Some changes have been made to correct typographical errors and inconsistencies.
The author's use of a mixture of US and UK English spelling has been retained.
THE CASTLE OF THE SHADOWS
Books by C. N. and A. M. WILLIAMSON
THE LIGHTNING CONDUCTOR THE PRINCESS PASSES MY FRIEND THE CHAUFFEUR LADY BETTY ACROSS THE WATER ROSEMARY IN SEARCH OF A FATHER MY LADY CINDERELLA THE CAR OF DESTINY THE CHAPERON THE PRINCESS VIRGINIA SET IN SILVER ETC., ETC.
The Castle of the Shadows By MRS. C. N. WILLIAMSON
New York Doubleday, Page & Company 1909
AUTHORIZED EDITION DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & CO.
TO A GOOD MARCHESE THIS STORY OF A WICKED MARCHESE
CHAPTER PAGE I. Where Dreamland Began 3 II. The Story Told by Two 31 III. A Mystery and a Bargain 61 IV. The Closed Door 84 V. The Lady on the Verandah 108 VI. The End of the World 134 VII. The Gates Open 158 VIII. Number 1280 178 IX. A Cry Across the Water 201 X. "Once on Board the Lugger" 224 XI. Virginia's Great Moment 248 XII. Stand and Deliver! 270 XIII. The Game of Bluff 294
THE CASTLE OF THE SHADOWS
The Castle of the Shadows
WHERE DREAMLAND BEGAN
According to the calendar it was winter; but between Mentone and the frontier town of Ventimiglia, on the white road inlaid like a strip of ivory on dark rocks above the sapphire of the Mediterranean, it was fierce summer in the sunshine. A girl riding between two men, reined in her chestnut mare at a cross-road which led into the jade-green twilight of an olive grove. The men pulled up their horses also, and all three came to a sudden halt at a bridge flung across a swift but shallow river, whose stony bed cleft the valley.
The afternoon sunshine poured down upon them, burnishing the coils of the girl's hair to gold, and giving a dazzling brilliancy to a complexion which for twenty years to come need not fear the light of day. She was gazing up the valley shut in on either side with thickly wooded hills, their rugged heads still gilded, their shoulders already half in shadow; but the eyes of the men rested only upon her. One was English, the other Italian; and it was the Italian whose look devoured her beauty, moving hungrily from the shining tendrils of gold that curled at the back of her white neck, up to the small pink ear almost hidden with a thick, rippling wave of hair; so to the piquant profile which to those who loved Virginia Beverly, was dearer than cold perfection.
"Oh, the olive woods!" she exclaimed. "How sweet they are! See the way the sunshine touches the old, gnarled trunks, and what a lovely light filters through the leaves. One never sees it anywhere except in an olive grove. I should like to live in one."
"Well, why not?" laughed the Englishman. "What prevents you from buying two or three? But you would soon tire of them, my child, as you do of everything as soon as it belongs to you."
"That's not fair," replied the girl. "Besides, if it were, who has helped to spoil me? I will buy an olive grove, and you shall see if I tire of it. Come, let's ride up the valley, and find out if there are any for sale. It looks heavenly cool after this heat."
"You'll soon discover that it's too cool," said the Italian, in perfect English. "The sun is only in these valleys for a few hours, and it's gone for the day now. Besides, there's nothing interesting here. One sees the best from where we stand."
Virginia Beverly turned her eyes upon him, and let them dwell on his face questioningly. "Of course, you must know every inch of this country," she said, "as you used to live just across the Italian border."
For once he did not answer her look. "I haven't spent much time here for several years. Paris has absorbed me," he said evasively. "One forgets a good deal; but if you want to see a really charming valley, we had better go farther on. Then I think I can show you one."
Virginia's pretty brows, which were many shades darker than her hair, drew together. "But I don't want to go farther," she said. "And I like this valley."
"Spoilt child!" ejaculated the Englishman, who claimed rights of cousinship, though by birth Virginia was American.
At that moment two members of the riding party, who had contrived to be left behind, came leisurely up. One was a very handsome, dark woman, who succeeded in looking not more than thirty, the other a young man of twenty-five, enough like Virginia to suggest that they were brother and sister.
"What are you stopping for?" inquired Lady Gardiner, who would not have been sorry to keep her friends in advance.
"Waiting for you," said Virginia promptly. "I want to explore this valley."
As she spoke she gave her mare a little pat on the velvety neck. The animal, which was Virginia's own, brought from her namesake state, had never known the touch of the whip, but understood the language of hand and voice. She went off at a trot up the shadowed road; and the Marchese Loria was the first to follow. But he bit his lip under the black moustache, pointed in military fashion at the ends, and appeared more annoyed than he need because a pretty girl had insisted upon having her own way.
It was not yet cold, as he had prophesied, but it was many degrees cooler than in the sunshine; and as they rode on the valley narrowed, the soft darkness of the olive grove closing in the white road that overhung the rock-bed of the river.
The hills rose higher, shutting out the day, and there was a brooding silence, only intensified by the hushed whisper of the water among its pebbles.
The shoulders of the heights were losing their gold glitter now; and Virginia had a curious sensation of leaving reality behind and entering a mysterious dreamland.
For a long time they rode without speaking. Then Virginia broke the spell of constraint which had fallen upon them.
"Where are the persons who gather the olives?" she asked of the Italian, who rode almost sullenly beside her.
"This isn't the time of year for that," he replied, more abruptly than was his custom in speaking to her.
"I never saw such a deserted place!" exclaimed the girl. "We have ridden ever so far into the valley now—two miles at least—and there hasn't been a sign of human habitation; not a person, not a house, except the little ruined tower we passed a few minutes ago, and that old chateau almost at the top of the hill. Look! the last rays of the sun are touching its windows before saying good-bye to the valley. Aren't they like the fiery eyes of some fierce animal glaring watchfully down at us out of the dusk?"
Pointing upward, she turned to him for approval of her fancy, and to her surprise saw him pale, as if he had been attacked with sudden illness.
"What is the matter?" she asked quickly.
"Nothing at all," he replied. "A slight chill, perhaps."
"No, there is more than that," Virginia said slowly. "I'm sure of it. I've been sure ever since we stood on the bridge looking up this valley. You wanted to go on. You could hardly bear to stop, and when I proposed riding in you made excuses."
"Only for your sake, fearing you might catch cold."
"Yet you suggested going on to another valley. Would it have been warmer than this? Oh, Marchese, I don't like you when you are subtle and secretive. It reminds me that we are of different countries—as different as the north can be from the south. Do tell me what is really in your mind. Why do you hate this valley? Why has coming into it tied your tongue, and made you look as if you had seen a ghost?"
"You exaggerate, Miss Beverly," said Loria. "But if you care to know the precise truth you shall, on one condition."
"What is it?"
"That you turn your horse's head and consent to go out into the sunshine again. When we are there I will tell you."
"No. If I hear your story, and think it worth turning back for, I will. I mean to have a nearer glimpse of that chateau. It must have a lovely view over the tops of the olive trees."
She touched the mare, who changed from a trot into a gallop. In five minutes more they would be under the castle; but almost instantly Loria, obliged to follow, had caught up with her again.
"One of the greatest sorrows of my life is connected with this valley," he answered desperately. "Now will you take pity upon me and turn round?"
Virginia hesitated. The man's voice shook. She did not know whether to yield or to feel contempt because he showed emotion so much more readily than her English and American friends. But while she hesitated they were joined by her cousin, Sir Roger Broom, who had been riding behind with her half-brother, George Trent, and Lady Gardiner.
"Look here, Loria," he exclaimed, with a certain excitement underlying his tone; "it has just occurred to me that this is—er—the place that's been nicknamed for the last few years the 'Valley of the Shadow.'"
"You are right," answered Loria. "That is why I didn't wish to come in."
Sir Roger nodded toward the chateau, which now loomed over them, gray, desolate, one half in ruins, yet picturesquely beautiful both in position and architecture. "Then that is——" he began, but the Italian cut him short.
"Yes. And won't you help me persuade Miss Beverly that we've seen enough of this valley now?"
"Why, the castle's for sale!" cried Virginia suddenly, before Roger Broom had had time to speak.
She pointed to one of the tall gate-posts at the foot of the hill, close to the road, which showed a notice-board announcing in both French and Italian that the Chateau de la Roche was to be sold, permission to view being obtainable within.
"Poor people; they must have been reduced to sad straits indeed!" murmured Sir Roger, looking at the board with its faded lettering, half defaced by time and weather.
"Yes, it was all very unfortunate, very miserable," Loria said hastily. "Shall we go back?"
The Englishman seemed hardly to hear. "I'd seen photographs of the valley, but I'd quite forgotten, until suddenly it began to look familiar. Then, all in a flash, I remembered."
"What do you remember; and why do you call this the Valley of the Shadow?" demanded Virginia. "You are both very mysterious. But perhaps it's the influence of the place. Everything seems mysterious here."
Roger Broom sighed, and roused himself with an effort from his reverie. "Queer that we should have drifted here by accident," he said—"especially with you, Loria."
"Why especially with me?" the other asked with a certain sharpness.
"You were the poor fellow's friend. Oh, Virginia, forgive me for not answering you. This place is reminiscent of tragedy. A man whom I used to know slightly, and Loria intimately, lived here. That grim old house perched up on the hillside has been the home of his ancestors for hundreds of years. Now, you see, it is for sale. But it's likely to remain so. Who would buy it?"
"Why not?" asked Virginia. "Is it haunted?"
"Only by melancholy thoughts of a family ruined, a man cut off from life at its best and brightest, to be sent into exile worse than death. By the way, Loria, do you know what became of the sister?"
"I have heard that she still lives here with an aunt and one old servant," answered the Italian, his face gray-white in the greenish dusk of the olive woods.
"Is it possible? What a life for a girl! I suppose that there is absolutely not money enough to keep up another establishment, no matter how small. Why, were there no relatives—no one to help?"
"The relatives all believed in her brother's guilt, and she would have nothing to do with them. As for help, her family is a difficult one to help. Of course it would be a good thing for her to sell the chateau."
Virginia sat her horse between the two others, impatient and curious. It was easy to see how distasteful the conversation was to the Marchese Loria. He answered Sir Roger's questions only by an effort; and as for her cousin, even he was moved out of the imperturbable sang-froid which sometimes pleased, sometimes irritated Virginia, according to her mood.
"Was it because of this young man's guilt that the place was called the Valley of the Shadow?" she asked again.
"Yes. A mere nickname, of course, though an ominous one," said Roger. "You see, the Dalahaides used to keep open house, and spend a great deal of money at one time, so that their ruin threw a gloom over the country even colder than the evening shadows. The father took his own life in shame and despair, the mother died of grief, and only a girl is left of the four who used to be so happy together."
"But what of the fourth—the brother?" In spite of herself, Virginia's voice sank, and the penetrating chill of the valley crept into her spirit.
"He is worse than dead," answered Roger evasively. "By Jove! Loria is right. It is cold here. Let us turn back."
"I should like to buy that chateau," announced the American girl, as calmly as if she had spoken of acquiring a new brooch.
"Good gracious! What next?" exclaimed Sir Roger. "But you're not in earnest, of course."
"I am in earnest," said she. "I should love to have it. It's an ideal house, set on that great rocky hill, and ringed round with olive groves. Though the sun is gone so soon from the bottom of the valley, where we are, the chateau windows are still bright. The place fascinates me. I am going to ride in and ask to see the house. Who will come with me?"
Virginia looked at the Marchese with a half-smiling challenge; but he did not speak, and Lady Gardiner's black eye gave out a flash. She was as poor as she was handsome and well-born, and her life as the American girl's chaperon was an easy one. The thought that Virginia Beverly might make up her mind to become the Marchesa Loria was disagreeable to Kate Gardiner, and she was glad that the Italian should displease the spoilt beauty.
"I'll go with you, dear, if you are really bent on the adventure," said the elder woman.
"Forgive me, Miss Beverly. But I—once knew these people. I could not go into their house on such an errand. They would think I had come to spy on their misfortune," protested Loria miserably.
"I knew them too," said Roger Broom, "and I'll stay down here and keep Loria company."
Lady Gardiner looked at George Trent, with whom she was having an amusing flirtation, which would certainly have been more than amusing if he had been only a quarter as rich as his half-sister.
"I'll take you and Virgie up to the door, anyhow," he responded to the look, and springing from his horse, he pushed open the tall gate of rusty iron.
Then, mounting again, the three passed between the gray stone gate-posts with an ancient carved escutcheon obliterated with moss and lichen. They rode along the grass-grown avenue which wound up the hill among the cypresses and olive trees, coming out at last, as they neared the chateau, from shadow into a pale, chastened sunshine which among the gray-green trees had somewhat the effect of moonlight.
"Have you ever heard of the Dalahaides?" Virginia demanded of her chaperon.
"If I have, I've forgotten," said Lady Gardiner. "And yet there does seem to be a dim memory of something strange hovering at the back of my brain."
They were above the grove now, on a terrace with a perspective of ruined garden, whence the battered faces of ancient statues peeped out, yellow-white from behind overgrown rose bushes and heliotrope. The chateau was before them, the windows still reflecting the sunlight; but this borrowed glitter was all the brightness it had. Once beautiful, the old battlemented house had an air of proud desolation, as if scorning pity, since it could no longer win admiration.
"You would have to spend thousands of pounds in restoring this old ruin if you should really buy it, Virginia," said Lady Gardiner.
"Well, wouldn't it be worth while to spend them?" asked the girl. "I certainly——" She stopped in the midst of her sentence, a bright flush springing to her face; for turning a corner of the avenue which brought them close to the chateau, they came suddenly upon a young woman, dressed in black, who must have heard their last words.
Instantly George Trent had his hat in his hand, and before Virginia could speak he had dismounted and plunged into explanations. He begged pardon for the intrusion, and said that, as they had seen the announcement that the chateau was for sale, they had ventured to ride up in the hope of being allowed to see the house. As he spoke, in fairly good though rather laboured French, he smiled on the girl in black with a charming smile, very like Virginia's. And Lady Gardiner looked from one to the other gravely. She was not as pleased as she had been that George Trent had come here with them, for the girl in the shabby black dress had a curiously arresting, if not beautiful face, and her surroundings, the background of the desolate castle, and the circumstances of the meeting, framed her in romance.
Lady Gardiner did not like the alacrity with which Trent had snatched off his hat and sprung from his horse, nor did she approve of the expression in his eyes, though Virginia's were just as eager.
To the surprise of all three, the girl answered in English; not the English of a French jeune fille, instructed by an imported "Miss," but the English of an Englishwoman, pure and sweet, though the voice was sad and lifeless. Her melancholy dark eyes, deep and sombre as mountain tarns, wandered from the brother's handsome face to the beautiful one of the sister.
"Pray don't speak of an intrusion," she said. "Our servant will be glad to show you through the house, and afterward, if you really think of buying the place, he will give you the address of an agent in Mentone who can tell you everything."
"Then shan't we find you again when we have seen the chateau?" asked Virginia wistfully.
The girl smiled for the first time, but there was no brightness in the smile. "I shall be very pleased to speak with you before you go if there is anything you care to say to me," she replied, mechanically raising the great bunch of heliotrope she had been gathering to her lips.
"Now I will call our servant. He will put up your horses while you go in; though I'm afraid that we have no very good accommodation for them, as our stables have been empty for a long time."
"Oh, thank you, we needn't give him that trouble," said Trent. "I can fasten the horses' bridles to some tree or other, and they will be all right."
The girl disappeared, a slender, youthful figure in the plain black gown, yet her step, though it was not slow, had none of the lithsomeness of youth. She seemed to have lost all joy of life, though she could scarcely have been more than twenty-two or three.
"Another mystery!" Virginia said in a low voice. "How comes she to be English? Is she the girl they were talking about down below, or is she a companion?"
"She looks like a banished princess," said Trent. "I never saw such wonderful eyes. Deep as a well, reflecting a night of stars."
Lady Gardiner's lips tightened a little. She was rather vain of her eyes. "I think the girl would appear a very ordinary young person," she remarked, "if one saw her anywhere but here."
George lifted her down from the horse without answering, but Virginia did not wait to be helped. She sprang to the ground, and by the time that George had tethered the horses an old man in a faded livery came limping out from the side door through which the girl in black had lately disappeared.
Almost crippled with rheumatism, he had still all the dignity of a trusted servant of an ancient house, and his old eyes seemed gravely to defy these prosperous young people to criticize his threadbare clothing.
"Mademoiselle" had desired him to take monsieur and mesdames over the chateau, he politely announced in French, and went on to beg that they would give themselves the trouble of being conducted to the door at the front, that they might go in by the great hall. He also regretted that the visitors had not arrived earlier in the day, as the rooms could not be seen at their best advantage so near to sunset.
Virginia's heart began to beat oddly as she entered the house. She had still the feeling of having left realities behind and strayed into dreamland; but with the opening of the heavy door it seemed to her that the dream was about to change into a vision which would mean something for her future.
Of course it was all nonsense, she told herself, as the old man led them across the shadowy, tapestry-hung hall, and from one huge, dim, wainscotted or frescoed room to another; yet always, as they approached a doorway, she caught herself thinking—"Now a strange thing is going to happen."
"This is the state drawing-room; this is the library; this is the chapel; this is the bride's suite," the servant announced laconically. But though the castle was evidently very ancient and must have a private history of its own, centuries old, he offered no garrulous details of past grandeur, as most servants would. As they walked through a dining-room of magnificent proportions, but meagrely furnished, they passed a half-open door, and Virginia had a glimpse of a charming little room with a huge projecting window. Mechanically she paused, then drew away quickly as she saw that mademoiselle was seated at a table arranging the flowers she had gathered in the melancholy garden. The old man hobbled on, as if the door had not existed, and Virginia would have followed, had not the girl in black stepped forward and invited them in, with a certain proud humility.
"This is our sitting-room—my aunt's and mine," she said. "My aunt is not here now, so come in, if you will. It is a small room; still, it is one of the brightest and most home-like we have left."
She held open the door, and the three visitors obeyed her gesture of invitation; but suddenly the girl's face changed. The blood streamed up to her forehead, then ebbed again, leaving her marble-pale. She gave a slight start, as if she would have changed her mind and kept the strangers from entering; yet she made no motion to arrest them.
"She has just remembered something in this room that she doesn't wish us to see," thought Virginia; but it was too late to retreat, without drawing attention to an act which she could not explain. They all went in, the others apparently suspecting nothing; but in a second Virginia instinctively guessed the reason of her hostess's sudden constraint, and the sympathetic thrill that ran through her own veins surprised her. In a panel of the darkly wainscotted and curiously gilded wall was placed a life-size portrait of a man. It was an oil-painting, defective in technique, perhaps, but so spirited, so extraordinarily lifelike as to give an effect, at first glance in the twilight, as if a handsome young man were just stepping in through an open door. Virginia seemed to meet the brilliant, audacious eyes; the frank, almost boyish smile was for her; and—whether because of the half-told story of this strange house, or because of the brave young splendour of the figure in the portrait—her heart gave a bound such as it had never yet given for a man.
She did not need to be told that this was the counterfeit presentment of him who, in some mysterious way, had brought ruin upon those who loved him; and suddenly she understood the full meaning of Loria's words when he had said, "The relatives all believed in his guilt, so his sister would have nothing to do with them."
Virginia Beverly, headstrong, wilful, passionate, was only superficially spoilt by the flattery which had been her daily diet as a great beauty and a great heiress. She was impulsive, but her impulses were true and often unselfish. Now her warm heart went out to meet the loyal heart of the pale, sad girl in black, whom an hour ago she had never seen, whose very name she had not known. "She is right to believe in him," Virginia said to herself. "Loyalty is the finest virtue of all. I believe in him too. Whatever crime they say he committed, I'm sure he was innocent. What—a criminal, with that face? It's not possible, and I wish I could tell her so."
She could scarcely tear her eyes from the portrait, though she feared to let her interest be observed, lest it should unjustly be put down to vulgar curiosity. And when the old man who conducted them, having met and answered a quick glance from his mistress, invited the visitors to continue their tour of inspection, Virginia left her thoughts behind in the room of the portrait, walking as in a dream through the series of lofty, half-dismantled apartments which still remained to be visited.
She hoped that, when they should see their hostess again for the promised leave-taking, it would be in the same room as before. But she was doomed to disappointment. Mademoiselle met the party in the great hall, and, hearing from George Trent that his sister thought seriously of buying the chateau, gave them the address of an estate agent in Mentone.
Virginia was not a self-centred girl, and at any other time she would have been surprised at the encouragement given to this new whim of hers by her half-brother; she would have sought some underlying cause, for George Trent—who was her mother's son by a first marriage—was nearly five years older than she, and rather piqued himself upon influencing her to ways of wisdom. But now, though he extolled the charms of the Chateau de la Roche, and made light of the expenses of restoration, as they rode down the avenue under the olive trees, Virginia was too much occupied with the mystery of the house and the portrait's original to observe the young man's manner. It did not escape Lady Gardiner's observation, however, and her thoughts were troubled.
She was thirty-six and George Trent was ten years younger; but she confessed to twenty-nine, and really did not look more, except when certain worries, which she usually kept in the background, pressed heavily upon her. For a year, ever since Virginia had left America for England and the Continent, she had lived with the sister and brother, and had been reaping a harvest almost literally of gold and diamonds. She did not want Virginia to marry and free herself from chaperonage; and if she could not marry George Trent herself, since he was neither old enough nor rich enough, she could not bear the thought that he might forget his passing admiration for her, and fall seriously in love with some one else.
She, too, was curious concerning mademoiselle and her past, but with a very different curiosity from Virginia's, and she determined to learn the story of the Dalahaides and their chateau above the Valley of the Shadow. She did not, however, wish to appear curious before Virginia or her brother, and hoped that the American girl, with her wonted audacity, would at once approach the topic when they had rejoined Sir Roger Broom and the Marchese Loria. But Virginia asked no questions, contenting herself with answering those of her cousin, which for some reason confined themselves entirely to the chateau. Lady Gardiner was sure, since he admitted having known the Dalahaides, that, being human, Roger would have liked to hear something of the girl who lived there like Mariana in the Moated Grange; and it would have been interesting to know why he refrained from mentioning her.
As they rode through the valley, dark and sad now, in the chill of its early dusk, she brought her horse to Virginia's side in so narrow a defile of the road that Roger, who was with the girl, dropped behind.
"Have you noticed that the Marchese hasn't asked us a single question about your chateau?" she remarked. "He is a changed man since we came into this valley. I wonder if there was ever anything between him and that tragic-looking girl up there? Perhaps Sir Roger knows, and that's the reason he didn't speak of her."
"Perhaps," echoed Virginia listlessly, and Kate Gardiner said no more.
An odd restraint seemed to have settled on the whole party, which had started out so gaily in the sunshine. Each one was sunk deep in his or her own thoughts, as if the twilight had touched them with its delicate melancholy.
They were stopping at the Cap Martin hotel, high on the hill in its beautiful garden, and among its pines; and there was a dance that night, for which Virginia had promised Loria several waltzes; but she complained that the ride had tired her.
Instead of dancing she went after dinner to the private sitting-room which she and Lady Gardiner shared, having quietly asked Roger Broom if he would come to her there for a few minutes. He found her, not in the room, but on the balcony, in floods of moonlight, which gave her beauty an unearthly charm as she lay on a chaise longue, wrapped in an evening cloak of white and silver brocade.
"You don't mind leaving the dance a little while—for me?" she asked.
Roger smiled his quiet, pleasant smile. "There's nothing in the world I would mind leaving for you, Virginia," he said, "and I think you know that very well."
"Sometimes I believe it's true. I should like to believe it to-night," she answered, "because I need your help. There's a secret, and I must find it out."
As the girl spoke there was a slight sound in the room beyond the big, open window.
"What's that?" exclaimed Roger. "Who is there?"
"Nobody," said Virginia. "It must be a log of olive-wood falling in the fireplace."
THE STORY TOLD BY TWO
Roger waited. He knew that Virginia was gathering her forces together, and that he might expect the unexpected.
"I want you to tell me all about that girl in mourning who lives at the Chateau de la Roche," she said after a moment; "and what her brother did."
Roger was slow in answering. "It's not a pleasant story for your ears. I was sorry this afternoon that I had spoken even as freely as I did about it before you. Loria took me to task rather, after you'd gone up to the chateau, and he was right. By Jove! Virginia, I believe that if I'd said nothing, the idea of buying the place would never have occurred to you."
"Perhaps not," she admitted. "But it has occurred to me, and once I have an idea in my head I keep it tenaciously—as all my long-suffering friends know to their sorrow. Will you go to-morrow to the agent whose address I have and make inquiries?"
"Certainly, if you wish."
"Oh, you think if no one thwarts me, I'll get over the fancy. But I won't! I'm going to have that chateau among the olive trees for mine if it costs me fifty thousand pounds (which it won't, I know), even if I only live in it for one month out of five years. The thing is, to feel it's my own. So now, you see, as the place is practically my property, naturally I'd like to know something of the people who have been its owners."
"I don't see why. When one buys a house one doesn't usually agitate oneself much about the family history of one's predecessors."
"Roger, you know this is different. I want you and no one to else tell me. Still, if you won't——"
"Oh, if you insist you must be gratified, I suppose, up to certain limits. What do you want to know?"
"H'm! Rather too large an order, my child. However, to begin with, the Dalahaides of the Chateau de la Roche were English in the last generation, but the family is of French origin. When the last member of the French branch died, a banker in London was the next heir. He gave the chateau and the Dalahaide house in Paris as a wedding present to his son, who was about to be married. The bride and bridegroom came over on their honeymoon, and took such a fancy to the chateau that they made their home there, or rather between it and the old house in Paris. This young couple had in time a son, and then a daughter. Perhaps you saw the daughter to-day?"
"Yes, it was she. You didn't ask me about her before."
"No; the fact is, I thought that further conversation on the subject would be too painful for poor Loria. You must have seen that he was upset."
"I couldn't help seeing. But go on."
"Well, the father and mother and their two children were a most devoted family. They were all handsome and clever and popular, and if they were not millionaires, they were extravagant, for they gave delightful entertainments here and in Paris, and their purses were open for any one who wished to dip in his fingers.
"The son Maxime, always called Max, inherited his father's generous, reckless, extravagant ways. He was drawn into the fastest set in Paris, and lost a lot of money at baccarat. That wouldn't have mattered much, perhaps, if at the same time some large investments of the father's hadn't gone wrong and crippled the family resources. Then, as misfortunes generally come in crowds, there was a slight earthquake along this part of the coast, and the chateau was partly ruined, as you saw to-day, for they were not able then to have it restored. 'Next year,' they said; but there was no next year for the Dalahaides. Only a few months after the first two blows came the third, which was to crush the family for ever. Max Dalahaide was accused of murder, tried, and condemned."
"What—he is dead, then? I thought you said—I——" Virginia's heart gave so sudden and violent a bound that she stammered, and grew red and white under the revealing moonlight. She was thinking of the portrait—seeing it again, looking into the eyes which had seemed to speak. Dead! Executed as a murderer! The thought was horrible; it stifled her.
"No, he is not dead," answered Roger gravely; "at least, if he is I haven't heard of it. But—if he still exists—one can't call it living—he must have wished a hundred times a day to die and be out of his misery. Perhaps death has come to him. It might, and I not have known; for from out of the pit which has engulfed him, seldom an echo reaches the world above."
"Roger, you frighten me! What do you mean?" the girl exclaimed.
"Forgive me, child. I forgot for a moment, and was thinking aloud. I don't often forget you, do I? I said to-day that Max Dalahaide was dead in life. That is true. Family influence, the tremendous eloquence of a man engaged to plead his cause, the fact that Max insisted upon his innocence, while the evidence was entirely circumstantial, saved him from the guillotine, which I believe he would have preferred, in his desperation. He was sent to that Hades upon earth, New Caledonia, a prisoner for life."
"But—he was English!"
"No. His parents had been English, but he, having been born in France, was a French subject. He had even served his time in the army. Naturally he was amenable to French law; and he is buried alive in Noumea, the most terrible prison in the world."
"And he was innocent!"
Roger, who had been gazing out over the sea, turned a surprised look upon Virginia.
"No! He was not innocent," he said quickly. "Everything proved his guilt. It is impossible that he should have been innocent."
"His sister believed in him."
"Yes, his sister. What does that prove? The father thought him guilty, and killed himself. As for the mother—who knows? At all events, she died—broken-hearted. Every penny the family possessed, after their great losses, went for Maxime's defense; but, except that his life was saved, it was in vain."
"You knew him—he was your friend—yet you believed in his guilt?"
"I hardly knew him well enough to call myself a friend. I admired him, certainly Max Dalahaide was the handsomest, wittiest, most fascinating fellow I ever met. Neither man nor woman could resist him, if he set out to conquer. Loria and he were like brothers; yet Loria thought with the rest of the world. He can't be blamed for disloyalty, either, for really there was nothing else to think, if one used one's reason."
"If he had been my friend, I would not have used my reason!" exclaimed Virginia. "What is the use of reason, when one has instinct?—and that is never wrong. But it is good of you to defend the Marchese, for I know you don't like him."
"Don't I?" echoed Roger. "If I don't, I'm afraid it is because you do. You won't have me, dear; you've told me that, and I don't mean to bother you again; but I'm weak enough to be jealous when I think there's danger of your saying 'Yes' to anybody else."
"I don't know that there is any such danger in this case," said Virginia. "But the Marchese is very handsome, and rather romantic, and he sings like an angel. Oh, yes, I am almost in love with him when he sings—or I was till yesterday. And how he dances! It's poetry. When I am waltzing with the Marchese Loria I invariably make up my mind that I will accept him next time he asks. Then, afterward, something holds me back. To-day, in that valley of shadows, he affected me quite differently. It was as if—as if the shadows had shut down between us. I saw him in the shadow, his features changed—repellent. As the French say, he 'made me horror.' Yet I didn't know why. Now I begin to understand. It was my precious instinct warning me, saying: 'This man is disloyal. Don't trust him.'"
"You are unjust," said Roger. "I should like to let you misjudge him, but I can't be a bounder, you know. He really behaved extremely well in the Dalahaide affair. The man couldn't believe, against a mountain of evidence; nevertheless, he did what he could for his friend, guilty as he thought him. All this happened four years ago, when you were a demure little schoolgirl—if you ever could have been demure!—in your own Virginia, not allowed even to hear of, much less read, the great newspaper scandals of the moment. I can't remember every detail of the affair, but it was said to be largely through Loria's efforts that Max was saved from capital punishment for his crime."
"You haven't told me yet what that crime was."
"Yes. I have said it was murder."
"Ah! but that is only a crude statement. I ask for the story."
"You won't have it from me, my child," answered Roger coolly. "I'm not a sensation-monger. It was a horrid affair, and one doesn't talk of such things to little girls. You know all from me that you will know. Buy your chateau, if you choose. You've money enough to squander on twenty such toys and not miss it. No doubt poor Madeleine Dalahaide will be benefited by the exchange—her castle for your money. Fortunate for her, perhaps, that she is the last of the French Dalahaides, and has the right to sell the chateau."
"You will tell me nothing more?"
"Then I will tell you one thing. I believe that the man was innocent. I have seen his portrait. I have seen his sister. That is enough for me. But what you will not tell me I shall learn for myself, and then—and then—you shall see what you shall see."
* * * * *
Virginia slept restlessly that night. In her dreams she was always in the Valley of the Shadow, striving to find her way out into the sunlight; and sometimes the valley seemed but the entrance to that bottomless pit of shame where Maxime Dalahaide was entombed. She awoke from a dream forgotten, in a spasm of cold fear, before it was dawn, and switching on the electric light near the bed, she drew her watch from under the pillow. It was just six o'clock; and for a few moments Virginia lay still, thinking over the events of yesterday. After all, what did they mean for her? Nothing, said Reason; everything, said a Voice to which she could give no name.
Suddenly her heart began to beat quickly with the excitement of a strange thought that seemed to spring out of herself, and then turn to face her. It pushed the girl from her bed, and she rose, shivering; for even here at Cap Martin it was cold in the early morning before the vivid sun had warmed the air.
She was used to lying in bed until a fire of fragrant pine cones and olive wood crackled on the hearth, and her own maid had filled the bath in the bathroom adjoining. But now she bathed in the cold, dressing herself in her riding-habit, and even arranging her hair without help. By seven her toilet was made, and, turning off the electric light, she found that the sky was pink and golden with the winter sunrise.
The girl rang for coffee, and ordered her horse to be ready. She and Kate Gardiner never met before ten o'clock, at earliest; thus three hours would pass before any one save her maid would begin to wonder where she was; and for the maid she would leave a line of explanation, mentioning that she had gone out on business, and that nothing was to be said unless Lady Gardiner inquired.
Virginia had a ride of nearly two hours before she could reach the destination she had planned; but neither the fresh air, the beauty of the scene, nor the exercise which she loved, could calm the fever in her blood. It was as if some power stronger than herself pushed her on; and though she had always been too healthy in mind and body to suffer from superstition, she now believed, half fearfully, that such an influence had possession of her.
"What is the matter with me?" she asked. "I am no longer myself. It is as if I were only an instrument in hands that use me as they will. Why do I go this morning to the Chateau de la Roche? I don't know. I don't know what I shall say to excuse myself when I am there. Yet, somehow, the words will come to me—I feel it."
For it was to the chateau above the Valley of the Shadow that she was going.
When she reached the gates, half-way up the slope of the wooded hill which the whole party had climbed together yesterday, suddenly the nervous exaltation that had carried her courageously so far, broke like a violin string too tightly drawn. She was horrified at her own boldness. She half turned back; then, setting her lips together, she slipped down from her saddle and opened the gate.
This morning no slim, black-clad figure moved among the wilderness of neglected flowers. Virginia tethered her mare, ascended the two or three stone steps, and struck the mailed glove of iron which formed the knocker on the oak of the door. Its echoes went reverberating through wide, empty spaces, and for some moments she stood trembling at her audacity. She said to herself that she could not knock again. If no one answered the last summons she would take it as a sign that she ought not to have come, and she would steal away. But just as the limit of time she mentally set had passed, and she was in the act of turning from the door, it opened.
The servant who had guided Virginia and her friends through the house the day before appeared, his pale, dignified old face showing such evident signs of surprise that the American girl, who had never flinched before any one or anything, stammered and blushed as she asked for Mademoiselle Dalahaide.
The old man politely ushered her in, but he was unable to hide his embarrassment. Mademoiselle should be informed at once, if she were at home, but, in fact, it was possible—— He hesitated, and Virginia saw well that he prepared a way of escape for his young mistress in case she wished to avoid the unexpected caller.
"Pray tell mademoiselle that—that——" Virginia began. She had meant to finish by saying that her business was urgent. But—supposing when she found herself face to face with the girl in black, the fugitive desires which had dragged her here refused to be clothed in coherent words?
As the servant waited respectfully for the end of the message, a door which Virginia remembered as leading into the family chapel suddenly opened. Mademoiselle Dalahaide came slowly out, her head bent, her long black dress sweeping the stone floor of the hall in sombre folds. She did not see the stranger at first; but a faint ejaculation from the lips of the old Frenchman caused the dark head to be quickly raised.
The eyes of the two girls met. Mademoiselle Dalahaide drew back a little, her tragically arresting face unlighted by a smile. She looked the question that she did not speak; but she gave the American no greeting, and there was something of displeasure or distrust in her level, searching look.
The moment which Virginia had dreaded, yet sought for, had come. All self-consciousness left her. She went to meet the other in an eager, almost childlike way.
"Do forgive me," she said in English. "I had to come. I could not sleep last night. I got up before any one else was awake, because I—because I wanted so much to see you, that I couldn't wait: and I wanted to come to you alone."
Madeleine Dalahaide's faint frown relaxed. Virginia in that mood was irresistible, even to a woman. Still the girl in black did not smile. She had almost forgotten that it was necessary and polite to force a smile for strangers. She had been so much alone, she and sorrow had grown so intimate, that she had become almost primitively sincere. The ordinary, pleasant little hypocrisies of the society in which she had once lived during what now seemed another state of existence, no longer existed for her.
Nevertheless, she was not discourteous. "You are kind to have taken this trouble," she said. "It is something about the chateau, no doubt—some questions which perhaps you forgot to ask yesterday?"
The old man, who understood not a word of English, had discreetly and noiselessly retired, now that fate had taken the management of the situation from his hands. The two girls were alone in the great hall, the chapel door still open behind Madeleine Dalahaide, giving her a background of red and purple light from a stained-glass window.
"No," Virginia answered. "If I said that business about the chateau brought me, it would be merely an excuse. It would make things easier for me in beginning, but—I wish to say to you only things that are really true. I came because—because I want to help you."
The white oval of the other's face was suddenly suffused with scarlet. The dark head was lifted on the slender throat.
"Thank you," she said coldly. "But I am not in need of help. If that is your reason for thinking of buying this house, I beg——"
"But it is not my reason. What can I say that you won't misunderstand? There is one whom you love. Just now you were praying for him in that chapel. I know it. You were praying to God to help him, weren't you? What if I should be an instrument sent you to be used for that purpose?"
The tragic eyes stared at the eager, beautiful face, dazed and astonished.
Virginia went on, not seeming to choose her words, but letting them flow as they would.
"I know how you have suffered. It is only a little while that I have known, but it seems long, very long. I have seen his portrait, and partly I came up to tell you this morning that I believe in his innocence; partly that, but most of all I came to say that he must be saved."
"Saved?" echoed Madeleine Dalahaide. "But that is not possible. Only death can save him now."
Neither had uttered a name; neither was aware that it had not been spoken by the other. For Madeleine always, for Virginia in this hour, one name rang through the world. There was no need to give it form. And, strangely, Madeleine was no longer surprised at Virginia's mission. Perhaps, indeed, she believed her an incarnate answer to prayer; and in a moment all conventionalities had crumbled to pieces at their feet.
"Why do you say that?" cried the American girl. "Prisoners are released sometimes."
"Not life-prisoners at Noumea," replied the other; and the answer fell desolately on Virginia's ear. Yet the thought, lit into life by her own words, as a flame is lighted by striking a match, had given her courage which would not die.
"Then he will be the first," she said. "I have been thinking. Oh! it has all been very vague—a kind of dream. But now I see everything clearly. Time unravels mysteries not easily solved at first. His innocence must be proved. Powerful friends shall give all their thoughts, all their ingenuity——"
"We have no friends," Madeleine answered bitterly.
"You have one friend. You have me."
Then at last a sense of the strangeness of this scene rushed in a wave over the consciousness of the lonely dweller in the castle.
"I don't understand," she said slowly. "Yesterday we had never met. I only knew your name because you spoke of buying this poor, sad home of mine. I——"
"Neither do I understand," broke in Virginia. "But I have never understood myself. I only know that this seems to be the thing I was born for. And if I fail in what I want to do for you and yours, why, I shall have come into the world for nothing, that is all."
"But you are wonderful!" exclaimed Madeleine Dalahaide, realizing with sudden force the other's extreme beauty and strong magnetism. "Did you—is it possible that you ever knew my brother?"
"I never heard his name till yesterday. But I have seen you, I have seen this house, I have heard something of the story, and—I have seen his portrait. Nobody told me, of course, that it was his; nobody could. But I knew at once. And I wondered how any one who had ever known him could have believed that—that——"
"Don't be afraid to say it. Believed that he was a murderer. Oh, friends—friends! Friendship is a flower that withers with the first frost."
"You shan't have cause to think that of me—if you are going to take me for a friend."
"I shall thank heaven for you. Even if you can do nothing, to think that there is one human being in the world besides my poor aunt and me who believe in him, is like balm on an open wound. Come with me into the room where you saw the portrait. I painted it the year before—the end. I talk to it sometimes, and for a moment I almost forget the horrible truth—when the eyes smile back at me just as they used to do when we had some joke together."
"As they will again," finished Virginia.
They went into the room of the portrait and stood before it in silence. Each one felt that its look was for her.
"And yet," Madeleine said, as if answering a question, "there must be some one who thinks of us, and remembers us with kindness, giving him at least the benefit of a doubt; some one who talked to you of Max and told you the story of—of his so-called crime in such a way as not to fill your mind with horror."
"No one has told me the story yet," hesitated Virginia. "I have only heard hints. They said—the word—murder! But that is not the face of a murderer. How could any one believe it?"
"You don't know—the story?"
Virginia shook her head.
"When you know it, you will turn away from us, as every one else has."
"No—no! Be sure I will not."
"How can I be sure? Ah, almost all the solace of hope has gone now! You will hear the horrible details, and—that will be the end."
Virginia caught the slender, cold fingers that twisted together nervously. "Tell me yourself," she cried. "Tell me all—you, his sister. Then you will see how I shall bear it, and whether I shall fail you."
Madeleine Dalahaide's breath came unevenly. For a moment she could not speak. Then she began, her eyes not on Virginia, but on the portrait.
"There was a woman," she said in a low, choked voice. "She was an actress. Max was in love with her, or thought he was. She was handsome. I have seen her on the stage. Other men besides Max were mad about her. But she seemed to care for him. He wanted to marry her, and when father and mother didn't approve, he quarrelled with them, for the first time in his life. We had always been so happy before that—so united. Everything began to go wrong with my poor Max then. He played cards at his club, and lost a great deal of money. And as if that were not enough, father's losses came. He could do nothing for Max. Besides, the woman Max loved made him jealous. He suspected that she cared for somebody else. He told me that the last time I saw him before—the terrible thing happened. But he didn't tell the man's name. Perhaps he didn't know him. We had a long talk, for I had been his friend and confidante through all. I didn't want him to marry the woman; but even that would be better than to have him miserable, as he said he must be without her. And it was the next night that the murder was committed. But it was not known until the day after."
"Was it—the man of whom he was jealous who was murdered?"
"No, the woman, Liane Devereux. She had been shot—in the face. Oh, it was horrible! It is horrible now to talk to you of it. Her features were so destroyed that she could be recognized only by her hair, which was golden-red, and her figure—her beautiful figure which all the world admired so much. Even her hands—she must have held them up before her face, the poor creature, instinctively trying to save herself, to preserve her beauty, for they, too, were shattered. Her jewels were all gone, and she had had many jewels. Soon the police discovered that they had been pawned. And Max was accused of pawning them, to get money to pay gambling debts."
"How could they accuse him of that?"
"He really had pawned them, at her request. She wanted money, and would not listen to his objections to getting it in that way. He had pawned them on the day of the murder, and still had the tickets, which he had forgotten to enclose with the money for the jewels, when he sent it to Mademoiselle Devereux. She had asked him to pawn the things in his name, so that hers could be protected, and, of course, that went dreadfully against Max. He couldn't possibly prove, when the woman was dead, that he had pawned the jewels for her, because the money he had raised had disappeared. He would have taken it to her himself, but on returning to his own flat from the pawnbroker's he received a strange letter saying that she hated him, and never wished to see him again. It was all quite sudden, and Max was angry. Still, he might have gone, insisting that she should tell him what she meant by such a letter, but he had arranged a hurried journey to England. They arrested him on the way. He was going there in the hope of borrowing some money from his godfather, a cousin of ours, who had told Max that if at any time he should be in difficulties he must apply to him. But what proof had Max of his own intentions? Every one thought that he was escaping to England to hide himself, after having committed a cowardly murder.
"There were other bits of evidence against him, too; for instance, the revolver with which the woman was shot was his, with a silver monogram on it. Everybody—even the best of his friends—believed him guilty. And father—poor father!—but I can't talk about that part. It is too cruel. Oh, you are pale, and changed! I knew it would be so. You are like the rest. But how could I expect anything else when you have heard such a story? Everything against him—nothing in his favour. Even Max himself was dazed. Over and over again he said that he had no explanation to give of the mystery."
"There is only one explanation, since he was innocent—and I'm as sure of that as before," said Virginia firmly. "It was a diabolically clever plot, planned with fiendish ingenuity, to ruin your brother—all your family, perhaps."
"Hundreds of times I have thought of that," sighed Madeleine Dalahaide. "Many, many times I spoke of it to the man who defended Max at his trial. But there was no one it would be reasonable to suspect. We had absolutely no enemy. Max had none. Everybody adored him—in his happy days."
"The man whom Liane Devereux loved better than your brother?"
"Ah, but you must see, as the advocate saw, that if she loved the other better he had no motive either to kill the woman or ruin Max. Where there had been no injury, there need be no revenge. And if Max knew who the man was he never told his name."
"There was nobody—nobody who had a right to think himself injured by your brother, even long before?"
"Not by my brother, so far as we could find out. The theory of a plot was advanced, of course, and—and I clung to it; but it fell to the ground. There seemed nothing to support it."
"And yet, from the way you speak, I can't help thinking that you suspect some one."
"Oh, I! But I am only a woman. I was a very young girl then. Every one I spoke to—even Max—thought my idea a mad one, and said it would do our case far more harm than good to have it mentioned."
"Tell me, won't you, what it was?"
Madeleine hesitated. "I dare not," she answered. "My reason says that the thing is impossible. If I wrong the man, it would be shameful to create a prejudice in your mind against one, no doubt a stranger to you, but whom you might one day meet, and, meeting, remember my words. Besides, it can do no good to speak. It would be hopeless to prove anything against him, even if his hand had been in a plot."
"Yet you said that your brother had no enemy?"
"This man was my enemy. It had not always been so. Once we were friends. But—something happened, and afterward I think he hated me."
"Is it possible that you are speaking of the Marchese Loria?"
The question sprang from Virginia's lips before she had stopped to reflect whether it were wise to ask it, and she was terrified at the effect of her impulsive words.
Madeleine Dalahaide's pale, sad face became ashen, her great eyes dilated, and there was something of fear, perhaps even of distrust, in the look she turned upon Virginia.
"You know him?" she exclaimed, her voice suddenly sharp.
"Yes," admitted the American girl.
"Then I think that you and I cannot be friends."
"Not friends? But if I give up the Marchese Loria for you?"
"I do not ask or wish you to do that."
"If he is your enemy he shall not be my friend."
"I have not said he was my enemy."
"I have heard that he loved your brother dearly."
"What of yesterday?"
"He was with us when we rode into the valley. He turned pale, and begged not to come, because the place, he said, was connected with a great sorrow in his life."
"He would not meet me face to face! Did he suggest that you should try to save my brother?"
"No, he did not speak his name before me. He does not know what is in my mind. No one knows yet but you. It was my cousin, Roger Broom, who met you long ago, and told me that the Marchese Loria had done much to save your brother's life."
"It may be that he did. I don't deny it. But if you are to be my friend I ask you this: say nothing of Maxime Dalahaide to Loria."
A MYSTERY AND A BARGAIN
Lady Gardiner stood at Virginia's door, remained for a moment undecided, then tapped gently. The girl's voice answered "Come in!" and Kate obeyed.
Virginia sat at a small writing-table in a window reading a book; but at sight of Lady Gardiner she snatched up a paper and hastily laid it over the volume. "Oh, I thought it was George," she exclaimed, blushing brilliantly. "He has asked me to take a walk."
"Now," thought Kate, "what has that book she's hiding from me to do with the mystery that's been going on for the past three days?" but aloud, she said, without appearing to notice the hurried movement or the tell-tale blush: "I came to ask if you would go down to town with me for a little shopping."
"I'm afraid I can't," Virginia answered. "You see—er—I promised George."
"Perhaps he wouldn't mind if we arranged for him to meet us in about an hour; and we might all three have tea together at Rumpelmayer's."
Virginia looked embarrassed, which was unusual for her. "We didn't think of going into Mentone," she said. "We shall just stroll about, for the fact is, we've business to talk over."
"You seem to have had a great deal of business to talk over these last few days, you and Mr. Trent and Sir Roger. Would it be indiscreet to ask, dear child, if there has been any hitch about the purchase of your new toy? Oh, don't look vexed—your chateau, then?"
"No, there's been no hitch. What made you think that?"
"Well, business talks are so new for you. A little while ago you fled from the first hint of business. But now—you are very much changed these last few days, since we went to the chateau, Virginia. I've been wanting to speak to you about it. However, you are going out to walk, and I must wait."
Virginia met her eyes firmly; yet the violet gaze was not quite as frankly open and childlike as it used to be. "You needn't wait, if your shopping can," she said. "Do sit down. I dare say it may be twenty minutes before George comes for me. He's with Roger—somewhere."
"Yes, I saw them. Virginia, do you know, I've been rather unhappy for several days?"
"I didn't know. I'm very sorry. Is it anything I've done?"
"Yes and no." Kate did not sit down, but perched on the arm of a big cushioned chair between the writing-desk and the dressing-table. "You see, dear," she went on in her softest voice, to which she could give a pretty, tearful tremolo at will, "I'm in rather a peculiar position. You have been so sweet all this year and more that we've been together, that I suppose you've spoilt me. I've forgotten often that I'm only a paid chaperon, and have felt like a friend and confidante."
"Why, so you are," returned Virginia.
"Wait, dear; let me finish. I've told you my various troubles, and you've told me things, too. Now, suddenly, everything is changed. Why, you even sit in your bedroom, instead of in our sitting-room, or on the balcony with me, as you used. You don't seem to want my society; you make excuses if I suggest going anywhere. You and your brother and cousin are continually getting away by yourselves and talking in whispers. Oh, I'm not hurt. It isn't that. I'm not so thin-skinned and stupid. But I've been thinking that perhaps I'd offended you, or you were simply tired of me, and, being kind-hearted, didn't like to send me about my business. You know, dear, if you would rather have any one else——"
"Oh, Kate, you are stupid!" cried Virginia. "Of course I'm not tired of you. We really have had business—not about the chateau. I—didn't mean to tell you until things were more settled, but since you've been talking like this, I will. I've discovered lately that I'm tired of the Riviera, heavenly as it is here. We've been a month now——"
"I always told you that Monte Carlo was more amusing, while as for Cannes——"
"But I've seen enough of the Riviera for a while."
"What about your chateau, then—your chateau in the olive woods that you so adore?"
"That won't be ready until next winter. There's lots to be done. And—I've set my heart on a yachting trip."
Kate Gardiner's face fell. She was a wretched sailor, and Virginia knew it. Even the crossing from Dover to Calais was torture to her on a calm day.
"A long yachting trip?" she asked, controlling her voice.
"I don't quite know yet. Some weeks, perhaps. The only difficulty is about you."
Kate did not answer for a moment. Was this an excuse to get rid of her, and if so, why? Could it be that Roger Broom had been warning Virginia that her half-brother was in danger of making a fool of himself about a woman many years his senior? A short time ago she might have believed that this was the explanation, for Roger Broom knew a good deal about Lady Gardiner. He was aware that her dead husband was but a city man, knighted when he was sheriff; that she had been governess to the gruff old widower's one daughter; that she had married him for his money, and spent it freely until what remained was lost in a great financial panic; that since then she had lived as she could, trading upon her own aristocratic connections to chaperon girls, chiefly Americans, who wished to see "English society from the inside." Roger knew her real age, or something near it; he knew that she had been in debt when she had got this chance with Virginia, to whom she had been recommended by an American duchess; and as there was nothing against her character, he had been too good-natured—as she would have expressed it—to "put a spoke in her wheel." However, if he suspected designs upon George, he might not have continued to be as discreet; but during these last three days of mysterious confabs, George Trent had appeared as much changed toward her as his half-sister had, so that Roger need have had no new fears for him. George had never ceased to be courteous, but there was a subtle difference in his manner, in his way of looking at her. He appeared preoccupied; he no longer sought her out. And this alteration had only come about since the day when they had visited the Chateau de la Roche.
Perhaps, then, it was George who was tired of her. He had never been the same since he had seen that girl in black, with the tragic eyes and the dead-white face, with no more life in it than a marble statue. Maybe he was planning to attach that girl to the party in some way, and would find the society of the woman with whom he had flirted a constraint.
At this thought Kate Gardiner felt her blood grow hot. It was unbearable that she should be sent out of George Trent's life to make room for a younger woman. She would not have it—she would not! If it killed her to go on this hateful yachting trip she would go; she would not be whistled down the wind.
"Oh, if the difficulty is only about me," she said sweetly, "it needn't be a difficulty at all. I dare say I shall be ill for a few days, but it can't last forever. I shall simply stop in my stateroom until I am fit to lie in a deck-chair and be a more or less interesting invalid."
As she spoke she watched Virginia's face through half-lowered lashes, and was certain that it changed. There could no longer be any doubt on that subject. For some reason Virginia did not want her on the yacht.
"I should hate you to be a martyr," said the girl uncomfortably. "Roger and I have been thinking it over, and I was wondering, in case we went (nothing is actually decided yet), whether you would like to wait here. I would keep on your room and the sitting-room, and the victoria, and you should have my maid and your own horse. Your income would be the same as always, of course; and you have a lot of friends here, so you wouldn't be lonely."
"How sweet and thoughtful you are, dearest child!" exclaimed Kate gratefully; while within she was saying, "Oh, so this is the game, is it? Come now; at least you're showing your hand. Roger and you have been 'talking things over?' You seem to have thought out the details pretty well; and I'm to be bribed. But it won't work, my love, it won't work." She rose, and going to Virginia, took her hand, looking affectionately down at the beautiful face. "You are always ready to sacrifice yourself for me. But what would you do for a chaperon if I stopped behind?"
"Oh, you see, George and Roger and I would be all the party on board. Surely George is chaperon enough?"
"Poor Marchese!" murmured Kate. "I'm afraid he also is suffering from an eclipse."
"I don't know what you mean," said Virginia, her colour deepening. "Why should he expect an invitation to go with us?"
"Ah! why? Unless, indeed, he had hopes that he was soon to be given some rights over you. Only the other day I used to fancy that you and he were half engaged."
"We never were. I—I found him rather interesting. But I don't think I have behaved very badly. I really meant—oh, I don't know what I meant then; but I know I don't mean it now. The Marchese Loria is the last person I should wish to have go on this yachting trip, and as it's only us three, we'll chaperon each other."
"Can it be that she means to marry Roger Broom after all?" Kate Gardiner asked herself. "To my certain knowledge, she's refused him. I heard him reminding her of it the other night. But one never knows how many times a girl may change her mind. The more I think of it the more determined I am to be of the party on that yacht."
"Unless I should be one too many, I'd really love to go," said she aloud. "I must get over my horror of the sea. Mayn't I be with you, dear, if you have really made up your mind? I've grown so fond of you. I should feel deserted here."
"Even for a few weeks?"
"Even for a few weeks. When you marry, or go home to the States, I must lose you, but do let me be with you as long as I can."
"You shall go if you really wish to so much," said Virginia, trying in vain not to appear constrained. "Only I warn you, you may find that you've made a mistake."
"Why, how seriously you speak. One would think you meditated a voyage to the North Pole. Probably, though, you'll simply linger about in the Mediterranean; go to Naples, Greece, perhaps, and Egypt?"
"Something of the sort, I suppose," Virginia answered, dropping her eyes and playing with the paper she had used to conceal her book. "It's rather vague at present. Roger and George are looking for a yacht. We'll talk of it again later. I only mentioned it now to show you that we've really had business. And by the way, Kate, I'd rather you didn't say anything about it yet to people outside. It seems like making it of so much importance and I'd hate being asked three times a day: 'Well, when do you start on that yachting trip?'"
"I shall be discreet, never fear," replied Kate, more sure than ever that some mystery which she could not fathom hid itself under this new plan of Virginia's. "And now for something else I wanted to ask you. Do, like a dear, good girl, lend me ten pounds. You know how stupidly hard up I always am. I'll pay it back in a few days."
Virginia was on her feet in an instant and at the dressing-table, rummaging among scented laces and pretty odds and ends for the gold-netted purse with "V. B." on it in brilliants. For a moment her back was turned, and during that moment Kate Gardiner, standing close to the desk which the girl had left noiselessly, raised a corner of the paper and peeped underneath. The book which Virginia had been reading lay open. It was French, and at the top of the page Kate saw the word "Noumea." She dared look no longer, but let the paper drop, and had wheeled round with her back to the desk just as Virginia found the purse.
"Thank you so much," purred Lady Gardiner, who knew from experience that Virginia would beg her not to give back the money, and that, with a grateful kiss, and perhaps a tear or two, she would allow herself to be persuaded.
At this instant there came a knock at the door leading into the sitting-room, which Kate had left half-open on entering, and George Trent appeared, looking excited and eager. His eyes fell upon Virginia, and he began to speak before he had seen Lady Gardiner, standing at a little distance and out of his view at the door.
"I say, Virgie," he exclaimed, "the most ripping piece of luck. We can get hold of a steam yacht with four cannon—toys, but fit for work—only you'll have to buy, not hire——"
He stopped short, a look passing between him and Virginia, quick as a flash of light, yet not too quick to be seen by Kate.
"Good!" said the girl. "Well, we'll talk about it as we walk. Kate's going shopping." Evidently she intended to change the subject, but Lady Gardiner was not ready for another.
"Mercy! Are you fitting out as pirates?" she demanded, laughing.
George Trent flushed with annoyance under her unsparing eyes, but he smiled carelessly and shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, you mean the cannon? They happen to be there. It wouldn't be worth while to have the yacht dismantled. I think myself they'd give distinction. It isn't everybody who goes yachting in such conditions."
"Indeed, no. I only wish we may have a chance to use them. Perhaps we may, if we can get far enough up the Nile. You see, Virginia has told me of the trip and promised that I may go. I hope you don't mind."
Of course George said that it would be charming to have her on board, and he opened the sitting-room door when she went out, making the necessary agreeable remarks about her shopping expedition. But when the door had closed after Lady Gardiner, and Virginia had joined him in the sitting-room, he was no longer smiling.
"So we're to have another passenger, are we?" he said in a low voice.
"She says she wants to go, but she may change her mind. You know what a wretched sailor she is. Perhaps even after starting she'll think better of it and beg to be put off at the nearest port. I had to tell her about the yacht, for she was so inquisitive concerning the business that has occupied you and Roger and me for the past three days. But she has promised not to say anything outside till she has permission."
"How much does she know?"
"Nothing at all, except that I'm tired of the Riviera and want to go yachting somewhere—almost anywhere."
"Sure she doesn't suspect?"
"How could she?"
"Well, I suppose she couldn't. And as far as I'm concerned, I don't see why we shouldn't trust her as if she were one of ourselves; a nice, jolly little woman, with no harm in her. What motive could she possibly have for blocking our game?"
"What, indeed? But you know I said so to Roger, and he vowed he'd have nothing to do with it if any one knew except you and Madeleine Dalahaide and me. He wouldn't hear of poor Kate's being told, though I assured him one might trust her. It was all I could do to get him to promise us, anyway."
"How did you get him to, by the by? He poured whole cataracts of ice-water on the scheme at first."
"I—I—suppose I wheedled."
"Virgie! I'll bet you said you'd marry him if he'd go in with us!"
"I didn't—exactly say I wouldn't."
"Poor old Roger! Shall you be cad enough to chuck him afterward?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that. I shall be so grateful to him for this, that I shall feel no reward could be too great for him—that is, if we succeed. He is a dear, kind fellow, and I have often made him unhappy. I've always thought, somehow, that I should end by marrying him."
"Yet you've refused him three times."
"That was to put off the evil day."
"And you came jolly near accepting Loria."
"Did I really, do you think? It seems so long ago, I can hardly remember. Anyway, everything is different now."
"I'm with you there. By Jove, what a funny world it is! What will Roger say when he hears that Kate Gardiner is bent on going? If he consents to her being on board, I don't see why he should go on refusing to take Miss Dalahaide."
"That's not the same thing at all. One can never do things quite secretly. They always leak out. Already it has got into the papers somehow—I suppose through that stupid agent—that I have bought the Chateau de la Roche, and interest has been revived in the Dalahaide story. It's so unfortunate that people should begin to talk again just now! And then if, on top of all this, should come the news that we'd taken Madeleine Dalahaide off with us on a mysterious yachting expedition, what would be said? Roger is quite right."
"It seems cruel that she should be left out of it."
"It would be more cruel to have her in, and perhaps ruin everything. She feels that herself though, of course, it's hard. Still, think how awful for her if—we failed! But I will not think of that. There's no such word as fail!"
"According to Roger, there's no such word as success. He's absolutely hopeless, and is only going into the adventure to please you—to win you, perhaps. And, by Jove, it will be an adventure!"
"Tell me about the yacht you've heard of."
They went out together, walking among the pine trees surrounding the hotel; and meanwhile Kate Gardiner had driven into the bright little town of Mentone, with its background of mountains, its foreground of blue-green sea. In the neighbourhood of the shops, she sent away her victoria, which was to pick her up at Rumpelmayer's at five o'clock. She was charmingly dressed, and had secured ten pounds with which to buy an exquisite antique Italian watch which had taken her fancy a day or two before; never had there been so little need to worry about the future from a pecuniary point of view; still, Kate was not happy. She had lost interest in the watch, lost interest in her shopping expedition altogether, and was lingering outside the jeweler's wondering whether she should spend the ten pounds as she had planned or not, when a man's voice at her shoulder made her turn. It was the Marchese Loria; and Lady Gardiner noticed, as the sun streamed full into his face when he took his off hat, that he looked sallow and haggard.
He was staying at the Cap Martin also, but they had not seen each other that day, and now it struck Kate that he was surprisingly changed since the afternoon when they had so gaily ridden off to find the Valley of the Shadow. She was certain that, for some reason which puzzled her sorely, Loria had completely lost his chance with Virginia, and because his interests no longer threatened her own, she felt more friendly toward him. They both seemed to be rather left out in the cold, and she found herself suddenly sympathizing with the Italian.
He was quick to note the unusual cordiality of her smile, and was curious as to its motive, for Loria knew that Lady Gardiner was one of the few women who never act without one; and he had been fully aware that she did not favour his cause with Virginia Beverly.
"Has something in this window caught your fancy?" he inquired, stopping and joining her.
Kate pointed to a serpent belt, crusted with diamond scales, emerald-eyed, and having its open mouth lined with rubies. "Isn't that lovely?" she asked. "An antique, of course; everything is in this window. I daren't look at it. It's far beyond my means."
"I'm thinking of buying it myself," said Loria calmly. "I mean to give it to a woman I know, as a little souvenir of my gratitude for very great kindness."
"Lucky woman!" exclaimed Kate enviously, for she really wanted the diamond snake. "She must have done you some tremendous favour to have earned that."
"She hasn't done anything yet. But I hope she will. I hope very much that she will tell me certain things I'm anxious to know, and afterward help me, if necessary, to make use of the knowledge. I wonder if she will do it?"
There was now a meaning in his voice which could not be mistaken. Kate looked up quickly and met his eyes. For, a long instant they gazed at each other, then she said: "I think the woman would be foolish if she didn't."
"Will you come with me when I buy the thing?" asked Loria.
Kate smiled and flushed faintly through the white rose balm which gave an illusion of youth. They went in, and Loria asked to be shown the serpent belt from the window.
A very old man, an Italian, brought the glittering thing and laid it on a piece of black velvet, which he spread as a background on the counter.
"It is only two thousand francs," he announced, "and it has a history. Perhaps I am indiscreet to mention it, but it may add to the interest, and I see that the illustrious Signor is a countryman of my own. This jewel was an heirloom in a very ancient family; but great misfortunes overtook them some years ago. The heir was accused of crime, and banished for life to Noumea. They were forced to sell everything of value."
Loria was ghastly. With an instinctive gesture of horror, he pushed the velvet away, not touching the serpent and averting his eyes.
"Let us choose something else," he said hoarsely to Lady Gardiner. But she was merciless. He had as much as offered her the belt, and she would not give it up easily.
"There is nothing else half as pretty or quaint," she said. "I think this bit of history makes it all the more interesting."
Loria did not look again at the serpent glittering on its black velvet cushion, but, having hesitated for a barely perceptible space, he abruptly ordered the jeweler to send the belt to his hotel, where it would be paid for on delivery. Kate decided that, as she was in such a vein of luck, she would have the watch she fancied, and keep the Marchese while she made the purchase. Half maliciously she said to the shopkeeper: "I suppose this pretty thing has no such story as the other?"
"Rather strangely, madame has chosen another heirloom disposed of by the same family," returned the man, as he placed the old blue-enameled watch in a box filled with pink cotton. It seemed as if Fate persisted in linking them with these Dalahaides!
Loria did not speak, but Kate's observant eyes saw that the gloved hand nearest her closed tightly on the stick it held. A moment later she had paid for her purchase, and they were out in the street again.
"You look very down," she remarked. "I believe you must have been losing a lot at Monte, and that a little sympathy and good advice would do you good. I meant to go to Rumpelmayer's presently, but suppose we go now and have tea together?"
Neither he nor she had said in so many words that there was to be a bargain between them; but Loria understood what the suggestion of a tete-a-tete at Rumpelmayer's meant, and augured well of Kate's genuine good-will, by her readiness to give the opportunity he wanted.
She was curious, he labouring under suppressed excitement, and they did not speak much as they walked. At the confectioner's Loria chose a table in a corner, far from the few early customers who had already arrived. It was not yet four o'clock, and the rooms would not begin to be crowded for half an hour. In that time much could be said, much, perhaps, planned for the future.
THE CLOSED DOOR
The Marchese Loria ordered tea, and the two newly made allies pretended to have no important more business than eating and drinking. But certain that nobody was within hearing distance, Loria squandered little time in frivolities. At any moment some one they knew might come in and interrupt their talk.
"You said that I looked 'very down,'" he began abruptly. "That is cool English for broken-hearted, no doubt. I'm half mad, I think, Lady Gardiner. For four nights I haven't slept; for three days I've scarcely eaten. You know why; there's no use in wasting words on explanation."
"You love her so much?" exclaimed Kate.
"I love her so much. You believe me?"
"Yes; for you have the reputation of being a rich man, and it can't be all a bubble, or you wouldn't buy eighty-pound presents—for gratitude, and rather premature gratitude at that."
"Ah! the gift hasn't been made yet."
"I fancy it will be made. And the principle is the same. You can't be a fortune-hunter, like many agreeable, titled countrymen of yours whom I have met."
"If a man began by seeking out Miss Beverly as a fortune-hunter, he would end by being her lover. She is the most beautiful girl on earth, and—the most maddening. I think I shall go mad if I am to lose her."
"How you Italians can love—and hate!"
"Yes, we can hate also, it is true. There is no half-way with us. Lady Gardiner, I used to think that you disliked me; but to-day you are different. I was as desperately in need of help as a drowning man, and I caught at the new look of kindness in your eyes, as such a man catches at a floating spar."
"Perhaps it was the appeal in your eyes that called out the answer in mine," said Kate, half believing that she told the truth; for there was a certain magnetic power in the man's passion, which was, at least, sincere. "What help can I give you?"
"First of all, you can answer a few questions. What have I done to change Miss Beverly so completely?"
"Frankly, I don't know. There's something odd going on—something which interests her so much that she can think of nothing else."
"The change began on the day of—our ride. Our last ride! The last of everything worth having, it has been for me. She was angry because I was unwilling to go into—that valley. But afterward, when she learned how intimately I had been associated with the people at the chateau there, how could she blame me? I suppose she did learn the story?"
"She learned something of it, I know, the night after we rode up the valley. You remember there was a dance? I had left my fan in our sitting-room, and ran up to find it. There was no light in the room, and Virginia and Sir Roger were on the balcony. Of course, I didn't mean to listen, but I couldn't find the fan at first, and I didn't like to startle them by suddenly switching on the light, so I—er—I overheard a little of the conversation. Sir Roger was telling her the story of that unfortunate Maxime Dalahaide—why, Marchese, how you must have loved him! The very mention of his name turns you pale."
"We were like brothers," said Loria in a low voice. "But go on. Did Sir Roger Broom mention me in connection with the story?"
"The scoundrel! That explains all, then. This is your honourable English gentleman, who traduces a man behind his back, to ruin him with the girl they both love!"
"You do Roger Broom injustice. He defended you. Virginia thought that your friendship was not worth much, since you believed Maxime Dalahaide guilty, but Sir Roger assured her you had behaved exceedingly well."
"H'm! One knows what faint praise can do. Did he give her all the details of that loathsome story?"
"No; he refused. I was rather sorry, as I was interested by that time. Besides, I had wanted to know, and I couldn't think of any one it would be convenient to ask, except Sir Roger or you."
"I wish he had told her all! If he had, she would never have wished to hear of the Dalahaides again."
"You speak bitterly of your old friends."
"I? No, you misunderstand. I mean only that a girl—a stranger—would be horrified if she could know the full details. It was a ghastly affair. I loved Max, but there was no excuse for him—none. And it would be better for Miss Beverly to have nothing to do with that family. They bring unhappiness to all who come near them. It is as if they were under a curse, which every one connected with them must share. I can't bear to think that so black a shadow should darken her sunlight. Already, you see, she has changed. She goes once to the Chateau de la Roche, and the spell falls upon her."
"I'm not sure that she hasn't been more than once," said Lady Gardiner.
"Ah! that was one of the things I wished to ask. You think so?"
"I don't know. The morning after we all went there she disappeared for hours, and would say nothing except that she had slept badly, got up early, and gone off for a ride. Whether Mr. Trent was with her or not I can't tell but when I first saw her, after looking everywhere, they were together, so absorbed in what they were saying that I believe if a revolver had been fired within a dozen yards of them they would hardly have heard it. At luncheon that same day, Sir Roger was telling me how he had seen the agent, and found out about the chateau, as it appears she had asked him to do—she has but to ask and to have, with him, you must know!—and though she was pleased and interested to a certain extent, still, she seemed to be thinking of something else."
"That something else! If I could find out what that was, I might know who is taking her from me."
"I'm afraid it's not as simple an affair to unravel as that; for I can tell you one of the things, at least, which was apparently occupying her thoughts at the time, yet I can't quite see why or how it could have much to do with you. You remember, perhaps, that you came while we were at luncheon the day after our ride into the Valley of the Shadow, and proposed that we should all go to Monte Carlo on your motor-car, that we should spend the afternoon in the Casino, and dine with you at the Hotel de Paris? Virginia said that she had important letters to write, and couldn't go; and her manner was rather distant."
"It chilled my heart."
"Well, she asked Sir Roger and Mr. Trent to come up to her sitting-room after luncheon. Naturally, I was there too; I've been told to look upon the room as my own. She did not tell what she had been doing in the morning, but, wherever she had been, she had contrived to discover a good deal more about the Dalahaide story than Sir Roger had been willing to tell her the night before, and she announced boldly, that in spite of everything, she believed Maxime Dalahaide was innocent. She demanded of Roger—who has spent a good deal of time in France, you know, and is supposed to be well up in French law—whether it wouldn't be possible to have the case brought up again, with the best lawyers in the country, expense to be no object. When Roger had shown her that the thing couldn't be done, and there was no use discussing it, she wanted him to say that by setting some wonderful detectives on the trail of the real criminal the truth might be discovered, and the man unjustly accused brought home in triumph from Noumea by a penitent Government. Sir Roger assured her that was hopeless. That, in the first place, Maxime Dalahaide wasn't innocent, and that, in the second place, even if he were, his innocence would be still more impossible to prove after all these years than it would have been at the time of the trial."
"What did she reply to that?"
"Nothing. She was silent and seemed impressed. She became very thoughtful. Since then I have not heard her say one word of the Dalahaides, except incidentally about the chateau, which she actually means to buy, and have restored in time to come to it, if she likes, next year. Now, I don't see why her interest in the Dalahaides, if she continues to feel it, should interfere with her friendship for you."
Loria did not answer. He sat thinking intently, his dark eyes staring unseeingly out of the window. At last he spoke. "Why—why should she interest herself in this cold-blooded murderer, whose best friends turned from him in horror at his crime? Is it pure philanthropy? Has the sister implored Miss Beverly to throw her money into this bottomless gulf? What happened when you were at the chateau that day I never knew."
"We thought that the subject was disagreeable to you," said Kate. "We saw and spoke with Miss Dalahaide, a pale, cold girl, dressed in black, with a voice that somehow sounded—dead. She did not mention her brother, and seemed so reserved that I should think it would be difficult to break the ice with her. Indeed, she appeared very annoyed at the necessity for showing us a little room with a life-size picture in it, which I fancied must be a portrait of the brother."
A curious shiver passed through Loria's body.
"Miss Beverly saw that portrait?" he asked in a low, strained voice.
"Yes, and I noticed that she kept glancing at it again and again while we stopped in the room. I suppose a morbid sort of curiosity regarding a murderer is natural, even in a young girl, provided his personality is interesting."
Once more Loria remained silent, his face set in hard lines.
"Such a man as Maxime Dalahaide must have been before his fall, would be a dangerous rival," Lady Gardiner went on, with a spice of malice. She was watching Loria as she spoke, and thrilled a little at the look in his eyes as he turned them upon her. "Oh, these Italians!" she thought. "They are so emotional that they frighten one. Their passions are like caged tigers, and you never quite know whether the cage door is safely locked."