THE CHINK IN THE ARMOUR
BY MRS. BELLOC LOWNDES
AUTHOR OF "THE END OF HER HONEYMOON," "THE LODGER," Etc.
NEW YORK GROSSET & DUNLAP
"But there is one chink in the chain armour of civilized communities. Society is conducted on the assumption that murder will not be committed."—
THE CHINK IN THE ARMOUR
A small, shiny, pink card lay on the round table in Sylvia Bailey's sitting-room at the Hotel de l'Horloge in Paris.
She had become quite accustomed to finding one or more cards—cards from dressmakers, cards from corset-makers, cards from hairdressers—lying on her sitting-room table, but there had never been a card quite like this card.
Although it was pink, it looked more like a visiting-card than a tradesman's advertisement, and she took it up with some curiosity. It was inscribed "Madame Cagliostra," and underneath the name were written the words "Diseuse de la Bonne Aventure," and then, in a corner, in very small black letters, the address, "5, Rue Jolie, Montmartre."
A fortune-teller's card? What an extraordinary thing!
Like many pretty, prosperous, idle women, Sylvia was rather superstitious. Not long before this, her first visit to Paris, a London acquaintance had taken her to see a noted palmist named "Pharaoh," in Bond Street. She had paid her guinea willingly enough, but the result had vaguely disappointed her, and she had had the feeling, all the time she was with him, that the man was not really reading her hand.
True, "Pharaoh" had told her she was going abroad, and at that time she had no intention of doing so. The palmist had also told her—and this was really rather curious—that she would meet, when abroad, a foreign woman who would have a considerable influence on her life. Well, in this very Hotel de l'Horloge Mrs. Bailey had come across a Polish lady, named Anna Wolsky, who was, like Sylvia herself, a young widow, and the two had taken a great fancy to one another.
It was most unlikely that Madame Wolsky would have the slightest influence on her, Sylvia Bailey's, life, but at any rate it was very curious coincidence. "Pharaoh" had proved to be right as to these two things—she had come abroad, and she had formed a friendship with a foreign woman.
Mrs. Bailey was still standing by the table, and still holding the pink card in her hand, when her new friend came into the room.
"Well?" said Anna Wolsky, speaking English with a strong foreign accent, but still speaking it remarkably well, "Have you yet decided, my dear, what we shall do this afternoon? There are a dozen things open to us, and I am absolutely at your service to do any one of them!"
Sylvia Bailey laughingly shook her head.
"I feel lazy," she said. "I've been at the Bon Marche ever since nine o'clock, and I feel more like having a rest than going out again, though it does seem a shame to stay in a day like this!"
The windows were wide open, the June sun was streaming in, and on the light breeze was borne the murmur of the traffic in the Avenue de l'Opera, within a few yards of the quiet street where the Hotel de l'Horloge is situated.
The other woman—Anna Wolsky was some years older than Sylvia Bailey—smiled indulgently.
"Tiens!" she cried suddenly, "what have you got there?" and she took the pink card out of Sylvia's hand.
"Madame Cagliostra?" she repeated, musingly. "Now where did I hear that name? Yes, of course it was from our chambermaid! Cagliostra is a friend of hers, and, according to her, a marvellous person—one from whom the devil keeps no secrets! She charges only five francs for a consultation, and it appears that all sorts of well-known people go to her, even those whom the Parisians call the Gratin, that is, the Upper Crust, from the Champs Elysees and the Faubourg St. Germain!"
"I don't think much of fortune-tellers," said Sylvia, thoughtfully. "I went to one last time I was in London and he really didn't tell me anything of the slightest interest."
Her conscience pricked her a little as she said this, for "Pharaoh" had certainly predicted a journey which she had then no intention of taking, and a meeting with a foreign woman. Yet here she was in Paris, and here was the foreign woman standing close to her!
Nay more, Anna Wolsky had become—it was really rather odd that it should be so—the first intimate friend of her own sex Sylvia had made since she was a grown-up woman.
"I do believe in fortune-tellers," said Madame Wolsky deliberately, "and that being so I shall spend my afternoon in going up to Montmartre, to the Rue Jolie, to hear what this Cagliostra has to say. It will be what you in England call 'a lark'! And I do not see why I should not give myself so cheap a lark as a five-franc lark!"
"Oh, if you really mean to go, I think I will go too!" cried Sylvia, gaily.
She was beginning to feel less tired, and the thought of a long lonely afternoon spent indoors and by herself lacked attraction.
Linking her arm through her friend's, she went downstairs and into the barely furnished dining-room, which was so very unlike an English hotel dining-room. In this dining-room the wallpaper simulated a vine-covered trellis, from out of which peeped blue-plumaged birds, and on each little table, covered by an unbleached table-cloth, stood an oil and vinegar cruet and a half-bottle of wine.
The Hotel de l'Horloge was a typical French hotel, and foreigners very seldom stayed there. Sylvia had been told of the place by the old French lady who had been her governess, and who had taught her to speak French exceptionally well.
Several quiet Frenchmen, who had offices in the neighbourhood, were "en pension" at the Hotel de l'Horloge, and as the two friends came in many were the steady, speculative glances cast in their direction.
To the average Frenchman every woman is interesting; for every Frenchman is in love with love, and in each fair stranger he sees the possible heroine of a romance in which he may play the agreeable part of hero. So it was that Sylvia Bailey and Anna Wolsky both had their silent admirers among those who lunched and dined in the narrow green and white dining-room of the Hotel de l'Horloge.
Only a Frenchman would have given a second look at the Polish lady while Sylvia was by, but a Frenchman, being both a philosopher and a logician by nature, is very apt to content himself with the second-best when he knows the best is not for him.
The two friends were in entire contrast to one another. Madame Wolsky was tall, dark, almost swarthy; there was a look of rather haughty pride and reserve on her strong-featured face. She dressed extremely plainly, the only ornament ever worn by her being a small gold horseshoe, in the centre of which was treasured—so, not long ago, she had confided to Sylvia, who had been at once horrified and thrilled—a piece of the rope with which a man had hanged himself at Monte Carlo two years before! For Madame Wolsky—and she made no secret of the fact to her new friend—was a gambler.
Anna Wolsky was never really happy, she did not feel more than half alive, when away from the green cloth. She had only left Monte Carlo when the heat began to make the place unbearable to one of her northern temperament, and she was soon moving on to one of the French watering-places, where gambling of sorts can be indulged in all the summer through.
Different in looks, in temperament, and in tastes were the two young widows, and this, perhaps, was why they got on so excellently well together.
Sylvia Bailey was the foreign ideal of a beautiful Englishwoman. Her hair was fair, and curled naturally. Her eyes were of that blue which looks violet in the sunlight; and she had a delicate, rose leaf complexion.
Married when only nineteen to a man much older than herself, she was now at twenty-five a widow, and one without any intimate duties or close ties to fill her existence. Though she had mourned George Bailey sincerely, she had soon recovered all her normal interest and pleasure in life.
Mrs. Bailey was fond of dress and able to indulge her taste; but, even so, good feeling and the standard of propriety of the English country town of Market Dalling where she had spent most of her life, perhaps also a subtle instinct that nothing else would ever suit her so well, made her remain rigidly faithful to white and black, pale grey, and lavender. She also wore only one ornament, but it was a very becoming and an exceedingly costly ornament, for it consisted of a string of large and finely-matched pearls.
As the two friends went upstairs after luncheon Madame Wolsky said earnestly, "If I were you, Sylvia, I would certainly leave your pearls in the office this afternoon. Where is the use of wearing them on such an expedition as that to a fortune-teller?"
"But why shouldn't I wear them?" asked Sylvia, rather surprised.
"Well, in your place I should certainly leave anything as valuable as your pearls in safe keeping. After all, we know nothing of this Madame Cagliostra, and Montmartre is what Parisians call an eccentric quarter."
Sylvia Bailey disliked very much taking off her pearls. Though she could not have put the fact into words, this string of pearls was to her a symbol of her freedom, almost of her womanhood.
As a child and young girl she had been under the close guardianship of a stern father, and it was to please him that she had married the rich, middle-aged man at Market Dalling whose adoration she had endured rather than reciprocated. George Bailey also had been a determined man—determined that his young wife should live his way, not hers. During their brief married life he had heaped on her showy, rather than beautiful, jewels; nothing of great value, nothing she could wear when in mourning.
And then, four months after her husband's death, Sylvia's own aunt had died and left her a thousand pounds. It was this legacy—which her trustee, a young solicitor named William Chester, who was also a friend and an admirer of hers, as well as her trustee, had been proposing to invest in what he called "a remarkably good thing"—Mrs. Bailey had insisted on squandering on a string of pearls!
Sylvia had become aware, in the subtle way in which Women become aware of such things, that pearls were the fashion—in fact, in one sense, "the only wear." She had noticed that most of the great ladies of the neighbourhood of Market Dalling, those whom she saw on those occasions when town and county meet, each wore a string of pearls. She had also come to know that pearls seem to be the only gems which can be worn with absolute propriety by a widow, and so, suddenly, she had made up her mind to invest—she called it an "investment," while Chester called it an "absurd extravagance"—in a string of pearls.
Bill Chester had done his very best to persuade her to give up her silly notion, but she had held good; she had shown herself, at any rate on this one occasion, and in spite of her kindly, yielding nature, obstinate.
This was why her beautiful pearls had become to Sylvia Bailey a symbol of her freedom. The thousand pounds, invested as Bill Chester had meant to invest it, would have brought her in L55 a year, so he had told her in a grave, disapproving tone.
In return she had told him, the colour rushing into her pretty face, that after all she had the right to do what she chose with her legacy, the more so that this thousand pounds was in a peculiar sense her own money, as the woman who had left it her was her mother's sister, having nothing to do either with her father or with the late George Bailey!
And so she had had her way—nay, more; Chester, at the very last, had gone to great trouble in order that she might not be cheated over her purchase. Best of all, Bill—Sylvia always called the serious-minded young lawyer "Bill"—had lived to admit that Mrs. Bailey had made a good investment after all, for her pearls had increased in value in the two years she had had them.
Be that as it may, the young widow often reminded herself that nothing she had ever bought, and nothing that had ever been given her, had caused her such lasting pleasure as her beloved string of pearls!
But on this pleasant June afternoon, in deference to her determined friend's advice, she took off her pearls before starting out for Montmartre, leaving the case in the charge of M. Girard, the genial proprietor of the Hotel de l'Horloge.
With easy, leisurely steps, constantly stopping to look into the windows of the quaint shops they passed on the way, Sylvia Bailey and Anna Wolsky walked up the steep, the almost mountainous byways and narrow streets which lead to the top of Montmartre.
The whole population seemed to have poured itself out in the open air on this sunny day; even the shopkeepers had brought chairs out of their shops and sat on the pavement, gaily laughing and gossiping together in the eager way Parisians have. As the two foreign ladies, both young, both in their very different fashion good-looking, walked past the sitting groups of neighbours—men, women, and children would stop talking and stare intently at them, as is also a Parisian way.
At first Sylvia had disliked the manner in which she was stared at in Paris, and she had been much embarrassed as well as a little amused by the very frank remarks called forth in omnibuses as well as in the street by the brilliancy of her complexion and the bright beauty of her fair hair. But now she was almost used to this odd form of homage, which came quite as often from women as from men.
"The Rue Jolie?" answered a cheerful-looking man in answer to a question. "Why, it's ever so much further up!" and he vaguely pointed skywards.
And it was much further up, close to the very top of the great hill! In fact, it took the two ladies a long time to find it, for the Rue Jolie was the funniest, tiniest little street, perched high up on what might almost have been a mountain side.
As for No. 5, Rue Jolie, it was a queer miniature house more like a Swiss chalet than anything else, and surrounded by a gay, untidy little garden full of flowers, the kind of half-wild, shy, and yet hardy flowers that come up, year after year, without being tended or watered.
"Surely a fortune-teller can't live here?" exclaimed Sylvia Bailey, remembering the stately, awe-inspiring rooms in which "Pharaoh" received his clients in Bond Street.
"Oh, yes, this is evidently the place!"
Anna Wolsky smiled good-humouredly; she had become extremely fond of the young Englishwoman; she delighted in Sylvia's radiant prettiness, her kindly good-temper, and her eager pleasure in everything.
A large iron gate gave access to the courtyard which was so much larger than the house built round it. But the gate was locked, and a pull at the rusty bell-wire produced no result.
They waited a while. "She must have gone out," said Sylvia, rather disappointed.
But Madame Wolsky, without speaking, again pulled at the rusty wire, and then one of the chalet windows was suddenly flung open from above, and a woman—a dark, middle-aged Frenchwoman—leant out.
"Qui est la?" and then before either of them could answer, the woman had drawn back: a moment later they heard her heavy progress down the creaky stairs of her dwelling.
At last she came out into the courtyard, unlocked the iron gate, and curtly motioned to the two ladies to follow her.
"We have come to see Madame Cagliostra," said Sylvia timidly. She took this stout, untidily-dressed woman for the fortune-teller's servant.
"Madame Cagliostra, at your service!" The woman turned round, her face breaking into a broad smile. She evidently liked the sound of her peculiar name.
They followed her up a dark staircase into a curious little sitting-room. It was scrupulously clean, but about it hung the faint odour which the French eloquently describe as "shut in," and even on this beautiful hot day the windows were tightly closed.
On the red walls hung various drawings of hands, of hearts, and of heads, and over the plain mantelpiece was a really fine pastel portrait of a man, in eighteenth century dress and powdered hair.
"My ancestor, Count Cagliostro, ladies!" exclaimed the fat little woman proudly. "As you will soon see, if you have, as I venture to suppose, come to consult me, I have inherited the great gifts which made Count Cagliostro famous." She waited a moment. "What is it you desire of me? Do you wish for the Grand Jeu? Or do you prefer the Crystal?"
Madame Cagliostra gave a shrewd, measuring glance at the two young women standing before her. She was wondering how much they were good for.
"No doubt you have been told," she said suddenly, "that my fee is five francs. But if you require the Grand Jeu it will be ten francs. Come, ladies, make up your minds; I will give you both the Grand Jeu for fifteen francs!"
Sylvia Bailey's lip quivered; she felt a wild wish to burst out laughing. It was all so absurd; this funny queer house; this odd, stuffy, empty-looking room; and this vulgar, common-looking woman asserting that she was descended from the famous Count Cagliostro! And then, to crown everything, the naive, rather pathetic, attempt to get an extra five francs out of them.
But Sylvia was a very kindly, happy-natured creature, and she would not have hurt the feelings of even a Madame Cagliostra for the world.
She looked at her friend questioningly. Would it not be better just to give the woman five francs and go away? They surely could not expect to hear anything of any value from such a person. She was evidently a fraud!
But Anna Wolsky was staring at Madame Cagliostra with a serious look.
"Very well," she exclaimed, in her rather indifferent French. "Very well! We will both take the Grand Jeu at fifteen francs the two."
She turned and smiled at Sylvia. "It will be," she said, quaintly, and in English, "my 'treat,' dear friend." And then, as Sylvia shook her head decidedly—there were often these little contests of generosity between the two women—she added rather sharply,
"Yes, yes! It shall be so. I insist! I see you do not believe in our hostess's gift. There are, however, one or two questions I must ask, and to which I fancy she can give me an answer. I am anxious, too, to hear what she will say about you."
Sylvia smiled, and gave way.
Like most prosperous people who have not made the money they are able to spend, Mrs. Bailey did not attach any undue importance to wealth. But she knew that her friend was not as well off as herself, and therefore she was always trying to pay a little more of her share than was fair. Thanks to Madame Wolsky's stronger will, she very seldom succeeded in doing so.
"We might at least ask her to open the window," she said rather plaintively. It really was dreadfully stuffy!
Madame Cagliostra had gone to a sideboard from which she was taking two packs of exceedingly dirty, queer-looking cards. They were the famous Taro cards, but Sylvia did not know that.
When the fortune-teller was asked to open the window, she shook her head decidedly.
"No, no!" she said. "It would dissipate the influences. I cannot do that! On the contrary, the curtains should be drawn close, and if the ladies will permit of it I will light my lamp."
Even as she spoke she was jerking the thick curtains closely together; she even pinned them across so that no ray of the bright sunlight outside could penetrate into the room.
For a few moments they were in complete darkness, and Sylvia felt a queer, eerie sensation of fear, but this soon passed away as the lamp—the "Suspension," as Madame Cagliostra proudly called it—was lit.
When her lamp was well alight, the soothsayer drew three chairs up to the round table, and motioned the two strangers to sit down.
"You will take my friend first," said Anna Wolsky, imperiously; and then, to Sylvia, she said, in English, "Would you rather I went away, dear? I could wait on the staircase till you were ready for me to come back. It is not very pleasant to have one's fortune told when one is as young and as pretty as you are, before other people."
"Of course I don't mind your being here!" cried Sylvia Bailey, laughing—then, looking doubtfully at Madame Cagliostra, though it was obvious the Frenchwoman did not understand English, "The truth is that I should feel rather frightened if you were to leave me here all by myself. So please stay."
Madame Cagliostra began dealing out the cards on the table. First slowly, then quickly, she laid them out in a queer pattern; and as she did so she muttered and murmured to herself. Then a frown came over her face; she began to look disturbed, anxious, almost angry.
Sylvia, in spite of herself, grew interested and excited. She was sorry she had not taken off her wedding-ring. In England the wise woman always takes off her wedding-ring on going to see a fortune-teller. She was also rather glad that she had left her pearls in the safe custody of M. Girard. This little house in the Rue Jolie was a strange, lonely place.
Suddenly Madame Cagliostra began to speak in a quick, clear, monotonous voice.
Keeping her eyes fixed on the cards, which now and again she touched with a fat finger, and without looking at Sylvia, she said:
"Madame has led a very placid, quiet life. Her existence has been a boat that has always lain in harbour—" She suddenly looked up: "I spent my childhood at Dieppe, and that often suggests images to me," she observed complacently, and then she went on in quite another tone of voice:—
"To return to Madame and her fate! The boat has always been in harbour, but now it is about to put out to sea. It will meet there another craft. This other craft is, to Madame, a foreign craft, and I grieve to say it, rather battered. But its timbers are sound, and that is well, for it looks to me as if the sails of Madame's boat would mingle, at any rate for a time with this battered craft."
"I don't understand what she means," said Sylvia, in a whisper. "Do ask her to explain, Anna!"
"My friend asks you to drop metaphor," said the older woman, drily.
The soothsayer fixed her bright, beady little eyes on Sylvia's flushed face.
"Well," she said deliberately, "I see you falling in love, and I also see that falling in love is quite a new experience. It burns, it scorches you, does love, Madame. And for awhile you do not know what it means, for love has never yet touched you with his red-hot finger."
"How absurd!" thought Sylvia to herself. "She actually takes me for a young girl! What ridiculous mistakes fortune-tellers do make, to be sure!"
"—But you cannot escape love," went on Madame Cagliostra, eagerly. "Your fate is a fair man, which is strange considering that you also are a fair woman; and I see that there is already a dark man in your life."
Sylvia blushed. Bill Chester, just now the only man in her life, was a very dark man.
"But this fair man knows all the arts of love." Madame Cagliostra sighed, her voice softened, it became strangely low and sweet. "He will love you tenderly as well as passionately. And as for you, Madame—but no, for me to tell you what you will feel and what you will do would not be delicate on my part!"
Sylvia grew redder and redder. She tried to laugh, but failed. She felt angry, and not a little disgusted.
"You are a foreigner," went on Madame Cagliostra. Her voice had grown hard and expressionless again.
Sylvia smiled a little satiric smile.
"But though you are a foreigner," cried the fortune-teller with sudden energy, "it is quite possible that you will never go back to your own country! Stop—or, perhaps, I shall say too much! Still if you ever do go back, it will be as a stranger. That I say with certainty. And I add that I hope with all my heart that you will live to go back to your own country, Madame!"
Sylvia felt a vague, uneasy feeling of oppression, almost of fear, steal over her. It seemed to her that Madame Cagliostra was looking at her with puzzled, pitying eyes.
The soothsayer again put a fat and not too clean finger down on the upturned face of a card.
"There is something here I do not understand; something which I miss when I look at you as I am now looking at you. It is something you always wear—"
She gazed searchingly at Sylvia, and her eyes travelled over Mrs. Bailey's neck and bosom.
"I see them and yet they are not there! They appear like little balls of light. Surely it is a necklace?"
Sylvia looked extremely surprised. Now, at last, Madame Cagliostra was justifying her claim to a supernatural gift!
"These balls of light are also your Fate!" exclaimed the woman impetuously. "If you had them here—I care not what they be—I should entreat you to give them to me to throw away."
Madame Wolsky began to laugh. "I don't think you would do that," she observed drily.
But Madame Cagliostra did not seem to hear the interruption.
"Have you heard of a mascot?" she said abruptly. "Of a mascot which brings good fortune to its wearer?"
Sylvia bent her head. Of course she had heard of mascots.
"Well, if so, you have, of course, heard of objects which bring misfortune to their wearers—which are, so to speak, unlucky mascots?"
And this time it was Anna Wolsky who, leaning forward, nodded gravely. She attributed a run of bad luck she had had the year before to a trifling gift, twin cherries made of enamel, which a friend had given her, in her old home, on her birthday. Till she had thrown that little brooch into the sea, she had been persistently unlucky at play.
"Your friend," murmured Madame Cagliostra, now addressing herself to Anna and not to Sylvia, "should dispossess herself as quickly as possible of her necklace, of these round balls. They have already brought her ill-fortune in the past, they have lowered her in the estimation of an estimable person—in fact, if she is not very careful, indeed, even if she be very careful—it looks to me, Madame, as if they would end by strangling her!"
Sylvia became very uncomfortable. "Of course she means my pearls," she whispered. "But how absurd to say they could ever do me harm."
"Look here," said Anna Wolsky earnestly, "you are quite right, Madame; my friend has a necklace which has already played a certain part in her life. But is it not just because of this fact that you feel the influence of this necklace so strongly? I entreat you to speak frankly. You are really distressing me very much!"
Madame Cagliostra looked very seriously at the speaker.
"Well, perhaps it is so," she said at last. "Of course, we are sometimes wrong in our premonitions. And I confess that I feel puzzled—exceedingly puzzled—to-day. I do not know that I have ever had so strange a case as that of this English lady before me! I see so many roads stretching before her—I also see her going along more than one road. As a rule, one does not see this in the cards."
She looked really harassed, really distressed, and was still conning her cards anxiously.
"And yet after all," she cried suddenly, "I may be wrong! Perhaps the necklace has less to do with it than I thought! I do not know whether the necklace would make any real difference! If she takes one of the roads open to her, then I see no danger at all attaching to the preservation of this necklace. But the other road leads straight to the House of Peril."
"The House of Peril?" echoed Sylvia Bailey.
"Yes, Madame. Do you not know that all men and women have their House of Peril—the house whose threshold they should never cross—behind whose door lies misery, sometimes dishonour?"
"Yes," said Anna Wolsky, "that is true, quite true! There has been, alas! more than one House of Peril in my life." She added, "But what kind of place is my friend's House of Peril?"
"It is not a large house," said the fortune-teller, staring down at the shining surface of her table. "It is a gay, delightful little place, ladies—quite my idea of a pretty dwelling. But it is filled with horror unutterable to Madame. Ah! I entreat you"—she stared sadly at Sylvia—"to beware of unknown buildings, especially if you persist in keeping and in wearing your necklace."
"Do tell us, Madame, something more about my friend's necklace. Is it, for instance, of great value, and is it its value that makes it a source of danger?"
Anna Wolsky wondered very much what would be the answer to this question. She had had her doubts as to the genuineness of the pearls her friend wore. Pearls are so exquisitely imitated nowadays, and these pearls, if genuine, were of such great value!
At first she had not believed them to be real, then gradually she had become convinced of Sylvia's good faith. If the pearls were false, Sylvia did not know it.
But Madame Cagliostra's answer was disappointing—or prudent.
"I cannot tell you that," she said. "I cannot even tell you of what the necklace is composed. It may be of gold, of silver, of diamonds, of pearls—it may be, I'm inclined to think it is, composed of Egyptian scarabei. They, as you know, often bring terrible ill-fortune in their train, especially when they have been taken from the bodies of mummies. But the necklace has already caused this lady to quarrel with a very good and sure friend of hers—of that I am sure. And, as I tell you, I see in the future that this necklace may cause her very serious trouble—indeed, I see it wound like a serpent round her neck, pressing ever tighter and tighter—"
She suddenly began shuffling the cards. "And now," she said in a tone of relief, "I will deal with you, Madame," and she turned to Anna with a smile.
Sylvia drew her chair a little away from the table.
She felt depressed and uncomfortable. What an odd queer kind of fortune had been told her! And then it had all been so muddled. She could scarcely remember what it was that had been told her.
Two things, however, remained very clear in her mind: The one was the absurd prediction that she might never go back to her own country; the second was all that extraordinary talk about her pearls. As to the promised lover, the memory of the soothsayer's words made her feel very angry. No doubt Frenchwomen liked that sort of innuendo, but it only disgusted her.
Yet it was really very strange that Madame Cagliostra had known, or rather had divined, that she possessed a necklace by which she laid great store. But wasn't there such a thing as telepathy? Isn't it supposed by some people that fortune-tellers simply see into the minds of those who come to them, and then arrange what they see there according to their fancy?
That, of course, would entirely account for all that the fortune-teller had said about her pearls.
Sylvia always felt a little uncomfortable when her pearls were not lying round her pretty neck. The first time she had left them in the hotel bureau, at her new friend's request, was when they had been together to some place of amusement at night, and she had felt quite miserable, quite lost without them. She had even caught herself wondering whether M. Girard was perfectly honest, whether she could trust him not to have her dear pearls changed by some clever jeweller, though, to be sure, she felt she would have known her string of pearls anywhere!
* * * * *
But what was this that was going on between the other two?
Madame Cagliostra dealt out the pack of cards in a slow, deliberate fashion—and then she uttered a kind of low hoarse cry, and mixed the cards all together, hurriedly.
Getting up from the table, she exclaimed, "I regret, Madame, that I can tell you nothing—nothing at all! I feel ill—very ill!" and, indeed, she had turned, even to Sylvia's young and unobservant eyes, terribly pale.
For some moments the soothsayer stood staring into Anna Wolsky's astonished face.
"I know I've disappointed you, Mesdames, but I hope this will not prevent your telling your friends of my powers. Allow me to assure you that it is not often that I am taken in this way!"
Her voice had dropped to a whisper. She was now gazing down at the pack of cards which lay on the table with a look of horror and oppression on her face.
"I will only charge five francs," she muttered at last, "for I know that I have not satisfied you."
Sylvia sprang to the window. She tore apart the curtains and pulled up the sash.
"No wonder the poor woman feels faint," she said quickly. "It's absurd to sit with a window tight shut in this kind of room, which is little more than a box with three people in it!"
Madame Cagliostra had sunk down into her chair again.
"I must beg you to go away, Mesdames," she muttered, faintly. "Five francs is all I ask of you."
But Anna Wolsky was behaving in what appeared to Sylvia a very strange manner. She walked round to where the fortune-teller was sitting.
"You saw something in the cards which you do not wish to tell me?" she said imperiously. "I do not mind being told the truth. I am not a child."
"I swear I saw nothing!" cried the Frenchwoman angrily. "I am too ill to see anything. The cards were to me perfectly blank!"
In the bright sunlight now pouring into the little room the soothsayer looked ghastly, her skin had turned a greenish white.
"Mesdames, I beg you to excuse me," she said again. "If you do not wish to give me the five francs, I will not exact any fee."
She pointed with a shaking finger to the door, and Sylvia put a five-franc piece down on the table.
But before her visitors had quite groped their way to the end of the short, steep staircase, they heard a cry.
"Mesdames!" then after a moment's pause, "Mesdames, I implore you to come back!"
They looked at one another, and then Anna, putting her finger to her lips, went back up the stairs, alone.
"Well," she said, briefly, "I knew you had something to tell me. What is it?"
"No," said Madame Cagliostra dully. "I must have the other lady here, too. You must both be present to hear what I have to say."
Anna went to the door and called out, "Come up Sylvia! She wants to see us both together."
There was a thrill of excitement, of eager expectancy in Madame Wolsky's voice; and Sylvia, surprised, ran up again into the little room, now full of light, sun, and air.
"Stand side by side," ordered the soothsayer shortly. She stared at them for a moment, and then she said with extreme earnestness:—
"I dare not let you go away without giving you a warning. Your two fates are closely intertwined. Do not leave Paris for awhile, especially do not leave Paris together. I see you both running into terrible danger! If you do go away—and I greatly fear that you will do so—then I advise you, together and separately, to return to Paris as soon as possible."
"One question I must ask of you," said Anna Wolsky urgently. "How goes my luck? You know what I mean? I play!"
"It is not your luck that is threatened," replied the fortune-teller, solemnly; "on the contrary, I see wonderful luck; packets of bank-notes and rouleaux of gold! It is not your luck—it is something far, far more important that is in peril. Something which means far more to you even than your luck!"
The Polish woman smiled rather sadly.
"I wonder what that can be?" she exclaimed.
"It is your life!"
"My life?" echoed Anna. "I do not know that I value my life as much as you think I do."
"The English have a proverb, Madame, which says: 'A short life and a merry one.'"
"Can you predict that I shall have, if a short life, then a merry one?"
"Yes," said Madame Cagliostra, "that I can promise you." But there was no smile on her pale face. "And more, I can predict—if you will only follow my advice, if you do not leave Paris for, say"—she hesitated a moment, as if making a silent calculation—"twelve weeks, I can predict you, if not so happy a life, then a long life and a fairly merry one. Will you take my advice, Madame?" she went on, almost threateningly. "Believe me, I do not often offer advice to my clients. It is not my business to do so. But I should have been a wicked woman had I not done so this time. That is why I called you back."
"Is it because of something you have seen in the cards that you tender us this advice?" asked Anna curiously.
But Madame Cagliostra again looked strangely frightened.
"No, no!" she said hastily. "I repeat that the cards told me nothing. The cards were a blank. I could see nothing in them. But, of course, we do not only tell fortunes by cards"—she spoke very quickly and rather confusedly. "There is such a thing as a premonition."
She waited a moment, and then, in a business-like tone, added, "And now I leave the question of the fee to the generosity of these ladies!"
Madame Wolsky smiled a little grimly, and pulled out a twenty-franc piece.
The woman bowed, and murmured her thanks.
When they were out again into the roughly paved little street, Anna suddenly began to laugh.
"Now, isn't that a typical Frenchwoman? She really did feel ill, she really saw nothing in my cards, and, being an honest woman, she did not feel that she could ask us to pay! Then, when we had gone away, leaving only five francs, her thrift got the better of her honesty; she felt she had thrown away ten good francs! She therefore called us back, and gave us what she took to be very excellent advice. You see, I had told her that I am a gambler. She knows, as we all know, that to play for money is a foolish thing to do. She is aware that in Paris it is not very easy for a stranger to obtain admittance—especially if that stranger be a respectable woman—to a gambling club. She therefore said to herself, 'I will give this lady far more than ten francs' worth of advice. I will tell her not to go away! As long as she remains in Paris she cannot lose her money. If she goes to Dieppe, Trouville, any place where there is a Casino, she will lose her money. Therefore I am giving her invaluable advice—worth far more than the ten francs which she ought to be made to give me, and which she shall be made to give me!'"
"I suppose you are right," said Sylvia thoughtfully. "And yet—and yet—she certainly spoke very seriously, did she not, Anna? She seemed quite honestly—in fact, terribly afraid that we should go away together."
"But there is no idea of our going away together," said Madame Wolsky, rather crossly. "I only wish there were! You are going on to Switzerland to join your friends, and as for me, in spite of Madame Cagliostra's mysterious predictions, I shall, of course, go to some place—I think it will be Dieppe (I like the Dieppe Casino the best)—where I can play. And the memory of you, my dear little English friend, will be my mascot. You heard her say that I should be fortunate—that I should have an extraordinary run of good fortune?"
"Yes," said Sylvia, "but do not forget"—she spoke with a certain gravity; death was a very real thing to her, for she had seen in the last two years two deathbeds, that of her father, that of her husband—"do not forget, Anna, that she told you you would not live long if you went away."
"She was quite safe in saying that to me," replied the other hastily. "People who play—those who get the gambling fever into their system when they are still young—do not, as a rule, live very long. Their emotions are too strong, too often excited! Play should be reserved for the old—the old get so quickly deadened, they do not go through the terrible moments younger people do!"
On the morning after her visit to Madame Cagliostra, Sylvia Bailey woke later than usual. She had had a disturbed night, and it was pleasant to feel that she could spend a long restful day doing nothing, or only taking part in one of the gay little expeditions which make Paris to a stranger the most delightful of European capitals.
She opened wide both the windows of her room, and from outside there floated in a busy, happy murmur, for Paris is an early city, and nine o'clock there is equivalent to eleven o'clock in London.
She heard the picturesque street cries of the flower-sellers in the Avenue de l'Opera—"Beflower yourselves, gentlemen and ladies, beflower yourselves!"
The gay, shrill sounds floated in to her, and, in spite of her bad night and ugly dreams, she felt extraordinarily well and happy.
Cities are like people. In some cities one feels at home at once; others remain, however well acquainted we become with them, always strangers.
Sylvia Bailey, born, bred, married, widowed in an English provincial town, had always felt strange in London. But with Paris,—dear, delightful, sunny Paris,—she had become on the closest, the most affectionately intimate terms from the first day. She had only been here a month, and yet she already knew with familiar knowledge the quarter in which was situated her quiet little hotel, that wonderful square mile—it is not more—which has as its centre the Paris Opera House, and which includes the Rue de la Paix and the beginning of each of the great arteries of modern Paris.
And that was not all. Sylvia Bailey knew something of the France of the past. The quiet, clever, old-fashioned Frenchwoman by whom she had been educated had seen to that. She could wander through the narrow streets on the other side of the Seine, and reconstitute the amazing, moving, tragic things which happened there during the great Revolution.
She was now half sorry to think that in ten days or so she had promised to join some acquaintances in Switzerland. Luckily her trustee and would-be lover, Bill Chester, proposed to come out and join the party there. That was something to look forward to, for Sylvia was very fond of him, though he sometimes made her angry by his fussy ways. Chester had not approved of her going to Paris by herself, and he would certainly have shaken his head had he known of yesterday's visit to Madame Cagliostra.
And then Sylvia Bailey began to think of her new friend: of Anna Wolsky. She was sorry, very sorry, that they were going to part so soon. If only Anna would consent to come on with her to Switzerland! But alas! there was no chance of that, for there are no Casinos, no gambling, in the land of William Tell.
There came a knock at the door, and Madame Wolsky walked in. She was dressed for a journey.
"I have to go out of town this morning," she said, "but the place I am going to is quite near, and I shall be back this afternoon."
"Where are you going?" asked Sylvia, naively. "Or is it a secret?"
"No, it is not a secret." Anna smiled provokingly. "I am going to go to a place called Lacville. I do not suppose you have ever heard of Lacville, Sylvia?"
The other shook her head.
"I thought not," cried Anna, suddenly bursting out laughing. Then, "Good-bye!" she exclaimed, and she was gone before Sylvia could say anything else.
Lacville? There had been a sparkle, a look of life, of energy in Anna's face. Why was Anna Wolsky going to Lacville? There was something about the place concerning which she had chosen to be mysterious, and yet she had made no secret of going there.
Mrs. Bailey jumped out of bed, and dressed rather more quickly than usual.
It was a very hot day. In fact, it was unpleasantly hot. How delightful it would be to get into the country even for an hour. Why should she not also make her way to Lacville?
She opened the "Guide-Book to Paris and its Environs," of which she had made such good use in the last month, and looked up "Lacville" in the index.
Situated within a drive of the beautiful Forest of Montmorency, the pretty little town of Lacville is still famed for its healing springs and during the summer months of the year is much frequented by Parisians. There are frequent trains from the Gare du Nord.
No kind fairy whispered the truth to Sylvia—namely that this account is only half, nay, a quarter, or an eighth, of the truth.
Lacville is the spendthrift, the gambler—the austere would call her the chartered libertine—of the group of pretty country towns which encircle Paris; for Lacville is in the proud possession of a Gambling Concession which has gradually turned what was once the quietest of inland watering-places into a miniature Monte Carlo.
The vast majority of intelligent, cultivated English and American visitors to Paris remain quite unaware that there is, within half an hour of the French capital, such a spot; the minority, those tourists who do make their way to the alluring little place, generally live to regret it.
But Sylvia knew nothing, nay, less than nothing, of all this, and even if she had known, it would not have stayed her steps to-day.
She put on her hat and hurried down to the office. There M. Girard would doubtless tell her of a good train to Lacville, and if it were a small place she might easily run across Anna Wolsky.
M. Girard was a very busy man, yet he always found time for a talk with any foreign client of his hotel.
"I want to know," said Sylvia, smiling in spite of herself, for the hotel-keeper was such a merry-looking little man, and so utterly different from any English hotel-keeper she had ever seen!—"I want to know, M. Girard, which is the best way to a place called Lacville? Have you ever been there?"
"Lacville?" echoed M. Girard delightedly; but there came a rather funny look over his shrewd, round face. "Yes, indeed, I have been there, Madame! Not this season yet, but often last summer, and I shall be going there shortly again. I have a friend there—indeed, he is more than a friend, he is a relation of mine, who keeps the most select hotel at Lacville. It is called the Villa du Lac. Is Madame thinking of going to Lacville instead of to Switzerland?"
Sylvia shook her head. "Oh, no! But Madame Wolsky is there to-day, and I should have gone with her if I had been ready when she came down. It has turned so hot that I feel a few hours in the country would be pleasant, and I am quite likely to meet her, for I suppose Lacville is not a very large place, M. Girard?"
The hotel-keeper hesitated; he found it really difficult to give a true answer to this simple question.
"Lacville?" he repeated; "well—Dame! Lacville is Lacville! It is not like anything Madame has ever seen. On that I would lay my life. First, there is a most beautiful lake—that is, perhaps, the principal attraction;—then the villas of Lacville—ah! they are ravishingly lovely, and then there is also"—he fixed his black eyes on her—"a Casino."
"A Casino?" echoed Sylvia. She scarcely knew what a Casino was.
"But to see the Casino properly Madame must go at night, and it would be well if Madame were accompanied by a gentleman. I do not think Madame should go by herself, but if Madame really desires to see Lacville properly my wife and I will make a great pleasure to ourselves to accompany her there one Sunday night. It is very gay, is Lacville on Sunday night—or, perhaps," added M. Girard quickly, "Madame, being English, would prefer a Saturday night? Lacville is also very gay on Saturday nights."
"But is there anything going on there at night?" asked Sylvia, astonished. "I thought Lacville was a country place."
"There are a hundred and twenty trains daily from the Gare du Nord to Lacville," said the hotel-keeper drily. "A great many Parisians spend the evening there each day. They do not start till nine o'clock in the evening, and they are back, having spent a very pleasant, or sometimes an unpleasant, soiree, before midnight."
"A hundred and twenty trains!" repeated Sylvia, amazed. "But why do so many people want to go to Lacville?"
Again the hotel-keeper stared at her with a questioning look. Was it possible that pretty Madame Bailey did not know what was the real attraction of Lacville? Yet it was not his business to run the place down—as a matter of fact, he and his wife had invested nearly a thousand pounds of their hard-earned savings in their relation's hotel, the Villa du Lac. If Madame Bailey really wanted to leave salubrious, beautiful Paris for the summer, why should she not go to Lacville instead of to dull, puritanical, stupid Switzerland?
These thoughts rushed through the active brain of M. Girard with amazing quickness.
"Many people go to Lacville in order to play baccarat," he said lightly.
And then Sylvia knew why Anna Wolsky had gone to Lacville.
"But apart from the play, Lacville is a little paradise, Madame," he went on enthusiastically. "It is a beauteous spot, just like a scene in an opera. There is the romantic lake, edged with high, shady trees and princely villas—and then the gay, the delightful Casino!"
"And is there a train soon?"
"I will look Madame out a train this moment, and I will also give her one of my cousin Polperro's cards. Madame has, of course, heard of the Empress Eugenie? Well, the Villa du Lac once belonged to one of the Empress's gentlemen-in-waiting. The very highest nobility stay at the Villa du Lac with my cousin. At this very moment he has Count Paul de Virieu, the brother-in-law of a duke, among his clients—"
M. Girard had noticed the British fondness for titles.
"You see, Madame, my cousin was chef to the Emperor of Brazil's sister—this has given him a connection among the nobility. In the winter he has an hotel at Mentone," he was looking up the train while he chatted happily.
"There is a train every ten minutes," he said at last, "from the Gare du Nord. Or, if Madame prefers it, she could walk up from here to the Square of the Trinite and take the tramway; but it is quicker and pleasanter to go by train—unless, indeed, Madame wishes to offer herself the luxury of an automobile. That, alas! I fear would cost Madame twenty to thirty francs."
"Of course I will go by train," said Sylvia, smiling, "and I will lunch at your cousin's hotel, M. Girard."
It would be quite easy to find Anna, or so she thought, for Anna would be at the Casino. Sylvia felt painfully interested in her friend's love of gambling. It was so strange that Anna was not ashamed of it.
And then as she drove to the great railway terminus, from which a hundred and twenty trains start daily for Lacville, it seemed to Sylvia that the whole of Paris was placarded with the name of the place she was now about to visit for the first time!
On every hoarding, on every bare piece of wall, were spread large, flamboyant posters showing a garish but not unattractive landscape. There was the sun sparkling on a wide stretch of water edged with high trees, and gay with little sailing boats, each boat with its human freight of two lovers. Jutting out into the blue lake was a great white building, which Sylvia realised must be the Casino. And under each picture ran the words "Lacville-les-Bains" printed in very black letters.
When she got to the Gare du Nord the same advertisement stared down at her from the walls of the station and of the waiting-rooms.
It was certainly odd that she had never heard of Lacville, and that the place had never been mentioned to her by any of those of her English acquaintances who thought they knew Paris so well.
The Lacville train was full of happy, chattering people. In her first-class carriage she had five fellow-travellers—a man and woman and three children. They looked cheerful, prosperous people, and soon the husband and wife began talking eagerly together.
"I really think," said the lady suddenly, "that we might have chosen some other place than Lacville in which to spend to-day! There are many places the children would have enjoyed more."
"But there is no place," said her husband in a jovial tone, "where I can spend an amusing hour in the afternoon."
"Ah, my friend, I feared that was coming!" exclaimed his wife, shaking her head. "But remember what happened the last time we were at Lacville—I mean the afternoon when you lost seventy francs!"
"But you forget that other afternoon!" answered the man eagerly. "I mean the afternoon when I made a hundred francs, and bought you and the children a number of delightful little gifts with the money!"
Sylvia was amused. How quaint and odd French people were! She could not imagine such an interchange of words between an English husband and wife, especially before a stranger. And then her amusement was further increased, for the youngest child, a boy of about six, cried out that he also wished to go to the Casino with his dear papa.
"No, no, my sweet cabbage, that will happen quite soon enough, when thou art older! If thou art in the least like thy father, there will certainly come a time when thou also wilt go and lose well-earned money at the Tables," said his mother tenderly.
"But if I win, then I shall buy thee a present," said the sweet cabbage coaxingly.
Sylvia looked out of the window. These happy, chattering people made her feel lonely, and even a little depressed.
The country through which the train was passing was very flat and ugly—in fact, it could scarcely be called country at all. And when at last they drew up into the large station of what was once a quiet, remote village where Parisian invalids, too poor to go elsewhere, came to take medicinal waters, she felt a pang of disappointment. Lacville, as seen from the railway, is an unattractive place.
"Is this Madame's first visit to Lacville?" asked her fellow-traveller, helping her out of the railway carriage. "If so, Madame would doubtless like to make her way to the lake. Would she care to accompany us thither?"
Sylvia hesitated. She almost felt inclined to go back to Paris by the next train. She told herself that there was no hope of finding Anna in such a large place, and that it was unlikely that this dreary-looking town would offer anything in the least pleasant or amusing on a very hot day.
But "It will be enchanting by the lake!" she heard some one say eagerly. And this chance remark made up her mind for her. After all, she might as well go and see the lake, of which everyone who mentioned Lacville spoke so enthusiastically.
Down the whole party swept along a narrow street, bordered by high white houses, shabby cafes, and little shops. Quite a crowd had left the station, and they were all now going the same way.
A turn in the narrow street, and Sylvia uttered a low cry of pleasure and astonishment!
Before her, like a scene in a play when the curtain is rung up, there suddenly appeared an immense sunlit expanse of water, fringed by high trees, and bordered by quaint, pretty chalets and villas, fantastic in shape, and each surrounded by a garden, which in many cases ran down to the edge of the lake.
To the right, stretching out over the water, its pinnacles and minarets reflected in blue translucent depths, rose what looked like a great white marble palace.
"Is it not lovely?" said the Frenchman eagerly. "And the water of the lake is so shallow, Madame, there is no fear of anyone being drowned in it! That is such an advantage when one has children."
"And it is a hundred times more charming in the afternoon," his wife chimed in, happily, "for then the lake is so full of little sailing-boats that you can hardly see the water. Oh, it is gay then, very gay!"
She glanced at Mrs. Bailey's pretty grey muslin dress and elegant parasol.
"I suppose Madame is going to one of the great restaurants? As for us, we shall make our way into a wood and have our luncheon there. It is expensive going to a restaurant with children."
She nodded pleasantly, with the easy, graceful familiarity which foreigners show in their dealings with strangers; and, shepherding their little party along, the worthy pair went briskly off by the broad avenue which girdles the lake.
Again Sylvia felt curiously alone. She was surrounded on every side by groups of merry-looking people, and already out on the lake there floated tiny white-sailed boats, each containing a man and a girl.
Everyone seemed to have a companion or companions; she alone was solitary. She even found herself wondering what she was doing there in a foreign country, by herself, when she might have been in England, in her own pleasant house at Market Dalling!
She took out of her bag the card which the landlord of the Hotel de l'Horloge had pressed upon her. "Hotel Pension, Villa du Lac, Lacville."
She went up rather timidly to a respectable-looking old bourgeois and his wife. "Do you know," she asked, "where is the Villa du Lac?"
"Certainly, Madame," answered the old man amiably. "It is there, close to you, not a hundred yards away. That big white house to our left." And then, with that love of giving information which possesses so many Frenchman, he added:
"The Villa du Lac once belonged to the Marquis de Para, who was gentleman-in-waiting to the Empress Eugenie. He and his family lived on here long after the war, in fact"—he lowered his voice—"till the Concession was granted to the Casino. You know what I mean? The Gambling Concession. Since then the world of Lacville has become rather mixed, as I have reason to know, for my wife and I have lived here fifteen years. The Marquis de Para sold his charming villa. He was driven away, like so many other excellent people. So the Villa du Lac is now an hotel, where doubtless Madame has friends?"
Sylvia bowed and thanked him. Yes, the Villa du Lac even now looked like a delightful and well-kept private house, rather than like an hotel. It stood some way back—behind high wrought-steel and gilt gates—from the sandy road which lay between it and the lake, and the stone-paved courtyard was edged with a line of green tubs, containing orange trees.
Sylvia walked through the gates, which stood hospitably open, and when she was half-way up the horseshoe stone-staircase which led to the front door, a man, dressed in the white dress of a French chef, and bearing an almost ludicrous resemblance to M. Girard, came hurrying out.
"Madame Bailey?" he exclaimed joyously, and bowing very low. "Have I the honour of greeting Madame Bailey? My cousin telephoned to me that you might be coming, Madame, to dejeuner!" And as Sylvia smiled in assent: "I am delighted, I am honoured, by the visit of Madame Bailey!"
Sylvia laughed outright. She really could not help it! It was very nice and thoughtful of M. Girard to have telephoned to his cousin. But how dreadful it would have been if she had gone straight back to Paris from the station. All these kind people would have had their trouble for nothing.
M. Polperro was a shrewd Southerner, and he had had the sense to make but few alterations to the Villa du Lac. It therefore retained something of the grand air it had worn in the days when it had been the property of a Court official. The large, cool, circular hall into which the hotel-keeper ushered Sylvia was charming, as were the long, finely decorated reception-rooms on either side.
The dining-room, filled with small oval tables, to which M. Polperro next led his honoured guest, had been built out since the house had become an hotel. It commanded a view of the lake on the one side, and of the large, shady garden of the villa on the other.
"I have arranged for Madame a little table in what we call the lake window," observed M. Polperro. "As yet Lacville is very empty. Paris is so delightful," he sighed, "but very soon, when the heat comes, Lacville will be quite full," he smiled joyously. "I myself have a very choice clientele—I do not deal with rubbish." He drew himself up proudly. "My clients come back to me year after year. Already I have six visitors, and in ten days my pension will be au grand complet. It is quality, not quantity, that I desire, Madame. If ever you know anyone who wishes to come to Lacville you may safely recommend them—I say it with my hands on my heart," and he suited his action to his words—"to the Villa du Lac."
How delightful it all was to Sylvia Bailey! No wonder her feeling of depression and loneliness vanished.
As she sat down, and looked out of the bay window which commanded the whole length of the gleaming, sun-flecked lake, she told herself that, pleasant as was Paris, Lacville on a hot day was certainly a hundred times pleasanter than Paris.
And the Casino? Sylvia fixed her blue eyes on the white, fairy-like group of buildings, which were so attractive an addition to the pretty landscape.
Surely one might spend a pleasant time at Lacville and never play for money? Though she was inclined to feel that in this matter of gambling English people are curiously narrow. It was better to be philosophical about it, like that excellent Frenchwoman in the train, who had not grudged her husband a little amusement, even if it entailed his losing what she had described as "hard-earned money."
Though she had to wait nearly half an hour for her meal, the time passed quickly; and when at last dejeuner was served to her well and deftly by a pleasant-faced young waitress dressed in Breton costume, each item of the carefully-prepared meal was delicious. M. Polperro had not been chef to a Princess for nothing.
Sylvia Bailey was not greedy, but like most healthy people she enjoyed good food, and she had very seldom tasted quite such good food as that which was served to her at the Hotel du Lac on this memorable June day.
She had almost finished her luncheon when a fair young man came in and sat down at a small table situated at the other end of the dining-room, close to the window overlooking the garden of the Villa du Lac.
As the young man came into the dining-room he glanced over to where Mrs. Bailey was sitting and then he looked away, and, unfolding his table napkin, paid no more attention to the only other occupant of the room.
Now this was a very trifling fact, and yet it surprised our young Englishwoman; she had become accustomed to the way in which Frenchmen, or perhaps it would be more true to say Parisians, stare at a pretty woman in the streets, in omnibuses, and in shops. As for the dining-room of the Hotel de l'Horloge, it always seemed full of eyes when she and Anna Wolsky were having lunch or dinner there.
Now, for the first time, she found herself close to a Frenchman without feeling either uncomfortably or amusingly aware of a steady, unwinking stare. It was quite an odd sensation to find herself thus neglected!
Without actually looking round, Sylvia, out of the corner of her blue eye, could see this exceptional Frenchman. He was dressed in white flannels, and he wore rather bright pink socks and a pink tie to match. He must be, she decided, something of a dandy. Though still a young man, he was rather bald, and he had a thick fair moustache. He looked bored and very grave; she could not help wondering why he was staying at Lacville.
M. Polperro suddenly appeared at the door. "Would M. le Comte prefer scrambled eggs or an omelette?" he asked obsequiously, and "M. le Comte" lifted his head and answered shortly, but with a smile, "Scrambled eggs, my good Polperro."
Doubtless this was the gentleman who was brother-in-law of the French Duke mentioned by M. Girard. He spoke to the chef with the kindly familiarity born of long knowledge.
After having given the Count his scrambled eggs, the young waitress came over to where Sylvia was sitting. "Would Madame like to have her coffee in the garden?" she asked; and Sylvia said that she would.
How enchanting was the garden of the Villa du Lac, and how unlike any hotel garden she had ever seen! The smooth, wide lawn was shaded with noble cedars and bright green chestnut trees; it was paradise compared with the rather stuffy little Hotel de l'Horloge and the dusty Paris streets.
M. Polperro himself brought Sylvia's coffee. Then he stayed on talking to her, for like all clever hotel-keepers the Southerner had the gift of making those who were staying in his house feel as if they were indeed his guests rather than his clients.
"If Madame should ever care to make a little stay at Lacville, how happy Madame Polperro and I would be!" he exclaimed. "I have a beautiful room overlooking the lake which I could give Madame. It was reserved for a Russian Princess, but now she is not coming—"
"Perhaps I will come and stay here some day," said Sylvia, and she really felt as if she would like to come and stay in the Villa du Lac. "But I am going to Switzerland next week, so it will have to be the next time I come to France in the summer."
"Does Madame play?" asked M. Polperro, insinuatingly.
"I?" said Sylvia, laughing. "No, indeed! Of course, I play bridge—all English people play bridge—but I have never gambled, if you mean that, monsieur, in my life."
"I am delighted to hear Madame say so," said M. Polperro, heartily. "People now talk of Lacville as if there was only the Casino and the play. They forget the beautiful walks, the lovely lake, and the many other attractions we have to offer! Why, Madame, think of the Forest of Montmorency? In old days it was quite a drive from Lacville, but now a taxi or an automobile will get you there in a few minutes! Still the Casino is very attractive too; and all my clients belong to the Club!"
Sylvia stayed on for nearly an hour in the delightful, peaceful garden, and then, rather regretfully, she went up the lichen-covered steps which led into the hall. How deliciously cool and quiet it was there.
She paid her bill; it seemed very moderate considering how good her lunch had been, and then slowly made her way out of the Villa du Lac, down across the stone-flagged courtyard to the gate, and so into the sanded road.
Crossing over, she began walking by the edge of the lake; and once more loneliness fell upon her. The happy-looking people who passed her laughing and talking together, and the more silent couples who floated by on the water in the quaint miniature sailing boats with which the surface of the lake was now dotted, were none of them alone.
Suddenly the old parish church of Lacville chimed out the hour—it was only one o'clock—amazingly early still!
Someone coming across the road lifted his hat. Could it be to her? Yes, for it was the young man who had shared with her, for a time, the large dining-room of the Villa du Lac.
Again Sylvia was struck by what she could only suppose were the stranger's good manners, for instead of staring at her, as even the good-humoured bourgeois with whom she had travelled from Paris that morning had done, the Count—she remembered he was a Count—turned sharply to the right and walked briskly along to the turning which led to the Casino.
The Casino? Why, of course, it was there that she must look for Anna Wolsky. How stupid of her not to have thought of it! And so, after waiting a moment, she also joined the little string of people who were wending their way towards the great white building.
After having paid a franc for admission, Sylvia found herself in the hall of the Casino of Lacville. An eager attendant rushed forward to relieve her of the dust-cloak and parasol which she was carrying.
"Does Madame wish to go straight to the Room of the Games?" he inquired eagerly.
Sylvia bent her head. It was there, or so she supposed, that Anna would be.
Feeling a thrill of keen curiosity, she followed the man through a prettily-decorated vestibule, and so into a large room, overlooking the lake, where already a crowd of people were gathered round the green baize tables.
The Salle des Jeux at Lacville is a charming, conservatory-like apartment, looking, indeed, as if it were actually built out on the water.
But none of the people were looking at the beautiful scene outside. Instead, each group was intent on the table, and on the game being played thereon—a game, it may be mentioned, which has a certain affinity with Roulette and Petits Chevaux, though it is neither the one nor the other.
Sylvia looked about her timidly; but no one took the slightest notice of her, and this in itself was rather strange. She was used to exciting a good deal of attention wherever she went in France, but here, at Lacville, everyone seemed blind to her presence. It was almost as if she were invisible! In a way this was a relief to her; but at the same time, she found it curiously disconcerting.
She walked slowly round each gambling table, keeping well outside the various circles of people sitting and standing there.
Strange to say Anna Wolsky was not among them. Of that fact Sylvia soon became quite sure.
At last a servant in livery came up to her. "Does Madame want a seat?" he asked officiously. "If so, I can procure Madame a seat in a very few moments."
But Sylvia, blushing, shook her head. She certainly had no wish to sit down.
"I only came in to look for a friend," she said, hesitatingly; "but my friend is not here."
And she was making her way out of the Salle des Jeux, feeling rather disconsolate and disappointed, when suddenly, in the vestibule, she saw Madame Wolsky walking towards her in the company of a middle-aged man.
"Then that is settled?" Sylvia heard Anna say in her indifferent French. "You will fill up all the formalities, and by the time I arrive the card of membership will be ready for me? This kind of thing"—she waved her hand towards the large room Sylvia had just left—"is no use to me at all! I only like le Grand Jeu"; and a slight smile came over her dark face.
The man who was with her laughed as if she had made a good joke; then bowing, he left her.
Mrs. Bailey fancied that the other was not particularly sorry to have been followed.
"So you came after me? Well! Well! I never should have thought to have seen my dear Puritan, Sylvia Bailey, in such a place as the Casino of Lacville?" said the Polish lady laughing. "However, as you are here, let us enjoy ourselves. Would you like to risk a few francs?"
Together they had gone back into the Salle des Jeux, and Anna drew Sylvia towards the nearest table.
"This is a child's game!" she exclaimed, contemptuously. "I cannot understand how all these clever Parisians can care to come out here and lose their money every Saturday and Sunday, to say nothing of other days!"
"But I suppose some of these people make money?" questioned Sylvia. She thought she saw a great deal of money being won, as well as lost, on the green cloth of the table before her.
"Oh yes, no doubt a few may make money at this game! But I have just been arranging, with the aid of the owner of the Pension where I am going to stay when I come here, to join the Club."
And then, realising that Sylvia did not understand, she went on.
"You see, my dear child, there are two kinds of play here—as there are, indeed, at almost every Casino in France. There is this game, which is, as I say, a child's game—a game at which you can make or lose a few francs; and then there is Baccarat!"
She waited a moment.
"Yes?" said Sylvia questioningly.
"Baccarat is played here in what they call the Club, in another part of the building. As there is an entrance fee to the Club, there is never such a crowd in the Baccarat Room as there is here. And those who belong to the Club 'mean business,' as they say in your dear country. They come, that is, to play in the way that I understand and that I enjoy play!"
A little colour rose to Anna Wolsky's sallow cheeks; she looked exhilarated, excited at the thoughts and memories her words conjured up.
Sylvia also felt curiously excited. She found the scene strangely fascinating—the scene presented by this crowd of eager men and women, each and all absorbed in this mysterious game which looked anything but a child's game, though Anna had called it so.
But as they were trying to make their way through the now dense crowd of people, the middle-aged man who had been with Anna when Sylvia had first seen her just now hurried up to them.
"Everything is arranged, Madame!" he exclaimed. "Here is your membership card. May I have the pleasure of taking you myself to the Club? Your friend can come too. She does not want to play, does she?"
He looked inquisitively at Sylvia, and his hard face softened. He had your true Frenchman's pleasure in charm and beauty. "Madame, or is it Mademoiselle?—"
"Madame!" answered Anna, smiling.
"—Madame can certainly come in and look on for a few moments, even though she be not a member of the Club."
They turned and followed him up a broad, shallow staircase, into a part of the Casino where the very atmosphere seemed different from that surrounding the public gaming tables.
Here, in the Club, all was hushed and quiet, and underfoot was a thick carpet.
There were very few people in the Baccarat Room, some twelve men, and four or five ladies who were broken up into groups, and talking with one another in the intimate, desultory fashion in which people talk who meet daily in pursuit of some common interest or hobby.
And then, all at once, Sylvia Bailey saw that among them, but standing a little apart, was the Count—was not his name de Virieu?
He turned round, and as he saw her she thought that a look of surprise, almost of annoyance, flitted over his impassive face. Then he moved away from where he could see her.
A peculiar-looking old gentleman, who seemed on kindly terms with everyone in the room, pulled a large turnip watch out of his pocket. "It is nearly half-past one!" he exclaimed fussily. "Surely, it is time that we began! Who takes the Bank to-day?"
"I will," said the Comte de Virieu, coming forward.
Five minutes later play was in full swing. Sylvia did not in the least understand the game of Baccarat, and she would have been surprised indeed had she been told that the best account of it ever written is that which describes it as "neither a recreation nor an intellectual exercise, but simply a means for the rapid exchange of money well suited to persons of impatient temperament."
With fascinated eyes, Sylvia watched Anna put down her gold pieces on the green cloth. Then she noted the cards as they were dealt out, and listened, it must be admitted, uncomprehendingly, to the mysterious words which told how the game was going. Still she sympathised very heartily with her friend when Anna's gold pieces were swept away, and she rejoiced as heartily when gold was added to Anna's little pile.
They both stood, refusing the seats which were pressed upon them.
Suddenly Sylvia Bailey, looking up from the green cloth, saw the eyes of the man who held the Bank fixed full upon her.
The Comte de Virieu did not gaze at the young English woman with the bold, impersonal stare to which she had become accustomed—his glance was far more thoughtful, questioning, and in a sense kindly. But his eyes seemed to pierce her through and through, and suddenly her heart began to beat very fast. Yet no colour came into her face—indeed, Sylvia grew pale.
She looked down at the table, but even so she remained conscious of that piercing gaze turned on her, and with some surprise she found herself keenly visualising the young man's face.
Alone among all the people in the room, the Comte de Virieu looked as if he lived a more or less outdoor life; his face was tanned, his blue eyes were very bright, and the hands dealing out the cards were well-shaped and muscular. Somehow he looked very different, she could hardly explain how or why, from the men round him.
At last she moved round, so as to avoid being opposite to him.
Yes, she felt more comfortable now, and slowly, almost insensibly, the glamour of play began to steal over Sylvia Bailey's senses. She began to understand the at once very simple and, to the uninitiated, intricate game of Baccarat—to long, as Anna Wolsky longed, for the fateful nine, eight, five, and four to be turned up.
She had fifty francs in her purse, and she ached to risk a gold piece.
"Do you think I might put down ten francs?" she whispered to Anna.
And the other laughed, and exclaimed, "Yes, of course you can!"
Sylvia put down a ten-franc piece, and a moment later it had become twenty francs.
"Leave it on," murmured Anna, "and see what happens—"
Sylvia followed her friend's advice, and a larger gold piece was added to the two already there.
She took up the forty francs with a curious thrill of joy and fear.
But then an untoward little incident took place. One of the liveried men-servants stepped forward. "Has Madame got her card of membership?" he inquired smoothly.
Sylvia blushed painfully. No, she had not got a card of membership—and there had been an implied understanding that she was only to look on, not play.
She felt terribly ashamed—a very unusual feeling for Sylvia Bailey—and the gold pieces she held in her hand, for she had not yet put them in her purse, felt as if they burnt her.
But she found a friend, a defender in an unexpected quarter. The Count rose from the table. He said a few words in a low tone to the servant, and the man fell back.
"Of course, this young lady may play," he addressed Anna, "and as Banker I wish her all good luck! This is probably her first and her last visit to Lacville." He smiled pleasantly, and a little sadly. Sylvia noticed that he had a low, agreeable voice.
"Take her away, Madame, when she has won a little more! Do not give her time to lose what she has won."
He spoke exactly as if Sylvia was a child. She felt piqued, and Madame Wolsky stared at him rather haughtily. Still, she was grateful for his intervention.
"We thank you, Monsieur," she said stiffly. "But I think we have been here quite long enough."
He bowed, and again sat down.
"I will now take you a drive, Sylvia. We have had sufficient of this!"
Anna walked towards the door, and many were the curious glances now turned after the two friends.
"It will amuse you to see something of Lacville. As that gentleman said, I do not suppose you will ever come here again. And, as I shall spend most of my time in the Casino, I can very well afford to spare a little while out of it to-day!"
They made their way out of the great white building, Sylvia feeling oppressed, almost bewildered, by her first taste of gambling.
It was three o'clock, and very hot. They hailed one of the little open carriages which are among the innocent charms of Lacville.
"First you will go round the lake," said Madame Wolsky to the driver, "and then you will take us to the Pension Malfait, in l'Avenue des Acacias."
Under shady trees, bowling along sanded roads lined with pretty villas and chalets, they drove all round the lake, and more and more the place impressed Sylvia as might have done a charming piece of scene-painting.
All the people they passed on the road, in carriages, in motor-cars, and on foot, looked happy, prosperous, gay, and without a care in the world; and where in the morning there had been one boat, there were now five sailing on the blue, gleaming waters fringed with trees and flowering shrubs.
At last they once more found themselves close to the Casino. A steady stream of people was now pouring in through the great glass doors.
"This sort of thing will go on up till about nine this evening!" said Anna, smiling grimly. "Think, my dear—a hundred and twenty trains daily! That room in the Casino where I first saw you will be crammed to suffocation within an hour, and even the Club will be well filled, though I fancy the regular habitues of the club are rather apt to avoid Saturday and Sunday at Lacville. I myself, when living here, shall try to do something else on those two days. By the way—how dreadful that I should forget!—have you had a proper dejeuner?" she looked anxiously at Sylvia.
Sylvia laughed, and told something of her adventures at the Villa du Lac.
"The Villa du Lac? I have heard of it, but surely it's an extremely expensive hotel? The place I've chosen for myself is farther away from the Casino; but the distance will force me to take a walk every day, and that will be a very good thing. Last time I was at Monte Carlo I had a lodging right up in Monaco, and I found that a very much healthier plan than to live close to the Casino," Anna spoke quite seriously. "The Pension Malfait is really extraordinarily cheap for a place near Paris. I am only going to pay fifty-five francs a week, tout compris!"
They had now turned from the road encircling the lake, and were driving through leafy avenues which reminded Sylvia of a London suburb where she had once stayed.
The chalets and villas by which they passed were not so large nor so prosperous-looking as those that bordered the lake, but still many of them were pretty and fantastic-looking little houses, and the gardens were gay with flowers.
"I suppose no one lives here in the winter!" said Sylvia suddenly.
She had noticed, for in some ways she was very observant though in other ways strangely unseeing, that all the flowers were of the bedding-out varieties; there were luxuriant creepers, but not a single garden that she passed had that indefinable look of being an old or a well-tended garden.
"In the winter? Why, in the winter Lacville is an absolute desert," said Anna laughing. "You see, the Casino only has a summer Concession; it cannot open till April 15. Of course there are people who will tell you that Lacville is the plague-pit of Paris, but that's all nonsense! Lacville is neither better nor worse than other towns near the capital!"
The carriage had now drawn up before a large, plain, white house, across which was painted in huge, black letters, "Hotel-Pension Malfait."
"This is the place I have found!" exclaimed Anna. "Would you care to come in and see the room I've engaged from next Monday week?"
Sylvia followed her into the house with curiosity and interest. Somehow she did not like the Pension Malfait, though it was clear that it had once been a handsome private mansion standing in large grounds of its own. The garden, however, had now been cut down to a small strip, and the whole place formed a great contrast to the gay and charming Villa du Lac.
What garden there was seemed uncared for, though an attempt had been made to make it look pretty with the aid of a few geraniums and marguerites.
M. Malfait, the proprietor of the Pension, whom Sylvia had already seen with Anna at the Casino, now came forward in the hall, and Sylvia compared him greatly to his disadvantage, to the merry M. Polperro.
"Madame has brought her friend?" he said eagerly, and staring at Sylvia as he spoke. "I hope that Madame's friend will come and stay with us too? I have a charming room which I could give this lady; but later on we shall be very full—full all the summer! The hot weather is a godsend for Lacville; for it drives the Parisians out from their unhealthy city."
He beckoned to his wife, a disagreeable-looking woman who was sitting in a little glass cage made in an angle of the square hall.
"Madame Wolsky has brought this good lady to see our Pension!" he exclaimed, "and perhaps she is also coming to stay with us—"
In vain Sylvia smilingly shook her head. She was made to go all over the large, rather gloomy house, and to peep into each of the bare, ugly bed-rooms.
That which Anna had engaged had a window looking over the back of the house; Sylvia thought it singularly cheerless. There was, however, a good arm-chair and a writing-table on which lay a new-looking blotter. It was the only bed-room containing such a luxury.
"An English lady was staying here not very long ago," observed M. Malfait, "and she bought that table and left it to me as a little gift when she went away. That was very gracious on her part!"
They glanced into the rather mournful-looking salon, of which the windows opened out on the tiny garden. And then M. Malfait led them proudly into the dining-room, with its one long table, running down the middle, on which at intervals were set dessert dishes filled with the nuts, grapes, and oranges of which Sylvia had already become so weary at the Hotel de l'Horloge.
"My clientele," said M. Malfait gravely, "is very select and chic. Those of my guests who frequent the Casino all belong to the Club!"
He stated the fact proudly, and Sylvia was amused to notice that in this matter he and mine host at the Villa du Lac apparently saw eye to eye. Both were eager to dissociate themselves from the ordinary gambler who lost or won a few francs in those of the gambling rooms open to the general public.
"Well," said Anna at last, "I suppose we had better leave now, but we might as well go on driving for about an hour, and then, when it is a little cooler, we will go back to Paris and be there in time for tea."
The driver was as good-natured as everyone else at Lacville seemed to be. He drove his fares away from the town, and so to the very outskirts of Lacville, where there were many charming bits of wild woodland and gardens up for sale.
"Even five years ago," he said, "much of this was forest, Mesdames; but now—well, Dame!—you can understand people are eager to sell. There are rumours that the Concession may be withdrawn from the Casino—that would be terrible, some say it would kill Lacville! It would be all the same to me, I should always find work elsewhere. But it makes everyone eager to sell—those, I mean, who have land at Lacville. There are others," continued the man—he had turned round on his seat, and the horse was going at a foot's pace—"who declare that it would be far better for the town—that there would be a more solid population established here—you understand, Mesdames, what I mean? The Lacville tradesmen would be as pleased, quite as pleased, or so some of them say; but, all the same, they are selling their land!"
When the two friends finally got back to the Hotel de l'Horloge, Sylvia Bailey found that a letter, which had not been given to her that morning, contained the news that the English friends whom she had been expecting to join in Switzerland the following week had altered their plans, and were no longer going abroad.
Sylvia could hardly have said how it came about that she found herself established in the Villa du Lac only a week after her first visit to Lacville! But so it was, and she found the change a delightful one from every point of view.
Paris had suddenly become intolerably hot. As is the way with the Siren city when June is half-way through, the asphalt pavements radiated heat; the air was heavy, laden with strange, unpleasing odours; and even the trees, which form such delicious oases of greenery in the older quarters of the town were powdered with grey dust.
Also Anna Wolsky had become restless—quite unlike what she had been before that hour spent by her and by Sylvia Bailey in the Club at Lacville; she had gone back there three times, refusing, almost angrily, the company of her English friend. For a day or two Sylvia had thought seriously of returning to England, but she had let her pretty house at Market Dalling till the end of August; and, in spite of the heat, she did not wish to leave France.
Towards the end of the week Anna suddenly exclaimed:
"After all, why shouldn't you come out to Lacville, Sylvia? You can't go to Switzerland alone, and you certainly don't want to go on staying in Paris as Paris is now! I do not ask you to go to the Pension Malfait, but come to the Villa du Lac. You will soon make acquaintances in that sort of place—I mean," she added, "in your hotel, not in the town. We could always spend the mornings together—"
"—And I, too, could join the Club at the Casino," interjected Sylvia, smiling.
"No, no, I don't want you to do that!" exclaimed Anna hastily.
And then Sylvia, for some unaccountable reason, felt rather irritated. It was absurd of Anna to speak to her like that! Bill Chester, her trustee, and sometime lover, always treated her as if she was a child, and a rather naughty child, too; she would not allow Anna Wolsky to do so.
"I don't see why not!" she cried. "You yourself say that there is no harm in gambling if one can afford it."
* * * * *
This was how Sylvia Bailey came to find herself an inmate of the Villa du Lac at Lacville; and when once the owner of the Hotel de l'Horloge had understood that in any case she meant to leave Paris, he had done all in his power to make her going to his relation, mine host of the Villa du Lac, easy and agreeable.
Sylvia learnt with surprise that she would have to pay very little more at the Villa du Lac than she had done at the Hotel de l'Horloge; on the other hand, she could not there have the use of a sitting-room, for the good reason that there were no private sitting-rooms in the villa. But that, so she told herself, would be no hardship, and she could spend almost the whole of the day in the charming garden.
The two friends arrived at Lacville late in the afternoon, and on a Monday, that is on the quietest day of the week. And when Anna had left Sylvia at the Villa du Lac, driving off alone to her own humbler pension, the young Englishwoman, while feeling rather lonely, realised that M. Polperro had not exaggerated the charm of his hostelry.