls.”
“But not his sort of stories, about travels in Persia and South America, of mining camps and treasure seeking, and exploring buried cities.”
“Oh, travellers’ tales. Every man has his own special line. My husband told me tales of his feats in the hunting-field, and dinner-table anecdotes, and that reminds me that I am going to dine below to-night.”
“What!” said Katherine, regarding her with openeyed astonishment.
“Yes. I, of course, shall be the facheux troisième, but I see no reason why you should have it all your own way. I wish to find out something about this good-looking traveller who will not divulge his name, and besides, if—if—well, I leave it at ‘if.’ It is well that he should see that you are not telling stories, and there is really an old woman in the background, and not a sort of Mrs Harris.”
Katherine was startled at her own annoyance and impatience; with difficulty she choked down expostulations. Good-bye to talks; she would not get in a word edgeways. To-night there would be no music, no stroll, no star-gazing.
“I hope you won’t be the worse for it,” she remarked after a pause.
“No, but you will be the better for it. So will I.” With regard to this statement Katherine felt extremely doubtful, but remonstrance would be useless and she only said:
“You must be sure to wrap up well.”
“Yes, my black tea-gown and lace scarf, and get out my emerald brooch and best toupee. I want to make an impression. Don’t let me forget the bridge box,” she added as she rose and cast away the fur rug.
The traveller, who was hungry, strolled into the verandah a few moments before dinner, and was surprised to find the table laid for three; a huge bunch of roses glorified one place, a large screen sheltered a particular chair. He was standing staring at this arrangement, when Franz arrived with the soup tureen.
“Yes, it is the old lady,” he announced, in a confidential tone, “she is better and she will dine.”
“But I thought she was confined to her room.”
“It is as she prefers. Oh, she has her caprices; she is rich, and mademoiselle is an angel.”
At the word “angel” Lady Warbeck entered, pushing the door open. Katherine appeared behind her, carrying two pillows.
A tall woman with a slight limp, a black lace scarf thrown over a head of fuzzy grey hair, piercing eyes, and, for all her limp, the carriage of a personage. She advanced to the table radiating smiles and urbanity.
The stranger rose at once, placed her chair, and offered a civil welcome, and Katherine felt herself suddenly delighting in his air, his agreeable, refined voice, his whole distinguished and attractive presence.
“You are, I understand, the only other guest, and you and my young friend here have made acquaintance already?” and Lady Warbeck, as was her wont, proceeded to control the entire conversation; ultimately it became a tête-à-tête between the stranger and herself. She talked of all sorts of topics; craftily intending to throw this man off his guard, and then drive her questions home, but she had to reckon with an opponent who was of quicker wit than herself; every thrust was parried with astonishing dexterity; he seemed to have no vulnerable spot, and Katherine, the only second to this duel of wits, looked on with suppressed amusement.
Such matters as motoring, the future of the aeroplane, foreign laundresses, French plays, were in turn discussed and dismissed. When the subject threatened to become more personal, the man led the old lady away from it with an ease and firmness that was equally surprising and adroit. By the time the inevitable poulet and salade had been served, Lady Warbeck was feeling completely baffled. Her keen little eyes betrayed her curiosity, and they seemed to be clamouring for his name and address.
“So you travel a good deal on the Continent?” she said.
“Well, yes, I do, more or less.”
“An idle man, of course?”
“Then no doubt you write?—so many do now-a-days.”
“I gather you are not much in England?
“I think you said you’d been in India?”
“No, I’ve never been there.”
“Ah, well, neither have I. I hope to go out next cold weather. Yes,” to Katherine’s glance, “I shall take you too, Katherine.”
When the coffee was served, and cigarettes, she said: “This coffee here is excellent.”
“Yes,” he answered, “as the saying is, ‘Black as sin, hot as fire, sweet as love.’”
“How about those who don’t take sugar, like my friend, Katherine?”
“Ah, I cannot say. You smoke; will you try one of my cigarettes?
“Yes, if they are Egyptians,” and she accepted one, lit it adroitly, and enjoyed it languidly.
“I am sure you ought not to smoke just now,” remonstrated Katherine.
“I know, my dear, and that is precisely what makes this cigarette perfection. Tell Franz to bring me a glass of Kummel. I believe,” turning to the stranger, whose eyes were fixed on her superb rings, “you know Lord Crosshaven?”
Katherine reappeared in time to hear this remark, and blushed scarlet; undoubtedly he would believe that she had tampered with his letters.
“Yes,” he answered with a glance of unaffected surprise, “we have known one another a long time.”
He bowed assent, and this seemed to afford his questioner a certain amount of relief, as she resumed.
“I do not know him personally, but he is intimate with a cousin of mine. Oh, what a pity that he is not married; it is a calamity—--a crime.”
“Do you think so?” he said drily.
“Certainly I do. Every man with a historic name and estates large or small is bound to marry.”
“Je ne vois pas la nécessité!“
“Then you don’t approve of marriage?”
“Oh,” with a shrug, “please don’t ask me. I am no authority. For some it may be a catastrophe. You know Chaucer’s saying, ‘Marriage is like a rabble rout, those that are out would fain be in, those that are in, would fain be out.’”
“Then you are married?” The question was enforced by a pair of needle-sharp eyes.
“I am not bound to incriminate myself.”
“Don’t you think this is rather too serious a topic for after dinner?” said Katherine, intervening; “and you know you must not sit up late.”
“Ah, but I shall not allow you to hustle me off, my dear, without my game of bridge. You play, I hope?” turning eagerly to the man.
“Er—yes—delighted. Shall I tell Franz to light candles in the salon?”
“Yes, yes,” rising resolute and erect; “give me the bridge box, Katherine, and let us go and commence at once at once. I’ve not had a game for three weeks,” and she led the way out of the salle-à-manger, and was soon in her element as dealer, with a pack of new cards slipping from between her nimble jewelled fingers, a candle at either side of her, her opponents patiently listening as she expounded her views on the subject of leads, and discards.
The little game of bridge proved a tedious business and was carried on till ten o’clock, in spite of Katherine’s protestations.
Lady Warbeck, who looked very tired and ill, clung to the card-table, as a drowning man to a spar, and refused to be parted from it. She had found in the stranger a foe more than worthy of her steel; he played with a cool, clever head, a marvellous memory, and a finesse far beyond her reach. When writing their markers she asked, in a tone of careless innocence:
“What name am I to put for you?”
“Oh, a letter ‘A.’ Shall I write you down as ‘B’ and ‘C’?”
“As it happens C is my initial.”
“And K,” he added, “for your friend.”
At the end of two hours Lady Warbeck rose, pocketed fifteen francs with vast satisfaction, apologised for her luck, and said good-night.
“It will just pay my washing-bill,” she remarked to Katherine, as she was being helped up to her room. Katherine had a suspicion that “A” had purposely lost a trick or two, that he had not the heart to defeat an old woman on every point, and her eyes—being his partner,—conveyed this impression. His eyes, as they bade one another good-night, said much more; they expressed profound resignation, and regret.
Lady Warbeck was full of the praises of “A,” his appearance, his voice, his fine breeding.
“But oh, Katherine, how close about himself; that is just where his behaviour deteriorates. It is not usual to be so reserved and eccentric; we don’t want to know him again; he does not want to know us; well, after all, what’s in a name?”
“Nothing,” agreed Katherine. It was the personality that mattered. She could not analyse her feelings; she was affected by this man’s physical charm and air of repressed melancholy; the sense that he had opened his heart to her and held out a hand across the void. But to see him sitting at the card-table so deeply engrossed, so coolly self-possessed, he seemed to be another individual to the one who, in that little room twenty-four hours before, had shown her a glimpse of his life and thoughts, to which she was dangerously responsive.
“I have left my little bag downstairs,” said Lady Warbeck. “You must fetch it, Katherine, but you need not come back again. I am terribly tired, and want to sleep.”
“A” was still below; he had lit a cigarette and was playing patience.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, springing up, “I was afraid I’d seen the last of you.”
“My friend is tired but very happy. It was so good of you to play bridge.”
“It is only twenty past ten—is it too late for a stroll?”
“Yes, the village would be scandalised.”
“But not for music. Did you ever see a more splendid moon? It is a night for the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ I will turn off the electric light, open the windows, and flood the room.”
Katherine went to the open piano, and began to play. He sat at a distance, contemplating her slim figure silhouetted against the open window. When she concluded she turned to him and said:
“You confessed that you sing, so now I call upon you.”
“What shall I try? Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide?’—if you can make up the accompaniment in E flat.”
“I think I can manage that,” she replied, and after a moment’s delay the stranger began to sing this most exquisite of songs. He had a beautiful tenor (that had evidently been cultivated out of England), and sang with wonderful expression, ay, and passion; as the full notes reverberated through the little salon, they brought Franz from his den, the cook from below, madame from above,—loiterers in the moonlight hung round the porch transported by this surpassing voice. As the final bar died away the stranger said: “I thought I heard a motor just now.”
“Did you? I heard nothing but the song. I expect it has passed to the station; now for a serenade,” and Katherine rose from the piano.
He took her place without demur, and after playing a few chords with a curious lilting air, commenced to sing. It was a delicious Mexican love-song, warm from the heart of a Southerner; it hinted of hidden fires in the heart of the singer.
Katherine sat with her hands folded in her lap, moved and silent. Suddenly the door was violently pushed open; the light turned on, revealed two travellers, who advanced into the room and looked about them. A tall, handsome woman in a motor coat, followed by a little man with blinking blue eyes, a bleached moustache, and no chin.
“So sorry,” exclaimed the lady, taking in the singer and listener with one flashing glance. “I—--we—beg pardon—a private room.”
“By no means, madam,” corrected the stranger, rising and closing the piano, “this is a public salon and entirely at your service.”
The simple ejaculation expressed all sorts of things,—including supercilious incredulity,—--as with a disagreeable, enigmatical smile, and a slight inclination, the lady in the motor coat walked out.
The invalid was by no means the better for her excursion downstairs, card-playing and cigarettes, and all the next forenoon she kept Katherine in close and incessant attendance.
“If this bout carries me off I shall have died of curiosity,” she declared, “but I wish I had not missed the two arrivals last night.”
At déjeuner, Miss Broome found the said new arrivals already established at a little table close by. The woman was about thirty, handsome in a bold, dark style; her figure was superb, her clothes expensive and richly scented, and she wore magnificent rings. Her husband looked small, mean and insignificant by comparison; his expression was querulous and unhappy.
They both bestowed far more attention on Katherine than the ménu card. The lady having favoured her with a glance of cold, impertinent scrutiny, leant across, whispered something to her companion, and tittered audibly; then she looked over at the stranger.
Her eyes were audacious and charged with mesmeric glamour. They strayed to him repeatedly; once she called to Bob, and offered him the leg of a chicken and many caresses.
When the meal had come to a conclusion the company sauntered out to the porch; it was a lovely day. The lady looked at the Nameless Man, and said to him, with a seductive smile:
“What a dear, darling dog! Is he yours?”
The dog’s owner took off his cap and muttered a brief reply. He was awaiting Katherine, who had gone to look after the invalid, and fetch her hat.
“We have broken down here,” explained the lady. “Such horrible bad luck in this awful dead-and-alive place; nothing to do, is there?” and she glanced at him interrogatively.
“There are some lovely walks.”
“Ah,” with a sudden gleam of animation in her sparkling eyes, “and evidently you know them! It would be rather nice to go for a stroll. Shall we?”
“I—I—should be only too delighted,” he lied, but—” as Katherine appeared in the doorway.
“I understand,” drawing back, “you are already provided with a companion.”
Then the two went together up the lane towards the woods; as Katherine turned a corner and the hotel came into view, she noticed the lady in her pink gown still standing on the steps and evidently watching them attentively.
“How handsome she is!” she exclaimed abruptly. What a remarkable face.”
“Remarkably wicked—the face of Delilah!”
“Do you judge so rapidly?”
“Well, I happen to know who she is; her career has been more adventurous than edifying.”
“I thought she seemed to recognise you.”
“No, I think not; we have never met; but by chance I saw her name at the bureau.” (In which he had been more fortunate than poor Lady Warbeck.)
“The gentleman is of course her husband?”
“Of course,” and he laughed. “Yes, her second.”
“He looks feeble; he has no chin.”
“Yes, he seems rather a weak, ineffective creature, but she is strong enough for two, and he has the merit of being uncommonly rich.”
“Poor man, in spite of his money he looks miserable.”
“Money has bought him more than he bargained for, but he is not worth your compassion. Never mind him. Let us talk of something else.”
“Well, here is the glade where the women work and the children play, as you see.”
“It is evidently popular. And what a view!”
There is a better one further on,” and she led the way by a steep path, skirting a wood, past an old abandoned chalet, till they stood on the shoulder of
a hill. Behind them rose the walls of the mountain, silent and shadowed; beneath them, through the pines came the roar of the river. Here she sat down on a log to rest, and he threw himself at her feet.
“So this is the last day,” he said, “we shall spend together.”
“And our first day was nearly being our last,” she answered.
“Yes. Do you see that sheer bit up there, just under the black line?—you can find it on the local postcard,” and he pointed with his stick.
“Yes, but surely I never reached that; and if I did, how did I ever get down?”
“It was there I found you, nevertheless, and though you say you have never done a mountain, you can tell people you have descended one of the worst places on the Blumisalp; it is true you had not to cope with snow or ice; but loose stones and sheer slippery rocks have equal dangers.”
“I had one of my rare dismal fits; that afternoon, as I scrambled aimlessly about, I was thinking of death, and how nicely it would end all my troubles.”
“What a cheerful frame of mind! And your troubles—tell them to me, my friend. Possibly they may be imaginary.”
“Is it imaginary, that I have no home? I was brought up in comfort, and never knew a real want. Then three years ago came the crash, and here I am.”
“Yet you might be worse off. You are impatient of limited opportunities; you don’t know the seamy side of life.”
“Do I not?” she answered passionately. “For twelve months I struggled alone in London to earn my bread. Have you the faintest idea of what that means to a good-looking young woman who has no friend to protect her, no weapon but her tongue?”
Their eyes met; his face had grown white, and he uttered a stifled interjection.
“Tell me,” he began.
“No, there are things I intend to forget,” she said steadily. “I have a shelter as long as Lady Warbeck lives; she finds me useful to her. She knew me as a child.”
“And so this is to be your life?”
“Yes, a better one than that of many others. I am wicked to grumble even to you. Please, please, forget what I have said.”
“A change may come—what of love, marriage?”
She shook her head.
“Do you know, that the first time I saw you I felt that we were not strangers. When I drew you out of the clouds, and we stood face to face on the bridge, you made me feel as if we were old friends. I saw that you, too, had cares, even that you had been crying recently. I have been drawn to you, as I never felt drawn to anyone before. I tell you things, almost in spite of myself.”
Yes, she, a three days acquaintance, knew more of his mind than anyone, and she had given him confidence for confidence, had told him of her ambitions, and sympathies and ideals.
“I believe,” he continued, “we were bound, under the impulse of an irresistible fatality, to meet, and to part. After to-morrow we speak no more; as ships that pass in the day, signal to one another and follow their course. Let me tell you, that your company to me has been as a blessed beacon, and I shall always treasure the memory of these three days. When all is dark, I shall turn to them as to a kindly light.”
“I have told you my cares,” she said. “I am solitary, and poor and proud—--”
“You have good health, a brave heart, and youth and—” he was about to add beauty; “they are not to be despised.”
“Do, please, let me finish,” she said impetuously. “I am not to be put off by your flatteries. I wish to say that you have not told me what your trouble is, or your troubles are.”
“I confided to you that I made a mistake years ago—I can say no more.”
“And so this is your friendship, and confidence? Talking of a trouble helps to relieve it. Although I am a woman, believe me, I can keep a secret.”
“If I might speak of mine, to a living soul, it would be to you,” he said in a low voice.
“Is it so very bad?”
He bowed his head.
Katherine leant towards him. Her eyes were like wet gentians as, with a long, quivering sigh, she said: “I am so sorry for you, so sorry.”
Then silence fell between them, a sensitive, vibrating pause; but the right person’s silence is worth more for companionship, than the wisest words from anyone else. They talked no more, but rose, and passing through the fragrant pine woods, slowly made their way back to the Fleur de Lys.
When Katherine dressed for dinner that evening, some unaccountable impulse induced her to bring out the ancient black crêpe-de-chine,—still respectable in its decline. It had been her father’s favourite; he had declared that it suited her better than any gown she possessed, and she resolved to wear it once more, in honour of the stranger, and of the last evening they would spend together. She was a little late as she took her place at table, and her companion said:
“Bob has been most painfully anxious.”
“Cupboard love, I am afraid,” she answered gaily. Then she glanced at the other couple; the matron with the adventurous career had also made a toilette, and wore an elaborate cream lace tea-gown and a chain of uncut barbaric turquoise. Katherine noticed that her great bold eyes, darting light from beneath her straight black brows, were continually fastened on themselves, and especially on her companion. Afterwards, as they were all together in the porch, this lady, who was standing a little in advance of the stranger, with a sable cape on her arm, said, as she turned her graceful shoulders: “I really must go out this delicious night; do put this on for me, darling!”
Then with a scream of laughter, as she discovered her mistake, she added:
“Oh, I do beg your pardon! I thought you were my husband. Is not the moon quite too irresistible?”
Her bright, challenging glances would have lured him into conversation, but with an expression of admiration for the evening, and a bow, he effected his escape to stroll down the road for the last time.
The unknown and Katherine walked in silence for some minutes, until the noises of the village they had left behind them were entirely lost. The road they followed wound down the valley, all around towered hills and peaks, sharply defined in the glare of a full moon.
“So you walked this road alone every evening before I came?” he said at last.
“Yes,” she answered. “My friend is not fond of exercise. I am accustomed to solitude.—I was born to be alone.”
“So was I,” he answered; “it is another link between us, like our taste for Chopin, Velasquez, Jane Austen and Alpine flowers.”
“You speak of tastes,” she answered; “in tastes, there is a suggestion of choice, but as to walking through life alone, there is none.”
“No,” he assented, “not even if you marry, unless you light on the right—the real companion, and who does?”
“I see you are a cynic.”
“What is your definition of a cynic?”
“One who despairs of human virtue, and disbelieves in inherent goodness.”
“Then Solomon was a cynic.”
“So you class yourself with the wisest of men?”
“No, but I am able to see facts without illusion. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
“I disagree with both you and Solomon. There is a great deal of goodness and happiness in the world—charity, kindness, long-suffering, loyalty, generosity and love.”
“Do you think there is a great deal of goodness, charity, kindness and long-suffering in the magnificent lady we have left at the Fleur de Lys?”
‘Oh, don’t let us talk of those sort of people,” she said with a touch of impatience.
“By all means, but possibly they talk of us,” and he smiled enigmatically.
She did not respond, but leant her hands on a gate beside the forty-ninth milestone, and raised her eyes to the heavens.
“I know you believe there is no such thing as happiness. Happiness is within ourselves, and our own thoughts; they can make the world black as night or brilliant and beautiful as it is now—the choice remains with us.”
“Do you know, that your simile is dangerous—it is called moonshine?”
“Oh, yes, you may scoff, but in your heart you feel that I am speaking the truth. Compare our lives. I have forty pounds a year, and no prospects, yet I am ten times more contented than you, who are a man, independent and wealthy, with all the world open to you. You are looking for what is unattainable; and you will never find it—il est difficile de trouver le bonheur en soi; il est impossible de le trouver ailleurs.”
“And so you read Voltaire, do you?”
“No, not as a study. I am neither an atheist nor a blue-stocking. Do you remember the anecdote of Napoleon and the man who was bragging of his scepticism, and how Napoleon pointed to the sea and to the stars and asked, ‘Then who made these?’ The stars have always had a fascination for me,” she added, throwing her head back, and raising her eyes to the heavens.
“They have fascinated millions who never saw the sea—millions who lived thousands of years ago; how small they make one feel; even our own planet is suburban.”
“Perhaps that is for the best,” she answered, lowering her gaze and fixing her eyes on him. “I have heard it suggested, that this is the planet of suffering; what do you think?”
“That I am sure of it,” he answered with sombre acquiescence.
“Oh, naturally your view is gloomy. Don’t you carry Schopenhauer in your pocket? But I believe that everyone has their chance to help and be helped, to encourage, to strive, and to succeed. I intend to do the best I can with my life here.”
“Then you anticipate another existence?”
“Yes, and so do you. Putting the Bible and its promises aside, even Science herself now points that way. The curtain between the known and the unknown is wearing thin; in another hundred years it will be drawn aside. Think of what the last hundred years have brought forth! Steam, electricity—to mention two items. In another century, telepathy will have played a great part.”
“Which you and I, will not live to see.”
“We will possibly see it, though not here in this form. I believe in the continuity of existence, that our memory, and character remain. Oh, we do not change our identity when we pass over; the soul, the mind, never dies. Death is but the gate of a fuller life, and renewed opportunities for us poor, groping, stumbling creatures.”
“Great, indeed, is your faith.”
“I wish I could say the same for my charity; it is weak and lop-sided, but I hope it may grow. As for the stars:
“‘Man is his own star, and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Command all light, all influence, all fate,
Nothing to him falls early or too late.’”
She paused for a moment and glanced at her companion, who instantly continued:
“‘Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.’”
"I can answer for the truth of that!" he exclaimed. "My own act, my fatal shadow, walks by me still."
For more than half an hour, the pair continued to talk, conscious only of each other; she sitting on the milestone, he leaning on the gate; at last she said: "The lights in the chalets are being extinguished; we must go home—I mean to the hotel."
"I suppose so," he answered reluctantly, consulting his watch. "Yes, it is past ten o'clock, and to-morrow I must return to my path in life. Do you know that you have given me a torch and a light, that I hope I may always keep burning?”
"I am glad of that," she answered. "Now if you don't mind I should like to say good-bye to you here, and walk back alone."
He lifted his head, and looked at Katherine; the glamour of the moonlight shone on her eyes, the soft night breeze tenderly ruffled the strands of her hair, a mysterious suggestion of exaltation blended itself with the beauty of her face, and was exhaled in the faint perfume of her gown.
“All right, we will say good-bye—God be with you—here," and he took both her hands, and held them tightly in his, as he poured a deep, direct gaze into her eyes.
Her eyelids fell and she trembled. The girl's heart fluttered like a wild bird in a net; was he about to kiss her? He might if he chose.
But no; with an abrupt gesture he released her fingers, and she, deeply ashamed of her momentary hope, turned hastily away, leaving him standing by the milestone.
The dark-eyed lady was sitting in the hall smoking a cigarette and talking to Madame in fluent French. She viewed Katherine's solitary entrance with eyes now cold and full of judgment; her attitude was hostile, and in reply to a bow, she simply stared.
It had been arranged that the stranger’s departure was to take place at an early hour, and Katherine, who had scarcely slept, listened eagerly to the first movements in the hotel—the sounds of steps and voices and opening doors. Then she got out of bed, and wrapped herself in her dressing-gown, saying to an inner clamour of remonstrance:
“I will do it—yes, I will! I must see him once more.”
For a long time she waited in the window, sheltered by the blind, and shivering, for it was a grey, drizzling morning. At last he came forth, followed by Bob, uttered some parting words to Madame and then strode away. He was gone! No, not yet; at a distance he halted and looked back. For at least five minutes he stood there motionless, then with a sudden gesture of his hand turned and walked away into the rain. He had come from the clouds, and vanished in a mist!
Katherine moved back with a white face and threw herself into a chair. The startling and crowded impressions of those three days, which had been hidden in her mind, now came forth, and passed across her brain in orderly sequence. She looked them over as they appeared one by one, with a frightened fascination, evading none, but dwelling upon each in turn, as the separate part of the most important experience of her life; and gradually the tears which would not be restrained, brimmed over and ran down her face.
“Oh, what a fool I am!” she cried aloud as she brushed them impatiently away. “Here I sit, actually crying, crying for a man whose name I do not know, whose face I shall never, never see again.”
In this lay the sting of his departure, and she pressed her hand to her eyes, to drive away that agonising thought.
Two hours, later she appeared by Lady Warbeck’s bedside with the usual little tray. Like the patriarch Joseph she had washed her face, and refrained herself; but some traces of emotion were still evident. The girl’s delicate roses had faded, she was white and haggard. Lady Warbeck’s sharp eyes blinked at her over the edge of her tea-cup, and as she set it down she said:
“Well, my dear, I cannot say you are looking your best. Has he proposed?”
“Did he kiss you at parting?” Her old eyes sparkled interrogatively.
“No,” answered Katherine, with a sudden blush.
“At least—he will write?”
“To save you further trouble, I may tell you that I shall never hear from him or see him again.”
“Then all I can say is, you have wasted your opportunities disgracefully. One pouring wet day, two long walks, a full moon, and nothing to show for it!” and she contemplated Katherine with meditative scorn.
“And such a handsome fellow! such eloquent dark eyes. He certainly admired you. I’m not a fool; I know what I’m talking about. Well, it was an episode, a nice little bit of a break for us, eh? I shall always think of him as a sort of Prince Charming, and I’d like to have known his name, but he’s gone and taken the secret with him,” and she laughed. “By the way, I hear that the arrivals are Mr and Mrs Claude Hardisty, with maid, valet, and motor. She’s a curious person—such tales as are afloat! and yet she is received. Still I do not want to be mixed up with her; it is true that she divorced Sir Charles, but the boot was really on the other foot. She is a bad lot, and as bold and unscrupulous and avaricious, as ever she can be. I hear they are off this evening, and I will wait to go down, till they have taken their departure.”
Katherine made four solitary expeditions to the milestone sacred to memories, before she passed it in a closed carriage beside Lady Warbeck,—--a mere mound of wraps. The monument happened to be at her side as they trotted by at a brisk pace, but she could scarcely distinguish its form, her eyes were so full of tears.
The following winter and spring was spent at Cannes, and here Miss Broome encountered many who had known her in her palmy days. She was still handsome and slim, but had grown graver, quieter, and no longer looked on life as a delightful comedy. People were glad to see her; she was as agreeable and ornamental as ever, and, though about twenty-four, not married; but girls did not marry so young now, and it was whispered that old Lady Warbeck was devoted to her, and had made her her heiress.
The Boundlys were established at La Californie, and resumed acquaintance with Miss Broome,—the nice girl who loved old houses, and admired Kingsbourne so sincerely. Mrs Boundly turned to Katherine for advice as to milliners, and assistance with the French language, whilst she and Mr Boundly rummaged through every curio shop between Cannes and Mentone; she interpreted the language, fought for his bargains, and entered into every selection with zeal, thereby endearing herself to Robert Bon de Lys—as she called him when they were alone—and although Katherine was known to flout certain young men she had a way of making herself extremely charming to their elders. Before the Boundlys departed they gave Katherine a most pressing invitation to come and live with them, and endowed her with a copy of the new catalogue, and a beautiful old fan. Lady Warbeck declared that she could take no interest in these good, vulgar creatures; they were nobodies, apart from Kingsbourne; they did not even play bridge (which would have been a slight mitigation of their humble condition), and as she had a number of engagements, she spared Katherine to the old people to drive about, shop, interpret, and, as it happened, brighten their visit; but personally she never countenanced them, or even conferred a visiting-card—--an omission which sat very lightly on the supremely-contented pair.
Having spent the winter and spring at Cannes, when the warm weather arrived, Lady Warbeck cast longing eyes towards her native land. She hoped to enjoy the London season, and was looking forward to wearing a succession of new gowns, in the company of old friends. With this aim in view, she despatched dozens of letters announcing her advent, her craving to see her intimates, and, last but not least, her address. By the middle of the month of May she had established herself and Katherine in a private hotel near Piccadilly. At first, she devoted the morning hours to shopping; flitting from one place to another, inspecting, trying on, bargaining, and frequently walking out empty-handed. Katherine, an amused but uncomfortable spectator, noticed that the most accomplished and resolute saleswoman was completely overmatched; her advice, her seductions, ignored. Lady Warbeck was ever effusively polite, full of compliments and fair promises, and departed leaving behind her a keen sense of disappointment and bewilderment. Undoubtedly she wasted a vast amount of precious time, though at first sight she appeared to be of the choicest type of customer; easy-going, affable, rich, and undecided; with elegant clothes, an air of importance, attended by an aristocratic grand daughter or niece. However, the result of these expeditions eventually resulted in considerable outlay, and the old lady became possessed of a quantity of fashionable garments. On Katherine, she bestowed a large black hat, that proved unbecoming to a faded face. Too late had Lady Warbeck realised that it was “young”. She was also endowed with a charming scarf, two elegant muslin dresses, and a parasol—in order that the girl might make a creditable appearance in the Park or at Ranelagh and Hurlingham, whither Lady Warbeck was bidden to endless teas, and dinners.
This season everyone who was anyone appeared to be in town. Mrs Corben—who had let her flat,—was staying with friends in South Kensington; the Barres were in Grosvenor Place, and naturally Lady Warbeck saw a good deal of them. She also, at a charity bazaar, recalled herself to the memory of the dear duchess, who sold her an expensive doll and sent her a card for one of her crushes. The said invitation loomed prominently on the silly old woman’s mantelpiece, among a series of others of lesser importance.
Lady Warbeck was out morning, noon and night—--luncheons, dinners and receptions claimed her, and her companion was left at home to alter, mend and write letters, agreeable to that state of life to which fate had called her; occasionally she was carried to a theatre or a concert when Lady Warbeck was presented with tickets, and as to other outings, the old lady would say:
“I know in your heart, dear, you don’t care about gaiety, and I do, so we each go our own way, and are happy.”
She also assured her that she might visit any of her own friends, and even bring them in to tea.
“After all it’s only two shillings,” she added in an outburst of generosity, “and you really are a clever girl, and deserve every indulgence.”
As a result of this gracious permission, Katherine looked up the Boundlys, who were installed at Claridge’s with their own suite, carriage, and retinue.
“For we may as well spend the money and amuse ourselves before we become too stiff to stir,” declared the old lady, and they each followed their own pursuits and tastes: he, in curiosity shops, and the reading-room of the British Museum,—dipping into heraldry and pedigrees; she, revelling in sales, matinées, and the Row.
They were delighted to see Katherine Broome, and would have stolen her from Lady Warbeck, if the theft had been practicable.
“What’s the good of your spending your life with that dressy old woman, who only cares for cards? You come and live with us; we want your company,” urged Mrs Boundly. “Robert and I, we just love you, and that’s a fact.”
This flattering announcement was made after considerable intercourse—little luncheons at Claridge’s, shoppings, an evening at the theatre, a drive or two in the Park.
“Nothing would make me look anybody,” sadly confessed poor Mrs Boundly, “no, dear, not even that toque from Paris, and the white parasol you made me buy. I feel more like myself in my garden apron and big hat, but you—you give an air of distinction to any turnout, and I am proud to be seen with you, though I expect people who notice our carriage, think there is some kind young countess taking her housekeeper for an airing.”
It was impossible for Katherine to accept the offer of the Boundlys; though it would have been greatly to her advantage, she felt that she was in honour bound to Lady Warbeck, whose hand had drawn her from misery and Blessington Place. Much as she detested No. 131, she had not failed to take an early opportunity of visiting Miss Thom, who received her with open arms; indeed, Katherine’s first call had all the éclat of a sensation. She arrived in a smart carriage (Mrs Boundly’s). She was elegantly dressed, and had the ease and assurance generally conferred by the sense of being well turned out.
Mrs General Ramage was almost affectionate, and asked for her address; even Miss Mullett, supported by the blue cushion, condescended to be pleasant and inquired if she had any prospect of getting married?
“For,” scanning her from the brim of her feathered hat, to the hem of her elegant gown, “you look like an heiress.”
“She looks just like herself,” declared Miss Thom, who sat so close to Katherine, as to be almost on her knee, and was devouring her with adoring eyes. “You’ll stay for tea, dear, of course?”
“Of course she will not,” retorted Miss Mullett, taking upon herself to answer for the victim. “Miss Broome is no ignorant stranger; she knows our teas!”
“I have come to take you for a drive, Miss Thom,” said Katherine. “I have been lent the carriage for the afternoon, and I hope you will have tea with me?” (It would be savouring of sarcasm to inquire if Miss Thom had any other engagement.) “How long will you be getting ready? May I come and help you?”
“No, no, dear. My things happen to be downstairs, since I find the six flights trying. I’ll be ready in two jiffs.”
In less than five minutes, Miss Thom, trembling with excitement and joy, was rolling away from the door of No. 131, whilst several peering and astonished faces gazed from the drawing-room window.
“I always said that girl would get on,” declared Mrs General Ramage, as she fanned herself languidly.
“Oh, I know,” assented Miss Mullett, “but she’s only a companion for all her smart clothes. Get on—yes; it would be more to the purpose, in my opinion, if she were to ‘get off.’”
Who shall describe the delights of Miss Thom, enjoying her first carriage drive in the Park. She beamed with happiness, she radiated enthusiasm, although her shabby bonnet was crooked, her rusty dolman was unhooked, and not a few amused spectators took note of the excited old woman in the smart turnout. Her blinking brown eyes noted everything within their ken, and now and then she would convulsively claw her companion’s knee.
The cup of Margaret Thom was full when she beheld Queen Alexandra; and so overwhelmed with enthusiasm was she, that it was by main force that Katherine prevented her from standing up in the carriage, as the royal lady passed by.
“I’ve never seen her before,” she gasped, “lovely, lovely. Oh, my dear Katherine, what a day for me! how much I shall have to think of.”
“But we have not nearly finished,” said her friend, “we have not had tea,” and she took her to the Carlton. Here, a little sheltered behind some palms, they sat and talked, but Miss Thom’s exclamations at the music, the cakes, the wonderful dresses and figures and feathers, continually snapped the thread of conversation.
This delightful afternoon was but the beginning of a famous period, the time of her life for Miss Thom. She accompanied Katherine to the Academy, to Olympia, to a matinée, to see the beloved of matinée ladies—Lewis Waller. She came to tea at the Private Hotel, where she met the Boundlys, and Mrs Boundly took quite a fancy to simple, kind Miss Thom, who, in a nice new bonnet and a cock’s feather boa (gifts) looked both presentable and congenial.
Subsequently the trio drove round the Park, Miss Thom seated beside the owner of the carriage. Lady Warbeck, lolling in the catafalque of a dowager countess, noted the spanking steppers, and smart turnout, and nearly exclaimed with horror when she recognised her own dear Katherine in the company of two such dreadful old objects—--yes, one of them Mrs Boundly,—whom she cut dead as threatened. “Oh, impossible to recognise such a woman in London; she did look so dowdy, and so common.”
“That was a handsome girl,” remarked her companion; “she seems to know you?”
“Know me—I should hope so! Why, she is my companion—Miss Broome.”
“Really; and why is she with those people?”
“Well, they are her friends, not mine, and have taken her for a drive. I don’t want her, you see, except for letters and shopping and sewing. I must say she is invaluable; she is one of the Broomes.”
“Ah, you clever old body! So you keep her out of sight. What a loss to you if she were to marry.”
“No fear of that. She is not a man’s young woman, but if she had an offer of course I would not stand in her way.”
This was not the truth, although Lady Warbeck sincerely believed it was. Had matters come to a crisis, she would have worked might and main to interfere with the course of true love and retain Katherine; realising that in her she had secured an undeniably cheap treasure.
Perhaps this fear was at the bottom of her mind when she declined for Miss Broome verbal invitations to the Barres and other houses, always declaring, as if it was somewhat of a grievance, “That Katherine hated going out; give her a piano or a book and she is happy;” and on many occasions, clever Mrs Corben stepped into the place or seat originally intended for another. Sometimes Miss Broome did accompany her patroness to church, and church parade, or to a theatre; and the astute old lady gathered the impression that the girl was continually looking for some individual; scanning the crowd for a particular person; the more she watched the more absolutely certain of this fact she became; the inspection was ever quiet and unobtrusive, but it was obvious that Katherine’s beautiful deep blue eyes wandered wistfully from face to face, in quest of one friend.
On a certain evening as they sat together in the Park, watching the stream pass to and fro, she boldly taxed her with the fact.
“It strikes me, my dear Katherine, that you are always expecting to come across some particular individual. Who,” turning a piercing gaze upon her, “is it?”
“How can you be so ridiculous?” answered the girl with a laugh and a vivid blush.
“I think it must be the Nameless Man,” she pursued. “I believe you liked him, and I do not wonder. Even in my own venerable way I was attracted. I feel sure he is a personage.”
Katherine was in the midst of eager protestation when Lady Warbeck interrupted and rose to her feet.
“Oh, there is Mrs Guldenbag! I want to speak to her; she half promised me a seat in her box for La Bohème, and if I go and show myself she cannot pretend to forget. Is my toque straight? Keep this place for me; you have the tickets,” and she swam away across the grass, a species of billowing mauve cloud, and a wonderful specimen of what an upright back and a Paris dressmaker can do for a woman of over seventy. Soon she was accosting a stout lady in painted chiffon, and became the centre of a knot of people.
Katherine meanwhile sat alone; she felt forlorn. Was not Lady Warbeck’s accusation true? Was she not half unconsciously searching for someone, and ever hoping for “the little look across the crowd.”
To her own heart she dared not lie. Those three days at Chablette had entirely altered her attitude towards life. This unknown man had influenced her thoughts; she treasured every recollection she had of him, and went over in her own mind their many conversations. Three days of happiness, and then—this blank existence. Oh, it was a temporary obsession, which she must conquer, and not allow a phantom to blight her youth. She would strive to extinguish a burning memory, dwell less on her inner life, think more of others and the outside world. Katherine sat there, a lonely rather striking figure—aloof from the smart crowd, digging with her parasol, and making good resolutions; she determined that she would never look for him again—--never. What was the use of it? And disappointment was bitter. She must have done with folly, and as she made up her mind to this she dropped a daisy into a tiny hole in the grass and covered it up carefully; the act represented the death and decent interment of an idle dream.
“Lady Barre has invited us to dine at Hurlingham next Saturday,” announced Lady Warbeck, returning with considerable swishing of silk and jingling of chains; she is most anxious to see you. She says you are a complete stranger. It’s all right about the opera; I’m so fond of La Bohème and Melba; it will be a tiara night. Mrs Guldenbag has offered to call for me—so I shall be saved the hire of a carriage. Have you noticed if the Kimballs have gone by? and if that girl is still with them? I must ask them to lunch—but I won’t have three of a party.”
“No, I have not seen them.”
“That’s all right,” and she looked at Katherine with a mocking eye; “nothing escapes you, I know.”
But Katherine refused to notice anything significant in word or glance, and suffered the gauntlet to lie.
There was a great crowd at Hurlingham for it happened to be the date of a popular polo match, and the mass of spectators were favoured by perfect June weather. The air was laden with the scent of flowers, and the lawns were covered with a number of smart people; dense masses lined the borders of the polo ground, and among the fair women no one was more distinguished or admired than Miss Broome,—who wore a large black feathered hat and a delicate muslin gown. Not a few appreciative eyes followed the tall, graceful figure who accompanied Lady Barre from the polo ground to the house, for Katherine Broome’s walk was something to notice and remember. The ladies passed into the region of roses, where butterflies fluttered to and fro, as unconcerned and happy as if they were in the heart of the country instead of in the heart of London society, and at a bend in the grass, two men were approaching from the opposite direction. One of them was the Nameless Man; yes, though now accoutred in an admirably cut frock-coat and tall hat, it was he, and no other!
Katherine felt her heart turn cold, as they came nearer; he recognised her, transformed from the girl in a rough serge skirt and blouse, to an elegant and stately personage.
She bowed her feathered head; he swept off his hat and halted.
"Who," he began, "would have thought of seeing you here?" and he looked at her gravely. Her face was a little thinner, but she was as beautiful as ever.
“Why not? Does not everyone come to town in June?" she answered lightly. There was a momentary hesitation; it was impossible to introduce him to Lady Barre, not knowing his name, so she smiled and said:
"It has been delightful to-day, has it not? Goodbye," and with a bow she passed on.
"Who was your good-looking friend?" inquired Lady Barre. "Somehow I seem to recognise his face."
"To tell you the truth I do not know," replied the girl, who found speech difficult.
"What? Oh, my dear, you are not serious?" and Lady Barre came to a standstill, and surveyed her with merry eyes.
"Perfectly serious," responded Katherine, who was hardly conscious of her own words. “We stayed at the same little hotel in Switzerland for three days; we never heard his name; he does not know mine.”
“But this is most deliciously romantic! Now, Katherine, I am going to say something that may give you a shock. That man is in love with you—no,” putting up her hand, “now don’t protest. The moment he recognised you, he became as white as a sheet, precisely as if you were a beloved spirit from another world. I’ve seen that look on a man’s face once before, and know exactly what it means.”
Katherine’s heart actually leapt at these words, but what she said was:
“In his case, Lady Constance, I assure you it means nothing, nothing, nothing—absolutely nothing.”
“Oh, my dear girl, I may still have my own thoughts. I’ve not knocked about the world for forty odd years blindfold, and he is so handsome; it is the face of some old picture, a hero without curls or collars. To you he may be nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing, but you are his romance, his Queen Katherine.”
“Come along, come along,” cried a high, authoritative voice; “how you two have dawdled. We have had such a scrimmage to secure this tent and table. That truculent woman over there in blue declared it was hers, and she looked as if she could have scratched my eyes out. I declare I feel like a warrior in my stronghold. She said I was ‘no lady,’ ha! ha! However, if I did not know my way about Hurlingham after thirty seasons, it would be strange. What kept you?” Lady Warbeck demanded.
“We met a man whom Katherine knows,” said Lady Barre,” and just stopped for a moment.”
“Why did you not bring him on to tea, Katherine? Who was it?” handing her a tea-cup.
Katherine’s hand shook a little as she answered: Only the man we met at Chablette.”
“Only! I am immensely interested. Oh, why did you not insist on capturing him?” Then to Lady Barre: “He was at Chablette last September when I was laid up in bed with bronchitis, and he and Katherine had the hotel to themselves. Quite irregular!” and she laughed. “They had their meals together; any passer-by might have taken them for a honeymoon couple.”
Katherine’s pale face blazed, but she had no chance of protesting.
“I saw him once.” resumed Lady Warbeck. “I went down and dined and played bridge; he was charming, and a capital player. All the same I won two rubbers,” and she nodded triumphantly. The joy of that victory and the fifteen francs that paid the laundress was yet green in her memory.
“And I hear you don’t know his name?” said Lady Barre, with lifted brows.
“No, my dear Conny, but I assure you that it was through no fault of mine. I did my very best to find it out, but was foiled. He came and left on foot. He had no luggage, no letters. I, however, wrung from him that he knew Crosshaven, and I am dying to meet Crosshaven and put him to the question torture.”
“I am afraid you must defer your cross-examination for Crosshaven is fishing in Norway,” said the dowager countess, speaking through a high, thin nose.
“Well, I can wait,” said Lady Warbeck, helping herself to cake; “everything comes to her who waits.” Meanwhile Katherine, though lost in a torment of memory and conjecture, made an effort to laugh and talk and listen to the gay conversation; but now and then she glanced stealthily from group to group, and once or twice a figure misled her—--men’s frock-coats are annoyingly alike.
Dinner was a cheery gathering, the Barres entertained a large party; subsequently, as they sat in the lamp-lit grounds listening to the music and songs, she caught sight of the stranger among a distant group. Were his thoughts with her, as hers flew to him, when a man with a delightful tenor, and a tear in his voice sang “Adelaide”?
What a transformation of the scene from the little bare Swiss salon, with the silver moonlight streaming through the open window, the fragrance of the pines, and the rush of the river; to these brilliant crowds, the hum of voices, the scent of roses, and the soft, coloured lights in the Chinese lanterns.
“Ah, lovely song, is it not?” said Lady Constance to Katherine. “One of my favourites, as well as yours.”
“Pray how did you guess?”
“Because you gave such a deep and tragic sigh as it was ended.”
“That sigh was involuntary. All the same I was sorry it was over.”
A great crowd was in the hall at the moment of departure and many people were leaving at the same time—there was the usual incessant procession of carriages, motors, taxi-cabs, and once again carriages. Here in the very thick of the crush, flushed, and not a little hustled, Katherine discovered the Boundlys, who accosted her eagerly.
“We have lost our party,” said Mrs Boundly, “but as long as we don’t lose our heads or tempers, or the carriage, we will be all right.”
“We have had such a delightful evening,” added Mr Boundly. “And who do you think has been our host?”
Before Katherine could guess he said:
Why, Anthony Damer, our landlord—a charming fellow, worthy of Kingsbourne; and he has been so civil, getting me orders to view, and all sorts of things. We were to have taken him back with us, but as it happens—”
“Katherine! Katherine!” cried Lady Warbeck, seizing on her in a passion of impatience, “don’t you see it’s our carriage—the Barres’—come along at once!”
It was late in the month of January when Lady Warbeck, weary of seasons on the Côte d’Azur, arrived at a well-known resort on one of the Italian lakes, and drove up to the Splendide in the gorgeous hotel ’bus. Oh, what a delicious change, from fog and sleet, from a land of dead leaves, and shivering people! Here in the grounds were palm and orange trees, clumps of delicate bamboo, and over all a vaulted heaven, the blue shade of lapis-lazuli. However, the old traveller, who had made a long journey, was much too fatigued to take notice of her surroundings; the sole object she desired to behold was a nice comfortable bed.
On the hotel steps, far ahead of concierge and proprietor, stood Mrs Corben, her face wreathed in smiles, both hands extended as if offering a welcome to her own residence.
“Welcome! welcome!” she cried. “This is too delightful;” and when Lady Warbeck descended, stiff and tired and a little peevish, she was embraced with a vigour that was scarcely removed from personal violence. Katherine was accorded a gracious reception, and with wonderful dexterity contrived to elude a kiss.
“Lady Marchmont only left yesterday,” resumed Mrs Corben. “You know I bespoke her rooms for you before Christmas, and pounced the moment she told me her plans. I went straight to the manager. They are charming—full south, and I’ve got you a little table à part thrown in.”
Thus, talking all the time, she led the way to the lift, usurping the office of the proprietor and assuming the rôle of anxious hostess, for Mrs Corben was an expert in the art of conferring favours at the expense of other people.
"Now," throwing open a door with a swing of triumph, “is not this perfectly exquisite? What a view! and only fifteen francs—everything compris. Did you have a good crossing?
“Yes, yes," said Lady Warbeck as she sat down heavily, "I believe so."
“The people here were so excited when they heard you were coming. The Curries and Griffins and Todcastles. They all play bridge. Oh, we shall have such a time, you dear thing!” and once more she kissed the helpless victim. “And have you heard of Monty’s good fortune—such a splendid post?”
‘My dear Clara,” cutting her short, “I am nearly dead. Tell me your news to-morrow.”
“Oh, do forgive me, dearest. I was so carried away by the joy of seeing you I forgot. Please rest and take care of yourself. Can I send you up anything? Do let me!”
Lady Warbeck shook her head impatiently, and the sham hostess, with a private grimace at Katherine, went softly out of the room.
“Oh, what an old idiot I was to come here!” groaned the victim. “She will run me, I can see. Get me out my sponges, and dressing-gown; I’ll have something up here, and then try and sleep. I’m in no hurry to face a pack of widows and spinsters,” she concluded in a tone of querulous lassitude.
The weather was delightful, the air so soft and soothing to jaded nerves, and Lady Warbeck, sitting on the great terrace enjoying sun and prospect, was soon made known to Mrs Corben’s circle—the Todcastles, Mrs and Miss Todcastle, sisters-in-law, agreeable women who sketched, took photographs, and spoke fluent Italian; Sir Grant and Lady Currie, late of Bombay, the latter pathetically anxious to return to the East and there end her days: ever wailing for her ayah, her dhoby, her dirzee, and her pet hill-station; General and Mrs Broadway, a particularly prominent couple who had seen the world, made an enormous number of acquaintances, had delightful easy manners, and were consequently excessively popular. Good fortune had endowed Mrs Broadway with a beautiful figure, excellent taste, and an enviably long purse. The general, a smart elderly man, was an authority on bridge, golf and cooking. Then there were the two Pierson sisters, tall, elderly gentlewomen, kindly and prim, who had unexpectedly come in for money, stepped from economy to comfort, and were now visiting the Continent for the first time; in some respects keen and shrewd, in others simple as a pair of children. The power of money was novel to them, it was their new doll and they could seldom carry on a prolonged conversation without some naïve reference to “our maid” and “the carriage.” They read Miss Young’s novels, played cribbage, worked for a foreign mission, and wore their own hair.
Specially notable was Mr Bruce, a wealthy, elderly, selfish bachelor, well-bred, agreeable, a little over-anxious respecting his health, and particular as to his wine. Mr Vigo, the chaplain, and champion tennis-player; Mrs Sherard, the smart mother of two hopelessly dowdy daughters, and Miss Craven, the elegant daughter of a vulgar old mamma, who waddled about the grounds, and refused to wear gloves or acknowledge the letter “h.”
Then among many others, was one lady, a certain Mrs Damer, who made but a fitful appearance. Mrs Damer was a paralysed invalid, who had to be carried to her couch or carriage, and occupied the best suite of apartments in the hotel-rooms opening directly into the great long verandah, and having a magnificent outlook on park, lake and mountain. Mrs Damer received Lady Warbeck (and other specially honoured people) in her sitting-room, where, when she was well enough, she gave little bridge teas, and even bridge suppers; everything was perfectly done, and for all her fragility Mrs Damer was the life of the party, so vivacious and animated, so outspoken, and clever. She wore lovely diamonds and tea-gowns, was rather odd-looking, preferred men’s society, and smoked cigarettes incessantly.
Such was the description carried from the guests at receptions, to the less-favoured crowd, who accepted all information with the avidity of idlers far removed from their own little centre of interest—parish, village, poultry-yard or club. Having the reputation of great wealth, a certain amount of caprice, eccentricity and generosity, the suite of Mrs Damer held the most interesting inmate of the Splendide. She understood and enjoyed mystery, it added to her importance; when she reclined in the verandah it was behind a screen; her appearances in public were but rare.
“She takes all sorts of queer fancies,” explained Mrs Corben to Katherine as they paced the terrace together, “and because she has a carriage and the best suite, and is Mrs Damer of Kingsbourne, she gives herself mighty airs. People think it an honour to be noticed by her. For my part I have not the smallest wish to make her acquaintance.” From which remark Katherine inferred that Mrs Corben was not one of the elect, and was therefore inclined to be a little spiteful.
“She is a great invalid and quite helpless, is she not?”
“Yes, she was nearly killed in a motor accident and is a complete cripple. Her spine is injured, but her tongue is all right. She has a horrible disposition, the temper of a wild cat, and is frightfully extravagant, though I believe her husband is poor. He is in the Diplomatic Service and exercises his talents in keeping out of her clutches as much as possible.”
“Well, of course, she cannot move about, and is obliged to live in a warm climate.”
“That is true; all the same she grumbles incessantly and has no idea of reticence or dignity. She tells all her private affairs and grievances to nurses and servants, as well as the secrets of her acquaintances; she would make a charwoman her confidante, and dismiss her the next day. She cannot keep a nurse or a companion for any time, and she is crazily jealous when her husband is here. If she sees him speaking to a woman on the terrace, she sends for him at once. Oh, her temper is fiendish; several hotels have refused her, and it is said that in one of her furies she will die, and a right good thing for Anthony Damer,” concluded Mrs Corben.
“Tell me how is your son?” inquired Katherine, abruptly.
“Oh, the dear clever fellow, has got a start at last, and through the interest of a friend. You know I always said his chance would come. An immensely rich South American took a great fancy to Monty; he says he is his right hand.”
“Yes, in what way?”
“Secretary, agent, companion. Monty writes his letters, looks after his money affairs, and takes him about among the best English people. It was one of Monty’s godfathers who found him this billet—Lord Augustus Boarde. Monty and the Count de Guerra are now at Monte Carlo—Hotel de Paris. Monty has not a penny to spend, gets a fine salary and all sorts of amusement. Is he not lucky? Now, my dear, I must run in and send off a few postcards.”
Katherine was enchanted with her present surroundings: the absolute stillness, save for the birds and the throb of a steamer, the exquisite snow-capped mountains with the after-glow, the picturesque old town, the shining lake, and above the hotel grounds, ablaze with primroses, narcissi, anemones, daffodils. Even in February, what flowers! The Splendide was built on the site of a once well-known villa, and although most of the villa had disappeared, its celebrated gardens remained; terrace after terrace they descended, winding down the hill-side to the water’s edge, a maze of wide walks, shady nooks, fish-ponds, fountains—the whole park only awaiting the sun of March to assume its rarest garb.
Lady Warbeck had never been a woman to find much interest in the face of Nature; a flower, a tree, a mountain peak, were all very well in their place, but she preferred to study the book of human documents; society, news, excitement, were what appealed to her.
"My dear, I'm afraid I shall find this place deadly dull," she said to Katherine. "I was not born dull, and I don't like to have dulness thrust upon me; to sit muffled in a shawl discussing symptoms and doctors is no fun. I don't care for staring all day at a lake or mountains; I can see them on picture postcards for ten centimes. I am restless! I believe I am like an old dog, who visits all his former haunts before he dies. Now, for instance, I should like to go to Egypt, but," here she heaved a sigh and looked speculatively at her companion. "Egypt is so expensive for two."
"I suppose it is," assented Katherine, "and this place is comparatively cheap. When you give a native a small silver coin, they look overwhelmed.”
"Rather different from England, isn't it? I heard of a man who offered sixpence to a gate-keeper, who at once returned it and said, 'No, no, sir, keep it. I know you want it more than I do.' And talking of wants, I forgot to tell you, that Mrs Damer is most anxious to make your acquaintance.”
"Mine! But why?"
“She saw you in the verandah, and took a fancy to your appearance."
"I am flattered."
"The poor woman is a wreck; to visit her would be a charity. She can't live long, yet she has all the will to run about the world, and do things, but lacks the power. Her spine is injured, her lower limbs are paralysed. Often she is in bed for weeks. Come with me now, like a dear, good girl; no time like the present," said Lady Warbeck, rising as she spoke, and extending an urgent hand.
Katherine did not move; her face expressed extreme reluctance.
“Never mind. So long as you don't go, she will tease, and tease, and tease; once she has seen you, she is sure to tire of you in five minutes. It's her way."
"If you can guarantee that as a certainty, I shall not hesitate, but, to tell you a secret, from all I have heard of her I am a little afraid of Mrs Damer.”
“Pooh, nonsense! Clara has been talking. She is obviously furious that Mrs Damer has ignored the Honourable Mrs Corben.”
"Well, I will accompany you on condition that Mrs Damer will never wish to see me again!”
In a short time Katherine found herself following Lady Warbeck into a large, dim room, with a heavily-scented atmosphere and a profusion of flowers. Here, directly facing her, was a low couch, on which the invalid lay; her head and shoulders resting among a pile of silk cushions. From their midst, a thin, haggard face, overweighed by masses of red hair, examined the visitor with a pair of deep-set eyes. These were small and alert, and expressed more than a hint of devilry. After a moment’s pause and scrutiny she exclaimed: “So you are Lady Warbeck’s treasure! I know I shall take to you, Miss Broome,” and she extended a small hand. “I caught sight of you in the glass-case, as I call the verandah, and I thought I would like to see you nearer. I like or dislike at first sight; there is no medium. I fell in love with my husband the moment I saw him. You are my opposite, tall and dark; I am little and fair, You are cool, I am fiery—extremes meet! Dearest Lady Warbeck, so good of you to bring Miss Broome. May I keep her for half an hour?”
As Lady Warbeck and Mrs Damer were exchanging civilities, Katherine glanced round the room; it was lofty and luxuriously furnished. She noticed a piano, books, photographs and papers in profusion; undoubtedly anxious and pathetic efforts had been made to temper the lot of the unhappy cripple. A little barking black Pom, with a pink bow in his hair, jumped up beside her on the couch.
“Is he not a perfect darling?” said his mistress, turning to Katherine. “He is my love, my angel, my baby,” kissing him rapturously; “horrid people, who dislike us, say he is my familiar, and so I call him ‘the D.’ Please do sit down.”
A worn-looking elderly woman, in the dress of a nurse, who approached was waved aside by Mrs Damer.
“Go and take your walk. This lady will stay with me; and be sure and ask for that book. Tell them I must—must have it; you cannot return without it. Now you can go.”
As the door closed she added:
“She is a dull, stupid creature, who drives me crazy, but she is a good nurse, and I can say anything I like to her, which is such a comfort. Some women are so thin-skinned. I’ve been trying for days for a very, very naughty French book—--a helpless cripple can read what she pleases, may she not? Now tell me how you like this hotel,”
“Oh, very much.”
“And I am so sick of it and of this place, and these brutes of doctors won’t move me. I wish I could go to Kingsbourne in summer; it is hard to lie here.”
“Yes indeed, and alone. Your husband so much away—how sad for you.”
“He comes when he can get leave. They work him so shamefully. He adores me, poor fellow, and gives me every spare moment, yet some people think I am a widow!” and she laughed a curious, metallic laugh.
Katherine surveyed her gravely. She had never encountered anyone who spoke with such volubility and gesticulation. Mrs Damer was plain, her face sallow and shrunken, wide across the cheek-bones, the chin short. Something in the upward curve of the eyebrows, the small flat nose, and the pointed, obtrusive ears, gave it an elfish and mischievous expression. Her sole beauty lay in her abundant reddish hair, and brilliant white teeth; these were set in a mouth so wide and lipless, that when she laughed, as on the present occasion, her companion instinctively recalled the picture of Hugo’s “L’homme qui rit.”
The prone body under a silken counterpane suggested a dormant force of subdued but volcanic energy; Katherine was reminded of the attitude of some fierce captive animal, crouching, hating, and ever ready to spring. She was also conscious of a secret dread and repugnance; she now understood what people wished to convey when they spoke of Mrs Damer as “strange-looking and weird.”
“I am not much to look at now,” said the invalid, partly discerning the visitor’s thoughts. “My hair and teeth remain, that is all. My poor, beautiful figure was perfect, and is gone, broken in two, and one arm is so stiff. Look,” and she held it out. “Tell me, how would you like to be in my shoes, with Kingsbourne, and the husband thrown in?”
Katherine was at a loss to find an answer to this extraordinary question.
“I am very sorry for you,” she murmured.
“Ah, I daresay,” with a gleam of malice; “but you have not seen Tony, or Kingsbourne.”
“Kingsbourne I have seen. We went over there one day from Bargrave.”
“Oh, really? Then we can talk about it comfortably. How I wish you’d seen Tony, and we could discuss him too. I suppose you met those awful Boundlys. What a couple! Sort of old and valued cook and butler, living on the legacy of a kind mistress! How funny they must look doing the honours.”
“They are taking wonderful care of the place,” said Katherine. “They both love it.”
“Do they. What cheek! As for care, that will not be of much use to us; we can never live there. Anthony’s heir is a cousin, whom naturally he hates. Poor Tony, he has had no luck; if this man would be so kind as to die he might sell the place.”
“But would he?
“Oh, yes, I’d make him. I can make Tony do anything,” she added with a sudden expansion of confidence. “I’ve made him raise the rent on the Bounders. Why should I be squeezed? I must have my carriage and maid. I’ve only to get into one of my Sunday best rages, and frighten him. I was so terribly smashed up, that the doctors wonder I am still living; really by all the laws of science, I ought to be dead! Any excitement is dangerous, and that is what makes Tony so anxious, so careful, and so afraid to say no to whatever I ask; so he would cave in, and sell Kingsbourne. Besides, he hates scenes; he would rather die than make one himself. When he is angry he is deadly quiet, and never raises his voice, whilst I scream and kick and shriek.—I hear you play charmingly, Miss Broome.” Then, with a burst of self-pity, “And sympathetic music is so soothing to a poor creature in ceaseless torture. It will be very kind of you to be sometimes David to my Saul. Will you?”
“I shall be delighted to do what I can.”
“Will you play to me now?”
Katherine rose and went to the piano—a fine instrument; she ran her fingers over the keys and began one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words.”
“No, no,” protested the invalid, “play something lively. Play a waltz, play a cake-walk.”
These demands were repeated for over half-an-hour when Katherine closed the instrument, saying:
“Now I really must go. Lady Warbeck will want me.”
“I am sure I want you too,” said the invalid, fretfully. “You soothe me, but I’ve no claim. A million thanks. I”—looking at her fixedly—“know I shall love you. I feel that there is some bond between us.” She held Katherine’s hand tightly in hers for quite a long time, devouring her face with her piercing little eyes. At last, to her visitor’s intense relief, the opening door and the sight of a yellow book, delivered her from captivity.
From that day forth Katherine was compelled to play her part in the sick-room; far from tiring of her in five minutes, Mrs Damer persistently clamoured for her society, as she did for anything she desired, and with equal success. Lady Warbeck not only spared her with noble generosity, but actually seemed eager for her companion to spend most of her time with the invalid. Unhappy Katherine! Hard indeed was her lot; she had now a double duty to perform, and fulfil the same difficult post to not one, but two exacting women. When her lawful employer had completed her toilette, and dictated a certain number of letters, she became urgent that her young friend should not spare herself in the cause of charity, and would say, in her most cajoling manner:
“Now, dear, do run down and sit with that poor tortured creature who has taken such a fancy to you. You know, dear, it is a privilege to have it in your power to soothe suffering, and it will all be made up to you some day. She says no one can read aloud, or play picquet, like you; there is no music to compare to yours; it seems to dull the pain and give her beautiful thoughts.”
Once or twice it had occurred to Katherine, that her old friend was not merely willing, but positively anxious that she should devote herself to the crippled lady. What did it mean? There was invariably some profitable motive for Lady Warbeck’s actions. Latterly she had deserted Katherine for the more congenial society of General and Mrs Broadway, and her so-called treasure was put aside and neglected. (It almost conveyed the impression that the old lady was tired of her, and the girl began to regret her foolish loyalty in refusing the offer of a home at Kingsbourne.) She merely made use of her services, and then would hustle her away to Mrs Damer, who craved for her presence, with a sort of insatiable animal hunger.
There was now an end to the long conversations, and the bold confidences, the abandonment of intimacy, which had enlivened the labours of her ladyship’s toilette; in fact it seemed sometimes (though the idea was preposterous) as if the old woman were ill at ease and nervous, when they were together alone.
One night as she was preparing to retire, the reason of Lady Warbeck’s peculiar estrangement was abruptly divulged.
“I have something important to say to you, Katherine,” she announced as she stood with her back to her removing her rings; her voice sounded a little nervous and constrained as she proceeded. “The fact is, you remember I told you that I was like a restless old dog, anxious to revisit his former haunts? Well, I am going to Egypt with the Broadways.”
“Of course I cannot afford two tickets, two hotel bills at the Savoy—one is bad enough—otherwise I would be only too glad for you to accompany me.”
She paused, evidently awaiting some remark, but none being forthcoming she continued:
“You know how much Mrs Damer is attached to you. She has offered to take you off my hands for two months, so everything fits in beautifully. We shall return early in May.” Then, turning slowly to face her, “Now, Katherine, what do you say?”
“You must give me time to consider.”
“Yes, but we leave the day after to-morrow; our passages and rooms are booked.” As she made this announcement the old woman glanced furtively at her companion, who had become rather pale.
“If you will only be sensible, Katherine, the arrangement is a capital one for you and me.”
“Was this what you were whispering about one day, when you asked me to leave you and Mrs Damer to finish a discussion?” demanded the girl.
“Yes, it was. You need not look so solemn. We were bargaining over terms, and of course I did my best for you. You are to have a large front room with two windows, your morning coffee upstairs and ten pounds a month. Now, what do you say?”
The girl looked straight into the shrewd, selfish old face, as she answered:
“That I shall hate it!”
“Come, come! I know you have always had an unaccountable feeling against Mrs Damer, and the poor woman, she loves you; you have enormous influence with her, such power to do good to her, body and soul, and you hate it. Oh, Katherine! Katherine!”
Lady Warbeck in the character of preacher and moralist was a novel and interesting spectacle. There was a faint note of defiance in the question.
“And if I decline?”
“Well then, my dear, I am afraid I cannot afford to give you free quarters here, or I would. This trip will cost me a fortune. I’ll pay your salary—nine shillings a week—--and I know you have some money put by; perhaps you’d like to go to Blessington Place. You really deserve a rest.”
A rest in Blessington Place! To Katherine the mere address, implied misery and misfortune!
Seeing the girl’s face blanch, the clever old intriguer instantly followed up her advantage.
“Honestly, and speaking as your friend, and for your good, you had much better remain here comfortably till I return, and pocket your twenty pounds.”
“Mr and Mrs Boundly invited me to Kingsbourne. I might go to them.”
“Certainly not,” she answered with decision. “I really could not have that. Here, I wish to leave you, here, to find you.”
Katherine took two or three aimless steps about the room, then she came back.
“I suppose I have no choice! You have taken me by surprise and given me no alternative; but something, some instinct I cannot interpret, urges me to say ‘No.’ I accept under protest; I am sorry for Mrs Damer, but she is capricious, excitable, and strange.”
“Instinct! rubbish! Strange and excitable. Probably some brain mischief; her head was hurt in the accident,” coolly declared Lady Warbeck. “Yes, of course, that would account for her oddities and furies. However, she will be as wax in your hands. The nurse believes that unconsciously you possess hypnotic powers. She says you are wonderful. Then you will go?”
“You mean that you will go, and I will stay! Yes, but on conditions. Please let it be understood that I will not sit up at night, nor will I remain the whole day in the hot atmosphere of her room; it gives me a headache, and she gets on my nerves.”
“Oh!”—the exclamation was sarcastic—“and may I ask what you will do?”
“I will play, and sing, and read aloud, and listen.”
“Um, her mind is poisonous; it will be like hearing a bad French novel. How she does pour out her thoughts.”
“You know, she enjoys talking. I will arrange flowers, write letters, play cards, and accompany her when she drives.”
“Yes, dear; and when she is talking, as she does by the hour, you will be sitting with your hands before you, and might do a little sewing for me. There are my black lace flounces to mend, and you might make up that pink silk petticoat.”
Katherine turned away to place some trinkets in a drawer, mentally resolving not to put on a thimble in the service of the speaker, who had not treated her fairly and openly, but had callously thrust her into another situation, in order to save her pocket, and serve her own convenience. Far down in her heart lay a hidden fear of Mrs Damer. She could not trust her, and for all her sweet endearments and pretty, coaxing ways, she was like a caressing, purring tigress, who, on the slightest provocation, might spring, and figuratively tear to pieces a too-confiding friend.
“So then it’s all settled, Katherine,” said Lady Warbeck, with an air of relief. “I must confess that I made up my mind and plans a fortnight ago, but I was just a little wee bit uncertain, as to how you would take the news.”
“Do you think I have taken it well?”
“Admirably, my dear, like a dose of medicine, and a dose that will do you good.”
“I hope, to continue your agreeable simile, there is no poison in the prescription?”
“Oh, my dear, what a weird idea! Well,” stifling a yawn, “it is too late to bandy words. Give me my tabloid and be off to bed. You will have a hard day to-morrow packing. I take everything except my furs and best jewellery, which I’ll leave in your charge, and now good-night. I am going to say my prayers.”
A whole week had elapsed since the departure of the little party for Egypt, and Miss Broome had settled into her new situation as companion to Mrs Damer—companion and confidante—more of the latter than the former. She was a patient and sympathetic listener, and although she played and sang and read aloud, it was when sitting in the dusk or the moonlight, with her hand clutched in the invalid's hot fingers, that she was chiefly invaluable. Here, in this dim room, in an atmosphere heavy with the scent of flowers, and sandal wood, it was her rôle to lend her ears to tales of riches, extravagance, rivalries, conquests, and occasionally to soothe a wild outbreak of frenzied lamentation over a broken life. Sometimes Kingsbourne and its importance were a topic, the Damer glories, the Damer pictures, the Damer jewels.
"The diamonds are celebrated," declared Mrs Damer. “Tony keeps most of them in the bank; the tiara would look splendid among my masses of hair if I were presented at Court. Oh! this accident to me has been such a calamity for poor Tony! I could have schemed and pushed and got him on. I can read faces as I read books. I speak Spanish, and Portuguese and French. Fancy being an ambassadress! They say that for a woman, it is the most desirable situation in the whole world. She has a great position and prestige, and no work or responsibility. Sir Grant Currie told me that a diplomatist cannot be too careful in his choice of a wife; she must be accomplished, tactful, popular, and able to preside with grace. Now all this would have been entirely in my line, and just look at me," and she raised, and let fall her thin hands, "look at me, lying here a useless log. I must confess, that Tony has beautiful manners; he likes the Service and says it is so interesting. He is immensely clever, in his cool quiet way, and he can hold his tongue only too well.”
"Have you his photograph?" asked Katherine, looking round. "I should like to see it."
"Not one out; they are all locked away. Stay, you might try in that little Swiss box over there."
Katherine brought it to the couch, and Mrs Damer turned it over hastily. "No, no, no, and no one so handsome as Tony."
"Who is this?" inquired Katherine, picking up a faded photograph which had slipped to the floor. It represented a stout, elderly woman with a dark, flat face, and a vacant stare. She was covered with diamonds.
"Oh, that is my mother—Mrs M'Dougall. She does not look Scotch, does she? She is a South American, and has a foreign air and talks with an accent. You would not believe that once she was a beauty. No, there is not one of Anthony. I wish you could see him, he is so good-looking. He worships me. Only think, he proposed for me eight times."
Katherine kept her eyes fixed on the ground, and inwardly sought for the reason of such unreasonable persistence.
“Of course I was rich," continued Mrs Damer, “and he was poor. But it was not all that. You would not suppose I was attractive, and fascinating, and drove men crazy! I had wit, and grace, and charm. Tell me, Miss Broome, have you ever had a serious love affair?"
“How extraordinary! I can hardly believe you. Every woman has some romance. Have you never met a man who you would have married had he asked you?' Katherine coloured, and was silent.
"Ah, you have!" cried the other, triumphantly. "Some day you must confide in me, and tell me all about it. Was I not clever to get hold of you? I saw at once the old lady's game when she lent you so freely on approval; I knew she had some plan up her sleeve, but her plan was a good one for me. I get to the end of most people in no time. I shall never get to the end of you. I change maids and nurses.—--I have a temper." Katherine nodded emphatically.
"Oh, I suppose you have heard me scolding Wilson! My disposition is funny. I rage, and rage, and say things I forget. Now Anthony never rages and never forgets. I cannot help my temper. It was born with me. Also I talk, and talk, and fly into furies to try and kill the pain that day and night seems to eat away my life. Should I ever be horrid to you, think, 'The poor wretch is crazy with agony; she does not know what she says.' I had a bad time this winter but now I am better. I really believe you do me good, and I owe you a heavy debt."
The inmates of the Splendide contemplated the transference of Miss Broome with mixed feelings and outspoken opinions. The Piersons, Mr Bruce, and Mrs Corben, declared that “it was shameful of Lady Warbeck to go off and callously leave her unfortunate companion in the power of such a woman as Mrs Damer,—a prey to her whims, and her tempers.”
The Todcastles, on the contrary, thought it was capital thing for the girl; she managed the invalid so admirably, and no doubt received a large salary; she had a better room, the use of a carriage, no hair-dressing, and no dressmaking.”
Others again confidently prophesied that the alliance would not last; they were as sure of this, as of the meanness of Lady Warbeck. A rich woman who pretended that she could not afford to take a companion with her wherever she went, had no right to engage one. Indeed, it was whispered that she had only broken the news of her fresh bondage to the poor slave, the very day before she abandoned her to her fate.
“Now tell me, how do you like the change?” asked Mrs Corben as she sank into a seat beside Katherine, who was sitting in the great verandah.
“Oh, I am getting on all right, thank you.”
“I saw you had her out driving yesterday, and in a hat that must have cost three hundred francs, but she looks awful. What an expression, what a shrivelled-up skin. Oh, how could any man have married her?”
“Every eye forms its own beauty.” Mrs Corben gave a little scream of laughter. “And everyone knows that Anthony Damer married her for her money, and was swindled. Her father was the son of a Scotch shepherd. He went out in the usual canny Scotch way, to better himself, and began as a hand on a ranche in the Argentine, married a native with some money, made a gigantic fortune in horns and hides,—--and lost it in mad speculation. I wonder Anthony Damer has not shot himself long ago. Imagine being tied for life to a sort of panther with a broken back.”
“Oh, my dear Mrs Corben,” protested Katherine, “think of the poor woman’s horrible accident.”
“You make excuses and see the best of her at present, but you are deceived, and being patted and played with cat-fashion, before you are crunched up.”
It was now Katherine’s turn to laugh.
“I know her,” continued Mrs Corben, speaking gravely, “for I have stayed in the same hotels; at one place she made such scenes that they were obliged to request her not to come into the public rooms. She will pour out her soul to you; yes, within two days’ acquaintance it is you and her, hand-in-hand for life; then she takes offence, becomes jealous, hates you, reviles you, sticks at nothing to blacken your name. I give you leave to boast that you have been a reigning favourite for one whole month, indeed longer. She tells people you are absolutely perfect and her twin soul. How do you like that idea?” and Mrs Corben’s prominent grey eyes danced.
“Oh, what rubbish!” cried Katherine, impatiently.
“Yes, my dear, the only woman she has ever loved, respected, and believed in. All the same, let me warn you that your day will be short. I doubt if it will last till Lady Warbeck returns.”
“Why? Do you already see the little rift within the lute?”
“No, I merely speak from experience. Suddenly the storm will burst; there will be a dramatic trial, and you will lose head and character.”
“Job’s comforters were gay and merry in comparison to you. Do you make no allowance for an unfortunate woman, still young and—--”
“Thirty-five,” snapped Mrs Corben.
“So fond of life and living, so eager to mix with the world, tied to a couch, a martyr to pain.”
“Bah! Half of her pain is pretence and sham. Put on to gain her own ends, and to excuse her outrageous furies. It is wonderful how she can play cards, and chatter to young men when she has a mind to.”
“Oh, Mrs Corben, you are hard. Well, since we differ so much on this subject let us start another. I believe you had a letter from Lady Warbeck this morning?”
“Yes, the dear old thing finds Egypt, or Cairo unexpectedly warm, but very full and gay. No end of dinners, and receptions. She is sorry now, that she left all her best ornaments in your care.”
Katherine turned her head to face the speaker.
“Is she?” she said gravely. “But I thought this was to be such a dead secret.”
“Oh, yes, but I know all about it,” replied the other, triumphantly.
“Then please do not tell anyone. These valuable ornaments are such a serious responsibility for me.”
“Yes, of course, and you have them in your own room too. Well, I think you are brave. Why not give them to the manager?”
“Lady Warbeck thought they were safer and less likely to be found if I kept them in a bonnet box.”
“A bonnet box! Good heavens!”
“Yes; you will keep this a secret, please?”
“Of course. Need you ask? Do you think I am stark, staring mad? Ah, here comes the maid, an emissary for you, and you must fly, fly, fly!”
“I sent for you,” began Mrs Damer, in answer to a look of interrogation, “because I saw you talking to that awful woman—of course I mean Mrs Corben, the adventuress. Dishonourable Mrs Corben, but too well-known. She was mortally annoyed when your old lady went to Egypt. We all know she is waiting for her shoes. I cannot think how she contrives to carry on. She lives on her distant connections, lords and ladies, and her wits, such as they are! She is venomous, and unscrupulous, and pushing. I have always kept her at arm’s length; and the lout, her son. Have you ever seen him? He is positively impossible, and brags all day, and is such a liar! His mother’s one good trait is her love for that cub! She is horribly in debt, thanks to him, and is always chasing old ladies and legacies, and taking presents from men. I know a man who paid her hotel bill at Aix; it was a pretty stiff one too! The Todcastles could tell you about her. It is a mistake to be seen with her at an hotel; she fastens on to newcomers, poor innocents, who never guess that old residents are saying ‘Birds of a feather.’”
Katherine was silent; she was thinking, “How these women love one another.” Within the same half-hour had seen exhibited life-sized portraits of Mrs Damer and Mrs Corben.
“Why don’t you say something? Are you dumb?”
“What can I say? Is the devil ever as black as he is painted?”
“Ten times blacker! You must not associate with this wretch. Why I wanted you, apart from removing you from Mrs Corben, was to get you to write a letter for me to my husband.”
“To your husband! But—”
“Yes, yes, I write myself—scraps in pencil and scrawls. My wrist, you know, is stiff. This is to be quite an epistle. You write like print, and do all the old lady’s correspondence. Now I intend to send Anthony a long, legible letter. So please get the blotter, and pen and ink, and sit close to me at this little table.”
Katherine rose and did as requested, and as soon as she had adjusted a sheet of paper Mrs Damer began. She dictated so rapidly, and poured out such a cataract of words, that the pen was left far behind, though it had raced along at an extremely rapid rate. Mrs Damer dictated precisely as if she was speaking to her husband, and with her usual reckless volubility. She commenced with an angry accusation. Why did he not write? What was he doing? Could he never spare a few moments to her? a martyr to pain, and a saint of patience. Of course he was enjoying himself, man-like, dancing and flirting with women in Vienna—notoriously the worst women in the world. After this came an imperative demand for money—more money, the last cheques were gone; the hotel was extortionate, so were the doctors. Even a poor cripple must be clothed as befitted Mrs Damer of Kingsbourne. She had heaps of bills to pay—chemist, masseuse, companion. She was a treasure.”
Katherine hastily laid down the pen.
“Go on, go on!” urged Mrs Damer, impatiently.
“I could not, as you know, write at length, and now she writes, and blushes, and hesitates, but letter-writing is her duty. You know I took her over from that gay old dowager, Lady Warbeck, who has gone to Egypt and lent her to me till she returns—her means Miss Broome—but I’ve told you of her, and how she is never tired, or cross, or weary of me, and her very presence in a room makes me feel happy and at rest.”
“Really, Mrs Damer, you must excuse me writing any more about myself,” said Katherine, firmly; “it is impossible. Your good opinion of me is only too kind, too flattering, but do put yourself in my place. Imagine yourself writing a splendid eulogium of your own character, to an utter stranger you have never seen. Do let me re-write this last sheet?””
“No, no, no. For one thing, you need not mind. Anthony never believes half I tell him. For another, you will never meet, so you need not be so shy. Thirdly and lastly, I have already praised you to the skies and described you to him—tall, dark and thin, age about thirty-two, rather pretty, but not his style, clever, well-bred and popular. Even if Anthony were to come here it would not matter, he never seems to see a woman, which, as it happens, is just as well, for I am furiously jealous; it is natural too, is it not? A poor wife bound to the wheel, a handsome husband out in the gay world and at large; but Anthony is no viveur. He should have been a parson, a saint. Like Saint Anthony of Padua, he is stone to all temptations.”
“And you trust him absolutely and utterly?”
“Oh, I trust him now, but at first I had him watched,” and she nodded her head expressively.
Katherine felt her face blaze.
“If there had been another woman, cripple as I am, I’d have crawled to her somehow, and torn the eyes and tongue out of her head. Well—oh! and the letter—--just wind it up and say, ‘Mind you write at once and enclose a cheque by return. I’ve not paid the hotel for three weeks. Your loving wife, Lalla.’ Now get an envelope and I will address it myself; the handwriting of a strange woman would frighten Tony to death!”
As the month of April advanced, Mrs Damer found herself disposed to abandon her isolation and retirement; she sat in the garden or verandah, drove out daily, played bridge, and appeared less restless and excitable, and more like other people. Her coffee-coats, tea-gowns, mantles and hats were all of the most costly description, and her reckless extravagance filled Katherine with amazement; it was not alone the articles she wore that were so expensive, but the vast collection of lovely chiffons she ordered, and contemptuously cast aside. Small wonder, that every letter to her husband contained a demand for money, and these letters (dictated) were of almost daily despatch.
"I do wish Tony would come here, he may for a day or two. I enjoy showing him off," declared his wife. "It amuses me to see the astonishment on people's faces when I introduce a man of his stamp as my husband. He has an air, and he is so good-looking, though rather careworn. His eyes are beautiful, but they never smile, he smiles with his mouth. They say his mother was so handsome, that people stood in a queue to see her coming out of church, and no doubt Anthony inherited her looks, for old Damer had a face like a hatchet, and the eyes of a boiled fish."
Three days of peace and serenity were cut short by one of the invalid's most tropical outbursts. One evening, as Katherine was dressing for dinner, there was a timid knock at her door, and Nurse Wilson entered.
"Can you please come down with me?" she said. "Mrs Damer has an attack—a bad one. She is raving, and nearly beside herself, and you may control her. I cannot do anything, she threw the dog at me!”
"What has upset her?" inquired Katherine as she prepared to descend.
"A letter from Mr Damer as well as I can make out; she is nearly crazy, and almost like an epileptic. Do not get too near her, miss, but I know you have a strong will, and wonderful influence."
They found the maid and a terrified femme de chambre in sole charge of the patient, who, sitting half upright on the couch, was screaming, sobbing, and gnashing her teeth, and beating her hands on the counterpane in a frenzy of passion, and Katherine instantly realised that she was in the presence of a demented creature.
"But what is it? What is the matter?" she inquired as she advanced into the room.
Mrs Damer's sole reply was to fling her head about, and continue her shrill, incoherent railings. For a long time she remained in this hopeless condition, but by degrees Katherine's cool hand, soothing voice and tender coaxing prevailed. Mrs Damer drank a composing draught, suffered her face to be bathed in eau-de-cologne, and was removed to her bed.
As gradually she became quieter, Katherine turned off the lights, and dismissed the other women, whispering: "I will remain here for the present. I think she is going to sleep."
For nearly an hour the watcher sat in semi-darkness; suddenly she was startled by a voice saying:
"She will not go to sleep. She is going to talk. Turn on the light—one light—now," reaching out an imperative arm, "give me your hand."
When Katherine complied, she felt her hand gripped and held as in a vice.
"Do you know what has brought me this attack? A devilish letter from Anthony. Oh, how I wish he was dead! Why does not one of us die! Oh, to be tied together for life in this misery! Why does he not die? Once he told me he had nothing to live for. Then why doesn't he shoot himself? My God, how I hate him!"
Katherine recoiled involuntarily; surely she was listening to the ravings of a lunatic.
"Yes, yes," breaking into wild, passionate sobs, “I hate him, and he has a horror of me. Yes, a horror and loathing of me. I feel it. If he kisses me, he shrinks. Shall I ever forget the day he proposed to me? I—--I—--” squeezing Katherine's fingers till she could have screamed with pain, "I have told you lies about Tony. Now you shall have the truth."
"No, no, no," protested her unwilling listener, struggling to withdraw her hand, "I must not listen to you. Your husband would not wish you to speak of him, and tell his private affairs to a stranger."
"But I will speak of him to you!" screamed his wife. "Why not? I must talk out of my heart, or it will burst. If I do not relieve my mind, I shall go mad, mad, mad! I don't care what I say to you; after all, who are you, that it should matter? Only a maid—--a sort of broken-down lady."
Katherine looked into the drawn, convulsed face and remembered the words of pitiful warning, "Do not mind if I am dreadful to you; say to yourself, the poor creature is crazy."
"I told you," continued Mrs Damer, "that I'd die in one of these fits of rage, and I expect it will be my ending. I cannot control myself, I never learned to be quiet, and no matter what I say, you will never see Tony. Oh," and she began to sob, "he has written me a vile letter; a lot of old bills he thought I'd paid, have come in. I told him they were all settled, and he is angry—--so politely angry. He says, I have ruined him, that if he clears my debts, I must give up my carriage. Just think of the shame of it, and everyone whispering and saying, ‘Ah, ha! so the carriage was too much!' Oh, what a devil he is to me! I've told you lies, now you shall hear the truth."—Her voice was broken with spasmodic, sob-like gasps. "Listen to my life. Yes—Yes, you shall. I was born in Buenos Ayres, that little Paris! My father was a Scotch shepherd, my mother the daughter of a shopkeeper and an Argentine with some money. I am not of noble Portuguese family—more likely the descendant of slave-dealers and pirates. My father, Sandy M'Dougall, prospered. I was an only child, and spoiled, for my father was too busy, my mother too lazy, to look after me, and later both were much too afraid of me to interfere. I had next to no education but dancing and languages; for those I have a genius, and can pick up any tongue in a few weeks. I had heaps of friends. Well, when I was fifteen I got into a scrape—ne faut pas en parler; father was furious. You see he was Presbyterian and strict, and had never taken to our casual ways. I was sent home to a family in Glasgow, and to a first-rate boarding-school, where I was left for four long years. Oh, how I abhorred it! But I worked. Scotch girls are clever and brainy, and I was on my mettle. I too had Scotch blood in my veins. I carried off prizes, I triumphed, yes—--and I trampled. I spent my holidays with some hateful relations on a sheep farm and turned the heads of all the tame young men with my hair, and teeth, and figure, and dancing and devilry. I had also amusing flirtations with brothers of schoolfellows, and the mathematical master was daft about Lalla M'Dougall. She gasped for a moment, and continued:
“When I was nineteen father fetched me, and we spent some time on the Continent. His health was poor, and he was trying cures. Then we went back to Buenos Ayres, where I led a delightful life. The padré was a rich man; we had moved up the ladder, and were in Society. The madré had her carriage and diamonds, and I was an heiress. Oh, I found it uncommonly pleasant. Well, no need to tell you, of all those years, and many things are misty in my head, for I want to get to Anthony. When father died, we left Buenos Ayres, and mother and I travelled about Europe. Twice I was engaged to be married, and twice I broke it off. I quarrelled with the first man because he refused to show me a letter; with the other, because he left my opera-box and went to talk to another woman, and stayed so long that I shut him out when he did come back. Mother was vexed, for he was a lord, and she was dying to get me married. I had heaps of affairs and flirtations, and mother and I roamed about in warm climates, till at last, one winter at Algeciras, we came across old Mr Damer.”
Here she paused, panted for breath, and threw out her hands to deprecate interruption.
"Old Mr Damer was at the Reina Christina with his valet. He looked terribly ill. The madré fancied herself an invalid, and so they made friends, and sat together in the verandah, comparing symptoms, and prescriptions, and doctors, and becoming quite intimate. I believe she consulted him about her investments, and he confided his affairs to her. He spoke of the death of his eldest son, his terrible debts, and other matters. He gathered that her daughter was an heiress; she, that he was the owner of a famous name and an historical estate on the verge of bankruptcy. Well, naturally, I let them talk. I had always my own fish to fry.
"Then one day Mr Damer's heir arrived. When I saw him walking across the patio with his father I simply fell in love with him on the spot, and I remember so well the crafty old man's anxiety to introduce us, and how astonished I was to find that he had such a handsome son! So dark, with foreign eyes. And I said to myself, Of course, being dark, he will admire me and my red hair. Cela va sans dire!
But I was mistaken. He never admired either me or my hair," and again she gasped painfully for breath. "Oh, cannot you finish this another time?" entreated Katherine; "you must be utterly exhausted. I'll promise to come, and listen—--”
"No, no, I'm not half done! and you will listen now—now that all these things are standing round my bed, and I can see them. I joined the old couple in the garden, and so did Anthony. We were among parties to 'Gib' and Tangiers, and the cork woods. The old man came too. I could see, with half an eye, that he was desperately eager for his son to marry me, and I—--I—was only too willing. I was crazy about Anthony, and he was always so handsome, so polite, so indifferent, but I said to myself, ‘I will make him adore me one day, and my fortune will rescue his name and estates.' I forced my mother to offer almost the whole of it—--I pressed her hard, and she always did whatever I chose. The madré tempted the old man; and he, so to say, put the screw on Tony." For a moment she closed her eyes in retrospection. "I believe there were many critical interviews behind the scenes, but I was callous to everything save one big fact—--I intended to marry Anthony Damer. And one morning, walking back from the steamer, in the most prosaic fashion he asked me to be his wife. He spoke, as if he had learnt a difficult lesson off by heart; he was deadly white, as he assured me he would do his utmost to make me happy, and that there had never been anyone else, and I would help him to restore Kingsbourne?
"I agreed, of course. I was to be Mrs Damer of Kingsbourne, married to, and for, Kingsbourne! But I had captured Anthony. He was mine! mine! mine! I could hardly speak, so overpowering was my joy, my rapture, when I looked at him, walking beside me, and thought of the fair-haired girl, whom I knew would now break her heart. I had always been a little afraid of her, and so I told Tony that her mother was in a madhouse. Yes, I stuck at nothing, and Tony was so chivalrous he believed women then. The old people were enchanted; that evening we dined together and drank champagne, and Tony gave me a priceless family ring. Afterwards, he and I went into the moonlight, and strolled about in that lovely garden; he was very reserved, he scarcely spoke. At last, I sat down in a rustic seat in a deliciously-retired spot, and now I was sure that Anthony would take me in his arms and kiss me, but no. There he lounged at the corner of the seat, smoking cigarettes and boring me about Kingsbourne. Think of it! Oh, I've never forgiven him—no, not till this day. As the wedding was to be hurried on because of the old gentleman's health we all returned to London, where the lawyers drew up the settlements, and we were married very quietly at St James's Church, Piccadilly. Afterwards we went to Kingsbourne. You know it—just like an old place in a story book. I intended to cart away all that rubbishy tapestry and stained glass, and have lots of white paint, and chintz, and so on. We arranged for a motor house, and repairs to the roof—of course out of my money, and then suddenly the old man died—died with his mind at ease.
"Immediately after the funeral we went abroad for a change, took the motor, and began our quarrels. Yes, no doubt it was rather soon. In Paris, at an hotel, we met some smart diplomatic friends of Anthony's, and one of the ladies and I had a pitched battle. She was cool, and I was hot, and I smacked her face with my fan! Anthony was so angry, he said I had disgraced myself!
Afterwards we motored South—it was near Avignon we met with the accident," and she drew a long, shuddering breath.
“Oh, pray don't talk of it," protested Katherine, "don't!"
But she merely made a gesture of furious impatience. "It was all my own fault, I was in a vile temper. I wanted to go by one road, Tony by another. Of course he gave way, and he allowed me to drive, for I told him it was my motor, bought with my money. Another car passed us, and I tried to race and overtake it. Why not? We were sixty horse power. Somehow, in the dust, I never saw another motor coming till it was too late. I lost my head, I lost control, and before Tony could interfere, we were over a high bank. Oh, accidents are so easy! The car fell on top of me. The chauffeur, who was behind in the tonneau, was killed, and Tony had an arm broken and two ribs.
“Well, I lay at death’s door for weeks at a little French inn, and Tony was an angel to me. Yes, I must try and remember that. My mother had returned to her beloved Buenos Ayres, and he was mother, nurse, and everything. He summoned specialists from Paris—all no good. I was done for! My own fault—I would drive. After this an awful thing happened. It appeared that most of my money was invested in various shaky speculations, and among several great financial crashes, nearly every penny was swept away, all within two or three months. Six hundred a year only is left; five hundred of that goes to the madré. Tony will have it so, though he does not like her, neither do I. I am ashamed of her, I hated to be seen with her, she is so dark and fat. Now you know my life. I am a drag on Tony, a stone round his neck. I love him and I hate him. Sometimes I want him to live,—to-day I want him to die. Yes, to die,” and once more she began to sob and tremble, shaken by the tempest of her own passion.
“Now you really must control yourself,” said Katherine. “How can you expect to live if you give way in this fashion? I have listened, and allowed you to talk what you call your heart out; you have relieved your poor brain, and what you have said will be as sacred, as if it were uttered in the confessional.”
“Yes, I feel that with you,” she gasped. “Oh, I am a trial. I am a trial to myself, to you, to Tony, to everyone,” and she looked at her with strange eyes.
“But why be one? Why not endeavour to think better of other people, and to like them? Why not study your husband’s wishes, and send him kind letters? We get what we give in love, and life. I am sure he must be charming.”
“Yes, that is what he is; but I was not ‘born’, and—--can you believe it? he is too much the gentleman for me. My proper mate would be a rough bully, who would drink, and curse, and knock me about. Anthony is always cool; our characters are antagonistic. He likes peace, I enjoy war and turbulence. He hates lies and shams, they amuse me. He is fastidious and burns my bad books when they are too scandalous. He is clever, has a magnetic personality, and is awfully popular; people loathe me. He has never been in love, love to him is as music to a deaf man;” and again she burst into a storm of sobs. At last she lay utterly exhausted and silent, the tears streaming down her wasted, sallow cheeks.
“Now shall I try to sing you to sleep?” pleaded the watcher. “Will you try and sleep,—to please me?”
“Yes, yes,” she sobbed; “sing to me, sing to me!” and Katherine, her hand still tightly locked in the other’s fierce grasp, began to croon an old Irish lullaby. Very gradually the sobs ceased, the breathing became regular, the fingers relaxed.—--Mrs Damer was at rest.
With a sigh of relief Katherine rose and looked down on the worn, fretted face; then, like a thief in the night, she crept away to her own room.
The violent “brain” storm, the stupendous emotional disturbance, appeared to have cleared the atmosphere. Mrs Damer recovered her usual poise with amazing elasticity, and resumed her daily round, snatching greedily at every form of amusement that came within her reach. As an employer, she proved a far more indulgent mistress than Lady Warbeck, and Katherine, relieved from hair-dressing and sewing, had merely to read, to play the piano, to listen and to sympathise. She was accorded many days “out” and enjoyed her liberty, exploring the delightful scenery of the Italian lakes, and joining in excursions with parties from the Splendide. Mr Bruce invariably formed one of these, and it was evident to those who had eyes to see, that he was attracted by Miss Broome. He did not go forth to climb hills, visit ancient palaces and picturesque villages; all he ever saw or cared to see was Lady Warbeck’s charming companion. He was a well-set up, well-bred man of fifty, with ample means and leisure, who rented a fine suite of rooms in the Albany, and travelled much, especially in Italy,—where he was a respected client at various notable hotels. Latterly he had begun to weary of his lonely life; solitude had its pleasures, but now some of its drawbacks became obtrusive. He desired a companion. He had been favoured with excellent opportunities of judging of Miss Broome’s qualifications in seeing her fill this post to two particularly trying ladies. She was well broken in to obedience, self-restraint and silence; was young, handsome, accomplished, and penniless; by birth a gentlewoman, a Plantagenet-Broome, and of better blood than either of her employers. As soon as he could find an opportunity he determined “to speak,” and Katherine was nervously aware of his intention.
A match, kindled under their own supervision, is ever interesting to the guests of an hotel. Miss Broome was much liked and pitied. Here indeed was the chance of her life! She would be mad to ignore it. Mr Bruce was agreeable, gentlemanly and rich; true, he was double her age—but she could not expect everything! The little group of intelligent well-wishers invented many nice opportunities for a tête-à-tête between the “to be” happy pair, but somehow the interviews never came off. Katherine was undecided. She liked David Bruce, had seen him daily for two months and taken his measure. He had a nice taste in books and music, an equable temper, and a mind stored with interesting memories. Should she marry him, she would do her utmost to be a good wife, but love, she had none to offer. Unfortunately she had bestowed her heart upon a nameless stranger, whom she would never see again, and who—amazing and painful truth—--had no wish to see her.
Was she to sell herself for a home like Anthony Damer? She recalled her own disdain when she listened to the tale as related by Miss Thom. Were she to become the wife of Mr Bruce, her wanderings would be ended, also her life of chance, of being a victim to caprice, whims and intolerable confidences. In such a marriage, she would find rest, shelter and protection. She might have been happy at Kingsbourne, helping the old man with his catalogue and Mrs Boundly with her embroidery. That door was closed; another now stood open. She would give herself a week in which to decide whether she would enter, or not.
One day, to her surprise, Monty Corben descended from the hotel ’bus; he looked pale, haggard, sulky, and even shabby. His coat was dusty, his smart panama hat stained and out of shape. It appeared that he had come to pay his mother a flying visit; having gruffly announced this fact, he added:
“And so I hear the old woman has gone off to Egypt and left you with a mad cat! I must say I call it a beastly shame!” and he stalked into the restaurant, and commanded cognac.
During the day, Katherine noticed Monty and his mother holding long and grave confidences in secluded corners of the verandah, and the gardens; and once in a corridor, she came face to face with Mrs Corben, who was almost unrecognisable, her prominent eyes were so red and inflamed from crying. It was evident that some grave disaster had overtaken the Corben family.
That same evening after dinner, Katherine went to her room to fetch a book. The April moon shone through the windows, and as she closed the door she became aware that she was not alone, but descried the figure of a man moving between her and the dressing-table. With one quick spring, she turned on the light, which instantly revealed Monty, standing before her in stockinged feet, with the blue jewel-case in his hand. His face looked white and strained, his eyes furious and defiant, and behind him on the floor lay the rifled bonnet box.
“What are you doing here?” she cried; then she added, “Oh, I need not ask!”
“I suppose you think I’m going to let you stop me,” he blustered, making a movement towards the door. “Of course I am—those jewels are in my care. I am responsible, give them to me.”
“Bah! you must know jolly well that I am desperate, and not likely to let a woman stand between me and a fortune. Get back!” and with a rough movement he thrust her aside.
“No, it’s no use,” she said coolly. “I’ll ring the bell,” and she put out her hand. “Come, be sensible.”
He stood staring at her foolishly. His will seemed to be suddenly paralysed, and he put down the case, for his nerve had suddenly evaporated.
“Damn you!” as Katherine snatched up his prey and, opening the door, almost pushed him through; then she locked it after them.
“Come here,” she said, indicating a quiet lobby window at the end of a vast pillared corridor. He followed her reluctantly, with slow, slouching gait.
“And so you have come to this?” she said, suddenly turning to face him.
“I have,” he answered sullenly. “Twenty-five thousand is a fine haul; that case meant life and fortune. By Jove, if you don’t let me clear off quietly I’ll”—--fumbling in his coat—“shoot myself here, and let you in for an infernal scandal.”
“Nonsense,” she said sharply. “Tell me—--I’ll keep your secret—why have you turned thief?”
“Everyone that gets the chance, is a thief one way or another,” he stammered.
“I don’t want generalities, but facts!”
“I’ve been at Monte Carlo,—that’s the whole story.”
“I’ve been at Monte Carlo too.”
“Yes, but not gambling high, with every temptation flung in your way, and fast women egging you on and patting you on the back. I got a bad turn, I simply couldn’t win—roulette, or trente—et—quarante. I tried every dodge and lost; so did Guerra, but he played with his own coin, and I played with and lost, his. I give you my word of honour I meant to pay him—one coup would have done it.”
“How much did you borrow?” she demanded brusquely.
“Fifty thousand francs—two thousand pounds. I came to see what the mater could do for me, but it seems that she is in an awful hole, at her wits end, so there is nothing for it but a bolt.”
“And she told you where Lady Warbeck’s jewels were kept? The place was only known to myself, and her.”
“Well—er—she did; but I wormed it out of her, and it occurred to me, that I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb!”
“And what was your plan?”
“I’ve a sort of peasant kit—she bought it in the town by way of a fancy dress—I’d get over the Gotthard into Zurich, and Holland, sell the swag, clear out for the States—new name and new start.”
“I see; it sounds so easy and practicable, but you’d never have escaped. I look at the case every night. I’d have telephoned for the police, and wired to the railway stations. You’d have been caught later, and it is much better as it is for your own sake, and your mother’s. I suppose you go to-night?”
“Yes,” and he sat down heavily on a chair, all his self-restraint relaxed, and burst into loud, hysterical sobs. Undoubtedly Monty had been drinking. “I’ve done for myself, I am a stupid, good-for-nothing ass; even in this—a crime—it’s the old story—a ghastly failure.”
“No, it shows you are not made for crime, but something better.”
“I see how I’ve wasted my life. I am a rotter—--a great lazy fool. You were right. My mother expected me to do no end of wonderful things.”
“Did she expect you to do this? No,” as he was about to reply, “don’t tell me.”
“You see”—here he rose up and faced her in the window—--“we had so little coin, and we pretended we had lots. We were always among big pots, and it was hard to keep from a smash-up.”
“Yes, if you have silly social ambitions, and wish to ape those who have everything you lack.”
“The mater is extraordinarily clever and carries on marvellously. Who would believe she has only three hundred a year, and debts, and me? Well, that’s all over.”
“So then you will return and confess yourself to Count Guerra?”
“No, I’ll skip! After all, it’s no worse for him than a loss on the Stock Exchange, and he is rich and can stand it. I’ve only four sovereigns, and my clothes; if I could only get to New York.”
“If you did, you’d have to work hard with your hands and be honest, and thrifty, and sharp—perhaps begin as a porter or a waiter.”
“Yes, I know I’d have to start at the bottom; and my mother’s dream of an American heiress—ha! ha! ha!” His laugh was almost a scream.
“Now listen to me,” said Katherine, who had been staring reflectively into the pine trees beside the window. “Suppose you start to-night, third class travel to Liverpool, steerage to New York, how would that be?”
“Beastly!” he answered with emphasis.
“And are not others, who never gamble, drink or steal, obliged to do beastly things—people who have not been pampered, but who are forced to do their best with little money?”
“Four sovs. won’t go far! he muttered.
“No; then tell me, what is your own idea?”
“My own idea,” and he turned and looked at her steadily with his small, beady eyes, “is the lake.”
“No, no, don’t be a coward. Certainly not the lake. Give yourself another chance. Start at once, take all your clothes and a rug—--there is a train at one in the morning—travel direct to Liverpool and New York, and I will lend you ten pounds.”
(It was unquestionably her fate to assist this needy family.)
“By George!” he exclaimed, “you are a brick!”
“You must try and find something to do—even a crossing, and I’ll write to Mr Boundly, and ask him to give you a note to someone over there; I know he has many business acquaintances in New York. Of course, I can’t ask him for a position of trust,—merely a start, and mind you keep it. I will write to the Post Office, New York, to your own name, and you can call for letters. My address is c/o Lady Warbeck, Coutts & Co. Now go downstairs and ask for some supper in the restaurant. You have been drinking, not eating, and remember you have a long journey before you. I will bring you the money there.”
In ten minutes time she walked into the restaurant, where Monty was picking at some cold fowl and tongue, and laid an envelope beside his plate.
“There is the ten pounds,” she said, “I do hope it may bring you luck. Send me good news. Good-bye.” She did not offer her hand, but with a nod and a look went away.
No ghost was whiter than Mrs Corben the morning after her son’s departure. The wretched woman had no means of knowing whether he had carried out his enterprise or failed. Her punishment lay in horrible suspense; at any moment, she might hear of discovery, capture and disgrace. Katherine read all this in that ghastly, staring face of silent anguish, and contrived to drop a word of comfort. She managed to drag the jewels into the conversation, apropos of nothing particular, and mentioned, with averted eyes, that she looked at them twice a day, adding:
“It is such a serious care, and I shall be so thankful when they are off my mind.”
Presently another object arose on Katherine’s horizon, which swept Monty, and even the jewels, completely out of her thoughts.
Surely it would be impossible to write of the Italian lakes, without describing the wonderful gardens which adorn their shores. A stranger’s eyes travelling down from the Lombardy mountains, to the slender Campanile, surrounded by its picturesque old village, gradually descends, and is captivated by these mortal paradises of trees and flowers. Here, around secluded villas, may be seen gay banks of crimson and purple rhododendrons, brilliant azaleas, clumps of bamboo, and, half smothered under showers of thousands of roses, vague rustic pergolas, or the gleam of a marble terrace.
One such enchanting garden was the glory of the Splendide; to describe the Splendide without its parc would be to describe a queen without her crown. A white palatial building had risen on the site of the Villa Paradiso, whose celebrated grounds—laid out in a century of leisure, taste and luxury—stretched from an elevated position on the hillside to the edge of the lake itself. Oh, what cool retreats lay among its trees! Delicious contrast to the dazzling outer glare; here birds were happy and made welcome; here the thrush sang all day, the nightingale all night.
The hotel stood high, its principal outlook full south over mountain and lake; an enclosed verandah opened on a vast terrace, from which two flights of marble stairs led into another wide promenade, and thence to the grounds. Here were winding walks and many seats, fish-ponds with gold fish, spreading ash trees, sycamores, magnolias of immense size starred with flowers; to the left, overlooking a chasm, dividing the gardens from villadom, was a green gulf of waving bamboos; to the right, through an expanse of velvet sward and shade, an avenue into the town. On a level with the lower terrace lay the original old garden, studded with great gnarled camellia trees and terracotta statues; here was a venerable orangery, containing the dusty bust of a former princely proprietor, and a shadowy space under trees of mountain oak, and the sweeping cedars of Lebanon.
The grounds were so delightful, with the scent of acacias and roses, and the song of birds, that many indolent people preferred their cool shade, with a novel or a cigar, to making excursions on the dreamy blue lake that glittered between the trees. Naturally Mrs Damer belonged to this company, and was daily to be found in a certain corner under the cedars (not too much retired from the to-and-fro life of the hotel). In this spot enthroned among her cushions, wearing an elaborate white robe, many jewels, her wonderful hair waved and dressed, and “the D” on her lap, she held an open-air reception. She was extraordinarily vivacious and fantastic, her conversation was extravagant and amusing; she said such daring unexpected things, and was not like anyone else. Then Mrs Damer entertained, was generous with books and the loan of her carriage, in short, she was a woman to know. A couple of young men—boys of twenty travelling with a tutor—were her devoted slaves. Meanwhile their tutor, a near-sighted parson, devoted himself to collecting moths.
As one of these “boys” was a future Marquis lingering in southern climes for his health’s sake, the circle round the invalid’s couch was large. Some individuals held themselves aloof and never attended the court; for instance, the two Miss Piersons, who sat knitting in the neighbourhood, their letters and worsted neatly arranged on a little wooden table, their feet reposing on footstools, for fear of damp shoes. As they knitted and counted, they occasionally overheard some of Mrs Damer’s loud remarks, or scraps of her good stories, and exchanged tragic glances of amazement, and horror.
“What a pity for that nice girl to be in such bad company, sister,” remarked Miss Susan. “I’m sure Lady Warbeck could not have known what she was doing, or the sort of person that woman is, or she would never have agreed to the arrangement.”
“Wise Miss Broome keeps well out of the way. She is sitting above us on the terrace. As for Lady Warbeck, you know my opinion of her, sister—worldly to the marrow of her bones. Trust her to know what she is doing.”
“I tried not to listen, but have you heard the last story that woman has told young Harford?”
“I have, and he is laughing still,” and Miss Pierson put down her knitting, and looked over at the shaking shoulders of the boy, and then at the wicked, triumphant face, with its piled-up hair and gleaming teeth, that rested among the blue silk cushions. Nor did Mr Bruce relish the situation—Miss Broome’s situation; there was too much champagne, cigarettes, and gambling; too many broad anecdotes and French stories. He maintained a retired attitude, on the edge of the crowd, with an anxious eye on Katherine Broome. Such associates, talk and manners, were not suitable to the future Mrs Bruce. Who, he asked himself, would have believed, that that miserable mass of broken bones contained so much vitality and latent depravity? If Mrs Damer had not been, so to speak, chained by an accident, what a nature to let loose upon the world! A woman without modesty, reticence, or scruple. What ill-directed brain power, what a glib and mocking tongue, what an indomitable inward force! Even when no longer young—and in his opinion hideous—--with her masses of red hair, and sharp and withered little face, she had the power, by means of a weird personality, to fascinate these boys. Her daring opinions, her borrowed epigrams, were on their lips from morning till night. Surely a woman of obscure origin, with hot southern blood in her veins though she spoke English with a Scotch accent, and chattered French like a native.
Undoubtedly there was something savage in her vehemence; she must be a half-breed—Cuban or Mexican.
On the present occasion he sat a little aloof, comforting himself with a good cigar and the happy assurance that in ten days’ time Lady Warbeck was due at the Splendide; it was now the end of April, getting too hot for Egypt; in another fortnight certain matters would be arranged, and he would accompany Lady Warbeck and Miss Broome to England.
The group, a large tea-party, had scattered, some to sail on the lake, write letters, or stroll, and all that remained were Lord Ranskill and Mr Harford, who were deeply interested in a fresh recital, told with astonishing dramatic gesture and volubility,—and two or three young ladies, who were interested in Lord Ranskill and Mr Harford.
The shrieks of laughter that proclaimed the conclusion of the tale, were so unusually loud and prolonged, that Katherine, sitting on the terrace above, raised her head and peeped over. There was the group of satellites gathered round the couch, and another figure was approaching, coming slowly up the parc from the town entrance. Something familiar in the air and walk made her heart leap; she recognised the Nameless Man, who continued to advance towards the little party, with the self-possession of one who is assured of his welcome.
“Anthony!” screamed Mrs Damer. “Please don’t move, Lord Ranskill, it’s only my husband.”
“Yes,” corroborated the new arrival, “I know you enjoy a surprise. I only heard yesterday I could get a week off. I put myself in the Oriental Express, and here I am,” and he took off his hat, and kissed his wife on her forehead.
It would be impossible to describe the sensations of Katherine Broome, as she rose to her feet and was a witness to this scene. At first, she felt as if she must fall; the whole garden seemed to be reeling around her.
The Nameless Man—Anthony Damer!
Meanwhile Mrs Damer was talking in her high, piercing voice.
“Dear me! how funny to see you! You are not growing younger, Tony; and what an ugly tie!”
“And how are you getting on?” he inquired, looking down on his better half, hat in hand.
“Oh, pretty well. I’ve been having a little change, lots of nice people here, and,” with a gesture, “these dear boys and girls.”
The dear boys and girls had been staring at Mrs Damer’s husband with a certain amount of frank amazement and curiosity; he was somehow so unlike the sort of man they had imagined. If they ever thought of Mrs Damer’s husband at all, he must of course be a stout, bald, ordinary-looking person—even although he was Damer of Kingsbourne.
“Tony, let me introduce you to Lord Ranskill, Mr Harford, Letty and Cissy Ganthony, and Winifred Bell.”
Having made a few civil remarks, he looked about and said:
“I am delighted to find you have so many congenial companions. And where is the companion?”
“Oh, somewhere about reading, most likely above, on the terrace, in her own pet corner. She finds us a little frivolous, ha! ha! Cissy dearest, will you call Miss Broome?”
But Katherine was already coming. She had had time to summon control, to assure her trembling heart that she must bear herself bravely in this the most critical moment of her whole life. She steadied her shaking limbs, bit her white lips, pressed her hands through her damp hair with swift, instinctive touches, and prepared to respond to a summons. Yes, she was prepared for the meeting, but it was otherwise with Anthony Damer. At the announcement, “She is coming,” he raised his indifferent eyes. Were they deceiving him?
This slim, graceful figure, slowly descending the marble stairs, between trellised masses of jessamine and roses, was Katherine of Chablette! As he realised this truth, the whiteness of death was in his face and he eyed her with paralysed horror. No, he could not move, he could not articulate; all the resources, the weapons of his trained, clever, diplomatic brain, fell from him.
Fortunately the other six pairs of eyes were also fixed upon the approaching figure; the young men admiring her, the girls wondering where she got her air, her corsets, and her shoes?
She came forward from the bottom of the steps, pale but perfectly collected.
“Katherine,” said Mrs Damer, with a gleaming smile that exhibited her eye teeth, “here is my husband. He has descended like a wolf on the fold, so you see you and he do meet after all! You must tell me what you think of him, when we are by ourselves. I insist,” and here she glanced at Anthony, “on your being pals.”
A slight tremor passed across his face, and he muttered something indistinct.
“Yes, the very greatest friends,” repeated Mrs Damer. The strains of a string band, far below, ascended through the trees; a plaintive, wailing love song made a momentary accompaniment to the words, “the very greatest friends.”
“It has been a hot day for a journey,” said Katherine; there was a palpable effort in her light tone.
“And by Jove, it must be five o’clock,” remarked Lord Ranskill, “since the band has started.”
“Yes,” added Katherine, glancing at two letters, “and these will miss the post. I will take them in at once,” and snatching them up, she turned and hurried towards the steps. As she went she could hear Mrs Damer’s high-pitched treble singing her own praises, and the words, “an angel to me,” were borne to her ears as she gained the top of the flight, and then began to run.
She reached the cool, pillared hall, flung the letters into the bureau and scrambled into the lift.
Oh, the relief of being in her own room with a locked door! She took a long draught of water, and then sat down to recover herself, and endeavour to grasp this new and dreadful position.
So Mrs Damer’s husband, to whose history she had listened, was her friend, the Nameless Man; and Mrs Damer was the trouble, at which he had hinted. Yes, they had nothing in common, and he had never loved her. These two people, as the poles apart, had given her their confidence, and she—she—why lie to herself?—--had given this man, this married man, her heart and her daily thoughts. With torturing clearness, her imagination laid bare the situation.
Now she knew why he declared that he must never come into her life; but here Fate had overpowered him and driven them helplessly together. He believed that he would never see her again, and found her as his wife’s companion! She rose hastily and paced the floor, and asked herself what was she to do? Feign illness, remain in her room? No, she must face the situation and be prepared to meet him—Anthony—as a stranger, a new acquaintance. His stay, she knew, could be but short. He had been speechless when he met her, having not one moment’s preparation for the ordeal. She had seen the look on his face, a flash of joy, incredulity and horror. But he had made no effort to utter a word after the shock of recognition, and Mrs Damer talked so incessantly, that she never noticed the silence of others. For a long time Katherine walked to and fro in her room in a fever of excitement and misery. Then the first gong roused her to the prosaic fact that she would be late for dinner.
At dinner, in the great salle-à-manger, her place and that of Mr Damer were far apart. How different to the little hotel at Chablette! She noticed that he appeared to have encountered acquaintances, was eagerly hailed by several of his fellow-guests, and was undoubtedly, as his wife had declared, “a popular fellow.”
After dinner, there was the usual visit to the sick-room. What an ordeal! She would be compelled to meet him, and answer all Mrs Damer’s probing questions; indeed, the moment she entered, the lady screamed out:
“Well, come here and tell me this moment, what you think of Anthony?” Her eyes were fixed upon her, eager and hungry. “I did not say too much, did I? Isn’t he handsome? Has he not a good figure? Even in shabby clothes he looks an aristocrat. I must get out of him, what he thinks of you, eh?”
As soon as Katherine could make herself audible she said:
“I know you will like to have him to yourself this evening, won’t you, and I—--”
“Oh, no,” sharply interrupted the other, throwing out both hands, “certainly not. He would loathe a tête-à-tête. We are not that sort of couple and always like one another best in company. It is always in company that I announce my extravagances. Isn’t it clever of me? He cannot possibly expostulate before people, and talk of going bankrupt, and selling armour and pictures! No, no, do not desert me. I’d rather look at Tony, than talk to him any day of the week, and if we are alone, he is sure to say something odious about money.”
“I have a dreadful headache,” pleaded Katherine, perhaps you would excuse me this one evening?”
“Oh, you poor dear! Yes, you are looking dreadfully white. Of course, of course, go off at once, and take my eau-de-cologne and soak it on your head. Send me in the two Bell girls, and Lord Ranskill, and Tommy.”
As Katherine was escaping, the door opened and Anthony entered.
“Miss Broome has such a splitting headache, Tony,” called out his wife,” she is going to bed.”
It was not to be expected that the excuse of a headache could avail for more than one day, and Katherine was compelled to resume her duties, and replace her neck under the yoke; to meet Anthony Damer as a new acquaintance; to listen to his wife’s boasts of her accomplishments, virtues, and charms, and to be assured at least once an hour, that “she and Tony must make friends.”
“You are progressing too slowly,” grumbled the lady, “and you are ridiculously stiff and formal. You scarcely speak to Tony, and yet you get along so easily with others—--men and women I dislike; and now where I am keen, you hold aloof—why?”
There was the usual bridge every evening, and in spite of frantic efforts to escape, Katherine and the Nameless Man shared the same table, and in the fortune of “cutting” became partners. Then, as usual, Katherine’s music was in flattering request. The last time she had played to one listener, the sound of a mountain river accompanied her fingers, and the moonlight poured into the room, but she now entertained Mrs Damer’s guests with light opera, popular waltzes and nigger breakdowns. Anthony was not among her audience; he strolled out into the verandah, with the curious explanation that “he enjoyed music twice as much at a distance,” and did not reappear. Mrs Damer continued irritably persistent in her determination that her companion, and her husband should be “pals.”
“You don’t half know one another,” she complained, “and I do so want you to make a close study of Tony’s character.” As she spoke, she surveyed the girl with eyes full of latent impishness. “Time is pressing, he will be leaving in a few days. He won’t tell me what he thinks of you—he is as close as wax—so diplomatic. However, you shall spend to-morrow together. I’ve accepted a delightful invitation for you both for the Todcastles’ picnic—lake and villa, lunch on the steamer. You and he will have hours tête-à-tête, and you shall bring me the heads of conversation.”
She repeated this plan to her husband when he entered, adding, “Mr Bruce is also going.—Anthony, you shall be chaperone and gooseberry, and do the heavy father for Miss Broome. You start at eleven, and return in time for dinner.”
To Katherine’s amazement Mr Damer replied: “Very well, I accept with pleasure, and will chaperone Miss Broome to the best of my ability.”
“And mind you don’t get into any mischief yourself,” added his wife, with a laugh like the scream of a macaw.
The excursion was by steamer, a party of thirty, to visit a neighbouring lake, a well-known villa and gardens. The day was perfect, the sky cloudless, the green lake exhibited clear reflections of the mountains on its bosom; a series of lovely views and an endless procession of red-roofed towns and villages were presented to the passengers on the Gotthard steamer.
The picnic party were all in fine holiday spirits and cool smart clothes; even the Piersons were almost disguised in black and white muslins and leghorn hats. It was afternoon when they disembarked near the villa, and led by a guide, trooped through its dim, lofty chambers, passing from room to room, filled with pictures, cabinets, old furniture, and statues. Some were interesting; some of the pictures so ill drawn and realistic, some of the cabinets of such crude colours, that one asked oneself, Where was the boasted taste of the sixteenth century? The saloon at the end of the great State apartments was hung with gobelin tapestry, and lined with elaborate specimens of Florentine work. Katherine, who felt fagged and weary—yes, and miserable—lagged behind. She glanced over her shoulder. No, she was not actually the last, Anthony Damer was beside her.
As the eager, chattering company hurried down the steps towards the gardens, he extended his hand with a hasty gesture to prevent her following, and she, with a white face, waited in silence.
“Katherine,” he began hurriedly, “I must speak to you.”
“Only to Miss Broome, please.”
“Well, I must say what I’ve got to say. Will you come over here and sit down?” and, he indicated an ancient chair, beside a wonderful Vetrine, inlaid in lapis-lazuli and tortoiseshell.
Katherine was thankful to rest, and seated herself, her eyes averted from his, and fixed upon a hunting group in the tapestry.—The scene represented a tiger that had seized upon a fine stag, and the horrible realism of the subject struck on her quivering nerves with extraordinary force.
“I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that my folly in hiding my identity would lead to this,” resumed Anthony in a tone of passionate emotion. “My God! that fate should play such tricks; that your old friend should go to Egypt and leave you, of all the millions of women, companion to my wife. To think that even her letters to me, were actually written by your hand!”
“Yes,” she replied, “and I am glad to have an opportunity of repudiating my too-numerous virtues.”
He made a quick, impatient movement. “I can never forgive myself for a romantic freak, a mania, that you and I should never be known to one another by name,—--only in memory, and spirit. I snatched at your friendship as a starved animal snatches at a mouthful of fresh grass on a dusty wayside. Those three days gave me new life and energy, and a fresh start. Unhappily I have yet another error on my conscience.”
Katherine withdrew her eyes from the tapestry and looked at him attentively. The colour had ebbed from his face.
“When I asked for an introduction to my wife’s paragon of a companion, and you descended the steps, it seemed as if heaven and earth had come together. My very tongue was paralysed, I could not utter one word. Owing to this, I lost the chance of telling Lalla that we had met before. I would, if I had had the power, have spoken then, and now,” he added, with low, intense emphasis, “it is too late.”
“My silence, when I saw you, would bear a certain interpretation. You know my wife?”
Katherine bowed her head.
“It was a terrible omission,” he continued. “However, no one is aware that we have been friends—no one but your old lady, who is in Egypt.”
“But I should have spoken,” said Katherine. “If you could not find your voice, I could. I had time to gather my wits, to recover from my surprise. I saw you from the terrace. Yes I am to blame, I shall speak this very day.”
“No, no,” he protested, in a voice of agitated entreaty, “you don’t understand Lalla, and I do. It will be all right, it will not matter now, as I am leaving in a day or two. Lady Warbeck is due next week and she will claim you for a short time.”
“Why for a short time?”
“Are you not going to marry Bruce? The air is full of whispers. By all accounts he is a good fellow, and you will make him happy.” The words seemed to draw her to her feet.
“Let us go outside,” she said abruptly, “I—I—feel—no—no, I’m not going to faint—but I want to be in the air. The atmosphere here chokes me.”
Together they walked down into a courtyard, through a famous gateway, and into the cool, leafy garden.
Here were great trees, and flowering shrubs, grass and seats; here was sunshine and fragrance. Beneath the arches of a pergola, garlanded with pink and saffron banksia in full bloom, they reached a terrace overhanging the water. The walls of the terrace were covered with roses and orange trees, and between two huge cypress trees shimmered the blue lake. The place was deserted, voices had died away; the distant sound of a gardener’s rake, and the dip of an oar, alone broke the stillness.
“I hope Mr Bruce may be happy,” said the girl, suddenly continuing their conversation, “but I am not the one to make him so, and what he wishes is impossible. I know most people will think me foolish, and ask what Katherine the Arrogant expects? Honestly, if I dared, I would be glad, and thankful to be his wife, but I cannot. No, I am not made to fit into everyone’s life. I am not easy-going with myself; I’d be always discontented, and looking for what was not, so I shall remain poor, and keep my freedom.”
“And so you have refused Bruce?”
“No. I like him too well to do that, but I’ve given him to understand—we women can be diplomatic in our way.”
“No doubt you are right. I know you’ve a rough time, yet what can be worse than—”
He stopped, and closed his lips on the words “an unhappy marriage.”
“I am glad we have had this talk—our last. You have done my wife no end of good, made her more cheerful, more reasonable.” Then his voice shook a little, he paused and looked into her face, with eyes in which she read despair and misery.
“Here they come!” he said, hastily recovering himself as a chattering group of young people, laden with flowers, came tearing up the steps, and greeted them with shouts as long-lost friends.
“You two haven’t seen the gardens—only fancy! cried a boisterous and breathless young lady. “Why, they are the sight. Everyone was asking for you. Did you lose yourselves?”
“No,” answered Anthony, promptly; “it was good of you to miss us so much, but the gardens are an awful fag. Miss Broome was tired, and I advised her to await you here, and listen to your transports.”
The hotel guests had been reinforced in the absence of the picnic by a very smart lady, who arrived in a large motor, with all the accompanying accessories of wealth and fashion. Such a visitor at once appealed to Mrs Damer. She noticed her on the verandah, and after tea they fell into easy conversation. It appeared that she and this handsome, black-browed woman had mutual acquaintances and mutual enemies, and they were already on the high road to intimacy, when the picnic party returned. As they trooped across the terrace in twos, and threes, Katherine and Anthony Damer chanced to follow one another. The stranger’s great black eyes fell on them at once. The couple who were at Chablette. Ah!
“Now, who are those?” she inquired, leaning towards the invalid with a confidential air.
“One is my husband, the other is my companion,” responded Mrs Damer, and there was a note of pride in her voice.
“Oh, really!” murmured Mrs Hardisty in a tone of languid indifference, but her black eyes sparkled with vindictive triumph.
Towards a new arrival of Mrs Hardisty's air and importance, it was but natural that Mrs Corben would gravitate. She approached her after dinner, and smilingly inquired if "she was not a friend of the dear Lupton-Smarts?"
Mrs Corben had recovered her colour, the awful expression had faded from her eyes, since a brief letter from Liverpool had reassured her that "it was all right, and that Katherine Broome was a real brick." She was still somewhat uneasy and depressed, but a little chat with such a brilliant possibility as this handsome, opulent arrival awakened her interests, stirred old ambitions, and promised a variety; therefore she spread out her skirts, seated herself beside her, and entered into conversation.
Mrs Claude Hardisty was inclined to be sleepily indifferent and aloof—an attitude of social assumption enwrapped her, though her companion was the daughter-in-law of a Viscount—but she was prepared to incline her ear to mischievous descriptions of her neighbours, and was soon in possession of the story of Mr and Mrs Damer, and of what a trial she proved to a man who was a pattern husband, and a miracle of patience.
"Not quite such a pattern as you imagine," corrected the other lady. "I happen to know, that he deceives that poor crippled creature shamefully, and when she believes him to be slaving in Vienna, he is running about Switzerland accompanied by a good-looking young woman!”
Mrs Corben opened her large grey eyes, and stared fixedly at the speaker, who added, in her drawling voice: "That girl, who is her companion!”
"Oh, impossible! You are making a mistake.”
"I never make those kind of mistakes," rejoined Mrs Hardisty with decision. "Her own companion! I do call it too abominable, and shall feel it my duty to open the poor woman's eyes, on the very first opportunity."
"Whoever this person was and I can hardly believe it of Mr Damer—it was not Katherine," declared Mrs Corben with heat. (The loan of five pounds, and subsequently her help to Monty, spurred her to the post of champion.) "You don't know Miss Broome; she is a good girl—everyone likes her—everyone is her friend.”
“Especially Anthony Damer." And as Mrs Hardisty rested her eyes on a distant figure, who was talking to another man in the lounge, there was an expression of hatred and malevolence in their gaze. Then she rose from her place, and sauntered away.
Happily unconscious that the sword of Damocles swung over her head, Katherine slept soundly that night, and the next day read for a couple of hours to the invalid, arranged flowers and wrote a few notes. It was shortly before dinner that the sword fell. Mrs. Hardisty had been invited to a tête-à-tête tea with Mrs Damer; the afternoon was oppressively hot; Anthony Damer was on the lake, and Katherine had not seen him till they were both hastily summoned to his wife's sitting-room. Katherine was conscious of a pang of alarm when she entered.
Mrs Damer was sitting erect among her pillows; her face seemed withered to half its size, her hair had fallen loose, her gestures were frenzied, and her eyes two flames.
"So here you are!" she screamed, after a moment's expressive pause. "Oh, you two devils! you two hypocrites! I know all about you now!" As she spoke, with the fury of a maniac, she tore the rich lace on her sleeves to rags.
"Lalla," said her husband, "try and control yourself. What do you mean?"
"You fiend!" she went on, addressing herself to Katherine, “that I thought an angel and fit for heaven, a girl that I showed my heart to, that I loved, and all the time she was my husband's mistress!”
Anthony gazed at his wife with a face of colourless horror. Then he took a step forward.
"Be silent, Lalla! You are mad!"
“And you,” turning on him with the expression of a vicious animal, "you, that I believed to be a saint, had this girl away with you alone in Switzerland, for weeks and weeks."
"There is no truth in what you say. You have been listening to a string of lies—damnable lies."
"Lies!" she screamed. "Then bring in Mrs Hardisty. You shall stand face to face; her husband too saw you at a place called Chablette. Oh! she came and told me."
Here Mrs Damer choked for breath, and beat her hands violently on the silken coverlet. "She believes she was sent here by Providence; she could not bear to see a poor cripple deceived, and not speak. You cannot deny that you were at the inn together, took your meals together, walked in the moonlight like lovers—you were lovers, and you are found out!”
"But I was not alone at Chablette," said Katherine, steadily, though her face was as white as death, “Lady Warbeck—"
"And you met before me as strangers!" burst out the other. “Bah!" breathing hard, "I cannot waste time listening to your lies. I shall have a divorce at once—a divorce—a divorce! I have two witnesses. As for you, you devil, you adventuress, you leave my service and this hotel now. Now—do you hear? If you don't I will send for the manager, and tell him the sort of creature you are. He will turn you out soon enough—he only takes in people of respectable character."
She spoke so rapidly, so furiously, that the foam gathered on her lips; there was no possibility of interrupting her, or making any other voice heard.
“Miss Broome," said Anthony, nerved to vigorous action, "you cannot remain here. Leave everything in my hands; my wife, as you see, is beside herself," and he led her to the door. As Katherine passed the threshold, a large flower vase came hurtling through the air and was smashed in pieces just over her head, and she escaped into the corridor, with the shriek of “divorce, divorce!" ringing in her ears.
For a moment, she stood mentally stunned and cold as marble; then she ran up to her room, collected and packed her belongings with headlong haste, casting them anyhow and anywhere into her boxes; in twenty minutes, her task was complete. Then she put on a hat and travelling cloak and sat down to write to Lady Warbeck, but her hand shook so violently she was compelled to abandon the attempt. The eight o'clock night mail went direct to London; she had sufficient ready money to pay for her ticket; she would go to Blessington Place, and there await exculpation. With this plan in her mind, she rang for a porter to remove her luggage, and went and knocked at the door of the eldest Miss Pierson.
Miss Pierson was in her petticoats, and a high petticoat bodice, dressing for dinner.
"Miss Broome!" She paused, beaded shoe in hand. "Oh, what has happened?—is anyone dead?"
"No one," replied Katherine, endeavouring to control her voice, "but I've just had a terrible scene, which has nearly killed me. I cannot remain under the same roof with Mrs Damer—indeed, she ordered me out of the hotel. I am going to London now, by the mail. Will you please tell Lady Warbeck that I shall be at the old address? I've not a moment—good-bye," and she was gone.
Miss Broome's place at dinner and that of Anthony Damer were empty. This was explained by the news that Mrs Damer was seriously ill, and that a doctor had been telephoned for; some whispered, that the lady had made one of her worst scenes, and had nearly blown the roof off the Hotel Splendide,—--the sequel being hysterics, spasms and collapse.
A moment before the train left the station, Anthony Damer ran on to the platform, and hurried by the carriages. Ah, there she was!
"I've come," he began, a little breathlessly, "to beg your pardon from my soul, and to implore you to return—don't leave this place. Lady Warbeck will be here in a week."
"No, no," she said, rising to stand in the window, a stern and pallid apparition, "you know I've nothing to forgive. I am truly sorry for you; as for myself, I would rather die than remain.”
The whistle sounded, the great black Gotthard-Bahn began to move.
"Good-bye, good-bye," she said, as she was swept slowly past Anthony Damer, who remained for some moments standing immovable on the platform, with his hat in his hand, the tones of her good-bye beating in his brain, with every measure of the rumbling wheels.
Dinner was in progress, when Miss Broome’s cab drew up at 131 Blessington Place. She was aware of the fact, almost before Hans, dish cover in hand, opened the door and released a heavy atmosphere of stale fish, old cabbage and new oil-cloth. Hearing the name of the arrival, Miss Thom, her cap askew, flew into the hall, and accorded her a rapturous welcome.
“Can I have a room?” asked Katherine as the cabman deposited her boxes.
“To be sure you can,” replied Miss Thom. “We are pretty full, but there is mine and welcome. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“Oh, so it’s Miss Broome come back!“ exclaimed Miss Mullet, who followed her friend from the table.
“Why, you look as if you had had an illness!” and she eyed the tired girl sharply. “My goodness, what a wreck!”
“No, only a hurried journey and a bad crossing. I’ll just speak a word to Mrs Beard, before my things go up.”
“That young woman has got into some scrape!“ announced Miss Mullet, who bitterly envied Katherine’s success—that is to say, the use of a carriage, smart
gowns and many rich friends. She made this remark to Miss Thom, as they sat together sipping muddy coffee, when the traveller had departed supperless (by choice) to the seclusion of her former garret.
“Mark my words, she has come a cropper! Her face was ghastly. She has lost any looks she ever had. It would never surprise me, if she had got into some trouble with a married man.”
“Clara! Hold your tongue!” cried Miss Thom, suddenly losing her temper, and looking surprisingly fierce, “you have a wicked mind. If you ever say such things again of Katherine Broome, who is so good, so generous—--why, you are actually sitting on her cushion—you and I will cease to speak.”
For all retort Miss Mullet merely sniffed significantly, assimilated a peppermint, and calmly resumed her novelette; perhaps it was these very novelettes that had suggested melodramatic possibilities?
Katherine, secure in her room, felt somewhat refreshed by a cup of tea, and went to bed. What a lumpy, narrow couch! what coarse cotton sheets! By-and-by, when the house was still, Miss Thom crept up to see her and sat by the bedside, holding the girl’s hand, stroking it and mumbling over it, whilst Katherine wept. These tardy tears afforded her relief, and the humming, kindly voice, and Miss Thom’s little pattings and strokings, were soothing and consoling beyond words.
“Well, dear,” said the visitor, “to think that after two years I have you back in this house again. A great happiness to me, and a trial to you, but it won’t last. Your trouble will soon pass.” Katherine shook her head. How could such trouble ever pass?
Then, under a vow of secrecy, she shared her misery with her old friend. She told her of Lady Warbeck’s unexpected move, of her terrible experiences with Mrs Damer, and how, after a fearful scene, she had left within the hour. Mrs Damer was madly jealous of her husband, she believed horrible things of him—and Katherine. (“So Clara was right for once,” said Miss Thom to herself, “it was a married man!”) She went on to say that at first, she had visions of taking refuge with the Boundlys, but that was impossible; the Boundlys lived at Kingsbourne, in the Damers’ home, and she wanted to fly from the very name of Damer, so she had returned to Blessington Place to try and pull herself together, and await Lady Warbeck’s arrival. After this confidential interview Miss Thom performed the one great feat of her life! She held the hungry curiosity of two women at bay, and succeeded in completely mystifying Mrs Ramage and Clara Mullett. No, they could make nothing of that usually indiscreet and garrulous old lady, Margaret Thom.
The long journey without food, the distracted state of her mind, combined to throw Katherine into a sort of low fever; it was neither infectious nor dangerous, and Miss Thom ministered to her as well as she could, with tea, toast and Liebig, while Katherine lay in the little top attic, staring at the too familiar wallpaper, the old crack in the ceiling, the print of “A Hopeless Dawn,” vainly endeavouring to recover her courage and self-reliance, and filled with a sick misery, too benumbing for utterance.
In the sudden shock of attack, she had been dealt a murderous blow, and it seemed to her as if, like a stricken animal, she had crawled away into a thicket, there to hide her wounds and die. No, no, she would not die, she would go forth again, when she had recovered; she had been taken at a disadvantage, the dreadful situation had been too much—it had weakened her mental fibre.
After a few days’ rest and reflection, she would rearm and go forth. Lady Warbeck would return, and vindicate her good name.
As a matter of fact, Lady Warbeck returned a few days after the explosion at Le Splendide. She was feeling her age, the heat of Cairo; the effort to live at the same pace as a younger generation had been rather too much for the old lady, and she had needed Katherine sorely. Oh, what a false economy to have left her in Italy! She missed her cool, deft fingers, her capacity for taking trouble, and for smoothing difficulties; and recognised her loss, even before she had quitted the ship. It had been arranged, that she was to share the services and expenses of Mrs Broadway’s smart maid. These matters seemed so delightfully easy, when genially discussed in a comfortable shady corner of a verandah, but the actual realisation was another affair! Mrs Broadway’s maid was sick at sea, and when on land, gave but scanty attention to one who was not her mistress, but merely a vain, troublesome, stingy old party.
Alas! poor Lady Warbeck! She never felt herself well turned out, or her hair and ornaments secure; her dresses were not properly fastened at the back; she was guiltily conscious of tell-tale loose strings, obliged to cobble her gloves, write her own letters, prepare her own medicine—yes, and tea. She looked forward to Katherine, all the way from Cairo to Genoa as a traveller in the desert yearns for some well-known, cool, and delicious oasis in a fiery land of sand; as she fought with what Goethe calls “the devilry of inanimate objects”—broken laces, lost combs, and entanglements—in her stifling cabin, she consoled her irritable temper with the words, “Only two days more—only one day more—and Katherine.”
When she arrived at the Splendide, naturally her first question—her first words were:
“Mais, miladi; mademoiselle est parti—il y a cinq jours,” replied the concièrge, and Miladi’s consternation was a dramatic little incident, that made an interesting stir in a sleepy afternoon.
The shaken old woman collapsed into the nearest chair, and exclaimed, “Impossible!”
“Oh, so you have arrived!” cried Mrs Corben, hurrying to receive her. “Your own room is vacant; do let us go up at once, and,” with a glance of meaning, “I’ll explain everything.”
Lady Warbeck assented with a feeble gesture; she was tired, and this news was a shattering and unexpected blow. When they found themselves alone, luggage deposited, the door closed, she said:
“Now, Clara, I know by your face—you look so delighted that you are going to tell me something terrible, so open my bag, and get me a little brandy.”
When, with eloquent protestations and repudiations, Mrs Corben found the flask, and after the old lady had swallowed some of its contents, she said:
“I’ll just get off my cloak and boots and lie down, and then—”
And then,—Mrs Corben, with considerable volubility and indignation, related the whole story.
How Katherine had been a miracle of patience, and how much she had done for Mrs Damer; then she proceeded to give a hasty sketch of the lady’s “boys and girls,” of her gamblings and gay doings, of the arrival of her husband, and the crash. A Mrs Hardisty had turned up in a large motor, and told Mrs Damer some awful scandal about Katherine and her husband, and Mrs Damer had screamed herself out of her mind; her shrieks for a “divorce” could be heard all down the corridor. She had turned her companion out of the hotel, and Katherine departed that same hour for London.
“She left a message with the Piersons for you,” concluded Mrs Corben; “they say she was so agitated she could hardly speak.”
“But what is it all about?” demanded the listener.
“Well, the matter was hushed up, for Anthony Damer put his foot down; but you know how she talks to servants, and the nurse and the maid heard all. She accused her husband and Katherine of being old lovers and travelling together in Switzerland alone.”
“The creature has lost her reason!” cried Lady Warbeck, suddenly sitting up. “The man—is he mad too?”
“No, no. When the fit was over, he silenced her. He intends to move her; he went off to make arrangements, and returns to-day. He is most anxious to see you.”
“Not more anxious than I am to see him and his wife. How dare she insult Miss Broome! I am Katherine’s natural protector, and unless this abominable slanderer eats her words and apologises, I shall sue her for libel. I shall place the matter with my solicitor at once. Yes, you may let that be known also, that I am here solely in the interests of Miss Broome. Now I’ll rest a little, Clara, and you can run away.”
“She’ll spread it,” muttered the old lady as she closed her eyes;” it is all the same as putting up a notice in the hall.”
That same evening as Lady Warbeck, rested and recovered, sat in the lounge, exchanging commonplaces with the Piersons and Todcastles, to her amazement she beheld coming towards her the Nameless Man. She half rose from her seat, and greeted him eagerly; curiosity was still supreme in spite of other competitors.
“So you are here!” she began, holding out her hand, and confident that she had caught his identity at last. Why, this is quite like old times!”
“Yes,” he answered, standing before her and looking at her with grave eyes. “You are Lady Warbeck, I believe, and I must introduce myself.”
She nodded eagerly.
“I am Anthony Damer.”
Lady Warbeck suddenly leaned back in her chair, and drew a very long breath. Then she stared up at him. Yes, she saw everything now in one flash—Chablette, Katherine, Mrs Hardisty.
“Would it be possible for me to have a little private talk with you?” he inquired in a low voice.
“Oh, yes, yes,” and she rose hastily, “there is the little reading-room at the end of the corridor, it is almost sure to be empty. Shall we go there?” And presently the pair disappeared arm-in-arm into the salle-de-lecture; closing the door on themselves, and opening a wide field for speculation.
Katherine was still an invalid and, in spite of brave intentions, unable to rally. Possibly bad air, and insufficient nourishment had something to do with her tardy recovery; her head, and her heart, felt like lead, and when she made an effort to rise and dress she had fainted. However, one afternoon she struggled out of bed, was sitting in her dressing-gown in the crooked cane chair, and had just finished tea, when Miss Thom entered the room in a state of indescribable excitement.
“Oh, Katherine, the lady who called in the motor is here again!” she announced.
“She has a cab this time, and she’s coming up. Oh, my dear, my dear, I hope she brings you good news!”
At this moment, Lady Warbeck, so much out of breath as to be totally speechless, stood transfixed in the doorway, and surveyed with an expression of horror Katherine’s pallid face, drooping figure, and the squalid little room. Then, with an imperious wave of her hand, she dismissed poor, garrulous Miss Thom, deposited herself in a chair, and continued to pant, and pant, and pant.
“So here you are!” she gasped at last. “Oh, what stairs! What flights I have taken for you! How are you, Katherine? You look simply awful—a ghost.”
“Better, much better, and so glad to see you.”
“And you have good reason to be glad, my dear, though I shall never forgive myself for leaving you with that woman, but it’s all over now.”
Katherine’s eyes filled, she was still desperately weak.
“Don’t attempt to talk, but listen to me,” continued her visitor, peremptorily. “You may conceive my surprise when I found you had left the Splendide, and my, if possible, greater amazement, to discover that Anthony Damer was the nameless man. Well, he is a good sort, poor fellow. He and I had a long conference, and I subsequently saw her. Mrs Damer had evidently cooled down, and was actually subdued and piano, and, to tell the truth, we had rather an emotional interview. I told her all about Chablette, my illness, and how I approved of your walks and talks with a stranger,—you and he being so solitary. How I had met him, and liked him, and we never knew his name or he ours; and that his astonishment at seeing you again, as his wife’s companion, left him momentarily dumb. I assured her that to cover a defenceless girl with shame and was unpardonable; then she melted, and wept, and implored me to forgive, and help her. She said that Anthony would never pardon her till you did, and she begged me to send for you. This I promised to do, for I could see that she was desperately ill, and I agreed just to appease her. She cried, and sobbed, and worked herself into a terrible state of excitement, in spite of all I could say, and declared that you had given her two months of relief and happiness, and that she had been a beast to you, and to Anthony. She said, ‘Tell her I do love her, and if I die, I wish she would marry him and make up for me.’ She rambled on and on, and said she believed she was going; this last attack, her own fault, would be the end. Told me she wished to be buried in the sun, and not at Kingsbourne in the dark family vault. Anyway,’ she said, ‘the ancestors would rise and turn me out,—not because I was the daughter of a peasant, but because I made the life of their descendant a hell upon earth. I did, I did, I did!’ You know how she repeated herself. I tried my utmost to calm and console her, and promised her I’d wire for you that very same night, but all the time, I knew it would be too late, and I saved my five francs.”
“And is she dead? “ whispered Katherine, brokenly.
“Yes. Anthony Damer came to my room about eleven—fortunately I had not undressed. ‘She says she must see you,’ he said, and of course I went with him. I saw she was sinking fast, directly I looked at her, death was in her face; only her eyes, those queer, green eyes, were alive. She could hardly articulate, but I heard her say, ‘Give her this’—it was an old family ring—‘and ask her to forgive me, but—I—know—she will.’ Then she closed her eyes, and seemed to sleep, and after a time I left her. Of course I could do no good by losing my night’s rest. She passed away at daybreak, and was buried in the English cemetery on Tuesday.”
Katherine, weak and unhinged, buried her face in her hands and wept.
“I came off immediately; the Piersons helped me to start, and lent me their maid. Now, Katherine, restrain yourself! Why should you cry for such a woman? Tomorrow, I intend to move you to the seaside; we will both be better for a thorough change. I will fetch you in a comfortable carriage at two o’clock, and you must get that funny old scarecrow to pack your clothes. And here, I was forgetting it, is the ring,” and she took from her little bag the ancient family pledge, that Anthony Damer had given to Lalla the heiress, in the garden at Algeciras.
Three years have elapsed since the death of Lalla, and many things have happened. Among our little circle the most notable event was the marriage of Katherine and Anthony. The second Mrs Damer is a graceful and popular figure at a certain English Embassy, where her tact, her charm, her gift of languages are invaluable to the wife of a diplomatist. The Damers have one child (a son), and two dogs; for Anthony had not the heart to give away the miserable “D,” and the forlorn little creature has been befriended and adopted by Bob.
The Boundlys continue to flourish, and it is no secret that their godson, the heir of Kingsbourne, will also be the heir to their vast fortune, and some day, if he lives, a great parti. Monty Corben has found a career in America; he has discovered that he can work, that he can push and hustle, and understands—nay, he inherits—the art of bluffing, and is now on the high road to fortune. He sent Katherine not merely the borrowed money, but a grateful letter, and a wedding present purchased at Tiffany’s. It happened that, some time after their marriage, the Damers were in Paris on a little holiday, and Lady Warbeck, who chanced to be in the Ville Lumière, immediately transferred herself to their hotel. She expressed her boundless enchantment at finding herself once more under the same roof, and on the same floor, as dearest Katherine, and seemed disposed to make use of her services quite in the old way.
But to this, Anthony Damer sternly objected. Katherine now belonged to him, and her visits to the old lady’s room, and the various little jobs put into her hands, were all contrived by stealth. One evening, however, Anthony had an official engagement, and Katherine found herself sitting with her former patroness and listening to passionate complaints of her successors,—a series of maids—and failures.
“One drank,” declared the victim; “she even emptied all my bottles of eau-de-cologne. Another bullied me—think of it, Katherine! and I used to bully you. The wretch would pretend that both my transformations were at the hairdressers’, and keep me a prisoner in my room all day. She read my letters, of course, and I was obliged to give her fifty and my wardrobe, and she actually insisted on the lace and trimmings.
She was a good maid, but she lost my luggage twice. Once, when I was going to the Crawfords—such a smart party—I arrived, no boxes, nothing but a bag, and imagine it, I had actually to come down in an awful purple tea-gown that belonged to old Granny Crawford, all cheap white lace and rosettes, cotton lined, and smelling of paregoric! It was the best they could do for me. Oh, I’ve had a time, I can assure you! I have missed you terribly. I’ve been like a bird without wings. Well, now I’m going to give up Society.”
“You will never do that,” said her listener, who was busily engaged in dusting and turning out the well-known blue jewel-case.
“You will be in Society till you die, have a very smart funeral and a thousand wreaths.”
“Listen to me, Katherine,” coming and seating herself at the table by which she stood. “I know you have had some shocks in your time—do you think, you can stand another?”
“Apart from Tony and the boy,” and she paused with a tiara in her hand, and looked at the owner with anxious scrutiny.
“Would you be surprised to hear, that all the contents of this box,” flicking it with scornful fingers, “are imitations? The diamonds, emeralds, pearls and rubies of the best Parisian manufacture, made in this very city?”
“Of course I would! Why, they are splendid, even finer than the Damer heirlooms.”
“Well, my dear, as a matter of fact, these heirlooms are paste; a wise investment in make-believe, and a sham. Perkin Warbeck was an impostor; Caroline Warbeck is another.” And having made this astonishing and shameless confession, she folded her hands, looked Katherine straight in the face and smiled.
The smile was answered by an incredulous laugh as Katherine turned the key in the jewel-case and said:
“How can you say such silly things! Sham!—you know they are celebrated. ‘Lady Warbeck, wearing her famous jewels, was sitting in Mrs Brown’s box,’ etc. etc. etc.”
My dear, I am serious. You really must not laugh but attend to me. My husband was wildly extravagant; he had no heir, spent every penny and lived every hour. He died suddenly, and there were heavy debts. There I was, a widow—a good life yet—with a small jointure. What was before me—a boarding-house? a cheap continental pension? banishment? No.
“So I sat down, like the steward in the parable, and reflected. There were the family jewels, and my jointure; I came over here, had the things copied, and sold the originals for eight thousand pounds. Then I sunk all I possessed in an annuity. I live on this, and the éclat of my diamonds, emeralds, old lace and supposed fortune. The enterprise has been a superb success. Instead of a frumpish, obscure nobody, I am a well-known personality; my name, as you say, is in the Society papers. I go to all the smart functions, hire carriages, stay at the best hotels; my dresses come from Paris; I am godmother to several important infants, I’ve a box full of signed photographs of dear expectant friends, and receive more At Home cards than any other old woman of my acquaintance. I have twelve hundred a year, and manage to make it look like five thousand; so now you will understand my petty shifts and meannesses. I know you were often greatly puzzled, and thought ‘What an old miser!’ I wish I was; I am only an old fraud.”
During this startling confession, Katherine’s face became suffused with colour. She could not utter a word, she could only gaze at Lady Warbeck, who may have found her glance disconcerting, for she averted her face, as she continued:
“I’ve left you in my will my real diamonds—rings, earrings and brooch; to Mrs Corben my jewels. Won’t she be pleased!” and here she turned on her companion the amused look of a malicious child. “And that reminds me, that since she has decided to join Monty in Brooklyn I’ve arranged to take her flat off her hands. I shall re-furnish. There’s a restaurant in the mansions—I can give little bridge teas and suppers; and its central. My days of rushing about are over. I suppose at seventy-odd I may lay down my arms, eh, Katherine? Everyone confides in you; tell me frankly, are you shocked?”
“Yes, I believe I am,” she answered gravely, “or at least half shocked, and immensely surprised!”
Her mind flew back to the sensation these mock jewels had always excited, the deference they assured to their owner, her own miserable anxieties respecting them, the scene with Monty; all the little scrapings and meannesses, the squabbling with cab-drivers, and washerwomen—yes, these painful economies were now explained. After a pause, Katherine looked at her companion doubtfully and blushed as she murmured:
“I think I understand a good deal.”
“For instance, that this ancient piece of crockery always liked to swim with the brass pots!” declared the old lady, smiling back at her with disconcerting hardihood.
“And the jewels look so real!”
“The same as lots of people who are actually paste. Well, I’ve done myself a considerable amount of good, and no particular harm to my neighbours. I owe no money, I’ve never cheated at bridge, I support bazaars; but, as I’ve said already, my wings are clipped, my hearing is no longer what it was. Of course I shall still go to Bargrave for August and—”
“And you will come to us when we are at home?”
“Yes, when you are in residence I shall always turn up. I am sure Anthony will not object. Of course, he feels that I have been a mother to you,—and you know exactly the sort of room I like—first floor, large, and full south—be sure you invite nice people who play bridge to meet me. I suppose I shall have to recognise the Boundlys and put up with them; though I understand they now pay a mere nominal rent; however, as you and Anthony have taken them to your hearts, I must only endeavour to do likewise.”