In Friendship's Guise
BY WM. MURRAY GRAYDON
AUTHOR OF "The Cryptogram," etc.
I.—The Duplicate Rembrandt
II.—Five Years Afterwards
III.—An Old Friend
IV.—Number 320 Wardour Street
V.—A Mysterious Discussion
VI.—A Visitor from Paris
VII.—Love's Young Dream
VIII.—An Attraction in Pall Mall
IX.—Uncle and Nephew
X.—A London Sensation
XI.—A Mysterious Discovery
XII.—A Cowardly Communication
XIV.—The Dinner at Richmond
XV.—From the Dead
XVI.—The Last Card
XVII.—Two Passengers from Calais
XIX.—A Shock for Sir Lucius
XX.—At a Night Club
XXI.—A Quick Decision
XXIII.—On the Track
XXIV.—A Fateful Decision
XXV.—A Fruitless Errand
XXVI.—A Thunderbolt from the Blue
XXVII.—An Amateur Detective
XXIX.—The Vicar of Dunwold
XXX.—Run to Earth
XXXI.—Noah Hawker's Disclosure
XXXII.—How the Day Ended
IN FRIENDSHIP'S GUISE.
THE DUPLICATE REMBRANDT.
The day began well. The breakfast rolls were crisper than usual, the butter was sweeter, and never had Diane's slender white hands poured out more delicious coffee. Jack Clare was in the highest spirits as he embraced his wife and sallied forth into the Boulevard St. Germain, with a flat, square parcel wrapped in brown paper under his arm. From the window of the entresol Diane waved a coquettish farewell.
"Remember, in an hour," she called down to him. "I shall be ready by then, Jack, and waiting. We will lunch at Bignon's—"
"And drive in the Bois, and wind up with a jolly evening," he interrupted, throwing a kiss. "I will hasten back, dear one. Be sure that you put on your prettiest frock, and the jacket with the ermine trimming."
It was a clear and frosty January morning, in the year 1892, and the streets of Paris were dry and glistening. There was intoxication in the very air, and Jack felt thoroughly in harmony with the fine weather. What mattered it that he had but a few francs in his pocket—that the quarterly remittance from his mother, who dreaded the Channel passage and was devoted to her foggy London, would not be due for a fortnight? The parcel under his arm meant, without doubt, a check for a nice sum. He and Diane would spend it merrily, and until the morrow at least his fellow-workers at Julian's Academy would miss him from his accustomed place.
Bright-eyed grisettes flung coy looks at the young artist as he strode along, admiring his well-knit figure, his handsome boyish features chiseled as finely as a cameo, the crisp brown hair with a slight tendency to curl, his velvet jacket and flowing tie. Jack nodded and smiled at a familiar face now and then, or paused briefly to greet a male acquaintance; for the Latin Quarter had been his little world for three years, and he was well-known in it from the Boulevard St. Michel to the quays of the Seine. He snapped his fingers at a mounted cuirassier in scarlet and silver who galloped by him on the Point Royal, and whistled a few bars of "The British Grenadiers" as he passed the red-trowsered, meek-faced, under-sized soldiers who shouldered their heavy muskets in the courts of the Louvre. The memory of Diane's laughing countenance, as she leaned from the window, haunted him in the Avenue de l'Opera.
"She's a good little girl, except when she's in a temper," he said to himself, "and I love her every bit as much as I did when we were married a year ago. Perhaps I was a fool, but I don't regret it. She was as straight as a die, with a will of her own, and it was either lose her altogether or do the right thing. I couldn't bear to part with her, and I wasn't blackguard enough to try to deceive her. I'm afraid there will be a row some day, though, when the Mater learns the truth. What would she say if she knew that Diane Merode, one of the most popular and fascinating dancers of the Folies Bergere, was now Mrs. John Clare?"
It was not a cheerful thought, but Jack's momentary depression vanished as he stopped before the imposing facade of the Hotel Netherlands, in the vicinity of the Opera. He entered boldly and inquired for Monsieur Martin Von Whele. The gentleman was gone, a polite garcon explained. He had received a telegram during the night to say that his wife was very ill, and he had left Paris by the first train.
The happiness faded from Jack's eyes.
"Gone—gone back to Amsterdam?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Yes, to his own country, monsieur."
"And he left no message for me—no letter?"
"Indeed, no, monsieur; he departed in great haste."
An appeal to a superior official of the hotel met with the same response, and Jack turned away. He wandered slowly down the gay street, the parcel hanging listlessly under his left arm, and his right hand jingling the few coins in his pocket. His journey over the river, begun so hopefully, had ended in a bitter disappointment.
Martin Von Whele was a retired merchant, a rich native of Amsterdam, and his private collection of paintings was well known throughout Europe. He had come to Paris a month before to attend a private sale, and had there purchased, at a bargain, an exceedingly fine Rembrandt that had but recently been unearthed from a hiding-place of centuries. He determined to have a copy made for his country house in Holland, and chance brought him in contact with Jack Clare, who at the time was reproducing for an art patron a landscape in the Luxembourg Gallery—a sort of thing that he was not too proud to undertake when he was getting short of money. Monsieur Von Whele liked the young Englishman's work and came to an agreement with him. Jack copied the Rembrandt at the Hotel Netherlands, going there at odd hours, and made a perfect duplicate of it—a dangerous one, as the Hollander laughingly suggested. Jack applied the finishing touches at his studio, and artfully gave the canvas an appearance of age. He was to receive the promised payment when he delivered the painting at the Hotel Netherlands, and he had confidently expected it. But, as has been seen, Martin Von Whele had gone home in haste, leaving no letter or message. For the present there was no likelihood of getting a cheque from him.
The brightness of the day aggravated Jack's disappointment as he walked back to the little street just off the Boulevard St. Germain. He tried to look cheerful as he mounted the stairs and threw the duplicate Rembrandt into a corner of the studio, behind a stack of unfinished sketches. Diane entered from the bedroom, ravishingly dressed for the street in a costume that well set off her perfect figure. She was a picture of beauty with her ivory complexion, her mass of dark brown hair, and the wonderfully large and deep eyes that had been one of her chief charms at the Folies Bergere.
"Good boy!" she cried. "You did not keep me waiting long. But you look as glum as a bear. What is the matter?"
Jack explained briefly, in an appealing voice.
"I'm awfully sorry for your sake, dear," he added. "We are down to our last twenty-franc piece, but in another fortnight—"
"Then you won't take me?"
"How can I? Don't be unreasonable."
"You promised, Jack. And see, I am all ready. I won't stay at home!"
"Is it my fault, Diane? Can I help it that Von Whele has left Paris?"
"You can help it that you have no money. Oh, I wish I had not given up the stage!"
Diane stamped one little foot, and angry tears rose to her eyes. She tore off her hat and jacket and dashed them to the floor. She threw herself on a couch.
"You deceived me!" she cried bitterly. "You promised that I should want for nothing—that you would always have plenty of money. And this is how you keep your word! You are selfish, unkind! I hate you!"
She continued to reproach him, growing more and more angry. Words of the lowest Parisian argot, picked up from her companions of the Folies Bergere, fell from her lovely lips—words that brought a blush of shame, a look of horror and repulsion, to Jack's face.
"Diane," he said pleadingly, as he bent over the couch.
Her mood changed as quickly, and she suddenly clasped her arms around his neck.
"Forgive me, Jack," she whispered.
"I always do," he sighed.
"And, please, please get some money—now."
"You know that I can't."
"Yes, you can. You have lots of friends—they won't refuse you."
"But I hate to ask them. Of course, Jimmie Drexell would gladly loan me a few pounds—"
"Then go to him," pleaded Diane, as she hung on his neck and stopped his protests with a shower of kisses. "Go and get the money, Jack, dear—you can pay it back when your remittance comes. And we will have such a jolly day! I am sure you don't want to work."
Jack hesitated, and finally gave in; it was hard for him to resist a woman's tears and entreaties—least of all when that woman was his fascinating little wife. A moment later he was in the street, walking rapidly toward the studio of his American friend and fellow-artist, Jimmie Drexell.
"How Diane twists me around her finger!" he reflected ruefully. "I hate these rows, and they have been more frequent of late. When she is in a temper, and lets loose with her tongue, she is utterly repulsive. But I forget everything when she melts into tears, and then I am her willing slave again. I wonder sometimes if she truly loves me, or if her affection depends on plenty of money and pleasure. Hang it all! Why is a man ever fool enough to get married?"
* * * * *
On a corner of the Boulevard St. Michel and a cross street there is a brasserie beloved of artists and art students, and slightly more popular with them than similar institutions of the same ilk in the Latin Quarter. Here, one hazy October evening, nine months after Mr. Von Whele's hurried departure from Paris, might have been found Jack Clare. Tete-a-tete with him, across the little marble-topped table, was his friend Victor Nevill, whom he had known in earlier days in England, and whose acquaintance he had recently renewed in gay Paris. Nevill was an Oxford graduate, and a wild and dissipated young man of Jack's age; he was handsome and patrician-looking, a hail-fellow-well-met and a favorite with women, but a close observer of character would have proclaimed him to be selfish and heartless. He had lately come into a large sum of money, and was spending it recklessly.
The long, low-ceilinged room was dim with tobacco smoke, noisy with ribald jests and laughter. Here and there the waitresses, girls coquettishly dressed, tripped with bottles and syphons, foaming bocks, and glasses of brandy or liqueurs. The customers of the brasserie were a mixed lot of women and men, the latter comprising' numerous nationalities, and all drawn to Paris by the wiles of the Goddess of Art. Topical songs of the day succeeded one another rapidly. A group of long-haired, polyglot students hung around the piano, while others played on violins or guitars, which they had brought to contribute to the evening's enjoyment. At intervals, when there was a lull, the click of billiard balls came from an adjoining apartment. Out on the boulevard, under the glaring lights, the tide of revelers and pleasure-seekers flowed unceasingly.
"I consider this a night wasted," said Jack. "I would rather have gone to the Casino, for a change."
"It didn't much matter where we went, as long as we spent our last evening together," Victor Nevill replied. "You know I leave for Rome to-morrow. I fancy it will be a good move, for I have been going the pace too fast in Paris."
"So have I," said Jack, wearily. "I'm not as lucky as you, with a pot of money to draw on. I intend to turn over a new leaf, old chap, and you'll find me reformed when you come back. I've been a fool, Nevill. When my mother died last February I came into 30,000 francs, and for the last five months I have been scattering my inheritance recklessly. Very little of it is left now."
"But you have been working?"
"Yes, in a sort of a way. But you can imagine how it goes when a fellow turns night into day."
"It's time you pulled up," said Nevill, "before you go stone broke. You owe that much to your wife."
He spoke with a slight sneer which escaped his companion.
"I like that," Jack muttered bitterly. "Diane has spent two francs to my one—or helped me to spend them."
"Such is the rosy path of marriage," Nevill remarked lightly.
"Shut up!" said Jack.
He laughed as he drained his glass of cognac, and then settled back in his seat with a moody expression. His thoughts were not pleasant ones. Since the early part of the year he and his wife had been gradually drifting apart, and even when they were together at theatres or luxurious cafes, spending money like water, there had been a restraint between them. Of late Diane's fits of temper had become more frequent, and only yielded to a handful of gold or notes. Jack had sought his own amusements and left her much alone—more than was good for her, he now reflected uneasily. Yet he had the utmost confidence in her still, and not a shadow of suspicion had crossed his mind. He believed that his honor was safe in her care.
"I have wished a thousand times that I had never married," he said to himself, "but it is too late for that now. I must make the best of it. I still love Diane, and I don't believe she has ceased to care for me. Poor little girl! Perhaps she feels my neglect, and is too proud to own it. I was ready enough to cut work and spend money. Yes, it has been my fault. I'll go to her to-night and tell her that. I'll ask her to move back to our old lodgings, where we were so happy. And then I'll turn over that new leaf—"
"What's wrong with you, my boy?" broke in Victor Nevill. "Have you been dreaming?"
"I am going home," said Jack, rising. "It will be a pleasant surprise for Diane."
Nevill looked at him curiously, then laughed. He took out his watch.
"Have another drink," he urged. "We part to-night—who knows when we will meet again? And it is only half-past eleven."
"One more," Jack assented, sitting down again.
Brandy was ordered, and Victor Nevill kept up a rapid conversation, and an interesting one. From time to time he glanced covertly at his watch, and it might have been supposed that he was purposely detaining his companion. More brandy was placed on the table, and Jack frequently lifted the glass to his lips. With a cigar between his teeth, with flushed cheeks and sparkling eyes, he laughed as merrily as any in the room. But he did not drink too much, and the hand that he finally held out to Nevill was perfectly steady.
"I must be off now," he said. "It is long past midnight. Good-by, old chap, and bon voyage."
"Good-by, my dear fellow. Take care of yourself."
It was an undemonstrative parting, such as English-men are addicted to. Jack sauntered out to the boulevard, and turned his steps homeward. His thoughts were all of Diane, and he was not to be cajoled by a couple of grisettes who made advances. He nodded to a friendly gendarme, and crossed the street to avoid a frolicksome party of students, who were bawling at the top of their voices the chorus of the latest topical song by Paulus, the Beranger of the day—
"Nous en avons pour tous les gouts."
Victor Nevill heard the refrain as he left the brasserie and looked warily about. He stepped into a cab, gave the driver hurried instructions, and was whirled away at a rattling pace toward the Seine.
"He will never suspect me," he muttered complacently, as he lit a cigar.
With head erect, and coat buttoned tightly over his breast, Jack went on through the enticing streets of Paris. He had moved from his former lodgings to a house that fronted on the Boulevard St. Germain. Here he had the entresol, which he had furnished lavishly to please his wife. He let himself in with a key, mounted the stairs, and opened the studio door. A lamp was burning dimly, and the silence struck a chill to his heart.
"Diane," he called.
There was no reply. He advanced a few feet, and caught sight of a letter pinned to the frame of an easel. He turned up the lamp, opened the envelope, and read the contents:
"Good-by forever. You will never see me again. Forgive me and try to forget. It is better that we should part, as I could not endure a life of poverty. I love you no longer, and I am sure that you have tired of me. I am going with one who has taken your place in my heart—one who can gratify my every wish. It will be useless to seek for me. Again, farewell. DIANE."
The letter fell from Jack's hand, and he trampled it under foot. He reeled into the dainty bedroom, and his burning eyes noted the signs of confusion and flight—the open and empty drawers, the despoiled dressing table, the discarded clothing strewn on the floor.
"Gone!" he cried hoarsely. "Gone at the bidding of some scoundrel—perhaps a trusted friend and comrade! God help my betrayer when the day of reckoning comes! But I am well rid of her. She was heartless and mercenary. She never could have loved me—she has left me because she knew that my money was nearly spent. But I love her still. I can't tear her out of my heart. Diane, my wife, come back! Come back!"
His voice rang through the empty, deserted rooms. He threw himself on the bed, and tore the lace coverings with his finger nails. He wept bitter tears, strong man though he was, while out on the boulevard the laughter of the midnight revelers mocked at his grief.
Finally he rose; he laughed harshly.
"Damn her, she would have dragged me down to her own level," he muttered. "It is for the best. I am a free man once more."
FIVE YEARS AFTERWARDS.
Jack Vernon looked discontentedly at the big canvas on the easel, and with a shrug of the shoulders he turned his back on it. He dropped his palette and flung his sheaf of brushes into an open drawer.
"I am not fit for anything to-day," he said petulantly. "I was up too late last night. No, most decidedly, I am not in the mood for work."
He sauntered to the huge end window of the studio, and looked out over the charming stretch of Ravenscourt Park. It was an ideal morning toward the close of April, 1897—such a morning as one finds at its best in the western suburbs of mighty London. The trees were in fresh leaf and bud, the crocuses were blooming in the well-kept beds, and the grass was a sheet of glittering emeralds. The singing of birds vied with the jangle of tram-bells out on the high-road.
"A pull on the river will take the laziness out of me," thought Jack, as he yawned and extended his arms. "What glorious weather! It would be a shame to stop indoors."
A mental picture of the silvery Thames, green-wooded and sunny, proved too strong an allurement to resist. Jack did not know that Destiny, watchful of opportunity, had taken this beguiling shape to lead him to a turning-point of his life—to steer him into the thick of troubled and restless waters, of gray clouds and threatening storms. He discarded his paint-smeared blouse—he had worn one since his Paris days—and, getting quickly into white flannel and a river hat, he lit a briar pipe and went forth whistling to meet his fate.
He was fond of walking, and he knew every foot of old Chiswick by heart. He struck across the high-road, down a street of trim villas to a more squalid neighborhood, and came out by the lower end of Chiswick Mall, sacred to memories of the past. He lingered for a moment by the stately house immortalized by Thackeray in Vanity Fair, and pictured Amelia Sedley rolling out of the gates in her father's carriage, while Becky Sharpe hurled the offending dictionary at the scandalized Miss Pinkerton. Tempted by the signboard of the Red Lion, and by the red-sailed wherries clustered between the dock and the eyot, he stopped to quaff a foaming pewter on a bench outside the old inn.
A little later he had threaded the quaint passage behind Chiswick Church, left the sonorous hammering of Thorneycroft's behind him, and was stepping briskly along Burlington Lane, with the high wall of Devonshire House on his right, and on his left, far over hedges and orchards, the riverside houses of Barnes. He was almost sorry when he reached Maynard's boat-house, where he kept a couple of light and serviceable craft; but the dimpled bosom of the Thames, sparkling in the sunlight, woke a fresh enthusiasm in his heart, and made him long to transfer the picture to canvas.
"Even a Turner could not do it half justice," he reflected.
It was indeed a scene to defy any artist, but there were some bold enough to attempt it. As Jack pulled up the river he saw, here and there, a fellow-craftsman ensconced in a shady nook with easel and camp-chair. His vigorous strokes sent him rapidly by Strand-on-the-Green, that secluded bit of a village which so few Londoners have taken the trouble to search out. A narrow paved quay, fringed with stately elm trees, separated the old-fashioned, many-colored houses from the reedy shore, where at high tide low great black barges, which apparently go nowhere, lie moored in picturesque array.
It was all familiar to Jack, but he never tired of this stretch of the Thames. He dived under Kew Bridge, shot by Kew Gardens and ancient Brentford, and turned around off Isleworth. He rowed leisurely back, dropping the oars now and again to light his pipe.
"There's nothing like this to brace a fellow up," he said to himself, as he drew near Maynard's. "I should miss the river if I took a studio in town. I'll have a bit of lunch at the Red Lion, and then go home and do an afternoon's work."
A churning, thumping noise, which he had disregarded before, suddenly swelled louder and warned him of possible danger. He was about off the middle of Strand-on-the-Green, and, glancing around, he saw one of the big Thames excursion steamers, laden with passengers, ploughing up-stream within fifty yards of him, but at a safe distance to his right. The same glimpse revealed a pretty picture midway between himself and the vessel—a young girl approaching in a light Canadian canoe. She could not have been more than twenty, and the striking beauty of her face was due to those charms of expression and feature which are indefinable. A crimson Tam-o'-Shanter was perched jauntily on her golden hair, and a blue Zouave jacket, fitting loosely over her blouse, gave full play to the grace and skill with which she handled the paddle.
Jack was indifferent to women, and wont to boast that none could enslave him, but the sight of this fair young English maiden, if it did not weaken the citadel of his heart, at least made that organ beat a trifle faster. He shot one look of bold admiration, then turned and bent to the oars.
"I don't know when I have seen so lovely a face," he thought. "I wonder who she is."
The steamer glided by, and the next moment Jack was nearly opposite to the canoe. What happened then was swift and unexpected. Above the splash of the revolving paddles he heard hoarse shouts and warning cries. He saw green waves approaching, flung up in the wake of the passing vessel. As he dropped the oars and leapt anxiously to his feet the frail canoe, unfitted to encounter such a peril, was clutched and lifted broadside by the foaming swell. Over it went instantly, and there was a flash of red and blue as the girl was flung headfirst into the river.
As quickly Jack clasped his hands and dived from his boat. He came to the top and swam forward with desperate strokes. He saw the upturned canoe, the floating paddle, the half-submerged Tam-o'-Shanter. Then a mass of dripping golden hair cleft the surface, only to sink at once.
But Jack had marked the spot, and, taking a full breath, he dived. To the onlookers the interval seemed painfully long, and a hundred cheering voices rent the air as the young artist rose to view, keeping himself afloat with one arm, while the other supported the girl. She was conscious, but badly scared and disposed to struggle.
"Be quite still," Jack said, sharply. "You are in no danger—I will save you if you trust me."
The girl obeyed, looking into Jack's eyes with a calmer expression. The steamer had stopped, and half a dozen row-boats were approaching from different directions. A grizzled waterman and his companion picked up the two and pulled them across to Strand-on-the-Green. Others followed towing Jack's boat and the canoe, and the big steamer proceeded on her way to Kew Pier.
The Black Bull, close by the railway bridge, received the drenched couple, and the watermen were delighted by the gift of a sovereign. A motherly woman took the half-dazed girl upstairs, and Jack was led into the oak-panelled parlor of the old inn by the landlord, who promptly poured him out a little brandy, and then insisted on his having a change of clothing.
"Thank you; I fear I must accept your offer," said Jack. "But I hope you will attend to the young lady first. Your wife seemed to know her."
"Quite well, sir," was the reply. "Bless you, we all know Miss Madge Foster hereabouts. She lives yonder at the lower end of the Green—"
"Then she had better be taken home."
"I think this is the best place for her at present, sir. Her father is in town, and there is only an old servant."
"You are quite right," said Jack. "I suppose there is a doctor near by."
"There is, sir, and I will send for him at once," the landlord promised. "If you will kindly step this way—"
At that moment there was a stir among the curious idlers who filled the entrance passage of the inn. An authoritative voice opened a way between them, and a man pushed through to the parlor. His face changed color at the sight of Jack, who greeted him with a cry of astonishment.
AN OLD FRIEND
There was gladness as well as surprise in Jack's hearty exclamation, for the man who stood before him in the parlor of the Black Bull was his old friend Victor Nevill, little altered in five years, except for a heavier mustache that improved his dark and handsome face. To judge from appearances, he had not run through with all his money. He was daintily booted and gloved, and wore morning tweeds of perfect cut; a sprig of violets was thrust in his button-hole. The two had not met since they parted in Paris on that memorable night, nor had they known of each other's whereabouts.
"Nevill, old chap!" cried Jack, holding out a hand.
Nevill clasped it warmly; his momentary confusion had vanished.
"My dear Clare—" he began.
"Not that name," Jack interrupted, laughingly. "I'm called Vernon on this side of the Channel."
"What, John Vernon, the rising artist?"
"It's news to me. I congratulate you, old man. If I had known I would have looked you up long ago, but I lost all trace of you."
"That's my case," said Jack. "I supposed you were still abroad. Been back long?"
"Yes, a couple of years."
"By Jove, it's queer we didn't meet before. Fancy you turning up here!"
"I stopped last night with a friend in Grove Park," Nevill answered, after a brief hesitation, "and feeling a bit seedy this morning, I came for a stroll along the river. I hear of a gallant rescue from the water, and, of course, you are the hero, Jack. Is the young lady all right?"
"I believe so."
"Do you know who she is?"
"Miss Madge Poster, sir," spoke up the landlord, "and I can assure you she was very nearly drowned—"
"Not so bad as that," modestly protested Jack.
Victor Nevill's face had changed color again, and for a second there was a troubled look in his eyes. He spoke the girl's name carelessly, then added in hurried tones:
"You must get into dry clothes at once, Jack, or you will be ill—"
"Just what I told him, sir," interrupted the landlord. "Young men will be reckless."
"I am going back to town to keep an engagement," Nevill resumed. "Can I do anything for you?"
"If you will, old chap," Jack said gratefully. "Stop at my studio," giving him the address, "and send my man Alphonse here with a dry rig."
"I'll go right away," replied Neville. "I can get a cab at Kew Bridge. Come and see me, Jack. Here is my card. I put up in Jermyn street."
"And you know where to find me," said Jack. "I am seldom at home in the evenings, though."
A few more words, and Neville departed. Jack was prevailed upon by the landlord to go to an upper room, where he stripped off his drenched garments and rubbed himself dry, then putting on a suit of clothes belonging to his host. The latter brought the cheering news that Miss Foster had taken a hot draught and was sleeping peacefully, and that it would be quite unnecessary to send for a doctor.
A little later Alphonse and a cab arrived at the rear of the Black Bull, where there was a lane for vehicular traffic, and Jack once more changed his attire. He left his card and a polite message for the girl, pressed a substantial tip on the reluctant landlord, and was soon rattling homeward up Chiswick high-road, feeling none the worse for his wetting, but, on the contrary, gifted with a keen appetite. He had sent his boat back to Maynard's.
"What a pretty girl that was!" he reflected. "It's the first time in five years I've given a serious thought to a woman. But I shall forget her as quickly—I am wedded to my art. It's rather a fetching name, Madge Foster. Come to think of it, it was hardly the proper thing to leave my card. I suppose I will get a fervid letter of gratitude from the girl's father, or the two of them may even invade my studio. How could I have been so stupid?"
He ate a hearty lunch, and set to work diligently. But he could not keep his mind from the adventure of the morning, and he saw more frequently the face of the lovely young English girl, than that of the swarthy Moorish dancer he was doing in oils.
Those five years had made a different man of Jack Clare—had brought him financial prosperity, success in his art, and contentment with life. He was now twenty-seven, clean-shaven, and with the build of an athlete; and his attractive, well-cut features had fulfilled the promise of youth. But for six wretched months, after that bitter night when Diane fled from him, he had suffered acutely. In vain his friends, none of whom could give him any clew to his betrayer, sought to comfort him; in vain he searched for trace of tidings of his wife, for her faithlessness had not utterly crushed his love, and the recollections of the first months of his marriage were very sweet to him. The chains with which the dancer of the Folies Bergere bound him had been strong; his hot youth had fallen victim to the charms of a face and figure that would have enslaved more experienced men.
But the healing power of time works wonders, and in the spring of the succeeding year, when Paris burst into leaf and blossom, Jack began to take a fresh interest in life, and to realize with a feeling little short of satisfaction that Diane's desertion was all for the best, and that he was well rid of a woman who must ultimately have dragged him down to her own level. The sale of his mother's London residence, a narrow little house in Bayswater, put him in possession of a fairly large sum of money. He left Paris with his friend Jimmie Drexell, and the two spent a year in Italy, Holland and Algeria, doing pretty hard work in the way of sketching. Jack returned to Paris quite cured, and with a determination to win success in his calling. He saw Drexell off for his home in New York, and then he packed up his belongings—they had been under lock and key in a room of the house on the Boulevard St. Germain—and emigrated to London. His great sorrow was only an unpleasant memory to him now. He had friends in England, but no relations there or anywhere, so far as he knew. His father, an artist of unappreciated talent, had died twenty years before. It was after his death that Jack's mother had come into some property from a distant relative.
Taking his middle name of Vernon, Jack settled in Fitzroy Square. A couple of hundred pounds constituted his worldly wealth. His ambition was to be a great painter, but he had other tastes as well, and his talent lay in more than one channel. Within a year, by dint of hard work, he obtained more than a foothold. He had sold a couple of pictures to dealers; his black-and-white drawings were in demand with a couple of good magazines, and a clever poster, bearing his name, and advertising a popular whisky was displayed all over London. Then, picking up a French paper in the Monico one morning, he experienced a shock. The body of a woman had been found in the Seine and taken to the Morgue, where several persons unhesitatingly identified her as Diane Merode, the one-time fascinating dancer of the Folies Bergere.
Jack turned pale, and crushed the paper in his hand. Evening found him wandering on the heights of Hampstead, but the next morning he was at his easel. He was a free man now in every sense, and the world looked brighter to him. He worked as hard as ever, and with increasing success, but he spent most of his evenings with his comrades of the brush, with whom he was immensely popular. He was indifferent to women, however, and they did not enter into his life.
But a few months before the opening of this story Jack had taken his new studio at Ravenscourt Park, in the west of London. It was a big place, with a splendid north light, and with an admirable train service to all parts of town; in that respect he was better off than artists living in Hampstead or St. John's Wood. He had a couple of small furnished rooms at one end of the studio, in one of which he slept. He usually dined in town, Paris fashion, but his breakfast and lunch were served by his French servant, Alphonse, an admirable fellow, who had lodgings close by the studio; he could turn his hand to anything, and was devoted to his master.
Jack had achieved success, and he deserved it. His name was well known, and better things were predicted of him. The leading magazines displayed his black-and-white drawings monthly, and publishers begged him to illustrate books. He was making a large income, and saving the half of it. Nor did he lose sight of his loftier goal. His picture of last year had been accepted by the Academy, hung well, and sold, and he had just been notified that he was in again this spring. Fortune smiled on him, and the folly of his youth was a fading memory that could never cloud or dim his future.
* * * * *
It was two days after the adventure on the river, late in the afternoon. Jack was reading over the manuscript of a book, and penciling possible points for illustration, when Alphonse handed him a letter. It was directed in a feminine hand, but a man had clearly penned the inclosure. The writer signed himself Stephen Foster, and in a few brief sentences, coldly and curtly expressed, he thanked Mr. Vernon for the great and timely service he had rendered his daughter. That was all. There was no invitation to the house at Strand-on-the-Green—no hope or desire for a personal acquaintance.
Jack resented the bald, stereotyped communication. He felt piqued—slightly hurt. He had been trying to forget the girl, but now, thinking of her as something out of his reach, he wanted to see her again.
"A conceited, crusty old chap—this Stephen Foster," he said to himself. "No doubt he is a money-grubber in the city, and regards artists with contempt. If I had a daughter like that, and a man saved her life, I should be properly grateful. Poor girl, she can't lead a very happy life."
He lighted a pipe, read a little further, and then tossed the sheaf of manuscript aside. He rose and put on a hat and a black coat—he wore evening dress as little as possible.
"Will you dine in town to-night, sir?" asked Alphonse, who was cleaning a stack of brushes.
"Yes, oh, yes," Jack answered. "You can go when you have finished."
Whatever may have been his intention when he left the studio, Jack did not cross the park toward the District Railway station. He walked slowly to the high-road, and then westward with brisker step. He struck down through Gunnersbury, by way of Sutton Court, and came out at the river close to the lower end of Strand-on-the-Green.
A girl was sitting on a bench near the shore, pensively watching the sun drooping over the misty ramparts of Kew Bridge; she held a closed book in one hand, and by her side lay a sketching-block and a box of colors. She heard the young artist's footsteps, and glanced up. A lovely blush suffused her countenance, and for an instant she was speechless. Then, with less confusion, with the candor of an innocent and unconventional nature, she said:
"I am so glad to see you, Mr. Vernon."
"That is kind of you," Jack replied, with a smile.
"Yes, I wanted to thank you—"
"Your father has written to me."
"But that is different. I wanted to thank you for myself."
"I wish I were deserving of such gratitude," said Jack, thinking that the girl looked far more charming than when he had first seen her.
"Ah, don't say that. You know that you saved my life. I am a good swimmer, but that morning my clothes seemed to drag me down."
"I am glad that I happened to be near at the time," Jack replied, as he seated himself without invitation on the bench. "But it is not a pleasant topic—let us not talk about it."
"I shall never forget it," the girl answered softly. She was silent for a moment, and then added gravely: "It is so strange to know you. I admire artists so much, and I saw your picture in last year's Academy. How surprised I was when I read your card!"
"You paint, yourself, Miss Foster?"
"No, I only try to. I wish I could."
She reluctantly yielded her block of Whatman's paper to Jack, and in the portfolio attached to it he found several sketches that showed real promise. He frankly said as much, to his companion's delight, and then the conversation turned on the quaintness of Strand-on-the-Green, and the constant and varied beauty of the river at this point—a subject that was full of genuine interest to both. When the sun passed below the bridge the girl suddenly rose and gathered her things.
"I must go," she said. "My father is coming home early to-day. Good-by, Mr. Vernon."
"Not really good-by. I hope?"
An expression of sorrow and pain, almost pitiful, clouded her lovely face. Jack understood the meaning of it, and hated Stephen Foster in his heart.
"I shall see you here sometimes?" he added.
"Then you do not forbid me to come again?"
"How can I do that? This river walk is quite free, Mr. Vernon. Oh, please don't think me ungrateful, but—but—"
She turned her head quickly away, and did not finish the sentence. She called a word of farewell over her shoulder, and Jack moodily watched her slim and graceful figure vanish between the great elm trees that guard the lower entrance to Strand-on-the-Green.
"John Vernon, you are a fool," he said to himself. "The best thing for you is to pack up your traps and be off to-morrow morning for a couple of months' sketching in Devonshire. You've been bitten once—look out!"
He took a shilling from his pocket, and muttered, as he flipped it in the air: "Tail, Richmond—head, town."
The coin fell tail upward, and Jack went off to dine at the Roebuck on the hill, beloved of artists, where he met some boon companions and argued about Whistler until a late hour.
NUMBER 320 WARDOUR STREET.
The rear-guard of London's great army of clerks had already vanished in the city, and the hour was drawing near to eleven, when Victor Nevill shook off his lassitude sufficiently to get out of bed. A cold tub freshened him, and as he dressed with scrupulous care, choosing his clothes from a well-filled wardrobe, he occasionally walked to the window of his sitting-room and looked down on the narrow but lively thoroughfare of Jermyn street. It was a fine morning, with the scent of spring in the air, and the many colors of the rumbling 'busses glistened like fresh paint in the sunlight.
His toilet completed, Victor Nevill pressed an electric bell, in answer to which there presently appeared, from some mysterious source downstairs, a boy in buttons carrying a tray on which reposed a small pot of coffee, one of cream, a pat of butter, and a couple of crisp rolls. Nevill ate his breakfast with the mechanical air of one who is doing a tiresome but necessary thing, meanwhile consulting a tiny memorandum-book, and counting over a handful of loose gold and silver. Then he put on his hat and gloves, looked at the fit of his gray frock-coat in the glass, and went into the street. At Piccadilly Circus he bought a boutonniere, and as he was feeling slightly rocky after a late night at card-playing, he dropped into the St. James. He emerged shortly, fortified by a brandy-and-soda, and sauntered westward along the Piccadilly pavement.
A typical young-man-about-town, an indolent pleasure-lover, always dressed to perfection and flush with money—such was Victor Nevill in the opinion of the world. For aught men knew to the contrary, he thrived like the proverbial lily of the field, without the need of toiling or spinning. He lived in expensive rooms, dined at the best restaurants, and belonged to a couple of good clubs. To his friends this was no matter of surprise or conjecture. They were aware that he was well-connected, and that years before he had come into a fortune; they naturally supposed that enough of it remained to yield him a comfortable income, in spite of the follies and extravagances that rumor attributed to him in the past, while he was abroad.
But Nevill himself, and one other individual, knew better. The bulk of his fortune exhausted by reckless living on the Continent, he had returned to London with a thousand pounds in cash, and a secured annuity of two hundred pounds, which he was too prudent to try to negotiate. The thousand pounds did not last long, but by the time they were spent he had drifted into degraded and evil ways. None had ever dared to whisper—none had ever suspected—that Victor Nevill was a rook for money-lenders and a dangerous friend for young men. He knew what a perilous game he was playing, but he studied every move and guarded shrewdly against discovery. There were many reasons, and one in particular, for keeping his reputation clean and untarnished. It was a matter of the utmost satisfaction to him that his uncle, Sir Lucius Chesney, of Priory Court in Sussex, cared but little for London, and seldom came up to town. For Sir Lucius was childless, elderly, and possessed of fifteen thousand pounds a year.
Victor Nevill's progress along Piccadilly was frequently interrupted by friends, fashionably dressed young men like himself, whose invitations to come and have a drink he declined on the plea of an engagement. Just beyond Devonshire House he was accosted eagerly by a fresh-faced, blond-haired boy—he was no more than twenty-two—who was coming from the opposite direction.
"Hullo, Bertie," Nevill said carelessly, as he shook hands. "I was on my way to the club."
"I got tired of waiting. You are half an hour over the time, Vic. I thought of going to your rooms."
"I slept later than I intended," Nevill replied. "I had a night of it."
"So had I—a night of sleeplessness."
The Honorable Bertie Raven, second son of the Earl of Runnymede, might have stepped out of one of Poole's fashion-plates, so far as dress was concerned. But there was a strained look on his handsome, patrician face, and in his blue eyes, that told of a gnawing mental anxiety. He linked arms with his companion, and drew him to the edge of the pavement.
"Is it all right?" he asked, pleadingly and hurriedly. "Were you able to fix the thing up for me?"
"You are sure there is no other way, Bertie?"
"None, Vic. I have until this evening, and then—"
"Don't worry. I saw Benjamin and Company yesterday."
"And they will accommodate me?"
"Yes, at my request."
"You mean for your indorsement on the bill?" the lad exclaimed, blushing. "Vic, you're a trump. You're the best fellow that ever lived, and I can't tell you how grateful I am. God only knows what a weight you've lifted from my mind. I'm going to run steady after this, and with economy I can save enough out of my allowance—"
"My dear boy, you are wasting your gratitude over a trifle. Could I refuse so simple a favor to a friend?"
"I don't know any one else who would have done as much, Vic. I was in an awful hole. Will—will they give me plenty of time?"
"As much as you like. And, I say, Bertie, this affair must be quite entre nous. There are plenty of chaps—good fellows, too—who would like to use my name occasionally. But one must draw the line—"
"I understand, Vic. I'll be mum as an oyster."
"Well, suppose we go and have the thing over," said Nevill, "and then we'll lunch together."
They turned eastward, walking briskly, and a few minutes later they entered a narrow court off Duke street, St. James. Through a dingy and unpretentious doorway, unmarked by sign or plate, they passed into the premises of Benjamin and Company. In a dark, cramped office, scantily furnished, they found an elderly Jewish gentleman seated at a desk.
Without delay, with a smoothness that spoke well for the weight and influence of Victor Nevill's name, the little matter of business, as the Jew smilingly called it, was transacted. A three-months' bill for five hundred pounds was drawn up for Bertie's signature and Nevill's indorsement. The lad hesitated briefly, then wrote his name in a bold hand. He resisted the allurements of some jewelry, offered him in part payment, and received the amount of the bill, less a prodigious discount for interest. The Jew servilely bowed his customers out.
The Honorable Bertie's face was grave and serious as he walked toward Piccadilly with his friend; he vaguely realized that he had taken the first step on a road that too frequently ends in disgrace and ruin. But this mood changed as he felt the rustling bank notes in his pocket. The world had not looked so bright for many a day.
"I never knew the thing was so easy," he said. "What a good fellow you are, Vic! You've made a new man of me. I can pay off those cursed gambling losses, and a couple of the most pressing debts, and have nearly a hundred pounds over. But I wish I had taken that ruby bracelet for Flora—it would have pleased her."
"Cut Flora—that's my advice," replied Nevill.
"And jolly good advice, too, Vic. I'll think about it seriously. But where will you lunch with me?"
"You are going to lunch with me," said Nevill, "at the Arlington."
* * * * *
In Wardour street, Soho, as many an enthusiastic collector has found out to the depletion of his pocket-book, there are sufficient antique treasures of every variety stored away in dingy shop windows and dingier rooms to furnish a small town. Number 320, which by chance or design failed to display the name of its proprietor, differed from its neighbors in one marked respect. Instead of the usual conglomerate mass, articles of value cheek by jowl with worthless rubbish, the long window contained some rare pieces of china and silver, an Italian hall-seat of richly carved oak, and half a dozen paintings by well-known artists of the past century, the authenticity of which was an excuse for the amount at which they were priced.
Behind the window was a deep and narrow room, lined on both sides with cabinets of great age and curious workmanship, oaken furniture belonging to various periods, pictures restored and pictures cracked and faded, cases filled with dainty objects of gold and silver, brass work from Moorish and Saracenic craftsmen, tall suits of armor, helmets and weapons that had clashed in battle hundreds of years before, and other things too numerous to mention, all of a genuine value that put them beyond the reach of a slim purse.
In the rear of the shop—which was looked after by a salesman—was a small office almost opulent in its appearance. Soft rugs covered the floor, and costly paintings hung on the walls. The chairs and desk, the huge couch, would have graced a palace, and a piece of priceless tapestry partly overhung the big safe at one end. An incandescent lamp was burning brightly, for very little light entered from the dreary court on which a single window opened.
Here, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Stephen Foster sat poring over a sheaf of papers. He was a man of fifty-two, nearly six feet tall and correspondingly built—a man with a fine head and handsome features, a man to attract more than ordinary attention. His hands were white, slim and long. His eyes were deep brown, and his mustache and beard—the latter cut to a point—were of a tawny yellowish-brown color, mixed with gray to a slight degree. It would be difficult to analyze his character, for in many ways he was a contradiction. He was not miserly, but his besetting evil was the love of accumulating money—the lever that had made him thoroughly unscrupulous. He was rich, or reputed so, but in amassing gold, by fair means or foul, lay the keynote to his life. And it was a dual life. He had chosen the old mansion at Strand-on-the-Green to be out of the roar and turmoil of London life, and yet within touch of it. Here, where his evenings were mostly spent, he was a different man. He derived his chief pleasures from his daughter's society, from a table filled with current literature, from a box of choice Havanas. In town he was a sordid man of business, clever at buying and selling to the best advantage. He had loved his wife, the daughter of a city alderman and a friend of his father's, and her death twelve years before had been a great blow to him. Madge resembled her, and he gave the girl a father's sincere devotion.
Few persons knew that Stephen Foster was the proprietor of the curio-shop in Wardour street—his daughter was among the ignorant—and but one or two were aware that the business of Benjamin and Company, carried on in Duke street, belonged also to him. None, assuredly, among his sprinkling of acquaintances, would have believed that he could stoop to lower things, or that he and his equally unscrupulous and useful tool, Victor Nevill, the gay young-man-about-town, had been mixed up in more than one nefarious transaction that would not bear the light of day. He had taken the place in Wardour street within the past five years, and prior to that time he had held a responsible position as purchasing agent—there was not a better judge of pictures in Europe—with the well-known firm of Lamb and Drummond, art dealers and engravers to Her Majesty, of Pall Mall.
A slight frown gathered on Stephen Foster's brow as he put aside the packet of papers, and it deepened as he recognized a familiar step coming through the shop. But he had a cheery smile of greeting ready when the office door opened to admit Victor Nevill. The young man's face was flushed with excitement, and he carried in one hand a crumpled copy of the Westminster Budget.
"Seen the evening editions yet?" he exclaimed.
"No; what's in them?" asked the curio-dealer.
"I was lunching at the Arlington, with the Honorable Bertie—By the way, he took the hook," Nevill replied, in a calmer tone, "and when I came out I bought this on the street. But read for yourself."
He opened the newspaper, folded it twice, and tossed it down on Stephen Foster's desk.
A MYSTERIOUS DISCUSSION.
The paragraph in the Westminster Budget to which Victor Nevill referred was headed in large type, and ran as follows:
"This morning, at his palatial residence in Amsterdam, commenced the sale of the gallery of valuable paintings collected by the late Mr. Martin Von Whele, who died while on a visit to his coffee estate in Java. He left everything to his son, with the exception of the pictures, which, by the terms of his will, were to be disposed of in order to found a hospital in his native town. Mr. Von Whele was a keen and discriminating patron of art, a lover of both the ancient and the modern, and his vast wealth permitted him to indulge freely in his hobby. His collection was well known by repute throughout the civilized world. But the trustees of the estate seem to have committed a grave blunder—which will undoubtedly cause much complaint—in waiting until almost the last moment to announce the sale. But few bidders were present, and these had things pretty much their own way, apparently owing to the gross ignorance of the auctioneer. The gem of the gallery, the famous Rembrandt found and purchased in Paris some years ago by Mr. Von Whele, was knocked down for the ridiculous sum of L2,400. The lucky purchaser was Mr. Charles Drummond, of the firm of Lamb and Drummond, Pall Mall."
A remark that would not look well in print escaped Stephen Foster's lips as he threw the paper on his desk.
"A blunder?" he cried. "It was criminal! A rascally conspiracy, with Drummond at the bottom of it—British cunning against Dutch stupidity! I seldom miss anything in the papers, Nevill, and yet I never heard of Von Whele's death. I didn't get a hint of the sale."
"Nor I," replied Nevill. "It's a queer business. I thought the paragraph would interest you. The sale continues—do you think of running over to Amsterdam?"
"No; I shan't go. It's too late. By to-morrow a lot of dealers will have men on the spot, and the rest of the pictures will likely fetch full value. But L2,400 for the Rembrandt! Why, it's worth five times as much if it's worth a penny! There's a profit for you, Nevill. And I always coveted that picture. I had a sort of a hope that it would drop into my hands some day. I believe I spoke to you about it."
"You did," assented Nevill, "and I remembered that at once when I read of the sale. But I had another reason—one of my own—for calling your attention to the matter."
Stephen Foster apparently did not hear the latter remark.
"I saw the Rembrandt when I was in Amsterdam, two years ago," he said bitterly. "It was a splendid canvas—the colors were almost as fresh and bright as the day they were laid on. And as a character study it was a masterpiece second to none, and in my estimation superior to his 'Gilder,' which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It represented a Pole or a Russian, with a face of intense ferocity. His rank was shown by his rich cloak, the decorations on his furred hat, and by the gold-beaded mace held in his hand. Von Whele declared that the subject was John the Third, of Poland; but that was mere conjecture. And now Drummond has the picture, and it will soon be drawing crowds around the firm's window, I dare say. What a prize I have let slip through my fingers!"
"I want to ask you a question," Nevill started abruptly. "Suppose this Rembrandt, or any other painting of value and renown, should be stolen from a big dealer's shop. How could the thief dispose of it?"
"He would have little or no chance of doing so at once," was the reply, "unless he found some unscrupulous collector who was willing to buy it and hide it away. But in the course of a few years, when the affair had blown over, the picture could be sold for its full value, without any risk to the seller, if he was a smart man."
"Then, if you had this Rembrandt locked up in your safe, you would regard it as a sound and sure investment, to be realized on in the future?"
"Certainly. I should consider it as an equivalent for L10,000," Stephen Foster replied. "But there is not much of that sort of thing done—the ordinary burglar doesn't understand the game," he went on, carelessly. "And a good thing for the dealers, too. With my knowledge of the place, I could very easily remove a picture from Lamb and Drummond's store-room any night."
"Yes, you know the ground thoroughly. Would you like to make L10,000 at a single stroke, without risk?"
"I don't think I should hesitate long, if it was a sure thing," Stephen Foster replied, laughingly. "Nevill, what are you driving at?" he added with sudden earnestness.
"Wait a moment, and I'll explain."
Victor Nevill stepped to the door, listened briefly, and turned the key noiselessly in the lock. He drew a chair close to his companion and sat down.
"I am going to tell you a little story," he said. "It will interest you, if I am not mistaken."
It must have been a very important and mysterious communication, from the care with which Nevill told it, from the low and cautious tone in which he spoke. Stephen Foster listened with a blank expression that gradually changed to a look of amazement and satisfaction, of ill-concealed avarice. Then the two discussed the matter together, heedless of the passage of time, until the clock struck five.
"It certainly appears to be simple enough," said Stephen Foster, "but who will find out about—"
"You must do that," Nevill interrupted. "If I went, it might lead to awkward complications in the future."
"It's the worst part, and I confess I don't like it. But I'll take a night to think it over, and give you an answer to-morrow. It's an ugly undertaking—"
"But a safe one. If it comes off all right, I want L500 cash down, on account."
"It is not certain that it will come off at all," said Stephen Foster, as he rose. "Come in to-morrow afternoon. Oh, I believe I promised you some commission to-day."
"Yes; sixty pounds."
The check was written, and Nevill pocketed it with a nod. He put on his hat, moved to the door, and paused.
"By the by, there's a new thing on at the Frivolity—awfully good," he said. "Miss Foster might like to see it. We could make up a little party of three—"
"Thank you, but my daughter doesn't care for theatres. And, as you know, I spend my evenings at home."
"I don't blame you," Nevill replied, indifferently. "It's a snug and jolly crib you have down there by the river. And the fresh air does a fellow a lot of good. I feel like a new man when I come back to town after dining with you. One gets tired of clubs and restaurants."
"Come out when you like," said Stephen Foster, in a voice that lacked warmth and sincerity.
"That's kind of you," Nevill replied. "Good-night!"
A minute later he was walking thoughtfully down Wardour street.
A VISITOR FROM PARIS.
It was seven o'clock in the evening, ten days after Jack's second encounter with Madge Foster, and a blaze of light shone from the big studio that overlooked Ravenscourt Park. The lord and master of it was writing business letters, a task in which he was assisted by frequent cigarettes. A tray containing whisky, brandy and siphons stood on a Moorish inlaid smoking stand, and suggested correctly that a visitor was expected. At noon Jack had received a letter from Victor Nevill, of whom he had seen nothing since their meeting at Strand-on-the-Green, to say that he was coming out at eight o'clock that night to have a chat over old times. Alphonse, being no longer required, had gone to his lodgings near by.
"It will be a bit awkward if Nevill wants his dinner," Jack said to himself, in an interval of his letter writing. "I'll keep him here a couple of hours, and then take him to dine in town. He's a good fellow, and will understand. He'll find things rather different from the Paris days."
There was a touch of pardonable pride in that last thought, for few artists in London could boast of such luxuriously decorated quarters, or of such a collection of treasures as Jack's purse and good taste had enabled him to gather around him. The hard oak floor, oiled and polished by the hands of Alphonse, was sparsely strewn with Oriental rugs and a couple of tiger skins. A screen of stamped leather hid three sides of the French stove. The eye met a picturesque confusion of inlaid cabinets with innumerable drawers, oak chests and benches, easy chairs of every sort, Chippendale trays and escritoires, Spanish lanterns dangling from overhead, old tables worn hollow on top with age, countless weapons and pieces of armor, and shelves stacked with blue delf china and rows of pewter plates. A long costume case flashed its glass doors at a cosy corner draped with art muslin. On the walls, many of them presented by friends, were scores of water-colors and oil paintings, etchings and engravings, no two of them framed alike. Minor articles were scattered about in profusion, and a couple of bulging sketch-books bore witness to their owner's summer wanderings about England.
The letters finished and stamped, Jack closed his desk with a sigh of relief. The evening was chilly, and he had started a small fire of coals in the grate—he used his stove only in wintry weather. He pulled a big chair to the blaze, stretched his legs against the fender, and fell straightway into a reverie; an expression that none of his English companions had ever seen there softened his handsome face.
"I wonder what she is doing now," he thought. "I fancy I can see her sitting opposite to her father, at the dinner table, with the soft lamplight on her lovely cheeks, and that bewitching look in her eyes. I am a conceited fool to believe that she cares for me, and yet—and yet—By Jove, I would marry her in a minute. She is the most winsome girl I ever saw. It is not like the passion I had for Diane—I was a foolish, hot-headed boy then. Madge would be my good angel. In spite of myself, she has come into my life and taken a deep hold on my heart—I can't put her out again. Jack, my boy, you had better have gone on that sketching tour—better have fled to Devonian wilds before it was too late."
But was it too late now? If so, the fact did not seem to trouble Jack much, for he laughed softly as he stirred the fire. He, the impregnable and boastful one, the woman-hater, had fallen a victim when he believed himself most secure. It was unutterably sweet to him—this second passion—and he knew that it was not to be shaken off.
During the past ten days he had seen Madge frequently. Nearly every afternoon, when the fading sun glimmered through a golden haze, he had wandered down to Strand-on-the-Green, confident that the girl would not be far away, that she would welcome him shyly and blushingly, with that radiant light in her eyes which he hoped he could read aright. They had enjoyed a couple of tramps together, when time permitted—once up the towing-path toward Richmond, and again down the river to Barnes.
They were happy hours for both. Madge was unconventional, and would have resented a hint that she was doing anything in the least improper. She had left boarding school two years before, and since then she had rejoiced in her freedom, not finding life dull in the sleepy Thames-side suburb of London. As for Jack, his conscience gave him few twinges in regard to these surreptitious meetings. It would be different, he told himself, had Stephen Foster chosen to receive him as a visitor. But he had gathered, from what Madge told him, that her father was eccentric, and detested visitors—that he would permit nothing to break the monotonous and regular habits of the secluded old house. Madge admitted that one friend of his, a young man, came sometimes; but she intimated unmistakably that she did not like him. Jack was curious to know what business took Stephen Foster to town every day, but on that subject the girl never spoke.
As the young artist sat watching the fire in the grate, his fancy painted pleasing pictures. "Why should I not marry?" he mused. "Bachelor life is well enough in its way, but it can't compare with a snug house, and one's own dining-table, and a charming wife to drive away the occasional blue-devils. I have money put aside, and it won't be long till I'm making an easy twelve hundred a year. By Jove, I will—"
A noisy rap at the door interrupted Jack's train of thought, and brought him to his feet.
"Come in!" he cried, expecting to see Nevill.
But the visitor was a telegraph boy, bearing the familiar brown envelope. Jack signed for it, and tore open the message.
"Awfully seedy," Victor Nevill wired. "Sorry I can't get out to-night. Am going to bed."
"No answer," said Jack, dismissing the boy. With his hands in his pockets he strolled undecidedly about the studio for a couple of minutes. "I hope nothing serious is the matter with Nevill," he reflected. "He's not the sort of a chap to go to bed unless he feels pretty bad. What shall I do now? I must be quick about it if I want to get any dinner in town. It's past eight, and—"
There was the sound of slow footsteps out in the passage, followed by the nervous jingling of the electric bell.
"Who can that be?" Jack muttered.
He pulled a cord that turned the gas higher in the big circlet of jets overhead, and opened the door curiously. The man who entered the studio was a complete stranger, and it was certain that he was not an Englishman, if dress and appearance could decide that fact. He was very tall and well-built, with a handsome face, so deeply tanned as to suggest a recent residence in a tropical country. His mustaches were twisted into waxed points, and there was a good deal of gray in his beard, which was parted German fashion in the middle, and carefully brushed to each side. His top hat was unmistakably French, with a flat rim, and his boots were of patent leather. As he opened his long caped cloak, the collar of which he kept turned up, it was seen that he was in evening dress.
"Do I address Monsieur Vernon, the artist?" he asked in good English, with a French accent.
"Yes, that's right."
"Formerly Monsieur John Clare?"
"I once bore that name," said Jack, with a start of surprise; he was ill-pleased to hear it after so many years.
The visitor produced a card bearing the name of M. Felix Marchand, Parc Monceaux, Paris.
"I do not recall you," said Jack. "Will you take a seat."
"We have not met until now," said M. Marchand, "but I have the honor to be familiar with your work, and to possess some of it. Pictures are to me a delight—I confess myself a humble patron of art—and a few years ago I purchased several water-color sketches signed by your name. They appealed to me especially because they were bits of Paris—one looking down the river from the bridge of the Carrousel, and the other a night impression of Montmartre."
"I remember them vaguely," said Jack. "They, with others, were sold for me by a dealer named Cambon—"
"Monsieur is right. It was from Jacques Cambon, of the Quai Voltaire, I obtained the sketches. They pleased me much, and I went again to seek more—that was eighteen months later, when I returned to Paris after a long absence. Imagine my disappointment to learn that Jacques Cambon had no further knowledge of Monsieur Clare, and no more of his sketches to sell."
"No; I had come to London by that time—or was in Italy," said Jack. "But perhaps—pardon me—you would prefer to carry on our conversation in French."
"Monsieur is thoughtful," replied M. Marchand. "He will understand that I desire, while in England, to improve as much as possible my knowledge of the language."
"Quite so," assented Jack. "You speak it already like a native born," he added to himself.
"The years passed on," resumed the Frenchman, "but I did not forget the author of my little sketches. A few weeks ago I resolved to cross the Channel and pay a visit to London, which I last saw in 1891. I had but lately returned from a long trip to Algeria and Morocco, and I was told that the English spring was mild; in Paris I found the weather too cold for my chest complaint. So I said to myself, 'I will make endeavor to find the artist, John Clare.' But how? I had an idea. I went to the school of the great Julian, and there my inquiries met with success. 'Monsieur Clare,' one of the instructors told me, 'is now a prosperous painter of London, by the name of Vernon.' They gave me the address of a magazine in your Rue Paternoster, and at that place I was this morning informed where to find you. I trust that my visit is not an intrusion."
"Oh, not at all," said Jack. "Who at Julian's can have known so much about me?" he thought.
"I have spoken with freedom—perhaps too much," M. Marchand went on. "But I desired to explain clearly. I have come on business, monsieur, hoping that I may be privileged to purchase one or two pictures to take back with me to Paris."
"I am very sorry," said Jack, "but I fear I have nothing whatever to sell at present. I am indeed flattered by your kind interest in my work."
"Monsieur has nothing?"
Jack shook his head.
"You see I do a great deal in the way of magazine drawing," he explained. "The half-finished water-colors on the easels are orders. I expect to have a large painting in the Royal Academy shortly."
"Alas, I will not be able to see it," M. Marchand murmured. "I leave London to-morrow." All the time he was speaking he had been looking with interest about the studio, and his eyes still wandered from wall to wall. "Ah, monsieur, I have a thought," he added suddenly. "It is of the finished pictures, of your later work, that you speak. But surely you possess many sketches, and among them would be some of Paris, such as you placed with Jacques Cambon. Is it not so?"
Jack, in common with all artists, was reluctant to part with his sketches. But he was growing uncomfortably hungry, and felt disposed to make a sacrifice for the sake of getting rid of his importunate visitor.
"I will show you my collection," he answered briefly.
Lifting the drapery of a couch, he pulled out one of half a dozen fat portfolios, of huge dimensions. He untied the strings and opened it, exhibiting a number of large water-color drawings on bristol-board, most of them belonging to his student days in Paris, some made in Holland and Normandy. The sight of them, recalling his married life with Diane, awoke unpleasant memories. He moved away and lighted a cigarette.
The Frenchman began to turn the sketches over eagerly, and presently Jack saw him staring hard at an unstiffened canvas which he had found. It was the duplicate Rembrandt painted for Martin Von Whele. Jack had not been reading the papers much of late, and was ignorant of the Hollander's death.
"That is nothing of any account," he said. "It is the copy of an old master."
"Ah, I have a little taste for the antique," replied M. Marchand. "This is repulsive—it is a frightful face. Were it in my collection, monsieur, it would quite spoil my pretty bits of scenery."
He tossed the canvas carelessly aside, and finally chose a couple of water-colors, both showing picturesque nooks of Paris.
"I should like to have these," he said, "if monsieur is willing to name a price."
"Fifteen pounds for the two," Jack announced reluctantly. "Can I send them for you?" he added.
"No; I will take them with me."
Jack tied up the portfolio and replaced it under the couch, an operation that was closely watched by his visitor. Then he wrapped up the two sketches, and received three five-pound notes.
"May I offer you some refreshment?" he said, politely. "You will find brandy there—"
"I love the golden whisky of England," protested M. Marchand.
He mixed some for himself, and after drinking it he wiped his lips with a handkerchief. As he returned it to his pocket Jack saw on the white linen a brown stain that he was sure had not been there before.
M. Felix Marchand looked at his watch, shook hands with Jack, and hoped that he would have the pleasure of seeing him again. Then he bowed ceremoniously, and was gone, carrying the parcel under his arm. Jack closed the door, and retired to an inner room to change his clothing for the evening.
"I'll have a grill at the Trocadero," he told himself, "and drop in at the Alhambra for the last few numbers. A queer chap, that Frenchman! Where did he pick up such good English? He was all right, of course, but I can't help feeling a bit puzzled. Fancy his taking a craze for my studies of Paris! I remember that they gathered dust for months in old Cambon's window, until one day I missed them. It's a funny thing about that brown mark which came off on his handkerchief after he wiped his mustache. Still, I've known men to use such stuff to give them a healthy color, though this chap didn't look as if he needed it. And he said he suffered from a chest complaint."
* * * * *
At eight o'clock Jack was up and splashing in his bath, a custom that he hugely enjoyed, winter and summer. He had come home the night before by the last train, after dining with some friends he had picked up, and spending an hour with them at the Alhambra.
He dressed himself with unusual care and discrimination, selecting a suit of dark brown tweeds that matched his complexion, and a scarf with a good bit of red in it. Prepared for him in the studio, and presided over by Alphonse in a white apron, were rolls and coffee, eggs and bacon. The sun was shining brightly outside. The postman came while he was at breakfast, and he read his batch of letters; from some of which dropped checks. One he purposely saved for the last, and the contents—only a few lines—brought a smile to his lips. He tore the dainty sheet of note-paper into small pieces and threw them into the fire. Then he filled his cigar case with choice Regalias, pulled on his driving gloves, and perched a jaunty Alpine hat on his head.
"Alphonse, you must be here all day," he said. "Mordaunt, of the Frivolity, will send for that poster; and a messenger may come from the Piccadilly Magazine—the drawings are in a parcel on my desk. Say to any person who calls that I will not be back until evening."
"I will remember," assured Alphonse.
"By the by, Alphonse, you were living in a big house in the Parc Monceaux half a dozen years ago?"
"Monsieur is right."
"Do you remember a gentleman by the name of Marchand—M. Felix Marchand?"
"My memory may be at fault," Alphonse answered, "but I do not recall a person of that name."
"Well, no matter. He may not have resided there then, and the Parc Monceaux means a large neighborhood."
Jack banished M. Marchand from his mind with ease, as he went out into the sunshine and freshness of the spring morning; the singing of the birds, and the beauty of the trees and flowers, told him that it was a glorious thing to be alive. He waited a few moments at a nearby livery stable, while the attendants brought out a very swell-looking and newly varnished trap, and put into the shafts a horse that would have held his own in Hyde Park.
Chiswick high-road, with its constantly widening and narrowing perspectives, its jumble of old and modern houses, had never looked more cheerful as Jack drove rapidly westward. He crossed Kew Bridge, rattled on briskly, and finally entered Richmond, where he pulled up by the curb opposite to the station where centre a number of suburban railway lines.
He had not long to wait—a glance at his watch told him that. Five minutes later the rumble of an incoming train was heard, and presently a double procession of passengers came up the steps to the street. Jack had eyes for one only, a radiant vision of loveliness, as sweet and fresh and blushing as a June rose. The vision was Madge Foster, her graceful figure set off by a new spring gown from Regent street, and a sailor hat perched on her golden curls. She stepped lightly into the trap, and nestled down on the cushions.
"Oh, Jack, what will you think of me after this," she cried, half seriously.
"I think that the famed beauties of Hampton Court would turn green in their frames with envy if they could see you now," Jack answered evasively, as he flicked the horses with his whip. "Here we go for a jolly day. It will come to an end all too soon."
LOVE'S YOUNG DREAM.
The trap rattled up crooked George street, and swung around and down to classic-looking Richmond Bridge, with its gorgeous vistas of river scenery right and left over the low parapets. Madge was very quiet for a time, and it was evident that she felt some misgivings as to the propriety of what she had consented to do at Jack's urgent request. She had left home soon after her father's departure for town, and she must be back before six o'clock to meet him on his return. Her secret was shared with the old servant, Mrs. Sedgwick, who was foolishly fond of the girl, and naturally well-disposed toward Jack because he had saved Madge's life. This faithful creature, on the death of her young husband twenty years before, had entered Mrs. Foster's service; she practically managed Stephen Foster's establishment, assisted by a housemaid and by the daily visits of a charwoman.
Until Richmond was left behind, Jack was as serious and thoughtful as his companion. He had a high sense of honor, a hatred of anything underhanded, and his conscience pricked him a little. However, it was not his fault, he told himself. Stephen Foster had no business to be churlish and ungrateful, and treat his daughter as though she were a school miss still in her teens. And what wrong could there be about the day's outing together, if no harm was intended? It would all come right in the end, unless, unless—
He felt reassured as he stole a glance at Madge's face, and saw her quick blush. She laughed merrily, and nestled a little closer to his side.
"You are not sorry?" he asked.
"Sorry? Oh, no. It is so good of you, Jack, and the weather is perfect—we could not have had a better day."
Their depression vanished like a summer cloud, as they rode through Twickenham and Teddington, under the shade of the great trees, enjoying the occasional views of the shining river, and the peeps into the walled gardens of the fine old houses.
"It is all new to me," said Madge, with a sigh. "I used to go to Hampton Court with father on Sundays, but that was long ago; he doesn't take me anywhere now, except to the theatre once or twice a year."
"It is a shame," Jack replied indignantly, "when you enjoy things so much."
"Oh, but I dearly love Strand-on-the-Green. I am very happy there."
"And you never long for a wider life?"
"Yes—sometimes. I want to go abroad and travel. It must be delightful to see the places and countries one has read about, to roam in foreign picture galleries."
"I would like to show you the Continent," said Jack. "We have the same tastes, and—"
A rapturous "Oh!" burst from Madge. They had turned suddenly in at the gates of Bushey Park, and before them was the twenty-mile-long perspective of the chestnut avenue, bounded by the white sunlit walls of the hospitable Greyhound. The girl's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and in her excitement, as some fresh bit of beauty was revealed, she rested a tiny gloved hand on Jack's arm.
"I will take you out often, if you will let me," he said.
They drove out of the park, and swung around the weather-beaten wall of Hampton Court. Red-coated soldiers were lounging by the barracks in the palace yard, and the clear notes of a bugle rose from quarters; a tide of people and vehicles was flowing in the sunlight over Molesey Bridge. Jack turned off into the lower river road, and so on by shady and picturesque ways to the ancient village of Hampton.
They put up the horse and trap at the Flower Pot, and lunched in the coffee-room of that old-fashioned hostelry, at a little table laid in the bow-window, looking out on the quaint high-street. It was a charming repast, and both were hungry enough to do it justice. The Chambertin sparkled like rubies as it flowed from the cobwebbed bottle, and Jack needed little urging from Madge to light a fragrant Regalia.
Then they sauntered forth into the sunshine, down to the river shore, and Jack chose a big roomy boat, fitted with the softest of red cushions. He pulled for a mile or more up the rippling Thames, chatting gaily with Madge, who sat opposite to him and deftly managed the rudder-ropes. A little-known backwater was the goal, and suddenly he drove the boat under a screen of low-drooping bushes and into a miniature lake set in a frame of leafy trees that formed a canopy of dense foliage overhead.
"What do you think of it?" Jack asked, as he ran the bow gently ashore and pulled in the oars.
"It is like fairyland. It is too beautiful for words."
Madge averted her eyes from his, and pushed back a tress of golden hair that had strayed from under her hat; she took off one glove, and dipped the tips of her fingers in the water.
"I wish I had brought a book," she said. "Why don't you smoke? You have my permission, sir. But we must not stop long."
Jack felt for his cigar-case and dropped it again. The next instant he was beside the girl, and one arm encircled her waist.
"Madge, my darling!" he cried. "Don't you know—can't you guess—why I brought you here?"
Her silence, the droop of her blushing face, emboldened him. The old, old story, the story that was born when the world began, fell from his lips. They were honest, manly words, with a ring of heartfelt passion and pleading.
"Have I surprised you, Madge?" he went on. "Have I spoken too soon? We have known each other only a short time, it is true, but I could not care more for you had we been acquainted for months or years. I am not an impulsive boy—I know my own heart. I loved you from the day you came into my life. I love you now, and will always love you. I will be a good and true husband. Have you no answer for me, dear?"
The girl suddenly raised her face to his. Half-shed tears glistened in her eyes, but there was also a radiant look there which trilled his heart with unspeakable joy. He knew that he had won her.
"Madge, my sweet Madge!" he whispered.
She trembled as his arm tightened about her waist.
"Jack, do you really, really love me?"
"More than I can tell you, dear. Can you doubt me? Have you nothing to say? Do you think it so strange—"
"Strange? Yes, it is more than I dared to hope for. Don't think me unwomanly, Jack, for telling the truth, but—but I do love you with all my heart."
"Madge! You have made me the happiest man alive! God grant that I be always worthy of your affection!"
A bird began to sing overhead, and Jack thought it was the sweetest music he had ever heard, as he drew Madge to him and pressed a lover's first kiss on her lips. Side by side they sat there in the leafy retreat, heedless of time, while the afternoon sun drooped lower in the sky. They had much to talk of—many little confidences to exchange. They lived over again the events of that brief period in which they had known each other.