It was after one o’clock on a dreary January afternoon, and various members were flocking to lunch at a well-known ladies’ club in Dover Street, W.; the greasy streets and cold, drizzling rain being a sufficient reason to urge them towards an appetizing meal, the blazing fires—these were pre-war days.
Enthroned on a couch in the lounge, immediately facing the entrance hall, an elderly woman divided her attention between the Times and the door—undoubtedly she was awaiting some tardy guest. This individual was Mrs. Tollemache Watkin, known to her intimates as “Mrs. Toby.” Curious to relate, she derived her name from a far-famed fox-terrier, which she and her husband had worshipped for twelve long years. The reputation of Toby Watkin had filtered from Simla to Colombo—his name and fame were discussed on board liners bound for Australia or Europe—many a rising star might envy his renown—he was not merely a gentlemanly, sporting animal, but had been endowed with unusual gifts, and in the intervals of ratting and squirrel-hunting told fortunes by cards!
However, the grave had closed over Toby ten years previously, also at a later date on his master, T. T. Watkin, Esq., Bengal Civil Service, and it would have been difficult to say which of the two—master or dog—was the more sincerely lamented by Mrs. Toby. She had no children, but few relations, and was an opulent widow of sixty, occupying a comfortable flat in Basil Street, Knightsbridge, where she was attended by three maids. Some declared that Mrs. Toby was much too saving and close-fisted, and it is an unanswerable fact that an extra tempting offer “to let” would induce her to vacate her snug home at a week’s notice. Moreover, she studied various small economies, and thoroughly enjoyed the saving of sixpence. To a woman of her income it was all so unnecessary—so said her friends, but her kindred heartily approved. Stingy to herself, she was generous to others—shrewd, honest, sympathetic, Mrs. Toby was the ideal woman to help lame dogs over stiles, and of these she had a considerable pack; she patched up matrimonial differences, promoted love affairs, rescued boys from scrapes, appeared to have a special art of extracting confidences from the most reticent and unlikely subjects, and was said to have been the repository of more secrets than any woman in the north of India.
T. T. Watkin, her late husband, a tall, upstanding, good-looking man, was known among his own circle as “Handsome Tom.” He was not brilliant, but just, conscientious, plodding, and had earned the respect of all classes, whether brown or white. Beyond and outside official work, he was a crack shot and billiard player, well-known and well-liked in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call him.
Mrs. Watkin, on her part, could not lay claim to good looks. To tell the plain truth, she was a plain woman. When surprise was expressed at “Handsome Tom’s” choice it was impressively explained that “Mrs. Tom” had a beautiful figure—and—“money of her own.” The money was no doubt still intact, but the beautiful figure had disappeared—she was now a shrunken, rather bent, old woman, with a complexion of parchment, and a pair of faded grey eyes. One of these had a slight obliquity—scarcely noticeable save in moments of intense excitement; on such occasions there was undoubtedly an uncertainty in the direction of the left optic.
Mrs. Toby was, as always, suitably dressed. She wore a black costume, a matronly toque, and a handsome sable stole. Her gloveless hands were beautiful, and displayed several magnificent diamond rings; these glittered obtrusively as she patted her lap from time to time, with her a sure sign of suppressed irritation or impatience. The lounge contained several groups and couples, evidently awaiting friends—or tables. Presently a stout old woman, wearing a long fur coat, arose from her seat and sailed across to Mrs. Toby. This was Lady Clubbe—the consort of Sir Robert Clubbe, late of the Investigation Department, now ending his life in peaceful and knightly ease in his native country. Her ladyship and Mrs. Watkin were old Indian acquaintances, and had many memories in common, but not much else—the pair had been rivals in more than one up-country station thirty years previously.
“Well, Fanny?” began Lady Clubbe, accosting her in a high, squeaky voice when half-way across the room. “So you are waiting for someone too? How tiresome people are!” and she flopped down heavily beside her. “I asked the Langford Greens to lunch—you remember them at Fyzabad—such a deadly dull pair! and they have never turned up. What is your party?”
“Oh, no party at all—only a woman from the country to talk over her affairs and plans. I expect her train is late.”
“She will swear it is, anyhow!” said Lady Clubbe, with a little cackling laugh. “Well, she could not talk over her affairs with a better adviser than yourself—I’ll say that for you, Fanny. I’ve a little scheme on too!”
“Have you?” with a faint sarcastic smile. “That’s nothing new!”
“Then listen,” pursued Lady Clubbe, nodding her head confidentially. “You know my niece, Julia Johnson? She met young Green down at Eastbourne—quite a nice, smart fellow—in the Central Indian Horse.”
“Ah, yes, I understand. This accounts for the lunch to his deadly dull parents.”
“And himself, of course,” supplemented Lady Clubbe with considerable animation. “Julia is here, but just now powdering her nose in the ladies’ dressing-room. I’ve given her such a fascinating hat for the occasion—it cost me four guineas.”
“A cheap hat, if it catches a husband,” remarked Mrs. Toby. “Julia is getting on. Dear me, I remember her christening at Almora, as if it were yesterday instead of——”
“Are you going to the Smithsons’ wedding?” broke in her companion, who had no liking for such tell-tale dates. “Of course you know it means a present, but I picked up a little butter-dish in Harrods’ bargain bazaar.” She paused, for at this moment the door was thrown wide by a page, and a tall, graceful woman made a leisurely entrance. So striking was her appearance that it momentarily challenged interest, and every eye in the lounge was fixed upon the lady. In the first place, she had snow-white hair—in remarkable contrast to a young and charming face. She carried herself with easy dignity, and was dressed in a well-cut serge costume and dark furs. For a moment she hesitated and stood looking round, and then descried her friend; as she came forward to greet her it became evident that distance, alas! had lent enchantment; both the stranger and her costume had seen their best days. The bright, expressive face was lined, the dark blue eyes were merry, but the pretty mouth drooped and told a tale of grief and disillusion; also the lady’s age was at least forty—if not more—and yet, in spite of her shabby costume and rusty furs, she somehow caught, and held, attention.
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” addressing Mrs. Toby in a clear, agreeable voice, “but my train was late.”
“Yes, I thought so,” said her hostess, holding up her wrinkled visage to be kissed. “Better late than never, my dear. I’m glad to see you.”
Lady Clubbe did not rise, but remained a solid fixture on the Chesterfield, staring so expectantly at Mrs. Toby’s guest that she felt compelled to murmur, “This is my friend, Mrs. Dene—Lady Clubbe.”
Her ladyship raised her gold eye-glasses and extended a fat hand in a tight glove, and after a moment’s pause, said: “Oh, do you know that somehow or other your face seems familiar. Have you ever been in India?”
As Mrs. Dene stooped to pick up her muff Mrs. Toby hastily replied:
“My friend is a country cousin. My dear good Jane, you think that everyone has had our luck!”
“Oh, but——” began her ladyship, then exclaimed:
“Ah, here are the Greens, at last!”
Alas! No smart young man followed the elderly couple.
“How too annoying!” muttered Lady Clubbe. Nevertheless she rose at once, and waddled away to welcome her guests with well-assumed satisfaction.
Mrs. Toby glanced at her companion, who looked strangely white and, as it were, frozen.
“It’s all right now, my dear,” giving her arm a friendly squeeze as she added: “Come along and lunch—I’ve got a table.”
The large, double dining-room was more or less congested as the two ladies steered a cautious course towards a small table in a window—the one usually commandeered by Mrs. Toby.
“We’ll order good old mulligatawny to warm us,” she said, picking up a menu. “And you shall have a glass of Burgundy—you look like a ghost! Her ladyship is in the other room, and blind as a bat; so put her out of your head, and eat your tiffin.”
“Fancy coming across Lady Clubbe, and her trying to recognize me after all these years. I felt as if the floor was rocking!”
“Oh, this Club is full of Anglo-Indians—it might almost be called Asia Minor.”
“Then the sooner I get out of it the better!” rejoined her guest, glancing round the room with a scared expression in her eyes.
“How long is it since you met the old woman?”
“About eleven years.”
“And it is three years since I last saw you. You have been buried down in the country; and ever since I lost my good old man I’ve been abroad.”
“I know,” assented her guest. “And how I’ve envied you those winters in the sun.”
“A little sun would do you no harm, my dear. You look——” she hesitated, but to herself she added, “shockingly changed, and faded.”
Before she could finish her sentence in a more palatable form Mrs. Dene said:
“Yes, I know I am terribly altered—but it is an advantage in one way. People don’t recognize me. My hair is a splendid disguise—at least I hope so,” and again she glanced about nervously.
“Don’t be so silly, my dear Armine. You and I will have our talk out later, but not a word now until you have finished your tiffin. Then we will find a snug corner in the smoking-room, and have a good old bukh!”
As Mrs. Toby ate her lunch she saw numerous familiar faces passing in and out, and exchanged cheerful nods and smiles, but to-day did not—as was her custom—encourage anyone to halt by her chair. Meanwhile, Mrs. Dene kept her gaze steadily fixed on the table, little knowing that not a few eyes were directed to herself, for—viewed from a certain distance—hers was an unusual and arresting personality.
As soon as tiffin was dispatched Mrs. Toby ordered coffee to be served in the smoking-room, and, as she rose from the table, whispered to her guest:
“The coast is clear! I saw her ladyship heading a procession from the room five minutes ago. I believe they are going to a matinée. Four lunches and four stalls wasted! Oh, how sick she must be!”
“Sick?” repeated her companion.
“Nothing—nothing at all, only a little affair that has missed fire. It amuses me, but I doubt if it would interest you.”
Established on a comfortable sofa and supplied with coffee, Mrs. Toby said:
“You don’t smoke, do you?”
“Don’t I?” was the energetic assent. “I suppose it is a bad habit, but cigarettes have been a help—a sort of anodyne—when—when——” and she choked down a lump in her throat.
“When the pain was very bad,” patting her hand sympathetically. “Yes, poor Armine, I know—you have had a shocking time.” Then, beckoning to a page for cigarettes, she offered a box to her companion, and helped herself, saying: “I smoke too, you see. Shameful habit for an old lady. My husband tempted me, and I fell. Now this is a matinée-day, and we shall have the place to ourselves, and you, my dear, must tell me all that is in your heart.”
“Heart! I have no heart now!” she answered bitterly.
“Well, then, your head. Though, long ago, when you were so scatterbrained, we used to say that you had not got one!”
“Long ago indeed! And if I had only had what is called a head in those days I’d not be sitting here friendless—except for you and for one or two old pals—and entirely alone in the world.”
“My dear, you seem to look at things through a black veil. You take too gloomy a view of life.”
Mrs. Dene’s only reply was to shake her head.
“Now let us sum up your past eleven years,” said her friend briskly. “There was that illness.”
“Yes, when Mother came over from Ireland, and nursed me, in spite of Father’s outcry and excommunication.”
“He flung you off, I know.”
“Yes, though he was a parson—supposed to be a Christian—and I was his only child. He was a Puritan of the most rigid type, hard as cast-iron. Besides this, he was entirely absorbed in his great book on the early Church. All his worldly interests were invested in that; he took no share in parish work, never visited his parishioners, and anyone could see how the two services on Sunday bored him to death. So naturally his once large congregation dwindled to a handful. He was a stern, reserved, narrow-minded man who only loved his books. I was always afraid of him—shut up in his study as in a lair—as a small child I sat at meals in terrified silence. Poor Mother—oh, what a life she led, slaving in house and parish, in a desperate struggle to please him and to keep up appearances. I often wondered why she married him. But as a young man I believe Father was handsome, and desperately in love with her. Of late years he was a pitiless, thankless taskmaster, who took everything and gave nothing.”
“Ah, I’ve heard of such! And what about that time in France?” inquired Mrs. Toby.
“Mother contrived it through an old friend. I longed to bury myself alive, and never be seen or heard of again. And so I was thankful to find an engagement as an English teacher in a huge girls’ school, a convent near Blois. I also taught music to the little ones, and found salvation in hard work. The nuns were extremely kind—their mere presence seemed to soothe me—I made friends among the elder girls, and on two occasions spent my holidays with them. Such holidays! Such a break! After some time I trained myself not to think; but before this I used to walk, and walk, and walk round the vast convent garden of an evening, until I was so utterly worn out that I slept like a dog. Then Father died rather suddenly, leaving his affairs in hopeless confusion. As soon as matters were settled Mother came over to England, and I joined her at Teignmouth, and here, I believe, she had some happy years—five in all. It was a sort of Indian summer. Quite a number of people called, and were most kind. Perhaps her being an ‘Honourable’ had something to say to that—or is this a cattish suggestion?”
“Never mind, my dear; go on.”
“You know all about it, for I’ve told you. Mother played bridge, read novels, went out to tea, lived in a new world, and was happy—although we were so poor. I gave lessons in French and music, and this was a great help to the family purse. Then Mother died—she passed away in her sleep. Her heart was always weak—those years of household toil—whilst Father sat engrossed in his book—parish labours, and incessant anxiety, had been a cruel strain. Oh, I am so thankful she had a little sun before the end, but her loss to me meant the loss of everything in the world!”
“I know—I know,” hastily assented Mrs. Toby.
“Well, then old Mrs. Clare, her friend and school-fellow, engaged me as companion. And I’ve been with her until three weeks ago, when she died.”
“Did she leave you anything?” inquired practical Mrs. Toby.
“No, it wasn’t in her power to dispose of money, but she gave me some lace and jewels. Perhaps not so much because she liked me, as that she loathed her daughter-in-law. And yet I think that she liked me in her own cantankerous way. You see, I’m accustomed to old people, and I know what they want and prefer, having lived with them for eight years. I was really attached to old Mrs. Clare, and felt proud when she told me that she had found me a comfort.”
“Were the family furious about the jewels and lace?”
“No indeed. I offered to restore the jewellery, but they picked out the heirlooms and returned the rest, and were grateful and nice about the whole thing.”
“And now, my dear, what are your plans?”
“No more teaching, no more nursing, no more sick-rooms—and yet, of course, I must earn my bread. I’ve saved up nearly two hundred pounds—besides seventy pounds a year income.”
“But you can’t live on that—not even in the cheapest boarding house.”
“No, not in these days. Tell me, what do you advise?”
“I advise you, in the first place, to come and stay with me; and we will hold a council together. Come on Tuesday for a good long visit.”
“Oh, Mrs. Toby, you are too, too, kind!”
“No, I’ve not been half kind enough, and my conscience has been pinching me. You see, I have allowed you to slip out of my mind. What with your disappearance to France, then our home-coming from India, and settling in, and Tom’s long illness, I forgot you in a way that makes me feel thoroughly ashamed. Although we have corresponded from time to time, there is not much in a sheet of paper, is there? You must come to me and look round, and I’ll try to get you a good post—such as secretary to an M.P. with a handsome salary. How would that be?”
“It sounds imposing, but if it could be managed, I should far rather travel. I long to go abroad. Sometimes I ache to see the sun. If I could find a position as chaperon, or even as lady courier. I speak French well, of course, and I make myself understood in Italian—can play accompaniments——
“Well, we must see what can be done. What time is your train?”
“Then I shall expect you on Tuesday before twelve. Your room will be ready. I look forward to having you. It will be like old times to see you sitting opposite me. Dear me, how you used to chatter in those happy days—and Toby was so fond of you, dear fellow! I suppose you never——” and she hesitated.
“Never?” repeated her friend interrogatively.
“Hear anything of him?”
“Never!” she answered in a low voice—so low that it was almost a whisper.
“Nor the child?”
She shook her head.
“Oh, my poor dear girl, you have known hard lines. The poet tells us that ‘into each lot some rain must fall,’ but you have had a deluge!”
“Yes, in which the girl you knew twenty years ago has been carried away and drowned.”
“No, no, Armine, don’t be so pessimistic! That girl will come up to the surface by and by—on a raft, or a motor-launch—that’s as sure as my name is Fanny. I am going to take your affairs in hand,” kissing her as she spoke. “Meanwhile, I must now depart, as I am due at a bridge party, and you will have just nice time to catch your train. Au revoir till Tuesday!” and Mrs. Toby led the way downstairs.
Lady Gledhow, the sister-in-law of Mrs. Watkin, was also a widow, and well endowed—the second wife of Viscount Gledhow, of Gledhow. Her two handsome daughters were satisfactorily married, and, having accomplished this duty, she withdrew from her former sphere, abandoned the damp, dull Dower House, and settled herself permanently in The Mansfield, a well-known residential hotel in the S.W. district. Her ladyship had still considerable good looks, of which she made the utmost—also of the handle to her name—and expected and received, in consequence, undeserved favours, precedence, and indulgence. She was leader and chieftainess of a certain clan of permanent guests; rumours of festivities, weddings, and wars were invariably carried to her ear, and residents of The Mansfield considered it a favour to be invited to tea in her ladyship’s luxurious apartment. This was adorned with Persian carpets, priceless china, and valuable pictures—looted from Gledhow—all of which she had carried off, despite the indignant protestations of her stepson—the reigning lord.
Now and then, her ladyship favoured the lounge with her presence; her entrance made quite a little stir at tea-time—her entrée and appearance were equally imposing. Her hair, still brown, though touched with grey, was beautifully dressed; her gown was always up to date; her bows and smiles were graciously distributed, as she sought her usual throne—a roomy couch within an agreeable distance of the fire.
As a rule her ladyship invited some favoured acquaintance to share her tea. On the present occasion, Mrs. Watkin was the sole guest. Her visits to her sister-in-law were not frequent, but the ladies were on what is called “good terms.” Fanny Watkin enjoyed an ample income, which was entirely at her own disposal—and Lady Gledhow was a grandmother.
“I wonder you don’t have tea in your own sitting-room, Augusta?” inquired her companion, as she looked round upon the assembled crowd.
“Oh, it is more amusing here—sometimes. I come down to see the beasts fed—occasionally we do have such freaks—positively fit for a menagerie.”
“My dear Augusta, you are growing too fastidious! I notice some uncommonly nice-looking folk—for instance, that elderly gentleman by the fireplace. He might be a duke! Just look at his profile, and his air.”
“Oh, that is Mr. Seymour Scrope—he comes of a good old family. The man beside him is his inseparable companion, Major Lynch. They are only here for a few weeks—they are members of the same club, and occupy apartments in the same house. It is owing to these rooms being painted and done up that the two have sought refuge in The Mansfield.”
Lady Gledhow, thanks to her inner circle, was pretty well acquainted with the whys and wherefores connected with her fellow inmates. Of course, what she gathered was merely on the surface. In Mr. Seymour Scrope she saw a well-bred, elderly man, with perfect old-school manners, and an air of unapproachable reserve. He was a wealthy bachelor, who had put in a few years in the Army, had travelled far, tasted life in many lands, and was completely disillusioned. In appearance, he was small, spare and unusually erect, with a clean-shaven, bloodless face, a well-cut aquiline nose, a pair of critical eyes, and a somewhat saturnine expression; secretly vain of his hands and feet, he was given to nursing a silken ankle across his knee, also he employed a good valet, was always admirably turned out, and was said to have had “a disappointment” which had embittered him for life—but this was mere vain talk. Scrope, well born and wealthy, knew most of the great world, and had never committed a social blunder, or been taken at a disadvantage. At sixty years of age he was a determined cynic, his few friends stood in awe of him, and his chief enjoyment was derived from books—he also took a profound interest in the “Book of Life,” and appreciated comedies, and even tragedies, with the zest of a dispassionate spectator; hard, precise, and sarcastic, he was shamelessly selfish—suave in public—irascible in private—his man could many a tale unfold. But Scrope had the reputation of being just and generous, and had some chivalrous actions to his credit; nevertheless he was secretly feared, for when his ire was aroused, the lash of his tongue was like a knout, and left lasting traces. His companion, Major Lynch, was a handsome, debonair Irishman of fifty (with the spirits of fifteen); he had eloquent grey eyes, a disarming smile, and a touch of the brogue. Lynch had served many years in India, and had known what it was to be hard up, until an unexpected legacy brought him an agreeable change and he retired from the Service.
“Patsy Lynch” was good-natured, fond of sport, a childless widower, and ladies’ man—also popular. Yet for all this, his associate had far more social influence, and was invariably listened to with polite tolerance and a certain amount of fearful respect—his views were direct, and his opinions decisive—possibly the old adage, “Make friends with the cross dog—the quiet one won’t bite you” had something to do with this attitude. Lynch and his friend, to whom he always alluded as “The Little Man,” had not much in common, beyond a far-away relationship, and a liking for bridge and golf.
“Who are those people gathered round the tea-table?” inquired Mrs. Watkin.
“They are a family just arrived from Java—money and diamonds written all over them. The youngest girl is rather good-looking—she is to be married from here—we make quite a feature of our weddings in The Mansfield——”
Loud screams of laughter caused her to pause. These came from a party who had entered the lounge en masse, and were evidently about to take leave of a tall, awkward young woman with an overpowering voice. The group included a portly mother, a young man of the “knut” tribe, with plastered hair and an absolute inability to close his mouth, two girls in smart winter costumes—all talking and exclaiming together. Presently adieux and kisses were exchanged, and the hostess accompanied the party to the entrance and disappeared.
“Who is the tall girl?” inquired Mrs. Watkin. “My goodness! What a voice, what a slouch! What a figure!”
“Yes, an ungainly creature and shockingly dressed,” admitted Lady Gledhow. “Her name is Webb—she and her mother live here in one of the best suites. The old lady is rich, and quite the last word in vulgarity. I dare say the girl would have been married long before this only for her laugh—and her mother.”
“So, then, she is an heiress?”
“Oh, yes; she would be delighted to tell you all about herself, for she has nothing to do but talk—she takes a hungry interest in life, and has no reserves.”
“And no occupation?”
“No; she toils not, neither does she spin.”
“You would scarcely compare her to the lilies of the field, would you?” protested Mrs. Watkin.
“Well, she has some faint connexion with the earth—her father slaved on the land for years, and eventually made a fortune in potatoes. Then he took a fine old family place—and it killed him. The airs of the servants—the airs of the neighbours—the airs of the county—proved too much for Mr. Webb’s constitution, and he gave up the ghost. Mrs. Webb came to London and set up a fine house and establishment; after that she tried Bournemouth, next Bath. Two years ago she and her daughter drifted here. The old lady, who is an enormous size, is a hypochondriac, and has a mania for ‘specialists’; she is amazingly indolent, and sits all day in her room, taking remedies, and playing patience. Her one aim and ambition is to get Noonie married—she actually makes it a subject of prayer, so she informed me!”
“Noonie—what a name!” ejaculated Mrs. Watkin.
“It fits her better than her real one, which is Victoria. Yes, the old lady is desperately anxious to see the girl settled. She takes boxes at the theatres and the opera; gives expensive dinners; figuratively goes out to the highways and hedges, collects all and sundry, and Noonie plays up; scrapes acquaintance here, pounces on new arrivals; invites them to ‘come up and see The Mum.’ The Mum lures them to dinner, and a play—they accept—but there it ends! The Mum is too much for them! If the girl could get away from her mother and into a new milieu she might have a chance, for after all five thousand a year is not picked up every day! And here she comes!” as at this moment Miss Webb reappeared with a flushed face, flounced across the lounge, and cast herself into a chair close to Lady Gledhow’s sofa.
“Oh, I do feel so mad!” she announced.
“Mad—why?” inquired her ladyship.
“Because there are those Scotts going off to Italy, and I shall be stuck here as usual for the whole blessed winter. The Mum won’t stir. I’ve no fun in life—what’s the good——” she hesitated, realizing for the first time the presence of Mrs. Watkin.
“Fanny, this is Miss Webb,” said her ladyship. “Noonie, Mrs. Watkin, my sister-in-law.”
Noonie turned about and said:
“I’m afraid you’ll think me an awful queer sort, carrying on like this; I’ve got the hump, and am dreadfully down and disappointed. I hoped the Scotts were going to invite me to join their party. Mrs. Scott said something to The Mum—and now Jimmy Scott swears that he won’t look after more than three women—as if I couldn’t look after myself—yes, and him too!”
“And so you are anxious to go abroad?” observed Mrs. Watkin with polite encouragement.
“Anxious? Dying! I declare I’d give an eye to get away to Italy—or the south of France!”
“And you can’t manage it?”
“No, Mother won’t move. She won’t leave her pet doctor, and I can’t go alone, can I? Last year I went to the English lakes with the Appletons, but”—with a burst of candour—“it was not a success.”
“No, bad temper! It was all about hotel accommodation and a choice of bedrooms. The Appletons are in the hotel now—they live here—and it’s rather awkward, as we don’t speak.”
“How would it be if you had a lady companion?” asked Mrs. Watkin, who had been carefully studying this hulking, underbred, outspoken girl. She was thinking of Armine—would it suit?
“Oh, yes, that would be all right if I could get hold of a smart sort of Society woman who could jabber French, and knew the ropes. We would run about together and have no end of a good time, but The Mum is so early, early Victorian—this is not proper, and that is not proper. I know she would engage some old frump of sixty to do propriety, and policeman—I couldn’t stick that!”
“I am sure your mother would wish you to enjoy yourself,” put in Lady Gledhow. “She has often regretted that she was not able to take you out.”
“No, a theatre is Mother’s limit. And she is such an awful prying, suspicious sort of chaperon—wanting to read my notes! Did you ever? Worrying to know who the man was I spoke to, if by any chance I did speak to a man, and is he coming to call? and so on; you know the style.”
Mrs. Watkin considered the speaker gravely. She was common and plain, with a shiny skin, high shoulders and huge feet thrust out that all might note, but she had a fine pair of intelligent brown eyes, quantities of dark brown hair, and a frank, open countenance. She seemed honest, was well off, and as anxious to go south as Armine herself. After a moment’s consideration she said:
“Do you know, I think that I might be able to put you in the way of an admirable companion?”
Miss Webb drew in her feet and sat erect.
“She has been accustomed to society, is accomplished, well born, and nearly forty.”
“Not so much of a start, as I’m twenty-three. Is she a widow?”
“She has lost her husband,” replied Mrs. Watkin gravely, “is rather badly off, and, like yourself, longing to escape into the sunshine.”
“Do tell me more about her!” urged Noonie. “Is she good-looking?”
“She was, but now her hair is white and she is painfully thin and worn. Mrs. Dene is Irish by birth, a niece of Lord Belturbet.” Crafty Mrs. Toby introduced this fact as she believed it would impress her listener.
“Do you think I could see her?” inquired Noonie, jumping up and looking down eagerly on Mrs. Watkin.
“Yes, she is coming to stay with me to-morrow; perhaps you and your mother will meet her at tea in my flat in Basil Street on Wednesday? Nothing may come of it, but no harm will be done.”
“I’m sure something will come of it, if she looks sufficiently old and serious, and will take me on.”
“She would require a good salary,” announced her friend.
“Oh, that’s nothing—money is no object to us. I say, if you don’t mind, I’ll just run up and speak to The Mum, and see if I can’t pin her down to come to your tea,” and she pounded out of the lounge.
“Isn’t she a queer specimen?” said Lady Gledhow. “She looks like a powerful, able-bodied peasant—just the sort of vigorous woman to work a farm. But she is a good sort, straight and kind-hearted, entirely ignorant of the ways of the world, and of the manners and customs of society—terribly touchy, and intoxicated with a sense of her own importance. Do you think your friend would undertake her?”
“Probably; she is longing for a complete change, as she has been doing nursing-companion to invalid old ladies for the last eight years and living in an atmosphere of eucalyptus and linseed.”
“Poor soul! Well, at least Noonie would be better than that—her health is splendid. Oh, here she comes, she has not been long.”
No, for in almost breathless haste Noonie had dashed into her mother’s presence with her astonishing news.
“Mrs. Watkin, Lady Gledhow’s sister, knows of such a charming companion, who seems to be the very thing for me. A widow of forty, very accomplished, the niece of a lord, her name is Dene, and I’ve come up to see if you’ll accept Mrs. Watkin’s invitation to meet her on Wednesday at her flat?”
At first Mrs. Webb was too stunned to frame a reply; she gazed up at her daughter, who was surveying her with her hands on her hips, a customary attitude.
“But, my dear, Doctor Skelton is coming by appointment at four on Wednesday,” she said at last.
“Oh, never mind him for once! Let Wednesday be my show! I’ll ’phone and ask him to come at six. So that’s all right,” and closing her parent’s mouth with a smacking kiss, she hurried out of the room.
The meeting at Mrs. Watkin’s flat was not arranged quite as smoothly as Noonie anticipated—she had several stormy interviews with her mother before she followed her into a private car and was bowled away to Basil Street. In the first place, the old lady declared that the girl had not given her time to think, but “had carried her off her legs”—no easy feat, as Mrs. Webb weighed seventeen stone.
“I don’t know about this foreign trip of yours with a strange woman,” she grumbled. “It’s all too up in the air for me. How can I tell who she is? A bad lot, maybe.”
“Lady Gledhow’s sister knows her well—that ought to be good enough,” rejoined her daughter with energy.
“And you seem in a mighty hurry to get away—and leave me.”
“Well, you know yourself, Mum, that every day you tell me that your heart’s so weak, and that you may die at any moment, and you ask what’s to become of me without what you call ‘a natural protector’—which means a husband. I’m not so sure that husbands are always protectors!”
As Noonie made this announcement she was walking up and down her mother’s bedroom. Mrs. Webb was still in bed, crowned with a gay boudoir cap and enthroned in pillows.
“You have told me over and over again that every night you pray for a good husband for me—that you would die happy if you could see me married!”
“Well married,” corrected her mother.
“There’s no one to marry here, and wherever we go we seem to be out of it. I have a rotten time!”
“That’s because you are so quarrelsome,” retorted her parent. “A row with Mrs. Tait about a dress-maker—with Miss Watson over a picture-paper—and——”
“Nonsense!” interrupted her daughter.
“And, of course, when all’s said and done,” pursued Mrs. Webb, “we are nobodies. My own brother has only a small bit of a farm, as you know, and touches his cap to the squire. When we got up a bit in the world our relations tried to hang on to us, but your father wouldn’t have it, and then there were rows, and scandals, and a lot of nasty gossip and back-biting. If you were to take up with any of these Dobsons after my death, remember this, that I shall be watching you down from heaven!”
“I’m glad you are so sure of getting there, Mum,” rejoined her daughter. “But we will leave heaven alone for the present. The great point now is whether I’m to go to the south of France with Mrs. Dene or not. If I don’t go I shall be moping here, among a pack of old women and spiteful girls, for the rest of the winter, and shall feel fit to hang myself. On the other hand, I shall be living in new surroundings in a new country, and make lots of nice friends. What have I here?”—waving a large hand. “There are the Skippertons——”
“Yes,” interrupted the old lady; “once you lived in one another’s pockets—now you don’t speak.”
“Then there are the Crawfords, who never introduce me to any of their friends, and they know some very smart people. There is Mr. Seymour Scrope, who hates the sight of me—for which reason I like to go and sit beside him and tease him—one of my few pleasures. People only come to us for what they can get; they lunch and dine, and I hear them making plans to meet one another again—but somehow or other I always seem to be left out! I believe that if I could get away from all these squabbles, and from people who say catty thing’s because they are jealous of our money——”
“My money,” corrected her mother. “You must remember that every shilling is in my hands, and that I could leave you a beggar if I liked.”
“Oh, you won’t do that, I know!” rejoined Noonie serenely. “If”—halting and standing at the foot of the bed—“I could only break away from all these gossiping women who say that I’ve been rude here and rude there, and lose my temper at bridge, and so on, I’d get a fresh start in life, and I promise you that I’d make a good thing of it!”
The upshot of this interview was that Mrs. and Miss Webb duly made their appearance at Mrs. Watkin’s flat. Mrs. Webb was a fat woman, with a short neck, small black eyes, a shiny red face, and a lump on the end of her nose. She was enveloped in an immense black velvet cloak, and looked as she moved across the room like an animated penwiper doll. At first she seemed disposed to canter round on an animal known as a “high horse,” but when she realized that Mrs. Watkin was entirely indifferent to her attitude, and that she occupied a smart, well-appointed flat, and noted that two maids brought in the handsome tea equipage, she more or less descended to mother earth, and her manner, a mixture of vulgarity and hauteur, subsided into easy-going good nature.
And then the companion that was to be entered. She seemed to be rather a grand lady, yet her bearing was conciliatory. She was every day of forty, but much better looking than Mrs. Webb had been led to expect, for there was something between the white hair and dark eyes and her delicately finished features that set her apart and out of the common. She talked well, in a clear, agreeable voice, and Mrs. Webb was pleased to observe that she made no effort to put herself forward. Mrs. Webb also decided that she looked what she called “distangay,” and would make an imposing chaperon; moreover, she seemed to be as grave and serious as if she were seventy years of age.
Tea was an amicable meal, and Mrs. Webb did full justice to buttered toast, pâté de foie gras sandwiches, and plum cake. She drank with her spoon in her cup—a proceeding which was a novelty to Mrs. Watkin.
After tea Miss Webb drew her new acquaintance into a window, on the pretence of looking at an object in the street, and said:
“Can’t we get away somewhere? I do so want to have a good square jaw with you.”
“Very well, come into the writing-room,” said Mrs. Dene; and without further excuse they abandoned their elders to a tête-à-tête.
“I think it’s all right,” began Noonie. “Lady Gledhow has been talking to The Mum. At first she was not for my going abroad—now she is more reconciled. I do hope we shall get on.”
There was a pause, during which they surveyed each other anxiously.
“You know, you look a little alarming,” continued Noonie.
“Then I can assure you that my looks belie me.”
“At a distance one would think you were quite young, but of course you’re not,” she added with blunt brutality. “You will let me shake a loose leg; you won’t be very strict, will you?”
“It depends on what you call strict.”
“Well, writing to young men, and going about with them.”
“I’m afraid you will have to take me with you.”
“And I’m afraid you’ll be one too many!” retorted Noonie with a grin of self-assertion. “You play bridge?”
“Yes, but I’m dreadfully out of practice.”
“Oh, you’ll soon get back your form. You speak French, of course?”
“Yes; and you?”
“Not a word, except ‘oui.’ You see, I’ve never been to school—just had governesses. I don’t mind confessing that I bullied them to death, and learnt as little as I could.”
“What a pity!”
“Oh, I don’t mind. There’s one thing I really do want to learn, and that is nice company manners.”
“You see, I’m never sure of myself, and if there’s a wrong thing to do or say that’s my opportunity. The Mum is no use, and I flounce and bounce, I interrupt and contradict—and so I’m afraid people don’t like me. And then I’m ignorant of history—where there is bookish talk I’m dumb. The other day at lunch I walked out of the room before Lady Gledhow. My word, she did look mad!”
“I suppose she’s a stickler for precedence.”
“You bet, and one afternoon at tea we had some people up from the lounge to our room, and I asked a lady if she had ever met a divorcée? She looked odd and flustered, I thought; and then I found out that she was a divorcée herself! Now, when I do or say something out of the common, I want you to kick me under the table—or wink.”
“Oh, I’ll find some other means,” replied Mrs. Dene with a smile. “But I’m sure you are not as inexperienced as you would like me to believe.”
“You’ll find that I’m rough. ‘A rough diamond,’ Major Lynch says. One reason why Mother is not so set against me going abroad, she thinks that perhaps I may happen to pick up some Italian Count. Then she could talk of ‘My daughter, the Countess.’” And this idea tickled Miss Noonie so much that she burst into a peal of laughter, in which her companion joined. “The Countess Noonie” with her shiny face, shambling walk, awkward figure—what a picture! And yet some Italian noble, the son, or brother of princes, might be tempted. Five thousand a year is a large sum in Italian lire. “The Mum thought of Rome,” resumed Noonie, “where titles are as plentiful as blackberries, but I wish to be near Monte Carlo, and have a bit of a gamble.”
“What does your mother say to that?”
“Nothing! She won’t have any authority out there—you’ll be her deputy. I wonder if you will find me a handful? I feel almost crazy at the idea of going abroad. Those Skippertons know. I told a girl to rub it in, and they are simply green with envy. I can’t tell you how glad I am to get away. I assure you I am not leaving my heart behind me!”
“No, I suppose not!”
“Well, if it had been six years ago, when we were down in the country, there might have been another tale to tell. There was a cousin—well——” she paused and laughed, “the rest is silence.”
Meanwhile Mrs. Watkin and Mrs. Webb were holding a little conference, as they sat side by side on a big Chesterfield.
“Mrs. Dene is uncommonly nice-looking,” remarked the visitor in a querulous key.
“She was,” corrected her friend. “She has had a great deal of trouble.”
“Deaths in her family?”
Mrs. Watkin nodded her head, and looked solemn.
“Ah, dear, I know what that means. Poor Webb, he died of a sort of mixture of dropsy and melancholia. It was a long, tedious business. He and I didn’t marry young, for he had his way to make, but we were lovers always. I was good-looking in my day, and could have settled myself well, but I waited for Webb. And now to talk business. This Mrs. Dene looks as if she would make a steady companion for Noonie, and I think she’ll suit. My girl is an heiress, and will have five thousand a year when I’m taken—and that may be any day, for my heart is weak.” Here, for ten minutes, Mrs. Webb dilated upon her symptoms. “What I want to say,” she resumed, “is that I hope that my girl will marry real well—a regular toff, for choice. You see what a charge and responsibility will be laid upon Mrs. Dene. She’ll have an heiress on her hands—a fine, strapping, well-set-up girl into the bargain. She’s not what you may call accomplished, never took to the piano, and has no ear, and hated her governesses. I had intended to finish her in Paris, but my health gave way.”
“I’m sure Mrs. Dene will be very prudent.”
“I’m sure I hope so. Have you known her long?”
“Oh, then I needn’t go hunting about for references, need I?”
“No, I can thoroughly recommend my friend as honest and reliable. She is most accomplished, has a sweet disposition, and is one of those rare creatures who try to make life pleasant for others.”
“Ah, well, what more could you want? I say, those two seem to be having a long palaver and making friends already. I could see that Noonie took to Mrs. Dene before she’d swallowed her first cup of tea.”
“I’m glad you think so, for I firmly believe in first impressions.”
“Now I want to whisper something. You may tell your friend that Noonie can be led, but there’s no use whatever in trying to drive her. Talk of mules! She has a temper too, and comes out in hot bursts, what she calls a brain storm. She says things she doesn’t mean, and then she’s sorry, and would like to make up; but some people are so unforgiving, and there’s a lot of envy when a girl’s known to have a bit of money. Well,” glancing at a gold-mounted wrist watch, “now we must be going. If you will please send for Noonie, I’ve my doctor coming at six, and he’d be awfully put out if I kept him waiting. I suppose we may consider the matter settled? But I’ll write,” and then with a violent effort, assisted by her hostess, she struggled out of the comfortable corner of the sofa, and waddled away.
There was a certain amount of correspondence between Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Dene, supplemented by messages on the telephone. Mrs. Watkin also took the matter in hand, and arranged that her friend was to receive two hundred a year, all expenses paid, and be prepared to leave London for the south of France in the first week of February.
No one at the Mansfield Hôtel lamented the departure of the inmate, known to everyone—including the waiters—as “Noonie.” It was true that she was generous—ever ready to subscribe—to help; in sickness—though a useless and clumsy nurse—to run errands and carry messages; she had been known to yield her claim to a taxi on a wet day, to lend her best fur coat for a wedding, to pay the bridge debt of another girl; but against all these merits stood her loud “slum” voice, her aggravating habit of standing before a fire in the lounge, laying down the law on every and any subject to her little circle of parasites (making it almost impossible to read or write in her immediate neighbourhood), a hateful custom of looking over people’s cards and offering audible criticisms, her touchy temper and her incessant assertion of her own importance. Therefore, when Miss Webb left The Mansfield, with many injunctions from her weeping parent, there were few to wish her “a safe return,” nor did she receive a single bouquet!
As Mrs. Watkin took leave of Armine at Victoria she whispered:
“Of course I dared not have recommended you for this post if I had not believed in you. I have always believed in you, Armine!”
As a preparation for their joint expedition the two ladies went shopping together with tireless assiduity. Mrs. Dene’s wardrobe was badly in need of replenishing—she had no evening or restaurant gowns, no afternoon frock, and made her selection with taste, deliberation and prudence. Noonie, on the other hand, was inclined for the extravagant, expensive and outré. Once or twice her chaperon had interfered, when she was about to buy a dowager’s dinner-gown, or a school-girl’s party frock, but as a rule Noonie, with a fat purse, took her own line, and favoured the extreme and garish colours. She had a way of talking familiarly to shopmen, and even making jokes; her free and easy deportment might almost be described as a counter flirtation, whilst her chaperon stood by with an air of smileless disapproval completely thrown away upon Miss Webb. She had also a habit of snatching up something which Armine had already selected, and appropriating it with glee. This was particularly hard in the case of a fur tie—a handsome piece of skunk—for which she was in treaty. It happened to be a bargain, because it lacked the muff.
“I’ll take it,” she announced, after some consideration.
“Oh no, you won’t,” brusquely interposed Noonie. “It’s just the very thing I’m wanting. I’ve hunted for it all over the place.”
The saleswoman looked at Armine interrogatively.
“Yes, it’s all right,” declared Noonie. “I’ll make it up to the lady, but I’m bound to have this tie,” and as she spoke she clasped it round her throat. “You know the account address—Webb, The Mansfield Hôtel, S.W.”
During this little scene Armine had coloured up to her hair. She felt indignant, yet she realized that she must become accustomed to her companion and her rough and selfish ways. The sunny South and two hundred a year were well worth a few disappointments.
Noonie’s blundering and complacent ignorance had amused her on many occasions. She had dined and lunched more than once at The Mansfield, and been introduced to some of Miss Webb’s acquaintances, including Mr. Scrope, who was also going to the Riviera. Noonie decided that they must all travel together, as Mr. Scrope and his friend (at present in Ireland) had made the journey so often; they would be a great help. Mr. Scrope was fiercely determined to avoid the ladies’ society; Noonie’s loud clamouring, her refusal to take a hint, much less a “no,” revealed to her chaperon that her young companion had the charging weight and skin of a rhinoceros.
“Never mind that man,” she urged. “Surely you see that he doesn’t want us, and we can perfectly well travel alone. I’ll manage all right, and look after all our luggage and packages, and you’ll have only your little handbag and rug.”
But even so, when the ladies arrived on board the heaving boat in Dover Harbour, it was discovered that Miss Webb had left her railway-rug in the train, and there was nothing to tone down her startling tartan coat.
The passage to Calais proved disagreeably cold and rough, and as Miss Webb sat in a long chair in a sheltered position amidships she made no stoical effort to conceal her misery; she was not sea-sick, but perished, and complained audibly; her teeth actually chattered. This misery was possibly assumed for the benefit of her left-hand neighbour, a remarkably good-looking young man, clean-shaven, with curly hair, who, enveloped in a fur coat and with a plaid over his knees, was well prepared to defy the elements. At last Noonie’s lamentations and shiverings became so obtrusive that for the sake of their common humanity he felt compelled to offer her his rug. This, which she had coveted all along, Noonie accepted with effusion, overwhelmed him with thanks and, as a quid pro quo, offered him magazines, and started on a brisk conversation. It appeared that he, too, was bound for Mentone.
“And for what hotel?” inquired Miss Webb.
“I’m not going to an hotel at all,” he replied.
“My aunt is putting me up—she has a villa.”
“But won’t you find it a bit dull—no band, no dancing?” she asked with challenging vivacity.
“Not a bit,” he answered. “The other way about. I’m supposed to be somewhat of an invalid. They seem to think that one of my lungs has been touched, and the Mater has hunted me away from our English winter.”
“That’s my case, too,” said Noonie. “I’m going to the Hôtel Imaginaire, and this lady sitting next to me is my companion and chaperon. I do hope I shall have a good time!”
The lurching of the ship and the water coming over presently drove the ladies below, but when they landed at Calais, and Mrs. Dene was busy with the luggage and the douane, she noticed that Noonie rushed up to the stranger and returned his rug with a long emphatic speech. She also noticed that the young man accepted Noonie’s overtures with somewhat cool politeness—evidently she was not the sort of girl with whom he was accustomed to associate. He glanced interrogatively at Mrs. Dene, and then at her charge, and seemed puzzled as if he could not make them out; somehow they did not match! Later on, when they were in the restaurant car at lunch, Noonie again caught sight of the young man and signalled for him to come and sit at their table, an invitation which he smilingly declined and found a place with a traveller who was evidently an acquaintance—an older individual with a red moustache, and a laughing, roving eye.
Travelling south at night from the Gare de Lyon, Noonie sat out in the couloir, smoking and chattering to these two men and making a surprising amount of noise, and it soon became evident to Armine that the individual with the red moustache and lively eye was drawing out her protégée and thoroughly enjoying the process.
As she sat alone in their compartment, listening to jokes and sallies, Noonie’s loud laugh, and the grumbling of neighbouring passengers (who wanted to sleep), she realized that she had saddled herself with a heavy task in undertaking to look after this young woman; and she wondered if—in American parlance—she had not bitten off more than she could chew? At last, spurred to action, she rose, and seized upon Noonie with gentle force, pulled her inside the compartment, closed and bolted the door, and requested her to go to bed.
“You have been making such a noise, Noonie,” she expostulated, “that other people have not been able to sleep.”
“Oh, I don’t care a rap whether they sleep or not. I want to talk. I was having such a top-hole time till you came bothering,” she answered with careless effrontery.
“You’ve had enough talking for the present. I should think your tongue must ache.”
“That’s such an awfully nice boy—the one with the curly head—I’m so glad he’s to be at Mentone. I think he must be a swell, for he has a man-servant on board. I fished for his name, but he wouldn’t rise, although I told him mine. Don’t you think that was rather stiff?”
To this Mrs. Dene vouchsafed no reply, but rolled herself up in her blankets and turned her back upon her stable companion.
Very early next morning Noonie was awake and afoot, and when the train stopped for coffee, in spite of her chaperon’s impassioned protests, insisted upon descending to the platform where she renewed her acquaintance with the man with the red moustache, and they pelted one another with crusts of excellent French rolls, and were so engrossed in the conflict, that they had a narrow escape of being left behind.
When Noonie had climbed into the railway carriage, breathless and wildly dishevelled—for her hair only arranged in a very temporary fashion now hung about her shoulders—Mrs. Dene for the first time exercised her authority, and spoke to her seriously.
“Listen to me, Noonie,” she began. “You asked me to teach you nice manners, did you not?”
Noonie nodded, and began to take down and comb her abundant brown locks.
“It’s not usual to make acquaintance—and I may say advances—to unknown young men.”
“Oh, if you mean ‘Curly-head’—why, he offered me his rug himself.”
“What else could he do with a girl sitting beside him actually wailing with the cold? Another thing, it’s not correct to ask strangers their names, nor to shout and scream at the top of your voice. Young ladies don’t throw bread—only little street boys do such things. You really must modify your manners—if not, I warn you that I shall be obliged to take you home.”
Noonie became scarlet and murmured:
“I should just like to see you trying it on!”
And all the way along that lovely côte d’azur she sat and sulked in gloomy resentful silence. However, the lecture had one effect: she did not again sally into the corridor, nor resume her conversations with “Curly-head” and his companion.
By the time the express reached St. Raphael Noonie, stimulated by the bustling scene on the platform, had recovered her speech and her composure, and all the way by Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo she was full of raptures and questions, deeply interested in the gay crowds who were assembled on the platform at Monte Carlo, and much surprised to find Mentone within seven minutes of this centre of excitement.
Arrived at Mentone, the porter of the Hôtel Imaginaire was on the look-out for them, conducted them to an imposing motor-omnibus, and—to their great relief—took charge of their belongings. It was about four o’clock when they arrived at their destination, a large, luxurious hotel, with a European reputation, situated in delightful grounds and gardens commanded by a long veranda which was filled with comfortable cane chairs; and each of these chairs was filled with a substantial occupant. Naturally every eye was turned upon the new arrivals, and as Mrs. Dene stepped out, followed by the blundering Noonie, a languid matron remarked to her neighbour:
“Rather a nice-looking woman—and her maid.”
Inside the hotel were lofty halls, soft velvet carpets, hovering attendants, an obsequious manager; and presently the two ladies were ushered into the lift and conducted to two of the best bedrooms on the second floor. Mrs. Dene, who was very tired, ordered tea for two, whilst the more robust Noonie flew round her room, examined everything, stared out on the lovely view—a sea and sky of every shade of blue—listened to the distant sound of a band, the clang of a train, the hoot of motors, and exclaimed:
“This is the right place for me!” And then and there executed a sort of clumsy war-dance in the middle of the floor.
After tea the ladies unpacked and rested, and Mrs. Dene, who was worn out, fell into a sound sleep, from which she was wakened to find the room alight and Noonie standing beside her bedside in full evening dress.
“Get up, get up, lazybones!” she urged. “Do you know that dinner is at half-past seven, and it is now ten past?”
“But, my dear, you can’t go down in that dress,” protested Mrs. Dene, rising and surveying the girl’s bare neck and arms and pink chiffon gown in stupefied amazement. “That is a dance frock; you must wear one of your restaurant costumes—high necked.”
As she saw contradiction and rebellion in Noonie’s face, she added:
“Well, if you prefer to appear like that you will find yourself the most remarkable person in the dining-room.”
Noonie hesitated for a second. “Dina,” as she called her, was generally right.
“Oh, very well then, I’ll change in two twos.”
“A good-thing no one has seen it.”
“There you are mistaken!” rejoined Noonie in a tone of exultation. “Being rather early, and dying to have a look round, I went to reconnoitre, and whom do you think I saw in the hall as I came downstairs?”
“The concierge, I suppose,” said Mrs. Dene, who was now putting on her stockings.
“What do you say to old Scrope and his friend?”
“You don’t mean that they are here?”
“Yes, rather. That’s the reason I was so keen to come to the Hôtel Imaginaire. Oh, I wish you had seen their faces as I—what you might call—‘floated downstairs.’ I thought the old man was going to have a stroke of paralysis; he stood staring at me as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, and Patsy made his usual exclamation, ‘Great Scot!’ I went straight up and shook hands with them both, and said I was delighted to see them. Mr. Scrope gave me one finger, which was like a lobster’s claw, and said:
“‘Are you staying here?’
“‘Don’t I look like it? We’ve taken our rooms for two months.’ And then somehow or other they scuttled away into the lift and left me standing in the hall alone—that is to say, there were one or two people sitting there, and a woman with a big row of pearls put up her eyeglass and stared at me and tittered.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Dene, who was now busily doing her hair, “that was the pink frock! You’d better ask me what to put on—at any rate at first. Did you know that Mr. Scrope and his friend were coming here? By the way, what is the friend’s name?”
“Oh, I can never remember—Pinch or something. Of course I knew they were coming. I heard them say they came to Mentone every year, and stayed at an A1 hotel. I tried to fish the name of the hotel out of old Scrope, but somehow or other I could never get a straight answer. He recommended me to go to Nice—he said that Nice was just the sort of place to suit me! However, I was not to be done like that! You know that the hall porter at The Mansfield and I are very good pals. Sometimes I helped him sort the letters. I spotted Scrope’s bold, black handwriting, and I noted the address, ‘Hôtel Imaginaire, Mentone, Alpes Maritimes,’ and so I wrote off the next day and secured our rooms.”
“And that was why you were so prompt in making up your mind?”
“Yes, I’ve a head, although you may not think it, and I can scheme a bit, too! Those men, of course, chose a first-class hotel such as would suit me! Apparently they’ve been coming here for years and know all the ropes, and are what you call habitués; and we don’t know a soul, and I’m quite determined not to be ‘out of it’ here, as I’ve been elsewhere. I’ll hang on to the coat-tails of old Scrope and his pal, whether they like it or not. They can’t deny that they know me. I shall make great capital out of the acquaintance, and when other people in the hotel see me talking with Scrope and Co. they will know that we’re all right!”
“Please don’t say Scrope and Co. I hope your schemes won’t land you in a quagmire some day,” said Mrs. Dene, who was now dressed. “Do hurry and get out of that pink frock; let me help you.”
Ten minutes later the two ladies entered the great restaurant and were ushered to a table by the bowing head-waiter. Noonie, who was wearing a black gown, vulgarized with pink, strutted in first, followed by Mrs. Dene, who looked distinguished in a dark blue chiffon, trimmed with a little old lace. Noonie, who had secured the best seat, sat with her back to the wall, in a position from which she could, and did, command the entire room.
The second gong had sounded, and people were flocking in—at least two hundred—mostly well dressed, refined individuals, soldierly men, smartly dressed women, pretty girls, and a good number of white-haired folk. Noonie noted with suppressed satisfaction that the two to whose coat-tails she meant to cling were seated in her immediate neighbourhood.
As soon as he had discovered her vicinity Mr. Scrope shook out his serviette with a gesture of passionate irritation, and turned his chair so that this abominable young woman should not offend his sight. On the other hand, Major Lynch seemed to find a great attraction in Noonie’s companion; whenever she was not looking in his direction his eyes were riveted on Mrs. Dene.
Mr. Scrope had come to dinner in an extremely bad, not to say vicious, temper; this fact was inscribed on his face, and his brows were set in a forbidding frown. Major Lynch, well accustomed to the “Little Man’s” humours, suffered him to enjoy his soup (bosch), fish, and wine in silence. After a second glass of Graves he broke out:
“To think of that horrible she-ourang-outang following us here! It will entirely spoil any pleasure that I could extract from my stay. Of course, a man of my age must not expect what is called ‘pleasure,’ but on the other hand, I don’t propose to have a loud, bouncing, vulgar woman knocking up against me at every turn. Look here, Patsy, I’ve a good mind to clear out.”
“Oh, Lord, don’t think of such madness! Don’t forget that we have the best chef in Mentone, and you won’t get a good south room elsewhere, so late in the season.”
“I shall cut her dead,” announced Scrope with an air of finality.
“That won’t have any effect; she won’t cut you.”
“I can see her hunting me about—‘Oh, Mr. Scrope, have you heard this?’ ‘Oh, Mr. Scrope, can you tell me that?’ I wonder what the Vieille Roche, or the Marquise in the Villa Coralie, will think of my acquaintance? I know this sounds snobbish, and I’m not a snob, whatever else I am, but the mere sight of that girl gives me a spasm. By the way, you seem to be looking over in her direction; what is she doing? Something outlandish, I’ll be bound. When I saw her coming downstairs, in that low, pink ball frock, I thought my mind had given way! I say, if you go on staring she will come over and speak to us!”
“I am not staring at her, but at the lady who is with her.”
“Oh, yes, the chaperon—rather a nice-looking woman. She came to the hotel several times while you were away. What a job to be keeper to the ourang-outang! Poor devil, she must be hard up!”
“I shouldn’t wonder if she were,” assented Lynch. “Between ourselves, I used to know her out in India.”
“This Mrs. Dene, did you?”
“She may be Mrs. Dene now,” replied Major Lynch, “but when I met her years ago she was Mrs. Brakespeare. Her hair having turned completely white has altered her appearance, but I’d recognize her smile anywhere between this and Calcutta.”
“She must have been a remarkably pretty woman,” vouchsafed Mr. Scrope.
“You’re right—she was.”
“And naturally, she has a past?” suggested the cynic as he helped himself carefully to a delicate soufflé.
“Well, yes,” admitted his companion. “Brakespeare divorced her. There was a pretty big row about it, but it has blown over and been forgotten years ago.”
“A divorced wife—I doubt if these things are ever forgotten!” glancing at Armine. “And here she’s chaperon to a girl. I wonder if she knows the history of her sheep dog?”
“Oh, no; and very few would recognize Mrs. Brakespeare. After the case she disappeared for years. The station where it happened was divided into two factions. Most people said she was more sinned against than sinning. There was considerable feeling against Brakespeare, who after the divorce had a good many wounds to lick. I must confess that I was on her side.”
“You generally are on the side of a pretty woman!”
“There were excuses for her,” continued Lynch, with an impatient gesture. “She, like myself, was Irish—that was one bond between us. Indeed, in a ramshackle Irish way, we were connexions, though we had never met before. Brakespeare was in the Indian Cavalry—a remarkably handsome, popular fellow. He went home on leave—someone invited him over to Ireland for salmon fishing—and down in the County Cork he caught a lovely girl of eighteen, the daughter of a parson. He was infatuated—completely bowled over—and married her with very little delay. The bride had no money, a detestable father, and no experience of the world; and when she was dropped down at Chotapore she found herself in a new and a delightful existence, with horses to ride, servants to do her bidding, bands to dance to, and crowds of admirers—all ready to fall down and worship the beautiful Mrs. Brakespeare. There was a good deal of spite and jealousy flying about among the women, but Armine Brakespeare steered a fair course, kept her head, and I’m sure that her first four or five years in India were without a single cloud. She was in love with G. B., she had her baby, her friends, her garden, her dogs, and her extraordinary good looks gave her a certain position—of which she never took the least advantage.”
“What a rara avis!” sneered Mr. Scrope.
“Brakespeare was a great shikari—a celebrated shot. Big game was his passion; when he got leave he would go off tiger-shooting, elephant-shooting, or even up to Tibet, and send his wife alone to Naini Tal or Simla. Then he took a craze for the Himalayas, and went to Gilgit, Pir Pangal, and the Sulaman range.”
Scrope, who was not a sportsman, exclaimed, “The man must have been demented!”
“There are a good many of his class out in India. It’s wonderful how the fascination of shooting big game lays hold on a fellow. Sport in the plains is exciting enough, but it’s nothing to the Himalayas. Once the glamour of those hills is felt, you never can get away from it—it holds like a vice. A man goes back again and again. The most terrible precipices and endless climbs have no terrors for him. And it’s not only the game, but the amazing beauty of the scenery—the fields of maize, apricot trees laden with ripe fruit, the towering white peaks, the raging rivers, the deodar forests which perfume the air. The natives say the deodar is God’s tree, and the Himalayas are God’s mountains. I’ve made one trip myself, and I honestly believe there’s a good deal in what the natives say.”
“What do they say? Not that I think one should value the opinions of these filthy hillmen.”
“They say that the mountains lure one, and that once the spirits like a man, they will never suffer him to escape.”
“And you think they have taken a fancy to your ‘G. B.’ I never heard such bosh! Fancy a middle-aged fellow like you sitting up there telling me fairy tales. I’d much rather hear more about Mrs. Brakespeare.”
“It never dawned upon Brakespeare that he was selfish, and he knew perfectly well that he could trust her. They had a wonderfully pretty little girl, who was rather delicate—such a dainty, fairy-like creature. When she was six years old, to her mother’s intense grief, she was sent home with a friend, who was taking her own children. After the child’s departure Mrs. Brakespeare fretted a good deal. She happened to be in a small up-country station, removed from her own immediate intimates, and Brakespeare was continually away shooting ibex, or sitting on courts-martial, and there she remained with idle hands. At Murree when the scandal came out it fell like a thunderbolt, and few believed it, because it was generally supposed that she and Brakespeare were genuinely attached to one another. However, he got his divorce all right. She refused absolutely to accept money from anyone, and—as far as I and most people are concerned—disappeared below the horizon, until to-night.”
“’Pon my soul, you’d make a valuable advocate!” said Scrope. He turned round, put up his eyeglass, and deliberately surveyed the subject of his friend’s narrative.
Then he said:
“She is an uncommonly handsome woman even now, though she has a blighted look. I should advise you to resume the acquaintance.”
“Oh, I’m not sure about that; it takes two to resume an acquaintance,” said Lynch as he rose from his place.
People were now beginning to move, and Noonie, whom nothing escaped, leant across to her friend and said:
“Patsy has been telling Mr. Scrope such a long history, wagging his head, and looking so important; I wonder what it was all about?”
Mrs. Dene, who for some time had been looking remarkably white and strained, and taken no interest in her dinner, had, to her horror, recognized Major Lynch, and said to herself:
“I know very well what they have been talking about. Patsy has been telling his sarcastic friend all about me. Now, what am I to do?”
The answer was immediately supplied by Noonie, who said:
“Come along into the lounge, Dina; let us look about us, and have our coffee.” And as she spoke she rose, and led the way out of the restaurant.
Fortunately for her chaperon, Noonie happened to be sleepy; in fact, her yawns were so loud and continuous that they attracted the notice of her neighbours. At last she declared that she could not keep her eyes open any longer, and was going to bed. Mrs. Dene rose, only too thankful to depart. Her energy had been extinguished, her glow had faded, and once they were in their rooms, and had said “good night,” she closed and bolted the door between the two apartments. There is nothing like beginning as you intend to go on. She knew that if she did not take such a step Noonie would be in and out, chattering at all hours, and she would not know a moment’s privacy; and never had she desired to be alone more than now, when she had to face a dreadful and unexpected situation. Oh, the treacherous shifting of life!
Here, by a peculiar cruelty of fate, was her old friend Major Lynch in the same hotel, and he had recognized her. She had realized thus by the haste in which he had turned his head to avoid meeting her eye as he passed her in the lounge. Now that she had been given, as it were, a fresh start, was the golden opportunity to be snatched away, and would she find herself once more among the submerged? This evening at dinner, before she recognized Major Lynch, feeling herself to be well dressed, and surrounded by the world she had once known, it seemed as if she had come to life after some long and terrible nightmare. The lights, the flowers, the excellent waiting, the dainty dishes, and the company, all appealed to her tastes, and awakened happy memories. But it had only been a momentary flash; she was powerless against the malignity of events. She had hoped that the great alteration in her appearance would have proved an effectual disguise, but she knew in her heart that Patsy Lynch had pierced it. She lay hour after hour wide awake, wondering, despairing, and trying to make new plans.
Supposing Major Lynch were to confide her story to his cynical companion? (For that matter it had already been told.) Supposing it were to come to the ears of two or three dignified matrons whom she had noticed in the restaurant? What would they say? That it was criminal for her, a divorcée, to undertake the care of a young girl. Naturally, she would be ostracized and driven out of the hotel. The fact of being a divorcée was bad enough, but to have insinuated herself into the position of guide and companion was unpardonable. No doubt one of the stately matrons would feel it her duty to write home to Mrs. Webb. She would be immediately recalled, and relapse into dreary lodgings in some remote seaside town. Looking at the situation from another point of view, she dwelt on the fact that Patsy Lynch had always been her good friend, that he had taken her part in India, and he had written to assure her that if ever she wanted help in any way she might count upon him. That was eleven years ago, and then she was so unutterably miserable and heartbroken that all she wanted was to die, and she very nearly did die—though, thanks to her good constitution and her mother’s nursing, she had pulled through, and emerged from her sick room an emaciated woman with white hair.
This was no time for inaction; she must take her courage in both hands and speak to Patsy. She felt confident that he would not give her away. And then an evil little thought suggested that, in his impulsive Irish fashion, he might already have dropped a hint, meaning no harm. But a hint of that sort—especially if it started in the smoking-room—would run through the hotel like wild-fire. For a long time Armine lay with her eyes shut tight and her brain throbbing.
Towards morning, when the light was creeping in and the birds were beginning to twitter, she fell asleep, worn out by a battle of conflicting emotions.
From this sleep she was abruptly wakened by a piercing shriek. It came from the next room. She jumped out of bed, flung on her dressing-gown, and threw open the door. What had happened? There was Noonie, with dishevelled hair and a scarlet face, sitting up in bed, gesticulating at the waiter who had entered with the morning coffee. The poor man stood bewildered with the tray in his hands. He believed this screaming, tousle-headed English girl had gone mad!
“Oh, Mrs. Dene,” she cried, “do look at this man here! How dared he come into my room! I shall see the manager—you must see the manager. He must be sent away to prison.”
“My dear Noonie,” said her chaperon, “there’s not the least reason for getting into such a state of panic. Abroad it’s the custom for the waiters to bring in the coffee in the morning. It’s considered absolutely correct, and they think no more of seeing you than if you were a chair or table. You’ve made quite a scene, and frightened the unfortunate man out of his wits.”
She turned to him and explained the circumstances in French, whereupon, reassured, he set down the tray and took his departure.
“Yes, I see you’ll have to put me up to a lot of things,” admitted Noonie. “Though I don’t suppose I shall ever get a greater surprise than this—to wake and find a great big man, with hair like a boot brush, standing beside me. By the way, how good the coffee smells—not a bit like ours; and oh, what nice fat rolls!” And she fell upon them with avidity. “Do sit down upon the bottom of the bed and watch me while I eat and drink.”
“My own tray is awaiting me, I fancy, in the next room. I hope you’ll enjoy your breakfast.” And Mrs. Dene, not to be tempted, glided away and closed the door behind her.
But Armine had no particular appetite for the aromatic coffee, tempting croisées, and golden butter. She went and stood in the window and looked out on the fair scene which it commanded, and drew in the warm air of this sunny land of soft dreams and romantic surroundings. Must she abandon all, return to England, settle down in some poky lodgings, and support her miserable life by giving music lessons? Yes or no, would depend upon Major Lynch. She would have to brace herself to contrive a meeting. As appearances are half the battle, she selected one of her dainty morning gowns, and arranged her hair with particular care. And yet, as she looked into the glass, she realized that her efforts were wasted—she was gazing into the faded, haggard face of a woman who might be fifty.
Presently Noonie hammered violently on the door, and the two went downstairs together, Miss Webb announcing her plans at the top of her voice.
“I’ll get that little girl who came up in the bus with us to show me the ropes. I had a word with her in the lounge last night. She and her mother have been here for two months; they were coming back from Nice, and a day’s shopping.”
“You must be careful whom you pick up, Noonie,” said her friend. “Society is a curious mixture.”
“Oh, that will be all right; most of the people here look as if they were off the top shelf, and I shall hang on to Mr. Scrope like grim death. I expect he knows nearly everybody worth knowing.”
As soon as they reached the entrance hall Noonie hurried away in order to search for her new acquaintance, and Mrs. Dene went and sat on the veranda, endeavouring to screw up her courage with respect to a similar effort on her own part. If she could only meet Major Lynch alone, and have a quiet talk; but he was probably down at the band, or away on the golf links, so she must leave herself in the hands of Fate—and for once Fate proved kind. As she entered the writing-room, in order to send a line to Mrs. Webb, she met him face to face in the doorway with two letters in his hand. As she ventured a timid bow, he halted and said:
“Mrs.?” and he paused interrogatively.
“Dene,” she added. “That is my name now.”
“I’m delighted to see you,” he said heartily. “So you are married again?”
“Oh, no! I’ve only taken my grandmother’s name; she is dead, and I know she would not grudge it to me. I should like to have a few words with you.”
“Then come along, and let us go down into the garden; I know where there’s a nice shady seat.”
As they walked along the terrace he said: “I’ve often wondered what had become of you, and what you were doing.”
“I’ve been earning my living for the last eleven years as teacher and companion.”
“I must say I always thought it a great mistake on your part not to have made a fight. So many people believed in you.”
“Yes, and it was very kind of them; but then, you know, he did not—and that to me meant everything!”
“Brakespeare was a hot-headed chap, but very popular, you know. He and I were school-fellows. He didn’t wait for second thoughts. It was a word and a blow—or a blow and then a word. He was always sorry afterwards.”
“Well, he has not been ‘sorry afterwards’ on this occasion,” said his wife as she stood on a terrace among the mimosa trees. She wore no hat, but carried a white parasol, and in the bright glare the light showed up the ravages which last night’s vigil had occasioned. There were lines about her mouth, her temples were a little sunken, her pretty black-lashed eyes seemed to have lost their life—oh, how woefully changed from Armine Brakespeare, the beauty of Chotapore! There was no doubt that seas and billows of grief had passed over the still pretty, pathetic-looking woman who stood facing Major Lynch.
“And what about your little girl?” he asked abruptly.
Mrs. Dene made no reply, but took two steps to a rustic seat, sat down, and covered her eyes with her hand.
“I suppose you never hear anything about her?” he blundered on, conscious that he had unwittingly stepped into a tragedy.
She shook her head with a hopeless expression, and two large tears splashed into her lap. After a moment’s silence she sat up, turned to him, and said:
“You used to call me ‘Patsy,’” he interrupted.
“Yes, I know, but I cannot call you Patsy now. I want to ask you not to give me away.” And in her eyes was a desperate appeal.
“To give you away?” he repeated, growing very red. “Great Scot! For what do you take me?”
“I’m certain that, consciously, you would never do me an injury; but a look, or whisper—oh, you understand how these things get round.”
“I’m sorry you think that I could be such a cur. I was always your friend, Armine. And I must confess that I felt hurt that you could disappear, and never send me one line.”
“I was terribly ill for a time—oh, it was such a pity that I didn’t die.” And then in a few pithy sentences she drew a sharp sketch of what her life had been since they had parted in India. “People have forgotten me, I hope,” she added. “And now I’ve once more ventured out into what is called ‘the world,’ or ‘the open.’ You can’t imagine what a change it will be for me staying here among the lovely flowers, the sunshine, and all these gay people, after years of sick-rooms, closed windows, an atmosphere of drugs, and perpetual claims on my time. No change, no liberty. When my last employer died, my old friend Mrs. Watkin—you remember Mrs. Toby Watkin?”
“Rather! A rare good sort—goes her own way in life.”
“She found me this post as chaperon to Miss Webb.”
“By Jove!” he exclaimed; “I’m afraid you’ll find her a handful. I hope you haven’t gone out of the frying-pan into the fire!”
“I hope not, with all my heart. I know that Noonie is a blundering, interfering, rough sort of creature, but she really isn’t at all as bad as you suppose. She has had no experience or teaching—she never reads. When she knows a little more of the world she will settle down and be a different girl.”
“I don’t think the ‘Little Man’ will ever subscribe to that. She drives him nearly frantic!”
“I promise you I’ll do my best to keep her away from Mr. Scrope. What she craves is lots of amusement, and what she imagines to be ‘liberty.’ I gather that Mrs. Webb kept her as much as possible under her thumb—a horny, hard, Victorian thumb—and allowed her little or no freedom.”
“And so you mean to give her her head?”
“No, certainly not; but I shall encourage her to dance, and play tennis, and go to picnics, and enjoy herself and mix with other girls. She has never been to school, or learned to give and take.”
“I suppose she believes you to be a widow?”
“Oh, yes, I lost my husband out in India. There’s no untruth about that, is there?”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do to help you with Miss Webb, and get her to know the right sort of people.”
“That would be really kind of you. You understand that I’m not at all experienced as a chaperon, but if I can only see Noonie happy and occupied——” She paused, and he added:
“That will keep her out of mischief.”
“I don’t anticipate any mischief.”
“Oh, well, from what I’ve seen of Miss Noonie, she seems to me to have an unfortunate capacity for what is called ‘putting her foot into it’—and a fairly big foot it is!”
“You don’t like her?”
“I don’t actually loathe her, as the ‘Little Man’ does, and for your sake I’ll do my best to give her a good start here. There are some nice people in the hotel—Lord and Lady Peveril and their married daughter, Lady Avenmore, and one unmarried daughter; Sir Grant Hutton, late Judge of the High Court, his wife and two girls; Mr. and Mrs. Thorpe, their son and two daughters; they have a lovely place in Norfolk, and are real gentlefolk. Then we have a few black sheep. A little dark-eyed woman, Madame Marcelle, a great gambler, and the Comtesse de Moresco, a handsome woman, beautifully dressed; they say she has two maids—one for her hair and one for her clothes; Colonel Hobbs, late of the Army. All these are real gamblers, and to be avoided. They go over to The Rooms every day, and when they are at home play bridge or ‘chemin-de-fer’ for high stakes. I’ll introduce you to Lady Peveril.”
At this moment Noonie and her new friend appeared at the end of the walk, and she screamed:
“Oh, Mrs. Dene, I’ve been looking for you ail over the place! I want you to come with me to put our names down for the lawn tennis club and to subscribe to the library.”
She paused, stared hard at Major Lynch, and exclaimed:
“Oh, so you’re here too! Fancy you and Mrs. Dene getting to know one another. I believe you have been flirting.” And with a loud laugh she seized her chaperon’s arm and dragged her away.
The day after her interview with Major Lynch, Mrs. Dene awoke with a bad attack of fever. Impossible for her to rise; she had a high temperature, and also a racking headache. A doctor was summoned, who ordered remedies and absolute quiet. The patient’s condition was not improved by the conviction that while she was lying helpless, in a darkened room, Noonie was—figuratively—running wild below. What associates she might get to know? She had a habit of picking up acquaintances and becoming effusively intimate. Within half an hour the new friends would be in immediate possession of part of her family history, her age, her income, her grievances, and anticipations. What was to be done? Major Lynch had presented Mrs. Dene to Lady Peveril the previous evening; they had exchanged a few sentences. But this fact would not justify her in asking a stranger to take temporary charge of Noonie. She therefore scrawled a little note to Major Lynch, and sent it by her charge.
“Dear Major Lynch,—Can you lend me a book, and will you kindly take Miss Webb under your wing, as it is absolutely impossible for me to leave my room? I have an attack of fever, such as we used to have at Chotapore. It recurs from time to time, and is dreadful while it lasts. Yours sincerely.—A. D.”
The note she confided to Noonie, and asked her to deliver it immediately. As Noonie turned it over and examined the address, she exclaimed:
“What’s this? A billet-doux for Major Lynch! My word, Dina, you are going it! Fancy having to carry my chaperon’s love letters—and the two of you getting so thick in such a short time!”
“Major Lynch knows people I knew long ago,” murmured the invalid. “I’m asking him to lend me a book.”
“Yes, but the doctor said you weren’t to read.”
“Oh, but I can’t lie here all day thinking and thinking.”
“What on earth have you to think about? Well, Dina, I’ll give the note to Lynch, but you must not make a habit of corresponding. I hear he was an awful flirt out in India.” And with this announcement she thundered out of the room.
Noonie had given her chaperon the name of “Dina,” saying:
“I can’t call you Armine, I suppose. Mrs. Dene sounds too formal, so I shall call you ‘Dina.’” And to this Armine assented.
For two long days she endured a bad attack of malarial fever. Her head was splitting; the fire in her veins seemed to lick up her life. Each afternoon, when dressing for dinner, Noonie reported herself, also when going to bed; and it was evident to Dina that her friend, Major Lynch, was carrying out his promise with loyal good faith.
“I’ve got to know the Peverils,” she announced with suppressed triumph. “The girls are nice—but a bit prim. We had tennis this afternoon, and they play fairly well; but one of them told me I mustn’t shout; it put her off! Such cheek! I saw ‘Curly-head’ at the tennis; he seems to know them. He was asking for you. I told him he must come and call, and that if he was a good boy we’d invite him to tea, or maybe to dinner. He is in the Guards—his name is Deverell; and his aunt is a marchioness—no less, a French marchioness—the Marquise de Roche Corbon, and lives in the Villa Coralie. I saw her, a grande dame. She looks down her nose, and is tremendously stuck up. Little Miss Taylor tells me that the villa people treat those in the hotels as dirt under their feet.”
So far it was evident that Noonie was getting on all right, but two days later her chaperon received a shock that carried her out of bed, and back to the little world below.
The previous evening Noonie had awoke her about twelve o’clock, coming into her room with a flushed face, shining eyes, and in an unusual condition of excitement. Without any preamble or excuse she began excitedly:
“I say! What do you think, Dina? I’ve been having such a gorgeous time! Madame Marcelle spoke to me in the lounge, and asked me if I played bridge. Naturally I replied that I was frightfully keen. So after dinner she invited me into the private sitting-room of a friend, and there I found a Colonel Hobbs and a Mrs. Jones, an oldish woman—a good deal made up. You don’t know Madame, of course; she’s English, the widow of a French officer, and so smart in her toilettes, with enormous dark eyes, and heaps to say for herself. Well, we all sat down and played bridge—auction. I wonder if they thought that they had got hold of a softy? But if I am no good for anything else, I’ve got a card-brain, and can add up a score like one o’clock. I bluffed a bit, and then I cleared them out to the tune of seven pounds! Of course, they said they were most awfully glad that I’d won, but I’m sure they weren’t speaking the truth. Colonel Hobbs and Mrs. Jones had to produce three pound ten apiece. Madame and I were partners; she’s an A1 player—sharp as a needle. Look here.” And Noonie opened her gold bag, and turned the contents out onto a table—a roll of notes and several cartwheels. “I shall go over to Monte Carlo to-morrow—Madame has promised to take me—and I’ll plant it all on Rouge!”
As Noonie made this startling announcement she was pacing the room with dancing eyes and her hands on her hips. The invalid, who was still very weak, realized that she was not in a position to cope with her charge. Two facts stood out in her mind: one, that she must be up and doing—no later than the next morning; two, that she must have a serious talk with Noonie, and point out to her the result of associating with undesirable acquaintances. She would put it quite simply—there would be no question of a scene or row; for she bore in mind Mrs. Webb’s warning that the “apple of her eye” could be led, but not driven, so she merely said:
“My head aches badly, but I think if I could have a good sleep I should be better to-morrow, and able to go downstairs.”
“All right then,” agreed Noonie, gathering up her spoils, and waving a “good night” she retired into her own room and banged the door.
As Mrs. Dene was sitting in the veranda the following morning inhaling the delicious scent of heliotrope and carnations—for the Hôtel Imaginaire was in a sheltered spot—she was joined by Lady Peveril, a frail, elegant lady, who sank into a chair beside her and said:
“Good morning—lovely morning, is it not? I am sorry to hear that you have been ill.” And she glanced at Mrs. Dene’s worn face, which had lost its appearance of fading youth, and now looked aged and almost grey.
“Yes,” replied the invalid, “I have had rather a sharp attack of malaria.”
“Malaria; then I suppose you’ve been in India?”
“Oh, then you have probably met my son?” (There is a general idea among the untravelled that the great peninsula of India is no larger than a county, and that everyone is more or less bound to meet.) “He’s a captain in the Blue Lancers, and his regiment is quartered at Lucknow.”
“It’s many years since I have been in India.”
“Oh, I’ve often thought I should like to take a little run out there; my girls would love it, but my husband is immovable. I suppose you are here for your health?”
“Well, no; although I feel sure I shall be benefited by the sunshine. I am here as chaperon to Miss Webb.”
“Really!” exclaimed Lady Peveril, not a little startled; “I thought she was a girl you had brought out for a treat. Have you known her long?”
“No, only a few weeks.”
“I am afraid you will have rather a difficult post. She seems to me to be an independent young woman.”
“Yes, but she has been kept in leading-reins by her mother. This is the first time in her life she has had some liberty, and escaped from the maternal yoke, so naturally she’s a little exuberant; one must make some allowance for her.”
“I suppose so.” A pause. “I don’t know if you are aware that she spent all yesterday afternoon in ‘The Room’ at Monte Carlo?”
Mrs. Dene started; her pale face flushed. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“Quite sure; my husband saw her playing roulette as to the manner born. I believe she went over with that dreadful little Madame Marcelle, who is a notorious gambler. You will not mind my telling you this, as I know that you are an old friend of Major Lynch, and Madame is a dangerous companion for any young woman. She is rather fond of taking up girls, and I see that she has fastened on Miss Webb.”
“Is there anything definite against Madame?”
“No-o—except that she dresses extravagantly, uses too much scent, is said to be hopelessly in debt, and lives by The Tables. Some people know her—mostly men—some do not. She has been coming to the Riviera for many years, and strictly entre nous I call her an adventuress—anyway, I’ve seen her with very shady people.”
“Thank you for what you’ve told me. I am really grateful, for I’m a complete stranger here. I realize that I must not let Miss Webb out of my sight.”
“Poor Mrs. Dene, I don’t envy you! Here are my girls starting for the tennis ground, and I’m going with them, so au revoir.”
“Poor Mrs. Dene” remained alone, digesting the late conversation. So Noonie had been waylaid and seized upon by Madame during her illness, and that dangerous companion had had three days’ start.
Not long after this revelation Mrs. Dene discovered her charge down on the ground floor, in what was called “the play-room,” practising roulette with one or two strangers; and as soon as she could attract her attention, she drew her away in order to have a tête-à-tête.
“Look here, Noonie,” she began, “I hope you’re not going to make my charge of you too difficult. Do let us understand one another, and have a good, square talk.”
“Oh, go on,” said Noonie rudely; “I’m always game for a good, square talk.”
“You never told me that you went over to The Rooms yesterday—and gambled.”
“Yes, and lost twenty pounds! I did not say a word about it because you were ill, and it would have worried you; but I meant to, and now, of course, old Peveril has cut in before me! I saw him there, poking his big hooked beak in and out of the crowd. The family are too starchy and stiff for me. They took me for a motor drive one afternoon, and I was never mixed up with such a dull set—talking of views and art and books, not a joke among them!”
“Well, if the Peveril family are too stiff,” said Mrs. Dene, “Madame and her clique are of the opposite extreme—they are too lax; and if you really want to what you call ‘get on’ and ‘be in it,’ you will keep clear of their society. They will win your money——”
“As it happens, I’ve won theirs,” said Noonie.
“Oh, yes, that was just at the beginning.”
“I suppose Major Lynch has been putting you up to all this?”
“I haven’t seen Major Lynch for four days—not since I’ve been ill.”
“My, yes, you do look played out—like a ha’porth of soap after a week’s washing’. I think you’d better return to your room for another day or two. I’m going over to Monte Carlo this afternoon with Madame Marcelle; I told you last night, didn’t I?”
Just at this moment there came a pattering of high-heeled shoes along the flagged veranda, and Noonie exclaimed:
“Talk of an angel, here’s Madame herself!”
The next instant the French window was darkened, and a pretty little brunette, with a dainty figure and made-up eyes, entered the play-room. She wore an elegant black toilette, a chic Monte Carlo hat, and a long chain of uncut turquoise. Her feet were exquisitely shod, and her bangles and chain jingled as she stepped into the room, bringing with her waves of an Oriental perfume, at the moment the height of fashion.
“Here you are, chérie,” brandishing a black velvet cat as she spoke. “Look at my mascot. You and I are going to have a lovely time to-day,” addressing herself pointedly to Noonie, and turning her back on the girl’s companion. “Count Deschamps—I introduced you to him yesterday—has just ’phoned, asking me to bring you over to lunch with him at Ciro’s. Afterwards we’ll all go into the Casino and make our fortunes. He will call for us in his car in about a quarter of an hour, so fly away and put on your best frock.”
“This is my friend Mrs. Dene, Madame,” said Noonie, indicating her hitherto ignored chaperon. “Dina, this is Madame Marcelle.”
“Oh, really,” bowing, “I had an idea Miss Webb was here alone.”
“Yes, I suppose that was because I was laid up for the last four days,” said Mrs. Dene. “It is most kind of you to invite Miss Webb to lunch at Ciro’s, but she and I are going to Monte Carlo this afternoon.”
Madame’s eyes flashed; so there was to be a battle over the girl—a struggle between her and this white-haired woman—and she was determined not to release her prey, a raw, inexperienced, impulsive creature, who announced that she had five thousand a year and did not know how to spend money!
“But my dear lady,” objected Madame, gesticulating with her tiny hands, “your charming young friend made an appointment with me yesterday, and it’s owing to this that I’ve been offered a car and luncheon. How can I upset the Count’s plans?”
“Surely there need be no occasion to do that,” rejoined Mrs. Dene. “He will no doubt be delighted to avail himself of your own company?”
“Oh, Mrs. Dene, you will allow the child to come, will you not?” urged Madame, with a beseeching expression in her great dark eyes.
“Thank you very much, Madame Marcelle, but I’m afraid I must say ‘No.’”
“Afraid of what, my dear lady?” demanded Madame, gesticulating with the mascot in her hand. “Miss Webb accepted—how can she break an engagement? The Count was so delighted to meet a real English girl—in a natural state—without any porcupine quills. He found Miss Webb’s society a most refreshing treat, and has arranged this little fête in her honour—and she cannot possibly throw him over.”
“But, Madame, she only received his invitation two minutes ago,” protested Mrs. Dene, “so, surely, her refusal cannot make a serious difference in his arrangements.”
“You think not?” cried Madame, raising her voice. “French gentlemen of position are not accustomed to snubs. I’ve known the Count for years—he was in my husband’s regiment, the Chasseurs—and I can vouch, promise and vow that he is everything that could be desired.”
“I’ve no doubt of this, Madame,” was the other’s polite rejoinder, “but I’m Miss Webb’s chaperon. Her mother has given her into my charge, and I cannot permit her to accept an invitation from a host who is a complete stranger to me.”
“Then you will not take my word?” cried Madame, with flaming cheeks, and speaking in a high, threatening voice.
“It is not a question of your word, but of my duty.”
“But Miss Webb is not a child—she must be over age—and I can act as her chaperon. My friends will tell you that I am most efficient.”
“You are extremely kind, but I must decline your offer.”
“Let’s leave the matter to Miss Webb herself,” suggested the crafty adventuress. “I suppose she is permitted some say in the matter.”
As she spoke she looked at Noonie with a challenge in her face—but Noonie, besides a craving for excitement and amusement, had inherited a certain portion of her father’s sound common sense, and as she sat neutral and glum, she was weighing in her mind some important pros and cons.
If she were to whiz off to Monte Carlo in her new pink hat, and lunch at Giro’s with Madame Marcelle and the Count, she would have a splendid outing—yes—there was a lot of go about Madame, who seemed to know everyone in the place by sight, and told the most audacious stories. Madame’s one idea was, apparently, to have a good time, which aspiration was on all fours with Noonie’s intentions. There would be gambling, motoring, luncheons, and dinners, but—there was a reverse to the shield. She would be dropped by the best people; she would be out of the picnics, and tennis tournaments, and dances which were likely to be got up by the smart set in the Hôtel Imaginaire and elsewhere. And it struck her—although it was not easy to make any impression on Noonie—that when she introduced Madame Marcelle to young Deverell he had seemed a little surprised and stand-offish, and that the man who was with him glanced at him with raised brows! Certainly Madame was not in his set—his father was a lord, and his aunt a marquise—and a stuck-up old woman at that!
“Well, Miss Webb, what do you say? Come, now—you won’t let us down, will you?” demanded Madame rather breathlessly.
“I say,” and Noonie grew very red, and gulped down something in her throat, “that it’s awfully kind of you to ask me, but that I feel I ought to go to Monte Carlo this afternoon with Mrs. Dene, who hasn’t been well, and is not fit to go about alone. Perhaps I shall see you there, at the second roulette table on the left-hand side—as you go in?”
“Ah, yes,” snapped Madame viciously, “I suppose you know that that is the suicide’s table? Well, then,” recovering herself she added, “I’m sorry you can’t come with us—the Count will be so disappointed. Better luck another time!” and without a glance at her adversary, Madame turned about and hurried away.
If we were to follow Madame to the telephone, we should overhear her say: “Don’t send car—the lunch is off!”
As for Mrs. Dene, she patted Noonie on the arm, and said:
“You were a dear, good girl, and I don’t think you will ever regret that drive and lunch.” To herself, she added: “Although I still feel a miserable worm, yet I have beaten that viper in our first engagement!”
Monte Carlo has been so often and so admirably described and seen that it is unnecessary to enter into particulars and repeat its attractions. Going over in the train, Mrs. Dene and Noonie found themselves in the company of “Curly-head,” who joined them in their carriage.
“We seem fated to travel together by rail!” he remarked. No, he was not bound for The Rooms, but due at a tennis-party. Perhaps later they would meet him at the Hôtel de Paris, and do him the honour of having tea with him? To which invitation Noonie gushingly agreed, but Mrs. Dene made a civil excuse.
“I suppose you’ve often been into the Casino?” he said to the latter.
“Then you’ll have to get your pass and ticket to-day. If you will allow me, I’ll come along and see you through.”
“I don’t like to take up your time,” she said.
“Time is no object with me here, where it’s always afternoon—and I’ve not an earthly thing to do.”
“Tennis?” suggested Noonie.
“You can’t play tennis all day—and gambling pour passer le temps comes expensive.”
“Is it true about all the suicides?”
“I’m afraid there’s a good deal of truth in it. A girl my aunt knows was sitting in the Casino gardens under the trees, waiting for her husband, and a man came along, planted himself beside her, produced a pocket pistol, put it to his mouth, and blew his brains out.”
Noonie uttered a loud exclamation of horror.
“Of course there are other supposed tragedies which do not come off. For instance, there was the man who took tabloids for his health several times a day, and carried them in a little case in his pocket. As he did not wish the public to see him absorbing his remedies, he withdrew into a corner, and was in the act of counting out his dose when three or four blue-coated men fell upon him and dragged him away, in spite of his struggles and expostulations; and they coolly assured the gaping onlookers that they had just caught the mad gentleman in the act of taking poison! And here we are,” he added, as the short journey came to an end. “We’ll go up in the lift, and I’ll introduce you to the Casino, Mrs. Dene—I hope you’ll not blame me for it afterwards.”
“Oh, I’m not going to gamble—I shall be merely a looker-on.”
“Then I dare say you’ll see some strange games.”
After “Curly-head” had left them the ladies passed through the great entrance hall and into the salles des jeux. To Armine Dene the scene was amazing—these long, long tables, closely invested with crowds of people three and four deep. Noonie, as usual, led the way, pointing out the magnificence of the ceilings and walls, as if she were an old habituée, if not proprietress. After a time she found a table where there was some prospect of edging into a seat, and by dint of her able-bodied push, and a certain amount of patience, secured places for her chaperon and herself. The game was roulette, and a large amount of money appeared to be staked—gold plaques and notes, or in some cases merely a couple of cartwheels. Armine looked round at the different faces, all so intent: the beautiful woman with wonderful pearls; the wizened old hag beside her, with merely a card and two or three pieces; the anxious, elderly man; and the gay young gallant who did not seem to mind when his mille notes were swept away.
An elderly Frenchman insinuated his way into the chair beside Armine, which had just been vacated by a haggard woman who had evidently lost heavily. She watched his proceedings with profound interest as he made his deliberate preparations. First he secured his card and pencil, then he laid down a roll of notes, and, finally, from his pocket produced the silver figure of what was probably his patron saint, and laid it on the green cloth beside his money. He was a player who made up his mind rapidly, and was certainly no tyro at the tables. He pushed a note here, and a couple of cartwheels there, something on the “douzaine,” and something on “zero,” and awaited the ”rien ne va plus.” His speculations proved fortunate; if he lost in one direction, he more than compensated for it in another, and within twenty minutes he had accumulated a large pile of the bank’s money. This he sorted and stowed away on his person. Then he took up the little mascot—or patron saint—reverently pressed it to his lips, restored it to his pocket, pushed back his chair, and, with a slight bow to the grey-haired Englishwoman, effected his departure.
Armine now turned her attention to her charge. She had noticed that Noonie’s stakes were small, and had more than once suggested going on red or black, according to the runs, which she had marked on her card. Noonie had left her money on the table, and it now amounted to a large sum.
“I think I would venture it on once more,” proposed her companion.
“It’s been up six times,” said Noonie. “But I’ll chance it if you’ll risk five francs yourself! You must really break the ice and make a beginning at the table. After all, what are five francs? And if you lose, what’s the odds, as long as you’re happy?”
And, thus tempted, Armine Dene—who was really a gambler at heart—pushed forward a cartwheel and staked on red.
Round and round went the wheel. But, alas! alas! the croupier called out ”Noir,” and, with imperturbable face, raked in a great pile of silver and notes.
Noonie watched her winnings disappear with angry eyes. Her emotions were easily summoned.
“So, you’ve brought me bad luck!”—turning to her chaperon. “If I’d done what I wished, I’d never have risked seven runs on red. I believe you’re unlucky!”
“You’re right,” replied Mrs. Dene. “I’ve been terribly unlucky—but not in the way you mean. As a rule I hold pretty good cards; and, after all, you haven’t done so badly.”
“I’ve only won about five pounds. I’ll tell you what. Suppose you give your chair to this woman, who is longing for it, and go up to the reading-room, and have a look at the papers, and I’ll see if my luck won’t turn? If you come back—say in half an hour—I promise that you’ll find me sitting here still.”
In half an hour Armine returned to find Noonie with quite a nice pile of money in front of her, and noticed that she was already an expert with the rake.
“I see that you’ve been winning. Are you ready to come home now?”
“I suppose I must, but I do hate to tear myself away. I believe I’m in what is called the ‘vein,’ and I’ve won about twenty pounds.”
“I wonder what your mother would say?”
“I don’t know—ignorance is bliss. Anyway, she’d say much worse if I had lost it! I shall buy myself a couple of smart hats at L’Anterique’s.”
As they walked out of the Casino together, she said: “You remember the man with the red moustache who travelled out with us? He came up and spoke to me. And Madame Marcelle was there, after all—she brought her friend the Count. He speaks English almost perfectly. He was not playing in The Rooms, but down in the ‘cercle,’ and Madame Marcelle just brought him in to tell me how frightfully disappointed he was that I did not lunch with them to-day, and that he hoped it was only a pleasure postponed! After he had gone, Madame told me that she had the most shocking luck, and borrowed two hundred francs of my winnings.”
“Oh, do you think she will ever pay you back?”
“You bet she will—for I shall dun her until she does! I never allow people to owe me what’s called a ‘debt of honour,’ and I insist on getting my bridge winnings on the nail. I pay—and I expect everyone else to do the same.”
“I do hope you won’t develop a taste for The Rooms. Think of the atmosphere, and the company! It would be far better for you to spend your afternoons playing tennis—or golf.”
“I dare say I shall get sick of it by and by. I tire of most things—and most people!”
When they reached the Hôtel Imaginaire, they overtook Mr. Scrope walking up the garden with a party of friends.
“Oh, Mr. Scrope,” screamed Noonie, “I’ve been over at the Casino. I’ve had quite a topping day!” and she held up and shook her gold bag. “If you’ll come over with me to-morrow, I’ll give you a tip or two!”
But to this accost and invitation Mr. Scrope merely returned a glacial stare.
Several weeks had elapsed; the season was advancing. Most of the hotels and villas were full; the roads were crowded with automobiles, the harbours packed with yachts and motor-boats. Nothing particular had happened at the Hôtel Imaginaire; various guests had arrived, others had departed, but such old habitués as the Peverils, the Montfords, Burtons, Mr. Scrope and his friend, still remained.
There was a goodly sprinkling of titles among the patrons of what was considered the most exclusive hotel in Mentone. Madame Marcelle had disappeared. The manager required her room—there was some talk about a misunderstanding regarding a date—but, at any rate, a little pressure was applied, and Madame was obliged to leave. She therefore took up her abode at a cheaper hostelry in the town, occasionally appearing at the Imaginaire as a guest.
During these weeks Mr. Scrope enjoyed his usual attitude of looker-on. When he had read his papers, smoked a cigar, enjoyed a round of golf, he would sit in the veranda, resting—and watching. He rarely went to The Rooms; after dinner he secured a rubber of bridge—sound, solemn, responsible bridge—and this, especially if he were a winner, would close a satisfactory day.
Mr. Scrope observed many things ignored or unnoticed by others. He understood why Madame had been removed; he noted that young Deverell often came up to the hotel—not for the society of beaux yeux of Miss Webb—oh no, but to see her chaperon. He and she appeared to be congenial acquaintances, were devotees of the game of chess, and would spend a long time poring over the chessboard or problems. Mrs. Dene had another friend in his faithful companion, Lynch. That connexion he could understand. He himself kept an eye upon the lady—a wary and critical eye. She was well-born, well-mannered, well-educated, and appeared to have a circle of appreciative acquaintances. Her company was in demand for picnics and motor drives; but, of course, on all these occasions she was attended by his bête noire, the over-powering and detestable Noonie. Undoubtedly the personality of her chaperon had floated Miss Webb to the surface! Among other matters noted by Mr. Scrope, he did not fail to see that Noonie was not a little jealous of the popularity of her charming friend. (Yes, the hardened, shell-bound old cynic found the lady—charming!) Indeed, he had overheard her say to Major Lynch, pointing out Mrs. Dene, who was sitting in the lounge, between “Curly-head” and young Peveril:
“She’s the girl—and I’m the chaperon. It’s Mrs. Dene they run after for dances and picnics, and I’ve to take a back seat; and, after all, she’s only my employee on a salary. I must say, I think it’s rather riling—a rotten game!”
“Mrs. Dene is agreeable and civil to everyone,” remarked Lynch, with dry significance.
“I suppose you want to make out that I’m not?” she challenged, with a blazing face.
“Well, I’ll say this for you—your manners have improved a bit since you arrived here.”
“And yours have not!” she retorted. “Who gave you leave to say such rude things to me?”
“There’s the gong,” he exclaimed. “Let’s bury the hatchet? I must tell you that I think you’re wonderfully altered for the better—I don’t believe The Mansfield folk would know you. I like the way you dress, and do your hair.”
“I suppose you think that Mrs. Dene is responsible tor that,” said Noonie, now appeased and taking his arm. “Well, then, she is.” (For Noonie could be generous.) “She altered my gowns, retrimmed my hats, did my hair, and taught me how to come into a room without falling over my own feet.”
“Her lessons have had the most happy results,” said gallant Major Lynch. “And here, alas! our ways part.”
As they separated to their respective tables, she shouted across to him:
“Blarney! Paddy from Cork. Blarney!”
Among the latest arrivals at the Hôtel Imaginaire was a certain Mrs. Bohun, a tall, fair, graceful lady, in manner aloof and reserved. She had arrived alone—without even a maid—but a friend staying in the hotel, with whom she shared a table, had vouched for her being a valuable acquisition. This friend, Mrs. Pace, was the widow of an archdeacon, and herself a monument of respectability. The pair had met at an hotel, and there made friends. She also announced that Mrs. Bohun, who had come south for her health, was a member of a distinguished family, and that she was absolutely “charming—charming—charming!” The widow had a way of reiterating her words in order to give them additional emphasis. Thanks to her good offices, Mrs. Bohun soon became acquainted with the Peverils, the Burtons, and other elements of la crème de la crème. She had come to Mentone in order to recover from a bad attack of “flu,” and did not join donkey rides or motor expeditions, but sat demurely reading or sewing in the grounds, a model for all matrons to emulate. The new-comer had a soft, engaging smile, a smooth, persuasive voice, and dressed with enviable taste; did not talk much, but was a pre-eminently good listener, and it was acknowledged that she played a first-class game of bridge, and had beautiful, dramatic eyes. She forgathered with Mrs. Dene; it was observed that they went to church together, and compared knitting, and that she and Noonie—of all people!—had become very friendly.
Noonie exhibited a surprising amount of enthusiasm for Mrs. Bohun, who told fortunes by cards, and was the owner of a crystal. She did not pretend to believe in her own predictions, but declared that it was a change from “Patience,” and a harmless way of passing the time. Mrs. Dene smiled upon the friendship between Mrs. Bohun—who had such good credentials—and her charge; but many a time, when she fondly imagined that the two had gone for a walk or to the tennis ground, the pair were sitting in Mrs. Bohun’s room, consulting the crystal, or playing chemin de fer for fairly high stakes.
Mr. Scrope was not one of Mrs. Bohun’s admirers. He distrusted her sleek ways; the side-long glances of her pathetic purple eyes were entirely wasted upon the “Little Man.” When anyone of social importance was mentioned (the de Montfords, or the Graftons, as the case might be), it irritated him to hear a silvery voice murmuring: “Oh, yes, they are cousins of mine!” According to Mrs. Bohun, her cousins must have been nearly as numerous as the sands of the sea.
At this period Noonie began to take extraordinary pains with her toilette; a whole hour was devoted to dressing her one real beauty—her hair. She had become doubtful respecting the style of her best frocks; spent a fortune on scent, face creams, and blouses, and bitterly bewailed her lack of ornaments.
“One gets so deadly sick of the one and only string of pearls. Everyone wears them,” she grumbled, “and most of them are fakes!”
Among the few belongings that had come to Mrs. Dene through her mother was a beautiful pendant, a large, square emerald set in diamonds. The stone was about three-quarters of an inch across, and would have been priceless but for its flaw. It was set in an old-fashioned style, and worn with a thin gold chain. This pendant was a bit of jewellery that had long been in the Belturbet family, and was left to Armine’s mother by her grandmother. There was a legend that it had been given to some fair lady by Charles the Second—anyhow, it was rather remarkable, and unquestionably old. More than once Armine had been tempted to sell it for the benefit of her invalid parent, but something had always intervened—sentiment? Her mother had bestowed it upon her as a marriage gift, and she had worn it in India with suppressed satisfaction, for it had seemed to her to be a sort of hall-mark of her ancestry. She had never displayed it since her return—no, not even with her best black-and-gold evening gown. One day she showed it to Noonie, who was openly envious, and enormously impressed.
“Fancy having a thing like this—an heirloom of your family—and not wearing it! Why don’t you?”
“Because I don’t think it would be suitable.”
“Well, will you lend it to me? I’ve nothing but the pearls. Do, do let me have it? I’d take the greatest care of it—and I must tell you that the emerald is my lucky stone! Mrs. Bohun says so.”
“I think you are too fond of having your fortune told by Mrs. Bohun. Surely you don’t believe in it, Noonie!”
“But of course I do; she has told me lots of things which have come true, and some delightful happenings are on the way. And she turns her gift to a good use. At the charity bazaar the other day she made thirty pounds in her gipsy tent. And now about the pendant—do lend it me? I know it will bring me luck.”
“All right, Noonie, you shall have it. But you must take great care of it, for it’s the only family relic that remains to me.”
Noonie expressed her fervent gratitude with gushing effusion and a violent embrace, and wore the emerald pendant that very night.
During these gay weeks “Curly-head” and Mrs. Dene had become very friendly; they met at picnics and tennis, and occasionally after dinner he would stroll up to the Hôtel Imaginaire and beg for a game of chess with Noonie’s chaperon, whilst Noonie danced in the ballroom, or joined a noisy party at roulette. Deverell had introduced Mrs. Dene to his aunt, the Marquise de Roche Corbon, who invited her to tea at the Villa Coralie, where everything was very stiff and ancien régime.
Armine realized that a lively young man would find his surroundings dull—hence “Curly-head’s” occasional visits to the Hôtel Imaginaire. As soon as they had got out the chessboard he would begin to chatter—a propensity fatal to the game. Consequently their matches were never on a particularly high level. It seemed to Armine that the boy came to talk as much as to play chess, and she indulged him to the best of her ability. These tête-à-têtes over the chessboard carried her back to the far-away years when she was a happy young matron at Chotapore. Many a time the subalterns of her husband’s regiment would bring her their grievances, love affairs, and troubles, and look for her sympathy and advice. There was not the slightest soupçon of flirtation in any of these interviews; pretty Mrs. Brakespeare would soon nip sentiment in the bud; there was something about her that recalled home and home surroundings, even although she was seated in an Indian veranda, surrounded by palms, exotic plants, and half a dozen green parrots. Armine understood their various cases with a curious intuition that was possibly Celtic. She had a remedy for most of her patients—sometimes it was a joke, sometimes a word of advice, sometimes a promise of help, sometimes an invitation to dinner. Not a few young men, looking back upon their first experience of India, kept their memory of Armine Brakespeare well tended—so to speak—and green. To Mrs. Dene, the confidences, grumblings, and requests for sympathy of this bored young man recalled those sunny days of long ago, when she was young and happy. She had, as “Curly-head” discovered, a knack of inviting confidences; and Mr. Scrope, with the baleful eyes, surveying the two heads stooping over the chessboard, said to himself:
“So the chaperon is actually flirting with that curly-headed boy! Well, after that, I give up women!” If he could have overheard their conversation his mind would have been immediately relieved.
“I want to buy a wedding present for a chap in my regiment,” said Deverell. “What do you advise? I’m sure you’re good at this sort of thing.”
“I can’t tell you, as I don’t know the man, or his tastes.”
“Oh, as to his tastes, he’s mad keen about shooting—goes all over the globe for trophies.”
“Mad keen about shooting,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Then all he would value would be a rifle. If you ask my advice, I say give him nothing.”
“Why? I must send him something—something for his house, I suppose. It’s the fashion now to give furniture. What do you say to a good old chair?”
“I say, that it would generally stand empty. A man who, you tell me, is mad keen on shooting, and goes all over the world in search of trophies, will never have a home. I pity the poor bride! And if you present him with a chair, give him a folding camp-stool—that, to him, would be a really useful present.”
“Ah! I see you’re down on fellows who shoot,” he said.
“I think they should never marry.”
“Apparently you know something about it,” and as he looked keenly into her face he was suddenly struck by the haunting sorrow in her beautiful, haggard eyes.
“Yes; since I’ve received so many of your confidences, I don’t mind admitting as much as that!”
“I don’t think my confidences amount to much—chiefly grumbles about having to loaf round here idle, when I’d like to be at home. And, of course, it’s rather deadly down at the villa, playing ‘Double Patience’ with Aunt Augusta, or being host at our sticky dinner parties, or ghastly receptions. Sometimes I think I’ll bolt!”
“No, you mustn’t do that—the place has done you no end of good. And what would your mother say?”
“Oh, my mother fusses round me no end. If she could only get away from town and her engagements, she’d be out here like a shot. I only wish she were here. You see, I’m her only chick—she has no eggs in any other basket—she thinks the world of me.”
“And I hope you repay her good opinion, with interest?”
“Oh, yes,” he answered, with rather a conscious laugh. “I write to The Mum every day.”
One evening, as Mrs. Dene and her guest were playing chess, she noticed that for once talkative “Curly-head” seemed strangely silent and abstracted. Apparently his thoughts were far away from the game, and he made the most unpardonable mistakes—the result of which was his early collapse. As he rearranged the men, he said:
“Look here, Mrs. Dene, I’ve got something to tell you. I said the other day that I’d never given you any confidence to speak of—nothing but grumbles. Now I’ve a tremendous confidence which I must share with you, or die! Aunt Augusta is no good—I might as well open my heart to the Albert Memorial!”
“Oh, well, I think you’ll find me a degree better than that,” said Mrs. Dene, with a laugh. “And I shall be as silent.”
“Then, listen,” he began eagerly. “The other day Aunt Augusta insisted on dragging me up to the Hôtel des Indes, to call on some stupid acquaintances of hers, who have one of the villas there. Of course, I was obliged to go, to please her—for, after all, she has been most awfully kind—crams me as if I were a Christmas turkey, and looks after me like ten grandmothers. I went, I may tell you, in a secretly furious temper, for I wanted to play tennis with young Farquhar, who I knew would be wild with me for letting him down. However, as usual, the old lady had her way—she carried me off to the Villa Flora, and my good-nature was more than repaid. This Colonel Blenkinsop and Mrs. Blenkinsop have a niece and ward staying with them.” He paused as if to emphasize his next sentence. “She’s the prettiest girl I’ve seen in all my life!”
“Oh,” exclaimed Mrs. Dene. “That’s a sweeping assertion, for you must have seen a good many.”
“But she is something out of the common—too lovely for anything—such a complexion—such eyes! Well, I’ll spare you all this. She turned out to be awfully jolly to talk to—no airs, no frills—the old lady had enough for two. We got on together like a house on fire. Talked tennis, and boating, and books. She, I gather, has seen very little of the world—wicked, or otherwise. But I can tell you there’ll be a sensation when the world sees her! Every moment we talked I seemed to get to know her better, and I was most frightfully sorry when Aunt Augusta, having made a topping tea, dragged herself out of an arm-chair and came away. I made myself so extra agreeable to Colonel Blenkinsop that I’ve great hopes I shall be asked to dinner, and I’ve been down in the town and hanging about the shops all morning, and I managed a few words with the young lady at the band. Now I want to get to know her intimately. Old Mother Blenkinsop won’t come to tennis—she says she’s afraid of being hit by the balls! But the truth is, she intends to keep this niece of hers under lock and key. She’s not to be allowed to enter The Rooms. Oh, good gracious, no! That would be a monstrous idea! The short and the long of it is, that Aunt Augusta is no more use than a log of wood—and you must help me!”
“I!” exclaimed Mrs. Dene. “But how can I help you?”
“Let me introduce her to you—do you take her to the tennis, and get up a set which will naturally include me. I’ll give a scrumptious tea at Cap Martin, and you perhaps would bring her along. The Aunt is so ponderous and lazy. The niece is the only girl I’ve ever seen that I could marry!”
“So it has come to that already!” exclaimed Armine with a broad smile.
“Love at first sight?”
Again he nodded.
“But you haven’t told me her name yet!”
“Oh, her name—I hope it’ll be the same as mine one day—but, in the meanwhile, it’s Daphne Brakespeare.”
For one short breathless moment Mrs. Dene looked as if she were about to faint. Every trace of colour sank from her face, and her hand, which was holding a piece, trembled so. violently that she was obliged to hide it in her lap.
“Hallo, what’s the matter?” exclaimed “Curly-head,” alarmed by this startling change in his confidante.
“Oh—nothing—nothing—at all,” she stammered. “I get these attacks now and then. If you’ll fetch me a glass of water—I shall—I shall—be all right.”
As soon as she had sipped this restorative she put down the tumbler, and raising a white, quivering face, said:
“Now please tell me some more.”
“I’m afraid I’ve not much more to tell. Miss Brakespeare lives with the Blenkinsops—her mother is dead—and her father is in India. The Blenkinsops are a stuck-up, pre-Victorian couple. She has no liberty, I fancy, and can never stir out without one of them being pinned to her tail. And as they are both by the way of being invalids, you can imagine the wildly exciting time she puts in. I want you to see her—she is something out of the common.”
“I should like to see her very much,” assented her mother, speaking scarcely above a whisper.
“All right, I’ll fix this up somehow. I shall give a party at the Cap Martin the day after to-morrow—I’ll invite the Peverils and Mrs. Blenkinsop, but I’ll let her know that if she feels unequal to the dissipation, Lady P. will be delighted to chaperon the girl. You’ll come, of course, and Miss Webb too. Now I’ll go over and make it all right with Lady Peveril, she’s just come in.”
When he departed, Armine Dene hastily put away the chessmen and made her escape to her own room, and there sat down to review this new state of affairs. Here was her daughter, her own loving little Daphne, whom she had not seen for eleven long years, grown up, and living within a few hundred yards. What a surprise and shock! Yes, and what a joy—a joy which she would keep buried and hoarded within her own heart. How little any of her acquaintance would guess that Mrs. Dene was the mother of the beautiful Miss Brakespeare. And beautiful she probably was—making all allowance for the infatuation of “Curly-head.” “Curly-head” was a dear boy: she knew, or thought she knew him thoroughly, and as far as she was concerned he had her wholehearted sympathy and consent; but Daphne, her own daughter, whom she could never claim! She clenched her hands in an agony of longing, and a wild desire for justice.
During these last weeks Armine Dene seemed to have snatched back a bit of her youth. The air and the sun revived her—she was like a half-dead flower placed in a glass of water. Her looks were improving, there was colour in her cheeks, a sparkle in her eyes, and animation in her gestures. She played croquet, tennis bridge, enlarged her circle of acquaintances, and had not a few old-times conversations with Major Lynch. On her personal affairs he did not venture to touch, but it was generally a case of “Do you remember this?” “Do you remember that?” “Where is So-and-so now?” Major Lynch admired Mrs. Dene—the most casual eye could see that. She had an attractive personality—she was as charming as ever. Sometimes over his pipe or cigar he would add up his income, contemplate prospects, and ask himself if he could afford to marry the divorced wife of his old schoolfellow, Gordon Brakespeare? Of these speculations the lady in the case had not the faintest suspicion, she looked upon Patsy Lynch as a sort of brother—a kind and helpful brother, too.
Her anxieties respecting Noonie had been wonderfully relieved. Two or three weeks in this smart hotel had afforded a lesson in dress, manners, and deportment, and Noonie’s high-pitched voice, brusque interruptions, and awkward bouncings were considerably modified. She watched other girls, and secretly copied their manners and dress, though, if she had been taxed with this, the accusation would have been met with a furious denial. For the moment she was “off” The Rooms, and much taken up with picnics, tennis, tournaments, golf and dancing. Her companions were the Peverils, the Burtons, and one or two gay and harmless young men. Noonie was enjoying herself thoroughly, and carried many of her joys and sorrows to her chaperon, to whose influence she was now surprisingly amenable. She had found that Mrs. Dene’s advice was sound, it was much more agreeable to go to afternoon dances at the Princess Rosetta’s, to motor into Italy, to join donkey rides up to Gospel, than to hang about the stuffy “Rooms” with Madame Marcelle and Colonel Hobbs. Latterly she had evaded their society and ignored their overtures with a brusque rudeness entirely her own.
In consequence of the bombshell thrown by “Curly-head,” Armine felt unusually nervous and upset. All her thoughts were now concentrated on Daphne.
During these years of separation she had never been able to get within touch of her child, who had been removed from the school to which she was originally sent, and no address given.
When Daphne was a little thing she had adored her mother, running to meet her when she came in, nestling beside her, referring to “My Mummie” as to the one supreme authority, always so happy and contented when they were together. And she was such a pretty darling, exquisitely formed—what dainty legs and ankles, and thick golden hair! In her short white skirts and silk stockings she looked like a fairy. Her father was fond of her in a way, but did not notice her much. He had been disappointed that she was not a boy whom he could teach to ride and shoot and play cricket. The dancing, laughing, little sprite was more of a drawing-room toy, and yet he would take her on his knee and tell her stories about animals; he gave her a beautiful pony, and her first lessons in the art of sticking on. No doubt he had missed the shrill little voice and pattering feet in the bungalow after she had departed for England, but he was not bowed down with grief as was her mother.
The last time Armine had held the child in her arms was at the railway station. Daphne was going home in charge of a great friend who was taking her two children to England. Just before the train started Daphne flung her arms tightly round her mother’s neck, her clasp was like a death grip as she sobbed out:
“Oh, Mummy, Mummy, don’t let me go! Keep me, keep me! If you send me away I shall die!”
In spite of this agonized appeal, Daphne’s clinging little fingers had to be forcibly removed, and the whistle of the guard and the clanging of the train drowned her cries. Since that terrible parting, mother and daughter had never seen one another. Now they were to meet—and how? The disgraced parent who dared not allow her girl to guess at her identity! All the same, she would accept “the goods the gods provided,” and make the most of this extraordinary opportunity.
The party at the Cap Martin tea-house was fixed for Thursday, and during those two days Mrs. Dene was unsettled and restless. She had become curiously absent and distraite—her service at tennis was vague, ditto her leads at bridge. Now and then she would look at the clock and say: “In twenty-four hours—in twelve hours.” Her sleep was broken, and when she thought of Daphne her heart pounded.
At last the critical hour struck. Mrs. Dene, Noonie, and various other guests went by tram to Cap Martin, there descended and were welcomed by their host.
“I needn’t have bothered Lady Peveril,” he said to Armine. “For Mrs. Blenkinsop has accepted. I’ve got a table—so come along!”
When the party seated themselves there remained two vacant chairs, for Mrs. Blenkinsop was late—the rooms were crammed. At last Armine descried a stout, near-sighted, elderly woman peering through a pince-nez and threading her way in their direction. She was accosted by “Curly-head,” and greeted with much empressement. At first Armine felt afraid to look beyond her, then, with a desperate effort, she lifted her eyes and beheld Daphne, a lovely girl, and with what a radiant, happy face! With considerable skill “Curly-head” manoeuvred Miss Brakespeare into a chair by Mrs. Dene and presented the young lady to her mother. The girl was so animated and so delighted with everything that Mrs. Dene had no difficulty in keeping hold of her self-possession and allowing her companion to talk. She had a flawless complexion, beautiful dark eyes, and an irresistible smile. Also she was remarkably well turned out, and wore a “Frenchy” white gown and a rose-crowned hat.
“Yes,” in reply to a question, “she had only been a short time in Mentone, and she thought it was the most enchanting place in the world. Her aunt, Mrs. Blenkinsop, was not able to take her out much, but Lady Peveril had kindly offered to allow her to tack on to her party.”
Here “Curly-head” insinuated himself between Miss Brakespeare and a man, and began to discuss with great empressement a projected picnic to Les Eaux Doux.
“It will be rather a long day,” he confessed.
“The longer the better,” she responded.
“It’s what you may call a No. 1 expedition. We’ll make an early start in cars—none of that deadly bother at Ventimiglia. We’ll have tea there, near the old castle, poke round, see the sights, have a cold dinner, and return by moonlight. It’s all fixed up and will be select—no bores. You’re coming of course, Mrs. Dene?”
“Am I?” she answered with a smile. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
“Do you know, Mrs. Dene,” said the girl suddenly, “that you remind me of someone? I’ve an odd sort of feeling that I’ve seen you before. Surely this is not the first time we’ve met?”
“I think you’re mistaken,” lied her mother. “I expect you meet so many people that you get them mixed up.”
“Oh no, I only left school six months ago, and since then I’ve been living very quietly in the country with Aunt and Uncle Blenkinsop. The only way I can account for my idea is—and really it’s fixed in my head —I must have seen a picture of you somewhere.”
“Yes, that’s more likely,” assented Mrs. Dene with profound relief; and then the conversation turned from personalities to local gossip, and “Curly-head” pointed out to the new-comer a number of notabilities who were in the restaurant.
Meanwhile with a beating heart Mrs. Dene decided that she would certainly join the picnic party—thus she would have hours of the society of Daphne and contrive to know her better. As she sat considering, she happened to look up and met the significant gaze of Major Lynch. He had been making inquiries, and discovered that the remarkably pretty girl who had attracted his attention was Miss Brakespeare. She was living with the Blenkinsops, her father was a colonel in the Indian cavalry. “Yes,” he said to himself, “and her mother is sitting beside her! What a coincidence!”
Before the party dispersed he joined her, full of suppressed excitement, and as they stood together on the beach after a little talk, he blundered out:
“Your own girl planted next to you at tea! By Jove, what a shock! I wonder you didn’t collapse, but you always had a wonderful hold on yourself. Amazing self-command.”
“It was not such a shock as you imagine,” she replied. “I was told that she was here two days ago.”
“So you had time to screw yourself up?”
“She’s lovely, no doubt of that. She’ll make a sensation. You must feel proud of her.”
“What’s the good of my feeling proud of her? She is nothing to me, and will never know that I’m anything to her!”
“Well, if I were you I’d make the best of the situation. Surely it must be a satisfaction to see that your daughter is an outstanding beauty. She is about your height and figure, and there’s a certain resemblance.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake don’t attempt to pay me compliments. The resemblance is in your imagination. Daphne is a Brakespeare.”
“Is she? I don’t see much likeness between her and her Aunt Blenkinsop. There’s a wooden-headed British matron, if you like, and she looks as if she were weighing all her neighbours, and saying, ‘Who are you? I wonder if I ought to know you?’”
“You remember my friend Mrs. Watkin, don’t you?”
“Mrs. Toby? Of course. Why, I knew her in India.”
“I had a letter from her this morning—she has had a bad touch of influenza—and she and her friend Lady Coote are coming out immediately. That’s to say, as soon as they can get rooms. I’ve arranged with the manager and sent her a wire. I expect she will be here the day after to-morrow.”
“And so that will make a third in the secret about Miss Brakespeare?”
“Yes, but Mrs. Toby is perfectly safe.”
“I’m glad she’s coming out, I’ve always had a weakness for the old lady. And when we hear what train she arrives by, I’ll go down and meet her; Mrs. Toby appreciates these little attentions. Ah, I see Mrs. Blenkinsop is on the move and about to break up this charming gathering!”
Mrs. Toby arrived looking unusually bent and wrinkled. They had experienced a desperate crossing, the heat of the sleeping car had been suffocating, and altogether she was in a very fractious mood and a querulous carping frame of mind. Her friend, Lady Coote, a little, sprightly, elderly lady, who took life philosophically, said:
“My dear Fanny, all you want is a good dinner, and a long sleep; you won’t know yourself to-morrow!”
“I’ve certainly no wish to know myself as I’m now,” she snapped. “And I’ve come to the conclusion that this fatiguing journey all the way from London is not worth the candle as regards a couple of old women like you and me.”
(Lady Coote did not consider herself an old woman—far from it; cruel Mr. Toby was aware of this.)
However, the next day prospects looked rosier. Mrs. Toby enjoyed the coffee and rolls, the warm sunshine, the faint perfume of flowers, the animated groups she beheld sitting or strolling about the gardens and in the hotel. She shared a private sitting-room with Lady Coote, but it was in her bedroom that she held a long interview with Armine, and received the full report of the doings of herself and her charge.
“I must say, Armine, that you look a different creature,” she remarked as she surveyed her critically. “You are recovering your good looks, and have lost your air of depression. Apparently you’ve got that girl well in hand.”
“Yes, as far as I know, but it has been a struggle—she says and does such unexpected things. I believe Noonie to be truthful. I’m sure she would not tell a lie, but on the other hand I’m not so sure that she would think it wrong to act one!”
“I don’t believe that lump could act anything, though she does play the fool!”
“And now, there’s another girl I must talk to you about.” She paused, her colour faded, and her voice shook as she added: “ My own daughter, Daphne Brakespeare.”
“Good gracious!” ejaculated Mrs. Toby. “Where did she come from?”
“Her aunt and uncle, the Blenkinsops, have taken a villa on the Garavan, and she’s with them—they are her guardians.”
“Yes, once. She is perfectly delightful—so natural, unaffected, and lovely. I need scarcely tell you how my heart goes out to her.”
“She doesn’t know?”
“And never will,” and two tears rolled down Armine Dene’s face.
“I must say that it’s most cruelly hard on you. Still, it’s some small satisfaction to see that your daughter has grown up as you would have wished, even though you may not claim her. If I had been in your place I should have fought tooth and nail, and had the whole of that divorce rooted up! In my opinion, there was never any real justification for the case.”
“That’s true, and it is that which makes it so terribly hard. You see, at the time I had no one to support me, no brother, or clever adviser; my father was worse than useless, and afterwards I was ill—and had no heart, and no money.”
“And ‘here you are, a charming woman not yet forty, alone in the world! You should make a fresh start—and marry again.”
“Oh, Mrs. Toby,” she protested with a blush. “How can you suggest such a thing? Although Gordon has divorced me I always feel as if I were still his wife.”
“But you are not! Indeed,” she continued ruthlessly, “I heard the other day that he was thinking of marrying again, and getting the girl out to India. He wanted a chaperon. I also heard that he was coming home before long. Suppose you were to meet him in the street?”
“I should pass by; anyway, he would not recognize me.”
“I’m not so sure of that, my dear. Of course, your hair has changed, but you have the same sunny expression, and light, graceful figure. Is there any prospect of getting that lout Noonie off your hands?”
“Oh, no. She does not take men seriously, and is entirely engrossed at present in the tennis tournament. At one time I thought she had rather a penchant for Major Lynch, old as he is, but——” and she laughed, “I’m afraid I’ve cut her out!”
“Well, naturally; and of course, you and he have a good deal in common. I suppose old Scrope still sits in the seat of the scornful, glowering over everybody?”
“Yes, he has a wide range here, a fine field of observation, and a large acquaintance.”
“I dare say there are lots of people in the hotel that I know—old habitués.”
“I’m sure you’ll find heaps of friends. There are the Peverils, the Burtons, who come out every year, the Bishop of Madagascar, two American millionaires—oh, we’re crowded up to the roof.”
“And they’ve raised their prices, too. Charlotte Coote and I are paying something too ridiculous for this sitting-room. However, it will be useful for tea and bridge.”
Mrs. Toby had not been more than two days in the Hôtel Imaginaire before she had made herself thoroughly at home—discovered old friends and associates—not merely in the hotel, but also in the villas.
She was popular, and in flattering request. Numbers rushed to call upon her. Whenever she re-entered the sitting-room she found a pack of cards and notes, and was overwhelmed with invitations to drive, to motor, to lunch. Nevertheless, Mrs. Toby was not happy. She complained to Lady Coote, and to Armine, that a certain Mrs. Campbell, to whom she had shown hospitality in India, and who was now established in one of the finest villas in Mentone, had not called, although her name had duly appeared in the visitors’ list, and she had actually seen her out driving. The woman had not had the common civility to leave a card, and Mrs. Toby was much ruffled. She was only just recovering from influenza, her nerves were unstrung, and she saw things out of focus. Otherwise, she would not have taken the smallest notice of such a trivial circumstance. But each day, when she came in and turned over her little pack, she exclaimed:
“No sign of Mrs. Campbell!”
It was the eve of April 1st, and Lady Coote, who was always lively and full of jokes, said to Major Lynch:
“Do let’s play a trick on Fanny Watkin! She is so fearfully vexed with her friend, Mrs. Campbell, I propose that we concoct a letter from Mrs. Campbell, send it by hand, and stand by to see what will happen. A terrific explosion, I’m sure!”
In spite of her sixty summers, Lady Coote was the ringleader, but “Curly-head,” Major Lynch, and Mrs. Dene were all in the plot. Lady Coote wrote the letter, which was copied by Noonie, and left with the concierge. It said:
“My dear Mrs. Watkin,—I am so sorry that I have been much too busy to go and see you. The truth is that my engagements are such that I never have a moment. However, I have not forgotten your civility to me at Jubbulpore, and if you care to come up some afternoon, take the chance of finding me at home, and look at the view from my garden, I shall be pleased.—Yours faithfully,
Elspeth Drummond Campbell.”
The following morning the conspirators assembled in the lounge, eagerly awaiting the descent of Mrs. Toby. She came, looking alarmingly stern and glum—actually surpassing their highest hopes.
“My dear Fanny,” exclaimed Lady Coote. “You’re not ill, are you? Or have you had bad news?”
“No!” irritably. “Why, the post is not in yet! But I’ve had a most outrageous letter from that woman Campbell. “
“Oh, have you?” said the hypocrite with a smile. “An invitation, or an apology?”
“No. Not likely. You can all see the letter. However, I’ve sent her an answer that I think will make her sit up, as the saying is.”
“What! Sent an answer already!” The listeners were rendered almost speechless by this unexpected turn of events.
“I sent it off by my maid. I felt I could not eat my breakfast without returning her insult. Fancy her asking me to go and see ‘the view from her garden,’ even if she did not happen to be at home! I suppose she takes me for a tourist! However, I wrote”—and she looked round on the four horrified faces—“and said that I had received her note, had no wish to see either her or her garden, and that I was surprised to find that she had appreciated my civilities in India, where I had known her as a globe-trotter.”
“And you sent that?” gasped Lady Coote.
“Yes, I sent that, and do not regret a word that I’ve written.”
Then, as she moved away to welcome a new arrival, Lady Coote and Major Lynch laid their heads together. What was to be done? Someone must go and explain the “joke” to Mrs. Campbell, but who was to bell the cat?
The choice alighted upon Armine; she was nice-looking, and she had persuasive, pretty manners. As soon as déjeuner was over the scapegoat was hurried off, in order to amend the indiscretion of her friends. In all her life she had never undertaken a more obnoxious errand. Major Lynch accompanied her to the entrance of Mrs. Campbell’s villa.
“I will hang about the gate,” he said. “If the scene is sensational, you must summon me.”
It was with a sinking heart that Mrs. Dene confronted the dapper man-servant, who informed her that Madame would receive her in the garden, and led the way to a sort of kiosk, furnished as an outside sitting-room.
Here she found Mrs. Campbell, a rather handsome, elderly woman, engrossed in the morning papers. She looked surprised as she raised her eyes over the margin of the Times, and beheld a pale, lady-like stranger walking up the steps.
“Madame Dene,” announced the servant.
“I don’t think my name will convey much to you, Mrs. Campbell,” murmured the miserable emissary. “I’ve come on a most disagreeable errand. This is, you may remember, the first of April—‘All Fools’ Day.’ Some friends of mine have been guilty of a great folly, and have asked me to bring you their humble apologies.”
“Oh, apologies?” repeated the lady. “Won’t you sit down?”
“It’s about a letter that was sent to you this morning by Mrs. Watkin.”
Mrs. Campbell stiffened visibly; then, turning over a pile of correspondence, she said: “Ah, yes, I could not make head or tail of it! Mrs. Toby Watkin has not gone mad, has she?”
“Oh, no, but she had a bad attack of ‘flu,’ and you know how that shatters people and upsets their nerves. She came out about ten days ago, and is, for Mrs. Toby, in a queer, irritable state, dwelling on matters that at other times would not have the smallest importance. For instance, she has been much hurt and aggrieved by what she considers your neglect. She never was a great stickler for etiquette, but now she complains that you have never called, and appear to have forgotten her existence. This is an obsession that has been worrying her for the last week, and we’ve been chaffing her on the subject—at least two or three of her friends have ventured, and this is, as I’ve said, the first of April.”
“Dear me,” said Mrs. Campbell, glancing at the paper. “So it is, and has the date any connection with your call?” she added constrainedly.
“Yes, it has, in a way. Last night two or three conspirators concocted a letter to Mrs. Watkin, which purposed to have been written by you.”
“Written by me! I call that going rather too far.”
“They really meant no harm; it was only a joke. They expected Mrs. Toby to be in a dreadful state when she received it, and when she had expressed her opinion, and blown off steam, they intended to remind her that it was the first of April—‘All Fools’ Day,’ and a permissible ‘take in.’ The false note, from you, was delivered at an early hour to-day, and Mrs. Watkin, who is ever prompt, answered it on the spot. So perhaps you can imagine our horror when we discovered what she had done, and how the joke had missed fire! Worse than that, it had become a boomerang.”
“I see; and Mrs. Toby has given the jokers a thoroughly good fright?”
“Yes, and I’ve been dispatched to offer you their most abject apologies.”
“My pardon is granted. When I was a young woman I was rather fond of a joke myself. But how are you going to make it right with Mrs. Toby?”
“She will be very angry, of course, but not implacable—that’s not her way. You were the lady that we feared.”
“And I’m quite amenable; see, I will tear up the letter. I must confess that I thought Mrs. Toby had altered strangely. And you were sent here to pull the chestnuts out of the fire—and the fire was not very hot, after all! So you tell me that Mrs. Toby is annoyed with me?”
“Yes, I think it is because she likes you so much, and she has an impression that you want to drop her; and you know that that is a conviction relished by no one.”
“Well, listen to me, my good ambassadress. The liking is thoroughly reciprocated. I can never forget Mrs. Watkin’s kindness to me, and how pleasant she made things when I stayed with her in India; but the fact is, we’ve drifted apart—I’m rarely in London, and divide my time between my home in Ross-shire and a villa at Cannes. I’ve moved to Mentone recently, as my fashionable nephews and nieces like to be nearer to what they call ‘the heart of things’—that’s to say, Monte Carlo. I would have been to see Mrs. Toby a week ago, but we had a case of scarlatina in the house, and I’m, of course, in quarantine. My young nephew, Colin Maxwell, is the victim. It’s a light case; nevertheless, I go nowhere, for fear of carrying infection. A daily airing in the car is all I can venture at present. If I went up to the Hôtel Imaginaire any case of scarlatina for the next five years would probably be credited to me. I don’t suppose Mrs. Toby is afraid of infection?”
“No, I know that she is not, or of anything else,” said Mrs. Dene unguardedly. “I remember that she nursed a very bad case of diphtheria when I was out in India.”
“Ah, so you’ve been in India, too?”
“Yes, but that is an old story now. Well,” rising as she spoke, “I must thank you very much for your kind reception, and the free pardon you’ve given to the culprits.”
“Look here,” said Mrs. Campbell, “I’ll give you a real note for Mrs. Watkin and explain how it is that I’ve not attempted to call or communicate, and tell her if she likes to come down and sit here in the kiosk, and have a cup of tea with me and a good old talk I shall be delighted to see her.”
In a few minutes she had scribbled off a letter, which Mrs. Dene carried away with her; it proved to be a wonderful help in placating the just wrath of Mrs. Toby.
The picnic to “Les Eaux Douces” proved a delightful expedition; the weather perfect, the roads not unusually dusty, the company congenial, the object of their trip interesting, and the cold dinner, with fruit and ices, all that could be desired.
Armine Dene realized that her daughter seemed to be irresistibly drawn towards her, and whenever there was an opportunity would seek her out and cling to her like the proverbial limpet; but these occasions were rare as the beautiful Miss Brakespeare was in flattering request. Noonie had also noticed the girl’s partiality for her chaperon, and this excited her ire and jealousy. After all, Mrs. Dene belonged to her—she was her paid companion. Why should this dark-eyed new-comer appropriate her employee when possible, appeal to her opinion as to an oracle, and say, “Oh, Mrs. Dene, have you seen this?” “Mrs. Dene, may I give you these flowers I’ve picked for you?” She would really not endure it, for Miss Webb was particularly tenacious of her rights, and her sense of importance was deeply wounded. But as it turned out, she was powerless to keep the radiant new-comer and her own paid companion apart. They seemed to gravitate naturally towards one another, at tennis, picnics, or the ordinary morning band. As for the chaperon, she had somewhat relaxed her watch on Noonie. She noted with profound relief that she was keen on tennis and took an interest in her game, and patiently listened to her confidences respecting Captain Carter and several other admirers, notably an elderly baronet, whom Noonie described as “hovering.”
“He’s dull and stiff and stocky, but still, I should like to be a ‘ladyship.’”
She helped her charge to make an original and successful costume for a fancy ball; assisted at the choosing of various smart French frocks and hats, yet, somehow, all the time, her thoughts were with the other girl—her own daughter. What a delightful, transparent, happy character! And no wonder, for hitherto life had turned its brightest side to Daphne. The pair had tastes in common, they were both fond of music, and occasionally attended a concert at the Casino, concerts which Noonie despised and detested. She would remain outside looking on at the pigeon shooting with Mrs. Bohun, the man with the red moustache, and a rollicking boy from a regiment quartered at Gibraltar; last but not least, added to Noonie’s particular circle was a certain Prince Cressenti.
One day, much to Mrs. Toby’s surprise, Mrs. Bohun had produced a real cousin—no less than Prince Arigho Cressenti. No one could deny that the Prince was handsome and distinguished, and possibly had good old Roman blood in his veins. He was not a member of the English club, but he danced delightfully, was a notable shot at the Tire au Pigeon, an inveterate gambler, had been educated in England, and been endowed with a delightful and irresistible manner.
His presence one night at dinner (sharing the table of the archdeacon’s widow and Mrs. Bohun) made quite a little stir. Noonie could hardly withdraw her eyes—what a handsome man! Such a beautiful, story-book hero she had never seen! He looked young, had clear-cut features, a thin, dark face, and expressive eyes, precisely the popular type. She glowed, and thrilled with pride and joy, when after dinner Mrs. Bohun brought him up and presented him to her. Noonie was so flattered and overwhelmed, that she could hardly find words to stammer out her opinion of the weather and Monte Carlo, but her chaperon, Mrs. Dene, was entirely unembarrassed, and kept up the ball of conversation with easy dignity. Somewhat to the latter’s surprise the Prince took a seat beside them in the lounge, requested permission to smoke, and discoursed in an agreeable manner about England, and Harrow; as he talked she noticed that he was making what might be called an “inventory “ of her companion. Thanks to her indefatigable exertions, Noonie’s manners and appearance were improved. She was not so awkward, no longer lurched as she walked, wore more simple dresses, had left off white shoes (so trying to a large foot), and arranged her really beautiful hair with a certain amount of skill. The Prince scrutinized Noonie’s coiffure, her white teeth, thick wrists, ugly hands, and large, well-shod feet. In Mrs. Dene’s opinion such a deliberate inspection bordered upon impertinence! However, there could be no two opinions respecting his own appearance; his thin, well-cut features, slim, graceful figure, and finely set-on head all indicated race, probably a Roman patrician.
Before he took leave he murmured that he hoped to have the pleasure of waiting on Mrs. Dene and Miss Webb, and inviting them to honour him with their company at the Riviera Palace, Monte Carlo. Then, with graceful bows, he took his departure, leaving Noonie indescribably elated—soaring, so to speak, in the seventh heaven—and her chaperon profoundly puzzled.
As the Prince strolled down to the entrance gate, attended by his cousin, she lit a cigarette, and said:
“Will she do?”
“She’s a great, stupid, ugly lump, and will be utterly out of it in alta società; but, as you know, cara mia, I’m broke, and ten thousand a year is ten thousand a year. So you must help me to bring it off—and you shall have your bit.”
Two days later the concierge handed Mrs. Dene the Prince’s visiting-card, and a little note inviting them to tea with Mrs. Bohun at his hotel. He left cards also on other people, including the Burtons, the Peverils, and Mr. Scrope. The Prince frequently came to the Hôtel Imaginaire, where he would seek out Noonie, and together they would sit in the veranda, talking for perhaps an hour. Mrs. Bohun would sweep down upon her cousin, vainly imploring him to make a four at bridge, but all her seductions were thrown away; he preferred to moon and spoon with the English girl, and stuff her head with brilliant descriptions of the glories of his family, his villa near Florence, his Renaissance palace in Rome; and Noonie, listening, and looking into his expressive eyes, surrendered herself to the occasion.
As the days went by it became evident to the Hôtel Imaginaire that Prince Cressenti was paying serious attention to Miss Noonie Webb. (It was rather startling, the promptitude with which Cressenti had marked down and appropriated this ordinary English heiress.) And Miss Noonie Webb—after the manner of her kind—became insupportably arrogant. Some of her old friends, such as Captain Carter and the baronet, she scarcely deigned to recognize.
“I cannot imagine why we’ve been singled out!” said Mrs. Dene to Mrs. Watkin, as they sat together in the garden.
“I think I know!” rejoined the wise old lady. “Noonie’s income has, I hear, been doubled. Her fortune is well secured—potatoes won’t run away. And, by all accounts, the Prince, who is a notorious gambler, is at the end of his resources.”
“But what am I to do?” asked Armine. “What do you advise?”
“Do not interfere—let the affair take its course—stick to your post as chaperon. I don’t think myself that it will ever come to anything.”
“I’m afraid Noonie is undoubtedly taken with the Prince. Since we’ve been on that expedition in his car, and over to the carnival at Nice, she can think and talk of no one else.”
“I can well understand her ‘being taken with him,’ as you call it. The important matter is, is he taken with her?”
“I know he sends her notes and flowers. Noonie makes no secret of that; she wears the flowers and shows me the notes. There’s never much in them.”
“Where is Noonie now?”
“She and Mrs. Bohun have gone to tea at Rumpelmayer’s.”
“To meet him, of course! So Mrs. Bohun relieves you of some of the onus of chaperoning?”
“Yes; Noonie is devoted to her, and I think she has a good influence; the girl will do things for Mrs. Bohun that she will not do for me, and her manners have become more softened and restrained, thanks to Mrs. Bohun.”
“Ah, but then, you see, she’s the Prince Cresseriti’s cousin!”
Almost daily the Prince’s great white car arrived to take Mrs. Dene, Mrs. Bohun and Miss Webb for a run into Italy. Matters were certainly “marching”—marching so fast that Mrs. Dene felt it her duty to write and inform Mrs. Webb that an Italian prince, of whose antecedents they knew nothing, was paying marked attention to her daughter.
“When I say that I know nothing,” she added, “he really is a prince, a member of an old Roman family, the Cressenti—but rumours say he is a gambler, and has little or no means. Noonie is immensely attracted.”
“Immensely attracted” was putting the case mildly, for Noonie would come of a night into her chaperon’s room, throw herself upon the bed, and discuss her admirer for hours at a time.
“Oh, he’s a picture—oh, Dina, what eyes! How different to Joe Dobson, that I was once wild about, or Captain Carter, with the red moustache, or even ‘Curly-head’! I adore him! And it’s not because he’s a prince—though, of course, that counts—”
“He has not yet said anything—anything definite?” inquired Mrs. Dene.
“No; but he has implied everything. I’ve only to look in his eyes—he’s mine—mine—mine!”
“There are a good many pros and cons, Noonie.”
“Bother pros and cons!”
“For one thing, he’s a Catholic—you would be obliged to live in Italy, possibly in the same house as his family—and you don’t understand one word of the language.”
“Oh”—with a shrug and a laugh—“I believe in Italy you can get on very well with the language of the eye.”
“And then you know absolutely nothing about him.”
“I know as much as one knows about most people—I know that he’s divinely handsome, wonderfully generous, and what Mrs. Pace calls ‘charming—charming—charming!’”
“People say that he’s an inveterate gambler, and heavily in debt.”
“What’s the odds as long as we’re happy? And people here say a great deal more than their prayers. They’ve nothing to do but make up spiteful stories. Why, only the other day, when we were lunching at the Hôtel de Paris, a woman next me said that you were uncommonly like someone she had known in India, who had been divorced!”
Mrs. Dene felt the hot blood rush to her face, but Noonie, who was lying with her hands clasped behind her head, and her eyes fixed on the ceiling, saw nothing but an inward vision.
“Just fancy that! So if they say such a wicked thing about you, what will they not say of poor ‘Arry’!” (Thus had she abbreviated “Arigho,” much to his secret disgust, for he had lived in England.) “He’s a prince by birth, and belongs to an old family. Mrs. de Vere, who winters in Rome, knows his people; they really are noble, so you needn’t be the least afraid of his turning out to be a hair-dresser or a waiter! And although I know I’m no beauty, and that it will be said that he was after me for my money, I believe, strange as it may seem, he honestly likes me for myself. Oh, you’ve no idea how sweet his speeches are—yes, and his kisses!”
“Kisses! Oh, Noonie, surely you don’t allow him to kiss you?”
“Why not? I see no harm in a few kisses. Of course, we all know that you’re such a dreadful prude. ‘Arry’ says that I’m an honourable, straightforward English girl, and it’s character that counts—that is what he admires!”
“Yes—and money,” supplemented Mrs. Dene. “That counts, too.”
“I grant that my money counts, and if I had only tuppence a year I don’t suppose he would cast a glance at me. And there’s one item you’ve forgotten—I should be a princess!” and she flung up her arm. “Think of that! I should walk into the room before every woman in the Hôtel Imaginaire. I should be received at Court. I should wear the family jewels. If money counts—that counts, too!”
“Yes, I grant all this. I dare say Arigho is a real prince, a member of a poor and numerous family. Your five thousand a year will be a great help to him and his relations. You would probably have dozens of them living in the same house with you. Before you do anything definite, I implore you to allow me to come into your counsels. Look well before you leap. Marriage is a very uncertain undertaking.”
“You’ve been married yourself,” said Noonie. “Were you happy?”
“At first—very, very happy.”
“The other thing. But it’s not an affair of my past—but of your present.”
“That’s true,” admitted Noonie. “And as the Prince will be going to Paris for a few days, I shall have time to take breath. And talking of taking breath, why are you giving singing lessons to that Brakespeare girl?”
“I didn’t think you minded, Noonie, and you’re always at the tennis courts when she comes round in the morning.”
“I do hate caterwauling.”
“If you like to call it caterwauling—Daphne has a very pretty voice, and you admit that you’ve no ear. You don’t know ‘Rule, Britannia!’ from ‘The Merry Widow.’”
“Yes, that’s a fact; and I can only tell when it’s ‘God Save the King’ by seeing the people stand up! I can’t think why you and Miss Brakespeare are such chums—she’s too pink-and-white and too sweet for me.”
“Noonie, one would think you were talking of a piece of sugar-stick. She’s a dear girl.”
“What Mrs. Pace calls a ‘darling—darling—darling!’ That’s because she makes up to you!”
“A dear girl,” repeated Mrs. Dene. “Entirely unspoiled.”
“She won’t be so long,” corrected Noonie. “Look at the way young Peveril and ‘Curly-head,’ and other young men, run after her.”
“I don’t know about running after her; Mrs. Blenkinsop does not encourage young men. She won’t allow Daphne to practise in the villa, as she is of your way of thinking about music, so she comes down here, and I play her accompaniments. There’s a fairly good piano in the little drawing-room, and in the morning we have the place all to ourselves.”
“I’m not so sure of that—I’ve seen ‘Curly-head’ hanging about. You’ll have him singing duets before you know where you are.”
“No, no; I’ve put a stop to that.”
“Wise Dina! Look here, you can’t take on another girl’s love affair along with mine, can you? You’ve got to concentrate on me; and mine is a regular flare-up affair—and frightfully important.”
“Everyone thinks her own love affair important, Noonie, and I grant you that the Prince is handsome and has attractive manners, but what really impresses you is his title; you want to be a princess.”
“Rather!” rejoined the girl with emphasis. “When you come to think of it, my dad sold potatoes; I believe he began with a wheelbarrow—that was his start. Wasn’t it frightfully funny? Then he rented a potato patch. He worked so hard, and managed so well, and saved so much, that he became in the end a potato merchant on his own, and ended his days as a potato prince! Married to ‘Arry’ I should be a Roman princess, with ancestors going back to the time of Julius Caesar.”
“I think you would find the title of princess rather an empty one, especially in Rome, where titles are so plentiful—you’d just be one in the crowd.”
“That’s true, and I confess that I should not care to live in a palace, no matter how grand, with a lot of relations-in-law, and perhaps only one motor between us. No, I don’t feel drawn to Rome—that’s to say, to settle there altogether. But imagine me trailing into The Mansfield as the Princess Cressenti! I’d make a fine stir, wouldn’t I? And ‘Arry’ is a man of whom any girl might be proud. That’s one of the pros.”
“And for a triumph like that you would risk years and years of happiness?”
“No, indeed! I shall be happy always,” boldly asserted Noonie. “But I must say you didn’t make a very good job of the marriage problem yourself. He left you unprovided for, and to go out and earn your bread. What was he like, your husband?”
Mrs. Dene nodded her head.
“Fond of you?”
Again no reply.
“What a woman you are!” exclaimed Noonie impatiently. “You expect to pick everything out of me, and tell me nothing. Such a case is too one-sided—I think there’s a mystery about you, somehow, eh, Dina?”
“Noonie, I really do wish you would go to bed, and not talk nonsense.” Putting out her hand, she added: “I shall turn off the electric light, and just give you time to get to the door.”
When Victoria Webb had taken a reluctant departure, Armine went to the open window and looked on the lovely, semi-tropical night, with its clear sky, against which tall trees stood out in black solemnity. There was a smell of jasmine in the air, a footstep on the gravel, the feathery bamboos were whispering softly among themselves. What were they saying? Nothing that could give her comfort—or hope. Noonie’s abrupt questions had momentarily torn aside the veil which hung between Armine and her past. Alas! a good memory has its drawbacks. She saw, as if it were but yesterday, the strange officer whom Major Kelly brought to the shabby little dance; she remembered the thrill of surprise as she beheld him being conducted across the room and presented to her; and when she looked into his eyes she realized, as with a shock, a sharp, breathless sensation that something unusual had come into her life! She remembered those feverishly happy yet anxious days before he “spoke” and the subsequent rapture of knowing that he loved her beyond anything in the whole world. In another picture she beheld her pretty Indian bungalow, so gay and so fresh. Here was her baby, her friends, and her pets. She wondered vaguely who was writing at the charming table which Gordon had given her as a surprise. And who was riding her delightful chestnut horse? Poor Tommy! He would be old now, and for old, infirm animals, no matter how they have slaved, there is but little pity. The dogs were bound to have found good situations; the parrots, rude, accomplished, and long-lived, were no doubt hanging in the verandas of other people. The chief outstanding figure in her mental sketch was, of course, Gordon. How good-looking and cheery he was—what a capital housemate, never out of temper and never dull, ready to turn his hand to any little domestic task, and ever interested in her stupid little stories and jokes.
This unhappy woman recalled those delicious moonlight nights when they two sat out side by side, in long cane chairs, and spoke but little—but were simply and supremely happy in the mere fact of their companionship. And now, oh! what a black chasm separated their lives—a chasm never to be crossed. As she looked out into the still, moonless night, she quoted to herself
”Que le bonheur passe vite—mon Dieu, qu’il passe vite! Et qu’on souffre, en y pensant plus tarde.”
The singing lessons given to Miss Brakespeare by Mrs. Dene had now become a regular institution. Three times a week Daphne presented herself at the hotel with her roll of music, and she and her mother spent a happy hour in the deserted little drawing-room. Mrs. Dene had a fine voice, but never sang—except to show the girl how such or such a passage ought to be taken. Moreover, she was a first-rate accompanist, and Daphne made considerable progress. Now and then she was obliged to endure what might be called “a bad quarter of an hour.” It was a bad quarter of an hour when one day Daphne, looking straight into her face, exclaimed:
“Do you know, Mrs. Dene, now I’m going to say something strange: you remind me of my mother!”
“Oh, do I?” stammered Mrs. Dene, secretly much startled and distressed.
“If you don’t mind, I should like to talk to you a little about her.”
“Of course—of course, dear—if you like,” she assented in a voice so faint as to be almost inaudible. “But another time.”
“No—please—now. Something in that song reminded me of her. When I was a small child, I adored her—she was lovely. Please, please, don’t think I’m trying to pay awkward compliments, for I’m not. It’s in your eyes and smile that you’ve such a resemblance.”
“Have I?” turning away to pick up a song.
“Yes, I’ve never forgotten her face, and how lovely she was. It nearly killed me when I was sent home from India and I never saw her again. She died about twelve months afterwards quite suddenly.”
Armine winced as she murmured: “Did she?”
“I can’t get Aunt Blenkinsop to talk about her. Aunt, you know, is Father’s sister. Whenever I begin she always turns the conversation. She will not even tell me where my mother is buried,” and there was a mist in Daphne’s beautiful eyes as she gazed into her mother’s face. “And all the photographs I had of her were mislaid, except one tiny little thing that was in a group. I’ve cut this out, and wear it in a locket; I’d like to show it to you some day.”
“Thank you, my dear.” She could not endure any more, her nerves were raw, and she longed with a frantic longing to draw Daphne into her arms, cover her face with kisses, and whisper the truth. “But now I think you must be going, or Mrs. Blenkinsop will be sending down in search of you. It is such a pity that she will not allow you to practise at home.”
“No, she says the piano gives her a headache. She’s a dear old thing, but much taken up with her health. Oh, how I wish you were my chaperon and we could go about together! Will you walk back with me this morning?”
As Mrs. Dene was about to say “No” she caught sight of “Curly-head” lingering in the garden, and instantly decided to say “Yes.” There was no doubt that she had now two girls to chaperon, and her own daughter was much the more congenial and satisfactory of the pair.
Mrs. Blenkinsop had taken a surprising fancy to Mrs. Dene—she had an aristocratic air and graceful, easy manners, and it was kind of her to undertake Daphne’s music. So more than once she invited her up to tea at the villa, and considered that she was paying a compliment to Miss Webb’s chaperon, who accepted the honour with the deepest reluctance.
The villa occupied by the Blenkinsops was situated like other villas in the gardens of the Hôtel des Indes, and the tenants were charged a stiff rent. They had their meals in the hotel, but no housekeeping worries, and enjoyed a sensation of detachment and superiority to the other inmates who were merely numbers, whilst they represented a whole villa.
One afternoon Mrs. Blenkinsop happened to be in a particularly expansive humour. She had spent rather a dull day, and was glad to find someone to whom she could open her heart and talk, for she was naturally garrulous. Mrs. Dene was a lady—that anyone could see with half an eye—and if she did let her tongue run on, no harm would be done.
“You know you’ve cast a spell over Daphne,” she remarked, as she handed her guest a cup of tea. “To her mind there’s no one in the whole of Mentone like Mrs. Dene. She appreciates your kindness in giving her music-lessons, but it’s something more than that. She is naturally a warm-hearted, impulsive girl; you see, her mother was Irish, and she takes the most headlong fancies, but her fancy for you is something out of the common.”
“Oh, she will soon get over it,” protested her visitor.
“No, she’s not the sort of girl who does ‘get over’ things. When our old dog died she wept for days. Thank heaven, she has no lovers yet.” (Poor, blind Mrs. Blenkinsop!) “It’s a dreadful pity the child has no mother.”
“Ye-e-es,” stammered Mrs. Dene.
“In her case it’s worse than no mother, for”—now looking very solemn—“the woman—although the girl supposes her to be dead—is still alive.”
Mrs. Dene’s colour faded—she blenched perceptibly—but Mrs. Blenkinsop, being near-sighted, could see nothing further than her own nose. “I don’t mind telling you, and I’m sure it’ll go no further, but my brother was obliged to divorce her.”
Mrs. Dene moved uneasily, but remained mute.
“It was a most painful case, for everyone believed she was devoted to Gordon Brakespeare. Suddenly there was a terrible awakening. Gordon happened to be away shooting—he was always shooting—when he came back unexpectedly he found his home ruined; she had gone off with a young gunner. He was distracted, beside himself. He could have sworn by his wife. He was overwhelmed, and set the divorce on foot at once; there was no defence, she disappeared in London, and no one knows what has become of her. She was remarkably pretty, and had a beautiful voice. Someone told me the other day that they had seen her all painted and made-up on the music-hall stage!”
“Oh, poor woman!” ejaculated Mrs. Dene.
“Yes, I know that many people took her part,” pursued Mrs. Blenkinsop. “They said that she was young, pretty, and attractive, and that Gordon left her too much alone. Whenever he could get leave he went off shooting for weeks and weeks and weeks. And after the child had been sent home she seemed to have no interests and no occupations. Nothing to do but sit with idle hands, and all the men in the station figuratively at her feet. I know—for people have told me—although I am Brakespeare’s sister, that she was far more sinned against than sinning, and she could have fought the case had she chosen. For my part—though we’ve never met—I’ve always felt sorry for her.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Blenkinsop.”
“Not at all; I’ve felt that I should like to get into touch with her. Gordon is a fine soldier, a wonderful sportsman, and remarkably good-looking. I say that he took my share of the family good looks. One time, when he was home on leave, he went over to Ireland to fish with a friend, and there he himself was caught by the beautiful daughter of a cast-iron old parson. The girl was only eighteen, and he brought her straight out to India, to what was to her practically a new world, and after her dull country life and poverty a sort of Paradise. Gordon was enormously proud of her, he mounted her on a fine horse, he went about with her, and took a great interest in his house and garden and his little girl, and became in short surprisingly domestic. Then the old craving for sport and wandering seized him—our father was the same. When he was not in the lines or on parade he was always yearning to be away, and for all her beauty and charm, his Irish wife seemed to have but a feeble hold on him. I think—I must admit—that Gordon is selfish, like most men; yes, although he’s my own brother. His heads, and his shooting, and his polo, and his regiment filled his life—there was no room in it for her. Since the break-up he has been home once, and seemed so changed, restless, discontented and silent—I believe his conscience has begun to trouble him a bit. He’s not a man to have two or three loves in his life, and now that he’s getting on he feels the want of a home. And then he does not know what in the world he’s to do with his girl! He will be returning before long, and he can’t very well take her out to India without some sort of a chaperon, can he? Daphne is crazy to go to India, and, of course, we’re a dull, unsuitable old couple to have the charge of a beauty of eighteen, though we love her—she is so thoughtful and sweet-tempered. I am rheumatic and can’t get about, and my husband simply will not stir. He likes his club, and now and then he goes to a race meeting—and that’s all!”
“If you had another girl to stay with her?” suggested Mrs. Dene.
“Oh, I don’t think my husband would like that—he does not care for young people. The only alternative is that Gordon should marry again. He’s not at all inclined for a second matrimonial venture, but what is the poor man to do?” And she stared into Armine’s face with her short-sighted eyes.
Armine’s only reply was to shake her head hopelessly.
“I’m sure you will think it odd that I’ve told you all this,” said Mrs. Blenkinsop, as her guest rose to depart, “but, you see, that Daphne having such a fancy for you I felt drawn to impart a little bit of family history and tell you about her mother.”
For one mad moment a wild desire flashed through Armine’s brain. As she stood holding Mrs. Blenkinsop’s hand within her own she said to herself, “Shall I tell her the truth, under a vow of secrecy? Shall I tell her that I am Daphne’s mother?” But the temptation passed, and with a murmured “Good-bye” she dropped Mrs. Blenkinsop’s rheumatic fingers and went out of the showy villa drawing-room.
As she walked down the avenue she said to herself:
“Should I have told her? Should I have told her?” And an immediate mental “No” flashed back from some recess in her brain; she would keep the secret to herself. But these poignant interviews shattered her nerves. For a woman to relate to her the history of her own tragedy as to a stranger, and for Daphne to gaze into her eyes and say, “You are like my mother—I adored my mother,” and for her to be compelled to hold her peace, was a racking experience. She had in the back of her mind a premonition that after these eleven years of renunciation something was about to happen!
Was she to be raised as a recovered wreck, might she yet sail the seas of happiness with all sails set? But how? Her future was too hopeless—there could be no relief for her. Her comfort must consist in beholding the happiness of other people.
On her way to the Hôtel Imaginaire Mrs. Dene overtook Mr. Scrope, who was strolling up the road in a leisurely manner, with his hands behind him, loosely grasping his cane. As he heard her step he turned about, and said:
“Well met! I’ve been over to The Rooms—it’s not often that I patronize them, but I won thirty pounds at ‘trente et quarante,’ and this has put me in a good humour.”
“I’m delighted to hear it,” she said, making an effort to be sociable. “You should go oftener.”
“A lot of people were there to-day,” he resumed, ignoring her thrust. “Pretty Miss Brakespeare was with the Peverils. Some say she is the beauty of the season—but beauty is not a reality, but an opinion!”
As Mrs. Dene made no attempt to dispute the statement, he went on:
“The young lady, who was in a state of feverish excitement, ventured ten francs and won. She told me she was going to spend it on chocolates. The Prince was there, and a loser—I fancy he was about cleared out. He had nothing left to spend on chocolates! Your young woman was with him. I’m beginning to fear that you are a slack, incapable chaperon.”
“Why should you say so? I’m utterly sick of The Rooms—and Noonie went over with Mrs. Bohun.”
“I don’t consider that that excuse exonerates you,” he interposed.
“Mrs. Bohun is no gambler; she seldom goes to the Casino.”
“No, but to play chemin de fer at a grubby little place on the Boulevard des Moulins, where she can gamble on the quiet. No one knows anything of Mrs. Bohun.”
“You seem to know a good deal about her.”
“Ah, well, perhaps I do, and I mistrust the lady. You realize I speak the truth without shame.”
“Especially when it concerns others,” rejoined Armine, who had no fear of the “Little Man.” “Would it be too much to ask your verdict? I believe you keep docketed opinions of everyone carefully stored away in your brain—not very good dossiers, either!”
“My dear Mrs. Dene, if you had lived as long and seen as much as I have, you probably wouldn’t take a rosy view of your fellow creatures. However, I may tell you this—that I like you!”
(Yes, in his case mere curiosity had grown into tangible interest; he was increasingly conscious of her charm.)
“And as I realize that you have a difficult card to play, I should be glad to offer you a little assistance and also—if you’ll accept it—advice,” he concluded, with an air of dispassionate benevolence.
“What is the card to which you particularly refer?”
“The Queen of Spades—otherwise, your ponderous charge. I know she’s ravenous for notice and success; she likes to be the centre of a rowdy crowd, talking and laughing at her own preposterous jokes. She must have an audience and be in the middle of the picture. If Miss Webb is not careful, she will find herself getting the grand slam. Now and then she breaks loose,” he added with significance.
“Breaks loose?” repeated Mrs. Dene.
“For instance, that time she slipped over to Nice to spend a happy day with Captain Carter, and you had to hunt her up and bring her back—an exciting excursion, was it not?”
Mrs. Dene coloured guiltily. “You know too much,” she protested with energy.
“I know a good deal,” admitted Scrope, with bland complacency. “The world is my cinema! But you invited my opinion of her friend Mrs. Bohun. I tell you frankly that I believe she’s a woman with a past—a lady-like adventuress, with graceful caressing manners, pretty frocks, and unbounded assurance. And with regard to her so-called cousin, Prince Cressenti, I offer you this opinion unsolicited: he is a man without principle and without a future—unless he can marry an heiress, such as your friend Miss Webb. It’s a little too early to go in and dress. Shall we take a seat in the garden?”
To this suggestion Armine assented in silence. If Mr. Scrope had a razor-edged tongue, she was aware that he had a keen eye, also a secretly open and generous hand, and was known to be strictly honourable. For herself, she was provincial and inexperienced—in many respects a mere child in the ways of the world. Supposing Prince Cressenti were a fortune-hunter? Supposing Mrs. Bohun, in spite of her table-companion, the archdeacon’s widow, were a woman with a past? (Like herself.) She would get this bitter-tongued, far-sighted “Little Man” to give her a helping hand, and said, as she turned to him:
“I’m so stupid and entirely unaccustomed to reading people’s characters. Of course I can see that the Prince is paying court to Noonie.”
“A blind man could see that!” sneered her companion.
“Naturally Noonie is enormously flattered by his attentions and dazzled by his title. I may say I should like to know something definite regarding his family, his character and his means.”
“As to his means,” said Scrope. “My dear lady, you may take it from me”—waving an empty hand—“that he hasn’t the ready money to pay his chauffeur! And as for his family and character, I’ve relations who live in Rome; I’ll write to them and ask them to find out what they can about Prince Cressenti. I believe the family is all right. As to his character, I must confess I’m doubtful.”
“He’s intimate with many people in Monte Carlo and Mentone.”
“Yes, he has been coming here for a good many seasons and knows most of the habitués. Sometimes he’s flourishing, owning a high-powered car, giving dinners, and private gambling parties, but I believe that just now he’s at the end of his resources, and his hotel is pressing for payment. His pals and parasites are sorry for him, but that’s all. There’s not much financial help anywhere—merely empty words. The world would be full of good Samaritans—only for the twopence and the oil! Cressenti will try and persuade your young lady to give him a favourable answer, and you may look for some important developments before long. Take my advice, discourage his visits and keep the girl with you as much as possible. You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, can you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“What I mean is that you cannot play companion to two girls—in two separate hotels. There’s your own legitimate charge and that other far more attractive damsel, Miss Brakespeare. You’re trying to keep her under your wing, too! I can see that she’s immensely attracted.” A pause. “Do you know there’s rather a striking resemblance between you?” He looked into Armine’s eyes with a significance that was almost diabolic.
Could it be possible that he had fathomed the truth?
“Ah, there’s the dressing bell,” he exclaimed, rising briskly, “and I must be going, and you too. I always look forward to your charming toilettes. There’s nothing inexperienced about them—you have a natural flair for dress. How I wish you could impart it to some of the other women! For example, that lady in the beetroot gown, with tomato-coloured trimmings—it makes me positively ill. Even her magnificent pearls do not relieve me.”
As they walked into the hall he paused, and said: “I shall write to Rome to-night.”
That same evening, after dinner, Mr. Scrope sauntered out into the veranda to enjoy an excellent cigar. It was an exquisite April night—there was scarcely a breath of air, and what there was was heavy with the scent of flowers. The veranda, as usual, was pretty full—people in groups, and people in couples, or solitary sybarites like himself. Presently he noticed Major Lynch come out and look about, apparently in search of him.
“Ah, so here you are!” he said, sinking into a chair. “I’ve had a pretty heavy day—paying calls at San Remo.”
“The more fool you!” snorted Mr. Scrope. “Don’t come to me for sympathy. I can’t imagine any man in his senses paying calls—that’s a woman’s job.”
“But when you’ve no woman belonging to you?” Then he continued: “I suppose you’ve loafed about here the whole afternoon?”
“No, I’ve been over to the Casino. I like to go now and then and take a look round.”
“And on this occasion, what did you see?”
“I saw myself winning eight hundred francs!”
“Good!” ejaculated his friend.
“I saw Prince Cressenti losing heavily, and I saw that Polish fellow, with the fair beard, breaking the bank. He has the devil’s own luck.”
“And then, I suppose, you came home?”
“Yes. I overtook Mrs. Dene on the road, and we had rather an interesting tête-à-tête there—and in the garden.”
“For the life of me I can’t imagine you and Mrs. Dene having a tête-à-tête anywhere. What were you talking about?”
“She was asking my advice,” deliberately sipping bis coffee as he spoke.
“Which, of course, you gave her—and I don’t mind betting that it was disagreeable. Ah, you’re looking for sugar; I don’t know why you take it!”
“Why not? Sugar is the consolation of infants, and the comfort of old age! As to Mrs. Dene, the advice was not so unpleasant as you seem to anticipate. I hinted that her job was to look after Miss Noonie, and not to suffer her interest in the other girl to run away with her.”
“Great Scott!” Lynch started. “Did you say that?”
“Yes, and was inclined to say a great deal more. I told you that I had noticed a remarkable resemblance between Miss Brakespeare and herself.”
“Oh!” ejaculated his companion.
“And although you’ve kept the matter dark, my good Patsy, I can put two and two together as well, if not better than most, I can see that the girl is Mrs. Dene’s own daughter—and a creditable daughter too!”
“Then for God’s sake keep the discovery to yourself,” urged Lynch, with nervous emphasis.
“Of course! Mrs. Dene has a hard card to play, as I told her. The matter has to be handled with antiseptic precautions. Not only with regard to Miss Brakespeare, but the she-bounder, Miss Webb. I tell you that girl will get into trouble. It’s rather a desperate situation for Mrs. Brakespeare, that was—to be meeting her own daughter every day as a mere casual acquaintance. I’m curious to see what will be the end of it. The whole thing is like an exciting novel!”
“The end will be that Brakespeare will come home, possibly marry again, and carry the girl off to India. I met a friend over at San Remo to-day who told me that his brother and Brakespeare, who are pals, are sailing from Bombay shortly.”
Scrope gave a low whistle. “And, of course, the fellow will turn up here! By Jove, what a situation! Poor Mrs. Dene! I don’t know how she will carry on, with a husband and daughter in the place where she’s acting as companion—under another name. I suppose, if Brakespeare comes across her, he’ll give the whole show away?”
“No, no,” protested Brakespeare’s former school-fellow, “’G. B.’ is not that sort; he’ll play the game—I’ll say that for him. He has had his pound of flesh—his divorce—and I fancy for the rest of his life he’ll keep his mouth shut.”
Just at this moment the Prince and Noonie passed down the steps into the garden, where they were soon lost to sight in the April night.
A few seconds later there was a soft frou-frou of silks and lace, and Noonie’s chaperon appeared on the veranda, straining her eyes into the dark-blue gloom. The light from the hall threw into sharp relief her delicate profile and her slim, graceful figure in its soft, artistic gown. Mr. Scrope stared at her exhaustively from out of the shadows, and said:
“I’m not sure that I don’t admire the mother the most of the two! I feel in my rheumatic bones that she’s a real good woman, and that your friend and school-fellow, who raked up such a scandal and divorced her, was a weak-kneed, credulous fool, and that she always had the hot end of the poker!”
“A champion, I declare!” exclaimed Lynch, turning to look at his companion. “Good old Diogenes! So Armine Brakespeare has got you out of your tub at last!”
It was a pouring wet day. Noonie, who had no wet day resources, sat hunched up in the lounge, her head on her hands, her elbows on her knees. She did not care for reading or music, and her restless, energetic nature was never contented without some diversion or excitement. It was too early for bridge at eleven o’clock in the morning; most of the people appeared to be in their rooms; she had no one to amuse her or talk with her. Of course, it was Mrs. Dene’s duty to do both—and where was she? Shut up in the stuffy little drawing-room, giving music lessons to that girl! To Noonie, Daphne had become “that girl.” She had taken an inveterate dislike to Miss Brakespeare—partly on account of the partiality shown by Mrs. Dene, chiefly because Miss Brakespeare, who had only lately arrived, and really knew few people, received far more attention than herself. After all, who was Miss Brakespeare? Just a pink-and-white chit, the daughter of a colonel of some black regiment out in India—a nobody!
Noonie stalked towards the little drawing-room, envy, hatred and malice simmering in her heart, flung open the door, and advanced into the room. The pupil was singing—she sang like a sweet-throated bird, pure and melodious—and Noonie would have interrupted, but that the teacher raised a protesting hand, and she was compelled to wait until the end of the song. Then her anger flamed forth.
“You’ve no consideration for me!” she began in a high, unsteady voice, and with a note that seemed to threaten trouble. “Here am I left to moon about by myself, whilst you are giving music lessons to a girl who has nothing to do with you.”
At this, Miss Brakespeare became very red, and began hastily to collect her music. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “I had no idea——”
“No idea,” interrupted Noonie in a high slum key, “that Mrs. Dene’s time is not public property? She gets a large salary, and is supposed to devote herself entirely to me, and here she is, giving music lessons gratis. If I did the right thing, I would make her charge so much per lesson, and put the money in my own pocket. Her time is mine!”
Here spoke the coarse thrift and vulgarity of her parent—the potato prince!
As she paused for a moment, breathless, her chaperon, with a rigid, white face, rose from the piano, and said:
“Noonie, you’ve no right to speak like this to Miss Brakespeare. A certain margin of the day belongs to me. I’m not obliged to be in your company from morning to night. Your rudeness I can forgive and overlook, but you will apologize to Miss Brakespeare.”
“Apologize!” and she gave a shriek of derisive laughter. “That’s a thing I never do.” (Which was not true, for she had been obliged to offer various excuses and abject apologies to her fellow-guests at The Mansfield Hôtel.)
“You had better go now, my dear,” said Mrs. Dene, addressing Daphne in a low voice; but as she moved across the room, Noonie interposed her bulky figure between her and the door, then dashed out and slammed it in her face! The girl turned and looked at her companion, who said:
“You must not mind Noonie; something has annoyed her, and so she has come to vent her ill-humour on you and me. Remember that she has not had any advantages—has been over-indulged by her mother—and is really her own worst enemy.”
“All the same, dear Mrs. Dene, this is my last singing lesson.”
“Oh, don’t say that! I shall insist upon Noonie making you an apology.”
“Please don’t; I should hate it—it would make me so dreadfully uncomfortable. I can’t tell you what a pleasure these lessons have been, but I won’t risk such a scene as we’ve had this morning.”
“Well, my dear, of course you must please yourself. I’ve enjoyed teaching you immensely—I shall miss my pupil.”
Noonie was sitting, sulking, in a window of the drawing-room, and it added fuel to her flame to watch the tender care with which Mrs. Dene wrapped up Miss Brakespeare before she set forth on her wet walk back to the Hôtel des Indes.
Noonie and her chaperon did not speak at déjeuner, and subsequently Mrs. Dene informed her that she must insist upon an apology to Miss Brakespeare.
“You might send her a little note—it is easier.”
To this Noonie gave an insolent reply, and relapsed into a fit of sustained ill-humour.
Things were going wrong with Noonie. She and the elder Peveril girl had had a tiff; a grumbling letter from her mother declared that she was spending far too much money, and she would cut off supplies; and now here was Mrs. Dene upon her high horse! Well, she would let Mrs. Dene see that she was not to be bullied! At meal-time she never opened her lips to her chaperon—not even to ask for the salt—and, figuratively, threw herself into the arms of Mrs. Bohun, joined her expensive bridge parties, and learnt to play chemin de fer.
Mrs. Toby Watkin and Lady Coote had been spending a few days together at Bordighera, and the former had not been back two hours in the Hôtel Imaginaire before she realized that there was something wrong between Armine and her charge. She had encountered Noonie in the lounge, who accorded her anything but a genial welcome, merely exclaiming in an injured key:
“Oh, so you’re back?”
She had realized that in Mrs. Toby Watkin, who was a power in society, her chaperon had a staunch ally.
Afterwards, Mrs. Watkin and her friend had a confidential talk in the former’s sitting-room.
“What’s the matter between you and the girl?” inquired Mrs. Toby. “I noticed that you didn’t speak at déjeuner.”
“Yes; it’s a matter of ‘pull devil, pull baker.’ I will speak all right, but I will not be friends with Noonie until she apologizes to Daphne Brakespeare—and——”
“Oh, so they’ve had a row? Well, I suppose it’s only natural that you should take your daughter’s part.”
“Hush! Mrs. Toby, someone might hear you. And it’s not that at all—not a question of taking parts.” And then she proceeded to describe the scene about the music lessons. From this their talk drifted to the Prince, and Armine related her interview with Mr. Scrope, and his estimate of Noonie’s friend Mrs. Bohun.
“I should take some of his information with a grain of salt,” said Mrs. Toby. “What a tongue the Little Man has! I’m sure he’s like the Irishwoman who said she always felt the better for half an hour’s good back-biting!”
“It’s not exactly back-biting—he sees things.”
“You mean,” corrected Mrs. Toby, “he looks out for things! In my opinion, his proper home should have been some populous Indian bazaar. How he would have revelled in the gup and scandal, the outrageous romances, and hair-raising lies!”
“Oh, come, Mrs. Toby, I don’t think as badly of him as all that.”
“No, I don’t believe you ever think badly of anyone. You let people off—you never stand up for yourself, or take your own part. However, my dear Armine, I’ll stand up for you and take your part. I shall have a few words with Miss Webb, and tell her that if she can’t behave herself in a more ladylike manner, the cards which I promised for the Duchess’s ball will not be sent. How is the affair between Daphne and young Deverell getting on?”
“I don’t know. Naturally, I don’t inquire; but I’ve an idea that the Marquise doesn’t approve. She expects ‘Curly-head’ to marry some duke’s daughter. He’s good-looking, rich, and well born!”
“But I don’t suppose that ‘Curly-head’ sees it,” said Mrs. Toby.
“No; but she has inveigled him into going on a yachting trip to Sardinia, says she dreads the mistral, and I believe she has been very stiff and sniffy to Mrs. Blenkinsop. Mrs. Blenkinsop has her pride, and no longer invites the young man to the villa.”
“All the same, neither she nor the old Marquise has it in her power to separate those young people. I think the girl is too young to be married at eighteen, but she will be Mrs. Deverell yet, you’ll see, and that’s as sure as my name is Fanny Watkin.”
Mrs. Watkin duly carried out her threat, and in a few caustic words offered Miss Webb her choice between apologizing to Miss Brakespeare and the coveted card for the Duchess’s ball. Noonie Webb, who was wildly ambitious, and anxious to soar into the best society, selected the card. So for the present, in this little circle of the Hôtel Imaginaire, there reigned an armistice, if not peace.
About this period Noonie began to develop a great interest in her appearance, and took elaborate pains with her toilette—possibly thanks to the example of Mrs. Bohun. A whole hour would be devoted to dressing her one beauty, her hair. She had become doubtful respecting her taste in frocks, and deferred to others, and spent a fortune on blouses and hats.
Noonie’s stay on the Riviera had passed through three phases—the Casino, tennis, and the toilette. What would be the next?
Gradually but surely the popularity of Mrs. Bohun appeared to wane—her surface fascination seemed to have worn a little thin. The lady’s appearance was as charming, her manner as gracious, her gowns as elegant as ever—but there were whispers. It was said that she had not paid her hotel bill for weeks, and that the manager was beginning to be uneasy. It was hinted that she did not adhere strictly to the truth—for instance, she declared that she had no acquaintance with Madame Marcelle, and would not know such a person, and yet the two had been seen holding a confidential conversation in an out-of-the-way restaurant at Nice. Mrs. Watkin, who had always held aloof from the lady, discovered not a few flaws in her pedigree. In her opinion, every one of these well-born cousins, who were “such dears,” had no existence in reality, but lived in the widow’s brain. Once again she had passed Mrs. Bohun under a searching harrow of examination regarding a certain family with whom Mrs. Watkin was connected, and the victim had emerged from the ordeal in what might be called rags. After that encounter, she and her inquisitor had never spoken. Her intimacy with Prince Cressenti gave her an undoubted position in the hotel, but it was noted that such high and mighty ladies as the Marquise de Roche Corbon, and others, never invited her to their receptions (but to such oversights and slights she offered the most fluent and probable excuses). Nevertheless, for some inexplicable reason her circle dissolved, and the archdeacon’s widow was requested to state how she had made the lady’s acquaintance.
This formal and exclusive matron elaborately explained that she had met her at Lugano, where they were staying at the same hotel, and that she had been a great friend of the Countess of Fosari. “But,” said a shocked inquirer, “I think that most people know that the Countess de Fosari is not a reputable woman—merely a handsome adventuress, and no more a countess than I am!”
For a moment Mrs. Pace looked stunned, and then she rallied, and said:
“I’ve no doubt that poor Mrs. Bohun was taken in. She has a particular horror of that class of person.”
All the same, crafty Mrs. Pace spent nearly an hour in meditating as to how she was to remove Mrs. Bohun from her table, or make a plausible excuse for placing herself elsewhere. But unfortunately this arrangement proved to be beyond her power.
One evening Mrs. Bohun gripped Noonie by the arm and led her into a little, empty drawing-room, turned on the electric light, and closed and locked the door.
“Noonie, my child,” she began, “you’ve always been so sympathetic to me, and I therefore confide in you that I’m in desperate need of a hundred pounds. I want it to-night, to meet a call to-morrow, and I’ll return it to you, on my solemn word of honour, within two days.”
Noonie’s mouth opened slowly. “A hundred pounds? But I’ve not got it. Mother keeps me fearfully short these times. You see, I’ve lost a lot at the tables and chemin de fer—altogether, three hundred pounds. You know the awful bad luck I had when playing with you. I daren’t tell Mrs. Dene, but Mother—saw the cheques! There’s been a holy row; you should have seen The Mum’s letter to Mrs. Dene and me—awful! Scribbled in such a fury that we could only make out words here and there. Now I’ve promised not to play in the Casino again, and I’m cut down to twenty pounds a month pocket-money. I don’t believe I’ve more than five louis in my bag.”
“That would be of no use—merely a drop in the ocean. And my case is desperate,” and the distracted woman surveyed Noonie with a face of grey despair. “I’ve been disappointed of a large sum that is due to me—hoping for it to arrive by every post, and to-morrow I must pay up or get into unspeakable trouble!”
“How I wish I could do something, said Noonie. “Oh, if I could only help you—you know I would.”
“I see a way in which you can help me,” and Mrs. Bohun fixed her eyes on the emerald pendant. “That pendant of yours is worth a lot of money. Lend it to me; I’ll pawn it to-morrow—it’s to-morrow that matters—and in three days you shall have it back. This I swear to you on my soul!”
But Noonie put her hand up and covered the old Jewel, as if to protect it. “It’s not mine,” she announced. “It belongs to Mrs. Dene.”
“You’ll let me have it, all the same, for I know you are all heart! She will not miss it for three or four days—you don’t wear it every night. Oh, Noonie, darling,” and she flung her arms about her and covered her face with hot kisses, “lend me the emerald pendant, I implore and beseech you! I assure you it’s a matter of life or death to me. The money I want is for a debt of honour, and I need not tell you what that means,” she concluded.
Noonie, carried away by her naturally impulsive nature, and also a sense of importance in having it within her power to help her patroness, hastily unfastened the little chain and placed the emerald pendant in the wretched woman’s hand.
“You are more than an angel!” said Mrs. Bohun. “And this wonderfully generous act will bring you great luck. By the time this jewel is once more round your neck, all your troubles and anxieties will have come to an end.”
As she made this amazing announcement, Mrs. Bohun’s face was working with agitation. Again she kissed Noonie violently, then went across the room, unlocked the door, and in another second had vanished.
Little did Noonie, the infatuated, dream how her fate hung upon the tables. When fortune smiled upon him, the Prince thrust the ugly Webb girl far away into the lumber room of his mind; instead of coming over to Mentone he would dispatch his man-servant with a note or flowers. Recently it had come to his knowledge that Noonie had a mother—but luckily no other near relations—and perhaps the mother might have some claim to the fortune? But a few days of bad luck at chemin de fer and the tables justified the predictions of his enemies, and made him desperate. He owed card debts and a long hotel bill; he was sensible of a chilling attitude among his particular set, and all he had in his pocket were a couple of louis! So one evening he took some extra glasses of champagne and motored over to the Hôtel Imaginaire, sought out Noonie, invited her to sit with him in the garden, and there asked her to be his wife. It is scarcely necessary to record her answer—an emotional, breathless acquiescence—and, oh! what a glorified Noonie re-entered the lounge! One had only to look at her shining eyes and heightened colour to see that the great coup had come off! Those who sat round, smoking or sipping coffee, realized that they were now in the presence of a future princess. (The Prince had effected a precipitate departure.)
The next day he returned with a beautiful engagement ring, a gigantic box of chocolates, and the request for an early marriage. His financial affairs were in a condition of such desperate extremity that if he did not take some drastic step within the next few weeks he would be proclaimed as a defaulter and a bankrupt.
Noonie wrote the great news to her mother. Mrs. Dene also dispatched a letter to Mrs. Webb. Needless to say which was the more enthusiastic of the two that were posted in the hall letter-box.
For the next week, Victoria Webb lived in what is known as “the seventh heaven” as, happy and elated, she motored about with her handsome fiancé. She ordered her wedding-dress, and it is sad to relate that Miss Webb clothed herself in tremendous airs, and scarcely deigned to notice Daphne or the Peverils, and when not in the Prince’s company was engaged in writing boastful letters or selecting her trousseau.
“It’s too great a rush!” protested Mrs. Dene. “It’s absurd to be married off in three weeks—and here. Why not in London?”
“I like to do as ‘Arry’ wishes. He has written to The Mum and explained everything—oh, such a sweet letter, with his coronet on the paper. I, too, have written to The Mum, and asked her to give us a real good start. She might easily allow us four thousand a year—and poor ‘Arry’ says he’s frightfully hard up.”
For one whole week Noonie had the brimming cup of happiness at her lips. She flared about all over the place with her fiancé in the white motor-car—in love, engaged, triumphant. She had her visiting-cards printed, and revelled in the devotion of her charming Prince; but such a condition of supreme felicity was impossible to be sustained.
Alas, what a small matter can change a girl’s future! Although Noonie did not know of it, the appearance at the Hôtel de Paris of a smart American widow put an end to her prospects of becoming a princess. Madame de Montano had already been married three times. She was not very young, but was still handsome, and almost incredibly rich. Her unlimited wealth was said to come from gold mines in California. The widow was without belongings, merely accompanied by a sort of lady-in-waiting, and had no particular introductions. But an income of fifty thousand a year is an introduction in itself! Within twenty-four hours the Prince had heard of this important arrival, and at the first opportunity contrived to have himself presented to the wealthy stranger. It is unnecessary to add that his appearance was strongly in his favour. His title, too, counted, and within a couple of days he was whirling the new acquaintance along the Corniche road in his well-known car. His attentions to Noonie relaxed as his attentions to Madame de Montano increased. Madame at once saw his game—being an experienced matron, in character hard as flint—and she knew how to deal with husbands, prospective and otherwise. One of hers was dead—the other two she had divorced; her fortune was entirely in her own hands. Undoubtedly the young man was handsome, with dark Oriental eyes filled with a sleepy fire, and she would rather like to play the part of princess, so she gave Cressenti every encouragement in her power. As to the disparity in age, she was ten years his senior (forty-five), but then her maid was an artist, and she did not look an hour over thirty, and carried her upright figure admirably. Madame was still good-looking, with clear-cut features of the best American type, and light grey eyes with pupils like black pin-points, and in her own opinion would undoubtedly make an imposing addition to the Roman court.
These were tragic days for Noonie—and incidentally for Mrs. Dene. The trouble began when one morning the girl appeared in her bedroom looking absolutely distraught—her face was distorted, her hair hung down her back, her only garment an elaborate chiffon nightie—and in her hand she held a note.
“Oh, Dina,” she gasped, “I’ve had such an awful shock! Here’s a letter from ‘Arry.’ He writes in despair. He says that his friends and relations—that’s to say, his father and mother—will not give their consent to our marriage because of my religion. No heir of their house has ever brought a heretic principessa into the family, and so, although he is heart-broken, there must be an end to our engagement. Here”—tending the letter—“read it for yourself.” And Noonie collapsed on the floor, and rocked herself to and fro in a wild abandonment of grief.
The sheet of paper, emblazoned with a princely crest, and covered with very distinct handwriting, contained the statement, watered down with many soothing terms of endearment and regret. A postscript said: “Do not return me the ring, but keep it as a souvenir of our many sweet hours.”
“This is indeed a blow, Noonie. I’m so sorry for you, but, of course, if his father and mother refuse to receive you, what is the man to do? The claims of parents are ten times stronger in France and Italy than at home.”
“But it’s not alone that I adore ‘Arry,’ and not because he’s a prince—just think of the talk, and how pleased a lot of people will be. However, I’m not going to stand it. I’ll never give him up—never! There’s my money, and with that in his pocket he can snap his fingers at his beggarly family! I was talking to a girl the other day who has spent several winters in Rome; she says many of the grandest nobility are frightfully poor, and live in old, tumbledown buildings they call palaces—immense bare rooms, with stone floors, no bath-rooms, half a dozen of the same race just like rabbits in a warren. I expect ‘Arry’s’ family is as hard up as any!”
“That may be,” agreed her companion; “but from what I gather in his letter, he does not wish, as you call it, to snap his fingers at them. He has an uncle, he says, a cardinal, and will never go against his church.”
“Then I shall become a Roman Catholic!” declared Noonie, with cheerful decision. “That will make everything square. As long as one is a Christian, one religion or another is all the same to me.”
“Well, of course you didn’t know, but The Pater and The Mum were Baptists until they got up a bit in the world; then they joined the Church of England—so I can always bring that up to The Mum if she is mad when she hears that I’ve joined the Church of Rome.”
“But you’re not really serious, are you?”
“So serious that I intend to see about it this very day. You were reading to me lately of Henry the Fourth of France, a Huguenot, who changed over because he said the ‘throne of Paris was worth a Mass.’ In a way, I’ve just as much at stake. As soon as I’m dressed I shall write a letter to ‘Arry,’ and send it by hand; and so that I can’t change my mind, I shall go and see the curé in the old town, and tell him that I wish to be received into the Church of Rome at once. There are Catholics in the hotel, and they will advise me.”
“Oh, Noonie, please don’t do anything in a hurry,” implored her chaperon. “I beg you to take a day or two to consider matters before you venture on such a tremendous step.”
“I’m not going to lose ‘Arry’—I’d take any step sooner than risk that. I’d become a Mohammedan, or a Mormon—any blessed thing you like! No impediment shall ever part us.” And with this announcement she scrambled up from the floor, retired into her own room, and, as usual, slammed the door.
For two long days there was no reply to Noonie’s letter to the Prince, during which time she lived in a fever. She telephoned repeatedly, but he was always out. She wrote pages and pages in her large, scrawly hand. At last she received an epistle, apologetic and sweet as the former, but once more containing a bitter flavour. His father, being of high rank, had requested to see her pedigree. No one who was not of blue blood could marry into the Cressenti family.
“You, my dear Noonie, in your generous confidence, informed me that your father was of the people, and that it was by his own exertions he had raised himself from an humble condition. So even if you were to join our Church, here is an obstacle that is impassable. My regrets are profound. This ultimatum from my parents has caused me the most bitter disappointment I have ever known!”
When Mrs. Dene had read this letter she saw at once that the young man’s decision was final, and all that remained for Noonie was to accept the situation with dignity.
But such an attitude was not in Noonie’s power. She wrote, she telephoned, she made herself unpresentable with crying, and she led her poor chaperon a miserable life. The Prince’s defection was public and complete—it was whispered in the hotel that he was to be continuously seen motoring about with a handsome, enormously wealthy widow; but Noonie still wore his ring, still wrote him volumes—although there were no notes, no flowers, no visit from her late fiancé. The jilted heiress was distracted; for hours she lay extended upon Mrs. Dene’s bed, weeping and sobbing, bemoaning her fate. She talked unrestrainedly most of the night, and was at times so excited and incoherent that she seemed to be on the point of losing her reason.
To do poor Noonie justice, it was not the loss of the title but of the lover she deplored, and she did everything in her power to recall him. After the first days of silence she had dispatched Mrs. Dene to Monte Carlo, a most reluctant emissary. But she had been advised by Mrs. Watkin to interview the Prince in the character of Noonie’s guardian, and learn the worst. Was he about to jilt her charge? However, the Prince was not at home—although she had ’phoned and made an appointment, he had motored over to play golf at Cannes.
Subsequently Noonie took the business into her own hands, and, without a word to anyone of her intentions, went off to Monte Carlo at an early hour, and had the good fortune to discover the Prince at petit déjeuner in his private sitting-room. Here she boldly confronted him, and passionately denounced his faithlessness.
“How can you treat me in this way, ‘Arry,’ darling,” she pleaded, with streaming eyes, “raising these objections so late in the day? Even if your family do not approve, we should be quite independent.”
“It’s not a question of money,” he rejoined (although the prospect of fifty thousand a year was his present objective).
“I consider that you are still engaged, to me,” she persisted, holding up her hand and displaying her ring, representing the last ditch.
“Oh, you may keep the ring, cara Noonie, as a melancholy souvenir of our sad affair.” (This same ring was subsequently paid for by Madame de Montano when she settled her fiancé’s mountainous debts.) “As we are face to face, and talk is better than letter-writing”—he paused, and she followed his glance to the pile of her unopened letters on his writing-table—“I may as well tell you straight that our marriage is out of the question. My people object to the match, and my uncle, the cardinal, from whom I have great expectations, would leave me out of his will.”
“I was told last night, but I didn’t believe it, that you are going to marry a rich American who is staying at this hotel,” she answered, with flashing eyes.
“Bosh!” was his non-committal reply.
“And all this has happened within ten days. Only ten days ago you vowed that you loved me more than anything on earth,” and she burst into loud sobs.
It is painful to add that the Prince was wholly unmoved by her emotion, being thoroughly well accustomed to similar scenes, although he had hitherto never approached so closely to the perilous chasm of matrimony. His heart was tear-proof—as a stone—he was naturally impatient and callous, and devoutly wished his visitor at the bottom of the sea.
“Here, my dear Noonie, you must dry your eyes—our affair is ended. There’s someone coming, and you must go. Our friendship has been too delightful, but, of course, I can’t fight against my family,” and with a tender kiss on her streaming face, he hustled the sobbing girl out of the apartment.
One had only to look at Noonie, as she reappeared among her friends, to realize that all was over. Her acquaintances were indignant—one does not like to see one’s own compatriot jilted and cast aside by a foreigner—prince, or otherwise.
The Marquise de Roche Corbon closed her doors upon the faithless one. Mrs. Watkin cut him dead. His only friend in the Hôtel Imaginaire appeared to be Mrs. Bohun (his cousin), who vainly endeavoured to console Noonie.
For some days Noonie did not appear. At night she stole down with her friend Mrs. Dene and walked about the garden in the dusk, and they engaged a private sitting-room where they took their meals. It was certainly a sad time for Armine, who was compelled to listen to Noonie’s incessant outpourings and lamentations. The trousseau and wedding-dress, though not required, had to be paid for all the same. Altogether it was a shocking business. Several kind-hearted girls would have sympathized with Noonie, and especially Daphne, but she would have none of it, and repudiated all advances with a rudeness that was positively fierce.
The breaking off of the match between Miss Webb and Prince Cressenti was not the only sensation at the Hôtel Imaginaire. By a curious coincidence, some time after his letter had been received by Noonie Mrs. Bohun’s place was vacant—Mrs. Pace had got her wish! Once more she had the little table to herself. But where was her late companion? Echo answered, Where? She had departed without paying her bill, and it was whispered had been seen in the early morning carrying two heavy suit-cases down the avenue!
Subsequently all trace of her was lost. The luggage she left behind was opened and found to contain nothing but rubbish, soiled evening dresses, worn-out shoes, packs of cards, dozens of French novels—one or two empty brandy bottles! The police were put on her trade, but undoubtedly the fugitive was an old hand and had effected her escape. Mrs. Pace was so dreadfully mortified by these disclosures that she departed without adieux, and moved off to an obscure hotel at Bordighera.
Noonie had been so completely shattered by her own troubles that the news of Mrs. Bohun’s departure had little effect upon her—she was always thinking of the Prince. But one day a gleam of memory reminded her of the emerald pendant. There was no doubt that the adventuress—her so-called friend—had stolen and pawned this in order to provide a means of escape. Here came one trouble on top of another! How was she to tell Dina that she had lent her one and only jewel to the adventuress, and that this had been stolen, so to speak, and of its whereabouts there was no trace? However, the confession had to be made. With tears and sobs and apologies, Noonie related her tale and blamed herself with her usual abandon.
“Of course I know that I can never replace your beautiful pendant, but I’ll pay its full value—even if I have to sell my string of pearls!”
“I won’t take money for it, thank you,” said Armine, who, though very white and grave, was not nearly as angry as her charge had feared. She made no scene, but her very quietness impressed the girl far more than a passionate outbreak.
“I shall tell the police about it, of course,” said Noonie. “Offer a reward and get them to hunt for it high and low.”
“I’m sure you’ll do what you can, Noonie, but I’ve no hope of ever seeing the pendant again. No doubt Mrs. Bohun has sold it to someone for a quarter of its value, and it has been carried off into Italy or Spain. I’m sorry, I must confess, for it was just my last link with the days that are no more.”
After her interview with the Prince, Noonie’s hopes waned and died. She lay prostrated on a couch, limp, hopeless, helpless, or sat for hours in the window of her sitting-room, a forlorn figure, staring vacantly upon the sea; everything connected with Noonie was on an extravagant scale, including her emotions, which were fortunately of a transient character. Nothing that Mrs. Dene could say, or urge, had the smallest effect in consoling her stricken charge. Great had been her rise, and terrible her fall! How could she go downstairs and face the acquaintances whom she had snubbed and overwhelmed with her airs of superiority and condescension in the character of a future princess? Therefore for one whole week she remained perdue, in a condition of semi-collapse. Mrs. Dene, sincerely distressed, took anxious counsel with Mrs. Watkin, and wise Mrs. Watkin said:
“Fancy the girl taking it like this! Where is her pride? Another would have faced the world, and made no sign; but I’m afraid there’s none of the Spartan boy and fox about Noonie Webb. Does she still cry all night?”
“Most of the night, until she falls asleep from sheer exhaustion. I’m obliged to have her in my room.”
“Oh, poor you! No wonder you are looking fagged. Daphne has been quite anxious. The best thing to do with the girl is to get her away at once.”
“I’ve thought of that, but she refuses to move. Her infatuation is such that she declares that, if she cannot see the Prince, she will at least be near him!”
Mrs. Webb had, of course, been written to, and informed that the proposed alliance between her daughter and a prince had come to nothing—a difference of religion was the alleged reason for this disappointment. Not very long after the dispatch of the letter Mrs. Dene was surprised to receive a note by hand, from Mrs. Webb, and was informed that the gentleman who had brought it was waiting to see her in the drawing-room.
He proved to be a fine, handsome, athletic-looking Australian, who, advancing with outstretched hand, said in a drawling voice:
“My name is Webb. My cousin’s wife, Mrs. Webb, in London, gave me a note for you when I told her I was coming out here, and said I was to look you up, and her girl, and take you round and give you a good time.”
“Won’t you sit down?” said Mrs. Dene, a little bewildered. This was the first she had heard of any relations on Mr. Webb’s side of the house.
“When did you arrive?” she inquired.
“Late last night, and I’m putting up in this hotel. My father and Tom Webb were cousins, and he went out to Melbourne forty years ago, and, being a ‘live’ man, in some way or other made a pile of money. It’s a little way the Webbs have,” and he laughed and showed his fine white teeth. “I’ve been a bushman, and I love the open-air life, but my father has whipped me in to work at his business, which is wool. And I’ve come home to have a look at the old country—and maybe to take back a wife. So now you know all about me,” and he threw himself back in his chair, thrust his hands into his pockets, and stared exhaustively at his companion; it was the first time he had met a pretty woman with white hair.
Jack Webb was, considering his ancestry and hard, laborious life, of a surprising type. He had the clear-cut profile of an Apollo Belvedere—delicate nostrils, short upper lip, small ears, complete; beside this, a head of fair hair, with a natural wave, and a pair of deep-set blue eyes. His figure was well proportioned and graceful. If she had beheld him standing on the steps of a throne Mrs. Dene would not have been surprised.
“I don’t much look as if I’d come from the back blocks, do I?” he remarked. “But, all the same, it’s a true bill. No one knows how our cast of features got into our branch of the family, for the ordinary Webb nose is like one of my cousin’s early rose potatoes; but, in spite of my high-class profile, I’ve the use of my hands, and I back myself to break a horse, or fell a tree, with most young fellows of my age and size.”
“No doubt you could,” said Armine with a smile. “And now, if you’ll allow me, I’ll read Mrs. Webb’s letter.”
“Of course; and, if you’ll allow me, I’ll light a cigarette.”
Smoking was not permitted in the drawing-room, but for once there must be an exception in favour of this handsome colonial.
Armine opened Mrs. Webb’s dispatch, which was written in her usual scratchy, uneducated scrawl:
“I’ve heard from Noonie, as well as yourself. I’m not troubling, for somehow I was never set on a foreigner, and I saw by his letter to me he was keen after money. So Noonie is taking on most awfully. I wouldn’t have believed my girl would be such a fool—it must be something in the Webbs. And, talking of Webbs, the young man who will give you this note called to see me and was uncommonly pleasant and polite. His father, Joe Webb, has a great sheep run in Australia, and made what’s called a ‘pile’ in wool. This young man is his eldest son, and has come over to have a look round before he settles. As he was going out to the south of France for a little fling, I’ve given him your address, and I hope he and Noonie will make friends. I’ve told him about the Prince business—as a secret—and he says he would like to wring the fellow’s neck. However, I think the less said and done about the affair the better. I suppose you and Noonie will be home an about a month. Do not let on to her that the young man knows about her trouble. When they get chummy, she’ll tell him herself.
“Mary Ann Webb.”
At first Noonie angrily and absolutely refused to receive her cousin, but Mrs. Dene insisted, saying:
“I shall bring him here, whether you like it or not. A visitor will cheer you up! He’s uncommonly good looking, and ten times more of a man than your Prince. Do go to your room, put on a fresh blouse, and fix up your hair. I’ll bring your cousin in ten minutes.”
When Mrs. Dene arrived in the sitting-room, accompanied by young Webb, Noonie had not disappeared, but with her hair rearranged, a change of dress, some powder on her face, and seated with her back to the light, was not quite such a deplorable spectacle as she had been half an hour previously. Her cousin the Australian, who was supremely at his ease, gave her a hearty greeting, and in an extraordinary short time the two were conversing with a certain amount of animation respecting the motor-boat races, a view of which was commanded from Noonie’s sitting-room. It was speedily arranged that the new-found relation was to share the ladies’ table at meals, and a rather shamefaced Noonie reappeared in the restaurant, attended by this stalwart, handsome young man. On this occasion she motioned him into her own seat, and placed herself with her back to the company. After dinner the pair strolled into the garden where they smoked and talked; and it was not long before impulsive Noonie had confided the tale of her woes to a sympathetic listener.
“I’ll go over and shoot him, if you like?” he remarked as they sauntered along between the mimosa trees.
“No, you must not go near him, for although he has treated me so cruelly his memory will always be sacred. I could never care for anyone else!”
“I’m sorry you’re taking it like this, Cousin Noonie. I can’t say much about English girls, but I can tell you that one of our lot would have turned her back upon such a rotten scoundrel and thrown him clean out of her mind for ever.”
“Easier said than done!” murmured Noonie.
“Where’s your backbone? Where’s your pluck?” he demanded. “Why don’t you show him, and all the world, that you don’t care a brass button about him?”
“But I do care,” she sobbed.
“Then, excuse my saying it, but the more fool you! You are wasting your days, your health and your affection on a fortune-hunting foreign scoundrel.”
It was all very fine for Jack Webb to talk in this style, and it must be confessed that he talked sense, but before he left home for the Old Country he had had a serious conversation with his long-headed father, who said:
“Now, Jack, my boy, I needn’t tell you that you’re a good-looking fellow, a well set-up, straight-living young man, with money in your pocket. Don’t let any of those dancers or fly-by-nights make a fool of you. Bring back a healthy, English girl, who can, if necessary, turn her hand to a job on the run and has a bit of money in her pocket. Talking of money, there’s my cousin’s daughter; the old fellow left a good pile, something like one hundred and twenty thousand pounds, they say; so before you venture anything in the matrimonial line I’d advise you to look her up. She won’t be a beauty, I’m thinking. I remember seeing her mother when she was engaged to Joe. It struck me that she was uncommonly plain about the head, but of course that was Joe’s affair.”
Jack Webb was a level-headed, ambitious young man; his father’s advice had sunk into receptive soil, hence his visit to Mrs. Webb, and subsequent trip to Mentone.
It was amazing how soon Noonie cheered up. Jack hired a car, a fine Rolls-Royce, and took Mrs. Dene and Noonie for several expeditions. In the company of this handsome cousin she was actually able to support the sight of the Prince and his American fiancée flying past in the well-known white car. Then young Webb had an inspiration; he suggested he should take a week’s trip into Italy, accompanied by Noonie and her chaperon.
“It’s a splendid idea,” said Mrs. Watkin when the scheme was laid before her. “It’ll make a nice break and heal Noonie’s wounds. She’s not a young woman of lasting affections. I think a run from here to Genoa, Milan and Como would be delightful. We can engage an extra large car, and I will accompany you. I should like the excursion, and I’ll keep you company; thus we’ll leave the two young people to improve their acquaintance, and possibly fall in love. Looking at the situation with the eye of experience, I think the Australian means business, and Noonie, with her fine constitution, her good temper and her common sense, not to speak of her fortune, will make a very suitable wife for a colonial. This jilting by the Prince—in the face of all her little world—will have a salutary effect upon her character. She will no longer cherish such an exaggerated opinion of her own importance, and I’m thankful to see that she has given up her strut and her detestable habit of walking on her heels.”
The expedition to Como promptly took place, and proved to be an unqualified success. The quartette were absent for nearly ten days, and Noonie and her cousin Jack were actually engaged, though this was not to be given out publicly. An evening stroll beyond Tremezzo had settled the matter—half the love-making was done by the moon. The young lady realized that a decent amount of time should elapse before the announcement was made public; it was only a few weeks since she had exhibited to all admiring friends the Prince’s engagement ring, which she still retained.
As soon as the party had arrived at the Hôtel Imaginaire, removed a little of their dust, and had been refreshed with tea, Major Lynch drew Mrs. Watkin aside, and, with impressive solemnity, said:
“Look here, here’s a nice business! What do you think? That fellow Brakespeare has arrived! He is putting up with the Blenkinsops at the Hôtel des Indes. Of course, he hasn’t the foggiest idea that his wife is in Mentone; and now we shall have a pretty kettle of fish!”
Deserting the little gathering at the Hôtel Imaginaire, we turn to another country, and a not unimportant individual—that is to say, Major Gordon Brakespeare, known among his associates and comrades as “G. B.” The Brakespeares were what is called “Qui Hyes,” or “an old Indian family,” Generation after generation had served in the Army, or the Civil Service; arriving as young men, they usually married, settled down, and dispatched their children to be educated at home; the sons, as they grew up, stepping, so to speak, into their father’s shoes, the Brakespeare daughters, who enjoyed a reputation for good looks, being duly imported, and married off, more or less satisfactorily.
Major Brakespeare had no brothers, but one sister, and a scanty supply of connexions and cousins. His father had been a general in the Indian Army, and when Gordon was seven years old he was sent home—a handsome, sturdy little boy, with a fiery temper, a high courage and a fluent flow of the Hindustani language. Subsequently he passed through the usual regime—Preparatory School, Public School, Sandhurst. During all these years his father had never set foot in England, but his mother returned on many occasions and with the most transparent excuse.
Young Brakespeare and his father were, therefore, unknown to one another, and this is one of the tragedies of Indian life. He related to a friend how extraordinary his sensations were when, early one bitter autumn morning in the Punjab (where it can be cold), he was rattled up in a tonga to the general’s quarters, shown in and received by an absolute stranger—an elderly man, clad in a cashmere dressing-gown.
Brakespeare senior and Brakespeare junior shook hands undemonstratively, had chota-hazri together, and exchanged stilted commonplaces respecting the weather, the railways and the price of horses; but they had little in common, and General Brakespeare, as he looked out from under his heavy brows with a glance of critical curiosity, wondered what sort of a hand this good-looking new-comer, his son and heir, would make of his life. He was a Brakespeare in appearance, clear-cut features, a spare, active figure, and a somewhat square jaw. As their frigidity thawed, he gathered that Gordon, like the rest of his family, was keen on soldiering, horses and sport. At the present moment he was attached to a British regiment, but he hoped in a couple of years to exchange into the Indian Cavalry.
“Of course, the usual programme is for me to take you on as my aide-de-camp,” said his father. “But I don’t think this would suit either of us. In my opinion, a general should never have his relations about him, for no matter how straight he is, or how honourable his intentions, he will always be accused of partiality and dealing out soft jobs.”
“No, sir,” said the young man. “Making lists of precedence and writing dinner invitations would not be in my line.”
“I suppose you can play polo?”
“I’m not much good yet.”
“Well, I’ve never been in the way of shooting, as you may suppose, though I’m mad keen about it and have brought out a couple of guns. But so far the largest animal I’ve shot has been a hare.”
“I’ll soon change all that,” announced the general. “I was a great Shikari once upon a time, and have sixty fine tigers to my credit, but that’s an old story now. My sight is not what it was, and I am stiff in the joints; sometimes I read over my old diaries and wonder if I can be the same man.” He paused for a moment, and then continued: “I’ll arrange for you to join a little party that is shortly going into Nepaul; there you’ll see real sport. Oh, when I think of the rides at dawn, the thrusting through the tall jungle, the shouts of the beaters, and the marked-down tiger, I envy you, my boy, from the bottom of my heart. The craze for shooting and sport absorbed all my interest outside my profession. I believe it was by a mere accident that I met and married your mother. I was keen upon mahseer fishing, ibex stalking and tiger shooting. Sport to me meant the chief end of my existence—the rest was a mere sideshow. It’s likely enough that you will inherit some of this mania, for I remember as a small child how crazy you were after fishing. Let me offer you one word of warning: don’t give yourself over to it, body and soul, as I did! Don’t let it devour the whole of your energies, save what you can spare for the Service. When I look back there are certain things that reproach me. I confess that I neglected my domestic life; it was really in the hills and jungles that I felt at home. Your mother naturally resented this, and as years went on she spent more and more of her time up in Simla—or for choice, England. Of course, you have seen a good deal of her the last year or two.”
“Yes,” assented his son.
“One of these days I shall be retired with K.C.B.; she will be Lady Brakespeare, and we must set up a joint home in Bournemouth or Cheltenham and endeavour to make the best of a cold hearth,” and he strangled an involuntary sigh.
As it happened, Lady Brakespeare was left a widow before long. Within two years the monotonous existence of club and newspaper had put an end to the old Shikari—he had lived upon his past, and when that past began to fade he died. His praises were sung in the Pioneer and other papers as a first-class soldier, and one of the finest shots that had ever been known an India; to Bournemouth he was merely another old Indian who had taken his off-reckonings and had been summoned to the great reckoning of all.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brakespeare had joined a regiment of Bengal Cavalry, where he found himself in wonderful sympathy with both officers and men. He was a finished horseman, and Hindustani, which he had imbibed as an infant, returned with amazing facility. Expressions picked up when he had occasionally (and secretly) visited the horse-lines with his bearer, now came out with startling force. He was remarkably good-looking, like all his race, and presented a distinguished appearance in his blue and gold turban and handsome uniform, had the makings (said the commanding officer) of a fine cavalry soldier, played polo and rode races, but was not a ladies’ man, although he attended the balls in the station and did his share of flirting and dancing. His heart remained untouched—his heart, like that of his father, was devoted to sport—sport was in his blood, and whenever he could snatch a few days’ leave he was off to jheel, river, or jungle.
The death of the general brought a change in Brakespeare’s so-called fortunes. To the astonishment of his family, the old gentleman left a considerable amount of money in various first-class securities, Indian or European. Besides his flair for sport, Brakespeare senior was greatly drawn towards speculations on the Stock Exchange. Incredible to relate, he had not come to shipwreck. His own inferences, also the help of a clever Parsee merchant, had been chiefly instrumental in his success, and Gordon Brakespeare found that he was a richer man by nearly a thousand a year. He had investments in coal mines, land, jute mills, railways, electrical works—for his parent was not one who put all his eggs into one basket—and many of these eggs were golden.
Soon after the news of his father’s death, Brakespeare took leave to England, to wind up business incidental to the fact of being residuary legatee, and to console his mother. To tell the bare-faced truth, Lady Brakespeare was not in need of consolation it was a painful fact that the death of her lord and master represented a distinct relief. There would now be no gaunt figure roaming the house at unearthly hours, calling for his “chota-hazri”; nor would there be the same man in evening dress, pacing the dining-room, watch in hand, and demanding “what the devil had happened to dinner?”—no abrupt or morose interruptions to her bridge teas, or gruff reception of her most important guests. At last she was her own mistress, and the mistress of a fine jointure, thanks to the activities of the late K.C.B.
Brakespeare found a residence with his mother somewhat tedious and irksome. In spite of his protestations, she would sit-up for him at night, and imperiously commanded his presence at her teas and bridge parties. So he gladly accepted the offer of a friend to fish in Ireland. Together they rented a bit of the Blackwater, and anticipated the usual first-class sport. Alas! it was poor Brakespeare himself who was played, caught and landed! His companion, Major Kelly, who knew the whole neighbourhood, dragged him, greatly against his will, to a tennis party and dance. However, he said to himself, as it was a blazing hot day and the fish were not rising, he supposed that he might as well be there as anywhere else. Among the crowd of countrified matrons, parsons and callow young people his attention was instantly attracted by the most beautiful girl he had ever seen; on inquiry this proved to be a certain Miss Doyle. The beauty had a dazzling complexion, lovely dark eyes, and a nymph-like figure. Brakespeare begged to be presented, and his chains were instantly riveted. The young lady had an enchanting smile, a flow of easy small talk, and an evident appreciation of his company. She played in the set of tennis as his opponent, and he had excellent opportunities of admiring her agility and grace. In the evening at the dance he had the good fortune to secure her as his partner on three occasions. She was a first-rate performer, and informed him that she had been three years at an English school and loved dancing. Anyone with half an eye could see that his partner was exceedingly popular—young men closed round her, clamouring for dances, and no wonder! She was so natural and so gay, and made a delightful picture in a simple white dress, with a few red roses pinned into the corsage. Truly a case of Beauty unadorned.
When the dance came to a conclusion and he had assisted Mrs. and Miss Doyle into a shabby “jingle,” Brakespeare returned home with his friend, making a very poor companion. His conversation was limited to “yes” and “no”—the only topic that aroused him to animation was the subject of Miss Doyle; with regard to this young lady and her history, his curiosity was insatiable. He learned that Armine was the only child of the Rector of Knockcullen, a small and poor parish, Mr. Doyle, a cast-iron individual by no means popular, who lived among his books.
Most people were sorry for Armine Doyle—even women with daughters—and the kindly matrons put all the pleasure that they possibly could in the girl’s way.
“But she is very easily pleased,” said Brakespeare’s friend, “and is just as happy playing croquet with a couple of old maids as dancing with you or me!”
“Then she has never had a love affair?”
“Love affair!” and Major Kelly laughed. “In the first place, ‘there are no men to govern in this wood’—only curates, Trinity boys, and old fogies; and secondly, she’s but just eighteen, and here we are—come along and have a smoke and a peg.”
This Brakespeare declined, declaring that he was played out between the unusual exertion of tennis and dancing, and, with this lame excuse, retired to his own apartment where, strange and unusual fact, he lay wide awake all night—the beautiful Armine Doyle had murdered sleep.
Although the day after the dance was ideal for salmon fishing, Brakespeare insisted that his friend should motor him over to call at Knockcullen Rectory, the home of Miss Doyle.
The Rectory was a mean little house with, a pretentious glass porch, situated on the edge of an untidy lawn, and backed by an absurdly large amount of barns and outhouses, also a vast walled garden. There was a tradition that once upon a time a fine old mansion had stood on the foundations of the present humbler habitation. The door, as is usual in Ireland, stood wide open, and the visitors received with considerable suspicion by a red Irish terrier, who had been asleep in a chair. After repeated ringings, an elderly woman came into the hall in the act of tying on a clean apron, and informed the gentlemen that Mrs. Doyle was within, and ushered them to the drawing-room. This was a large, shabby apartment, overlooking a small well-tended pleasure ground. The carpet was threadbare, the wallpaper faded and marked where pictures had been and were not; chairs and sofas had seen their best days, but there was an open piano, a fine old Spanish cabinet, a case of well-bound books, and a profusion of beautifully arranged flowers which seemed to say: “Don’t mind the shabby carpet and the patched white curtains, but look at us!”
The two men had fully ten minutes in which to absorb their surroundings, before Mrs. Doyle made her appearance. The maid had not asked for their names, and she was a good deal astonished and gratified to recognize in the visitors two of Armine’s partners, and the surprise made her flush in a becoming fashion.
As they greeted her, Brakespeare could, in that worn face, discern traces of what had once been a remarkably pretty woman. Now and then, as she talked of last night’s dance, her attention wandered, and her eyes were nervously fixed on the door. Presently it opened and admitted Miss Doyle, in a simple home-made muslin of a pale lilac shade; to tell the truth, it had suffered in the wash, but it suited her admirably; she exhaled a sort of springlike freshness, and looked radiant, not a pin the worse for her unusual dissipation.
After Miss Doyle had shaken hands with the guests, she said, as she sat down:
“I’ve just been in the pantry, cleaning the silver. We have a quantity, so it’s rather a big job. It is never seen, so I tell mother that some day it will be missing. I shall sell it, and buy lots of things that we want—for instance, a pony.”
“So then,” said Brakespeare’s friend, “I suppose old Methusalem is dead at last?”
“No, not quite; he just manages to draw father to church on Sundays, and that—like the Sexton’s—is his job for the week. Young Mr. Blake has offered to lend us such a beautiful four-year-old, but mother says ‘No.’ She often says ‘No’ to my projects.”
“Certainly I say ‘No’ to Mr. Blake’s four-year-old. You are such a reckless rider and driver that the chances are you’d break his knees—if not your neck.”
After this there was some animated discussion respecting the dance, and then, in the midst of an argument regarding the number of waltzes on the programme, the door was flung open, and the Reverend Dominick Doyle made his appearance; a thin upright individual with iron-grey hair, and a pair of hostile eyes that transfixed his guests. His presence put an immediate end to all sociability, as he had imported from his study an air of Arctic constraint. He questioned the men about the fishing, discussed the weather, and then relapsed into dead silence, folding his arms and crossing his legs as if he were a desperately bored member on some political platform. The visitors took the hint—obviously their host preferred their “room to their company.” They were not invited to remain to tea, and as they rose to depart Brakespeare’s friend was thunderstruck to hear him say:
“My host and I are going to give a big picnic this week. I hope, Mrs. Doyle, you and Miss Doyle will be able to honour us?”
Before she could reply, her husband interposed:
“There’s a Sunday school treat and the choir excursion that will take all your time.”
Then Brakespeare, not to be disheartened, said:
“If you let me know what day you will be disengaged I shall arrange the picnic for that date.”
“Oh, Captain Brakespeare, this is too great a compliment,” protested Mrs. Doyle. “You overwhelm me.”
“Will you write, or shall I come over and find out?”
“I will write,” glancing at her husband who glowered upon her. “Just now our time is very much engaged—choir treat and mothers’ outing—and I’m not sure that we can accept.”
“At least I depend on you to fix a day,” and so saying, Brakespeare took an impressive leave of the lady and her daughter, accorded his host a curt bow, and marched out.
As the friends drove off, Major Kelly said:
“Did you ever see such a forlorn, God-forsaken place? That girl is a prisoner with the old tyrant for her jailer. I believe he keeps her to copy out his scrawl, and to do the work of a housemaid. He’s just the actual embodiment of selfish tyranny, and for all his white tie, a hard and inhuman man.”
“He looks it,” said Brakespeare briefly.
“And about this picnic?” inquired his friend. “You were not serious?”
“Yes—a sudden happy thought.”
“You are giving it for Armine Doyle?”
“Yes, I want to see more of her.”
“Well, she certainly is a vision of loveliness, and by all accounts, as good as she looks. Mrs. Doyle is a woman of family, who married Doyle in the teeth of opposition, and now she’s paying for it! All the old silver the girl was cleaning, and the cabinets, books and pictures, came from her side of the house.”
“And are worth a lot, I should say. I’m surprised they have not been turned into coin of the realm!”
“Yes, I fancy the Doyles are badly off. Mrs. Doyle scraped and saved to send her daughter to a good school, and now she has her reward in a way. The girl is devoted to her mother, but they both go in abject fear of the Rector—a monster of selfishness. It’s pathetic to think of that child being under his hoof.”
“She won’t be there long,” said Brakespeare, “if I have anything to say to it.”
“Oh, Lord!” exclaimed his companion. “You don’t mean that it’s as serious as all that?”
“Yes; the moment I saw her at the tennis party I said to myself: ‘I shall marry Armine, or no one.’”
“Well, I wish you luck! Remember she’s very young, and has seen nothing of the world—and you—let me see—you’ve been knocking about for the last ten years. Close on thirty, as I’m a sinner, and a hardened worldling!”
It was not long before the whole neighbourhood realized that Captain Brakespeare, who was so good-looking and such a splendid parti, was distractedly in love with Armine Doyle. What a match! Yet wiseacres had vowed that a girl of such exceptional beauty would not long adorn the neighbourhood. He went over to the Rectory on the flimsiest pretence, absolutely regardless of the Rector’s studied rudeness—and of his own fishing. He angled boldly, but rarely with success, for invitations to visit the garden, and remain to tea. In due time his picnic took place with great éclat. He hired an empty country house, got a band and refreshments down from Cork, and did the whole thing in what was declared to be tip-top style.
In less than a month Captain Brakespeare was engaged to Armine Doyle, who was in the seventh heaven of happiness. She was nearly as much in love with him as he was with her. There had been an interview with the Rector, in which Brakespeare was called upon to state his means, and submit, so to speak, his references. The Rector was fiercely adverse to the match, and resisted it in every way, though it was undeniably good from a worldly point of view. The girl was useful to him, and India was full of snakes, and cholera, and divorcées; also, who was to copy his MS., write his notes, look up texts, and iron his surplice? He would miss the girl—indeed so would the whole neighbourhood, who deplored her departure with one voice.
Brakespeare took his bride-elect over to Bournemouth in order to make her known to his mother, also to one or two of the Bournemouth dressmakers. Lady Brakespeare was delighted with her son’s choice, was excessively proud of her beauty and charm, and exhibited her at her teas and tiffins with much complacency. She gave considerable help to the trousseau and outfit, and also endowed her future daughter-in law with a considerable amount of advice with regard to India, a country which all the same she abhorred.
“Don’t,” she said, “let your bazaar bill stand for over a week—pay it promptly to your Khansamah, and then he will not have time to elaborate swindles. Pay your shop bills once a month. Return calls promptly. Do not allow your dirzee to lend out patterns of your dresses. Most important of all, do not allow your husband to go off on long shooting trips; try and keep him busy and amused at home. Once a man is seriously bitten with the big game craze it’s a bad business for the wife—he is lost to her for ever.”
Lady Brakespeare also endowed her future daughter-in-law with some useful and valuable gifts, and Armine returned to Ireland accompanied by these, and her trousseau.
The one and only drawback to her perfect happiness was that she was forsaking her beloved mother, who would be left alone with the Rector, her husband, whose yoke was heavy. All Armine’s tasks would now fall on her weak and shrinking shoulders. Unfortunately there was no help for this, and Mrs. Doyle was a willing sacrifice.
In the month of October there was a very plain wedding, in a very crowded church, and Captain Brakespeare carried his eighteen-year-old bride away to India.
To Armine Brakespeare the station of Chotapore represented nothing more or less than an earthly Elysium. Brakespeare was uncommonly popular, and his lovely bride was welcomed on all sides, not only for his sake but her own. Everything was novel and delightful to this unsophisticated Irish girl of eighteen. In the first place there was her own home where she was mistress, and to the inmates, including her husband, her word was law. Here no harsh voice caused her to start, no dreaded footstep to tremble.
For the first few days after their arrival the new arrivals had been put up by one of Brakespeare’s brother officers, Captain Hamilton. He had a charming wife, a few years older than Armine, and the two girls were immediately drawn to one another. Nellie Hamilton had been born in India, knew all the ways and customs, or thought she did, of this ancient and mysterious country. She gave the bride much valuable advice, and steered her tottering footsteps through many pitfalls. She saw to mosquito curtains and mattresses, procured good, reliable servants—with no fancy “chits”—attended her to the bazaar and Europe shops, and helped her to collect furniture; she engaged two or three dirzees to make up yards of lovely chintz that Armine had brought from England, and altogether proved herself to be a treasure; she indicated to this inexperienced girl the people she was to know slightly and those she was to be friends with, and also gave her instructions on the subject of precedence, adding:
“Although I’m five years older and have been married for ages, I have to walk into a room after you at official affairs, as ‘G. B.’ is a good bit senior to my Tom.”
The task of arranging and settling into their bungalow was a delightful experience to both the Brakespeares—here was his first taste of domestic life, hers of any life at all. They unpacked and set out their wedding presents, consulted as to what they should use, what “exchange,” and what they should put away. He worked with extraordinary industry, hanging pictures and curtains, altering and re-altering the furniture, and doing odds and ends of carpentry; being anxious to have everything absolutely perfect when the station came to call upon his bride. In the opinion of the station, the most perfect thing in the Brakespeare bungalow was the lady herself, who achieved instant and extraordinary success. She was uncommonly pretty, so young, so natural, so keenly interested in everything—even the local insects! Hers was truly a sunny soul. Brakespeare was extremely proud of the sensation caused by his wife, and did not, like other husbands, slink meanly out, when visitors arrived, but stood his ground like a man.
After the visits came entertainments; there was tennis at the club every evening, and early morning rides. In her own veranda at chota-hazri this new and brilliant star held a sort of court; numbers of Brakespeare’s brother officers dropped in to have a cup of orange pekoe and a bit of buttered toast. At dances Mrs. Brakespeare was surrounded by would-be partners, and during her rides had, besides her husband, what almost amounted to a royal escort.
Naturally at first there was a certain amount of talk and envious criticism. Who was this girl, the daughter of a penniless Irish parson? She made use of strange Irish expressions, she was impulsive and inclined to be a little rash, but, after all, was still a child in many ways, and her beauty was of a type that placed her apart, and really above the plane of jealousy and rancour.
She and Brakespeare were ideally happy; they gardened, they went round their pets, they rode—he had given her a perfect mount and proffered riding lessons; but he soon discovered that these were unnecessary. In some mysterious way (common to Irish people) Armine, late of Knockcullen Rectory, knew a good deal about horses, and soon developed into a bold and proficient equestrienne. Armine was so happy, she desired to share her lot with those at home. It would have added immensely to her enjoyment if she could have had her mother with her and a few of her best girl-friends sprinkled about Chotapore. She wrote long letters, and dispatched well-chosen presents. She would have been specially glad of her mother’s company when the baby arrived. It was a little disappointment that the infant was not a boy, but she made up in some degree for this by being sensationally pretty. People would stop on the Mall and ask her majestic Ayah, “Whose is this baby?” To which the proud answer was given, “Captain Brakespeare’s and Mrs. Brakespeare’s,” and then the infant would be exhibited.
After a while Daphne proved to be rather delicate and liable to fever, and the doctor recommended, as the warm weather was approaching, that she should be removed to the hills. No doubt this was an absolute necessity, but it was the beginning of the end of the Brakespeares’ unalloyed happiness. Brakespeare took two months’ leave and escorted his wife and daughter to a cool station. Armine was enchanted with the deodars, the rhododendrons, the snows, the wood-fires and the queer squat hill-people, who carried enormous loads on their backs and wore great uncut junks of turquoise. Brakespeare, for his part, was unable to share her ecstasies—as far as he was concerned their attractions were played out and stale—for it had been his habit as a bachelor to spend most of his leave in these Capuas of the Himalayas.
After a month of dances and gymkhanas he was decoyed by another officer to go down to the Sardar River to fish for mahseer, and remained absent till within a week of the termination of his leave. Armine grumbled to her friend, Nellie Hamilton, but Nellie, a more experienced matron, said :
“My dear, you must give them all a bit of rope sometimes. They love getting away from Society out into the real wilds and having some sport. After they have enjoyed a little fling they are all the more pleased to come home.”
And to this sage pronouncement Armine bowed.
Every year the little girl Daphne had to be taken to the hills for as long a period as four or five months in order to escape the hot weather and the rains. This arrangement led to a certain amount of separation between Armine and Brakespeare. His stay with her grew shorter and shorter, his shooting trips longer and longer, and his dissatisfied wife said to herself that “Gordon was taking a lot of rope!”
One season he spent two months in the central provinces tiger shooting; on another occasion he went down to Travancore in search of bison; later he took part in a sensational elephant drive, and the worst of it was, that the more he shot the more he wanted to shoot. “L’appétit vient en mangeant.” The walls of their verandas and their bungalow were covered with heads, mostly extra-fine specimens, and his talk was chiefly of game and guns, and the enviable bag that So-and-so had secured in Burma or Tibet. His associates and correspondents were all keen sportsmen, all apparently as enthusiastic as himself. He no longer cared for bridge, dancing, or even tennis—save as a mode of exercise. Any time that he could spare from his regimental work was devoted to writing up his journal, corresponding with sportsmen, and even contributing to the Asian. He had now an established reputation of being one of the finest shots in India, and people hearing his name would say:
“Brakespeare? Oh, that’s the fellow who bagged ten tigers in a fortnight in C.P., and one of them the largest that has been known for years. They say the brute measured eleven feet.”
“I don’t believe it,” would reply an envious listener. “The skin was stretched in preparation.”
Although nothing was actually said, it began to be noticed that pretty Mrs. Brakespeare was now left very much to herself, as far as Brakespeare was concerned, yet apparently they were capital friends when on rare occasions they were seen together.
Brakespeare, who began with hill antelope and snow leopard, now devoted his energies to sport in higher latitudes, ibex, ovis ammon, and, above all, markhor, the head of the goat tribe, and the most difficult to stalk, a commanding beast with extraordinary twisted horns and an immense far-reaching beard.
One elderly colonel who had a long memory remarked over his pipe:
“Brakespeare is a first-class officer and a good fellow. He has a wife, like Caesar’s—and I’ve no doubt ten times better-looking. I hope to goodness that he’s not inclined to take after his father and count the world well lost for a pair of horns! If he does this, I don’t mind saying that there will be trouble—a grand smash!”
Unfortunately the grand smash, like the cloud the size of a man’s hand, was already looming on the horizon. Daphne had to a certain extent filled up the blank in her mother’s life, but when Daphne was ordered to England and figuratively torn from her mother’s arms, those arms were empty. Armine would roam about the bungalow feeling restless, unsettled and dissatisfied. First she would go to the piano and sing or play for a short time; then take up a book or a piece of embroidery and the of both; letter-writing was more to her taste—voluminous letters to her mother, to Daphne, and to her husband, who happened to be in Tibet stalking a famous goat. Should he bring down this unique head his fame was assured, for this particular pair of horns would represent to him his crown as a sportsman. Hitherto this notable animal had eluded all trackers; how many a long and weary mile had Brakespeare trodden, and without success. Once he actually got within range, but the quarry was too wary, and, maddening moment, vanished. This year his return was imminent, and Armine had made up her mind that the next time he went after the great markhor she would accompany him—although she had no interest in heads or skins. On the contrary, she detested both. The walls of the bungalow and the verandas were covered with splendid trophies, and before some of these, this impulsive Irish girl would pause and shake her fist; sport she considered horribly cruel—why not allow these poor creatures to enjoy their short lives instead of risking one’s own neck and living beyond the bounds of civilization for months; and what of the wounded, abandoned to die starving and in agony? At least she would beg off some of Gordon’s victims. Yes, she decided to accompany him on his next trip. His talk of freezing cold, dangerous climbing and hardships should not deter her. On the contrary! Anything was better than this great empty bungalow where there was no echo of a man’s voice, and no sound of little pattering feet. When Brakespeare’s annual leave became due, he had already made arrangements for Armine to accompany some old friends to Naini Tai, and put up at the same hotel. He broke this to her gently, and was met by a storm of protestations and the most impassioned entreaties to be allowed to accompany him for just once! But Brakespeare was adamant—appeals and persuasions were met with smiles and chaff. He was making a start within the week, and would be off before Armine and the Thornhills. His trusty followers had already assembled from hill villages, and Mofussil bazaars, well-trained baggage carriers, hardy hill men, and his two famous shikaris: Jafar, an elderly but wiry little fellow, with the keen steady eyes that only belong to the born hunter; Shardasa, a handsome thick-set Ghurwali, with gentle manners, who managed the coolies with unsurpassed dexterity; besides these, Brakespeare took with him a cook, bheestie, and body-servant. These latter retired to safety when progress grew too frightful; creeping along knife-edged ledges, crossing bottomless chasms on wire rope, or trembling on the brink of a sheer precipice was not their business, much less their pleasure.
Such was the party, from which, notwithstanding her Irish eloquence and lovely Irish eyes, Brakespeare debarred his wife. As one morning at daybreak she watched her husband and his long train of pack mules, ponies and followers file out of the compound, to begin their march towards black and barren hills, and the everlasting snows, Armine, despite Gordon’s promises and tender reassurances, could not restrain her tears. How she envied the wives whose husbands did not shoot, and preferred homes and companionship to arduous expeditions and the stalking of an ever-elusive old hill goat! Her heart burned within her when she dwelt on the subject and contrasted the lot of her next-door neighbour with her own.
No doubt Armine Brakespeare would not have felt so restless, discontented and bored, had her friend Nellie Hamilton been in the station; but, alas, Nellie had left for England a year previously, and there were no tidings of her return. On the other hand, she had a new acquaintance and so-called friend, a certain Mrs. Taylor, the cousin and contemporary of her husband. They had been brought up together as boy and girl, and Dora Taylor was devoted to Gordon Brakespeare; in her heart of hearts she had always hoped to marry him, but by degrees had realized that such felicity was out of her reach. If Gordon ever took a wife she must be very pretty and young; able to dance and ride and entertain his friends. Dora knew herself to be neither young nor pretty, and, being a sensible woman, made up her mind not to waste her life in pursuing an “ignis fatuus,” nor to, as farmers say, “overstand her market”; accordingly she married a middle-aged Indian civilian and accompanied him to India.
At first her head was dizzy with ambitious schemes. She had heard of women helping their husbands to lofty positions, and that much could be managed by flattering correspondence, artful diplomacy, and famous dinners; but she soon discovered that in the case of James Taylor her exertions were useless. He was one of those stolid, stubborn, self-centred blocks whom nothing could move, a log it was impossible to roll. He would not apply for interviews, he would not apply for promotion, he would remain in Batsu, where he had a few old friends, until it was time for him to take his pension and return to England to keep prize poultry; and the capability of a woman whose brains and will-force might have advanced her husband to high office was unfortunately wasted.
James hated “brass hats,” scarlet chuprassis, and functions, so what was the poor woman to do? She had no children, no particular resources, and Satan, noticing her idle hands, lost no time in finding her occupation. Dora was well-informed and clever, with a close-lipped mouth and dark secretive eyes. As she had a remarkably neat figure, and dressed with taste, she passed in a crowd as rather good-looking; indeed, she was one of those women who as time advanced, instead of robbing her of charms softened and improved her deficiencies. She was a busy, managing person, with a restless craving to be first, and among the ladies of the station was looked upon as a leader and authority, managing the tennis club, the poor whites’ clothing club, the mutton club, the book club; she bought and sold volumes, and gave oracular opinions as to the merits and demerits of a season’s output. Dora Taylor was a most excellent housekeeper, and made James Taylor very comfortable with trifling outlay; though a ready diner out, she rarely entertained—“her cook was sick” the usual excuse. She had a wonderful power of making use of people—here her stifled ambition found a narrow outlet; but in reality she was a disappointed, envious, embittered woman, the whole of whose heart and affections had been given to gay, indifferent Gordon Brakespeare.
A year previously Gordon’s regiment had been moved to the Taylors’ station, Batsu, in the Punjab. When they met at Batsu he hailed her with joy, and always treated her as a confidante and sister. The pair shared childhood’s memories; and besides this she was an authority on investments; he would consult her about stocks and things relating to his money affairs, subjects on which he never spoke to Armine. Dora made much of this, and when he brought off a coup was always flattered and important, and as far as Armine was concerned highly critical and superior. When she came to dinner Armine felt that her eyes were all over the place criticizing every item, from her evening dress, to the coffee. She would offer advice, which if it had come from anyone else would have been gladly accepted, but advice from Dora was ever unwelcome. Mrs. Taylor disapproved of some of Armine’s visitors, in her opinion Armine knew too many young men and was rather inclined to flirt. She had, what Mrs. Taylor described to a friend, “flirtatious eyes,” and she threw out a few hints not to mention carefully elaborated tales of Armine’s indiscretions to Armine’s husband.
“When you are away shooting,” she said, “those boys in the artillery and the Bannockburn regiment simply swarm into your bungalow at tea-time, and Armine sits in the middle of an immense circle keeping them in play!”
“That’s all right,” he assented. “It’s not often they have such a pretty girl to entertain them. You needn’t be trying to put ideas into my head, Dora—we all know that there’s safety in a multitude. However, I shall drop in now and then and sample the lot.”
Of late Brakespeare had realized that his charming girl wife had changed, she was no longer so impulsive, her attitude towards him had cooled. Her temper was always sweet and amiable, but he felt that, when in company together, her interest and attention did not, as in old times, constantly stray to him. He also was aware that the fame of her singing, her dancing, and her beauty had gone far beyond their own station, and it struck him with the force of a blow to learn that he was referred to, not merely as the supreme and deadly shot, but as “the husband of the beautiful Mrs. Brakespeare,” known far and wide as “The Light of Asia,” a light who had no desire to singe or destroy any of the many moths who fluttered round her flame. Armine, on her part, was sensible of the change between them. Gordon no longer took an interest in her poultry, her garden, her dogs, or, if he did, it was obviously assumed. He had got out of the way of enjoying the little local jokes, seldom attended her to a dance, and much of his time was spent in sorting cartridges, cleaning rifles, and curing skins and heads; the atmosphere of his own particular den was so strong and jungly—not to say overpowering—that instead of running in there half a dozen times a day as formerly Armine did not enter it for weeks.
The little rift between this married couple was not lost upon that lynx-eyed watcher Mrs. Taylor; she noticed with a woman’s merciless sharpness how Armine was hurt and offended by Gordon’s unnecessary absences, his vague excuses and somewhat casual attitude. He, on his side, resented the fact that for no earthly reason his pretty girl wife had altered, she was more reserved, more ceremonious, more what he would have called “grown-up.” She no longer ran out to meet him on his return from parade, he no longer saw her racing round the course with subalterns, or popping her chestnut over the railings. No, she had become staid and dignified, and sat at home in her cool and elegant drawing-room receiving the adoration of her numerous circle.
Like an exceedingly foolish man, instead of speaking to Armine herself, he broached the subject to his cousin. Here at last was the opening which Dora had so long and eagerly desired.
“So you find Armine a little formal and silent, do you? I think I can tell you the reason for that—her head has been turned. Believe me, she is not ‘the beautiful Mrs. Brakespeare’ for nothing, and is thoroughly alive to her social importance. When she was up in Simla invitations simply rained upon her. She dances delightfully, as you know, and was most particular and capricious as to who should and who should not be her partner. She was known up there as the aide-de-camp’s idol—some of them were in and out all day long. The Viceroy admired her enormously, and on the whole you can’t wonder if she is a bit above herself.”
And so Mrs. Taylor went on, pouring into her cousin’s ears unsupported assertions, half truths, and not a few spiteful lies. As the result of several conversations the breach between the Brakespeares widened. Armine was jealous of these interviews and of Mrs. Taylor’s influence generally over her husband. She felt injured when he would say:
“I’ll just run over and find out what old Dora has been doing with herself. I’ve not seen her for two or three days,” and then he would hurry off, and return late for dinner. Once he remained to share that meal with the Taylors, and Mrs. Taylor sent a “chit” inviting Armine to join them, and to contribute a course, but Armine dispatched a polite refusal, accompanied by an entrée of mutton cutlets and peas. (The Taylors lived close by.)
“I don’t know how it is,” said Brakespeare on his return, “why you and old Dora don’t seem to hit it off. She says she thinks no end of you.”
“That’s very kind of her, but in her heart she detests me—she is a cat, and I dislike her intensely.”
“I say, that’s bad news! I don’t see why you should dislike her. She’s always anxious to put you up to things and help you.”
“Only too ready. The other day when I gave a tennis party she received most of the guests, and although her husband has very fine pay, it is I who help her; she never seems to have anything in the way of stores. She borrows, and borrows, and borrows—anything from wine or a fish kettle to a dose of quinine, and never pays back!”
“You can’t expect the quinine to be returned,” he rejoined with a smile. “I believe she forgets.”
“I hope she won’t forget that she has got a dozen of my best silver teaspoons and a silver salver.”
“Have you anything against her besides the borrowing?”
“Yes, plenty! I know that she poses as a motherly elder sister, and as such tells me all the nasty, spiteful things that people say about me, and generally winds up” (mimicking Dora to the life), ‘Of course, dear, I wouldn’t tell you all this if I didn’t love you!’”
“What sort of things does she tell you?”
“Unpleasant remarks, such as Captain Hogarth is always riding with me and hanging about the bungalow—but I was at school with his sister—that Major Moreton is frantically in love with me, and his wife is so jealous that she is thinking of returning to England.”
“I see!” assented Brakespeare with a loud laugh, “so as to leave you a clear coast.”
“She says that I’m too reckless in my talk, and considered shockingly extravagant, and it has been noticed that I’ve had four new hats since Christmas!”
“What mischievous gossip, got up and originated by a pack of women who have nothing on earth to do.”
“Well, for that matter, Gordon, I haven’t anything to do either. After I’ve gardened a bit and interviewed the cook and practised a song or two, there remains the long, long India day to fill in somehow until it is time to go to tennis or for a ride. I do miss Daphne terribly, and Nellie Hamilton too. No one has come to take her place; there are Mrs. Sutton and Mrs. Duke, of course—all very well, but they can only talk of servants and children. When next you go away shooting—that, is if you are going away?”
“Promise that you’ll take me with you.”
“I never heard such nonsense, my dear girl. What put such a crazy idea into your pretty head?”
“I should like to see something more of India, more than just the ordinary station. I should love to climb up among the snows. You know I have a good head and am very hardy and active—I’d like an exciting experience. I think that where you could go I could go too, and I’m what is called ‘light on my feet.’”
For a moment Brakespeare surveyed her with, indulgent amusement, at last he said:
“My dear child, you don’t know what you are talking about, you’ve no idea of the real hardships we have to face day after day; the vile food, and little of that, the intense cold, the long and often useless marches; the desperate climbs, sometimes up the face of a sheer precipice, just crawling along like a beetle. No woman could do it, and I don’t believe that I could get through but for a sort of hunting-fever in my veins that literally drives me ahead, regardless of every obstacle. I promise you that if I can bag this markhor I shall ease off for good. I’ll take you on to Cashmere, where we shall have a ripping A1 time.”
“Yes, no doubt,” she assented, “but first you have to catch the markhor and put salt on his tail—if he has a tail.”
“Tail, by Jove! yes; I believe if I could get his head, the head of the king of all the goats, I should die happy! Dozens of crack shots have been after him, and the fellow still survives. He is unique, he hasn’t his match in the whole range of the Himalayas—he is famous.”
“And you would go through fire and water to get him?”
“I would so; as it is I’ve had some tremendous experiences,” he continued with unusual animation. “In following up his track I remember once, near the Chinese frontier, our road went round the face of a great rock, overhanging a river and ravine two thousand feet below. Originally the path had been laid on boards, and these were on stakes driven into the mountain. This track was dilapidated and alarmingly wobbly, and the sheer wall of rock afforded no handhold. All of a sudden I came to a place where the boards were gone, and there was a wide chasm between me and the next foothold. Impossible to turn back, it was a case of either fall in—which meant a fall into the river below—or get over. Well, I thought of the markhor, I hardened my heart and jumped, and, by Jove! just did it, by what is called the skin of my teeth! It gave me a nasty jar to hear the piece of wood on which I had been standing go crashing down into the depths.”
“Oh, Gordon, what an awful tale! I hope you will never, never again venture such a risk. Were you alone?”
“No, I had a Ghurwali behind me. He got over all right, too, but then he was born in the hills and is active as a cat and accustomed to these sensations. I should think we were the last who ever came that way. At the end of the day’s march we found a Chinese guard, filthy people, with dirty plaited hair, who live on horse-flesh—and gave us a very cool reception.”
“I cannot say that your description of the trip is inviting, but, all the same, I should like to go. I enjoy excitement with a spice of danger—and I can climb like a cat. You remember the day I saw the cobra in my room, and how I leapt on to the top of a chest of drawers. I promise that I’ll be no trouble, and you know that I’m never sick or sorry.”
It was after dinner, they were sitting in the veranda, and as she concluded she moved her chair a little closer to his and stroked his hand.
“I’ve made some preparations,” she went on; “long boots and a couple of very thick short skirts. Perhaps I should wear breeches.”
“No, my dear; neither in the Himalayas nor at home. Nothing you can say would induce me to take you!”
“Gordon, I do think you’re too selfish and conventional. Lots of women go mountaineering, and in spite of your grumbling at hardships, I believe you’ve all sorts of luxuries.”
“Luxuries!” he repeated.
“Well, you’ve grand wood fires—you’ve orange pekoe tea.”
“That’s true, my darling, but the wood fires are of juniper wood, and nearly blind and suffocate you. It’s also true that our tea is the best from the Kangra valley, but it’s boiled in the big pot and flavoured with salt!”
“Then I shall take my own tea and sugar. Now I should so like to see all sorts of unusual sights—for instance, those great flocks of sheep carrying salt from Tibet into India. They must look so strange.”
“Not nearly as strange as you would, toiling along among ice and snow. If it were all plain sailing like the lower slopes, Armine, I’d take you like a shot, and be only too thankful to have your company.”
“So you say!”
“I must confess that when I am marching among the tea gardens or under rhododendrons, large as forest trees, and one blaze of bloom, or I pass through valleys gay with wild roses, geraniums and peach orchards, when I catch the first breath of the cool sharp mountain air, I say to myself, ‘How Armine would enjoy this!’”
“So she would,” broke in Armine with energy. “I declare you are quite a word painter!”
“But by degrees,” he continued, “the track becomes faint and difficult, the ascent steeper; birch, walnut trees and native dwellings are left behind—we soon mount our last rise, and stand face to face with Himaschal!”
“Oh, you lucky, lucky man!”
“Yes, a sight for gods! There is nothing in the whole world that can approach the towering still dignity of the snows; but on nearer acquaintance the difficulties become enormous, fathomless black chasms, sheer precipices, and six-inch slippery foot tracks. It is only a country for goats!”
“Take me with you all the same; you know, as I told you, I am never sick or sorry.”
“If I granted your crazy wish you would be both. What about mountain sickness? How could you manage an ice axe? No, no, darling, I do not see you climbing over the roof of the world.”
“How I should like to get nearer to the real Himalayas or Himaschal. Do you know this quotation:
“‘In a hundred years of the world I could not tell the glories of the Himaschal. As the dew is dried up by the morning sun, so are the sins of mankind by the sight of Himaschal’?”
“I don’t think your sins can be very heavy, my dear, and I’m afraid you must be content with surveying Himaschal from a bungalow at Murree,” and he took up the slender sensitive hand that was lying on his arm and kissed it with fervour.
“Oh, Gordon, is that your last word—no, no?”
“I’m frightfully sorry to disappoint you, mine is not ordinary climbing but more or less dangerous, and looking at another side, on such an expedition a man is best alone. On a long adventurous stalk two make more noise than one. I wear straw boots—they last two days. When I get near a shot I’m so cautious you might almost hear a fly sneeze. Now, were you to accompany me, I should be miserable, so jumpy that I could not hold a rifle, terrified lest you should lose your head and topple over a precipice. Besides, I believe you would be laughing and chattering most of the time. You could never keep silence for seven or eight hours, and I should not like to see you staying your hunger on bully beef and chupatties, and sleeping in a bag! However, I promise you one thing, Armine, I’ll come back for your birthday, the fifteenth of May.”
“Honour bright! If I don’t break my neck—and there’s my hand on it.”
“Ah, well,” accepting his hand with a sigh, “half a loaf is better than no bread. If you leave here in March, you will only be away six weeks.”
“Yes, and during those six weeks I shall put my back into the job, and, I hope, bring you home a trophy.”
“Oh, as long as you bring me yourself safe and sound, I don’t care twopence about the trophy.”
“And you wouldn’t be proud to have laid at your feet one of the finest heads that ever was seen in India. I’m surprised at you, I’ve a good mind to give it to Dora Taylor. What do you say to that?”
“I say that she would sell it as soon as your back was turned.”
“Oh, Armine, how can you suggest such a mean thing, even in joke? Serve you jolly well right if I did present it to Dora.”
“Well, if you did, I’d present the new waistcoat which I’m making for you to Captain Hogarth, your embroidered slippers to Colonel Richards, and your beautiful tennis belt to Major Moreton. So we should be quits!”
As the time for Brakespeare’s departure approached there were vigorous and even heated discussions as to Armine’s plans. Her own idea was that she should remain below and face out the hot weather. She declared that she would really prefer to do this; what with thermantidotes, cuscus tatties, and electric fans, she could keep the house cool.
“You can’t keep any house in the Punjab cool in March and April,” rejoined her husband. “You had better come up to Murree, you will not be very far from me; I shall only be four or five marches off. You might go to an hotel.”
“No, no, I shouldn’t like that.”
“Then take a small bungalow and have someone to stay with you.” This was Brakespeare’s idea.
Mrs. Taylor’s idea was that she and Armine should share a house and expenses. She knew such a nice, snug little place, at a low rent, which would suit them down to the ground; but to this proposition Armine gave (to her husband) a rudely emphatic “No.”
“Well, anyway, Dora is making a start, and she will be someone for you to go about with and would keep an eye on you.”
“Oh, she always does that! I’m only surprised that she has the power of seeing anything else. How I should like to get away from her and her prying, and her ‘What have you been doing to-day?’ If I must go to a hill station, can’t I pitch my tent at Kasauli?”
In the end it was arranged that Armine was to take a well-known hill bungalow, Landscape Cottage, at Murree, and invite one of Glasgow’s girls—he was the principal medical officer in the station—to keep her company. Carrie Glasgow was plain but popular, helpful and good-natured, a splendid tennis-player, and under all circumstances uncommonly cheery and entertaining—consequently in flattering request. Only for a too aggressive nose she might have married well.
And so on a certain date the Brakespeares set forth together, accompanied by Carrie Glasgow, most of the servants, some of the pets, and Armine’s horse. Brakespeare contributed, as his share of the move, a large amount of camp equipage, guns, stores, and ammunition, and as soon as he had established his wife in Landscape Cottage, he started off with the zest of a schoolboy on his holiday into Kashmir.
Murree was unusually full this season, the military were up in force, six thousand under canvas. Mrs. Taylor had taken a cheap little bungalow not far from her cousin, and kept her eye upon Armine in every sense of the word. Several of Mrs. Brakespeare’s partners had followed her to the hills. Perhaps “followed” is too definite an expression, but the fact of her being at Murree undoubtedly made the place more attractive to them than, say, Naini Tai or even Mussouri.
Chief and most prominent among these acquaintances was Captain Hogarth, and Captain Hogarth was becoming too pronounced in his attentions; when Armine went out to ride or walk she rarely failed to encounter him: he employed a scout, or undoubtedly he lay in wait. He expected to be given a certain amount of dances as a matter of course, and was deeply grieved and injured if by any chance he happened to be thrown over. One unanswerable advantage—their steps suited to perfection.
It was a grievance to him and others that Mrs. Brakespeare would never be prevailed upon to join a “Twosie” picnic. The “Twosie” is a collection of gay young people who meet to eat at a certain rendezvous and spend the long and happy day in pairs, there is no mystery, no poaching, every Jack has for the time his Jill.
Mrs. Brakespeare would sooner have descended to Chotapore and faced the heat than have joined one of these gatherings, knowing well who would be her cavalier; therefore some said she was old-fashioned, priggish, and strait-laced, but elder matrons approved and figuratively patted the lady on the back.
Miss Glasgow, the amiable and cheerful, made at Landscape Cottage a fairly efficient buffer and number three, and Armine clung to her as to a lifebelt—she was beginning to be uncomfortable and nervous with regard to Hogarth’s attitude, for he made no secret of the fact that he was desperately in love with her. Handsome, well-bred, well-liked, and well-off, he had more than once insinuated that she was an unappreciated angel, and that Brakespeare had only room for one idea in his mind, and that was sport.
“Such a man as Brakespeare has no right to marry,” he remarked as they walked home from the club in the dusk of the evening, followed by Miss Glasgow and a promising companion.
“And you have no right to say such things to me,” rejoined Armine sharply. “If I am satisfied and happy.”
“But anyone with half an eye can see that you’re not happy,” he interrupted. “Yes, and anyone can see,” continued Hogarth, “that you’re completely thrown away on Brakespeare. He leaves you to come to balls and dances alone while he sits up skinning birds. He never has time to ride with you, he has even given up coming to church; surely you must realize what all the world can learn, that he is a shamefully neglectful husband. He was away for months last year, he is away now. Goodness knows when you will see him again! Why not turn him out of your life, why waste your best days and your youth? Come to one who adores the very sole of your slipper, and would look upon it as the greatest happiness the world could offer if he might join his life to yours. What do you say?”
“I say that I suppose you are asking me to run away with you?” she answered in a hurried, unsteady voice. “Instead of which I shall run away from you. You must never come to my house and never, never, speak to me again,” and to his painful amazement she actually took to her heels and ran and never stopped until she arrived in the veranda of Landscape Cottage, leaving her late escort transfixed on the road.
He was obliged to invent a plausible excuse for Miss Glasgow so as to account for the sudden disappearance of his companion, and he mumbled out that “Mrs. Brakespeare and he had had a bit of an argument, and that she would not wait and listen to his side of the question, but had simply stuck her fingers in her cars and bolted, as they saw.”
The conversation with Captain Hogarth had considerably upset Armine. In one way she was furiously angry, on the other hand she missed his society; he was a first-class partner at tennis or dancing, and always so cheery, also he had his sister’s eyes. It soon became evident to Murree that there had been a little rift in the lute of this somewhat prominent pair, the best-looking couple in the station. However, time heals all things, and after a few days a letter of the most abject apology was received at Landscape Cottage. Hogarth was forgiven but not actually reinstated; there were no invitations to tea, no walks home in the gloaming, no rides in the crisp early morning, but she played tennis with the culprit and occasionally addressed him in a distant manner. Armine Brakespeare was a true daughter of the chaste Irish nation; one love in her life was ample. She had nothing to spare for interludes or side shows such as were common among some of her acquaintances. She was not a real flirt; she could look pretty and gay and animated and occasionally make reckless speeches, but everyone acquainted with Mrs. Brakespeare knew that this meant nothing, and that she was entirely devoted to her shikari husband, and quoted: “Il y a toujours un qui baise et un qui tend la joue.”
Cuthbert Hogarth was not the only individual who had pointed out Brakespeare’s delinquencies. Amazing to relate, his own cousin, Dora Taylor, was exceedingly eloquent on the same subject. It was her intention to separate the pair (though what advantage would come to herself was obscure), when she gravely conferred with her kinsman and told him that his wife was giddy, fond of admiration, shallow and extravagant; on the other hand, she imparted to Armine her opinion that Brakespeare’s neglect was the talk of the regiment and the station. She would not have believed it possible that Gordon would have proved such an indifferent husband if she had not seen it with her own eyes. The truth was he should never have married, and in this opinion she and Captain Hogarth for once saw eye to eye.
“When he’s got the great markhor,” she went on, “believe me, he’ll not be satisfied—don’t you think it!—he’ll be after something else. Gordon has been afflicted by a master passion which, like Aaron’s serpent, swallows up the rest. The only thing to pin him down will be getting the command of the regiment, and that’s a long way off yet.”
This amiable lady felt it her duty to look up Armine daily, and so far with every desire to find fault; there was no fault to discover, for the young woman’s conduct was irreproachable; she kept Carrie Glasgow figuratively glued to her side, and at dances no one had ever been able to inveigle pretty Mrs. Brakespeare into a “kala jugga.”
The date of Armine’s birthday was imminent, and Brakespeare’s return almost due. Miss Glasgow had departed to pay a visit to relatives in Mussouri, and Armine was alone. She informed all her friends that she was expecting her husband any hour, and certainly not later than the fourteenth. To do him honour, she furbished up the bungalow, looked out her prettiest dresses, decorated the room with flowers, the dogs with bows of blue ribbon (his favourite colour). The fourteenth dawned and found her in a condition of happy excitement as she bustled about the house; she had ordered his favourite dishes, and had herself penetrated into the bazaar; her recent home letters and Daphne’s scrawls were all laid out awaiting his inspection. It was “durwaza bund” that day; she did not wish to see anyone; no, not even Mrs. Taylor, but not a few birthday presents had arrived, including some anonymous bouquets and an exquisite jade chain. Mrs. Taylor, too, had not forgotten her, but left with her dear love a rather shabby tea-cosy. Hour after hour passed and Armine sat in the veranda with her parrots and dogs, anxiously listening for a well-known footstep. But in vain she watched and listened; the only sound to greet her ear was the Chokedar’s cough.
The dinner ordered with such elaborate care, including Brakespeare’s favourite soup and savoury, was sent away untouched, and after sitting up till after twelve o’clock at night Armine went to bed with a sore heart.
The next morning she found herself making excuses, the road had been blocked, “G” had not been able to get through; of course, the road from Kashmir was, as everyone knew, in a shocking condition with falling rocks and shale and boulders; he might arrive at any moment.
As she sat at breakfast the kitmaghar brought her a telegram, which was to say:
“Best wishes for your birthday—awfully sorry—cannot get back—am now in touch with success—expect me in a fortnight without fail—writing.”
The result of this telegram was that Armine went into the drawing-room and sat on the sofa, and having read and re-read the wire remained motionless for half an hour in a condition of dull misery. What was the use of closing her eyes and playing the ostrich with herself? After all, Dora Taylor was right, so was Captain Hogarth. However, she would give Gordon one more chance—that is to say, she would wait a whole fortnight before taking a definite step. What the definite step was to be she did not precisely know but she was resolved that she would not continue to live like this, to be treated as a mere nonentity, a pretty doll. She had savings from her liberal allowance; it was over a year since she had seen Daphne, she would go home. Apparently it would be all the same to Gordon whether she was in Murree or England! For the present she resolved to put a good face upon circumstances, and no one at a gay afternoon picnic would have suspected that the beautiful Mrs. Brakespeare, a model wife, the gayest of the gay, was secretly nursing an act of domestic rebellion.
Within a week the promised letter from Brakespeare had arrived per coolie, a muscular and odoriferous Ghurwali. The envelope was excessively dirty and crumpled, but after all it was the contents that mattered. It proved to be a long epistle, written in pencil, and said:
“Dearest A.,—I am so frightfully sorry I cannot be with you on your twenty-fifth birthday. You are getting to be quite an old lady! But to make the trip in time is impossible. Just now I am in the real markhor country, an almost inaccessible region where the king of all the goats has made his home. These animals live higher than any, so as to be away from wolves and snow leopards, and, of course, I am bound to follow them. I know, dear old girl, that you will understand how, after all these toilsome expeditions and disappointments, it would be sheer madness for me to withdraw when the prize is within my reach—at any rate, I hope so! The stalking of markhor is a truly maddening experience. Sometimes we have marked down the herd with our long-sight glasses, and we crawl, and creep, and climb, and the great thing is to climb above them; just when we have got within range they vanish and we lose them for ten days or so. They are extraordinarily sensitive, far more than the ibex, and if they get wind of us they are off. Yesterday I received very good ‘khubber,’ and I expect to bring down my quarry within a week. Allowing for all sorts of difficulties I hope to be with you a fortnight after you have received this letter. You may rely upon me this time.
“I hope you are not, as they say in Ireland, ‘thinking bad’ at my failing to turn up on your festival, but I am sure you will see the matter from my point of view, and we will celebrate the great occasion in grand style. When I think of your suggestion to accompany me into these wilds I smile. Even your active imagination could not picture my surroundings. You talk of the precipices about Murree; here you see the real thing. I lie sometimes on my little Mary, and look sheer down into what might be the bottomless pit! The goat paths, the slippery ice, the slush, the biting cold and the strange food upon which the ghurwalis and I subsist would—although you are a fine hardy young woman—leave me a widower within a week. It sounds strange to say, that this hard blue sky, black jagged mountains, endless stretches of snow and the thunder of avalanches have a curious fascination for me.
“Then as to my own special markhor, a patriarch with enormous beard, heavy coat and sixty-inch horns, he continues to lure me on and on. Many shikaris and sahib after sahib have stalked and missed him. The natives swear that he is protected by the gods of the mountains and is the present abode of some good, or evil, spirit—evil for choice! Anyway, he has woven a spell that I find irresistible; I am conscious of an extraordinary driving pressure, urging me to overtake this prize of the peaks, and you shall have his horns yet!
“You seem to be enjoying a good time in Murree; apparently it is an unusually gay season. How is old Dora. Thank you for enclosing the kid’s letter—what a scrawl. But it is a comfort to know that she is ‘getting fat!’ I hope she won’t overdo it.
“Salaams to all inquiring friends, ever your loving husband,
“Another fortnight,” said Armine to herself as with a sigh she folded up what seemed to her a most unsatisfactory “put-off,” and yet, looking at it from a common-sense point of view, she realized that it would be foolish of Gordon to throw away all his toil, his wearisome weeks of stalking and semi-starvation, for what was neither more nor less than a sentimental journey.
So once more Mrs. Brakespeare threw herself into the gaieties of Murree, and answered with a smiling face chaffing inquiries such as, “What news of the great markhor? Has he got Brakespeare, or has Brakespeare got him?” “I don’t believe there’s any such animal,” declared one ribald youth. “It would never surprise me if your husband had sneaked off to England to have a good time all on his little own! Why, how long has he been away?”
“Then he could easily manage the jaunt.”
The matrons of the place, including the wife of the general, and Lady Fraser, consort of a “brass hat,” and others, by no means approved of Major Brakespeare’s prolonged absence.
“What a fool the man must be!” said Lady Fraser, “going off after a regular ‘will o’ the wisp’, stalking and starving for two months in order to bag an old goat, leaving that lovely girl here all by herself without any present companion and swarms of admirers. Some of the admirers are dangerously good-looking and dangerously interested. It’s as if the girl were walking among red-hot ploughshares.”
“She manages to step with caution and skill,” said the general’s wife. “I believe she’s devoted to Gordon Brakespeare.”
“Which is more than he deserves,” rejoined Lady Fraser. “That handsome artillery gunner, Captain Hogarth, is always hanging about; I believe he plagues her to run away with him.”
“Then he might as well want the moon out of the sky,” rejoined the general’s wife. “The foolish young man has got his six months’ leave to England, and he’s simply wasting his time here.”
“I notice that the last two or three weeks Mrs Brakespeare has taken to going out a good deal. She’s never at home when I send over a chit. She has been dragged into the bridge set—Mrs. Crayshaw’s lot—I was astonished when I dropped in there the other day to see Armine Brakespeare playing away for dear life, with a solemn face and a cigarette in the corner of her mouth.”
“Well, she has nothing much to do at home,” said another lady, “and she must find it lonely since Miss Glasgow left.”
“I know that Mrs. Taylor has offered to go and stay with her,” announced a third.
“I fancy that such a guest would drive her out of the house altogether. I don’t believe they are congenial.”
“No,” assented Lady Fraser. “Mrs. Taylor is a busybody and a pernicious connexion. She talks a great deal about her ‘dear Armine,’ and says disagreeable things about her behind her back. ‘Dear Armine is so attractive, but——’ then she will add, ‘so unbalanced!’ ‘Dear Armine is extraordinarily popular, but she is shamelessly extravagant,’ ‘Dear Armine’s dancing is delightful to watch, but she often trips in her facts, and although she is supposed to be so steady, she gives young men a lot of surreptitious encouragement.’”
So much for the matrons’ verdict.
Mrs. Taylor dropped in every day at Landscape Cottage and made prolonged sittings. She generally arrived at breakfast time, asked a number of questions and drove her cousin nearly frantic, although she assumed a false tranquillity, based on a determination not to quarrel with Dora.
“And so,” she said one day, “Gordon is not coming back before the tenth?”
“Oh, yes, I expect him a week earlier——”
“I had a letter from him just now, sent in by a coolie who had come for stores. I suppose you have had one too?”
“Then the coolie has lost it, after the manner of his kind.”
“Are you sure he says the tenth?”
“Oh, yes, you can see the letter if you like.” (She did not add that it was in answer to one of hers.) “I’ll bring it over this evening,” so saying she rose and took her departure.
Armine, released from the strain of keeping up appearances, gave full vent to her feelings. So Gordon could write to Dora and not to her, and was prepared to break his promise for the second time. Well, she was sick of it! Here was she struggling along, and keeping the young men at a distance, striving with all her might to beat down Hogarth’s importunities, living a strained, unnatural existence, and if she were, as people said, “the beauty of Murree,” ignored and neglected by her own husband. She snatched up the Pioneer and looked out the sailings of the P. & O. from Bombay to Marseilles. If Gordon did not return by the tenth she would go! Anyway, their lease of the bungalow would be up before long. She glanced down the list of sailings, selected her steamer, examined her bank book, and relieved her mind by a long letter to her mother. In this she did not make any accusations against Gordon, merely stated that “he was still away on a big shoot,” and although she had quantities of acquaintances and visitors, she felt desperately lonely—anyone could read between the lines—and was longing to go home. “Perhaps you may see me sooner than you expect.” In this fashion did she break the news of her proposed flight to her parent. Then she sent a line to the P. & O. at Bombay asking if she could have a berth on the Malabar on such and such a date. She felt relieved and better when she had dispatched these to the pillar-box, precisely as if she had flung down a challenge to Gordon. She recalled the remark of an older woman who had said, “The more you give to some men the more they will take!”
After this she went out to tiffin and to play bridge and in the mazes and excitement of auction forgot her mental troubles for a few hours.
The attitude of Captain Hogarth had always been her great difficulty. She would not receive him at home, but she could not prevent his meeting her almost everywhere else. Never was an admirer so ardent or so persistent! By many a young woman in her position such devotion would have been appreciated, for Hogarth was handsome and young, with an attractive personality, and always one of the most popular men in his station; prominent at polo and cricket, an admirable dancer, and, in short, an all-round good sort. In every possible way that he could lay siege to Armine he pressed the assault with unsparing effort; she was beautiful, she was neglected, she was charming and young, and he, for the first time in his life, was over head and ears in love, but the lady was as ice.
One afternoon Armine beheld a hairy Tibetan in the veranda grunting and uttering guttural noises in an attempt to make himself understood by the bearer, who presently brought her the usual dirty note on a silver salver. It was from Gordon, of course, writing to postpone his return, equally of course. She opened it and read:
“Dearest A.,—Here is a letter instead of a human being! and I am afraid you will set me down as a gay deceiver, though there is not much gaiety about me, who am compelled to spend long cold days watching and spying on various grey dots that I can just make out against the snow. Markhor stalking is of the same nature as gambling or drink—once it has a firm hold upon you it forces you on in spite of yourself. I need scarcely assure you that I should be much happier sunning myself in the veranda at Landscape Cottage than striving and starving here among avalanches, precipices, and piercing cold. However, I can’t get away from the old markhor; like some deadly and irresistible influence he lures me on and on. As soon as I can compass his death I shall be released, and will return to you on the wings of the wind—that’s to say, as fast as travelling is possible. Meanwhile I enclose what I hope will prove a small consolation and substitute—a cheque for two thousand rupees to get yourself some turquoises or furs.”
With a sudden gesture of passion Armine crushed the letter in her hand, and said:
“He thinks to bribe me and shut my mouth with a bit of fur! Oh, what has come to him, he really is bewitched!” Then she resumed her letter:
“I know that latterly I seem to be always on the wander, but once I have secured the great, great prize how I shall settle down beside you—tame as the tamest cat. Sometimes I wish that you could see these glorious views. From our camp, the fifty miles of pine-clad valley, the dazzling peaks cleaving the sky, none lower than twenty-four thousand feet, and towering above all the great Nunga Devi. How I wish you could have shared some of these sights with me—for instance, the first flush of dawn on the enchanted mountain tops. I declare I am becoming quite poetical—I must try my hand at word-painting when we meet, which I hope will be soon. If I only could get the old markhor to fix a date for his execution we should be all right.
Your loving husband,
When she had concluded this epistle Armine, in a spurt of indignation and disappointment, tore up the letter—and also the cheque. What did she want with furs and turquoises? This dispatch, so vague, was the limit; she sat still for some time enduring keen mental pain, and a dull ache of discontent; and then without further hesitation she proceeded to make her preparations for her immediate return to England.
In the first place she wrote down to Bombay and secured her passage in the Malabar. Next she began to collect and prepare her wardrobe; the only individual she took into her confidence was the faithful ayah who had been in her service ever since she had arrived in India—Junia was a good old soul and safe—and, she believed, sincerely attached to her and to the Missy Baba. Calling her into the room and closing the door, she said:
“Listen to me, Ayahjee, I am going to tell you a great secret.”
Ayahjee’s eyes glistened as she salaamed.
“Do you think you can keep it?”
The ayah stooped down and kissed the hem of her lady’s dress, and said:
“Missy always good to me, I keeping secret with my life.”
“You must not breathe or hint it to a soul, Ayah, but I am going away from Murree.”
“And the Major Sahib?”
“No, not yet. I want to get ready my Europe clothes. I shall take two boxes, and my dressing-bag, all the rest of my luggage must be packed and sent down to Batsu, along with the plate, and house linen.”
“And when Missy going?”
“In about ten days. I shall take you with me part of the way.”
“But not on ship—oh, please, missy! One time I going to England, the water plenty jumping—and I so sick!”
“No, not on ship; and now you can begin to get my things put in order by degrees.”
“Will missy go soon—soon—before the Sahib coming back?”
“It will depend; if he does come back in time I hope I shall see him before I start. And now I intend to leave very quietly; I am not going to say ‘good-bye,’ but will just order a tonga and drive down to the railway.”
Junia Ayah was enormously inflated with the sense of her own importance, and for four whole days kept the great secret. At last, no longer able to contain it, she imparted it to her friend the butler, also to one or two ayahs of her acquaintance under a vow (of course) of secrecy, and naturally the news that Mrs. Brakespeare was leaving became widely known among a certain class. Armine was rather surprised when her most precious cook asked her to give him a good character. He pleaded that his mother-in-law was ill and that he was going to Lucknow. Never for a moment did she suspect that Junia had betrayed her! At the end of a week Armine’s plans were known to two people above “a certain class,” namely, Captain Hogarth and Mrs. Taylor. It was Mrs. Taylor’s opinion that she was on the point of eloping with Captain Hogarth, else why this secret packing and preparations? Why was she taking her ayah with her? She must let Gordon know, though no doubt by the time he received the wire the bird would have flown, or rather the two birds! She therefore dispatched the following wire to his nearest address, “Return instantly, urgent.” This he received as he was setting out upon an unusually promising stalk. Greatly bewildered, he broke up his camp and turned his steps in the direction of Murree. It must have something to do with Daphne, or his wife, possibly Armine had met with an accident, he said to himself. The way she rode about those hill roads and khuds was reckless, and dangerous.
Spurred by anxiety he hurried along with forced marches, and arrived at Murree at one o’clock in the morning of the fourth day.
In the meanwhile Hogarth allowed Armine to know that the secret had come to his ears, also that his soul was set upon accompanying her.
He wrote to her, pouring out, as it were, his whole heart.
“Come with me,” he pleaded, “and let us start a new life. We shall be so happy together, and I shall never let you out of my sight.”
He hung about the bungalow until dusk, he even invaded the veranda after dark, and once in that same veranda he and Mrs. Taylor met face to face. The matron drew herself up and said in a high threatening voice:
“You have no right to be here!”
“I know that,” was his calm reply. “It is Mrs. Brakespeare’s husband who should be here.”
Mrs. Taylor’s rejoinder was a snort and a gesture of dismissal.
The following evening was the one preceding Armine’s departure. She was about to travel in the cool, and the tonga was ordered for dawn. As she sat in the drawing-room alone she made a clearance of correspondence and began a letter to her husband.
“Dear Gordon,—When you read this letter I shall be far away, even farther than you have ever been from me. The gap in our lives is widening, and will soon be impassable. I can no longer endure this life, and I am leaving with——”
At this moment there was a step in the veranda and Hogarth entered. She rose, looking very tall and stately in her loose white tea-gown, as she said:
“Captain Hogarth, this is very, very wrong of you. It is plain that you are no friend of mine. I have long realized that you have no respect for my good name.”
“What is the use of a good name to a woman who has got a bad husband?” he retorted with vehemence. “I know that you are going away immediately—in fact, to-night, somewhere by rail. You must allow me to accompany you! Brakespeare has made you the laughing-stock of Murree. You and I have a great deal more in common than you and he. I swear to you that I will make your life rapturously happy. I love Daphne, she is fond of me, we shall make an enviable trio.”
He argued and talked with extraordinary eloquence, walking about the room, urging, gesticulating—it was all of no use. As he stood before her making a last appeal she sat on the lounge silent and motionless as a stone image. Just as the little silver clock struck one there were heavy spurred footsteps in the veranda, the door was flung wide, and Brakespeare, hot, travel-stained and muddy, walked in. For a moment there ensued an awestruck silence; then he turned to Hogarth, and his voice was hoarse as he said:
“What the devil are you doing here? Making love to my wife, eh?”
“Yes,” was the audacious reply.
“Clear out! I’ll deal with you later, but if you stay another moment there will be murder!”
In spite of this threat the interloper did not seem at all inclined to move until Armine made an imploring gesture, whereupon he then took a leisurely departure.
“Now what does it all mean?” Brakespeare demanded, turning to face his wife. “If I believed in anyone in this world, Armine, it would be you. I come home and find you receiving a young fellow alone at one o’clock in the morning. It has been, I suppose, a case of ‘still waters run deep.’ No doubt you haven’t a rag of character.”
“Stop, Gordon!” cried Armine, rising to her feet, ashen pale and trembling. “My character is the same as ever it was. Captain Hogarth has certainly been too presuming, but I’ve tried with all my might to hold him at a distance. Although he says I am so much to him, he is nothing whatever to me.”
“If he were nothing whatever to you, is it likely that I find him here alone in the middle of the night? I shall divorce you.”
“Divorce me!” she repeated.
“Why, of course. I couldn’t take a woman like you back into the regiment.”
“Oh, what a cruel, selfish man you are! Sometimes I feel as if I hated you. You leave me alone, month after month. I believe all the station has noticed your neglect. Other men come round and endeavour to make love to me, but I have withstood every temptation.”
“So you say,” he sneered.
“So I swear,” she replied with passion.
The door of the bedroom opened, and the ayah peeped out. She recognized her master with a violent start, and salaamed with both hands. He pushed past the frail old creature, and strode into the inner room, and there, looking round with eyes of horror, he beheld every preparation for an immediate departure. Armine’s hat and dust-cloak lay on the bed along with her hand-bag and gloves and motoring veil.
Brakespeare cast a glance round, and then returned to the drawing-room, where he was confronted by Armine, who was now standing in the middle of the room, white as her tea-gown.
“Gordon, don’t you trust me?” she pleaded.
“How can I go against the evidence of my senses? I return unexpectedly, I find Hogarth here, and you packed, and ready to start!”
“But not with him,” she protested. “I was going alone.”
“Ah, so you say now,” he rejoined with a shrug of the shoulders. “Naturally it is to your interest to put the best face upon the affair.”
“Have I ever deceived you? How can you look at me so cruelly! Don’t you believe me?”
“No, not for a moment,” he answered roughly. “You are just the usual deceitful, cheating woman. I know your type—pretty, beguiling, and false!”
“Ah! So this is the word-painting you promised me—a portrait of myself.”
After a long silence she went up to him, and taking his big, strong hand between her two small ones, said:
“Listen to me, Gordon. You really must believe me. I grant that appearances are against me; the whole thing is almost like a scene in a play, but I was very, very angry with you. I realized that I had been entirely put aside in favour of your big markhor. So I made up my mind to go away, but I’ll give you another chance. Remember, we married for better or worse; I’ll forgive you, and you’ll forgive me—not that I’ve done anything discreditable—and we shall be quits. Now what do you say?”
“I say no!” he answered with passion. “This has been a terrific shock—a real bolt from the blue. I can make no bargain. Anyway, I must take time to consider what I am to do with you.”
Armine dropped his hand quickly, and confronted him with a deathly white face. As she spoke her voice seemed to come from a distance:
“When you take time to reflect, consider how you’ve left me here for months, whilst you followed your own preposterous mania. Many a time you’ve deserted me for weeks and weeks, and weeks, going after tiger or bison. That was not so bad, or so remarkable, as deserting me in a place like Murree, for the whole season—a markhor your excuse! And though you are my husband, and the father of Daphne, these weeks of waiting, hoping, and being put off have had their effect. I am tired of making excuses for your absence. I am beginning to wish that I had never met you; for in you I see a different man to the Gordon Brakespeare who made love to me in Knockcullen,” and with, this announcement she went into her bedroom and closed the door.
Brakespeare sat down, for he felt exhausted—he had been ten hours in the saddle—and endeavoured to pull himself together. Somehow his heart was on the side of Armine; he had never known her to deceive him, and she had often declared in her playful way that “she was the worst possible liar!”
Young Hogarth, in the Gunners, who had been his friend in Chotapore, had undoubtedly lost his head. He had known good-looking young men make love to good-looking married women, but it had never dawned upon him that any young man would dare to make love to his wife. If Armine was an innocent party, what was the meaning of her preparations for flight? She had not said a word to him, not even dropped a hint of her plans in one of her letters. Yes, he had not returned an hour too soon!
He went out into the veranda and summoned his bearer, who appeared before him as if by magic; but the truth was, that all the servants had been made aware of the Sahib’s return, and were assembled en masse in the dim gloom of the compound, anxiously awaiting developments. They had seen Captain Hogarth arrive, they had witnessed his departure, bare-headed and agitated, they were aware that the Mem Sahib had ordered a tonga for four o’clock in the morning, and that all her things were packed—down to her hair-brushes. The native mind—ever ready to put bad construction on such affairs—was willing to believe that Mrs. Brakespeare had been on the point of running away with the good-looking gunner officer. They had often seen him hanging about after night-fall, though he had never ventured into the bungalow.
“Ahmed Khan,” said Brakespeare shortly, “get me a peg, and put up a change of clothes at once, and send it over to the hotel.” He had decided to spend the remainder of the night there.
Having quaffed off a much needed whisky and soda, he took his departure. Armine, from her apartment, heard him heavily descending the steps and walking down the drive, and she could tell, by his dragging gait, that he was desperately tired. Half-past two in the morning is an unusual time for visitors to arrive at the Hôtel Deodar, but in India—as is well known—arrivals and departures take place at the most amazing hours.
The bearer on night duty received Major Brakespeare precisely as if it were high noon, and promptly supplied him with a hot bath, something to eat, and a comfortable bedroom. Brakespeare lay down and summoned his wits for a good long think. Weary as he was, and with every bone aching, he found it impossible to sleep. He had discovered that Hogarth was sleeping in the hotel, and was determined to have it out with him at the earliest opportunity. Opportunity—no, he wouldn’t wait for that, he would make one. Dressed, shaved and looking more like himself, he entered Hogarth’s bedroom—it was an early hour—and found that gentleman awake. There had been no rest the previous night for the three individuals—Armine, Brakespeare, or this young man in smart silk pyjamas who sat erect, and stared at his visitor with bold defiant eyes.
Brakespeare took up a position at the bottom of the bed and said:
“I’ve come to have it out with you! Hitherto, you and I have been the best of friends, and I thought you were straight as a die; but circumstances look black. You have been, making love to my wife, you infernal scoundrel!”
“Yes, I told you that last night,” said Hogarth impatiently, now rising and putting on his slippers and bath-gown; for it seemed to him that his opponent had considerable advantage as he stood glowering over him in bed. “You are a dog in the manger, Brakespeare; everyone can see that you don’t care a rap about your wife. If you did you would never leave a pretty young woman like her in what is really a hot-bed of temptation. I’d run away with her, marry her, and devote the whole of my life to making her happy. No markhor shooting in our future!”
“Yes, I see you have it all settled; and I was just back in time to spoil your start.”
“It was Mrs. Brakespeare’s start. She was going away to stay with some friends, I know, though she kept it dark. But I believe she was pretty sick of people always saying: ‘When is Brakespeare coming back?’”
“You don’t suppose I believe that excuse!”
Hogarth who, according to his custom, was walking about the room, halted and said with extraordinary emphasis:
“Brakespeare, I’m no liar in any serious sense, and I assure you, on my honour as a soldier and a gentleman, that though I did all in my power to prevail upon her, and although I’m aware that Armine likes me, I could not persuade her to elope—and that’s a painful fact.”
“But it’s also a fact that you were in her room last night at half-past one o’clock.”
“I was—making a final, frantic and, as it turned out, an utterly useless appeal. You know the native saying, ‘one hand cannot clap.’ There’s not much use in a man running away by himself, is there?”
“Can’t say, never tried it!”
“Oh, yes, you have,” Hogarth contradicted sharply. “You often run away from your wife, and leave that lovely girl to an empty house, absolute idleness, and ill-natured gossip!”
“By Jove, Hogarth, you have damned cheek to talk to me like this! However, you have made a clean breast of it, and I don’t want to have a scandal. Of course, I’ve my own opinion, but I have no wish to amuse Murree—if I can help it—with a sensational case. I know you got your leave to England all right.”
“I want you to promise me on your honour not to see my wife again.”
“Well, that’s easily promised, for she wouldn’t see me, dead or alive! I’ll go home at once. I cannot start to-day, as it’s too late, and all the tongas are engaged, but I’ll clear out to-morrow. And you?”
Brakespeare looked into the young man’s face; it was a mirror of honest purpose. Then he replied:
“I’ve got two weeks’ leave left, and perhaps can manage an extension. I’ll take my wife up to Kashmir.”
And without any further farewell Brakespeare departed. As soon as he had breakfast he set out in search of Mrs. Taylor. He wanted to consult with old Dora, to hear what had been said, what had not been said—in short, to make use of his cousin as a thermometer of public opinion. He found the thermometer at fever heat—more than that, figuratively up to one hundred and five. In some mysterious fashion she was well acquainted with the scenes of last night, and how he had unexpectedly returned and discovered Hogarth in his bungalow.
“My dear Gordon,” she said, “I’m most frightfully sorry for you. I always felt that Armine was too young and flighty to make you a suitable wife. Hogarth’s adoration for her has been the talk of the station. I’ll say this for Armine, that latterly she did not encourage him to come to the bungalow, but he was always hanging about. He would waylay her out walking, and haunt her at picnics. She pretended to me that his attentions were most unwelcome, and that she chiefly joined the woman’s Bridge Club because there at least he couldn’t effect an entrance. I now believe that that was all put on—a blind. Armine was always secretive, and though I know that she discussed matters with Miss Glasgow, and Mrs. Charteris, and little Lady Gilmore, she never would open her mind to me.”
“I’ve just seen Hogarth; he swears that if Armine was going anywhere it was not with him. She gave him the impression that she was about to visit friends in another hill station—Ranikhet, I dare say—and said that she was sick of Murree.”
“Oh, how sly she has been! I knew that she was preparing for a journey, for her ayah and mine are sisters-in-law—so that was why I sent you a wire.”
“And as it turned out, I didn’t get it a minute too soon.”
“What are your plans, Gordon? What are you going to do about this dreadful business?”
“I shall hush it up!”
“What! No, impossible! The Smiths are in the next bungalow, and Mrs. Smith came in just now to tell me that, walking home from a dance, they saw Hogarth leaving Landscape Cottage at about two o’clock in the morning.”
“Yes, but they didn’t know that I was there!”
“Ah, so you are going to make excuses for her?” and Dora’s expression was bitter.
“I am. She’s young. I’ve left her too much alone. I shall smother up the whole affair, and I know you will do your best to back me. I intend to take Armine off to Kashmir as soon as ever I can arrange daks and tongas, and I look to you to help me to keep the whole thing dark. You know lots of people, and a little cold water from you would soon put the fire out!”
“I am afraid the fire has taken hold, and will spread all over the place! Where is Hogarth?” she demanded authoritatively.
“He leaves for England immediately.”
“I am going over to Landscape Cottage now. I want to have a serious talk with Armine.”
“Then I’ll come with you, and help her to pack,” said Mrs. Taylor officiously. “I dare say with luck you could get away to-morrow, and there will be a jot to do about giving over the bungalow, paying off shop bills, and sending the servants back.”
“That’s awfully kind of you, Dora, but you can understand that I wish to see Armine alone.”
“Oh, certainly; and I do not wish to see her at all!”
The two bungalows were not far apart, and as the cousins walked up to Landscape Cottage—it being about twelve o’clock in the day—there seemed to hang over the premises an atmosphere of silence, only broken by one of Armine’s parrots announcing in a shrill metallic voice that it was “Pretty Polly, pretty dear, all the way from Kashmir!”
It happened that, being midday, most of the servants were having their food, but the cousins were received in the veranda by the family bearer who was evidently charged with important news. He salaamed, and then announced:
“The Mem Sahib done gone!”
“What!” cried Mrs. Taylor in a loud, shrill voice.
“Yes, seven, eight hours ago, taking ayah and luggage,” and as an afterthought, “tiffin basket.”
“But where has sire gone to?” demanded Brakespeare, and his face looked grey.
“That, Sahib, I cannot tell.”
The drawing-room had a deserted, forlorn appearance—ornaments, books and flowers were conspicuous by their absence. Without a word the pair entered the bedroom; there stood several large trunks, closed, addressed and ready to be transported to Batsu. The dressing-table was bare—Armine’s photographs and little odds and ends had disappeared. In fact, the whole place was—as in the Bible parable—“swept and garnished”, the only object left was a small black satin slipper which Gordon, being a very tidy man, mechanically picked up and unconsciously put into his pocket. (Armine was rather given to leaving her things about—such, articles as handkerchiefs, hats, gloves; more than once he had admonished for what he called her “Irish untidiness,” and stigmatized himself as the gleaner.) In a half stupefied condition he returned to the sitting-room where Mrs. Taylor, who had preceded him, was poking round and making searching investigation, turning over cushions, opening books; but there was no clue to be found, merely a few odd newspapers, bridge markers, and magazines. The lady’s hopes ran high as she opened a small red blotter, but alas! it contained nothing save a few half sheets of paper and a receipted bread bill.
Hurrah! Inside the very last page was a half finished note addressed to Gordon.
“This will tell you something!” she said, handing it impressively to him.
He took it and glanced at it. It was but a short note, and said:
“Dear Gordon,—When you receive this letter I shall be far away—even farther than you have been from me. The gap in our lives is widening, and will soon be impassable. I can no longer endure this life, and I am leaving with——”
He drew a long, long breath, and handed this accursed chit to his eager companion, who, when she had devoured it, exclaimed:
“That settles it! She has gone off to await Hogarth!”
“But Hogarth swore to me within the last hour that he would never see Armine again!”
“Bah! Who believes in such vows? Shall I tell you what to do now?”
“Go ahead,” said Brakespeare, sitting down, with the letter in his hand.
“You must come and stay with me for a few days and await developments. I know that under the circumstances you would not care to be seen at the club, or at the hotel. I will close this house and do all that is necessary. You can give me a cheque for the wages and the bazaar bills.”
Brakespeare accepted his cousin’s suggestion; he appeared to be dazed. Dora’s activities were wonderful, she acted as his agent, his secretary, and nurse. He was helpless, as it were, stunned, and had a bad go of fever, the result of his forced marches, scanty food, and mental disturbance. On the fourth morning Dora brought him a copy of the Pioneer, and pointed with her finger to one particular item:
“Departure per s.s. Malabar from Bombay.”
At the end of a long list of names came “Mrs. Brakespeare and Captain Hogarth.”
As Brakespeare read this he groaned, and dropped the paper on the floor.
“I think you will allow that that ends everything,” declared Mrs. Taylor with a note of triumph in her voice. “For your own sake, for the sake of the child, and for the sake of the regiment, you must go home at once, and sue for a divorce.”
The effect of the paragraph was conclusive and profound, and the simultaneous departure of the suspected pair, their passage taken in the same boat, was considered by the Club to be a most brazen proceeding, the climax of effrontery! Such an impudent flouting of Mrs. Grundy was unparalleled.
This announcement in the Pioneer Times of India and Bombay Gazette fell as a bombshell into the Club at Murree. It was also a bombshell to Armine’s friends, for in their opinion she was the last woman in the world to “throw her cap over the mill.” Everyone in the station knew that Hogarth had left for England, and many were aware that Mrs. Brakespeare’s bungalow was closed, that her dirzee was “at liberty,” and she had departed—no one knew whither. Mrs. Taylor went about with a portentous expression and a tightly closed, thin-lipped mouth, assuring her intimates that “it was a family affair and not to be discussed.” She, however, discussed it a day, and part of a night, with the miserable, fever-racked man, who lay at her mercy in the spare room of her bungalow; and having no longer any reason to conceal her animosity, laid open with unsparing hand Armine’s shortcomings. At last he roused himself by a desperate effort of will, shook off the fever, shook off Dora Taylor, and two weeks after Armine’s disappearance he, too, went home.
On her part, poor Armine had experienced extraordinary ill-fortune. Arriving in Bombay three days before the sailing of the Malabar, she retired to a quiet hotel far away from the Apollo Bund, a once famous hotel that the tide of fashion had left high and dry, but which was comfortable and respectable, and served excellent curries, pillaus, and old Indian dishes. Here, with occasional trips into the bazaar, which she ransacked for presents for her mother, her friends, and Daphne, she lay perdue until it was time to go on board the steamer. She was not short of money—that was one comfort—and picked up not a few delightful odds and ends in the way of toys, silver articles, embroideries and draperies.
Before Armine’s departure she had written to her mother a long letter in order to prepare her for her arrival; and, without entering into particulars, intimated that she and Gordon had had a disagreement, and that she was taking a holiday in order to see Daphne and herself. More than once she had debated as to whether she would write to Gordon before she sailed, and only decided that she would actually do so when she went aboard ship and Colaba spire was sinking out of sight.
Owing to her forethought, she found an excellent cabin amidships awaiting her, where she remained three days, shamming a sea-sick invalid; but early one fine breezy morning she went on deck, longing for a breath of fresh, air, and found, as she expected, the ship to herself. No—for here came a dog tearing towards her, Sam, a well-known acquaintance, a well-bred, wheaten-haired terrier. They had been dear friends on the plains for over a twelvemonth. Many a time Sam had come over when his master was on duty and spent the morning on her veranda, helping her to garden, or bothering the dirsee by carrying off and burying his reels of cotton. This animal was known to society as Captain Hogarth’s Sam, and here came Captain Hogarth himself!
As Armine found herself face to face with Sam’s master her knees shook, she felt as if she were about to faint. Hogarth’s astonishment at this encounter was equally great, so much so that at first he was speechless. At last he pulled off his cap, and she noticed the damp in his hair; he had just had a bath, and looked a clean, well-bred English gentleman.
“Good Lord, how did you come aboard?” he stammered. “I never dreamt of you being on the Malabar. By Jove, when I saw you just now I thought it was your ghost. Naturally, I’m always thinking of you, and I said to myself, hallo, she has materialized at last!”
“I took my passage three weeks ago,” she answered in a low voice. “I was feeling so depressed, and I must confess very vexed with Gordon, who had put me off so often, and I said to myself a third time, and I shall go home and see Daphne. And you—how is it that you are here?”
“I came straight down from Murree, and got a chance berth—almost as they were drawing in the gangway.”
“And of course everyone will say that we arranged this beforehand; nothing can clear us!”
“Yes, it’s frightfully bad luck, as it turns out. I had a tremendous scene with Brakespeare the morning before I started. He came to my room while I was still in bed, and let me have it hot and strong. Upon my soul, he looked as if he were game to murder me, and made me swear never to see you again. This promise I gave him upon my word of honour.”
He paused, while Sam leapt around his newly recovered friend demanding notice and caresses. “I assured him that the lady would have nothing to say to me, and I could not well elope to England alone; now everyone will put the worst construction upon our unfortunate voyage.”
“That’s true,” she said, turning away and feeling for a chair.
“It looks as if Fate intends us for one another,” resumed Hogarth, seating himself beside her, while Sam leapt upon her knees. “I do not ask you to say or do anything definite between this and Marseilles——”
“If you do,” interrupting him with a white face, “I shall never speak to you again, and you will keep me a prisoner in my cabin till I land at Marseilles.”
“But what are we to do? Are we to know one another, or not? I am for the former move. In the first place, the passengers in this ship are nearly all from the Central Provinces, the Deccan, or Poonah—none of our lot—you can see by their servants’ clothes. They have never heard of us. I know they will be delighted to welcome the mysterious lady whose place has been vacant for four days; and another strange coincidence—your place is at my table! We have one great piece of luck, we are both early birds. As you see, we have the whole deck to ourselves, and have had a chance to pull ourselves together and make plans. You will allow me to take you for promenades and exercise?”
“Yes, but no games, and no dances,” she broke in hastily.
“Oh, dear, I wish you had a fat old chaperon I could pin you on to. I hope you noticed how delighted Sam is to see you. Of course by rights he should be down in the butcher’s quarters, but his manners and accomplishments were too much for the chief steward. Here are the early risers beginning to show at last!”
The unexpected acquisition of an extremely pretty girl did not pass unnoticed, and Hogarth presented to Armine one or two of his brother R.A. officers from Kirkee, along with the lie that she had had fever ever since she had left Bombay, and had only just emerged.
Certainly Mrs. Brakespeare made a sensation on the Malabar. One or two professed to have heard vague rumours of her fame as a hill beauty. She was quiet, reserved and obliging, played accompaniments, lent books, and, most difficult feat, kept Hogarth at arm’s length; but she was instinctively sensible of the many little attentions which he showered upon her. Her chair was always in the best position for wind and sun, and a sedulous waiter devoted himself to bringing her tea, soup, or lemonade at appropriate hours, but their acquaintance was not remarkable, and entirely merged in the gay general circle. All the same, it was remarkable that Captain Hogarth’s dog stuck to her like the proverbial leech. It was odd, too, that so little was known respecting her history—till a loud-voiced man, who came aboard at Aden, exclaimed:
“Hallo, Mrs. Brakespeare, I’m greatly honoured to make your acquaintance. Are you not the wife of the fellow who is always after the great markhor, and who is bound to get him?”
To which question she accorded a blushing assent, and afterwards withdrew to her cabin where, for no reason she could explain to herself, she wept bitterly; perhaps it was because the said markhor had turned her out of India.
At Port Said the Malabar received yet another contingent of passengers, among these a Colonel and Mrs. Napper, with their niece, who had spent years in the Punjab, but chiefly on the frontier, and could tell a thing or two about Brakespeare and his markhor, and his neglecting his wife, and how Captain Hogarth had been her shadow and worshipper for at least two years.
After this Armine’s position became unquestionably equivocal; there was a sudden lowering of the atmosphere of cordiality; confidential girls and admiring matrons no longer competed for the society of the prettiest woman on the Malabar; her intimate friend, Lady Morrison, who had been so motherly, greeted her with glacial politeness, and others maintained a chilling neutrality.
At last Marseilles hove in sight. It was a lovely moonlight night, and Hogarth, ever on the watch, found an opportunity for a private talk with Armine.
“To-morrow,” he said, “we land, but you and I shall not separate. The great god Fate has taken our affair into his hands—a wonderful piece of good fortune for me! If Brakespeare was inclined to execute a treaty of peace, there’s an end to that. We left almost simultaneously, and the fact that we are returning home on the same boat, is by now blazoned all over India.”
“That’s true,” she admitted, turning deathly white.
“If I know anything of Brakespeare, he will sue for a divorce. We will not defend it; and, darling, you will marry me?”
“I realize,” she answered, speaking with a dry tongue, “that circumstances have altered—this accidental journey together has put me in a false position. But however unfortunate I may be, however Fate may hunt me, whatever happens, I will never marry you!”
“Don’t say that. Once the divorce has been granted you will want a home and a protector, and although you are absolutely innocent, socially you will be treated as if you were not. Oh, I have seen cases of derelict women, drifting about the world, with no anchorage or moorings. Their relations cut them, their friends avoid them, and the only people who seek their society are a most undesirable class. You know nothing about this side of life.”
“Nothing, thank God!” she answered fervently.
“Now, married to me, you will be able to live it down.”
“Live what down?” she demanded with a touch of passion. “What have I done?”
“Nothing blameworthy; you have only been the victim of circumstances. When people are well-off, it makes a lot of difference. We could travel, then we would rent a fine country place, for naturally I should chuck the Service. I should take to farming, we’d have Daphne to live with us, and we’d all be as happy as the day is long.”
“It sounds most alluring, but there is one obstacle that you have not taken into account—I care for Gordon still.”
“What!” he exclaimed. “No, it is incredible! Brakespeare has treated you with the most brutal selfishness. Good Lord! how can you care for a man who, although you are young and lovely, openly neglected you, and treated you as his home-keeping slave?”
“Excepting for his rage for shooting, a rage that was almost a mania, he has treated me with generosity and loyalty.”
“Great Heavens! Some people are easily pleased! I’m beginning to have faith in the old adage, ‘A woman, a dog, and a walnut-tree, the more you beat them, the better they be.’”
“Now, you are rude.”
“Yes, I acknowledge that I’m rude, and I’m furious—beside myself. I don’t believe you really care for Brakespeare. I thought that you had some pride.”
“I’ve a great deal of pride,” she answered, “Irish pride, and I will never see you again!” and she turned away.
Hogarth, repulsed and tantalized, in a frenzy of madness, believing they were unnoticed, snatched her into his arms, and covered her face with violent kisses. She thrust him from her with unexpected force and an expression of intense abhorrence, and fled to her cabin, there to recover her equilibrium and eventually collect her belongings.
Once in England, Armine went straight to Richmond to fetch Daphne from her school, and, oh, what an ecstatic meeting, what delightful days, buying frocks and dolls, going to plays, into the park, and sight-seeing!
At last the pair arrived in Ireland and were met by a radiant mother and grandmother, who jolted them to the rectory in a covered car, known in County Cork as a “jingle,” whilst the donkey cart conveyed their considerable baggage.
The rector received them on the hall-door steps with a long, grim face, a shabby grey morning coat, and a pamphlet under his arm. He gave his daughter a cold salute, the grandchild a mere handshake. As he stared at her, he said:
“She’s a Darrell!” and his voice was not agreeable. He then preceded them into the bare and shabby drawing-room, precisely as if they were ordinary visitors. Here he questioned Armine very closely respecting her husband and his movements. Why had he not come home with her? When was he going to get leave? If he was making her a good allowance? Altogether his questions were so searching and disagreeable that Mrs. Doyle signed to her daughter to come upstairs—but not to her old room. She explained this as they ascended.
“Your father would not tolerate a child running about over his head, so I’ve had to put you at the back, but I know you won’t mind that, and it’s cooler in summer,” and then they had another embrace, and Armine said:
“Oh, mother, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see you!”
“Who’s that funny, ugly old man?” asked Daphne.
“That’s your grandfather,” explained her mother. “He may be funny, but he’s not ugly.”
In a day or two everything had settled down into its old routine. Armine found little change—excepting that her father was more corrugated in his opinions, and more exacting than ever. The neighbours who were enchanted to welcome her called in crowds, and overwhelmed her with invitations to lunch, tea, or to stay a few days. They could not make too much of their old favourite, and some thought her prettier than ever. The poor in the village crowded up to see “their darlin’ Miss Armine,” as they still called her, and rained down blessings on her and her lovely child. Her girl friends sat round listening with bated breath to her experiences in India, and her love of the country. They one and all declared that they would give anything to have a chance of visiting the East.
The only person who did not smile upon Armine was her father. In his opinion, she and the child upset the house, visitors and dogs came trafficking in and out all day, she was always bringing in flowers and weeds. Some of her callers he did not approve of such as officers from the nearest garrison town. Whenever they appeared he attended them into the drawing-room and sat them out, engrossing most of the conversation, arguing, contradicting, drinking many cups of tea, eating most of the hot cakes; in short, making himself altogether as detestable as was in his power. As the guests walked or rode away the young men said, “It was no wonder Doyle was notorious through ten parishes, or that his church stood empty and his brother clergy with one consent avoided his company.”
Although there was an immense sympathy between Armine and her mother, the latter was aware that there was a secret in her daughter’s bosom, one to which she clung in spite of her parent’s subtle efforts to extract it.
Working together in the garden one day, Mrs. Doyle said:
“You told me in your letter, Armine, that you and your husband had had a slight coolness. It was not a case of flirtation on your part, I’m sure.”
“Mother!” exclaimed Armine, who was kneeling on the ground, weeding, and had with a great effort displaced a full-grown dandelion, “how could you think such a thing of me? No, nothing of that sort, I’m very fond of Gordon.”
Just at this, moment Bridget, breathless, in a dirty apron, came hurrying along with a large, official envelope in her hand.
“It come by the second post, and as it looked something out of the common, I just brought it myself. It’s for Miss Armine, and registered.”
Armine, a little bewildered, accepted this long portentous-looking affair, but could not imagine what it might enclose. She opened it slowly and gazed at it in silence for a few seconds (whilst Bridget waited to learn, if possible, the contents). On the inside of this strange and unfamiliar document was inscribed the word “Divorce.” “In the High Court of Justice. Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty. Brakespeare v. Brakespeare,” and having grasped the meaning of this stunning notification, Armine collapsed upon the gravel in a dead faint.
The most terrible quarter of an hour Mrs. Doyle had ever experienced was that interview in the study, when she broke it to her husband that Major Brakespeare was suing for a divorce. She had left Armine half insensible upon her bed, with her head in eau-de-cologne soaked handkerchiefs, and had sent the child out to play; she descended the stairs with what is usually known as “her heart in her mouth.” For some minutes the rector sat glaring and dumb. At last he shouted out:
“I’ve known there was some devil’s work like this all along. A man does not send his handsome wife home all by herself for nothing. It’s in the Darrell blood—bad, lawless, dissolute blood! There never was a scandal in the Doyle family. You must take Armine down to the village to-night, and get lodgings there—for I will not keep a loose woman under this roof.”
In spite of his wife’s agonized protestations, the despot stormed and shouted her down, and strode about the room raving of the example to the parish and the disgrace to himself. The servants were assembled in the hall, summoned by the rector’s loud denunciations, and little escaped them. Their sympathies were entirely with “Miss Armine.” They packed her clothes and got a “jingle,” and helped her, more dead than alive, down to Mrs. Murphy’s nice, clean cottage, and there put her, in a semi-conscious condition, to bed.
Little Mrs. Doyle, who had hitherto run the parish, and had a surprisingly stiff backbone—though unable to cope with her Gorgon of a husband—now took hold. The very next day she went into the nearest town and boldly consulted a lawyer, who gave her the address of a firm in London. She sent the child to stay with friends, handed the key of the storeroom to the cook, and roused her daughter to realize the situation.
“You know I will help you, Armine,” she said, “and you must help yourself. We’ll go over to England, get some money, and fight this scandalous case. There’s not another woman in the affair?” she asked anxiously.
“Oh, no—and never has been. The only thing Gordon cares about in the wide world is the markhor.” And the more she endeavoured to explain this infatuation to her mother, the more was Mrs. Doyle bewildered.
A small proportion of the good old Darrell jewellery was still hoarded by her, and she had clung to this—despite many temptations—against what might turn out to be a rainy day. And here was the rainy day with a vengeance!
Among the few connexions still remaining to her in London was a crippled cousin. They had been girls together. Miss Heneage received her warmly, gave her much good advice, allowed her to use her flat for interviews, and helped to dispose of her jewels at a good price; she had no words with which to express her opinion of Gordon Brakespeare! The invalid was kind and sympathetic to heart-broken Armine, who mostly sat with her hands clasped before her, abstracted and dumb—great mental agony stupefies the brain.
At last came the dread day—the day of the trial. There were not many present, but among the crowd was Gordon Brakespeare, and spectators thought what a pity it was that such a handsome couple were about to be separated for life.
Armine’s counsel, young and nervous, made a deplorable show. The K.C. on the other side was one of the most brilliant members of the Bar, and carried all before him. He dwelt with emphasis on Hogarth’s persistent attentions, on the wide notoriety of his love-making, of how he and Armine had travelled home on the same ship as a dead secret; of the man’s slippers and neck-ties found in the lady’s cabin, the acknowledged property of Hogarth—this was Sam’s share in the affair—of the passionate embrace witnessed by several fellow-passengers.
When the case was closed, and the verdict given Mrs. Doyle went straight up to Brakespeare, and said:
“God will punish you for this!” Then, taking her daughter’s arm, she led her out of the court.
Subsequently, Armine had to suffer continuous persecutions from Hogarth, clamouring for her to marry him; telephones, telegrams, letters, calls, were incessant. Such was the persecution she could only venture to go out at night. And then she fell ill, and emerged from a sick-room so changed and strange as to be almost unrecognizable. Her mother and Miss Heneage, who kindly harboured them both, after a long consultation came to the conclusion that there was nothing for it but to get Armine out of the country, otherwise she would never know a moment’s peace. Miss Heneage knew of a great convent school in France where she might be received, her accomplishments being marketable, and Armine really seemed so stunned and odd, as if she did not care what became of her.
Therefore one dark night Mrs. Doyle, eluding Hogarth’s watchers, took her daughter to Dover and thence to France. There they found a haven in a vast establishment kept by nuns in the neighbourhood of Blois, and here Armine was installed. The convent had vast, high-walled gardens, great refectories, cloisters, numbers of nuns, and busy pupils all dressed alike. It seemed odd that this pale, haggard Englishwoman should find a refuge among them. She had recently, Mrs. Doyle explained to the Lady Superior, come through great trouble, and required change and occupation. She was a competent teacher of English and music at least—and cheap.
“It is a refuge, Armine,” said her mother. “It is a haven. At present, of course, I can see that you are stunned; it is as if you had received a terrible blow that has deadened your brain, but by and by you will recover. Your only cure is to bury yourself in hard work. The Sisters will be good to you, and you know you always liked girls. I’ll write to you every week, and send you papers and books. I expect I shall be allowed to take charge of Daphne, she being so young, and I need not tell you how I shall care for her. I have done very little for you—not half of what I should like to do, my poor, dear child. But the outlook will not always be so dark, and in one direction I have been successful—you are lost for ever to Hogarth, and Brakespeare!”
Immediately after the divorce, leaving Daphne in charge of his sister, Mrs. Blenkinsop, Brakespeare rejoined his regiment, and boldly faced the situation. His bungalow and its contents were much in the same condition as when its mistress left for Murree, but how desolate it looked—yes, and felt! As the unhappy man wandered through the empty rooms, everything reminded him of “Her” and her gay bewitching ways. He could almost fancy that he heard her charming voice singing to herself or talking to the dogs—and what amusing things she said to them! The birds in the veranda seemed “choop,” the plants inclined to droop, the mina was restless, and in his startlingly human voice gave his owner a violent shock when he called “Armine—Armine, where are you?” in admirable imitation of Brakespeare’s own summons.
As he rested, smoking and meditating, the dogs sat round with interrogative eyes, asking, “Where is she?” The mistress of the establishment was missed. Yes, there was no question of that! A stud-bred chestnut hung over his half-door anxiously awaiting someone—someone who came with soft, caressing words, and sugar; someone who kissed his velvet nose. The birds, dogs and horses, seeing Brakespeare, awaited as a matter of course his wife, their “Missus.”
Desolate and depressing as was his abode, there was no relief or sympathy for Brakespeare abroad. Every voice was on the side of Armine. Her case had afforded a subject for much “talk” and many serious conversations. It was known that she had made no sign nor offered any defence. Was this from pride or a sense of shame? Moreover, it was no secret that the divorcée had declined an allowance, and refused with unmeasured indignation to marry Hogarth. Possibly she was still in love with “G.B.,” and his cruel suspicions had broken the poor girl’s heart. Many declared that the divorce case had been too hasty and hurried. Armine had no experienced advisers, also her counsel was paper-backed, timid, and painfully in awe of his opposer, the great Morgan. Details were not sufficiently sifted and examined. For example, Brakespeare’s counsel had made extraordinary capital out of Hogarth’s belongings—a cap and a slipper—found in Armine’s cabin. But that, of course, was the doing of Hogarth’s dog Sam, who was devoted to Armine, and had generously attempted to endow her with some of his master’s property. On the whole the regimental verdict declared, that though Armine might have been indiscreet, she was entirely innocent. Brakespeare’s brother officers—the comrades and friends of years—when off parade treated him with frosted formality. The ladies of the regiment no longer sent him cheery invitations to lunch and dine. He appeared to have returned to a milieu in which he was born, in the character of an unwelcome stranger. Native officers and subadars, their wives and children, were under the impression that the kind and beautiful Mem Sahib, who had flickered amongst them like a sunbeam, was dead! But the servants who had been in the hills shook their heads and muttered mysteriously. Oh, yes, it had been made only too plain to Brakespeare that his friends were hostile and considered that he had treated his wife harshly and cruelly. But after all, he argued, facts were facts. Most of the men would have done the same in his place. There was no getting over the passage to Marseilles and the evidence of his own eyes when he discovered Armine and Hogarth tête-à-tête in the middle of the night. And then there had been that passionate farewell embrace, witnessed by several shocked spectators. The magnificent speech of Morgan, K.C., in which every point told, had carried conviction to all who heard it. He could not deny that he felt a momentary pang when—in the court—he had glanced at Armine, sitting bowed beside her mother, a picture of affliction and shame. Nor could he forget the fire in Mrs. Doyle’s eyes when she walked directly up to him and assured him that “God would punish him.” (And he had always thought her such a quiet, lady-like woman!) He felt profoundly indignant that Armine’s friends should boycott him and declare that he had been hard, selfish and neglectful. And had there been any truth in the scandal he would have had no one to thank but himself! Nellie Hamilton had cut him dead in Higginbotham’s shop in Bombay, and in the club in Allahabad his old friend Lynch and another pal had affected not to see him.
Brakespeare had endeavoured to get into communication with Armine, and was anxious to make her a generous allowance, but all his letters were returned unopened. He recognized the writing on the envelopes, and knew that it was Mrs. Doyle—now his enemy—who sent them back with the inscription “Not known.” Daphne was in charge of his sister, Mrs. Blenkinsop. She might have been with her grandmother but for the grandmother’s impulsive prophecy. The child had been sent to a good school, and her father remitted large sums for her education and maintenance. From time to time she wrote him neat, nicely worded letters, and occasionally enclosed a photograph of herself, which showed conclusively that she was growing terribly like her mother—of whose fate he was in complete ignorance.
After six months of the chilly social temperature Brakespeare found he could endure it no longer, and exchanged to a frontier force. Here most of his brother officers were strangers; no one knew anything respecting his domestic life beyond the bald fact that once there had been a surpassingly beautiful Mrs. Brakespeare, who had kicked over the traces and disappeared. Entrenched in an attitude of stern reserve, he now threw all his energies into his profession and his shooting expeditions—there was no one at home to protest at his prolonged absences. In short, he had no home; it had been broken up, and his household gods scattered when he left “The Blue Tufts.” He had presented the piano to Dora Taylor, and the remaining articles were sold among his acquaintances; one had bought the dog-cart, another a writing-table, another a lounge and a clock. Entering a bungalow, people would exclaim: “Hallo, I see you’ve got the Brakespeares’ Persian carpet.” “Wasn’t that their mirror? Their belongings are all over the place!” “How proud she was of that Cashmeri table. Poor girl, it was a sad business!”
Since Brakespeare had neither home nor ties, he still, when at liberty, pursued the markhor with untiring persistence. The hunting of this animal is the most dangerous and fascinating of all Himalayan sport. In pursuit of his quarry he made arduous excursions over “the roof of the world,” and into Gilgit and Tibet. Few men were inclined to face the hardships incidental to these trips; at first his brother officers, ignorant of his methods, volunteered with eager enthusiasm, and as long as sport was confined to antelope, bear and the lower ranges all was well, but when it came to climbing after ovis ammon and ibex, to facing semi-starvation, hardship, exposure, and daily and hourly dangers, that was another affair. The comrades dissolved partnership, returned to their comfortable mess, and wished Brakespeare “the best of luck.” One or two courageous subalterns took their place, and ventured on the pursuit of the elusive goat along giddy tracks and over precipitous mountains encased in snow and ice; but ultimately these, too, fell away; few could stand the penetrating cold, the slippery paths above awful chasms, to look into which made the head reel. Once the petrified spectators beheld a “jula,” or rope bridge, break with Brakespeare’s weight, leaving him to dangle a thousand feet above a river! However, thanks to the prompt exertions of his shikaris, he was rescued, and appeared to take the experience as a matter of course—all in the day’s work! All agreed that “G.B.” was too foolhardy, also he did not seem to mind the scanty fare (if their coolies lagged), “Sutoo” (uncooked Tartar porridge) and wild horse or yak steaks, freezing nights in snow-bound tents, strenuous days, and hairbreadth escapes. When asked “if the game was worth the candle,” Brakespeare invariably replied with an emphatic assent.
Owing to manoeuvres, little wars, and regimental responsibilities, Brakespeare’s leave was much curtailed; nevertheless, he contrived to keep the torch of his quest well alight, for the great markhor still survived, and carried his coveted horns over the mountains far and near.
One morning, when the sportsman and his followers happened to be on the march, unarmed save for ice axes and entirely unprepared, on a ledge many feet above them they beheld the markhor moving gravely along, followed by his herd. Needless to say, they watched the procession with longing eyes. On a later occasion, when Brakespeare was alone, caught in a dense fog on the edge of a cliff, there was a sudden sharp sound of trickling stones. He looked, up, the mist had parted, and there directly above him stood a venerable patriarch contemplating the world. What a picture! A royal goat, with a grand head and enormous beard. As they gazed at one another a veil of gauze-like mist was slowly lowered, and the markhor disappeared from sight.
Armine’s rival must be described. King of all hill goats, he generally frequents pine woods, hill slopes, and the most difficult and inaccessible ground. As a rule his life is solitary and aloof. His height is about eleven to twelve hands from tip of shoulder, his spiral horns are from fifty to sixty-five incites above his skull. An immense brown beard covers his chest and almost sweeps the ground; his mien is majestic, his activity incredible, and his peculiar odour entirely beyond description. Such was Armine’s rival—a rival whose name and fame were known all over the Himalayas, and had even penetrated into the Persian ranges. Natives feared him, and vowed that he was an evil spirit and immortal. “Markhor” Brakespeare, as he was nick-named, was frequently discussed and laughed at in mess and camp, although people allowed that he was a fellow who could “stick it,” a fine soldier, as well as a great sportsman.
In one of the constant “scraps” on the frontier Brakespeare’s regiment was hotly engaged. The Afridis were surprisingly well armed, and held some strong posts, which had to be stormed. During the attack Brakespeare exposed himself needlessly. Instead of a senior officer, he might have been a newly joined subaltern, so keen was he! In a desperate fight for a handy little field gun he was severely wounded and carried to the base as dead. However, as he said himself, he had nine lives, like a cat, and when he recalled his many hairbreadth escapes on his shooting excursions, these might have been multiplied by ten. He was removed to a first-class hospital, where he lay for many months, and refusing furlough to England, took six months’ sick leave to Australia.
Some years passed, still the venerable markhor eluded Brakespeare, and still he pursued him like a tireless sleuth hound. He was now commanding his regiment, laden with heavy responsibility, and had scanty opportunities for shikar. The markhor had long been an obsession, and at last he decided to make one great final effort. Events looked favourable. He had first-rate shikaris, first-rate khubber, and was actually on the ground; so, as he said to himself, “I am getting old, and stiff in the joints; on this occasion it will be him—or me!”
“Hunting the markhor takes it out of a man in a very short time,” said Brakespeare to a friend; “that hill affair aged me. And this is likely to be my last trip in the Himalayas, and I have a presentiment that on this occasion I shall bring it off and bag my old goat!”
One afternoon, about an hour before sundown, he descried the prize, grazing at his ease, on a high, grassy slope—as usual, many feet above him. The approach was abrupt, indeed almost hopelessly difficult, nevertheless he resolved to venture, and without summoning his shikaris, so as not to lose a precious moment. It was desperate work to find an even momentary foothold among loose, crumbling rocks and snow; for half an hour Brakespeare (hampered with a rifle) crept, crawled, and clung, taking a cautious observation from time to time. No, the markhor had not moved—and on this shot all would depend! Victory at last—or failure—and the conclusion of years of empty effort.
Brakespeare’s own position was extremely precarious; he was, as it were, clinging to the face of a wall. At last he found a more secure foothold, and settled himself within range. After long consideration he took careful aim and fired. The bullet went home, the markhor bounded into the air, and toppled over dead. Unfortunately the resounding report had the effect of loosening a stone avalanche, which came sliding down with an appalling roar, overwhelmed the sportsman, and carried him for a considerable distance. When he had recovered from the shock, and painfully extricated his head and shoulders from stones and rubble, strange to say the first thing he descried was his victim not a hundred yards away, his legs sticking stiffly in the air, his precious horns intact!
The pride and joy of such a spectacle momentarily soothed Brakespeare’s agony. He had a broken arm and a fractured ankle, and as he lay there helpless on the hillside two sinister hill crows, who had posted themselves near by, watched him with hungry interest. Well, he reflected, he had got the markhor, and no doubt it was a life for a life. His shikaris and coolies were not within reach, and he would remain undiscovered for hours. As he lay there alone and in. agony, his thoughts turned to Armine. Had he not been hard? Had he misjudged her? There was Hogarth’s oath, her spotless character. Yet, on the other hand her flight to England with her lover. He could not conceal from himself that with the disappearance of Armine a great light had gone out of his life—life had never been the same; it held no sunshine. The torture he was suffering from cold and splintered bones was excruciating; if death would but release him! Oh, if he could but see Armine again, even for one moment, look into her eyes and read the truth. Presently he sank into unconsciousness, and only recovered to find himself in a highly flavoured Tartar tent, full of smoke and sympathetic, anxious faces. His followers had found him and also the markhor. As soon as his worst injuries were roughly attended to, Brakespeare was carried down the mountains, he on one stretcher, the trophy on another. Once at Batsu, established in a private ward in the station hospital, he received every care from an efficient surgeon and nurses, who believed that a fine constitution and a healthy life would stand to their patient.
Brakespeare’s chief attendant was his faithful Ahmed Khan, and it so happened that he and his bearer had a secret between them. Years previously, in turning out the pockets of his master’s old shooting-coat—the same coat Brakespeare had worn at his last interview with Armine—he had found a little black-satin shoe—the Mem Sahib’s shoe! He put it back; both he and his master were well aware of its whereabouts. Ahmed Khan was devoted to his Mem Sahib, a most gracious mistress. How often she had played with and entertained his wife and children. He believed her to be as pure as “Miriam,” and had never lent an ear to the poisonous gossip of the hill bazaar. She was as a sunbeam in the bungalow, and worshipped in the compound. When Brakespeare lay apparently, at the point of death, the bearer stole up beside him and thrust the little black-satin shoe under his pillow. As the wasted, feeble fingers of his master closed over it, he and his trusty friend exchanged one eloquent look, and there were tears in the eyes of the stern Mohammedan as he turned away.
Brakespeare made a desperate struggle for life and after a long convalescence he recovered to a certain extent, and presented to the world a mere shadow of Gordon Brakespeare, but a fulfilled ambition has its price!
The death of the royal goat was accepted as a brilliant personal triumph, not only by his regiment but by “The Blue Tufts,” into which corps he had been born, and all was now forgiven; the towering white barrier in the north of India rang from peak to peak with Brakespeare’s triumph. Such a notable trophy as the head of the markhor had rarely been secured. What were tiger skins and elephant tusks to this pair of sixty-five-inch horns? Brakespeare, overwhelmed with congratulations, sometimes asked himself if the wonderful prize was a fair exchange for home, Armine, and eleven years’ solitude.
At last the invalid was considered sufficiently convalescent to depart, but the doctors would not listen to his appeal to visit Japan and China. On this occasion they sternly insisted on his returning to his native land, and early in April he sailed for Marseilles, accompanied by the admirably stuffed head of the markhor.
When the great shikari, with his trophy, arrived at Marseilles, he made straight for his daughter and sister at the Villa Flora, Mentone. Rooms had been secured for him in the neighbouring hotel, for by the doctor’s orders Brakespeare was to remain some months in the south of France, his health being still so frail. Mrs. Blenkinsop, who had not seen her brother for ten years, was shocked at the change in his appearance, and did not hesitate to say so. He was grey and worn, almost elderly, and appeared to have entirely lost his gay spirits; but Daphne was delighted with her good-looking, soldierly father, who treated her with a deference and indulgence that amazed and touched her. He, too, was sensible of astonishment and pleasure. Somehow he could not accustom himself to the strange fact that this lovely girl belonged to him.
He had arrived at the Villa Flora during the absence of the little party, who had gone to Como. He heard a great deal about his daughter’s friend, Mrs. Dene; in Daphne’s opinion she was one of the most delightful, lovable, and beautiful women she had ever known.
“Can do almost anything,” she boasted. “She plays the piano, and has a lovely voice; doesn’t often dance, but when she does she dances far better than I do. She has given me singing lessons, and taught me to crochet and knit.”
“Dear me, what a wonderful lady!” exclaimed Brakespeare. “A sort of Admirable Crichton in petticoats. What do you say?”—turning to his sister.
Somewhat to his surprise, Mrs. Blenkinsop echoed her niece’s praises, and declared that Mrs. Dene was the most charming and popular woman in the place.
“But, poor thing, she has a heavy log round her neck; she is chaperon and companion to such a loutish ill-mannered heiress,—the sort of girl who pushes out of the room before one, contradicts you flatly, and says everything is ‘ripping,’ or ‘beastly,’ or ‘what’s the odds as long as you’re happy!’ I don’t think poor Mrs. Dene is very happy—but needs must when the devil drives!”
“Who is the devil in this particular case?” inquired Brakespeare.
“An empty purse. She has had her hands full with this girl since she brought her out from London—such a struggle to keep her out of scrapes.”
“Scrapes?” he repeated. “What sort of scrapes?”
“Preventing her gambling at the Casino for large stakes, and getting mixed up with shady people. And then her love affairs have been so prominent. She was engaged for a few days to an Italian prince, and became much too grand to know anyone here. Then the Italian prince found a lady with a larger fortune, and, making a difference of religion his excuse, left Miss Noonie Webb in the lurch. She took it most shockingly to heart, and made no secret of her woe. But now a relative from Australia has turned up, and she and her cousin and chaperon have all gone off for a ten days’ trip to Como. I shouldn’t be surprised if something came of it. He is a prosperous, good-looking colonial, and I dare say he would like to keep the Webb money in the family.”
“Well, if he marries her, your friend Mrs. Dene will be free. Apparently it will be a happy release.”
“She’s an uncommonly good-looking widow,”, remarked Colonel Blenkinsop, suddenly striking in. “I shouldn’t be surprised if she got married herself.”
Daphne enjoyed taking her father about and showing him off to her different friends, including “Curly-head.” She introduced him to Monte Carlo and The Rooms, to La Tourbe and to Nice. For his part, he was delighted with his newly found daughter. She had got over her first shyness—so had he—and they were the best of friends. Early in the morning they went for strolls; at night they would sit out together in the moonlit gardens. They talked of India, he of his shooting trips and his regiment; but somehow or other she never ventured to introduce the name of her mother. This was thanks to a hint from her Aunt Blenkinsop, who said:
“Don’t talk to your father about your mother, my dear. It’s rather a painful subject.”
“I suppose he felt her death most frightfully,” said the girl. “Poor Father! To think of his being alone in India all these years!” To which remark there was no response.
One afternoon, just before sundown, Daphne and her father were strolling along the Garavan, which overlooks the eastern bay. It was not a popular promenade, being out of the way of band or shops, and she was a good deal surprised to observe a party of four coming towards them. At the second glance she identified Mrs. Watkin’s amble; she was accompanied by her dear Mrs. Dene, and followed at a great distance by Noonie and her cousin. As they approached, Brakespeare was not a little startled to recognize Mrs. Toby. Her companion was a tall, distinguished-looking woman, with snow-white hair. A second glance—and, to his complete stupefaction, he recognized his wife!
Daphne eagerly accosted her friend and Mrs. Watkin, and said:
“Oh, I’m so glad to see you! You were away years!” Then, turning to Brakespeare, she said: “Father, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Watkin—and Mrs. Dene.”
Mrs. Toby, who had accorded Brakespeare a short nod, stood by, a petrified spectator. Her imperfect eye had assumed a violent squint as she beheld the innocent Daphne making her parents known to each other!
To Armine this meeting had not been unexpected, and she maintained a surprising composure as she bowed to her late husband. But, on the other hand, Brakespeare sustained the most violent shock he had ever experienced. His colour turned to a greyish hue under the hideous strain of self-control, as he mechanically touched his cap. To think that, of all people in the great, wide world, Daphne had cemented a friendship with her own mother, and, as far as he could judge, adored her! Glancing at Armine, he noticed that she was extremely well dressed, her remarkable white hair set off her comparatively youthful face, apparently her nerves were of steel, and she accepted his acquaintance as she would that of a complete stranger.
Daphne, entirely unconscious of the momentous meeting, having exchanged a few words with Noonie Webb, drew aside her friend and plunged into a series of questions.
“We’re only strolling along, doing nothing in particular, and so we’ll join on to you. Tell me all your adventures?” And she took her friend’s arm, leaving Mrs. Toby and Brakespeare to what might be described as their fate.
“I suppose,” began that lady, “that you have just had the greatest surprise in your life?”
Brakespeare nodded assent; he found speech difficult.
“Armine has made her way, as you see; has earned her bread, kept her head above water, and returned, after many vicissitudes, to what is her natural position.”
“What has she been doing all these years?” he asked.
“She has been a governess in a French convent; after that she nursed her mother for five years; then she was nurse-companion to an old woman. Just now she is chaperon to Miss Webb—who, however, will, not require a chaperon for very long.”
“No—won’t she?” he muttered.
“Armine is immensely admired here. I believe she has had several offers of marriage, and I shouldn’t be surprised if she accepted one of them before the end of the season.” Nodding her head towards the couple in front, she added: “It is strange how those two have been drawn to one another, as if by some occult and mysterious influence.”
“Of course, Daphne hasn’t an idea as to the identity of Mrs. Dene?”
“Of course not.”
“Nor my sister Mrs. Blenkinsop.”
“No. There isn’t a soul in the secret, excepting myself, Major Lynch and old Scrope. And it won’t go any further, you may rest assured.”
“It’s an extraordinary fact that no one has noticed the astonishing likeness between the two.”
“I don’t see that at all,” protested Mrs. Toby. “They are both very pretty, they have both dark eyes, but that’s no reason why people should take them for mother and daughter. Now what do you propose to do? I suppose you will go away at once; the present situation is rather too strained. You can’t well remain in the same place with your divorced wife—who is the daily associate of her ignorant daughter.”
“Easier said than done,” he replied. “Daphne is a fixture here.”
“Ah, I see; you’re thinking of ‘Curly-head’—I mean, young Deverell?”
“Yes; though, of course, that is out of the question. They are years too young. Why, Daphne is only eighteen!”
“Her mother was eighteen when you married her.”
“That’s true. Look here, Mrs. Toby, I know that; you are the holder of many secrets, and I don’t mind telling you that I made an awful fool of myself. After the first flare up was over I realized what a hash I had made of my life—and hers. I have been a miserable man for years.”
“I’m exceedingly glad to hear it!” was the dry rejoinder.
“Oh, yes, of course! You were always one of Armine’s friends, and Armine’s friends were ready to shoot me. There’s Lynch; he cut me dead. And so did you. And although I was hasty and obstinate, you will allow there was something to be said for me and my blundering. It was a strong case of ‘circumstantial evidence’; the voice of scandal was not to be silenced. I never could make out why, after Hogarth’s promise and Armine’s protestations, they went straight home together. Never was there such a case of scorning public opinion. Also there was her letter to me announcing that she was just going off. The whole thing was a puzzle. Many a night I’ve lain awake longing for both sorts of daylight, and I never got any nearer a solution of Armine’s behaviour. I wrote to her several times, care of her mother, but the letters were returned unopened.”
“Armine was always proud, and her pride would not permit her to justify herself. As far as I’m concerned, I always believed in her complete innocence—and so did Tom. It’s hard lines on a pretty young woman to have a shikari husband.”
“Well, my shikari days are ended,” said Brakespeare. “That roll down with the avalanche tore my muscles and broke a good many of my bones; before long I shall be an old fogy occupying a chair in the East India Club and reading the overland mail.”
“Come, come, you are not as bad as all that,” protested Mrs. Toby. “Why, you are not much over fifty; you’ve quite a nice long Indian summer before you.”
“I’m forty-eight, and I’ve a nice long English summer before me. I’ve been so many years out of the country that I’m blessed if I know what to do with myself.”
“Shall I tell you what to do?” said Mrs. Toby. “Make it up with Armine. Naturally you will have to turn yourself into a doormat, but I believe the operation will pay you in the end.”
As they were now within a few yards of the entrance of the Hôtel des Indes, Brakespeare made no reply, but took leave of his adviser in dead silence. Mrs. Dene accorded her late husband a distant bow, and then she and her friend walked away together in the direction of their own hostelry.
Gordon Brakespeare had often found himself in a desperate situation—for instance, on a stretch of sliding shale, crumbling down towards the brink of a precipice, but never had he been in any fix approaching the present crisis. Here he was within a hundred yards of his divorced wife, who was their daughter’s greatest friend! Such a combination would naturally bring him into her company, with their innocent girl as a go-between. From the cursory glance at Armine he recognized that she had entirely recovered her good looks, and, added to these, an unexpected air of repose and dignity. He shrank from meeting her; and she, no doubt, had every desire to avoid him. Apparently she had regained her foothold, and it was not for him to come forward and push her off the social ladder. The only alternative he could think of was to remove himself. He might try Cannes, on the pretext of golf, and take Daphne with him. He threw out a cautious feeler, but it was plain that Daphne had no desire to leave Mentone. With her newly found father she had become surprisingly intimate and confidential, and, with a blushing face, she said:
“I suppose, dear, you know—any way, have guessed—that—that Ivor Deverell wants to marry me. We are aware that we are both too young, but we shall outgrow this. I suppose you would not give your consent, and I expect his people would object to his being tied down to a wife for another year or two. You see how sensible we are!”
“Oh, very sensible,” he agreed. “I shall not allow you to marry before you’re twenty—if then!”
“We shan’t mind; we are not likely to change.”
“And I suppose you’ve known one another for about two months?”
“About that. Ivor came out here for his health, and he’s staying with his aunt, the Marquise de Roche Corbon, and she won’t let him out of her sight, so there would be no Cannes for him. She’s not a bad old thing, but a bit of a dragon. And now you understand why I’m not keen about moving on to Cannes. Firstly, because I play golf very badly; secondly, because of my dear, dear Mrs. Dene; and, thirdly, because of Ivor. So now I’ve made a clean breast of it! If I had said as much to my parent a hundred years ago, he would have locked me up and fed me on bread and water. What are you going to do?”
“Oh, in these days it is a case of ‘parents, obey your children,’ and I suppose I shall have to remain here.”
“You’re a dear!” she exclaimed impulsively, as she stood up and kissed him on the top of his still well-covered head.
For the next day or two he eluded a meeting with Armine. He made excuses, and went for solitary walks far away into the hills. Oh, what a contrast between the Himalayas and the Alpes Maritime! As he walked he reflected. He thought of what Mrs. Toby had said. Mrs. Toby was positive that Armine was scatheless. She was an extraordinarily wise, broad-minded old woman, and her advice was generally sound. If that passage home had been a mere case of accident, and there was no collusion between Armine and Hogarth—if what she said respecting her indifference to his advances was true—the question arose: would Armine ever forgive him? Probably not. When they met on the Garavan that evening her face had assumed a curiously rigid expression. He had never cared for anyone but Armine, and he had missed her terribly; it would certainly be hard lines on her—and by all accounts she had already experienced hard lines—if he claimed his rights and took the girl from her. If he were to re-marry Armine, this would simplify matters, and they could share her company—but Daphne must never know that Armine was her own mother.
Daphne could not imagine why her father held himself so much aloof from society. He did not come to tennis, nor to luncheon parties, nor golf, but roamed about the mountains alone. How odd of him! She made a little complaint to Mrs. Dene, to whom she talked a great deal about her parent. He was so kind, so good-tempered, so generous, and so modest about his own doings. He was about to receive a decoration, and had no end of medals. As to his collection of horns and trophies, they were something amazing! But the poor man had not an idea as to where he was to put them. He had ho home in England, and the Blenkinsops’s abode had already more trophies than they knew what to do with.
“Don’t you think it extraordinary how my father will go off alone every day and climb about these mountains?”
“He is fond of mountains,” said Mrs. Dene.
“How can you know?”
“Mrs. Watkin”—colouring deeply—“has been telling me of his long excursions in the Himalayas, and that mountaineering is his second nature.”
“I wanted him to come to the tennis tournament this afternoon and see me play, but he’s away to somewhere beyond Ventemillia. However, he’s bound to put in an appearance in Society, for we are coming to your dance at the Hôtel Imaginaire, and as neither of the Blenkinsops will stir, the poor man has to do duty as a chaperon. I shall rope him in and make him come and talk to you. I am so anxious that you and my father should be good friends, for something tells me that you would like one another immensely.”
Colonel Brakespeare had obediently accompanied his daughter and brother-in-law to Monte Carlo. He did not care for The Rooms, and said he would loaf about and amuse himself until they met at tea-time. After an aimless ramble he sat down on a seat to rest under one of the trees in the Casino gardens, and here, to his secret horror, he was joined by Mrs. Watkin. He had encountered her on several occasions and been as a very pin-cushion to her pricks.
“Just the person I wanted to see,” she remarked, as she settled herself beside him. “I’m not a lover of The Rooms any more than yourself. By the way, what are you doing here all alone?”
“Waiting for Daphne and Blenkinsop; I’m to meet them at five o’clock.”
“Meanwhile they are losing their money at the Casino.”
“Very likely. Whenever Daphne wins anything worth while she dashes out and buys a hat or some trifling ornament.”
“Ornament!” repeated Mrs. Watkin. “That’s the very thing I wanted to talk to you about. I suppose you remember Armine’s diamond and emerald pendant?”
Armine’s late husband nodded assent, and drew patterns on the sand with his cane.
“Well, you know I’m fond of poking round and picking up bits of old things—when they are bargains, you understand. Just now I’ve been to the Monte de Piété—and what do you think? Almost the first thing that hit me in the eye, so to speak, was Armine’s family jewel—the diamond and emerald pendant!”
“But how on earth did it get there?” he asked.
“I inquired, and was informed that it was pawned about three weeks ago by a tall, good-looking English lady who answers in every respect to the description of Mrs. Bohun.”
“How did she get hold of it? Stole it?”
“Yes in a way. I’d noticed that Armine never wore it herself, but had lent it to Noonie Webb. No doubt Noonie lent it to Mrs. Bohun, with the result that the creature pawned it.”
Brakespeare now rose to his feet, and Mrs. Watkin said:
“What are you going to do? Where are you going?”
“I’m going straight up to the Monte de Piété to redeem that pendant.”
“But my dear, good, stupid man, it is now no affair of yours!”
“That’s true,” he assented gravely. “Still, I feel that I must get it out of the pawnshop.”
“And I suppose you’ll not redeem it a penny under eighty pounds.”
“Oh, that’ll be all right. I shall give them a cheque on the Credit Lyonnaise. Will you come with me?”
“Yes, I rather enjoy going into pawnshops, especially when there is something big to be redeemed.” And together the pair ascended the hill, and entered an establishment across whose counter many magnificent jewels had passed. It was not long before Brakespeare had concluded his business. The price of the pendant was one hundred pounds. The lady who had pawned it had been indifferent to its fate—so said the shopman—for she had torn up the ticket. As the establishment had made an extravagant profit, they placed the pendant in a brand new case, and with this generous concession in his pocket, and accompanied by Mrs. Watkin, Brakespeare descended to Giro’s to tea. On the way down Mrs. Watkin said:
“I suppose you must let Armine know that the ornament has been recovered. How are you going to do that?”
“I shall give it to Daphne, and that will make it all right.”
“All wrong, you mean,” corrected his companion. “There’s no official connection between Mrs. Dene and Mrs. Brakespeare. Mrs. Dene is merely the chaperon to a girl in the Hôtel Imaginaire, and is generally understood to be a widow with no family and no relations.”
“Oh, well, I’ll manage it somehow,” he said. “I don’t think much of Miss Webb’s conduct in the matter, but in one way or another Armine must have her pendant, and I’ll keep it in my pocket till I find some means of passing it on.”
The ball at the Hôtel Imaginaire was a grand affair; guests arrived from Nice, Bordighera and Monte Carlo—the drive was blocked with cars. There were two ballrooms, two bands, a supper worthy of the renowned chef, delicacies, and cotillon favours all the way from Paris. Daphne looked radiant in white; her mother wore a filmy grey gown. Both danced, and were in extraordinary request. Brakespeare, feeling remarkably dull and “out of it,” stood in a doorway, and watched his former wife and his daughter with wistful eyes. Armine still held her own in a ballroom; she was slim and graceful, and moved with the ease of one who loved the exercise. The more he looked at Armine, the more he was resolved to take the great plunge, to break the ice—and silence. After a long hesitation the moment struck. As she passed through a doorway among a crowd he leant forward, and in a low voice asked:
“May I speak to you?”
She gave a slight start, bowed her head, and then, turning to her partner, said:
“If you will kindly excuse me,” she moved aside and went out of doors, followed by a tall, good-looking stranger, who had not spoken to a soul the whole evening!
Every nook and corner in the hotel gardens were well known to Armine in her capacity as chaperon. She descended the steps, and came to a halt on a wide terrace in full view of the hotel. It was a bright moonlight night—the ball committee had taken care to engage the moon—and as she halted and faced her former husband though ashen pale and trembling, she clung to the high-bred dignity of silence.
“Armine, will you listen to me?”
After a long pause she inquired:
“What is it you wish to say?”
“I wish to say a great deal,” he replied, beginning to pace beside her. “For the last eleven years I’ve been trying to unravel the mystery of why you ran away from me.”
“I left you,” she answered, “because you neglected me, had grown tired of my company, and much preferred that of a filthy ghurwali and the stalking of markhor. On two occasions you put off your return to Murree. When it happened a third time I made up my mind that I would assert myself and go to England.”
“No. I had taken my passage weeks previously, and I do not know which of us was the more horrified when we came face to face on board ship. I appeared on deck the fourth day, and I could not believe my eyes when I saw that Captain Hogarth was a fellow-passenger. Naturally we could not land in the open sea, and were compelled to continue our journey to what was really the bitter end.”
“Why have you never explained this?” he asked.
“You would not have believed me,” she answered, and her voice took a passionate intensity that surprised him. “You refused to listen to me that night at Murree. Without real evidence, you treated me as a guilty creature, and so I allowed the divorce to go through.”
“But there was your partly-written letter—the letter that damned you; there was no getting over that. Your letter said that you could not endure the situation any longer, and you were leaving with the natural inference was—Hogarth.”
“The inference was wrong. I was leaving with the ayah!”
“Oh, good Lord!” exclaimed Brakespeare, coming to a standstill. “So that was the missing word! I begin to see things clearly now. The devilish markhor was at the bottom of all my troubles. And yet I can give you no idea of the fever of pursuit; just ‘one day more’ sort of thing—how it forces one on and on. I believe it is a lunacy, a passion which was in my blood, and inherited from my father. And all the time you’ve never attempted to clear yourself?”
“What would have been the good? Circumstantial evidence fitted in so neatly. Everything looked black, and you believed the worst. However, I always had a feeling that time would befriend me.”
“And by all accounts you’ve had a bad time?”
“Yes. Years of solitude and misery.”
“So have I.”
“So you think,” she retorted sharply. “But you’ve always had your position and your profession to fill your life. You’ve never been short of money, you’ve never seen an old friend cross the street to avoid you—never been at your wits’ end to pay your washing bill!”
“That’s true; but I’ve been most desperately lonely. That was my punishment. That, and my worrying to know why you had left me. Alone in that awful mountain silence, in agony with broken bones, and watched and waited for by carrion crows, my one thought was of you. I must have been off my head, for I actually imagined I saw you—and I believed in you as in God.”
“But I told you the truth that night in Murree.”
“No doubt you did,” admitted Brakespeare. “But I was furiously jealous, and nearly stark mad. Now I see light at last. On my head lies all the blame.”
To this confession she made no reply, but maintained an icy silence.
“Of course, I can never expect you to forgive me,” he resumed humbly; “but I’ll make all the reparation that I can.”
“Reparation—for those eleven lean years of anguish and solitude!” she answered bitterly. “And my social disgrace!”
“That’s too true, and I’ve nothing to say except that I’ve been as miserable as you, for I was really fond of you, Armine, and I’ve never cared for another woman—and never shall. There’s one thing I can do; I will give you Daphne and relinquish all claim to her. I will allow you a handsome income, which I implore you to accept. You shall be her chaperon and guardian.”
“That is to say, until she marries.”
“Oh, yes—I suppose you mean young Deverell.”
“Of course, Daphne is much too young now—only eighteen—and possibly doesn’t know her own mind.”
“You married at eighteen—did you know yours?”
“Do you know your own mind now?”
“I hope so.”
“Is it true”—he hesitated, then with an effort continued—“that you’re going to marry Lynch?”
“Certainly not,” she rejoined with emphasis. “I shall never marry again.”
“Well, I’m thankful to have had this face-to-face talk. I suppose nothing I could say or do would soften you towards me?”
“I don’t know. This interview has been so sudden; I feel rather dizzy and bewildered. I will not say no; but these last friendless years have changed and hardened me. I feel it myself.”
“Of course, we all change. I’m gradually drifting into the line of a disillusioned, elderly man, with no home—with nothing to look forward to.”
“But I intend to make her over to you. And as soon as the doctors give me a free ticket I shall go back to India—for good.”
“Would you really?” She paused, and surveyed him steadily.
“There is only one way in which we could share her company, and to that I know you would never consent.” He paused for a moment to steady himself. “We might get married again!”
“Married again!” she repeated, with a curious smile. “How odd it sounds!”
“I swear that the rest of my life would be spent in making you happy. And I’ll never take a gun in my hand as long as I live.”
For some time Armine made no reply. All the influences which stir the deepest emotions of the heart were operating in her breast—she would regain Gordon and Daphne would be as her own.
As she remained silent, Brakespeare continued to plead in a low, concentrated voice.
“You know, Armine, as I lay alone in the snow, watched by those infernal crows, and awaiting as I believed my death, my mind was as active as my body was helpless. All the time I thought of you I realized how I had brought you out to India, young, innocent and lovely, and had gradually deserted you. Not from a want of affection, but influenced by an infatuation, a passion, or what is termed ‘the call of the wild.’ When it called nothing could withhold me, not even you. So I left you, young and attractive, surrounded by temptation, in cantonment and hill-station, but I said to myself, she is safe. Strange to say, I never thought of what you might think of me; nor, idiot that I was, dreamt that you would weary of the role of patient Griselda. Now it all came back with terrible force, and tortured me as I lay. After many hours of unconsciousness and a tedious illness, my good resolve faded, because I was too acutely conscious of a sense of guilt and shame. Also I was ignorant of your whereabouts, or as to how you would receive my advances.”
“You really mean that you hardened your heart like Pharaoh, King of Egypt.”
“No, my heart has always been yours.”
Armine gazed out into the dark blue night, then into Brakespeare’s face with, its desperately anxious expression, and she trembled a little.
Mrs. Dene’s partners were naturally searching for her everywhere; she appeared to have totally forgotten their existence. No one seemed to realize that she and Colonel Brakespeare were promenading on the lower terrace, a little outside the orbit of searching parties, but two of the company were cognizant of their whereabouts. These were Mr. Scrope and Major Lynch, who had come out for a smoke and were seated on the upper terrace.
“I say,” exclaimed the elder gentleman, “here’s a sight for sore eyes! Unless I’m mistaken, that fellow Brakespeare is walking up and down, and making love to his divorced wife, while their daughter is turning the heads of all the young men in the ball-room!”
“Brakespeare! By Jove, so it is!” exclaimed Lynch.
“I shouldn’t be surprised if he were asking her to marry him again,” said Scrope. “If he doesn’t, I’ll marry her myself!”
“You—you’ll never marry,” scoffed his companion.
“Why not? She is a real, live, human woman. She would be an old man’s darling; I respect and admire her more than any woman I’ve ever known. She has had a cruel part to play ever since that chap divorced her, and here—look how she has kept her head, and steered her way among a lot of difficulties. That Webb girl, with her gambling and her friendships, love affairs, and social blunders, would drive any other chaperon raving mad. But Mrs. Dene always comes up serene and smiling, and no one in the whole place except ourselves knows that she is placed between a Scylla and Charybdis—an unacknowledged daughter who has no idea of her identity, and a husband who has divorced her and fallen in love with her for a second time. If you ask my opinion, she will be well advised to say ‘No,’ or keep him on tenterhooks for five or six years; he richly deserves it. Now if she were to marry me—”
“Oh, don’t talk rot!” protested Lynch.
“I’d settle a thousand a year upon her, and give her her head. You proposed to her, Patsy?” he added with brutal directness.
“Yes, no good. She let me down easy—will never marry again.”
“Ah! Now they are coming up! I wonder what has been the upshot of this long tête-à-tête?”
The *tête-à-tête** was not yet concluded, for the couple were still talking together in a low voice as they slowly mounted the steps.
“And Daphne,” Brakespeare was saying, “Daphne will be glad.”
“Yes, Daphne will be happy to call me mother, but she must never know the truth.”
It was remarked as Mrs. Dene and Colonel Brakespeare entered the ballroom together that she was wearing a beautiful diamond and emerald pendant which had not been visible earlier in the evening.