BY THE SAME AUTHOR
IDOLS JAFFERY VIVIETTE SEPTIMUS DERELICTS THE USURPER STELLA MARIS WHERE LOVE IS THE ROUGH ROAD THE MOUNTEBANK THE RED PLANET THE WHITE DOVE FAR-AWAY STORIES THE GREAT PANDOLFO SIMON THE JESTER THE COMING OF AMOS THE TALE OF TRIONA A STUDY IN SHADOWS A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY THE WONDERFUL YEAR THE HOUSE OF BALTAZAR THE FORTUNATE YOUTH THE BELOVED VAGABOND AT THE GATE OF SAMARIA THE GLORY OF CLEMENTINA THE MORALS OF MARCUS ORDEYNE THE DEMAGOGUE AND LADY PHAYRE THE JOYOUS ADVENTURES OF ARISTIDE PUJOL
BY WILLIAM J. LOCKE
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY 1931
Copyright, 1908 By The Phillips Publishing Company
Copyright, 1909 By Dodd, Mead & Company
Printed in U.S.A.
The Vail-Ballou Press Binghamton and New York
RUTGER BLEECKER JEWETT
CARO SEPTIMI AUCTORISQUE AMICO HIC LIBER SEPTIMI INSCRIBITUR
"I love Nunsmere," said the Literary Man from London. "It is a spot where faded lives are laid away in lavender."
"I'm not a faded life, and I'm not going to be laid away in lavender," retorted Zora Middlemist.
She turned from him and handed cakes to the Vicar. She had no desire to pet the Vicar, but he was less unbearable than the Literary Man from London whom he had brought to call on his parishioners. Zora disliked to be called a parishioner. She disliked many things in Nunsmere. Her mother, Mrs. Oldrieve, however, loved Nunsmere, adored the Vicar, and found awe-inspiring in his cleverness the Literary Man from London.
Nunsmere lies hidden among the oaks of Surrey, far from the busy ways of men. It is heaven knows how many miles from a highroad. You have to drive through lanes and climb right over a hill to get to it. Two old Georgian houses covered with creepers, a modern Gothic church, two much more venerable and pious-looking inns, and a few cottages settling peacefully around a common form the village. Here and there a cottage lurks up a lane. These cottages are mostly inhabited by the gentle classes. Some are really old, with great oak beams across the low ceilings, and stone-flagged kitchens furnished with great open fireplaces where you can sit and get scorched and covered with smoke. Some are new, built in imitation of the old, by a mute, inglorious Adam, the village carpenter. All have long casement windows, front gardens in which grow stocks and phlox and sunflowers and hollyhocks and roses; and a red-tiled path leads from the front gate to the entrance porch. Nunsmere is very quiet and restful. Should a roisterer cross the common singing a song at half-past nine at night, all Nunsmere hears it and is shocked—if not frightened to the extent of bolting doors and windows, lest the dreadful drunken man should come in.
In a cottage on the common, an old one added to by the local architect, with a front garden and a red-tiled path, dwelt Mrs. Oldrieve in entire happiness, and her daughter in discontent. And this was through no peevish or disagreeable traits in Zora's nature. If we hear Guy Fawkes was fretful in the Little-Ease, we are not pained by Guy Fawkes's lack of Christian resignation.
When the Vicar and the Literary Man from London had gone, Zora threw open the window and let the soft autumn air flood the room. Mrs. Oldrieve drew her woolen shawl around her lean shoulders.
"I'm afraid you quite snubbed Mr. Rattenden, just when he was saying one of his cleverest things."
"He said it to the wrong person, mother. I'm neither a faded life nor am I going to be laid away in lavender. Do I look like it?"
She moved across the room, swiftly, and stood in the slanting light from the window, offering herself for inspection. Nothing could be less like a faded life than the magnificent, broad-hipped, full-bosomed woman that met her mother's gaze. Her hair was auburn, her eyes brown with gold flecks, her lips red, her cheeks clear and young. She was cast, physically, in heroic mold, a creature of dancing blood and color and warmth. Disparaging tea-parties called her an Amazon. The Vicar's wife regarded her as too large and flaring and curvilinear for reputable good looks. She towered over Nunsmere. Her presence disturbed the sedateness of the place. She was a wrong note in its harmony.
Mrs. Oldrieve sighed. She was small and colorless. Her husband, a wild explorer, a tornado of a man, had been killed by a buffalo. She was afraid that Zora took after her father. Her younger daughter Emmy had also inherited some of the Oldrieve restlessness and had gone on the stage. She was playing now in musical comedy in London.
"I don't see why you should not be happy here, Zora," she remarked, "but if you want to go, you must. I used to say the same to your poor, dear father."
"I've been very good, haven't I?" said Zora. "I've been the model young widow and lived as demurely as if my heart were breaking with sorrow. But now, I can't stand it any longer. I'm going out to see the world."
"You'll soon marry again, dear, and that's one comfort."
Zora brought her hands down passionately to her sides.
"Never. Never—do you hear, mother? Never. I'm going out into the world, to get to the heart of the life I've never known. I'm going to live."
"I don't see how you are going to 'live,' dear, without a man to take care of you," said Mrs. Oldrieve, on whom there occasionally flashed an eternal verity.
"I hate men. I hate the touch of them—the very sight of them. I'm going to have nothing more to do with them for the rest of my natural life. My dear mother!" and her voice broke, "haven't I had enough to do with men and marriage?"
"All men aren't like Edward Middlemist," Mrs. Oldrieve argued as she counted the rows of her knitting.
"How am I to know that? How could anyone have told that he was what he was? For heaven's sake don't talk of it. I had almost forgotten it all in this place."
She shuddered and, turning to the window, stared into the sunset.
"Lavender has its uses," said Mrs. Oldrieve.
Here again it must be urged on Zora's behalf that she had reason for her misanthropy. It is not cheerful for a girl to discover within twenty-four hours of her wedding that her husband is a hopeless drunkard, and to see him die of delirium tremens within six weeks. An experience so vivid, like lightning must blast something in a woman's conception of life. Because one man's kisses reeked of whisky the kisses of all male humanity were anathema.
After a long spell of silence she came and laid her cheek against her mother's.
"This is the very last time we'll speak of it, dear. I'll lock the skeleton in its cupboard and throw away the key."
She went upstairs to dress and came down radiant. At dinner she spoke exultingly of her approaching freedom. She would tear off her widow's weeds and deck herself in the flower of youth. She would plunge into the great swelling sea of Life. She would drink sunshine and fill her soul with laughter. She would do a million hyperbolic things, the mention of which mightily confused her mother. "I, my dear," said the hen in the fairy tale, "never had the faintest desire to get into water." So, more or less, said Mrs. Oldrieve.
"Will you miss me very dreadfully?" asked Zora.
"Of course," but her tone was so lacking in conviction that Zora laughed.
"Mother, you know very well that Cousin Jane will be a more sympathetic companion. You've been pining for her all this time."
Cousin Jane held distinct views on the cut of under-clothes for the deserving poor, and as clouds disperse before the sun so did household dust before her presence. Untidiness followed in Zora's steps, as it does in those of the physically large, and Cousin Jane disapproved of her thoroughly. But Mrs. Oldrieve often sighed for Cousin Jane as she had never sighed for Zora, Emily, or her husband. She was more than content with the prospect of her companionship.
"At any rate, my dear," she said that evening, as she paused, candle in hand, by her bedroom door, "at any rate I hope you'll do nothing that is unbecoming to a gentlewoman."
Such was her benison.
Zora bumped her head against the oak beam that ran across her bedroom ceiling.
"It's quite true," she said to herself, "the place is too small for me, I don't fit."
* * * * *
What she was going to do in this wide world into whose glories she was about to enter she had but the vaguest notion. All to her was the Beautiful Unknown. Narrow means had kept her at Cheltenham and afterwards at Nunsmere, all her life. She had met her husband in Ipswich while she was paying a polite visit to some distant cousins. She had married him offhand, in a whirl of the senses. He was a handsome blackguard, of independent means, and she had spent her nightmare of a honeymoon at Brighton. On three occasions, during her five-and-twenty years of existence, she had spent a golden week in London. That was all she knew of the wide world. It was not very much. Reading had given her a second-hand acquaintance with the doings of various classes of mankind, and such pictures as she had seen had filled her head with dreams of strange and wonderful places. But otherwise she was ignorant, beautifully, childishly ignorant—and undismayed.
What was she going to do? Sensitive and responsive to beauty, filled with artistic impulses, she could neither paint, act, sing, nor write pretty little stories for the magazines. She had no special gift to develop. To earn her living in a humdrum way she had no need. She had no high Ibsenite notions of working out her own individuality. She had no consuming passion for reforming any section of the universe. She had no mission—that she knew of—to accomplish. Unlike so many of her sex who yearn to be as men and go out into the world she had no inner mandate to do anything, no ambition to be anything. She was simply a great, rich flower, struggling through the shade to the sunlight, plenty of sunlight, as much sunlight as the heavens could give her.
The Literary Man from London happened to be returning to town by the train that carried Zora on the first stage of her pilgrimage. He obtained her consent to travel up in the same carriage. He asked her to what branch of human activity she intended to devote herself. She answered that she was going to lie, anyhow, among the leaves. He rebuked her.
"We ought," said he, "to justify our existence."
She drew herself up and flashed an indignant glance at him.
"I beg your pardon," he apologized. "You do justify yours."
"You decorate the world. I was wrong. That is the true function of a beautiful woman, and you fulfill it."
"I have in my bag," replied Zora slowly, and looking at him steady-eyed, "a preventive against sea-sickness; I have a waterproof to shelter me from rain; but what can I do to shield myself against silly compliments?"
"Adopt the costume of the ladies of the Orient," said the Literary Man from London, unabashed.
She laughed, although she detested him. He bent forward with humorous earnestness. He had written some novels, and now edited a weekly of precious tendencies and cynical flavor.
"I am a battered old man of thirty-five," said he, "and I know what I am talking about. If you think you are going to wander at a loose end about Europe without men paying you compliments and falling in love with you and making themselves generally delightful, you're traveling under a grievous hallucination."
"What you say," retorted Zora, "confirms me in my opinion that men are an abominable nuisance. Why can't they let a poor woman go about in peace?"
The train happened to be waiting at Clapham Junction. A spruce young man, passing by on the platform, made a perceptible pause by the window, his eyes full on her. She turned her head impatiently. Rattenden laughed.
"Dear lady," said he, "I must impart to you the elements of wisdom. Miss Keziah Skaffles, with brain cordage for hair, and monoliths for teeth, and a box of dominoes for a body, can fool about unmolested among the tribes of Crim Tartary. She doesn't worry the Tartars. But, permit me to say it, as you are for the moment my disciple, a beautiful woman like yourself, radiating feminine magnetism, worries a man exceedingly. You don't let him go about in peace, so why should he let you?"
"I think," said Zora, as the train moved on, "that Miss Keziah Skaffles is very much to be envied, and that this is a very horrid conversation."
She was offended in her provincial-bred delicacy. It was enough to make her regard herself with repulsion. She took up the fashion paper she had bought at the station—was she not intending to run delicious riot among the dressmakers and milliners of London?—and regarding blankly the ungodly waisted ladies in the illustrations, determined to wear a wig and paint her face yellow, and black out one of her front teeth, so that she should not worry the Tartars.
"I am only warning you against possible dangers," said Rattenden stiffly. He did not like his conversation to be called horrid.
"To the race of men?"
"No, to yourself."
She laughed scornfully. "No fear of that. Why does every man think himself irresistible?"
"Because he generally is—if he wants to be," said the Literary Man from London.
Zora caught her breath. "Well of all—" she began.
"Yes, I know what you're going to say. Millions of women have said it and eaten their words. Why should you—beautiful as you are—be an exception to the law of life? You're going out to suck the honey of the world, and men's hearts will be your flowers. Instinct will drive you. You won't be able to get away from it. You think you're going to be thrilled into passionate raptures by cathedrals and expensive restaurants and the set pieces of fashionable scenery. You're not. Your store of honey will consist of emotional experiences of a primitive order. If not, I know nothing at all about women."
"Do you know anything about them?" she asked sweetly.
"More than would be becoming of me to tell," he replied. "Anyhow," he added, "that doesn't matter. I've made my prophecy. You'll tell me afterwards, if I have the pleasure of seeing you again, whether it has come true."
"It won't come true," said Zora.
"We shall see," said the wise man.
She dashed, that afternoon, into her sister's tiny flat in Chelsea. Emily, taken by surprise, hastily stuffed to the bottom of her work-basket a man's silk tie which she was knitting, and then greeted Zora affectionately.
She was shorter, slimmer, paler than her sister: of a certain babyish prettiness. She had Mrs. Oldrieve's weak mouth and gentle ways.
"Why, Zora, who would have thought of seeing you? What are you doing in town?"
"Getting hats and frocks—a trousseau of freedom. I've left Nunsmere. I'm on my own."
Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks were flushed. She caught Emily to her bosom.
"Oh, darling! I'm so happy—a bird let out of a cage."
"An awful big bird," laughed Emily.
"Yes, let out of an awful small cage. I'm going to see the world, for the first time in my life. I'm going to get out of the cold and wet—going South—to Italy—Sicily—Egypt—anywhere."
"All by yourself?"
"There'll be Turner."
"Ah, you don't know her. My new maid. But isn't it glorious? Why shouldn't you come with me, darling? Do. Come."
"And throw up my engagement? I couldn't. I should love it, but you don't know how hard engagements are to get."
"Never mind. I'll pay for everything."
But Emily shook her fluffy head. She had a good part, a few lines to speak and a bit of a song to sing in a successful musical comedy. She looked back on the two years' price she had paid for that little bit of a song. It was dearer to her than anything—save one thing—in life.
"I can't. Besides, don't you think a couple of girls fooling about alone look rather silly? It wouldn't really be very funny without a man."
Zora rose in protest. "The whole human race is man-mad! Even mother. I think everybody is detestable!"
The maid announced "Mr. Mordaunt Prince," and a handsome man with finely cut, dark features and black hair parted in the middle and brushed tightly back over the head, entered the room. Emmy presented him to Zora, who recognized him as the leading man at the theater where Emmy was playing. Zora exchanged a few polite commonplaces with the visitor and then took her leave. Emmy accompanied her to the front door of the flat.
"Isn't he charming?"
"That creature?" asked Zora.
Emmy laughed. "In your present mood you would find fault with an archangel. Good-bye, darling, and take care of yourself."
She bore no malice, having a kind heart and being foolishly happy. When she returned to the drawing-room the man took both her hands.
"My sister wanted to carry me off to Italy."
"What did you say?"
"Guess," said the girl, lifting starry eyes.
The man guessed, after the manner of men, and for a moment Emmy forgot Zora, who went her own way in pursuit of happiness, heedless of the wisdom of the wise and of the foolish.
For five months Zora wandered over the world—chiefly Italy—without an experience which might be called an adventure. When the Literary Man from London crossed her mind she laughed him to scorn for a prophetic popinjay. She had broken no man's heart, and her own was whole. The tribes of Crim Tartary had exhibited no signs of worry and had left her unmolested. She had furthermore taken rapturous delight in cathedrals, expensive restaurants, and the set pieces of fashionable scenery. Rattenden had not a prophetic leg to stand on.
Yet she longed for the unattainable—for the elusive something of which these felicities were but symbols. Now the wanderer with a haunting sense of the Beyond, but without the true vagabond's divine gift of piercing the veil, can only follow the obvious; and there are seasons when the obvious fails to satisfy. When such a mood overcame her mistress, Turner railed at the upsetting quality of foreign food, and presented bicarbonate of soda. She arrived by a different path at the unsatisfactory nature of the obvious. Sometimes, too, the pleasant acquaintances of travel were lacking, and loneliness upset the nice balance of Zora's nerves. Then, more than ever, did she pine for the Beyond.
Yet youth, receptivity, imagination kept her buoyant. Hope lured her on with renewed promises from city to city. At last, on her homeward journey, he whispered the magic name of Monte Carlo, and her heart was aflutter in anticipation of wonderland.
She stood bewildered, lonely, and dismayed in the first row behind the chairs, fingering an empty purse. She had been in the rooms ten minutes, and she had lost twenty louis. Her last coup had been successful, but a bland old lady, with the white hair and waxen face of sainted motherhood, had swept up her winnings so unconcernedly that Zora's brain began to swim. As she felt too strange and shy to expostulate she stood fingering her empty purse.
The scene was utterly different from what she had expected. She had imagined a gay, crowded room, wild gamblers shouting in their excitement, a band playing delirious waltz music, champagne corks popping merrily, painted women laughing, jesting loudly, all kinds of revelry and devilry and Bacchic things undreamed of. This was silly of her, no doubt, but the silliness of inexperienced young women is a matter for the pity, not the reprobation, of the judicious. If they take the world for their oyster and think, when they open it, they are going to find pearl necklaces ready-made, we must not blame them. Rather let hoary-headed sinners envy them their imaginings.
The corners of Zora Middlemist's ripe lips drooped with a child's pathos of disillusionment. Her nose delicately marked disgust at the heavy air and the discord of scents around her. Having lost her money she could afford to survey with scorn the decorous yet sordid greed of the crowded table. There was not a gleam of gaiety about it. The people behaved with the correct impassiveness of an Anglican congregation. She had heard of more jocular funerals.
She forgot the intoxication of her first gold and turquoise day at Monte Carlo. A sense of loneliness—such as a solitary dove might feel in a wilderness of evil bats—oppressed her. Had she not been aware that she was a remarkably attractive woman and the object of innumerable glances, she would have cried. And twenty louis pitched into unprofitable space! Yet she stood half fascinated by the rattle of the marble on the revolving disc, the glitter of the gold, the soft pat of the coins on the green cloth as they were thrown by the croupier. She began to make imaginary stakes. For five coups in succession she would have won. It was exasperating. There she stood, having pierced the innermost mystery of chance, without even a five-franc piece in her purse.
A man's black sleeve pushed past her shoulder, and she saw a hand in front of her holding a louis. Instinctively she took it.
"Thanks," said a tired voice. "I can't reach the table. She threw it, en plein, on Number Seventeen; and then with a start, realizing what she had done, she turned with burning cheeks.
"I am so sorry."
Her glance met a pair of unspeculative blue eyes, belonging to the owner of the tired voice. She noted that he had a sallow face, a little brown mustache, and a shock of brown hair, curiously upstanding, like Struwel Peter's.
"I am so sorry," she repeated. "Please ask for it back. What did you want me to play?"
"I don't know. It doesn't matter, so long as you've put it somewhere."
"But I've put it en plein on Seventeen," she urged. "I ought to have thought what I was doing."
"Why think?" he murmured.
Mrs. Middlemist turned square to the table and fixed her eyes on the staked louis. In spite of the blue-eyed man's implied acquiescence she felt qualms of responsibility. Why had she not played on an even chance, or one of the dozens, or even a transversale? To add to her discomfort no one else played the full seventeen. The whole table seemed silently jeering at her inexperience.
The croupiers had completed the payments of the last coup. The marble fell with its sharp click and whizzed and rattled around the disc. Zora held her breath. The marble found its compartment at last, and the croupier announced:
"Dix-sept, noir, impair et manque."
She had won. A sigh of relief shook her bosom. Not only had she not lost a stranger's money, but she had won for him thirty-five times his stake. She watched the louis greedily lest it should be swept away by a careless croupier—perhaps the only impossible thing that could not happen at Monte Carlo—and stretched out her arm past the bland old lady in tense determination to frustrate further felonious proceedings. The croupier pitched seven large gold coins across the table. She clutched them feverishly and turned to deliver them to their owner. He was nowhere to be seen. She broke through the ring, and with her hands full of gold scanned the room in dismayed perplexity.
At last she espied him standing dejectedly by another table. She rushed across the intervening space and held out the money.
"See, you have won!"
"Oh, Lord!" murmured the man, removing his hands from his dinner-jacket pockets, but not offering to take his winnings. "What a lot of trouble I have given you."
"Of course you have," she said tartly. "Why didn't you stay?"
"I don't know," he replied. "How can one tell why one doesn't do things?"
"Well, please take the money now and let me get rid of it. There are seven pieces of five louis each."
She counted the coins into his hand, and then suddenly flushed scarlet. She had forgotten to claim the original louis which she had staked. Where was it? What had become of it? As well try, she thought, to fish up a coin thrown into the sea. She felt like a thief.
"There ought to be another louis," she stammered.
"It doesn't matter," said the man.
"But it does matter. You might think that I—I kept it."
"That's too absurd," he answered. "Are you interested in guns?"
She stared at him. He appeared quite sane.
"I remember now I was thinking of guns when I went away," he explained. "They're interesting things to think about."
"But don't you understand that I owe you a louis? I forgot all about it. If my purse weren't empty I would repay you. Will you stay here till I can get some money from my hotel—the Hotel de Paris?"
She spoke with some vehemence. How could the creature expect her to remain in his debt? But the creature only passed his fingers through his upstanding hair and smiled wanly.
"Please don't say anything more about it. It distresses me. The croupiers don't return the stake, as a general rule, unless you ask for it. They assume you want to back your luck. Perhaps it has won again. For goodness' sake don't bother about it—and thank you very, very much."
He bowed politely and moved a step or two away. But Zora, struck by a solution of the mystery which had not occurred to her, as one cannot grasp all the ways and customs of gaming establishments in ten minutes, rushed back to the other table. She arrived just in time to hear the croupier asking whom the louis on seventeen belonged to. The number had turned up again.
This time she brought the thirty-six louis to the stranger.
"Dear me," said he, taking the money. "It is very astonishing. But why did you trouble?"
"Because I'm a woman of common sense, I suppose."
He looked at the coins in his hand as if they were shells which a child at the seaside might have brought him, and then raised his eyes slowly to hers.
"You are a very gracious lady." His glance and tone checked an impulse of exasperation. She smiled.
"At any rate, I've won fifty-six pounds for you, and you ought to be grateful."
He made a little gesture of acknowledgement. Had he been a more dashing gentleman he might have expressed his gratitude for the mere privilege of conversing with a gracious lady so beautiful. They had drifted from the outskirts of the crowded table and found themselves in the thinner crowd of saunterers. It was the height of the Monte Carlo season and the feathers and diamonds and rouge and greedy eyes and rusty bonnets of all nations confused the sight and paralyzed thought. Yet among all the women of both worlds Zora Middlemist stood out remarkable. As Septimus Dix afterwards explained, the rooms that evening contained a vague kind of conglomerate woman and Zora Middlemist. And the herd of men envied the creature on whom she smiled so graciously.
She was dressed in black, as became a young widow, but it was a black which bore no sign of mourning. The black, sweeping ostrich plume of a picture hat gave her an air of triumph. Black gloves reaching more than halfway up shapely arms and a gleam of snowy neck above a black chiffon bodice disquieted the imagination. She towered over her present companion, who was five foot seven and slimly built.
"You've brought me all this stuff, but what am I to do with it?" he asked helplessly.
"Perhaps I had better take care of it for you."
It was a relief from the oppressive loneliness to talk to a human being; so she lingered wistfully in conversation. A pathetic eagerness came into the man's face.
"I wish you would," said he, drawing a handful from his jacket pocket. "I should be so much happier."
"You can hardly be such a gambler," she laughed.
"Oh, no! It's not that at all. Gambling bores me."
"Why do you play, then?"
"I don't. I staked that louis because I wanted to see whether I should be interested. I wasn't, as I began to think about the guns. Have you had breakfast?"
Again Zora was startled. A sane man does not talk of breakfasting at nine o'clock in the evening. But if he were a lunatic perhaps it were wise to humor him.
"Yes," she said. "Have you?"
"No. I've only just got up."
"Do you mean to say you've been asleep all day?"
"What's the noisy day made for?"
"Let us sit down," said Zora.
They found one of the crimson couches by the wall vacant, and sat down. Zora regarded him curiously.
"Why should you be happier if I took care of your money?"
"I shouldn't spend it. I might meet a man who wanted to sell me a gas-engine."
"But you needn't buy it."
"These fellows are so persuasive, you see. At Rotterdam last year, a man made me buy a second-hand dentist's chair."
"Are you a dentist?" asked Zora.
"Lord, no! If I were I could have used the horrible chair."
"What did you do with it?"
"I had it packed up and despatched, carriage paid, to an imaginary person at Singapore."
He made this announcement in his tired, gentle manner, without the flicker of a smile. He added, reflectively—
"That sort of thing becomes expensive. Don't you find it so?"
"I would defy anybody to sell me a thing I didn't want," she replied.
"Ah, that," said he with a glance of wistful admiration, "that is because you have red hair."
If any other strange male had talked about her hair, Zora Middlemist would have drawn herself up in Junoesque majesty and blighted him with a glance. She had done with men and their compliments forever. In that she prided herself on her Amazonianism. But she could not be angry with the inconclusive being to whom she was talking. As well resent the ingenuous remarks of a four-year-old child.
"What has my red hair to do with it?" she asked pleasantly.
"It was a red-haired man who sold me the dentist's chair."
"Oh!" said Zora, nonplussed.
There was a pause. The man leaned back, embracing one knee with both hands. They were nerveless, indeterminate hands, with long fingers, such as are in the habit of dropping things. Zora wondered how they supported his knee. For some time he stared into vacancy, his pale-blue eyes adream. Zora laughed.
"Guns?" she asked.
"No," said he, awaking to her presence. "Perambulators."
She rose. "I thought you might be thinking of breakfast. I must be going back to my hotel. These rooms are too hot and horrible. Good night."
"I will see you to the lift, if you'll allow me," he said politely.
She graciously assented and they left the rooms together. In the atrium she changed her mind about the lift. She would leave the Casino by the main entrance and walk over to the Hotel de Paris for the sake of a breath of fresh air. At the top of the steps she paused and filled her lungs. It was a still, moonless night, and the stars hung low down, like diamonds on a canopy of black velvet. They made the flaring lights of the terrace of the Hotel and Cafe de Paris look tawdry and meretricious.
"I hate them," she said, pointing to the latter.
"Stars are better," said her companion.
She turned on him swiftly.
"How did you know I was making comparisons?"
"I felt it," he murmured.
They walked slowly down the steps. At the bottom a carriage and pair seemed to rise mysteriously out of the earth.
"'Ave a drive? Ver' good carriage," said a voice out of the dimness. Monte Carlo cabmen are unerring in their divination of the Anglo-Saxon.
Why not? The suggestion awoke in her an instant craving for the true beauty of the land. It was unconventional, audacious, crazy. But, again, why not? Zora Middlemist was answerable for her actions to no man or woman alive. Why not drink a great draught of the freedom that was hers? What did it matter that the man was a stranger? All the more daring the adventure. Her heart beat gladly. But chaste women, like children, know instinctively the man they can trust.
"Yes—unless—" a thought suddenly striking her—"unless you want to go back to your friends."
"Good Lord!" said he, aghast, as if she were accusing him of criminal associations. "I have no friends."
She entered the carriage. He followed meekly and sat beside her. Where should they drive? The cabman suggested the coast road to Mentone. She agreed. On the point of starting she observed that her companion was bare-headed.
"You've forgotten your hat."
She spoke to him as she would have done to a child.
"Why bother about hats?"
"You'll catch your death of cold. Go and get it at once."
He obeyed with a docility which sent a little tingle of exaltation through Mrs. Middlemist. A woman may have an inordinate antipathy to men, but she loves them to do her bidding. Zora was a woman; she was also young.
He returned. The cabman whipped up his strong pair of horses, and they started through the town towards Mentone.
Zora lay back on the cushions and drank in the sensuous loveliness of the night—the warm, scented air, the velvet and diamond sky, the fragrant orange groves—the dim, mysterious olive trees, the looming hills, the wine-colored, silken sea, with its faint edging of lace on the dusky sweep of the bay. The spirit of the South overspread her with its wings and took her amorously in its arms.
After a long, long silence she sighed, remembering her companion.
"Thank you for not talking," she said softly.
"Don't," he replied. "I had nothing to say. I never talk. I've scarcely talked for a year."
She laughed idly.
"No one to talk to. Except my man," he added conscientiously. "His name is Wiggleswick."
"I hope he looks after you well," said Zora, with a touch of maternal instinct.
"He wants training. That's what I am always telling him. But he can't hear. He's seventy and stone-deaf. But he's interesting. He tells me about jails and things."
"Yes. He spent most of his time in prison. He was a professional burglar—but then he got on in years. Besides, the younger generation was knocking at the door."
"I thought that was the last thing a burglar would do," said Zora.
"They generally use jemmies," he said gravely. "Wiggleswick has given me his collection. They're very useful."
"What for?" she asked.
"To kill moths with," he replied dreamily.
"But what made you take a superannuated burglar for a valet?"
"I don't know. Perhaps it was Wiggleswick himself. He came up to me one day as I was sitting in Kensington Gardens, and somehow followed me home."
"But, good gracious," cried Zora—forgetful for the moment of stars and sea—"aren't you afraid that he will rob you?"
"No. I asked him, and he explained. You see, it would be out of his line. A forger only forges, a pickpocket only snatches chains and purses, and a burglar only burgles. Now, he couldn't burgle the place in which he was living himself, so I am safe."
Zora gave him sage counsel.
"I'd get rid of him if I were you."
"If I were you, I would—but I can't," he replied. "If I told him to go he wouldn't. I go instead sometimes. That's why I'm here."
"If you go on talking like that, you'll make my brain reel," said Zora laughing. "Do tell me something about yourself. What is your name?"
"Septimus Dix. I've got another name—Ajax—Septimus Ajax Dix—but I never use it."
"That's a pity," said Zora. "Ajax is a lovely name."
He dissented in his vague fashion. "Ajax suggests somebody who defies lightning and fools about with a spear. It's a silly name. A maiden aunt persuaded my mother to give it to me. I think she mixed it up with Achilles. She admired the statue in Hyde Park. She got run over by a milkcart."
"When was that?" she inquired, more out of politeness than interest in the career of Mr. Dix's maiden aunt.
"A minute before she died."
"Oh," said Zora, taken aback by the emotionless manner in which he mentioned the tragedy. Then, by way of continuing the conversation:—
"Why are you called Septimus?"
"I'm the seventh son. All the others died young. I never could make out why I didn't."
"Perhaps," said Zora with a laugh, "you were thinking of something else at the time and lost the opportunity."
"It must have been that," said he. "I lose opportunities just as I always lose trains."
"How do you manage to get anywhere?"
"I wait for the next train. That's easy. But there's never another opportunity."
He drew a cigarette from his case, put it in his mouth, and fumbled in his pockets for matches. Finding none, he threw the cigarette into the road.
"That's just like you," cried Zora. "Why didn't you ask the cabman for a light?"
She laughed at him with an odd sense of intimacy, though she had known him for scarcely an hour. He seemed rather a stray child than a man. She longed to befriend him—to do something for him, motherwise—she knew not what. Her adventure by now had failed to be adventurous. The spice of danger had vanished. She knew she could sit beside this helpless being till the day of doom without fear of molestation by word or act.
He obtained a light for his cigarette from the cabman and smoked in silence. Gradually the languor of the night again stole over her senses, and she forgot his existence. The carriage had turned homeward, and at a bend of the road, high up above the sea, Monte Carlo came into view, gleaming white far away below, like a group of fairy palaces lit by fairy lamps, sheltered by the great black promontory of Monaco. From the gorge on the left, the terraced rock on the right, came the smell of the wild thyme and rosemary and the perfume of pale flowers. The touch of the air on her cheek was a warm and scented kiss. The diamond stars drooped towards her like a Danae shower. Like Danae's, her lips were parted. Her eyes strained far beyond the stars into an unknown glory, and her heart throbbed with a passionate desire for unknown things. Of what nature they might be she did not dream. Not love. Zora Middlemist had forsworn it. Not the worship of a man. She had vowed by all the saints in her hierarchy that no man should ever again enter her life. Her soul revolted against the unutterable sex.
As soon as one realizes the exquisite humbug of sublunary existence he must weep for the pity of it.
The warm and scented air was a kiss, too, on the cheek of Septimus Dix; and his senses, too, were enthralled by the witchery of the night. But for him stars and scented air and the magic beauty of the sea were incarnate in the woman by his side.
Zora, as I have said, had forgotten the poor devil's existence.
When they drove up to the Hotel de Paris, she alighted and bade him a smiling farewell, and went to her room with the starlight in her eyes. The lift man asked if Madame had won. She dangled her empty purse and laughed. Then the lift man, who had seen that light in women's eyes before, made certain that she was in love, and opened the lift door for her with the confidential air of the Latin who knows sweet secrets. But the lift man was wrong. No man had a part in her soul's exultation. If Septimus Dix crossed her mind while she was undressing, it was as a grotesque, bearing the same relation to her emotional impression of the night as a gargoyle does to a cathedral. When she went to bed, she slept the sound sleep of youth.
Septimus, after dismissing the cab, wandered in his vague way over to the Cafe de Paris, instinct suggesting his belated breakfast, which, like his existence, Zora had forgotten. The waiter came.
"Absinthe," murmured Septimus absent-mindedly, "and—er—poached eggs—and anything—a raspberry ice."
The waiter gazed at him in stupefaction; but nothing being too astounding in Monte Carlo, he wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead and executed the order.
The unholy meal being over, Septimus drifted into the square and spent most of the night on a bench gazing at the Hotel de Paris and wondering which were her windows. When she mentioned casually, a day or two later, that her windows looked the other way over the sea, he felt that Destiny had fooled him once more; but for the time being he found a gentle happiness in his speculation. Chilled to the bone, at last, he sought his hotel bedroom and smoked a pipe, meditative, with his hat on until the morning. Then he went to bed.
Two mornings afterwards Zora came upon him on the Casino terrace. He sprawled idly on a bench between a fat German and his fat wife, who were talking across him. His straw hat was tilted over his eyes and his legs were crossed. In spite of the conversation (and a middle-class German does not whisper when he talks to his wife), and the going and coming of the crowd—in spite of the sunshine and the blue air, he slumbered peacefully. Zora passed him once or twice. Then by the station lift she paused and looked out at the bay of Mentone clasping the sea—a blue enamel in a setting of gold. She stood for some moments lost in the joy of it when a voice behind her brought her back to the commonplace.
"Very lovely, isn't it?"
A thin-faced Englishman of uncertain age and yellow, evil eyes met her glance as she turned instinctively.
"Yes, it's beautiful," she replied coldly; "but that is no reason why you should take the liberty of speaking to me."
"I couldn't help sharing my emotions with another, especially one so beautiful. You seem to be alone here?"
Now she remembered having seen him before—rather frequently. The previous evening he had somewhat ostentatiously selected a table near hers at dinner. He had watched her as she had left the theater and followed her to the lift door. He had been watching for his opportunity and now thought it had come. She shivered with sudden anger, and round her heart crept the chill of fright which all women know who have been followed in a lonely street.
"I certainly am not alone," she said wrathfully. "Good morning."
The man covered his defeat by raising his hat with ironic politeness, and Zora walked swiftly away, in appearance a majestic Amazon, but inwardly a quivering woman. She marched straight up to the recumbent Dix. The Literary Man from London would have been amused. She interposed herself between the conversing Teutons and awakened the sleeper. He looked at her for a moment with a dreamy smile, then leaped to his feet.
"A man has insulted me—he has been following me about and tried to get into conversation with me."
"Dear me," said Septimus. "What shall I do? Shall I shoot him?"
"Don't be silly," she said seriously. "It's serious. I'd be glad if you'd kindly walk up and down a little with me."
"With pleasure." They strolled away together. "But I am serious. If you wanted me to shoot him I'd do it. I'd do anything in the world for you. I've got a revolver in my room."
She laughed, disclaiming desire for supreme vengeance.
"I only want to show the wretch that I am not a helpless woman," she observed, with the bewildering illogic of the sex. And as she passed by the offender she smiled down at her companion with all the sweetness of intimacy and asked him why he carried a revolver. She did not point the offender out, be it remarked, to the bloodthirsty Septimus.
"It belongs to Wiggleswick," he replied in answer to her question. "I promised to take care of it for him."
"What does Wiggleswick do when you are away?"
"He reads the police reports. I take in Reynolds and the News of the World and the illustrated Police News for him, and he cuts them out and gums them in a scrap book. But I think I'm happier without Wiggleswick. He interferes with my guns."
"By the way," said Zora, "you talked about guns the other evening. What have you got to do with guns?"
He looked at her in a scared way out of the corner of his eye, child-fashion, as though to make sure she was loyal and worthy of confidence, and then he said:
"I invent 'em. I have written a treatise on guns of large caliber."
"Really?" cried Zora, taken by surprise. She had not credited him with so serious a vocation. "Do tell me something about it."
"Not now," he pleaded. "Some other time. I'd have to sit down with paper and pencil and draw diagrams. I'm afraid you wouldn't like it. Wiggleswick doesn't. It bores him. You must be born with machinery in your blood. Sometimes it's uncomfortable."
"To have cogwheels instead of corpuscles must be trying," said Zora flippantly.
"Very," said he. "The great thing is to keep them clear of the heart."
"What do you mean?" she asked quickly.
"Whatever one does or tries to do, one should insist on remaining human. It's good to be human, isn't it? I once knew a man who was just a complicated mechanism of brain encased in a body. His heart didn't beat; it clicked and whirred. It caused the death of the most perfect woman in the world."
He looked dreamily into the blue ether between sea and sky. Zora felt strangely drawn to him.
"Who was it?" she asked softly.
"My mother," said he.
They had paused in their stroll, and were leaning over the parapet above the railway line. After a few moments' silence he added, with a faint smile:—
"That's why I try hard to keep myself human—so that, if a woman should ever care for me, I shouldn't hurt her."
A green caterpillar was crawling on his sleeve. In his vague manner he picked it tenderly off and laid it on the leaf of an aloe that grew in the terrace vase near which he stood.
"You couldn't even hurt that crawling thing—let alone a woman," said Zora. This time very softly.
He blushed. "If you kill a caterpillar you kill a butterfly," he said apologetically.
"And if you kill a woman?"
"Is there anything higher?" said he.
She made no reply, her misanthropical philosophy prompting none. There was rather a long silence, which he broke by asking her if she read Persian. He excused his knowledge of it by saying that it kept him human. She laughed and suggested a continuance of their stroll. He talked disconnectedly as they walked up and down.
The crowd on the terrace thinned as the hour of dejeuner approached. Presently she proclaimed her hunger. He murmured that it must be near dinner time. She protested. He passed his hands across his eyes and confessed that he had got mixed up in his meals the last few days. Then an idea struck him.
"If I skip afternoon tea, and dinner, and supper, and petit dejeuner, and have two breakfasts running," he exclaimed brightly, "I shall begin fair again." And he laughed, not loud, but murmuringly, for the first time.
They went round the Casino to the front of the Hotel de Paris, their natural parting place. But there, on the steps, with legs apart, stood the wretch with the evil eyes. He looked at her from afar, banteringly. Defiance rose in Zora's soul. She would again show him that she was not a lone and helpless woman at the mercy of the casual depredator.
"I'm taking you in to lunch with me, Mr. Dix. You can't refuse," she said; and without waiting for a reply she sailed majestically past the wretch, followed meekly by Septimus, as if she owned him body and soul.
As usual, many eyes were turned on her as she entered the restaurant—a radiant figure in white, with black hat and black chiffon boa, and a deep red rose in her bosom. The maitre d'hotel, in the pride of reflected glory, conducted her to a table near the window. Septimus trailed inconclusively behind. When he seated himself he stared at her silently in a mute surmise as the gentlemen in the poem did at the peak in Darien. It was even a wilder adventure than the memorable drive. That was but a caprice of the goddess; this was a sign of her friendship. The newness of their intimacy smote him dumb. He passed his hand through his Struwel Peter hair and wondered. Was it real? There sat the goddess, separated from him by the strip of damask, her gold-flecked eyes smiling frankly and trustfully into his, pulling off her gloves and disclosing, in almost disconcerting intimacy, her warm wrists and hands. Was he dreaming, as he sometimes did, in broad daylight, of a queer heaven in which he was strong like other men and felt the flutter of wings upon his cheek? Something soft was in his hand. Mechanically he began to stuff it up his sleeve. It was his napkin. Zora's laugh brought him to earth—to happy earth.
It is a pleasant thing to linger tete-a-tete over lunch on the terrace of the Hotel de Paris. Outside is the shade of the square, the blazing sunshine beyond the shadow; the fountain and the palms and the doves; the white gaiety of pleasure houses; the blue-gray mountains cut sharp against the violet sky. Inside, a symphony of cool tones: the pearl of summer dresses; the snow, crystal, and silver of the tables; the tender green of lettuce, the yellows of fruit, the soft pink of salmon; here and there a bold note of color—the flowers in a woman's hat, the purples and topazes of wine. Nearer still to the sense is the charm of privacy. The one human being for you in the room is your companion. The space round your chairs is a magic circle, cutting you off from the others, who are mere decorations, beautiful or grotesque. Between you are substances which it were gross to call food: dainty mysteries of coolness and sudden flavors; a fish salad in which the essences of sea and land are blended in cold, celestial harmony; innermost kernels of the lamb of the salted meadows where must grow the Asphodel on which it fed, in amorous union with what men call a sauce, but really oil and cream and herbs stirred by a god in a dream; peaches in purple ichor chastely clad in snow, melting on the palate as the voice of the divine singer after whom they are named melts in the soul.
It is a pleasant thing—hedonistic? yes; but why live on lentils when lotus is to your hand? and, really, at Monte Carlo lentils are quite as expensive—it is a pleasant thing, even for the food-worn wanderer of many restaurants, to lunch tete-a-tete at the Hotel de Paris; but for the young and fresh-hearted to whom it is new, it is enchantment.
"I've often looked at people eating like this and I've often wondered how it felt," said Septimus.
"But you must have lunched hundreds of times in such places."
"Yes—but by myself. I've never had a—" he paused. "A what?"
"A—a gracious lady," he said, reddening, "to sit opposite me."
"No one has ever wanted me. It has always puzzled me how men get to know women and go about with them. I think it must be a gift," he asserted with the profound gravity of a man who has solved a psychological problem. "Some fellows have a gift for collecting Toby jugs. Everywhere they go they discover a Toby jug. I couldn't find one if I tried for a year. It's the same thing. At Cambridge they used to call me the Owl."
"An owl catches mice, at any rate," said Zora.
"So do I. Do you like mice?"
"No. I want to catch lions and tigers and all the bright and burning things of life," cried Zora, in a burst of confidence.
He regarded her with wistful admiration.
"Your whole life must be full of such things."
"I wonder," she said, looking at him over the spoonful of peche Melba which she was going to put in her mouth, "I wonder whether you have the faintest idea who I am and what I am and what I'm doing here all by myself, and why you and I are lunching together in this delightful fashion. You have told me all about yourself—but you seem to take me for granted."
She was ever so little piqued at his apparent indifference. But if men like Septimus Dix did not take women for granted, where would be the chivalry and faith of the children of the world? He accepted her unquestioningly as the simple Trojan accepted the Olympian lady who appeared to him clad in grace (but otherwise scantily) from a rosy cloud.
"You are yourself," he said, "and that has been enough for me."
"How do you know I'm not an adventuress? There are heaps of them, people say, in this place. I might be a designing thief of a woman."
"I offered you the charge of my money the other night."
"Was that why you did it? To test me?" she asked.
He reddened and started as if stung. She saw the hurt instantly, and with a gush of remorse begged for forgiveness.
"No. I didn't mean it. It was horrid of me. It is not in your nature to think such a thing. Forgive me."
Frankly, impulsively, she stretched her hand across the table. He touched it timidly with his ineffectual fingers, not knowing what to do with it, vaguely wondering whether he should raise it to his lips, and so kept touching it, until she pressed his fingers in a little grip of friendliness, and withdrew it with a laugh.
"Do you know, I still have that money," he said, pulling a handful of great five-louis pieces from his pocket. "I can't spend it. I've tried to. I bought a dog yesterday but he wanted to bite me and I had to give him to the hotel porter. All this gold makes such a bulge in my pocket."
When Zora explained that the coins were only used as counters and could be changed for notes at the rooms, he was astonished at her sapience. He had never thought of it. Thus Zora regained her sense of superiority.
This lunch was the first of many meals they had together; and meals led to drives and excursions, and to evenings at the theater. If she desired still further to convince the wretch with the evil eyes of her befriended state, she succeeded; but the wretch and his friends speculated evilly on the relations between her and Septimus Dix. They credited her with pots of money. Zora, however, walked serene, unconscious of slander, enjoying herself prodigiously. Secure in her scorn and hatred of men she saw no harm in her actions. Nor was there any, from the point of view of her young egotism and inexperience. It scarcely occurred to her that Septimus was a man. In some aspects he appealed to her instinctive motherhood like a child. When she met him one day coming out of one of the shops in the arcade, wearing a newly bought Homburg hat too small for him, she marched him back with a delicious sense of responsibility and stood over him till he was adequately fitted. In other aspects he was like a woman in whose shy delicacy she could confide. She awoke also to a new realization—that of power. Now, to use power with propriety needs wisdom, and the woman who is wise at five-and-twenty cannot make out at sixty why she has remained an old maid. The delightful way to use it is that of a babe when he first discovers that a stick hits. That is the way that Zora, who was not wise, used it over Septimus. For the first time in her life she owned a human being. A former joy in the possession of a devoted dog who did tricks was as nothing to this rapture. It was splendid. She owned him. Whenever she had a desire for his company—which was often, as solitude at Monte Carlo is more depressing than Zora had realized—she sent a page boy, in the true quality of his name of chasseur, to hunt down the quarry and bring him back. He would, therefore, be awakened at unearthly hours, at three o'clock in the afternoon, for instance, when, as he said, all rational beings should be asleep, it being their own unreason if they were not; or he would be tracked down at ten in the morning to some obscure little cafe in the town where he would be discovered eating ices and looking the worse for wear in his clothes of the night before. As this meant delay in the execution of her wishes, Zora prescribed habits less irregular. By means of bribery of chambermaids and porters, and the sacrifice of food and sleep, he contrived to find himself dressed in decent time in the mornings. He would then patiently await her orders or call modestly for them at her residence, like the butcher or the greengrocer.
"Why does your hair stand up on end, in that queer fashion?" she asked him one day. The hat episode had led to a general regulation of his personal appearance.
He pondered gravely over the conundrum for some time, and then replied that he must have lost control over it. The command went forth that he should visit a barber and learn how to control his hair. He obeyed, and returned with his shock parted in the middle and plastered down heavily with pomatum, a saint of more than methodistical meekness. On Zora declaring that he looked awful (he was indeed inconceivably hideous), and that she preferred Struwel Peter after all, he dutifully washed his head with soda (after grave consultation with the chambermaid), and sunned himself once more in the smiles of his mistress.
Now and then, however, as she was kind and not tyrannical, she felt a pin-prick of compunction.
"If you would rather do anything else, don't hesitate to say so."
But Septimus, after having contemplated the world's potentialities of action with lack-luster eye, would declare that there was nothing else that could be done. Then she could rate him soundly.
"If I proposed that we should sail up the Andes and eat fried moonbeams, you would say 'yes.' Why haven't you more initiative?"
"I'm like Mrs. Shandy," he replied. "Some people are born so. They are quiescent; other people can jump about like grasshoppers. Do you know grasshoppers are very interesting?" And he began to talk irrelevantly on insects.
Their intercourse encouraged confidential autobiography. Zora learned the whole of his barren history. Fatherless, motherless, brotherless, he was alone in the world. From his father, Sir Erasmus Dix, a well-known engineer, to whose early repression much of Septimus's timidity was due, he had inherited a modest fortune. After leaving Cambridge he had wandered aimlessly about Europe. Now he lived in a little house in Shepherd's Bush, with a studio or shed at the end of the garden which he used as a laboratory.
"Why Shepherd's Bush?" asked Zora.
"Wiggleswick likes it," said he.
"And now he has the whole house to himself? I suppose he makes himself comfortable in your quarters and drinks your wine and smokes your cigars with his friends. Did you lock things up?"
"Oh, yes, of course," said Septimus.
"And where are the keys?"
"Why Wiggleswick has them," he replied.
Zora drew in her breath. "You don't know how angry you make me. If ever I meet Wiggleswick—"
"I'll talk to him," said Zora with a fine air of menace.
She, on her side, gave him such of her confidences as were meet for masculine ears. Naturally she impressed upon him the fact that his sex was abhorrent to her in all its physical, moral, and spiritual manifestations. Septimus, on thinking the matter over, agreed with her. Memories came back to him of the men with whom he had been intimate. His father, the mechanical man who had cogs instead of corpuscles in his blood, Wiggleswick the undesirable, a few rowdy men on his staircase at Cambridge who had led shocking lives—once making a bonfire of his pyjamas and a brand-new umbrella in the middle of the court—and had since come to early and disastrous ends. His impressions of the sex were distinctly bad. Germs of unutterable depravity, he was sure, lurked somewhere in his own nature.
"You make me feel," said he, "as if I weren't fit to black the boots of Jezebel."
"That's a proper frame of mind," said Zora. "Would you be good and tie this vexatious shoestring?"
The poor fool bent over it in reverent ecstasy, but Zora was only conscious of the reddening of his gills as he stooped.
This, to her, was the charm of their intercourse: that he never presumed upon their intimacy. When she remembered the prophecy of the Literary Man from London, she laughed at it scornfully. Here was a man, at any rate, who regarded her beauty unconcerned, and from whose society she derived no emotional experiences. She felt she could travel safely with him to the end of the earth.
This reflection came to her one morning while Turner, her maid, was brushing her hair. The corollary followed: "why not?"
"Turner," she said, "I'll soon have seen enough of Monte Carlo. I must go to Paris. What do you think of my asking Mr. Dix to come with us?"
"I think it would be most improper, ma'am," said Turner.
"There's nothing at all improper about it," cried Zora, with a flush. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
At Monte Carlo, as all the world knows, there is an Arcade devoted to the most humorously expensive lace, diamond and general vanity shops in the universe, the Hotel Metropole and Ciro's Restaurant. And Ciro's has a terrace where there are little afternoon tea-tables covered with pink cloths.
It was late in the afternoon, and save for a burly Englishman in white flannels and a Panama hat, reading a magazine by the door, and Zora and Septimus, who sat near the public gangway, the terrace was deserted. Inside, some men lounged about the bar drinking cocktails. The red Tzigane orchestra were already filing into the restaurant and the electric lamps were lit. Zora and Septimus had just returned from a day's excursion to Cannes. They were pleasantly tired and lingered over their tea in a companionable silence. Septimus ruminated dreamily over the nauseous entanglement of a chocolate eclair and a cigarette while Zora idly watched the burly Englishman. Presently she saw him do an odd thing. He tore out the middle of the magazine,—it bore an American title on the outside,—handed it to the waiter and put the advertisement pages in his pocket. From another pocket he drew another magazine, and read the advertisement pages of that with concentrated interest.
Her attention was soon distracted by a young couple, man and woman, decently dressed, who passed along the terrace, glanced at her, repassed and looked at her more attentively, the woman wistfully, and then stopped out of earshot and spoke a few words together. They returned, seemed to hesitate, and at last the woman, taking courage, advanced and addressed her.
"Pardon, Madame—but Madame looks so kind. Perhaps will she pardon the liberty of my addressing her?"
Zora smiled graciously. The woman was young, fragile, careworn, and a piteous appeal lay in her eyes. The man drew near and raised his hat apologetically. The woman continued. They had seen Madame there—and Monsieur—both looked kind, like all English people. Although she was French she was forced to admit the superior generosity of the English. They had hesitated, but the kind look of Madame had made her confident. They were from Havre. They had come to Nice to look after a lawsuit. Nearly all their money had gone. They had a little baby who was ill. In desperation they had brought the remainder of their slender fortune to Monte Carlo. They had lost it. It was foolish, but yet the baby came out that day with nine red spots on its chest and it seemed as if it was a sign from the bon Dieu that they should back nine and red at the tables. Now she knew too late that it was measles and not a sign from the bon Dieu at all. But they were penniless. The baby wanted physic and a doctor and would die. As a last resource they resolved to sink their pride and appeal to the generosity of Monsieur and Madame. The woman's wistful eyes filled with tears and the corners of her mouth quivered. The man with a great effort choked a sob. Zora's generous heart melted at the tale. It rang so stupidly true. The fragile creature's air was so pathetic. She opened her purse.
"Will a hundred francs be of any use to you?" she asked in her schoolgirl French.
"And I, too, will give a hundred to the baby," said Septimus. "I like babies and I've also had the measles." He opened his pocketbook.
"Oh, Monsieur," said the man. "How can I ever be sufficiently grateful?"
He held out his hand for the note, when something hit him violently in the back. It was the magazine hurled by the burly Englishman, who followed up the assault by a torrent of abuse.
"Allez-vous-ong! Cochons! Et plus vite que ca!" There was something terrific in his awful British accent.
The pair turned in obvious dismay. He waved them off.
"Don't give them anything. The baby hasn't any red spots. There isn't a baby. They daren't show their noses in the rooms. Oh je vous connais. Vous etes George Polin et Celestine Macrou. Sales voleurs. Allez-vous-ong ou j'appelle la police."
But the last few words were shouted to the swiftly retiring backs of the pathetic couple.
"I've saved you two hundred francs," said the burly Englishman, picking up his magazine and tenderly smoothing it. "Those two are the most accomplished swindlers in this den of thieves."
"I can't believe it," said Zora, half hurt, half resentful. "The woman's eyes were full of tears."
"It's true," said her champion. "And the best of it is that the man is actually an accredited agent of Jebusa Jones's Cuticle Remedy."
He stood, his hands on his broad hips, regarding her with the piercing eyes of a man who is imparting an incredible but all-important piece of information.
"Why the best of it?" asked Zora, puzzled.
"It only shows how unscrupulous they are in their business methods. A man like that could persuade a fishmonger or an undertaker to stock it. But he'll do them in the end. They'll suffer for it."
"Why, Jebusa Jones, of course. Oh, I see," he continued, looking at the two perplexed faces, "you don't know who I am. I am Clem Sypher."
He looked from one to the other as if to see the impression made by his announcement.
"I am glad to make your acquaintance," said Septimus, "and I thank you for your services."
"My name is Dix—Septimus Dix."
"Delighted to meet you. I have seen you before. Two years ago. You were sitting alone in the lounge of the Hotel Continental, Paris. You were suffering from severe abrasions on your face."
"Dear me," said Septimus. "I remember. I had shaved myself with a safety razor. I invented it."
"I was going to speak to you, but I was prevented." He turned to Zora.
"I've met you too, on Vesuvius in January. You were with two elderly ladies. You were dreadfully sunburnt. I made their acquaintance next day in Naples. You had gone, but they told me your name. Let me see. I know everybody and never forget anything. My mind is pigeon-holed like my office. Don't tell me."
He held up his forefinger and fixed her with his eye.
"It's Middlemist," he cried triumphantly, "and you've an Oriental kind of Christian name—Zora! Am I right?"
"Perfectly," she laughed, the uncanniness of his memory mitigating the unconventionality of his demeanor.
"Now we all know one another," he said, swinging a chair round and sitting unasked at the table. "You're both very sunburnt and the water here is hard and will make the skin peel. You had better use some of the cure. I use it myself every day—see the results."
He passed his hand over his smooth, clean-shaven face, which indeed was as rosy as a baby's. His piercing eyes contrasted oddly with his chubby, full lips and rounded chin.
"What cure?" asked Zora, politely.
"What cure?" he echoed, taken aback, "why, my cure. What other cure is there?"
He turned to Septimus, who stared at him vacantly. Then the incredible truth began to dawn on him.
"I am Clem Sypher—Friend of Humanity—Sypher's Cure. Now do you know?"
"I'm afraid I'm shockingly ignorant," said Zora.
"So am I," said Septimus.
"Good heavens!" cried Sypher, bringing both hands down on the table, tragically. "Don't you ever read your advertisements?"
"I'm afraid not," said Zora.
"No," said Septimus.
Before his look of mingled amazement and reproach they felt like Sunday-school children taken to task for having skipped the Kings of Israel.
"Well," said Sypher, "this is the reward we get for spending millions of pounds and the shrewdest brains in the country for the benefit of the public! Have you ever considered what anxious thought, what consummate knowledge of human nature, what dearly bought experience go to the making of an advertisement? You'll go miles out of your way to see a picture or a piece of sculpture that hasn't cost a man half the trouble and money to produce, and you'll not look at an advertisement of a thing vital to your life, though it is put before your eyes a dozen times a day. Here's my card, and here are some leaflets for you to read at your leisure. They will repay perusal."
He drew an enormous pocketbook from his breast pocket and selected two cards and two pamphlets, which he laid on the table. Then he arose with an air of suave yet offended dignity. Zora, seeing that the man, in some strange way, was deeply hurt, looked up at him with a conciliatory smile.
"You mustn't bear me any malice, Mr. Sypher, because I'm so grateful to you for saving us from these swindling people."
When Zora smiled into a man's eyes, she was irresistible. Sypher's pink face relaxed.
"Never mind," he said. "I'll send you all the advertisements I can lay my hands on in the morning. Au revoir."
He raised his hat and went away. Zora laughed across the table.
"What an extraordinary person!"
"I feel as if I had been talking to a typhoon," said Septimus.
* * * * *
They went to the theater that evening, and during the first entr'acte strolled into the rooms. Except the theater the Casino administration provides nothing that can allure the visitor from the only purpose of the establishment. Even the bar at the end of the atrium could tempt nobody not seriously parched with thirst. It is the most comfortless pleasure-house in Europe. You are driven, deliberately, in desperation into the rooms.
Zora and Septimus were standing by the decorous hush of a trente et quarante table, when they were joined by Mr. Clem Sypher. He greeted them like old acquaintances.
"I reckoned I should meet you sometime to-night. Winning?"
"We never play," said Zora.
Which was true. A woman either plunges feverishly into the vice of gambling or she is kept away from it by her inborn economic sense of the uses of money. She cannot regard it like a man, as a mere amusement. Light loves are somewhat in the same category. Hence many misunderstandings between the sexes. Zora found the amusement profitless, the vice degraded. So, after her first evening, she played no more. Septimus did not count.
"We never play," said Zora.
"Neither do I," said Sypher.
"The real way to enjoy Monte Carlo is to regard these rooms as non-existent. I wish they were."
"Oh, don't say that," Sypher exclaimed quickly. "They are most useful. They have a wisely ordained purpose. They are the meeting-place of the world. I come here every year and make more acquaintances in a day than I do elsewhere in a month. Soon I shall know everybody and everybody will know me, and they'll take away with them to Edinburgh and Stockholm and Uruguay and Tunbridge Wells—to all corners of the earth—a personal knowledge of the cure."
"Oh—I see. From that point of view—" said Zora.
"Of course. What other could there be? You see the advantage? It makes the thing human. It surrounds it with personality. It shows that 'Friend of Humanity' isn't a cant phrase. They recommend the cure to their friends. 'Are you sure it's all right?' they are asked. 'Of course it is,' they can reply. 'I know the man, Clem Sypher himself.' And the friends are convinced and go about saying they know a man who knows Clem Sypher, and so the thing spreads like a snowball. Have you read the pamphlet?"
"It was most interesting," said Zora mendaciously.
"I thought you'd find it so. I've brought something in my pocket for you."
He searched and brought out a couple of little red celluloid boxes, which he handed to Septimus.
"There are two sample boxes of the cure—one for Mrs. Middlemist and one for yourself, Mr. Dix. You both have a touch of the sun. Put it on to-night. Let it stay there for five minutes; then rub off with a smooth, dry towel. In the morning you'll see the miracle." He looked at Septimus earnestly. "Quite sure you haven't anything in the nature of an eruption on you?"
"Good Lord, no. Of course not," said Septimus, startled out of a dreamy contemplation of the two little red boxes.
"That's a pity. It would have been so nice to cure you. Ah!" said he, with a keen glance up the room. "There's Lord Rebenham. I must enquire after his eczema. You won't forget me now. Clem Sypher. Friend of Humanity."
He bowed and withdrew, walking kindly and broad-shouldered trough the crowd, like a benevolent deity, the latest thing in AEsculapiuses, among his devotees.
"What am I to do with these?" asked Septimus, holding out the boxes.
"You had better give me mine, or heaven knows what will become of it," said Zora, and she put it in her little chain bag, with her handkerchief, purse, and powder-puff.
The next morning she received an enormous basket of roses and a bundle of newspapers; also a card, bearing the inscription "Mr. Clem Sypher. The Kurhaus. Kilburn Priory, N.W." She frowned ever so little at the flowers. To accept them would be to accept Mr. Sypher's acquaintance in his private and Kilburn Priory capacity. To send them back would be ungracious, seeing that he had saved her a hundred francs and had cured her imaginary sunburn. She took up the card and laughed. It was like him to name his residence "The Kurhaus." She would never know him in his private capacity, for the simple reason that he hadn't one. The roses were an advertisement. So Turner unpacked the basket, and while Zora was putting the roses into water she wondered whether Mr. Sypher's house was decorated with pictorial advertisements of the cure instead of pictures. Her woman's instinct, however, caused the reflection that the roses must have cost more than all the boxes of the cure she could buy in a lifetime.
Septimus was dutifully waiting for her in the hall. She noted that he was more spruce than usual, in a new gray cashmere suit, and that his brown boots shone dazzlingly, like agates. They went out together, and the first person who met their eyes was the Friend of Humanity sunning himself in the square and feeding the pigeons with bread crumbs from a paper bag. As soon as he saw Zora he emptied his bag and crossed over.
"Good morning, Mrs. Middlemist. Good morning, Mr. Dix. Used the cure? I see you have, Mrs. Middlemist. Isn't it wonderful? If you'd only go about Monte Carlo with an inscription 'Try Sypher's Cure!' What an advertisement! I'd have you one done in diamonds! And how did you find it, Mr. Dix?"
"I—oh!" murmured Septimus. "I forgot about it last night—and this morning I found I hadn't any brown boot polish—I—"
"Used the cure?" cried Zora, aghast.
"Yes," said Septimus, timidly. "It's rather good," and he regarded his dazzling boots.
Clem Sypher burst into a roar of laughter and clapped Septimus on the shoulder.
"Didn't I tell you?" he cried delightedly. "Didn't I tell you it's good for everything? What cream could give you such a polish? By Jove! You deserve to be on the free list for life. You've given me a line for an ad. 'If your skin is all right, try it on your boots.' By George! I'll use it. This is a man with ideas, Mrs. Middlemist. We must encourage him."
"Mr. Dix is an inventor," said Zora. She liked Sypher for laughing. It made him human. It was therefore with a touch of kindly feeling that she thanked him for the roses.
"I wanted to make them blush at the sight of your complexion after the cure," said he.
It was a compliment, and Zora frowned; but it was a professional compliment—so she smiled. Besides, the day was perfect, and Zora not only had not a care in the wide world, but was conscious of a becoming hat. She could not help smiling pleasantly on the world.
An empty motor car entered the square, and drew up near by. The chauffeur touched his cap.
"I'll run you both over to Nice," said Clem Sypher. "I have to meet my agent there and put the fear of God into him. I shan't be long. My methods are quick. And I'll run you back again. Don't say no."
There was the car—a luxurious 40 h.p. machine, upholstered in green; there was Clem Sypher, pink and strong, appealing to her with his quick eyes; there was the sunshine and the breathless blue of the sky; and there was Septimus Dix, a faithful bodyguard. She wavered and turned to Septimus.
"What do you say?"
She was lost. Septimus murmured something inconclusive. Sypher triumphed. She went indoors to get her coat and veil. Sypher admiringly watched her retreating figure—a poem of subtle curves—and shrugging himself into his motor coat, which the chauffeur brought him from the car, he turned to Septimus.
"Look here, Mr. Dix, I'm a straight man, and go straight to a point. Don't be offended. Am I in the way?"
"Not in the least," said Septimus, reddening.
"As for me, I don't care a hang for anything in the universe save Sypher's Cure. That's enough for one man to deal with. But I like having such a glorious creature as Mrs. Middlemist in my car. She attracts attention; and I can't say but what I'm not proud at being seen with her, both as a man and a manufacturer. But that's all. Now, tell me, what's in your mind?"
"I don't think I quite like you—er—to look on Mrs. Middlemist as an advertisement," said Septimus. To speak so directly cost him considerable effort.
"Don't you? Then I won't. I love a man to speak straight to me. I respect him. Here's my hand." He wrung Septimus's hand warmly. "I feel that we are going to be friends. I'm never wrong. I hope Mrs. Middlemist will allow me to be a friend. Tell me about her."
Septimus again reddened uncomfortably. He belonged to a class which does not discuss its women with a stranger even though he be a newly sworn brother.
"She mightn't care for it," he said.
Sypher once more clapped him on the shoulder. "Good again!" he cried, admiringly. "I shouldn't like you half so much if you had told me. I've got to know, for I know everything, so I'll ask her myself."
Zora came down coated and veiled, her face radiant as a Romney in its frame of gauze. She looked so big and beautiful, and Sypher looked so big and strong, and both seemed so full of vitality, that Septimus felt criminally insignificant. His voice was of too low a pitch to make itself carry when these two spoke in their full tones. He shrank into his shell. Had he not realized, in his sensitive way, that without him as a watchdog—ineffectual spaniel that he was—Zora would not accept Clem Sypher's invitation, he would have excused himself from the drive. He differentiated, not conceitedly, between Clem Sypher and himself. She had driven alone with him on her first night at Monte Carlo. But then she had carried him off between her finger and thumb, so to speak, as the Brobdingnagian ladies carried off Gulliver. He knew that he did not count as a danger in the eyes of high-spirited young women. A man like Sypher did. He knew that Zora would not have driven alone with Sypher any more than with the wretch of the evil eyes. He did not analyze this out himself, as his habit of mind was too vague and dreamy. But he knew it instinctively, as a dog knows whom he can trust with his mistress and whom he cannot. So when Sypher and Zora, with a great bustle of life, were discussing seating arrangements in the car, he climbed modestly into the front seat next to the chauffeur, and would not be dislodged by Sypher's entreaties. He was just there, on guard, having no place in the vigorous atmosphere of their personalities. He sat aloof, smoking his pipe, and wondering whether he could invent a motor perambulator which could run on rails round a small garden, fill the baby's lungs with air, and save the British Army from the temptation of nursery-maids. His sporadic discourse on the subject perplexed the chauffeur.
It was a day of vivid glory. Rain had fallen heavily during the night, laying the dust on the road and washing to gay freshness the leaves of palms and gold-spotted orange trees and the purple bourgainvillea and other flowers that rioted on wayside walls. All the deep, strong color of the South was there, making things unreal: the gray mountains, fragile masses against the solid cobalt of the sky. The Mediterranean met the horizon in a blue so intense that the soul ached to see it. The heart of spring throbbed in the deep bosom of summer. The air as they sped through it was like cool spiced wine.
Zora listened to Clem Sypher's dithyrambics. The wine of the air had got into his head. He spoke as she had heard no man speak before. The turns of the road brought into sight view after magic view, causing her to catch her breath: purple rock laughing in the sea, far-off townlets flashing white against the mountain flank, gardens of paradise. Yet Clem Sypher sang of his cure.
First it was a salve for all external ills that flesh is heir to. It spared humanity its heritage of epidermatous suffering. It could not fail. He reeled off the string of hideous diseases with a lyrical lilt. It was his own discovery. An obscure chemist's assistant in Bury St. Edmunds, he had, by dint of experiments, hit on this world-upheaving remedy.
"When I found what it was that I had done, Mrs. Middlemist," said he solemnly, "I passed my vigil, like a knight of old, in my dispensary, with a pot of the cure in front of me, and I took a great oath to devote my life to spread it far and wide among the nations of the earth. It should bring comfort, I swore, to the king in his palace and the peasant in his hut. It should be a household word in the London slum and on the Tartar steppe. Sypher's Cure could go with the Red Cross into battle, and should be in the clerk's wife's cupboard in Peckham Rye. The human chamois that climbs the Alps, the gentle lunatic that plays golf, the idiot that goes and gets scalped by Red Indians, the missionary that gets half roasted by cannibals—if he gets quite roasted the cure's no good; it can't do impossibilities—all should carry Sypher's Cure in their waistcoat pockets. All mankind should know it, from China to Peru, from Cape Horn to Nova Zembla. It would free the tortured world from plague. I would be the Friend of Humanity. I took that for my device. It was something to live for. I was twenty then. I am forty now. I have had twenty years of the fiercest battle that ever man fought."
"And surely you've come off victorious, Mr. Sypher," said Zora.
"I shall never be victorious until it has overspread the earth!" he declared. And he passed one hand over the other in a gesture which symbolized the terrestrial globe with a coating of Sypher's Cure.
"Why shouldn't it?"
"It shall. Somehow, I believe that with you on my side it will."
"I?" Zora started away to the corner of the car, and gazed on him in blank amazement. "I? What in the world have I to do with it?"
"I don't know yet," said Sypher. "I have an intuition. I'm a believer in intuitions. I've followed them all my life, and they've never played me false. The moment I learned that you had never heard of me, I felt it."
Zora breathed comfortably again. It was not an implied declaration.
"I'm fighting against the Powers of Darkness," he continued. "I once read a bit of Spenser's 'Faerie Queene.' There was a Red Cross Knight who slew a Dragon—but he had a fabulous kind of woman behind him. When I saw you, you seemed that fabulous kind of woman."
At a sharp wall corner a clump of tall poinsettias flamed against the sky. Zora laughed full-heartedly.
"Here we are in the middle of a Fairy Tale. What are the Powers of Darkness in your case, Sir Red Cross Knight?"
"Jebusa Jones's Cuticle Remedy," said Sypher savagely.
That was Clem Sypher's Dragon—Jebusa Jones's Cuticle Remedy. He drew so vivid a picture of its foul iniquity that Zora was convinced that the earth had never harbored so scaly a horror. Of all Powers of Evil in the universe it was the most devastating.
She was swept up by his eloquence to his point of view, and saw things with his eyes. When she came to examine the poor dragon in the cool light of her own reason it appeared at the worst to be but a pushful patent medicine of an inferior order which, on account of its cheapness and the superior American skill in distributing it, was threatening to drive Sypher's Cure off the market.
"I'll strangle it as Hercules strangled the dog-headed thing," cried Sypher.
He meant the Hydra, which wasn't dog-headed and which Hercules didn't strangle. But a man can be at once unmythological and sincere. Clem Sypher was in earnest.
"You talk as if your cure had something of a divine sanction," said Zora. This was before her conversion.
"Mrs. Middlemist, if I didn't believe that," said Sypher solemnly, "do you think I would have devoted my life to it?"
"I thought people ran these things to make money," said Zora.
It was then that Sypher entered on the exordium of the speech which convinced her of the diabolical noisomeness of the Jebusa Jones unguent. His peroration summed up the contest as that between Mithra and Ahriman.
Yet Zora, though she took a woman's personal interest in the battle between Sypher's Cure and Jebusa Jones's Cuticle Remedy, siding loyally and whole-heartedly with her astonishing host, failed to pierce to the spirituality of the man—to divine him as a Poet with an Ideal.
"After all," said Sypher on the way back—Septimus, with his coat-collar turned up over his ears, still sat on guard by the chauffeur, consoled by a happy hour he had spent alone with his mistress after lunch, while Sypher was away putting the fear of God into his agent, during which hour he had unfolded to her his scientific philosophy of perambulators—"after all," said Sypher, "the great thing is to have a Purpose in Life. Everyone can't have my Purpose "—he apologized for humanity—"but they can have some guiding principle. What's yours?"
Zora was startled by the unexpected question. What was her Purpose in Life? To get to the heart of the color of the world? That was rather vague. Also nonsensical when so formulated. She took refuge in jest.