A NEW SEQUEL TO
THE MACAULAY COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1911, BY
THE MACAULAY COMPANY
* * * * *
I must make a confession.
It will not be needed by the many thousands who have lived with me the wonderful sunrise of Paul's love, and the sad gray morning of his bereavement. To these friends who, with Paul, loved and mourned his beautiful Queen and their dear son, the calm peace and serenity of the high noon of Paul's life will seem but well-deserved happiness.
It is to the others I speak.
In life it is rarely given us to learn the end as well as the beginning. To tell the whole story is only an author's privilege.
Of the events which made Paul's love-idyl possible, but a mere hint has been given. If at some future time it seems best, I may tell you more of them. As far as Paul himself is concerned, you have had but the first two chapters of his story. Here is the third of the trilogy, his high noon. And with the sun once more breaking through the clouds in Paul's heart, we will leave him.
You need not read any more of this book than you wish, since I claim the privilege of not writing any more than I choose. But if you do read it through, you will feel with me that the great law of compensation is once more justified. As sorrow is the fruit of our mistakes, so everlasting peace should be the reward of our heart's best endeavor.
Sadness is past; joy comes with High Noon.
"The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!"
It was Springtime in Switzerland! Once more the snow-capped mountains mirrored their proud heads in sapphire lakes; and on the beeches by the banks of Lake Lucerne green buds were bursting into leaves. Everywhere were bright signs of the earth's awakening. Springtime in Switzerland! And that, you know—you young hearts to whom the gods are kind—is only another way of saying Paradise!
Towards Paradise, then, thundered the afternoon express from Paris, bearing the advance guard of the summer seekers after happiness. But if the cumbrous coaches carried swiftly onward some gay hearts, some young lovers to never-to-be-forgotten scenes, one there was among the throng to whom the world was gray—an English gentleman this, who gazed indifferently upon the bright vistas flitting past his window. The London Times reposed unopened by his side; Punch, Le Figaro, Jugend had pleased him not and tumbled to the floor unnoticed.
There seemed scant reason for such deep abstraction in one who bore the outward signs of so vigorous a manhood. Tall, well-formed, muscular as his faultless clothes half revealed, half hid, his bronzed face bearing the clear eyes and steady lips of a man much out of doors, this thoughtful Englishman was indeed a man to catch and hold attention. No callow youth, was he, but in the prime of life—strong, clean, distinguished in appearance, with hair slightly silvered at the temples; a man who had lived fully, women would have said, but who was now a bit weary of the world.
Small wonder that the smart American girl sitting opposite in the compartment stared at him with frank interest, or an elegantly gowned Parisienne demi-mondaine (travelling incognito as the Comtesse de Boistelle) eyed him tentatively through her lorgnette.
So Sir Paul Verdayne sat that afternoon in a compartment of the through express, all unconscious of the scrutiny of his fellow travellers; his heart filled with the dogged determination to face the future and make the best of it like a true Englishman; somewhat saddened—yes—but still unbroken in spirit by the sorrows that had been his.
Many years ago it was, since he had vowed to revisit the Springplace of his youth, Lucerne, a spot so replete with tender memories, and each succeeding year had found him making anew his pilgrimage, though a sombre warp of sorrow was now interwoven in the golden woof of his young happiness.
This year he had decided should be the last. Not that his devotion to his beloved Queen had lessened—far from that—but the latent spirit of action, so innate to true British blood was slowly reasserting itself. For Paul romance might still remain, but as a thing now past. He was frank with himself in this respect, and he would be frank with Isabella Waring too.
One more visit he would pay to the scenes of his love-idyl, to the place where his beloved Imperatorskoye had come into his life, there to commune again with her in spirit, there to feel her regal presence, to seek from her that final supreme consolation which his wounded heart craved—this was Paul's quest. And then he would return to England—and Isabella.
It was the consideration of this resolution which shut the flying scenery from his gaze, which drew fine lines about the corners of his firm lips, and set his face to such a look of dominant strength as made the high spirited American girl muse thoughtfully and brought a touch of colour to the face of the pseudo Countess which was not due to the artifice of her maid.
Such men are masters of their own.
Paul Verdayne was not a man to shirk responsibilities. It is true, dark days had come to him, when a crushing burden had well-nigh smothered him, and a bullet to still his fevered brain had seemed far sweeter to Paul than all else life might hold for him. But Paul was strong and young. He learned his lesson well—that Time cures all and that the scars of sorrow, though they form but slowly, still will heal with the passing of the years.
Paul was still young and he had much to live for, as the world reckons. He was rich (a thing not to be lightly held), one of the most popular M. P.'s in England, and the possessor of a fine old name. It would be a coward's part, surely, to spend the rest of his life in bemoaning the dead past. He would take up the duties that lay near at hand, become the true successor of his respected father, old Sir Charles, and delight the heart of his fond mother, the Lady Henrietta, by marrying Isabella Waring, the sweetheart of his boyhood days.
So Paul sat communing with himself as the train rushed noisily on, sat and settled, as men will, the future which they know not of. Alas for resolves! Alas for the Lady Henrietta! Alas for Isabella! For Paul, as for all of us, the mutability of human affairs still existed. Were it not so, this record never would have been written.
With much grinding of brakes and hiss of escaping steam, the express at last stopped slowly in the little station and the door of Paul's compartment was swung open by the officious guard with a "Lucerne, your Lordship," which effectually aroused him from his reverie.
Paul quietly stepped out of the car, and waited with the air of one among familiar scenes, while his man Baxter collected the luggage and dexterously convoyed it through the hostile army of customs men to a fiacre. In the midst of the bustle and confusion, as Paul stood there on the platform, his straight manly form was the cynosure of all eyes. A fond mamma with a marriageable daughter half unconsciously sighed aloud at the thought of such a son-in-law. A pair of slender French dandies outwardly scorned, but inwardly admired his athletic figure, so visibly powerful, even in repose.
But all oblivious to the attention he was attracting, Paul waited with passive patience for the survey of his luggage. For was not all this an old, old story to him, a trifling disturbance on the path of his pilgrimage? When one travels to travel, each station is an incident; not so to him who journeys to an end.
But Paul was not destined to remain wholly uninterrupted. As the other travellers descended from the carriage and formed a little knot upon the platform, the Comtesse de Boistelle, now occupied with a betufted poodle frisking at the end of a leash, strolled by him. As she passed Paul she dropped a jewelled reticule, which he promptly recovered for her, offering it with a grave face and a murmured "Permettez moi, Madame."
The Comtesse gently breathed a thousand thanks, allowing her carefully gloved hand to brush Paul's arm.
"Monsieur is wearied with the journey, perhaps?" she said in a low voice. And her eyes added more than solicitude.
Paul did not deny it. Instead, he raised his green Alpine hat formally and turned impassively to meet his man, who had by then stowed away the boxes in the Waiting fiacre.
In the group of Paul's late companions stood the American girl who had sat facing him all the way from Paris. He was no sooner out of earshot than—
"Did you see, Mamma?" she whispered to the matron beside her.
"See what, Daisy?"
"That French creature—she tried to talk to my big Englishman, but he snubbed her. What a fine chap he must be! I knew he had a title, and I'm just dying to meet him. Do you suppose he'll stay at our hotel? If he does, I'll find somebody who knows all about him. Now I understand why so many American girls marry titled Englishmen. If they're all as nice as this one, I don't blame them, do you?"
"Hush, child, hush!" her mother reproved. "How can you run on so about a total stranger?"
But the girl merely smiled softly to herself in answer, as she watched Paul's straight back receding down the platform.
Overwhelmed with a rush of memories, Paul climbed into the carriage. It was a fine afternoon, but he did not see the giant mountains rearing their heads for him as proudly in the sunshine as ever they had held them since the world was new.
For Paul just now was lost in the infinite stretches of the past, those immeasurable fields through which the young wander blithely, all unconscious of aught but the beautiful flowers so ruthlessly trampled on, the luscious fruits so wantonly plucked, the limpid streams drunk from so greedily, and the cool shades in which to sink into untroubled sleep.
Ah! if there were no awakening! If one were always young!
The fiacre stopped; and soon Paul found himself in the hall of the hotel, surrounded by officious porters. The maitre d'hotel himself, a white-haired Swiss, pushed through them and greeted him, for was not Sir Paul an old and distinguished guest, who never failed to honour him with his patronage each year? Himself, he showed Paul to the same suite he always occupied, and with zealous care conferred with milord over the momentous question of dinner, a matter not to be lightly discussed.
"And the wine? Ah! the Tokayi Imperial, of a certainty. Absolutely, Monsieur, we refuse to serve it to anyone but yourself. Only last week it was, when a waiter who would have set it before some rich Americans—but that is over, he is here no longer."
Paul smiled indulgently at the solicitous little man. It was good to be here again, talking with Monsieur Jacques as in the old days.
"One moment, more, Monsieur, before I go. Is it that Monsieur desires the same arrangements to be made again this year—the visit to the little village on the lake, the climb up the Buergenstock, the pilgrimage to the Swiss farmhouse? Yes? Assuredly, Monsieur, it shall be done, tout de suite."
And then with a confident air as of complete and perfect understanding on the part of an old and trusted friend, the bustling little maitre d'hotel bowed himself out.
Paul proceeded, with his usual care, to dress for dinner, pausing first to stand in the window of his dressing-room and gaze wistfully upon the lake he loved so well, now dimming slowly in the Spring twilight.
The last time! Ah, well, so be it, then. There must come an end to all things. And Paul turned away with a sigh, drawing the draperies gently together, as if to shut out the memories of the past.
How well he succeeded, we shall soon know.
He was the last to enter the restaurant, which was well filled that evening. On his way to his accustomed place he passed the table at which sat Miss Daisy Livingstone, his American fellow-traveller, dining with her mother; and another where the Comtesse, by courtesy, sat toying with a pate. To Paul's annoyance, he was greeted further down the room by a member of his club; Graham Barclay was not a particular favourite of his, at any time, and furthermore Paul had no desire, just now, to be reminded of London. As civilly as he could, he declined an invitation to join the party, pleading fatigue from his long journey, and moved on to the end of the room, where his old waiter, Henri, stood, with hand on chair-back, ready to help him to a seat.
"Deuced fine fellow, Verdayne," explained Barclay in parentheses to his friends. "A bit abstracted sometimes, as you see. But he'll be all right after tiffin. We'll gather him in for billiards later."
The eyes of more than one guest followed Paul as he walked the length of the restaurant, for Verdayne possessed that peculiar quality—that spiritual attraction—magnetism—(call it what you will, a few elect mortals have it) that stamps a man indelibly. But of all those who marked him as he moved among the tables, none regarded him more closely than a lady who sat alone in a small recess, screened from prying eyes by a bank of greenery.
A marvellous lady she was, with hair as black as the sweep of a raven's wing, crowning a face as finely chiselled as any Florentine cameo. And if the diamonds about her smooth white throat had wondrous sheen they were not more lustrous nor more full of sparkling fire than her opalescent eyes.
Unseen by the preoccupied Paul, she leaned across the cloth, scarcely whiter than her pale face, and gazed at him with wonder—was it more than that? With a slight movement of her tapering hand she dismissed the liveried servant stationed behind her, and stayed on, with food and wine untouched. And Paul knew it not.
So near to us can lie the hidden path of our strange destinies until the appointed hour.
The next morning Paul breakfasted on the terrace. The gay greetings of old friends, the pleasant babble in the breakfast room ill suited his reflective mood.
And as he sat alone under the fragrant pergola enjoying his cigarette and dividing his attention between his coffee and the Paris Edition of the Herald, a pale, dark-haired lady passed by as she sought the terrace for an early stroll. Paul's eyes were on his paper at that moment—and if the lady's well-bred glance lingered on him for a brief instant as he turned the pages of the daily, he was all unconscious of her presence.
Perhaps the lady may have seen something about the strong, wholesome, well-groomed Englishman that pleased her, perhaps she was simply glad to be alive upon that glorious morning, with the bracing breeze blowing fresh from the lake, and the sun sending his welcome rays down upon the mountainside. At all events, her lips parted in the merest shadow of a smile as she walked along the gravelled path with the veriest air of a princess.
Alas! the smile and the dainty picture which the dark-haired lady made as she moved down the flower bordered path in the sunshine, her morning gown clinging gracefully about her slender figure, were alike lost on the engrossed Paul. With his eyes glued to the criticism of a sharpened writer on the last measure before Parliament, he read on, all oblivious to his surroundings. Even here, at his beloved Lucerne, the man of affairs could not escape the thrall of the life into which he had thrown the whole effort of his fine mind.
Sir Paul had not quite finished the breezy article when, with an all pervading blast of a sweet-toned, but unnecessarily loud Gabriel horn, a big green touring car came dashing up to the gate of the little hotel, and with a final roar and sputter, and agonized shriek of rudely applied brakes, came to a sudden stop. From it there emerged, like a monster crab crawling from a mossy shell, a huge form in a bright green coat—a heavy man with a fat, colourless face and puffy eyes, and Paul, glancing up at the ostentatious approach, recognized in him a nouveau riche whom a political friend had insisted on introducing in London a few days before.
Schwartzberger, his name was (Paul had a peculiar trick of remembering names)—the fellow was said to have made a fortune in old rags—no, it was tinned meats—in Chicago. It was his proud boast that he started in the business as a butcher's errand boy but a few years ago, and now, no supper bill at the Moulin Rouge, no evening's play at Monte Carlo, had ever made a material depletion in the supply of gold that always jingled in the pockets of his loud clothes. His was the fastest car and the gayest coloured on all the Continent, and he was alike the hero and the easy dupe of every servant.
As the stout American came waddling uncertainly up the walk, with a certain elephantine effort at jauntiness, he nearly collided with the foreign lady who had crossed his path to reach the further limits of the terrace. Not having a cautioning horn attached to his anatomy to warn heedless trespassers from his way, the large person was forced to give ground, but had some difficulty in veering from his course sufficiently to avoid an accident. However, the grande dame slipped past him quickly and disappeared amid the shrubbery—but not before her extraordinary beauty had dazzled the pork-packer's beady eyes.
He turned and stared at her.
"Gee! What a peach!" he murmured aloud, in words which came wheezing from between thick lips. "I wonder if that's the Countess's lady friend she spoke of."
Then, catching sight of Verdayne, and knowing him at once for the swell English guy he had met at the Savoy, he panted up and slapped Paul's shrinking back with his fat, white hand.
"Hullo, Verdayne! Just the man I'm looking for! I didn't know you were in this part of the world. Hurry up with your breakfast and join me and my friend, the Countess de Boistelle, in a spin around the lake. Perhaps you know her already. No? That's easy arranged—she's a particular friend of mine, and she's got a chum of her's staying here too, I guess. Make up a foursome with us and I'll promise you this old place won't be half slow. When it comes to making things hum, nobody's got anything on the Countess."
"Damned bounder!" growled Paul under his breath; and aloud: "Thanks, I have an engagement. Awfully sorry, and all that, you know." And he rose, as if to end the interview.
"I'll bet you've got a date with that queen you were just talking to. Verdayne, you're the foxy one. Well, I can't say you haven't got good taste, anyhow, though she's a little too quiet for me."
"Talking with whom?" inquired Paul, in a cold voice.
"Why, that lady that just left here. She nearly ran into me getting away."
"Schwartzberger," answered Paul, with great deliberation, as he folded his newspaper, "I believe that a lively imagination is as necessary to the ideal management of the pork-packing industry as to all other business activities. Permit me to observe that I can predict for you no cessation of the remarkable results you have achieved in your chosen profession." And with a short nod he started down the path.
Schwartzberger's beady eyes blinked after Paul a moment.
"These Englishmen always do get up in the air over nothing," thought the pork-packer, as he gazed after Paul with a puzzled look on the wide expanse of his countenance. Then he turned his great bulk and waddled ponderously into the hotel, in search of his particular friend, the Comtesse de Boistelle.
Toward the landing on the lake Paul descended, with his heels biting viciously into the gravel at every step.
"Confound these beastly people!" he growled. "Why are they allowed to roam about the earth, making hideous the beautiful places." His soul revolted at even the suggestion that he could have thought for any but his beloved Lady—his Queen whom he had not seen for more than a score of years, and would never, on this fair planet, behold again.
On a coign of vantage overlooking the steep slope the pale lady stood with her face turned toward the Buergenstock. She watched Paul as he stalked angrily down the hillside, and in her mind compared him with the monster she had just avoided. She gazed after him till he reached the slip, where a small boat was ready for him; and she lingered on while he stepped lightly into the skiff, picked up the oars, and rowed away in the style an Eton man never forgets. Motionless she remained, until he disappeared behind a fringe of larches that crept close to the shelving shore. Then slowly, as with regret, she turned to resume her stroll.
A faint colour had stolen into her cheeks; the wonderful eyes had grown very bright and wistfully tender and deep. The rare old lace on her bosom fluttered with her quickened breath, as softly she murmured:
"Ah! My entrancing one, now I have seen thee—and I understand!" And the larches by the shore trembled as if in sympathetic emotion as the gentle breeze echoed her sigh.
* * * * *
A half-hour later the big green touring-car spluttered on its noisy way again; but its tonneau contained no partie carree. A smartly clipped poodle perched in the centre of the wide seat—on one side of him lounged the shapeless green form of the pork-packer, on the other side gracefully reposed the Comtesse de Boistelle.
And if the complacent admiring glances which Schwartzberger heavily bestowed on the lady of his choice were perhaps too redolent of the proprietorship in which a successful pork-packer might indulge, they were at least small coins in the mart of love, which is Springtime in Lucerne.
* * * * *
Up the lake Paul rowed briskly, working off his ill-humour in the sheer exertion of his favorite sport. The splendid play of his powerful muscles carried his light craft rapidly over the blue water, until he reached a secluded little bay where he had often gone to escape from troublesome travellers at the hotel. Beaching his skiff, he threw himself at full length on the rocky shore, where he lay quite still, drinking in the beauty of the prospect.
Occasionally the wind bore to him from some distant ridge or hidden glen the tinkling of a cow-bell, as the herd wandered here and there grazing upon the green uplands. Once—for an instant only—a mirage appeared upon the southern sky, as if in mute testimony to the transitory character of all earthy things, the fleeting phases of human life. It seemed to Paul, with a score of years dimming the vista of his young manhood, not more shadowy and unreal than the wonderful scenes in which years before he had played all too brief a part.
Little by little, as he lay motionless, the sun stole toward the zenith. But to Paul, alone with his memories, the earth seemed bathed in a luminous pall—a mysterious golden shroud.
"Oh! God," he cried, out of the anguish of his soul, "what a hideous world! Beneath all this painted surface, this bedizened face of earth, lies naught but the yawning maw of the insatiable universe. This very lake, with its countenance covered with rippling smiles, is only a cruel monster waiting to devour. Everything, even the most beautiful, typifies the inexorable laws of Fate and the futility of man's struggle with the forces he knows not."
He looked far off, wistfully, to the great pile of the Buergenstock, the one place in the whole world that for him was most rich in tender memories. And yet he knew that its undulating blueness hid hard, relentless rock, as unyielding as the very hand of death itself.
"Love," he said slowly, his heart swelling with the deep sense of his loss, "love should lead to happiness and peace—not to conflict, murder, and sudden death."
And he lay there pondering, until at last, as always in the end, his better genius triumphed. And when the evening sunshine turned the windows of the distant hamlets into tongues of flame and set the waters in the little bay a-dancing, he rowed slowly back to the hotel, his own resourceful English self again.
Far up on the side of the Buergenstock a dim light shone—a faint glow, until a cloud bank, stealing ever nearer, nearer, crept between like some soft curtain, and the silent mystery of the evening fell upon the lake, and wrapped the mountains in a velvet pall.
Nearly a week had passed since Paul reached the Mecca of his pilgrimage. Other guests at the hotel had seen little of him, except as they glimpsed him of a morning as he made an early start to some favourite haunt; or again as he returned at night-fall, to pass quickly through the chattering groups upon the terrace or about the hall and retire to his suite, where usually his dinner was served in solitary state.
His resolutely maintained seclusion was so marked that even his English friends, accustomed as they were to the exclusiveness of their kind, commented on it. Barclay openly lamented, for, as he said, "Was not Sir Paul the best of company when he chose, and why come here to this gay garden spot to mope?"
Daisy Livingstone, the American girl, from that meeting in the train had found a peculiar attraction in her big Englishman, as she called Verdayne playfully when speaking of him to her friends. She knew now, of course, that he was the famous Sir Paul Verdayne, the personage so prominent in British public affairs. And she remembered, too, with a woman's quick intuition for a heart forlorn, Paul's sad, almost melancholy face.
One balmy evening, as she was slowly strolling back and forth beside her mother on the terrace, "Mother," she said in a low voice, "why should Sir Paul look so triste? He has everything, apparently, that a man could wish to make him happy—health, wealth, and a success that can be the result only of his own efforts. And yet he is not happy. What hidden sorrow can he have—some grief, I am sure—that should keep him away from all companions? Every day he goes away alone. And I have seen him almost every night, coming back to the hotel, only to disappear in his rooms, where he must spend many lonely hours."
"Really, Daisy, you are much too interested in this Verdayne. When I was a girl, I never should have paid such close attention to the humour of a strange man. Don't you think that you are becoming altogether too attracted by this Englishman?"
Mrs. Livingstone was an old-fashioned mother who was little in sympathy with the free and easy point of view of radical latter-day Americans.
"Not at all, mother. I find something to interest me in all the people here. Sir Paul is merely a distinct type, just as that awful fat American with the automobile is another in his own way, and that horrid French creature who goes motoring with him every day."
"Then there is the beautiful dark-haired foreign lady, too—she is more fascinating to study than all the rest. She must be a Russian from her colouring, and, besides, she wears those wonderful embroideries. And her servants, too, talk some outlandish gibberish among themselves. Of course she belongs to the nobility, you can see that, even in the way she walks."
"Really, mother, while I'm a true enough American not to be dazzled by the glamour of a coronet, there is something in a long line of well-bred ancestry. You know the old saying, 'Blood will tell.' I've woven quite a fairy story about those wonderful eyes of hers. She is the princess in the fairy story whom some fine prince will find and wake up with a kiss. I wonder—perhaps my Englishman—"
She paused, quite carried away by her own fancy.
"Ah! there she is—my fairy princess—now, down there!" and the girl indicated a rustic seat beneath a spreading cedar some distance below them. As Daisy chattered on, she and her mother had drawn close to the edge of the terrace. And there in the gathering dusk, looking out over the lake, sat the pale-faced lady with the dark hair and the glorious eyes.
As the two Americans stood gazing down the declivity, a small boat cut across their line of vision and came up to the slip with a sweep which only the expert oarsman can achieve.
"The Englishman—Sir Paul!" exclaimed the girl. "You'll see him soon coming up the path that passes close to the big cedar."
And even as she spoke, the figure that jumped from the skiff started up the narrow trail. The lady, too, must have been watching him, for she rose suddenly from her seat and quickly gained the terrace, which she crossed immediately to enter the hotel.
"Why did she leave when she saw him coming?" the girl asked, quick to divine the hidden impulse. "Why did she run away like that? I'd rather have stayed and had a good look at him! I wonder if she doesn't want him to see her. Now that I think about it, she never stays where he can meet her."
"Come, child! Don't be absurd!" said Mrs. Livingstone, and locking her arm within that of her daughter's, she drew gently away.
With lagging steps Paul climbed the hill. The natural quieting effect of the day spent in tender cherishing of old-time memories had not been dispelled by his recent violent exercise, and the rustic bench invited him more than the bustling hotel and the prospect of a dreary dinner. But he forced himself to his tub and evening clothes, and once more dined alone. The fixed habits of a lifetime are not to be lightly set aside for some passing whim.
That night would be Paul's last at Lucerne. The week had been one of strain, and there had come over him a fatigue scarcely less intense than he could have felt had he actually experienced anew the scenes he had been living over in imagination. But with weariness had come a resignation which at last seemed final—a renunciation of his dream-life. Now must he put away forever the haunting memories that seemed always outlined, however, dimly, on the tablets of his brain. To-morrow he would be speeding on his way westward, to London and duty. Can we blame Paul if he shrank a bit from defining the latter too precisely.
He dined very late, and after an hour spent with his cigar, a newspaper, and letters that demanded attention, he felt the oppression of the room and stepped out into the night, where myriads of stars dotted the sky with their bright points. On the bench beneath the great cedar, a little distance down from the terrace, Paul seated himself to enjoy a final cigar. The cool air put new life into him; he felt calmer—more at peace with the world—than had been the case for many years.
All was settled now. He was sure of his ability to return to England, to go straight to Isabella and tell her all. That she would marry him, he had no doubt. Too much of the old fondness still persisted between them for any other outcome to be possible. Indeed, he could see no reason why they should not make each other contented.
Paul no longer used the word happy, even in his solitary thoughts. Happiness, that priceless elusive treasure, can come only to a heart at peace in the warm sunshine of love. Material things can make for contentment, but ah! how uncertain is that will-o'-the-wisp happiness.
As he sat pondering over the future, which now lay before him more definitely almost than he had dared to think, a faint sound caught his ear—the merest stir as of something moving above him. The stairway leading from the terrace to the path below formed a partial shelter for the bench. He turned instinctively, gazing at the landing, but saw nothing.
He had just decided that his nerves were playing him a trick, when the sound was repeated. This time he felt sure that some one, some thing, was stirring close back of him. Again he turned and scanned the flight of steps, gray in the bright starlight, until suddenly his eyes stood still. They rested as if stopped by some mysterious compelling power—some living magnet that seemed to hold them against his will. And then in the luminous light the delicate outlines of a face seemed to establish themselves, like a shadowy canvas painted by some fairy brush.
It was a face Paul knew right well, for it had scarcely left him, waking or sleeping, for many, many years. Framed in the dark foliage, it leaned toward him over the parapet, half visible, half obscured.
In a twinkling the weight of a score of years slipped like a cloak from Paul's shoulders. With a wild, choking cry he leaped to his feet, and stretching both his arms above him, "My Queen! my Queen!" he called.
But as he moved the vision vanished. And Paul knew that it was only a cruel jest of Fate, and himself to be as ever but the plaything of his evil genius, which never ceased to torture him. Relentlessly the load of years crept back upon him and like an Old Man of the Sea wound themselves about his shoulders and clutched him in a viselike grip, and he sank with a convulsive gasp upon the bench again.
Soon the spasm passed. But for Paul the night was no longer beautiful. Only unutterable sadness seemed to pervade the place. The very air seemed heavy with oppressive grief. And rising, he tottered like an old man around to the foot of the steps and dragged himself slowly up.
He had reached the landing immediately above the bench he had just quitted when he saw a blur of white—an indistinct patch in the half-light. He reached forward, and his trembling fingers closed upon a lady's handkerchief. And then—he caught the faintest breath of a perfume, strange yet hauntingly familiar, as if the doors of the dead past had opened for an instant.
Heavens! Her perfume! His brain reeled. He rushed up to his sitting-room, and there, under the bright light, he examined the trophy. It was real—there was no doubt about that. Paul had half fancied that after all it was only another trick of his imagination. But there lay the scrap of filmy stuff upon his table, as tangible as the solid oak on which it rested.
He folded it carefully and placed it in his pocket. For some moments he pondered over the strange coincidence, and as he thought, the clouds lifted from his brain again. If this were chance, surely there was some consistency in it all. Fortune always sets mile-posts on the road to her, and with a thrill Paul realized that he was still a young man and that this tiny suggestion from the destiny which directs poor mortals' affairs was not to be disregarded. The time for action had come.
He descended briskly to the hall and scanned the visitors' list. The names—most of them—meant nothing. Except for Barclay and his party Paul knew no one in the place. Indeed, he had held himself aloof from chance acquaintances.
By this time no guests remained about the lounge. In the doorway stood Monsieur Jacques. Paul went up to him.
"I found a handkerchief outside just now," he said, forcing a careless voice. "Perhaps the lady to whom it belongs has just come in?"
"No one has entered for a quart d'heure, Sir Paul. Helas! It was not so in the old days. It was always gay then at this time of the night, with the band playing and all the guests chattering like mad." The maitre d'hotel breathed a gentle sigh for the halcyon days of long ago.
Momentarily baffled, to his rooms Paul turned again, and threw himself into a big armchair, where he sat wondering till in the gray light of morning the formless shadows around him took the shape of the luxurious furnishings of his suite.
What face had peered at him through the branches? In spite of the token he had found on the steps, Paul could scarcely believe that the vision had been one of flesh and blood. The handkerchief with the familiar scent?—merely an odd coincidence. But still—well, the puzzle might be worth the solving.
At last he rose, and drawing the heavy hangings close to keep out the insistent light, he lay down upon his bed, to fall into a troubled sleep.
When he awoke it was almost noon, and too late to catch the Paris train. Fate again! And yet there arose no feeling of rebellion in Sir Paul. If he were in the hands of a great will, let that same will direct. There would be another train in the evening, but Paul would have none of it. His mood had changed. He could not leave the place quite yet. So he dressed leisurely; and it was not till mid-afternoon that his flannel-clad figure appeared upon the lawn. He had no energy for a walk or row, and spent the time till dinner reading and smoking.
That night he did not wish to dine alone. The approach of darkness, with its eerie suggestion of his strange experience of the night before, made him crave the society of his kind. As he passed through the lounge, carefully groomed as ever, his friend Barclay called to him.
"I say, Verdayne! Join us to-night, won't you, old chap? We will be dining early."
The cheery English voice was what Paul needed, and though he had all the week avoided the party—there were three men—now he gladly greeted them. Barclay, totally unable to account for Paul's sudden recension from his aloofness, nevertheless secretly rejoiced. He greatly admired Verdayne, and had felt rather hurt at his keeping quite so much to himself. With a wisdom beyond his usual capabilities, however, he refrained from making any comment and only showed the pleasant eagerness of a cordial host.
They were the first to enter the restaurant, and as they sat there with talk of familiar things in Paul's ears he began to feel himself again.
After dinner Paul played billiards, and then took a hand at bridge, and when at length the game broke up he was sure of himself; the amusement of the evening had been sane enough to convince Paul that there would be no visions for him that night. He took a few turns back and forth before the hotel, and then, rounding a corner of one of the wings, he came upon a little rustic tea-house hidden away among a wealth of shrubbery and young trees.
A fancy to explore it seized him, and he followed the path that led toward it. The heavy vines clustering completely over the structure made the interior of an inky blackness. Paul halted on the threshold and struck a match. At first, as the phosphorus flared, the darkness beyond seemed intensified. Then, as the flame subsided, Paul saw—the face again, looking straight into his—the same beautiful face, it seemed, that had gazed at him on that memorable night years before, the same red lips, the same wonderful eyes.
The blazing match fell from his fingers, and in another moment he clasped a warm and clinging figure in his arms. Without a word their lips met in one long kiss. To Paul it was as if he had been transported to some distant sphere, and in some mystic fashion transcending time and space, he held his lady in his arms again.
But it was no dream; that kiss was a reality.
* * * * *
A low cry suddenly broke the silence—a quick exclamation of alarm. It was a language Paul remembered well, for his Queen had often talked to him caressingly in her own strange tongue. He started and turned his head, to see a tongue of flame leaping shoulder-high behind him. The match had fallen on some inflammable drapery and set the place afire. He seized a rug and tried to smother the blaze, but the little house was a tinder box.
The lady had not moved meanwhile. But as the sound of running feet and a loud call of "Au feu! Au feu!" shattered the quiet, she sprang like a frightened fawn out into the darkness. An instant later, blinded by the glare of the conflagration, Paul followed. He was too late. The darkness had swallowed her completely, and with the blaze still dazzling his eyes Paul could scarcely see even the hurrying forms that came racing up the path.
In a few moments the tea-house was a ruin. Paul hurried to the hotel, where several startled guests had gathered in somewhat scanty attire, alarmed by the cry of fire ringing out into the still night. But the lady of the midnight kiss was not there.
Too stirred within his heart to sleep, Paul paced the lawn, in the vain hope of seeing her again.
He was walking lightly over the wet grass with almost silent feet, so occupied with his thoughts that he came near to walking into a couple talking beneath a tree.
When, however, he beheld them, he came to a sudden standstill, all his senses alive, his quick intuition telling him he was in the presence of some matter of moment.
A little portly man with an evident air of authority was talking to a woman in a flowing cloak. Emphasizing his remarks with true Gallic gestures, but with all his excitement making an evident effort to be guarded in his tone, he was all oblivious to Paul's presence.
The girl Paul could not see plainly, but it was with some unaccountable notion of doing her a service, and not with the remotest idea of eavesdropping, that he stepped softly and silently to the further side of a tree trunk.
Then he heard the girl's voice saying in low, quiet, earnest accents:
"Why will you not let me rest? Why do you pursue me in this way? Surely it is inhuman to adopt these methods. Is it fair to follow me to a place like this and insult me in this way?"
The man mumbled something which Paul could not catch.
Then he heard the girl utter a little cry.
"Look!" she exclaimed eagerly. "Look! I will make you an offer. Free me from this horrible nightmare, give me your word that you will not persecute me further, and I will give you these."
Paul heard the rustle of draperies, and was conscious that the girl reached out her hands.
The man greedily took something from her. His head was bent over the object, whatever it might be, long and earnestly.
Then he heard a thick voice say in French: "They are beautiful, very beautiful. But what are they to us? You think they are worth a hundred thousand roubles, eh? Suppose they are—what of that? Do you think a hundred thousand roubles will save you? Bah!"
The man chuckled thickly.
"But they are very pretty baubles," he went on, "and since you offer them to me, I see no reason why I should not keep them."
"Ah!" cried the girl. "Then Boris will be satisfied?"
"Satisfied!" exclaimed the man, "satisfied, for this much! Not he! Why, it's ridiculous."
"Then give them back to me," said the girl, quietly, with a quaver in her voice. "Give them back to me. Would you rob me?"
"I am not robbing you," answered the man, sullenly. "I am taking what you offered me. I shall not give them back. It is impossible for you to make me. You would cry out, would you? What good would that do? Cry out, call for help—do what you like—but think first what will it mean for you. Give them back? Not I! I—"
But his speech ended suddenly at this point, for Paul, always quick to action, took quick action now.
Moving round the trunk of the tree, he caught the man deftly by the collar of his coat, kicked his heels from under him, and brought him with a heavy crash to the ground.
The man lay still.
In a second Paul was on his knees beside the prostrate figure. With swift fingers he searched the man's clothing and found a mass of jewels in the breast-pocket of his outer coat.
In a twinkling he had them out, and, rising to his feet, he held a heavy string of diamonds towards the girl.
"Madam," he cried, "permit me to befriend you. I do not know who you are, but—"
His voice trailed away into a little gasp, for the frightened face that stared at him in the moonlight with starting eyes was the face of the lady he was seeking.
Paul stood still gazing mutely at the girl and holding out the jewels towards her.
When he had recovered from his great surprise he moved a step nearer to her.
"Madam," he said, "permit me to insist that you shall take these things back."
Without a word she stretched out her hand and took the jewels from him. She hid them quickly in the folds of her cloak, and all the while the expression of amaze and fear on her face did not abate.
At last she pointed to the man lying beneath the tree.
"You have not killed him?" she asked, in a low voice.
For answer, Paul turned again and knelt at the fat man's side. He inserted his hand skilfully over the unconscious man's heart, and then rose to his feet again.
"No," he said, almost with a laugh. "Just knocked him out; that is all. He will be all right directly, and I fancy he will be glad to walk away without assistance. I imagine he is not a character who would care for much fuss and attention at this time of the night."
Again Paul drew near to the girl and peered gravely and keenly, but at the same time with all deference, into her face.
"I think," he said quietly, "that it will be better for you to walk away while we are still undisturbed. If you will allow me, I will accompany you toward the hotel. If I may be permitted to say so, it is hardly fitting that a lady carrying so much property about with her should be strolling here unattended."
His tones were so kind and cheering that the lady smiled back at him.
"At least," she said, "you are a very sturdy escort."
She walked beside him without saying anything more, apparently satisfied to be in his charge.
Paul said not another word except, "This is the way," and then, guiding the girl through the trees, he reached the main path and helped her to step over the low iron railing; thence he piloted her in silence until the hotel was in sight.
As the building loomed up in the darkness, Paul stopped, and said earnestly:
"I trust you will permit me to wait and see you safely on your road. Apparently one never knows what may happen, and, believe me, I have no wish you should suffer a second adventure such as the one through which you have just passed."
"Thank you," said the girl in a scarcely audible voice. Then turning towards him, she stretched out her hand impulsively.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you. I cannot tell you how much I thank you. You are a gentleman. It is not necessary to ask you as a gentleman not to mention to anyone in the world what you have seen or heard to-night."
"You may trust me absolutely," he said. "I give you my word of honour that not one single word of this shall pass my lips. But may I say something else? May I be allowed to make an offer of help? I have money, I have many resources at my command. I would willingly pledge myself to serve you in any way. I should be only too proud, too glad to help."
"No, no!" cried the girl, sharply, with a piteous little gesture and a note almost of agony in her voice.
The distress in her tones was so real that Paul made no further effort to persuade her. So, lifting his hat, he stood waiting for her to take leave of him. Once more she stretched out her hand impulsively, and he took it in his own.
"Thank you," she said, in the same low, earnest voice, "thank you again and again." Then she turned and walked quickly away.
Paul strolled slowly back to the hotel, in a more perplexed state of mind than before. Was it possible that he had stepped suddenly into the midst of some tragic mystery? What sorrow, what terror had made the eyes of the girl so wistful and so beckoning?
That she might be suffering some profound grief, or might be the centre of some bit of distressing family history, might well be conceived. But what extraordinary combination of inappropriate events could possibly cause her to seek to buy quittance of such a man as he had left insensible?
He sat far into the night, turning all these things over in his mind.
Obviously it was not some question of personal honour which involved the necessity of maintaining some sordid and disgraceful secret, or the lady would not be risking her personal safety, and to a great extent her reputation, by being present at such a rendezvous.
Whatever it might be—the mystery which embraced her—Paul determined, whether it pleased her or not, that he would range himself on her side.
To do this, however, it would be necessary to discover what the mystery was, and he proceeded to set up and then demolish a thousand and one theories to account for her plight; and he was still far from the solution when he fell asleep.
Again the mid-day sun was gilding the canopy of his couch when Paul awoke. He sprang up and dressed hurriedly. That day he must discover who the lady was.
Renewed inquiries of Monsieur Jacques yielded no further information. Rose-red lips and coils of raven hair no longer made on the maitre d'hotel the same impression as in the golden days when the band played dreamy waltzes and dashing gentlemen leaned caressingly over dazzling shoulders.
Of the man he had felled, Paul spoke never a word. Apparently he had vanished as he had come—unknown.
"Truly, Sir Paul, there has been no lady here to answer your description. But stop! A Russian lady perhaps, you say? Il est possible." Monsieur Jacques laid a searching finger on his speculative brow. "Mademoiselle Vseslavitch, peut-etre. Yes—tall, surely,—a brunette, too, like most of those Russians. She left this morning, quite early."
Paul's heart leaped, only to stop again at the last sentence.
"Left? Where did she go, mon ami?" He and Monsieur Jacques were good friends, and Paul knew that his interest, though perhaps unaccountable to the old inn-keeper, was still in safe hands.
"That I do not know. But we shall see what we shall see. One moment, Monsieur."
Calling a porter, the maitre d'hotel gesticulated with him for a moment. Then he returned to where Paul waited impatiently.
"Emil here says that he purchased bookings to Langres for the lady," he said.
Langres! Isabella and London were a million miles from Langres at that instant! The memory of that kiss alone remained.
Paul's mind was made up. He would start for Langres that very day. He hurried to his rooms, where Baxter was soon packing his boxes. And then Paul's eye fell on the table, on the picture of Isabella that he had brought with him. She had given him an excellent likeness, in a leather case, the day he came away. Her frank eyes seemed to smile at him amusedly.
Paul pulled himself together.
"I am mad!" he told himself—"to be carried away by a momentary impulse, to forget all for a fancied resemblance!... Paris! Baxter!" he said curtly, turning to his valet.
And when Paul reached the station it was with the firmest of resolutions to hurry home, stopping only one night in Paris to break the tiresome journey.
"En voiture!" the guards sang out, and Paul climbed into his carriage, once more the staid M. P. he thought—But was he? Could he ever be again?
* * * * *
Toward Paris, then, the fast mail bore him rapidly; and at the same time toward Langres. When they reached Bale, Baxter telegraphed to the Hotel du Rhin in Paris for a suite. At Belfort Paul directed him to send another message cancelling the reservation. And—alas for Paul's good resolutions!—at the station of Langres-Marne, a mile from the old cathedral town itself, he left the train, taking only a big Gladstone bag with him, and sent Baxter on alone to Paris, to wait until he should arrive.
Another short journey remained, so in company with the inevitable soldier, priest, and old lady with a huge umbrella, Paul took a seat in one of the open cars of the little rack-and-pinion railway that runs up the steep hill through the apple orchards to the old cathedral city. In a few minutes the train stopped at a miniature station.
It had begun to rain, and Paul was conscious that he was an object of interest as he stood on the steps of the station looking about him in search of a fiacre.
No vehicle was in sight, so he set himself to tramp up the hill to the Hotel de l'Europe, at which he had stayed long years before, and of which he still entertained a lively recollection of its cleanness and its quaintness.
The hotel slept, and Verdayne heard the bell pealing through the silent house as he stood shivering and waiting on the doorstep.
Presently he heard the sound of bolts being withdrawn and a shock-headed night porter thrust his face out into the damp evening air.
The sight of Sir Paul's tall figure drew his immediate attention.
"What does Monsieur require?" he asked in accents which were at once civil and surprised.
"Let me in," said Verdayne, "and I will do my best to explain."
The man led the way to a delightfully large and airy room, half salon, half chambre a coucher, where Paul was glad to remove the stains of travel.
First he took the precaution of drawing a couple of half-crowns from his pocket and slipping them into the man's hand.
"You need not be alarmed at my appearance," he said. "I am not a fugitive from justice. I am merely an English gentleman who has lost his friends and who is in search of them.
"Tell me if you have staying in this hotel a tall young lady with dark hair and brilliant eyes? It is possible that she is travelling incognito, but if she has given her right name it will be Mademoiselle Vseslavitch."
The man scratched his head and looked worried.
"I would help Monsieur if I could," he said, "but I can only assure him that there is no lady staying in this hotel at all. Alas! the season is very bad, and we have few visitors."
That this dark-haired lady was not at the Hotel de l'Europe did not disconcert Verdayne very much. He had foreseen that she was hardly likely to stay in the hotel with which English tourists would be acquainted.
"It is many years," he said to the man, "since I stayed here. In fact, I have practically no recollection of Langres except of this hotel and the cathedral. I should therefore be very much obliged if you could furnish me with a complete list of all the other hotels."
"Why now," said the man, "that is an exceedingly simple affair." And he rattled off a list.
Paul repeated them after him.
"And you think," he asked, "that this is a complete list?"
"Quite complete, I should say," said the man, "for Monsieur's purpose.
"Permit me to help Monsieur," he went on. "Monsieur will pardon me, but possibly this may be some romance."
He shrugged his shoulders, but with such an air of civility and respect that Verdayne could not quarrel with him.
"At any rate, it is not my business to inquire. For the time it is merely my end to serve Monsieur well. Be seated for a moment while I make coffee and bring rolls and butter. It will fortify Monsieur against the damp air."
Laughing a little, Paul suffered the man to bustle about. The fellow was deft indeed, and soon Verdayne was glad that he had listened to his counsel.
Midnight drew near and the porter turned the lights out, but Paul sat until cockcrow, smoking and pondering on the strange paths into which one's feet are sometimes led.
* * * * *
Shortly after eight, the man, who had been busy cleaning boots, returned and made a gesture towards the sunlight, which was streaming into the room.
"If Monsieur is in haste," he said, "I will not seek to detain him. By this time the other hotels will be open. If Monsieur's mission is urgent he should continue his search."
His air was so friendly and so charming that Paul resorted to the only expression of appreciation of which he could conceive. He gave the man another ten francs, and pledged him to silence. None the less, he had little faith that the man would keep his tongue still. A Frenchman must talk.
After a light breakfast Paul went out into the fresh morning air and began his search. In turn he visited the Hotel de la Poste, le Grand, de la Cloche, and the rest of them, wandering around the cobbled streets of the sleepy village, and strolling through the market-place, gay with the green and red and russet of its vegetables, the blue and crimson of the umbrellas over the stalls. Then, in the unclouded sunshine, he walked around the ancient ramparts, from which point of vantage he looked down upon wide stretches of sunlit country, dotted here and there with vineyards.
It cost him a pretty sum to purchase the confidence of half-suspicious porters, but by the time he had worked through the list with which the friendly servitor had provided him he had come to the conclusion that Mademoiselle Vseslavitch was, of a certainty, not in one of these hostelries.
Was she still in Langres? The doubt troubled Paul greatly.
All the time, as he walked on through the narrow streets, Paul's eyes sought the object of his quest in vain. Apparently he was the only foreigner in the town. It was nearly twelve as he turned into the Promenade de la Blanche Fontaine, a fine wide avenue of chestnut trees which recalled to Paul the Broad Walk at Oxford, and being the only pedestrian abroad at that hour, he said a few swear-words to himself by way of consolation.
Clearly, this search for the lady might prove a case for Sherlock Holmes, while Paul's own detective ability, he admitted, was more of the Dr. Watson order.
It was after twelve when Paul sought the shade of the Hotel de l'Europe again. There the few sounds that pierced the mid-day stillness were chiefly those that penetrated from the kitchen, where Monsieur le Cusinier and his assistants were busily engaged in the preparation of dejeuner. And it was not long before Paul sat down to a delightful meal, served in a vine-framed window. He was alone in the room, and feeling the need of encouragement he invited the genial landlord to share a bottle of Burgundy with him.
The two men sat there, toasting each other more and more gaily as the red nectar fell lower in the long bottle, until finally, perceiving his host to be in a confidential mood, Paul questioned him about tourist travel.
"Ah! Monsieur! May the bon Dieu bless you! You are the first to visit us this summer. It is early yet. But soon they will come to see our wonderful cathedral, and stay a day or two with us."
Paul's spirits drooped again at this information, but for an hour after finishing his demi-tasse he lingered at the table, hoping for some clue, while Monsieur le Proprietaire chattered on.
There was indeed but little to amuse the traveller in Langres, after the cathedral, beyond the quaint streets and the beautiful old timber-framed houses. Doubtless Monsieur Verdayne—he did not know Paul's title—would wish to see the cathedral that very afternoon; it would be pleasant to go to vespers. A little later for himself, he would recommend another walk to the ramparts to see the sun-set.
Meanwhile, he knew of some truly marvellous Chartreuse in the cellar below. Would not Monsieur compliment him by tasting it? Monsieur would, with much pleasure; and accordingly a dusty bottle was soon forthcoming.
So another slow hour wore away. And again, in the cool of the afternoon, Paul ventured forth on another tour of inspection.
This time the search was successful. In a narrow street he discovered a small hotel which went by the name of the Republique. Here his question put to the plump Madame who opened the door, at once kindled interest.
"Yes, there was most decidedly a Russian lady staying there—a young Russian lady of most distinguished appearance. She had arrived about noon on the day before, and said she intended to stay there for a couple of days, as she expected friends."
"Had the friends arrived?"
"No, not as yet. Perhaps Monsieur was the friend for whom she waited?"
Verdayne was hardly prepared for this, and found the situation a trifle awkward to explain.
"No," he said to the fat Madame, he was not the friend whom Mademoiselle had come to meet. He was, however, an acquaintance, and would call later in the day.
Contenting himself with this, he lifted his hat and strolled down the street, followed by the shrewd, smiling eyes of the landlady.
He walked on until he felt sure he was no longer observed; then he walked back again.
On the opposite side of the street to the Republique, a few doors up, he discovered a cafe of humble aspect, provided with tables beneath an awning, at which the thirsty could sit and refresh themselves.
At one of these tables Paul took a chair, and at the risk of violent indigestion called for more coffee. He sat and sipped the sweet and chicory-flavoured liquid and turned about in his mind the best means of discovering the reason of Mademoiselle Vseslavitch's visit to Langres.
He debated with himself whether it would not be better to go boldly over to the hotel and made his presence known; but he reflected that such a course might be unwise. Indeed, the very knowledge of his presence might result in her abandoning the business which had called her so suddenly from Lucerne.
As time went on he glanced up and down the street, watching everyone's approach with interest. Towards half-past four his attention was aroused by the appearance of a man whose aspect was out of keeping with the little street.
The stranger was above middle height, and bore himself with a certain air of quiet dignity. He was dressed in black, his clothes being well cut, though of obviously foreign tailoring.
It was the man's face, however, which riveted Paul's attention. It was very dark, and the nose was somewhat flat; not at all the prevailing French type. Yet it was a face of great refinement and distinction, accentuated in a strange way by a long, black, and well-trimmed beard.
The man, plainly, was not a Frenchman, nor, Paul decided, was he a German; certainly he was not an Italian nor an Austrian. A subtle something about the man's whole appearance, indeed, brought Verdayne to the conclusion that he was a Russian.
And then that rare gift of intuition which had always been Paul's great aid in times of trouble told him that this dignified and daintily-walking stranger was in some manner connected with Mademoiselle Vseslavitch's presence at the Hotel de la Republique.
So certain of this was he that at once he took the precaution of drawing further back into the cafe, where he could sit in the shadows and watch the passage of the stranger without arousing any interest himself.
Twice the black-bearded man walked up the street, glancing sharply at the Republique, and twice he walked back with the same meditative and dilatory air. Then he turned the corner and disappeared.
The proprietor of the inn busied himself about the cafe, and, seeming curious about the visitor's long sojourn, Paul ordered a further supply of the chicory-like coffee.
It was not long before his patience was rewarded. There was some bustle about the door of the inn, and then he saw the fat landlady bowing and scraping on the white doorstep, and out of the shadows into the sunshine stepped the girl he had come to find.
Dressed all in black and thickly veiled, Mademoiselle Vseslavitch came quickly out of the doorway and walked down the street.
Paul, who had previously taken the precaution to settle his score, immediately rose and walked after her.
The street was so narrow and there were so many people about that he had to follow pretty closely in order to avoid losing her. He noted with some surprise that she walked straight ahead, as though with studied purpose, never faltering and never so much as glancing to the right or to the left.
Down the hill they went and so into the space about the cathedral, where busy women had set out their wares—poultry, pottery, vegetables and the like.
More than one head was turned to note the quick, silent passage of Mademoiselle Vseslavitch. Hers, indeed, was a physique which could not have escaped notice, no matter what its surroundings.
On the market-square, having a clearer view before him, Paul slackened his pace and allowed the distance to increase between them.
Still the beautiful Russian lady walked straight ahead, as one who follows an oft-trodden path and knows full well whither that path leads.
She moved up the cathedral steps, and as she did so Paul saw approaching the sombre figure of the black-bearded man whose presence in the little street by the Hotel de la Republique had aroused his interest earlier in the morning.
But though their steps were evidently leading them to the same spot, neither the black-bearded man nor Mademoiselle Vseslavitch made the least sign that either was aware of the other's presence. The girl passed into the cathedral, the man following closely on her heels.
In fear of losing sight of them Paul almost ran across the square and darted up the cathedral steps. But for all his speed his feet fell silently, so that neither the girl nor the man who followed her, heard.
Once in the cathedral, Paul paused in his pursuit.
The picturesque interior was aglow with the declining rays of the sun, which streamed through a large window behind the organ upon a great silver Calvary surmounting the high altar, and gilded the white caps of a handful of old bourgeoises sprinkled here and there in the straight-backed pews.
The bell tolled and a low murmuring began. They were reciting the Office of the Rosary. Paul was stirred by the scene as never before by any devotional services and in spite of his eager desire to learn more about the dark-eyed lady, all through the prayers and responses he was rapt as in some mystic spell. With the benedicite by the young abbe, a column of incense rose before the Calvary, a moving pearl-coloured shaft in the soft light, for the sun had set. And as the cantors and the pious folk at worship sang Tantum ergo the Host was borne out through the gate at the east end of the choir to the Lady altar.
To Paul it seemed as if the full meaning of the Roman Catholic faith was borne upon him for the first time. With a tremendous influence upon his emotions, its intimate relation with the soul and the sentiment of the human hearts gathered there quickened the utmost depths of his nature. Having thus witnessed that impressive service, it was impossible for him to feel that he was not one with it, and of it; and all differences of religious creeds escaped his mind.
Surely, he thought, this is a communion of the spirit—the fruit of simple feeling and natural impulse. For the moment he had forgotten that he was the descendant of a long line of staunch supporters of the Church of England.
The singing ceased, and still Paul stood with head uncovered. In his exaltation the thought came to him that this vision so like his Queen, which he was seeking here in this byway of the earth, had been sent to him by his dear Lady. Had she not told him that although parted from him in the flesh, she would always be with him in the spirit? And now that her beautiful being had been borne away from this world of strife, was it not possible that by some intercession she had been able to send another, almost as divine as herself, to comfort and strengthen him?
From that time the impulse which had sent Paul on his search was fired by some mysterious, guiding hand. His quest became a sacred duty. Filled with the new mission, seized by a sudden fervour as were the knights in olden days, crusaders who had made their vows on the cross in that very sanctuary, Paul moved quietly towards the chancel, there to bespeak a blessing.
With outstretched hand the priest murmured the words Paul craved. Then he rose, and was walking slowly toward the door of the transept, when he came to an image of the Virgin, before which a single candle burned. And there, before the sacred figure, knelt the lovely object of his pilgrimage. Impressed by a reverence of the scene, Paul passed on, filled with a holy joy. At last he felt a strange exalting peace.
Paul little dreamed the nature of the lady's prayers. Conscious of the suddenly awakened love, which that feverish kiss had stirred to life within her, she had come to the cathedral to seek for spiritual help. She had felt the need of some higher will than her own to strengthen her resolve to steel her heart against this fiery wooer. She was filled with an almost irresistible longing to throw herself into his arms and confess her quickening love. And that she knew too well she must not do.
At last she lifted her bowed head, and rising slowly to her feet, she genuflected before the altar. Then she turned and slipped through a door of a small side chapel, into which the black-bearded man closely followed. Paul's instinct was to follow, too, and, in the calm security of a mind made up, he retraced his steps down the aisle.
He saw that it would be impossible for him to approach the side chapel by the same way as the black-bearded stranger had, if he wished to remain unobserved. So he turned aside and drew near to the chapel by another way, sheltering himself behind the pillars, which cast deep shadows on the floor.
Paul was following his old stalking habit, which he had acquired when in pursuit of big game among the Rockies. Yet with all his care he almost blundered into his quarry. For, as he moved silently round a pillar, he became conscious that he was so near to the lady that he could have stretched out his hand and touched her.
In an instant he drew back and stood still behind a massive column. He could see nothing, but he could hear the voices of the girl and her companion in low and earnest conversation.
At first it was the man who did most of the talking, and from what few of his words he could catch Paul judged him to be speaking in French. He droned on for some minutes, and then his voice died away.
Mademoiselle Vseslavitch now asked several questions in quiet, low tones. The man answered sharply and incisively, and it seemed to Paul that there was command in his voice.
For a while there was a complete silence, which at last was broken by long, choking sobs. Edging a little farther round the pillar, Paul saw the lady kneeling upon a prie-dieu as though in an abandonment of grief. She was crying as though her heart would break, her face buried in her hands. The sombre man stood by like some tall shadow, silent and unmoving.
A quick and great desire to go to her aid, to gather her into his arms and comfort her, took possession of Verdayne. But great as his desire was, he forced it down, recognizing that the moment had not come for him to intervene.
Presently the sombre man moved closer to Mademoiselle Vseslavitch's side, and, putting out a gloved hand, touched her lightly, and with the air of one offering silent sympathy, on the shoulder.
Paul heard him murmuring what must have been words of comfort, and before long she lifted her face and resolutely wiped away her tears. Then she rose and went forward to the altar, on the steps of which she knelt and prayed. Finally she came back to the black-bearded man and held out her hand, and Paul saw with still growing wonder that the man bent over it as though with great respect and brushed her fingers with his lips. Without any further word she walked quickly and quietly away, making for the door through which she had entered the cathedral.
The man, with a little sigh, picked up his hat and followed her, Paul hard upon his heels.
Outside in the sunshine, Verdayne watched the fair Russian make across the square by the way which she had come. Her companion turned abruptly to the right and walked rapidly away.
Paul followed her till she came to the Hotel de la Republique, when she disappeared through the doorway.
* * * * *
Darkness fell and Paul saw no more of his beautiful Russian. In spite of all his efforts she still remained as great a mystery as ever. Almost beside himself with impatience, he returned to the hotel. Many wild, almost boyish, schemes, by which he hoped he could meet the lady entered his head. Most of them Paul rejected—and none of them could be put into execution, for the one responsible for their conception remained hid in the little hotel.
Considerably at odds with the world, he went in to dinner, the excellence of which did not dispel his gloom.
"Confounded silly, this!" he complained to himself. "Here I am, a lonely knight, eating a marvelously good dinner in enforced solitude, with a beautiful lady imprisoned in the upper rooms of the castle. In the rare old days I could go up and knock the jailers' heads together, break in the door, and bear the captive damsel away on my charger. But in this unromantic age I can't even send in my card."
All unconscious of Paul's presence only a few short steps away Mademoiselle Natalie Vseslavitch, for so we will call her until she herself chooses to reveal more, had rushed to her rooms, her heart almost overwhelmed by a new and dreadful burden.
The tidings she had left Lucerne to know, whose bearer was the black-bearded gentleman, which had so aroused Paul's curiosity, were simply these. Her hand was sought in marriage.
Truly not such news as ought to make a maiden weep, you say, and yet what base political ends have not been served through the holy offices of the marriage service. And when a suit bears the approbation of one's sovereign, is it not more nearly a command?
The cousin of our beautiful Natalie, one Prince Boris Ivanovitch, had long been a persistent suitor. What booted it that she would have none of his attentions? Was he not an heir apparent, and should a girl's whim, her likes or dislikes, stand in the way of a powerful union? The Tsar of all the Russias had given him official sanction; to Prince Boris, and alas! to Natalie, the ceremony was as good as performed.
But what of the desires of her own tender girlish heart, her hopes, her sacred mission? Were all to be sacrificed on the altar of a great political alliance? Natalie cast herself on a divan in a paroxysm of grief and rage, and the imperial note, heavy with a gold crest and seals, fluttered in tiny pieces on the floor. In vain her maid essayed to comfort her. This latest blow was too heavy. Why did Boris not let her give him the vast estates, why must he insist upon her?—her love he never had, never could have. Once more the couch shook with her choking sobs.
After the first dreadful shock was over, Natalie calmed herself, and the innate strength, the quiet determination which had carried her so far on her mission asserted itself. She would obey—the thought of disobedience cannot come to faithful subjects—but there was no haste. Time can accomplish much.
Then, as the events of the past few days flitted before her mental vision there crept into her cheeks a faint tinge of colour as she thought of Paul. "Ah, my beloved—yes, beloved, though you know it not. I must see you once more." And the sudden memory of the hour when she last saw him so eager, so loving, all the fine lines of his virile strength thrown on the black screen of darkness, by the light of the burning summer house, mantled her cheek anew in crimson.
He of all the men she had ever seen was the one most worth loving. And then in confusion again at this admission, deep though it was in her thoughts, she dismissed her maid and curling up before the fire set her woman's wit to match the machinations of her greedy relation.
And as she pondered, she smiled. If she had acted on a sudden impulse once, she felt that she could be deliberate now. Having been somewhat indiscreet in the rustic tea-house, with a woman's inconsistency she was determined to veer to a course of conduct exactly opposite.
She felt too well her power to draw Paul to her—indeed, what woman does not know her own capability to attract? And here was an opportunity to gain a brief respite from the grim path on which her destiny seemed to be leading her. She would see him again.
Her bright eyes roved to the dainty table near at hand. She picked up a perfumed note, and read it again, and as she read, a happier look smoothed away the sharp lines of mental anguish which had marked the beautiful face but a short time before. The crested sheet bore the address of the Dalmatian Embassy in Paris, and was from the lovable old Countess Oreshefski, whose husband was the honoured Ambassador.
"My dearest little Natalie," the cordial note of invitation began, and concluded with a reassurance that the Countess expected her on the ninth of May, without fail.
Yes—the ninth of May—that was to-morrow. The Comtesse was insistent, and the Ambassador himself had charged his spouse to invite her. Very well! She would be there.
And Mademoiselle Vseslavitch called her maid and gave her instructions to be ready to leave for Paris by the morning train.
The next day the little cafe across the street from the humble Hotel de la Republique was the richer by a generous gold piece, and the rubicund proprietaire marvelled to his equally rubicund wife over the peculiar habits of the Englishman, who preferred to drink much black coffee and smoke many black cigars sitting at the little table in the doorway, rather than see the beautiful cathedral, as did all the other tourists.
Finally, Paul, impatient at his lengthy vigil, elicited the information, so much desired and yet so disappointing, that a grande dame, for surely she must be such to have so many servants, had honoured the humble hotel across the way by her presence for a brief twenty-four hours and only that morning had taken the train for Nice.
After this bit of information, mingled with much more voluble, mine host had further occasion to remark on the strange actions of "these English." For Paul's sudden departure cut short what the landlord considered a really capable flight of oratory on his beloved cathedral.
Paul did not reach Nice in a particularly pleasant mood. He knew that the task of finding the lady was much less simple than it had been at Langres. But he made a thorough search through the visitors' lists of all the hotels.
His persistence, however, found no reward. He could find no trace of Mademoiselle Vseslavitch whatever.
He had been in Nice two days, and his unsuccessful search began to tell upon his nerves. Realizing the need of relaxation of some sort—some diversion which might for the time being, turn his mind upon trivial things—he decided to spend an evening at Monte Carlo.
Paul was no great gambler—it was a sport in which he had never taken more than a passing interest, but just then he thought it would serve his purpose.
He found himself after dinner therefore in the Casino at Monte Carlo, in a room flooded with light and with many people present—a quiet room for all that, for there was little sound except the monotonous cry of croupiers and the sharp rattle of a ricochetting roulette ball.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the light he stepped forward into the room, only to stand still again and remain motionless, as though turned to stone.
For there, at a long table in the centre of the room, with piles of gold and notes before her, heavily veiled, sat—Mademoiselle Vseslavitch.
A little cry which Paul could not prevent breaking from his lips drew the eyes of all upon him. Mademoiselle herself glanced up and saw his gaze upon her.
She started and instantly Paul turned away and endeavoured to hide himself amid the odd jumble of men who stood round the table watching the play.
"What was she doing here?" Paul thought. A thousand bewildering conjectures flashed into his brain, only to prove inadequate.
Try as he might he could not reconcile the so obvious fact that she was a lady with the peculiar incidents which trod hard upon each other's heels. He recalled the meeting with the strange Frenchman, which still remained a most baffling mystery.
Unconsciously, Paul took note of the men who hemmed the table in. Every type of face presented itself—the fleshy cheeks of middle-aged Jews, of pale clerks and salesmen, prosperous-looking men who might have been commercial travellers, and here and there a more refined-looking man in evening-dress.
A few were still playing, but the majority were watching the fortunes of the veiled lady. She was, besides, the only woman in the room.
Paul stood for a few moments and watched her play. Nor was it difficult, even to his unpracticed eye, to see that she had begun to wage a losing fight against the bank.
Draped in a long opera cloak from which her bare arms were thrust, she sat forward eagerly in her chair, her lips trembling, her eyes bright as stars.
Her face and figure were in extraordinary contrast to her surroundings.
Every man in the room, Paul thought, appeared to feel that he was in the presence of one who not only had the right, but the power, to command respect, and the coarse faces by which she was surrounded surveyed her with a certain deference.
As the game went on and the croupier monotonously raked in the winnings of the bank, Paul suddenly divined the motive which had induced the lady to come there. Undoubtedly it was the hope that she might win enough to satisfy the cruel demands of those who persecuted her.
Quite evidently disturbed by his entrance, for the next few minutes she had apparently lost all track of the successful theory which she had been following. And Paul knew well enough that if a good player once becomes unnerved, his luck, for some strange reason, will change with his mood, and no efforts, however bold or desperate, will avail him anything.
It amazed Verdayne beyond measure that the lady could play such a game with so consummate a skill and so much evidence of experience. He judged that at some time or other she had had a little fling at Monte Carlo, and that profiting by such knowledge as she had acquired before, she had now been playing an inspired game for some incalculable stake.
If she won against the bank it would release her from her torment; no other theory was possible.
It made his heart grow cold with rage as he appreciated that he had been made the innocent instrument of such a hard experience for her.
So convinced did he become of this fact that he shouldered his way through the crowd, and leaning over her chair, whispered into her ear:
"Don't be alarmed. I see you have been greatly upset. Please allow me to assist you."
The man at her right hand scowled angrily, but Paul turned to him with an urbane smile. "As you do not seem to be playing," he said, "perhaps you will allow me to have your chair?"
Nor had the man any alternative but to vacate his seat.
Paul's spirits rose as for the first time in his life he found himself seated by the lady's side, playing on her behalf, to win a desperate game.
But the girl's inspiration was gone, and Paul's knowledge of this form of gambling availed him nothing. Time after time they lost until practically nothing remained of the great pile of money which had been stacked on the table before her when he had entered the room.
The girl watched the money dwindle with every evidence of consternation.
Paul sought to console her.
"Don't despair," he whispered. "I think I have enough with me to see us through."
When he had at first sat down to assist her she had stared at him with considerable astonishment. Now she appeared utterly confused.
"I don't understand," she said in a low voice. "You have certainly done your best to help me, but I cannot see why you wish me to win."
Paul turned and looked her full in the eyes.
"How long will it be," he asked in a low voice, "before you come to trust me?"
Without further word he drew from his pocket the liberal supply of bank-notes with which he had prepared himself for his evening's play, and laid them on the table before his astonished companion.
As this little scene had attracted more attention from those about him than pleased Verdayne, he indicated with a slight nod to the croupier to proceed, and calmly placed a pile of gold pieces of large denomination on the green double nought.