GEORGE NEWNES, LIMITED SOUTHAMPTON STREET, STRAND, W.C.
It was a cold night in early spring, and the West End streets were nearly deserted. The great shutters of the shops were being drawn down with a dull rumble, and every moment the pavements grew more dreary looking as the glories of the plate-glass windows were hidden.
Tired workers with haggard faces were making their way homeward; to them the day was at an end. But to the occupants of the whirring taxis and smart motors, as they sped westward, the round of their day was but half-way through; for them, the great ones of the earth, the all-important hour of dinner was at hand.
At the entrance of one of the most luxurious clubs in Pall Mall two men, in immaculate evening dress, stood carelessly surveying the hurrying throngs of people.
"Seven," said one, as the hour struck from the nearest church. "I thought Standon said seven."
"Yes, and like a woman, meant half-past," returned the other, hiding a yawn.
"Stan's too young to value his dinner properly, but Leroy ought to have been punctual. Oh, here is Stan!" as a slight, well-dressed man sprang hastily from a smart motor and came towards them.
"Hello!" said the new-comer, shaking hands, "you two fellows first? I hope I'm not late, Shelton."
"Of course you're late," growled Shelton, with characteristic pessimism. "You always are, and Leroy is worse. Come along, we may as well wait inside as in this beastly draught."
In the great dining-hall the snowy-covered tables were being taken rapidly by members about to dine; silent-footed waiters were hurrying to and fro, carrying out their various duties, while intermittently the sound of opening champagne bottles mingled with the buzz of conversation and the ripple of laughter.
The three men, Mortimer Shelton, Lord Standon and Frank Parselle, seated themselves at a table in a comfortable recess and took stock of the room, responding to numerous nods and smiles of recognition, while grumbling at the unpunctuality of their friend.
"Ten past seven!" groaned Shelton, looking at his watch. "I might have known that Leroy would be late. Shall we wait?"
"Oh, yes!" said Parselle; "Adrien might not like it, you know. It is a bore, though! The soup will be as thick as mud!"
"By Jove! I'd forgotten," interrupted Standon suddenly. "I met Leroy yesterday, and he asked me to tell you he might be late, as he was off to Barminster Castle last night. We were not to wait. He gave me a note, and—if I haven't left it in my other coat—" He fumbled in his pocket. "No; here it is." He produced the note with an air of triumph, and Shelton, with a muttered exclamation of disgust, ordered dinner to be served before he opened it. As he did so and ran his eye over the contents, he frowned.
"Just listen to this," he said irritably.
"'MY DEAR MORTIMER,
A letter from Jasper takes me down to the Castle. I will return in time to join your little party and, with your leave, bring Jasper along too; but don't wait on any account.
"Jasper—always Jasper!" commented Standon. "I'd like to know by what means Jasper Vermont has obtained such influence over Leroy."
"Ah, that's the mystery!" said Parselle, frowning.
"It's as plain as a pikestaff," growled Mortimer Shelton. "Leroy saved Vermont's life years ago—at Oxford, I think. That's enough for Adrien. If a cat or dog, or even a one-eyed monkey, placed itself under his protection, Adrien Leroy would stick to it through thick and thin. You know his little way; and this Vermont is no fool. He intends to make full use of his friend."
"And yet Leroy is not easily taken in," remarked Parselle thoughtfully.
"Every man has his weak point," retorted Shelton with a shrug, "and Jasper is Leroy's one vulnerable spot. He will believe nothing against him."
"He's a lucky chap, Vermont," said Standon pensively. "No one really knows what he is or where he springs from; yet he always seems to have plenty of money, and apparently the whole of Leroy's passes through his hands."
"Something near a million," put in Parselle enviously, "and with the run of a castle like a palace. No, Vermont's no fool!"
Mortimer Shelton nodded.
"The Castle's all right," he said curtly. "You can trust the Leroys to have the best of everything. They treat money like dirt, and bow before nothing but Royalty and women. Yet, with it all, there's no stauncher friend than a Leroy."
"As Vermont knows only too well," muttered Standon dryly. "By the way, I saw Ada Lester in the Park this morning. Jove! Such furs!"
"In that quarter Adrien certainly treats his money like dust," said Parselle, with a short laugh. "I can't think what he sees in her; to me she seems an insatiate animal—and about as difficult to satisfy. It's a jolly good job for Leroy that, thanks to his father's generosity, his income runs into five figures—nothing else would stand the strain."
"Do you know, some one told me at the Casket the other night that Leroy had made the theatre over to Ada entirely, and settled a thousand a year on her into the bargain," said Standon, leaning forward.
"I daresay," Mortimer commented dryly. "He's fool enough for anything. The place runs him into eight thousand a year as it is—not including Ada Lester, the lady manager—so he might just as well hand it over to her altogether. I wish to goodness the wretched building would burn down! 'Pon my word, I shall set it alight myself one fine night——"
"Hush! Here he is," said Lord Standon; adding quickly, "with Vermont, of course."
The others looked round towards the new-comers. One was a dark-haired man of about forty years of age. His face was pale, with an almost unhealthy pallor, from which his small dark eyes glittered restlessly; his thin lips, tightly closed, were set in an almost straight line. Clean-shaven, sleek of hair, he wore an expression of cautious slyness that implied a mental attitude ever on guard against some sudden exposure of his real feelings. Such was Jasper Vermont.
His companion was of a different calibre. Still apparently in the early thirties, tall, and with clear-cut aristocratic features, he was decidedly good to look upon. His face, fair as that of a woman, was perhaps slightly marred by the expression of weakness which lurked round the finely-moulded lips; but for all that it was stamped with the latent nobility which characterised his race.
The Hon. Adrien Leroy, only son of Baron Barminster, was one of the most noted figures in fashionable society. His father, who since the death of Lady Barminster had lived almost as a recluse, spent the days in the old Castle, and had practically abdicated in favour of his son. So that the colossal income accruing from the coal mines of Wales, the rentals of the Leroy estates in the Southern Counties, and the ground rents of a considerable acreage in one of the most fashionable parts of London, all passed through the hands of Adrien, who, in his turn, spent it like water, leaving Jasper Vermont—his one-time college friend and now his confidential steward—to watch over his affairs.
Leroy, with a genial smile of greeting for all, but a grave, almost weary expression in his blue eyes, parried the numerous questions and invitations that beset him on all sides, and, taking Vermont's arm, drew him towards the table where his three friends awaited him.
"I'm sorry we're late," he said in a pleasant voice, which was clear and unaffected, in strong contrast to the chatter which buzzed round him at their entry. "Blame Jasper, who, if he is as hungry as I am, is punished already."
His good-humoured laugh as he seated himself drew echoes from his friends; Leroy's popularity was never more apparent than in a gathering of this sort, composed exclusively of his own sex.
"So, have just come up from Barminster," said Shelton presently, "How is the Castle looking?"
Adrien, busily satisfying a vigorous appetite, merely nodded and smiled in reply; but Jasper Vermont answered for him.
"Beautiful!" he said, with a smile which showed his white, even teeth. "Beautiful! It's a charming view; but we saw little of it this visit. Ah, Shelton, you are really an epicure! We don't get clear turtle like this at the Pallodeon—eh, Adrien?"
"No," replied the young man, looking up. "We ought to have Shelton on the committee. No wonder they love you here, Shelton! And so the colt has lost the steeplechase? I saw the news as I came along."
"And you have lost, how much—two thousand?" queried Parselle.
"Five," said Vermont, not quickly, but just before Adrien could speak.
"Is it five?" asked Leroy indifferently. "I thought I'd backed 'Venus' for more."
"I backed her myself for a couple of hundred," put in Lord Standon ruefully. "She's a beautiful creature, though, and I'd like to buy her."
"You can have her, my dear Stan, for a mere song," said Leroy cordially.
"I'm afraid that's impossible," interposed Jasper with suavity. "She's sold."
Adrien looked up in surprise.
"Sold! To whom?" he asked.
"To the knacker," was the calm reply. "Don't you remember, Adrien, that she threw Fording and broke her leg over the last hurdle?"
Leroy's race resumed its usual air of bored indifference.
"Ah, yes, so you told me. My dear Stan, I'm awfully sorry! I had completely forgotten." He looked round the table. "Any of you seen the papers?" he inquired. "Last night was the first of the new comedy at the Casket—how did it go?"
Frank Parselle laughed. "I was there," he admitted. "Ada played finely, but they hissed once or twice."
"Lost on my horse and on my new play. That is bad luck!" exclaimed Adrien, looking, however, very little disturbed by the news. "It must be withdrawn."
"Certainly," agreed Vermont amiably. "Certainly."
"By Jove! what did you tell me the mounting cost?" asked Parselle, addressing Vermont, but glancing significantly at the others.
"Three thousand pounds," answered Vermont glibly, while Adrien ate his fish with the most consummate indifference.
"Three thousand for four nights, that's about it. The public ought to be grateful to you," said Shelton with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice, as he nodded across at Leroy.
"Or I to them," he said cheerfully. "It's no light thing to sit through a bad play. But how is that, Jasper? You said it would run."
"I?" protested Vermont, with a pleasant smile. "No, Adrien, not so certainly as that. I said I thought the play well written, and that in my opinion it ought to run well—a very different thing. Eh, Shelton?"
"Ah!" replied Shelton, who had been watching him keenly. "So you were out in your reckoning for once. It is to be hoped you didn't make the same mistake with the colt. I think you were also favourably inclined to that, weren't you?"
"Yes," admitted Vermont, leaning back with an admirable air of content. "I laid my usual little bet, and lost—of course."
"You should have hedged," said Shelton, who knew as a positive fact that Vermont had done so.
"I have no judgement," Vermont responded deprecatingly. "I am a man of no ideas, and I admit it. Now Adrien is all acuteness; without him I should soon go astray. I am supposed to look after his interests; but, by Jove! it is he who supplies the brains and I the hands. I am the machine—a mere machine, and he turns the handle!" He laughed gently at his own joke, and held up his glass for replenishment.
"A pretty division of labour," commented Shelton, with a faint sneer. "Now we give you the credit for all the tact and business capacity."
"Ah, what a mistake!" replied Vermont, spreading out his fat hands with a gesture of amusement. "Well, since you give me credit, I will assume the virtue, though I have it not."
He changed the subject adroitly to one of general interest; and as the wine came and disappeared with greater rapidity, the talk ran on with more wit and laughter, Vermont always handling the ball of conversation deftly, and giving it an additional fillip when it seemed to slacken. Adrien Leroy spoke little; though when he did make a remark, the rest listened with an evident desire to hear his opinion.
At length Vermont rose, with a lazy look round.
"Well, I must be off," he said smoothly. "Good-night, Adrien. I shall be with you to-morrow at twelve."
Having bade the rest of the company a hasty adieu, he turned once more to his host.
"Good-night, Shelton," he said smilingly. "Thanks for the excellent dinner. Rome would not have perished had you lived with the last of Caesars."
"And Adrien Leroy would not go to the dogs so quickly, if you did not show him the way," murmured Shelton inaudibly, as Vermont departed, with the bland smile still hovering round his thin lips.
Outside the club door, Vermont's motor was drawn up at the side waiting for him. He looked at his watch, and was surprised at the lateness of the hour. Stepping hastily into the vehicle, he held up two fingers to the chauffeur, who apparently needed no other instructions; for the car glided off, and Vermont, as he passed the club, looked up at the windows with an ugly smile.
As Lord Standon had said, few knew his origin or his business; but, in reality, his antecedents were of a very ordinary nature. He was the son of a solicitor who had lived with but one object in his sordid life, namely, the desire to make his son a man of position with the power to mix as an equal among that portion of society which only came to Malcolm Vermont when it wanted its scandals glossed over, or to obtain money. Ill-natured people were apt to hint that he had amassed his wealth by means of usury and the taking up of shady cases. At any rate, he made sufficient to bring up his son in luxury and send him to Oxford, where Jasper had first come in contact with Adrien Leroy. At the death of his father, Vermont found himself possessed of an income of a thousand a year, which enabled him to become a member of Adrien's set, notwithstanding that the amount was a much smaller one than he had been led to expect, and, in his opinion, savoured almost of aristocratic poverty.
The car had rolled silently into a side street off St. James's, where the chauffeur pulled up sharply at the door of one of the old-fashioned, though now newly-painted houses. Vermont sprang out and rang the bell twice.
"Has Miss Lester returned yet?" he asked of the smart maid who opened the door.
"Yes, sir," she answered, and promptly led the way up a newly-carpeted staircase, redolent of Parma violet scent and glistening with white enamelled woodwork and plaster casts. The walls were adorned with pictures in the worst possible taste and the most glaring colours. As Vermont reached the first floor, a strong, savoury odour filled the air.
He smiled sarcastically, and sniffed as if the perfume were familiar to him.
"Miss Lester at supper?" he asked the white-capped maid, as she threw open the door on the first floor, and stood aside to let the visitor precede her.
"Yes, sir; supper's been served," was the demure answer.
Vermont passed into the room, which was furnished with the same lack of taste as the staircase. Two women were seated at the table, apparently just finishing their supper.
At first glance they might have been mistaken for mother and daughter, as the elder woman was clad in a sombre black velvet dress, and had a pale, thin face, crowned with heavy masses of grey hair. On closer inspection, however, one perceived that Julia Lester was far from old—indeed, not more than about forty-five, and with a peculiarly gentle, almost child-like expression, which at first took one almost by surprise.
On the other hand, her sister, though only about ten years younger, would easily have passed as twenty-five, especially when behind the footlights, which was her usual environment.
"Oh, it's you, Jasper, is it?" she remarked carelessly, pausing in the act of lighting a cigarette. "Didn't hear you come in. You're so quiet on your pins."
Like the house she inhabited, Miss Lester combined in her person prodigality of colours with a fine disregard of taste. Beautiful she undoubtedly was, with the black-browed, dark-eyed beauty of a Cleopatra, for there was some Italian blood in her veins. It was given out occasionally by the Press that she had been a theatre-dresser, an organ-grinder, and fifty other things; but nevertheless, illiterate, common and ill-bred, she had yet achieved fame—or rather, perhaps, notoriety—-by her dancing and sheer animal good looks.
As a matter of fact she owed her success primarily to Jasper Vermont, who, as a young man and during a quarrel with his father, had lodged in the same house with the handsome sisters, Julia, and Ada Lester, the latter then being only about fifteen years of age. He had fallen violently in love with Julia, then in the height of her beauty, and had cruelly deceived her. To appease the indignation of the younger sister he had got her an introduction to the manager of the Rockingham Theatre, who was about to put on a new Egyptian ballet, and from that time onwards it had been plain sailing for Ada. Later on came a meeting with Leroy, planned by Jasper's connivance; and Adrien, attracted by the woman's ripe beauty, had been blind, so far, to the deficiencies of her mind and character.
To-night she looked a veritable daughter of the South. Her dress was of scarlet, touched with black, and she was wearing diamonds—gifts from her many admirers—of such intrinsic value as to render many a countess jealous.
"Yes, it is I," said Vermont. "Onions and cigarettes! I thought Leroy objected to both."
"It's the smell he don't like," she said lightly. "He's so particular. But he's not coming to-night; leastways, he said he wasn't."
"Ah!" said Vermont smiling, as he seated himself at the table and took up a small bottle which proved to be empty, "Is there anything left to drink?"
"Have some fizz," said Ada hospitably. "Ring the bell, Ju, and give me another chop. Well, Jasper, what's the news?"
"Just the question I was about to ask," he replied, as the maid-servant brought in a bottle of champagne and glasses on a silver tray. "How did the comedy go?"
"Rotten!" pronounced Ada shortly. "I told Adrien it wouldn't go, though I did my best—didn't I, Ju? The frocks were really first-class—blue satin and silver, with loads of pearls, and my turquoise armlets. All right, eh?"
"Yes," agreed Vermont, adding, with a sneer, "Perhaps the stupid public got tired of looking at the blue satin."
"Then they could have looked at me instead," retorted Ada tartly. "But I've no patience with Adrien. Why can't he get 'em something lively? A musical comedy now—I could make that go, if you like! Plenty of songs and no talky-talky business. Besides, I can dance."
"But can't act," murmured Jasper, with his sarcastic smile.
"Can't I!" cried Ada furiously. "That's all you know about it. Why didn't you come last night?"
"Business," he answered carelessly, sipping his wine; adding, as he saw her about to question him, "With which I won't trouble you, my fair Ada."
"Oh won't you!" was that lady's retort. "You're mighty polite, I must say. I suppose you were down at that old Castle again, and Adrien too! What were you doing there?"
"Minding our own business," he replied smilingly, as he lit a cigarette.
"Close as a fox, you are," she declared, with a short, disagreeable laugh. "Where's Adrien? Down there still?"
"No; at the Thessalian. I left him there with Mortimer Shelton."
"I hate that man," said Miss Lester viciously.
"So do I," agreed Vermont, "but I don't say so. Anyhow, Adrien's safe there for another hour, and I came on to give you a word of warning."
He turned to her companion, who had been quietly finishing her supper as if unconscious of anyone's presence.
"Julia, you look tired; you'd better get off to bed."
She rose and hesitated for a moment, looking from him to Ada; then quietly left the room. Vermont gazed after her, much as he would have watched a useless piece of furniture in course of removal; then he leant back in his chair, and, before resuming, regarded fixedly Ada's flushed, handsome face.
"Well?" she queried, impatiently striking the table with her fork.
Jasper leant forward and spoke with calm, unpleasant deliberation.
"Ada," said he, "there was once a person who killed the goose that laid him golden eggs; there was another who beat his horse till it pitched him into the ditch; but neither of these attained such a height of folly as Miss Lester bids fair to reach, if she persists in worrying her prize donkey into kicking her to the ground and leaving her in the mud."
"Oh, don't be an idiot, Jasper!" she exclaimed irritably. "Speak out plain, can't you?"
"I certainly can, and will, my dear lady. To put it plainly, then, you are going the quickest way to make Adrien tired of you. After all, if you happen to possess a goose with the propensity to lay golden eggs, surely it is wise to humour him. And if the said goose happens to dislike the smell of onions, why fill the house with that particular perfume, sufficient to suffocate an elephant? Again, is it not the height of folly to stick plaster statues on the staircase which he ascends daily, when you know this particular goose detests imitation art? In short, my dear Ada, if you persist in thrusting vulgarity down his throat, you will find yourself very soon out of the graces of our friend, Adrien Leroy."
Ada, who had been beating a loud tattoo with the fork which she still held in her hand, sprang to her feet and struck the table with a force which set the glasses jingling.
"Jasper!" she almost shouted. "You'll drive me mad! Why don't you speak out and say what you mean? What's the matter with Adrien? What does he want? Aren't there a hundred men who'd be glad enough to furnish a house for me as I like? And can't I even eat what I choose without Adrien Leroy's delicate nose being turned up in disapproval?"
"You can go to the deuce, if you like, my dear," declared Jasper with a calm smile. "I merely warn you that you are on the way to finding yourself in the street, if I may be allowed to speak out. Have another cigarette, and spray some patchouli about the room. There are more geese than one, as you say; and, after all, it is hard if you can't indulge in onions in your own room at one o'clock in the morning."
Goaded almost to desperation by the sneering sarcasm of Vermont's words, the woman threw down her fork, thereby smashing a champagne glass, and thrust her angry, flushed countenance close to his.
"What's your game?" she hissed. "Are you playing with me and Adrien? Are you setting him against me? I know your artful tricks; but don't you play 'em on me, Jasper! What are you doing up at the Castle so often? Making yourself pleasant to old Lord Barminster's niece there, I'll be bound. P'raps she ain't fond of scent or a pork chop or two, and she can have real statues if she likes. You don't remind him of that, do you? Oh, no, of course not! But you mind your skin, Jasper, for you can't play fast and loose with me. Shuffle him on to that Constance girl, and I'll make you pay for it. I know something you wouldn't like my lord to hear about; so, if you don't want me to open my mouth and split on your little games, don't you play me any of your tricks, that's all, or I'll go straight to Adrien and tell him all!"
She stopped, out of breath, and Jasper Vermont, springing to his feet, glared down at her in impotent fury. But she only laughed at his angry face.
"Oh, no, you wouldn't like Adrien to know how you fooled poor Julia, though it is over twenty years ago. I haven't forgotten, if you have, how you took her over to Paris while I was away on my first tour, and went through some form of marriage with her. You wouldn't like him to know how you told her what you'd done, when there was no longer need to keep it dark from your father, and of the attack of brain fever it brought on, poor dear! You were a nice brute to her, you were, Jasper Vermont; and it's a lucky thing for you and her too that when she recovered her memory had gone, and she forgot you as well as the child."
Jasper stirred uneasily.
"I didn't think she would have cared so much," he said. "Besides, she's all right now; she only forgets those few years."
"Lucky thing for you," repeated Ada dryly.
"What have you done with the child?" he asked suddenly.
His companion's face lighted up with malicious triumph.
"I've put her where you can't find her, anyhow," she said. "You shan't break her heart, as you did her mother's."
"Oh, nonsense, Ada!" said Vermont contemptuously. "Don't begin to rant—you're not on the stage now. I kept all my promises to you, at any rate. I got you on at the Rockingham and I introduced you to Leroy; and if you had only played your cards properly you would have hooked him by this time. As it is, he'll marry his cousin, if you're not careful."
"If he does, it'll be your fault," she snarled. "And I'll tell Adrien all, and how you're fooling him in other ways as well."
Jasper sprang across the room, his face working with anger. There was something so deadly in the light of his dark eyes, such murderous hate in every line of his face, that the woman shrank back and uttered a cry of fear, instinctively glancing at a knife which lay on the table close to Jasper's other hand.
How far Vermont's anger might have carried him she did not know, for, to her intense relief, the door opened and Adrien Leroy himself entered the room. He gazed in surprise at the two occupants, and in an instant Jasper had regained his self-control. He did not release Ada's wrist, but, smoothing his scowl into a sleek smile, he said with a careless laugh:
"No, Ada, your arm is as slim as ever. The bracelet will just fit you." He relaxed his grip as he spoke and turned to Leroy. "Ada has bet me that the new bracelet you bought her is too small, Adrien," he explained glibly. "She thought she was getting stout."
Adrien nodded indifferently; while Ada, with a little cry of relief, ran towards him.
"Adrien, how good of you to come!" she exclaimed. "I did not expect you so soon."
Leroy did not seem to notice her, but looked round the room with evident displeasure. The table, with its remains of supper; the stained cloth; above all, the undesirable odour of food and stale tobacco; all seemed to fill him with disgust. Gently, but firmly, he put Ada from him.
"Jasper," he said, turning to Vermont, "you know why I came. Give Miss Lester the deeds of the Casket Theatre. I am tired and am going home."
With a courteous good-night to Ada, who, without attempting to thank him for his gift, stood scowling and sullen, he passed out of the room; while Vermont leaned back against the table with folded arms and his inevitable, but significant, smile on his face.
The night was bitterly cold; but, disdaining a taxi for so short a distance, Leroy buttoned up his coat and strode swiftly along towards his chambers in Jermyn Court, W. As he turned the corner of the square, he stumbled sharply over the slight figure of a girl, crouched near one of the doorsteps, and, with his habitual courtesy, he stopped to see if any harm had been done.
"Have I hurt you?" he asked gently, placing his hand on her shoulder.
At his touch the girl started up with a cry of distress; and, as the shawl fell back from her head, Leroy was almost startled by the vivid freshness of her beauty.
"Oh," she exclaimed in terrified accents, "I wasn't doing any harm! I will move on—I—I was only resting." Then, as she saw the kindly face looking into hers, she subsided into silence.
She was quite young, not more than about sixteen, and so slenderly formed as to appear almost a child. Her features were clear-cut as a cameo and she had a slightly foreign air. Her eyes were brown, but as the light of the gas-lamp fell full on her upturned face, they showed so dark and velvety as almost to appear black, while masses of dark hair clustered in heavy waves round her forehead.
Unconsciously Leroy raised his hat as he repeated his question. She shook her head at him as he bent over her, but made no reply.
"How is it you are out on such a night as this?" he asked. "Have you no home? Where do you live?"
"Cracknell Court, Soho," she replied, in tones singularly free from any trace of Cockney accent.
"With your parents?" queried Leroy, feeling for some money.
"No," said the girl, her red lips quivering for a moment. "Haven't got any—only Johann and Martha—and they don't care."
"Who is Johann?" said Leroy, with an encouraging smile.
"I don't know," she answered listlessly. "He's Johann Wilfer, that's all."
"Why have you run away, then?"
"Johann came home drunk and beat me—so I ran out."
She pushed back her ragged shawl and held up her arm, on which bruises showed up cruelly distinct. Leroy uttered an exclamation of anger.
"You poor child!" he said almost tenderly. "What can I do for you? If I give you money——"
"Johann will take it and make me beg for more," she interrupted; and Leroy withdrew his hand from his pocket, fearing this to be but too true.
"Will you go home, if I take you?" he began.
The girl shook her head, and dragged the old shawl closer round her shivering body.
"Not till morning," she said decidedly. "I shall be all right then."
"But you'll freeze to death here!"
She laughed harshly.
"I wish I was dead," she said, with an earnestness that made Leroy's heart ache, as he thought of her extreme youth and saw the bitter despair in the great dark eyes.
He drew himself up sharply as if he had decided on his course of action.
"I cannot leave you here," he said quietly, "and money is of no use to you to-night. Will you come with me?" He held out his hand as he spoke, and, without a word, the girl rose wearily and laid her own cold one in his. They proceeded thus, in silence, for the length of the square; but Leroy soon saw that, whether, from cold or from hunger, the girl's steps were growing feebler and more uncertain. Without further ado, he picked her up in his arms, wrapping her shawl more warmly round her.
"We are nearly there," he said reassuringly, "and you are as light as a feather."
She lay back, perfectly content, her head pressed against his broad shoulder, her dark eyes closed trustfully.
Adrien Leroy hurried on, for the wind cut with the force of a knife; but his face was very thoughtful as he approached his chambers.
"What else can I do?" he asked himself. "She is such an innocent child. Can I take her to my rooms without injury to her poor shred of reputation? Yet no houses are open at this hour, and I cannot hand her over to that drunken brute. There's no help for it!"
It evidently never occurred to him to turn back and deliver her into the charge of Miss Lester. Indeed, he thought that would have been greater cruelty than to have left her in the streets.
Having reached the block of buildings in which were his own rooms, Adrien walked up the stairs and opened a door on the first floor. In the hall a light was burning, held by a statuette of white marble; and Leroy, after gently setting the girl down on her feet, led her into his study.
The room in which she found herself was not lofty, but the ceiling was exquisitely painted, while from the four corners hung electric lights 'neath delicate shades. The furniture was rich in colour, solid as befitted a man's room, while on the walls were a few rare engravings. A couple of gun-cases in one corner and a veritable stock of fishing implements in another showed that Leroy was not unaccustomed to sport; it was one of his man Norgate's complaints that he was not allowed to pack them away, but must leave them there, close at hand, just as Leroy might want them.
It was not these, however, that held the girl's attention so fixedly, but the cut Venetian glass on the inlaid cabinets and the gold ornaments on the carved Florentine mantel.
"Home at last," he said with a smile; and, opening another door on the left, he led her unresistingly into a second room.
But here the girl seemed as if struck dumb with astonishment. She was evidently overwhelmed by the magnificence and luxury on which her eyes rested, and Leroy smiled in amusement at her unspoken admiration.
"Come and warm yourself," he said kindly, drawing one of the divans nearer to the fire.
Lightly she trod over the rose carpet, and dropped with a sigh into the chair.
"Give me your hands. Don't hold them near the fire yet," he said, and began to gently chafe the poor blue fingers, for he knew the danger of too sudden heat. "That is better—they will soon get warm. And now we will have something to eat."
He crossed over to the bell; and in a few moments the door opened noiselessly.
"Let us have some supper, Norgate," said Leroy; and the dignified man-servant disappeared as silently as he had entered, while his master returned to the fire-place, and stood looking down at the girl he had rescued.
As yet she had not spoken; but her eyes had been wandering over the many splendours of the room. Suddenly she lifted them to the handsome face above her, and said in a low, awe-struck whisper:
"Is this the king's palace? And are you a prince?"
Adrien Leroy smiled.
"By no means," he said. "Ah! here comes something you require, I know," he added, as the door opened, and Norgate entered, bearing a large silver tray.
Having set the chairs to table, and placed the wine and glasses at hand, the man announced respectfully that supper was served. His master dismissed him, guessing that the girl would be less embarrassed if alone with him; and Norgate retired with a face as expressionless as if the entertaining of "street waifs"—as he mentally termed the young visitor—were of nightly occurrence.
Adrien placed a plate of cold chicken on a low table beside her.
"You are warm there," he said, as he poured her out a glass of wine.
The girl looked up into his face with a mute, questioning glance; then, taking courage from the kindly eyes, she picked up her knife and fork with long, thin, but well-shaped hands.
Leroy turned to the table, and by dint of helping himself from various dishes, under a pretence of making a hearty meal, he gave her confidence; and presently he saw that she had commenced to eat. Adrien rose from time to time, and waited on her with a delicacy and tenderness with which few of his friends would have credited him; till, with a sigh of content, she laid down the knife and fork.
"Are you better now?" he asked as he took her plate.
She looked up at him in speechless adoration, and her eyes filled with tears.
"How good you are to me," she said. "I never dreamt there could be such a beautiful place as this. Do you often bring people in out of the cold?"
His face became grave.
"No," he said evasively—"not as often as I should, I'm afraid. And now, suppose you tell me your name."
"Jessica," she replied simply.
"And have you no relatives—no friends to help you?" he continued.
She shook her head sadly.
"Only Martha and Johann," was the hopeless reply.
"You poor child! And what does friend Johann do for a living?"
Again she shook her head.
"I don't know. He gets drunk."
"An overfilled profession that," said Leroy, with a sigh. "And now, what are we to do with you, little Jessica?"
She looked up with frightened eyes.
"Oh," she cried breathlessly, "are you going to turn me out into the cold again? Must I go? Oh, I knew it was too good to last!"
In her terror she had started up; but Leroy put her back gently into the chair.
"No, little one, we won't turn you out to-night," he promised. "To-morrow, we will see what can be done to make your road softer in future."
She did not understand half his words; but as with an almost womanly tenderness he placed a silken cushion beneath her head, she nestled down, smiling into his eyes with the gratitude of a child that neither questions nor doubts. To her he appeared like a being from another world—a world or which she had scarcely dared to dream, and her eyes were eloquent.
Adrien Leroy stood for a little while watching her, till her gentle breathing showed him she had fallen asleep.
"A beautiful child," he said under his breath. "She will be a still more beautiful woman." He sighed. "Poor little thing! Rich and poor, young and old, how soon the world's poison reaches us!" Then, throwing a tiger-skin over the slender body, he turned out the lights and left the room. Summoning Norgate, he gave instructions that his nocturnal visitor should not be disturbed in the morning by the housekeeper, but should be allowed to sleep on. Then he made his way to his own room, not long before the dawn broke.
He had befriended this young human thing as he would have rescued a wounded bird, and with as little thought for the consequences; yet the day was to come when he should look back on this action as one inspired, in very truth, by his guardian angel.
The sun had risen cold and bright when Adrien Leroy awoke, and his first question was for the child, Jessica. But here a surprise awaited him, for the bird had flown. Norgate and the housekeeper had found the room tenantless. For some inexplicable reasons of her own she must have stolen noiselessly out while the other occupants of the flat were still sleeping.
Adrien made no comment, but proceeded to undergo the labours of the toilet. A cold bath is an excellent tonic; and when Leroy entered the dining-room his calm face bore no traces of his comparatively sleepless night. He sat down to breakfast, waited on by the attentive Norgate, and turned over the heap of letters which lay beside his plate. During his leisured meal he opened them. They were principally invitations, though a few of them were bills—big sums, many of them, for horses, dinner-parties, supper-parties, jewellery, flowers—all the hundred-and-one trifles which were as necessary to a man in his position as light and air.
With a gesture of weariness, he pushed the pile from him, and throwing them carelessly into the drawer of a buhl cabinet, left them until such time as Jasper Vermont could attend to them.
"Where do I dine to-night?" he asked presently.
"At the Marquis of Heathcotes', sir—at eight," replied Norgate, who knew his master's engagements better than did the young man himself.
Leroy nodded absently.
"Order the new motor for four o'clock. I want to see how it goes."
"Yes, sir." The confidential servant coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. "I may mention, sir, that Perrier has sent in his account for the costumes made for the Fancy Dress Carnival at Prince's."
"Refer him to Mr. Vermont," was the calm reply. "I have sir, several times, but he wants to see you personally. It's a matter of discount——"
"Send him to Mr. Vermont. I know nothing of his bill or his discount. Surely you know that, Norgate," Leroy interrupted impatiently.
The discreet Norgate retreated silently; and ten minutes later Leroy started for his morning canter in the Row. Here, meeting and chatting with his numerous friends, the morning passed quickly enough; and when Leroy returned to his chambers again, Norgate was putting the finishing touches to the table already set for lunch.
"Covers for four?" said his master, as he entered the room. "Who is coming?"
"Mr. Shelton, Lord Standon, and Mr. Paxhorn, sir."
"Ah, yes, to be sure," replied the host, who had completely forgotten the invitation. "I thought it was for to-morrow."
The loud hoot of a motor outside told him that his visitors were arriving; and in another moment the door was flung open, and Mortimer Shelton, followed by Lord Standon, entered the room.
"Well, Leroy, old man," exclaimed the former cheerily, as they shook hands, "you look as fresh as if you had awoke with the dawn!"
"Nothing new in that," said Lord Standon, laughing. "Nothing upsets Leroy."
"Except a bad dinner," murmured Algernon Paxhorn, the fourth member of the party, who had just entered the room. He was the latest literary lion, and a fast friend—in more senses than one—of Adrien and the members of his set.
With jest and laughter they took their places at the table.
"Well, how's the steeplechase going?" asked Leroy, turning to Shelton. "What do you think of my 'King Cole'? Does he stand a chance?"
"A chance!" echoed all three.
"The odds are four to one on him, and few takers," announced Shelton.
Lord Standon set down his glass.
"Ah, that was yesterday," he said. "I was there later, and the odds were being lifted. You can lay what you like on him, my dear fellow, and you will have no difficulty in finding takers."
"Oh!" commented Adrien, almost listlessly. "Something better in the field, I suppose? I thought the roan was not to be touched."
"And I, also," said Mortimer Shelton; "I can't understand it! The only new entry was a weedy chestnut, listed by a Yorkshireman in the afternoon. 'Holdfast' they call him."
"He'll require more hustling than holding," returned Paxhorn sarcastically.
Lord Standon finished his wine.
"I'll back the roan while there's a penny to borrow," he said with sublime confidence. "There's nothing can touch him."
"That's what Jasper said," remarked Leroy, "and he ought to know."
"Oh, yes, he's a good judge of a horse," grudgingly admitted Shelton, who frankly hated him; "and of men too—when it pays him."
Leroy's face darkened slightly. Vermont was his friend, and he resented a word spoken against him far more than he would have done one against himself.
"You misjudge him, Shelton," he said briefly.
"Possibly," retorted the other, unabashed. "What you find so fascinating in him I can't imagine. Still, my dear fellow, setting Vermont aside, there can be no two opinions respecting your chef. Sarteri is a possession I positively envy you. There is not another chef in England that understands entrees as he does."
"None," echoed Lord Standon. "Leroy will be famous for one thing, at least, if it's only for his cook."
The meal came to an end, and the table was cleared by the silent Norgate. Cards were produced, and the four were soon deep in the intricacies of bridge. They played high and recklessly; and after little more than an hour, Shelton and Leroy had lost over five hundred pounds.
"A close run, eh, Shelton?" laughed Leroy as he took the notes from an open drawer. "Had they played the knave we should have won. Time for another round?"
"Not I," replied his friend, with a regretful shake of his head. "I'm due at Lady Martingdale's."
"Picture galleries again?" laughed Standon, who knew that lady's weaknesses.
"Yes," Shelton confessed, "and with Miss Martingdale too."
The others laughed significantly.
"Say no more, Mortimer," begged Lord Standon, with mock grief. "Your days are numbered. Already I see myself enacting the part of chief mourner—I should say, best man—if you will allow me."
Shelton rose, laughing good-humouredly.
"Thanks, I'll remember—when it comes to that!"
"You're incorrigible, Stan," said Leroy, as his guests were taking their leave. "You'd better settle down yourself first, and leave Shelton alone."
When they had all gone, the host stood looking at the empty chairs. They seemed, as it were, typical of the weary, empty hours of his life, and for the first time a wholesome distaste of it all swept over him. Day in, day out, an everlasting whirl—wherein he and his companions turned night into day and spent their lives in a hollow round of gaiety, in which scandal, cards, women and wine were chief features. And, at the end! What would be the end?
Then he shook himself from his unaccustomed reverie; Adrien Leroy, the popular idol of fashionable society, was not given long to introspection.
"What next?" he asked himself.
It was Norgate who answered the unspoken query, by announcing that the motor was at the door.
As Adrien descended the stairs, Jasper Vermont entered the hall below him.
"Ah, just in time!" he said with his amicable smile. "You're off to the Park, I suppose?"
"I don't know yet," returned Adrien evasively. "What do you think of the motor?"
"Worthy even of Adrien Leroy," replied Jasper, with the faintest suspicion of a sneer, which, however, passed unperceived by his friend. "By the way," he continued, as they walked to the door together, "I have just left Ada in tears, poor girl; repentance followed closely on repletion. She vows solemnly to refrain from onions and patchouli for the future, and begs for the return of your favour."
Leroy smiled gravely at his companion's flippant tones.
"You make an eloquent advocate; but there's little need for pity in her case; her tastes are natural to her class. I was to blame for not realising it before; but she'll be well set up for the future," he said, and forthwith dismissed the subject from his mind. "But Jasper, what of this chestnut entered the steeplechase?"
Vermont's dark, restless eyes dropped for a moment; then he said lightly:
"Do you mean that Yorkshire screw? Oh, he is all right! Can't run the course, I should say, let alone the last rise. Nothing can touch the roan. If I weren't a beggar, I'd cover 'King Cole's' back with guineas."
"Do it for me," said Leroy carelessly, as he settled into the waiting Daimler, which was his latest purchase.
"What, another thousand?" asked Jasper almost eagerly.
"Two, if you like," said his friend, as the chauffeur started the car, and with a smile to Vermont he took his departure.
Vermont stood looking after him, his gaze almost still in its fixity; then he turned and passed up the stairs. In the dining-room he found Norgate, clearing away the cards and glasses, in no very amiable humour.
"Has there been a luncheon party?" queried Mr. Vermont.
"Yes, sir," answered Norgate aggrievedly; "Mr. Shelton, Lord Standon and Mr. Paxhorn."
"And bridge?" murmured Mr. Vermont inquiringly.
"Yes, sir; and from what I heard, I believe Mr. Leroy lost."
"Ah," commented the other softly, "I fear Mr. Leroy always does lose, doesn't he?"
"He's made me lose my time to-day with his fads and fancies," grumbled Norgate, removing the folding card-table; "what with bringing in street wenches at one o'clock in the morning; and they mustn't be disturbed, if you please."
Jasper Vermont was instantly on the alert. He was not above encouraging a servant to gossip, and, although Norgate was not given to err in this direction as a rule, upon the present occasion his grievance got the better of him, and Vermont was soon in possession of such slight facts as could be gleaned.
Johann Wilfer, Jessica's adopted father, was German by birth, and the son of an innkeeper in one of the tiny villages on the banks of the Rhine. In his youth he had studied as an art-student at Munich; but, finally, by his idle and dissolute behaviour, so angered the authorities that he had been compelled to return home. Tiring of the rural life there, he finally obtained from his parents sufficient money to come to London to try his fortune.
Here he soon obtained some work from the smaller art dealers, which enabled him to live in comparative comfort, and had it not been for his unreliability and his love of drink he might have seen to be a good artist.
Wilfer was a handsome young fellow in those days, and while on one of his wandering tours in Kent he met and won the heart of a simple little country girl, named Lucy Goodwin. Lucy believed her lover to be everything that was good, and, trusted him even to the extent of her betrayal; so that, under some pretence, young Wilfer was able to entice the girl to Canterbury, where, a few weeks later, he deserted her.
She was the only daughter of a widower, a clerk in the employ of a country bank, who, broken-hearted at his daughter's ruin, threw up his situation, changed his name to that of George Harker, and fled to London with his beloved child. Here he found it extremely difficult to obtain work. His savings soon evaporated, and alas! further trouble was in store for him; for one afternoon a smooth-faced gentleman appeared at their quiet lodgings. This was none other than Jasper Vermont, who in a long private interview with the unhappy Harker informed him that he had heard of Lucy's escapade, and threatened to proclaim her shame, if Mr. Harker failed to comply with a proposition he was about to make to him. The business which he suggested was one entirely abhorrent to the ex-bank clerk; but with money running short, and the thought of his daughter's misery should her secret be revealed, what could the father do but submit?
The result of this interview was that, a month or two later, a new moneylending firm sprang up in a narrow street in the city, under the title of Harker's Ltd., and none of the numerous clients who patronised it ever recognised that the manager, Mr. Harker, was speaking the literal truth when he repeatedly asserted his own impotence in the business. Every one believed the story to be a fictitious one, invented to assist him in his extortions.
Time passed on, and Lucy's pretty face and modest ways, perhaps her very sadness, which clung to her in never-ending remorse, caught the heart of a simple-minded man, one John Ashford. He was a flourishing grocer in a village on the banks of the Thames, and was then staying in London on a visit. After a hard struggle with herself the poor girl returned his love, and ventured to become his wife.
Wilfer, from inquiries made by Mr. Harker, was supposed to be dead. None, she thought, knew her secret except her father, for Lucy believed that Vermont had employed Mr. Harker out of friendship and sympathy, and did not know until long after her marriage that she, and therefore her husband, were in his power. So she ventured to grasp the happiness held out to her, thus strengthening the chain which bound her father and herself in slavery to Jasper Vermont's will. For if they feared disclosure before, how much more did they dread it now, when Lucy was married to a man who prided himself upon his good name and untarnished respectability!
Johann Wilfer, however, was not dead, nor had he left London. He had become a member of a gang of ingenious rascals, who lived by imitating the less known gems of the old masters, and palming them off on the credulous public and wealthy collectors as genuine. The impostures were very cleverly manipulated, and quite a little system was instituted to bring them to perfection. Mr. Wilfer's part of the undertaking was "toning"; that is, bringing to the imitations the necessary mistiness and discoloration supposed to be produced by age.
He did very well at this business; so well, indeed, that he took a house in Cracknell Court, Soho, and if he could have restrained himself from the drinking of beer and spirits he would have been in comfortable circumstances.
This perpetual intoxication eventually made its mark upon Mr. Wilfer's countenance, and contorted his face into a caricature—with its mottled skin and bleary eyes—of the good looks which had won Lucy Goodwin's heart in former times. His language had also degenerated as well as his looks. All trace of German accent had been carefully obliterated, in order that no suspicion should be aroused when selling a faked picture. He played the part of a Cockney so frequently and so well that that particular accent seemed, as it were, to be his mother-tongue.
As the years went by even the gang became tired of his habitual intoxication, and only occasionally gave him employment, so that he turned his attention to scenery painting for the stage. In this way, when engaged at the Rockingham Theatre, he met Martha Feltham, Ada Lester's dresser, and by means of boasting of his wealth finally persuaded her to marry him. It was in this manner that Jessica had first come under his sway.
When Ada found that her sister would never recover from the mental shock inflicted by Jasper Vermont when he told her that their marriage was illegal, she had made arrangements to get the child out of the house. Naturally the little girl was an eyesore and an encumbrance to her; especially as Julia—blissfully ignorant that she herself was the mother—was always worrying her sister as to the reason of Jessica's presence. Accordingly, when Ada, by reason of her improved position and higher salary, moved away from the Bloomsbury lodgings into a house of her own, she gave the child over to the care of her dresser, Martha, now Mrs. Wilfer, and had always paid regularly for her board and keep.
Mr. Wilfer did not object to this addition to his income, though he still worked occasionally for the picture gang; and it was on one of their jobs that he came within reach of Jasper Vermont.
One day he had been sent to play the usual proceedings to Mr. George Harker, presuming, naturally enough, that being a moneylender he was rich, and hearing that he had a liking for "old masters."
Johann Wilfer saw Mr. Harker, and notwithstanding the changes which time brings to us all, and the entire transformation of name and surroundings, recognised him as the father of the girl whom he had once so cruelly deceived.
The old man never having heard the name of Lucy's betrayer—for she had purposely kept it from him—knew nothing of his visitor, and eventually purchased the picture, after consulting with Jasper, who discovered the imposition at a glance, but saw in the impostor a possible new tool.
He instructed Harker to obtain a written guarantee of the genuineness of the picture, and Wilfer, being half intoxicated at the time, for once forgot his usual caution, and gave the required pledge. With that in his possession, Jasper Vermont had Wilfer in his power, and only left him undisturbed because he saw no present opportunity of using him.
But when he wanted him he knew that he had only to exert the authority which the warrant gave him, and Johann Wilfer would be his obedient servant, as many better men were already.
The picture he intended—through Mr. Harker—to compel one of the firm's wealthy clients to take as part of a loan, a well-known trick of the worst class of moneylenders.
Quite unconscious of the sword that hung over him, Mr. Wilfer, after a bout of hard drinking, went home, and it was in his drunken frenzy that he had struck Jessica. She, bruised and frightened, fled into the streets, where Adrien Leroy found her.
Left to himself—for his wife was away for a day or two—Mr. Wilfer fell into a deep slumber, in which he remained for the rest of the evening.
Early for him, on the following morning he was roused by a loud knocking at his front door. Now thoroughly sobered, he hurriedly dressed, stumbled down the rickety staircase, and opened the door, to himself confronted by Miss Ada Lester. Her face was flushed, and the angry light Jasper Vermont had called up by his sneers at her vulgarity the previous evening still shone in her dark eyes.
"Where is the gal?" she asked abruptly.
"The gal!" he repeated, staring at her in stolid amazement.
"Yes—Jessica!" retorted Miss Lester, her jewels flashing in a chance ray of sunlight which had found its way through the dingy court. "Where is she?"
"She is not at home," said Mr. Wilfer. "She and Martha 'ave gone out for the day to Greenwich. If you'd wrote a-sayin' you was goin' to call I'd have made 'em stay till you came."
Miss Lester looked at him keenly.
"If you don't believe me," said Wilfer, "go upstairs and look at her room."
Ada ran past him up the stairs, and quickly returned.
"It's locked," she said.
"Of course; she's quite the lady—keeps the keys 'erself," sneered Johann. "Look 'ere, 'ere's her hat and coat; there's one of 'er boots, so she must be comin' back afore long."
Miss Lester appeared convinced. She breathed more freely, as if a weight had been taken off her mind.
"Here," she said, putting some gold coins in his hand, "is something to make up for my troubling you. But I was real anxious to know if everything was right with the gal."
Wilfer—debauched and demoralised by drink—was disposed to look at the worst side of things; and from this point of view thought she meant the reverse of what she said.
"Would you be very much cut up," he said slyly, "if she wasn't able to trouble you any more or answer awkward questions, miss?"
She turned on him with a fierceness that made him recoil.
"If anything happens to that gal," she shouted, "I'll turn the police on you. For, mind my words—I mean them—I shouldn't have cared yesterday very much if I had learnt she was dead, but now I want her. Do you hear? I want her, and you take care she's alive and ready when I come for her."
Then, without vouchsafing any further information, she flounced away, leaving Mr. Wilfer staring blankly after her, and wishing for once that he had stayed his hand, instead of driving the girl into the miseries and dangers of the streets.
Little did Wilfer or Miss Lester imagine that Jessica had found safety and refuge in Adrien Leroy's chambers.
Love is the universal epidemic, effectual in all climes and conditions; there is no inoculation that will secure exemption from its influence; only given a warm human heart, and there is the natural susceptibility.
So it is from high to low. The little blind god takes no count of difference in fortune or rank in life. Dynasties fall, thrones totter to the ground, crowns tumble to dust on kingly heads; but love rules and lives on, immortal, triumphant, unconquerable.
Jessica had never heard of Romeo and Juliet, of Faust and Marguerite, or King Cophetua and the beggar maid. All she knew was that she loved, was conscious only that for a kind word from the lips of the man who had befriended her, for a glance from those dark eyes; she would gladly have given up all the other glories the world could have put before her.
Poor Jessica, how sweet and yet how bitter had been the awakening in that gilded cabinet. How sweet to find herself there in reality, and not only in a dream; how bitter to know that she had no right there and that she must go!
That splendid golden room, with, all the wonderful undreamt-of things, was not for her. She looked down at her wet, dirt-stained dress, at her worn, ragged shoes, at her cold, red hands, and shuddered. She had no right there. Should she take advantage of his goodness to remain and sully the beauty of his palace—for to her it seemed little less—by her unworthy presence? No, woman-child as she was, she shrank from the thought; then caught up her hat and arose, resolute.
"He will think me ungrateful," she murmured with half-closed eyes. "He will think—no matter, he will forget me before half an hour. I will go back to Johann and chance the beating. This is no place for one like me."
With a little graceful gesture she bent over the mantel and pressed her lips to the spot where Adrien had rested his arm; then with noiseless steps she stole from the room.
The sun was breaking through the morning mist, but she shivered as its warm rays touched her, and with a weary sigh turned towards Soho.
It was all over, the little patch of fairy-light in the dreary darkness of her existence, and as she reminded herself of this fact she shuddered again.
Looking back, she remembered but little beyond the days she had passed with Johann and his shrewish wife. This strange adventure had been the first ray of sunshine in her poor existence. No wonder that she was unhappy at parting with it.
Suddenly as she passed into Oxford Street she stopped, struck with an idea that sent her blood flowing into her pale cheek, flushing it into living beauty. Her large eyes grew thoughtful and full of a strange light.
"Why should I go back to Johann?" she murmured. "Can't I follow him—the kind gentleman? Can't I be his servant?"
The answer came quick enough from her inner consciousness. No, she must go back. Of what service could she be to such a man as Adrien? There was nothing for it but to return to Cracknell Court. So, wearily, but still with that grace which Southern blood bestows, even though it runs in the veins of a gipsy, or such a street waif as Jessica, she walked on and reached Johann Wilfer's house.
Jessica knew that the man was not her father, but she knew little more than that. She had never asked him or Martha for any information about her parentage—indeed, had scarcely wished for any; it was enough for her than Johann gave her sufficient bread to keep life within her.
That gentleman was, at the moment of her arrival, absent, engaged on business concerning the sale of the faked picture to Mr. Harker, and Martha was still away; so Jessica, pausing at the door of the living-room to ascertain that it was empty, softly ascended the stairs leading to the garret which served as her special apartment.
It was as small and as squalid as all the other rooms in that crowded court; but it was different from them in one respect—it was clean.
A miserable chair bedstead of the cheapest kind, covered with a threadbare quilt; a chair with the back broken off; a washstand on three legs, and a triangular piece of silvered glass, the remains of a cheap mirror, composed the furniture.
This peculiarly-shaped piece of common glass reflected the girl's beautiful face in all manner of distorted forms. The quilt just kept her from perishing with the cold. But yet the mirror, the bed, and the room itself were precious to her, for they were her own. Beyond its sacred threshold Johann or Martha never passed. She had a key to it; and to enter now she unlocked the door.
After the luxury of Adrien's rooms the mean quality of her own apartment struck the girl more forcibly than usual, and sinking upon the bed, she covered her face with her hands and gave way to a flood of tears. But the weakness did not last long; and after a moment of two, with a sudden gesture, almost Italian in its intensity, she flung back her head and rose from her crouching position.
"I will not think of the beautiful place. I will not think of him, she told herself passionately.
"But oh! will he be sorry that I ran away, or will he laugh, and ask that proud servant to see that I haven't stolen anything?"
She shook her head mournfully at her own distorted reflection in the cracked mirror, then she sighed and went downstairs.
Johann had returned, wonderful to relate, still fairly sober; but this was probably due to the necessity of maintaining at least the appearance of sobriety in his transaction on behalf of the gang concerning the sale of the picture.
He was counting the coins on the table, some of them gold—for Jessica's quick eyes caught the shimmer of it—and he looked up half fiercely, half contemptuously as the girl entered.
"Well, where have been? You're like a cat or a policeman—never to be found when you're wanted. There was a fine lady came to see you this morning—a real swell, my girl." He laughed coarsely. "But of course, you were out of the way. Where had you got to?"
"Anywhere, nowhere," replied Jessica, who did not fear him when he was sober, though she hated him always.
"Ah, that's the style! The swell lady ought to have heard you talk like that. She'd say I was bringing you up well. Come here and let's have a look at you."
Jessica did not move, but stared at him steadily.
"What! You won't come?" he said with a grin. "Well, there's something for your obstinacy, you little mule!"
He flung a half-crown across to her, and Jessica took it up, then looked him questioningly in the face.
"You're thinking I'm mighty generous, eh? So I am, my girl—foolishly generous." He laughed mockingly, "Well, what do you say if all the lot's for you, eh?"
"All for me!" repeated the girl, stopping short in her task of making the mantelshelf neat; "all for me!"
"Yes, when you get it, little cat! All for you, indeed! No! it's for me; and I've a good mind to take the half-crown back. A fool and his money's soon parted; but he's more idiotic to part with other people's. I'm going out. I shall want some grub when I get back—'arf a pound of steak, an' a pot of porter, an' don't forget the gin. Mind you remember now, or I'll break every bone in your body." With which forcible admonition the man shuffled out.
After a few hours he returned, not blindly drunk, but spiteful, ill-tempered, and stupidly brutal.
About the same time on that day Adrien Leroy was making his way in the new car through the crowded thoroughfare of Oxford Street.
"Soho? Yus, sir. Crack'ell Court, fust turnin' on the left. I'll show yer, sir," piped the ragged urchin, whose heartfelt interest Leroy had purchased, along with his query, by means of a shilling.
Cracknell Court was small, evil-smelling, and teeming with children. Bidding the chauffeur wait at the entrance to the court, Adrien, to whom dust, noises, and evil smells were things of absolute pain, entered one of the dens and asked for Mr. Wilfer.
"There he is," said another urchin; and Leroy turned to face that individual, who was leaning against an open door.
"Am I speaking to Mr. Johann Wilfer?" he asked courteously.
"You are," returned Wilfer, taking the begrimed pipe from his mouth, and staring with bloodshot eyes at the handsome, high-bred face before him.
"Can you tell me if a young girl named Jessica returned to you safely this morning?" Leroy enquired.
"My niece, Jess, d'ye mean?" replied Wilfer, eyeing him suspiciously. "Ain't seen 'er fer months; run away last June, after 'elping 'erself to some of my cash, an' ain't been back since. 'Sides, what's it got to do with you, Guv'nor, I'd like to know? You mind yer own bus'ness."
He leered drunkenly at Leroy, who turned away with a look of disgust. He knew how useless it was to expect truth from such a quarter.
As the gentleman stepped out into the dirty court and returned to his car Johann Wilfer blinked his eyes in relief; then with an oath he stumbled up the rickety stairs into the living-room, and confronted Jessica, who was standing near the window.
"So that's yer little game, is it?" he said with a sneer; "you're goin' in for swells right away, are yer, my gal? Got your name as pat as a poll-parrot. Knows all my private business, I dessay; I'll break every bone in yer body!"
He stumbled towards her where she stood—her face still transfigured with joy at the sound of her benefactor's voice—and made a sudden grab at her hair. But, alert and lithe as a leopardess, she bounded over the table, and slipped past him down the staircase, from the top of which he launched forth a long volley of curses.
Quivering and shaking, both with fear of Wilfer's violence and her sense of injury at his denial of her presence to Leroy, Jessica ran, as fast as her frail body would permit her, through the intricate smaller streets and passages which abound in the Soho district. Having gone far enough, in her opinion, to be fairly safe from any danger of Wilfer's pursuit, she stopped to consider whether she should endeavour to find Leroy.
"After all," she thought, "perhaps it is best as it is. He would give me money, or perhaps a few kind words, and only make me long for him more. Let him go, believing Johann's falsehoods."
As she walked wearily along dim remembrances of earlier days thronged her brain; of two women—one whom she knew she had called Auntie—and who had treated her kindly enough, before Johann had got her into his power. Mingled with these thoughts came those of the man who had befriended her and even sought her out this day. When she remembered how he had rescued her from cold, hunger, and the dangers of the streets her eyes filled with tears of gratitude. Yet, though knowing how quickly he would aid her were she but to return to the beautiful room from which she had fled that very morning, she could not bring herself to seek his charity or ask his pity. She realised well enough that one such as she could never hope to win a look of love from him; but like the moth that hovers round the flame which brings it danger she nevertheless determined to see him again.
With this object in view she slowly wended her way to Jermyn Court, wherein was the room in which she had supped and slept so delightfully. Afterwards she thought she would try to gain some work that would at least secure food and lodging, however poor, where she could be safe from the cruelty of Wilfer; surely in all London there was something she could do.
When darkness came, worn out by watching and waiting in vain for Adrien, she again found herself without a home and without shelter; so, crouching on a doorstep, as she had done the previous evening, overcome with fatigue, she fell asleep.
In the course of the night a dark-robed woman, passing on the usual round of duty assigned to her, stopped and looked at her. She was one of the band of Good Samaritan Sisters of Mercy established in some of our London suburbs, who seek out the helpless and downtrodden in the race of life—with healing in their hands and pity in their hearts—striving to raise them up from their hopeless position to something better. She stopped, bent down, and, drawing her veil aside, looked closely at the motionless face. Then she sighed and turned her head away.
"So beautiful! So young! Can it be possible? Sister, sister!"
Jessica awoke at the gentle touch, and sprang to her feet.
"Johann! Don't strike me," she exclaimed, with her eyes half closed. "I——"
"My poor girl, no one shall beat you. Will you come with me?"
"With you?" repeated Jessica, now fully awake, but still eyeing the Sister with some suspicion. "Where? Not far?"
"No, not far. But why do you say that? Is there any one you particularly wish to be near?"
"No," replied Jessica, adding to herself, as the sister of Mercy took her hand, "but she shall not take me far away from him."
"A roof of thatch is better than that of heaven," is an old Spanish proverb, and means, doubtless, that the poorest accommodation is better than none, or that which the streets provide. Jessica, clinging to the Sister of Mercy's succouring hand, was gently led from the silence of the streets to the still greater silence of an attic in a quiet byway.
Here, seated by the remains of a small fire in a narrow grate, she watched with awkward interest, that was much like indifference, the efforts of her rescuer to revive the dying embers. Soup was warmed for her, but for a time she refused to take it.
"I am not hungry," she said. "Only tired—so tired! Why did you wake me, lady?"
"I awoke you because you were unhappy, and it was dangerous for one so young as you to lie asleep in the streets," replied the meek-eyed woman. "But you must not call me 'lady'; I am not a lady. Call me 'Sister.'"
"But you are not my sister," said Jessica petulantly. "I haven't any sister or brother, or father or mother."
"Poor thing!" said the woman, who by this time had made up a bed, plain enough it is true, but luxurious after the cold doorsteps, and she now helped Jessica to undress. "Poor thing, you are quite cold; and what are all these bruises? Ah! why will men be so cruel, when Heaven is so kind?"
"I don't know," said Jessica, who took the question as directed to herself. "I don't know anything. Besides, all men ain't cruel. He wasn't; he was kind—oh, so kind!"
"He—whom?" said the Sister. Then, as the girl did not reply, she looked hard at her and sighed again.
"Now you will sleep," she said, "Will you kiss me?"
With the impulsiveness of girlhood Jessica threw her arms round the linen-banded neck and kissed the Sister's pale face."
"Good-night," she said.
The Sister smoothed the coarse pillow, covered her up, and went softly from the room.
When Jessica awoke the woman was again beside her with a cup of tea, and some bread-and-butter. But the girl refused to eat.
"I am not hungry. I am not tired now, either, and I will go."
The Sister put her hand on the girl's arm. "Not yet," she said. "Where have you to go?"
"Nowhere," Jessica answered listlessly.
"Then stay with me," said the woman kindly. "See"—she brought a basket to the bedside—"here's some work. I will teach you to do this, and we will live together. Will you not stay?"
Jessica looked at the work, and silently nodded acquiescence. But nevertheless she sighed. To a nature such as hers freedom was life itself, and she was bartering it away for mere food. Besides, how could she now follow the one who had been so kind to her?
But she stayed, and patiently worked all day, striving earnestly to catch the knack of the needle, and emulating the tireless industry of the Sister, who worked thus during daylight that she might pursue her mission of mercy and succour at night. Thus passed some days, and then Jessica's blood grew restless; the narrow room seemed to her stifling and unendurable, and she pined for the open air, as a caged blackbird longs for its native woods.
The longing grew so irresistible that at last she succumbed to it; and one day, finding herself alone, she threw down the piece of work on which she was employed, and rising, snatched up her weather-stained hat.
"I can't stay," she sobbed; "I can't breathe here! I must go, or I shall die. I'll leave before she comes back. Oh! I wish she had not been so kind to me. I feel a worthless, miserable, ungrateful creature!"
Then she stole down the stairs, very much as she had slipped away from Adrien's residence, and gained the streets anew.
It was the night of the great ball at Lady Merivale's town house. A Blue Hungarian Band was playing dreamily the waltz of the season, to the accompaniment of light laughter and gaily tripping feet. The scent of roses filled the air. Masses of their great pink blooms lurked in every small nook and corner; while in the centre of the room, half-hidden by them, a fountain sent its silver spray into the heated air.
If wealth and luxury alone could bring happiness, then surely Eveline Merivale should have been the most envied woman in the world. A renowned beauty, a leader of fashion, with every wish and ambition gratified—save the one which, at present, the chief object of her life—to enslave and retain, as her exclusive property, Adrien Leroy.
Her husband, the Earl of Merivale, she regarded as a necessary encumbrance, inevitable to the possession of the famous Merivale diamonds. His hobby was farming, and he detested Society; though quite content that his wife should be made queen so long as he was left in peace with his shorthorns.
Certainly Eveline Merivale was not in love with her husband; but, on the other hand, neither was she in love with Adrien Leroy. It simply added a zest to her otherwise monotonous round of amusements to imagine that she was; and it pleased her vanity to correspond in cypher, through the medium of the Morning Post, though every member of her set might have read the flippant messages if put in an open letter. There was a spice of intrigue, too, in the way in which she planned meetings at their mutual friends' houses, or beneath the trees of Brierly Park, or at Richmond.
Not for worlds would her ladyship have risked a scandal. She prized her position, and loved her diamonds far better than she was ever likely to love any human being under the sun. Still, it was the fashion to have one special favourite; and it was a great thing to have conquered the handsome and popular Adrien Leroy. It was little wonder, therefore, that, when midnight had struck and still Leroy was absent from her side, Eveline Merivale beneath the calm conventional smile, was secretly anxious and inclined to be angry.
She was looking her best to-night; and although she had already been surfeited with compliments from duke to subaltern, she yet longed to hear one other voice praise her appearance. There was, indeed, every reason why Lady Merivale should be lauded as the greatest beauty of her time, for she carried all before her by the sheer force of her personality. Dazzlingly fair, with hair of a bronze Titian hue, which clustered in great waves about her forehead; her eyes of a deep, lustrous blue, shading almost to violet. To-night she would have borne off the palm of beauty from any Court in the world, for her dress was a creation of Paquin, and enhanced to perfection her delicate colouring, which needed no artificial aids.
Diamonds glistened round her perfect throat, upon her head rested a magnificent tiara of the same stones, her hands flashed as if touched with living fire. She might have stood as a figure of Undine—as beautiful and as soulless.
All around her the little band of courtiers thronged ever-changing, and passing on to the ball-room as others eagerly took their place. Half-past twelve struck, and she grew more impatient; the blue eyes sparkled frostily, the red lips became more tightly set.
"Lady Merivale looks riled," Mortimer Shelton said to his partner as they passed her. "You can see that by the sweetness of the smile with which she has just favoured Hadley. She wishes him anywhere—I know. Funny thing about you ladies! the madder you are with one poor dev—fellow, the sweeter and deadlier you are to the rest of us."
His partner laughed; she was a bright little brunette, flushed with the dance, and thoroughly happy.
"Why should we wear our hearts upon our sleeves for cynics such as you to peck at?" she replied. "The art of dissembling is one of our few privileges. But do you think the Countess is angry? She is so beautiful."
"Marvellous!" exclaimed the cynic, raising his eyebrows. "Dear Lady Chetwold, is it possible that I hear one beautiful woman praise another's looks?"
The little lady flushed.
"It would be a greater marvel still if you men gave us credit for just a little generosity. But, tell me Mr. Shelton, where is Adrien Leroy?"
"My dear lady," said Shelton, with a wicked twinkle in his eyes, "if I knew that Lady Merivale would be down on me like the proverbial load of bricks. He was to have been here; but his movements are as uncertain as her ladyship's smiles. See, she has fairly extinguished poor Hadley—drowned in sweetness!"
"You are a horror," laughed his companion as the waltz came to an end. "I shall be quite afraid of you in the future—I'd no idea you were so cynical."
"I could never be cynical with you," he said gallantly. "By the way, have you seen Prince Pfowsky to-night?"
"Yes," said Lady Chetwold, "I am engaged to him for the next dance—if he remembers it. He is always so forgetful."
"'Put not your trust in princes,'" quoted Shelton. "But if his Highness should be so ungrateful, perhaps you will allow me the pleasure——"
"Certainly not," she retorted brightly; "Caesar or nothing!"
"And here he comes," laughed Mortimer; adding softly, as the Prince came up to claim his partner, "and here is some one even more interesting—look."
Lady Chetwold followed the direction of his gaze and saw Adrien Leroy advancing up the rose-decked room. As usual, his appearance created something like a stir, for he was popular with men and women alike, and no smart gathering seemed quite complete without him. But the young man appeared totally unconscious of the interest he was evoking as he bent over his hostess's hand with a murmured greeting, then turned to make his bow to the Prince, who, as firm an admirer as the rest of Society, had paused to exchange a word before the dance commenced.
Adrien sank on to the velvet lounge beside the Countess.
"Don't scold me, belle amie," he said in his soft tones; "lay the blame on Mr. Paxhorn. I dined with him at the club. You know what Paxhorn is—there was simply no getting away. But, now, have you saved me a dance?"
"You do not deserve one," she said, all the irritation melting beneath the magic of his smile and the music of his voice.
"It's a mercy," he retorted lightly, "that one does not get all one's deserts in this world!"
"I saved you the next," she said, giving him her programme. "You see, I am as foolishly forgiving as ever."
"You are gracious and sweet!" he murmured in her ear. "How could you ever be otherwise?"
The soft phrase passed unreproved.
"You have been down to Barminster again?" she inquired.
"Yes," he replied, as he settled himself more comfortably.
"You have been very attentive to your father lately," she said a little suspiciously; "I thought filial affection was not the Leroys' strong point."
"Nor is it," he said with a laugh; "but it is business, my dear Eveline, odious business, into which Jasper inveigles me."
"I thought Mr. Vermont was the new machine that was to save you trouble?"
"Yes, that's what I thought," was the languid reply. "But one has to turn the handle, even of machines. There are signatures, and leases, and Heaven knows what besides."
"How is Lord Barminster?" she inquired.
"Lady Constance also well?"—with the slightest tinge of restraint in her voice.
"Yes," he answered indifferently; adding, "but you haven't asked after 'King Cole.'"
"Ah, no, but you would have told me at first if anything had been wrong with him."
Leroy smiled. He knew that to be true.
"He will win, you think?" she asked anxiously.
"Oh, yes!" was the careless reply. "Vermont says there is nothing to touch him."
The countess raised her eyebrows.
"You trust this Vermont with a great deal, Adrien. Your horses, your wine, and your legal business. He must be a wonderful man."
"Yes," he answered confidently. "Jasper's a treasure. Nothing comes amiss to him. I should be in my grave if I had to face half the worries he wrestles with daily. Come," he added, as the first bars of the new waltz floated from the gallery; and with a sigh of enjoyment she rose for the promised dance.
"No one's step suits me like yours," she breathed, when they paused for rest. "Adrien, shall I back 'King Cole' for another two hundred?"
The two sentences were, perhaps, rather incongruous, but curiously characteristic of her ladyship; for, in addition to a natural love of intrigue, she had a partiality for betting on the turf and speculation on 'Change—both, of course, sub rosa.
"Oh, yes," he said, as they started again. "Jasper has put two thousand more of mine on to-day. There he is," he broke off, as the sleek, carefully dressed figure of Mr. Vermont entered the ball-room.
"Talk of angels," murmured Lady Merivale, but with a glance implying that she meant a being very far removed from that celestial grade.
Jasper Vermont did not excel at dancing; yet, strange to say, he was invariably invited to every big function of the season. Indeed, the hostesses of Mayfair would almost as soon have omitted the name of Adrien Leroy himself as that of his friend.
It was difficult to explain this other than on account of his engaging amiability. Probably Vermont would have transformed the famous advice of Uriah Heep to "Always be obliging." Certainly, no pleasanter company could be found, whether for man or woman; whatever the hour, however mixed the company, Jasper Vermont had always a smile, a jest, or a new and piquant scandal. In the smoking-room he would rival Mortimer Shelton in apparently good-natured cynicism. In a duchess's boudoir he would enliven the afternoon tea hour with the neatest of epigrams and the spiciest slander of her Grace's dearest friend. Nothing came amiss to him; as Adrien Leroy had once said, he was "a walking encyclopaedia."
Yet with all Mr. Vermont's charm of manner, he could resent, smiling still, an impertinence or a snub, and deal back a tongue thrust that would effectually put his opponent hors de combat. Truly of him might be quoted, "I smile, and murder while I smile."
To-night he was apparently enjoying the gay scene before him. His sharp black eyes were like little snakes, darting here, there, and everywhere, while he wagged his smooth head to the time of the music, as if in keen enjoyment.
Mortimer Shelton noticed him; "gloating over his future victims," he commented, almost audibly, as he and his partner passed close to where he was standing. Vermont, however, apparently did not hear him, but continued to smile, amiably as the dancers whirled by.
It was nearly daybreak when the carriages drew up outside the great house to take the guests to their respective homes; and, having successfully steered a young marchioness into her electric brougham, Leroy found himself standing close to Vermont, not far from where his own motor awaited him.
"They call this pleasure, Jasper," he said, almost scornfully, watching the struggling, aristocratic crowd with a half-contemptuous smile on his lips. "Why, it's hard work. They fight and push for the sake of a few hours spent in a crowded, poisoned room; and there's no prophet to rise up and proclaim it madness."
"No," laughed Vermont cynically; "prophets nowadays have no liking for being stoned; and, after all, life would be unendurable, were it not for its pleasures. Let me remind you that it is nearly four o'clock, and you are due at Lord Standon's rooms."
With a sigh Leroy turned and jumped into the motor, followed by his faithful squire; and the powerful car hooted its way through the twilight of the dawn.
They reached Lord Standon's chambers, to find the finish of a theatre party. The room was filled with beautiful women, mostly stars of the musical comedy stage, including Ada Lester, who was evidently on her best behaviour.
Here, amidst light and laughter, the goddess of pleasure was being feted by her youthful worshippers, and none appeared a more eager votary than Adrien Leroy. Yet, as he stood, champagne glass in hand, propounding the toast of the evening—or rather morning, for the dawn was breaking in the sky—there was none to tell him of the impending cloud of treachery that hung over his head. None who dare warn him to beware of the friendship of—Mr. Jasper Vermont.
High up in the woods of Buckinghamshire stood Barminster Castle, so old that one-half of its pile dated back to Norman times; while the whole, with the wings and parts added by the successive generations of Leroys, might have passed for a royal palace by reason of its splendour and magnificence.
Needless to say, the Leroys were proud of their ancestral home, for there had been Leroys since William the Conqueror had calmly annexed the land on which it now stood, and had given it to his faithful baron, Philip Le Roi. But they valued still more the love and respect of their people, who in hamlet and village surrounded the castle as naturally as did the woods.
Yet the present Lord Barminster had done little to keep the flame of loyalty alight in the hearts of his tenants. He was an old man, nearing seventy, tall, white-headed and haughty—every feature clear-cut, as if carved from marble. Few people had ever seen the stern lines of that face relax in light-hearted laughter since the death of his young wife, which had occurred a few years after the birth of Adrien. None, outside his immediate family circle, had ever known the curtness of his speech to be softened unless in sarcasm; and his habitual expression was one of haughty tolerance.