THE GOLDEN SILENCE
C. N. and A. M. WILLIAMSON
THE MOTOR MAID LORD LOVELAND DISCOVERS AMERICA SET IN SILVER THE LIGHTNING CONDUCTOR THE PRINCESS PASSES MY FRIEND THE CHAUFFEUR LADY BETTY ACROSS THE WATER ROSEMARY IN SEARCH OF A FATHER THE PRINCESS VIRGINIA THE CAR OF DESTINY THE CHAPERON
"'Allah sends thee a man—a strong man, whose brain and heart and arm are at thy service'"
THE GOLDEN SILENCE
C.N. & A.M. WILLIAMSON
Illustrated by GEORGE BREHM
GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1911
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY C. N. & A. M. WILLIAMSON
THE GOLDEN SILENCE
Stephen Knight was very angry, though he meant to be kind and patient with Margot. Perhaps, after all, she had not given the interview to the newspaper reporter. It might be what she herself would call a "fake." But as for her coming to stop at a big, fashionable hotel like the Carlton, in the circumstances she could hardly have done anything in worse taste.
He hated to think that she was capable of taking so false a step. He hated to think that it was exactly like her to take it. He hated to be obliged to call on her in the hotel; and he hated himself for hating it.
Knight was of the world that is inclined to regard servants as automata; but he was absurdly self-conscious as he saw his card on a silver tray, in the hand of an expressionless, liveried youth who probably had the famous interview in his pocket. If not there, it was only because the paper would not fit in. The footman had certainly read the interview, and followed the "Northmorland Case" with passionate interest, for months, from the time it began with melodrama, and turned violently to tragedy, up to the present moment when (as the journalists neatly crammed the news into a nutshell) "it bade fair to end with marriage-bells."
Many servants and small tradespeople in London had taken shares, Stephen had heard, as a speculative investment, in the scheme originated to provide capital for the "other side," which was to return a hundred per cent. in case of success. Probably the expressionless youth was inwardly reviling the Northmorland family because he had lost his money and would be obliged to carry silver trays all the rest of his life, instead of starting a green grocery business. Stephen hoped that his own face was as expressionless, as he waited to receive the unwelcome message that Miss Lorenzi was at home.
It came very quickly, and in a worse form than Stephen had expected. Miss Lorenzi was in the Palm Court, and would Mr. Knight please come to her there?
Of course he had to obey; but it was harder than ever to remain expressionless.
There were a good many people in the Palm Court, and they all looked at Stephen Knight as he threaded his intricate way among chairs and little tables and palms, toward a corner where a young woman in black crape sat on a pink sofa. Her hat was very large, and a palm with enormous fan-leaves drooped above it like a sympathetic weeping willow on a mourning brooch. But under the hat was a splendidly beautiful dark face.
"Looks as if he were on his way to be shot," a man who knew all about the great case said to a woman who had lunched with him.
"Looks more as if he were on his way to shoot," she laughed, as one does laugh at other people's troubles, which are apt to be ridiculous. "He's simply glaring."
"Poor beggar!" Her companion found pleasure in pitying Lord Northmorland's brother, whom he had never succeeded in getting to know. "Which is he, fool or hero?"
"Both. A fool to have proposed to the girl. A hero to stick to her, now he has proposed. He must be awfully sick about the interview. I do think it's excuse enough to throw her over."
"I don't know. It's the sort of business a man can't very well chuck, once he's let himself in for it. Every one blames him now for having anything to do with Miss Lorenzi. They'd blame him a lot more for throwing her over."
"No. Because he happens to be young and good-looking. But all his popularity won't make the women who like him receive his wife. She isn't a woman's woman."
"I should think not, indeed! We're too clever to be taken in by that sort, all eyes and melodrama. They say Lord Northmorland warned his brother against her, and prophesied she'd get hold of him, if he didn't let her alone. The Duchess of Amidon told Lady Peggy Lynch—whom I know a little—that immediately after Lorenzi committed suicide, this Margot girl wrote to Stephen Knight and implored him to help her. I can quite believe she would. Fancy the daughter of the unsuccessful claimant to his brother's title writing begging letters to a young man like Stephen Knight! It appeals to one's sense of humour."
"What a pity Knight didn't see it in that light—what?"
"Yet he has a sense of humour, I believe. It's supposed to be one of his charms. But the sense of humour often fails where one's own affairs are concerned. You know he's celebrated for his quaint ideas about life. They say he has socialistic views, or something rather like them. His brother and he are as different from one another as light is from darkness. Stephen gives away a lot of money, and Lady Peggy says that nobody ever asks him for anything in vain. He can't stand seeing people unhappy, if he can do anything to help. Probably, after he'd been kind to the Lorenzi girl, against his brother's advice, and gone to see her a few times, she grovelled at his feet and told him she was all alone in the world, and would die if he didn't love her. He's just young enough and romantic enough to be caught in that way!"
"He's no boy. He must be nearly thirty."
"All nice, normal men are boys until after thirty. Lady Peggy's new name for this poor child is the Martyr Knight."
"St. Stephen the Second is the last thing I heard. Stephen the First was a martyr too, wasn't he? Stoned to death or something."
"I believe so," hastily returned the lady, who was not learned in martyrology. "He will be stoned, too, if he tries to force Miss Lorenzi on his family, or even on his friends. He'll find that he'll have to take her abroad."
"That might be a good working plan. Foreigners wouldn't shudder at her accent. And she's certainly one of the most gorgeously beautiful creatures I ever saw."
"Yes, that's just the right expression. Gorgeous. And—a creature."
They both laughed, and fell to talking again of the interview.
Stephen Knight's ears were burning. He could not hear any of the things people were saying; but he had a lively imagination, and, always sensitive, he had grown morbidly so since the beginning of the Northmorland-Lorenzi case, when all the failings and eccentricities of the family had been reviewed before the public eye, like a succession of cinematograph pictures. It did not occur to Stephen that he was an object of pity, but he felt that through his own folly and that of another, he had become a kind of scarecrow, a figure of fun: and because until now the world had laughed with instead of at him, he would rather have faced a shower of bullets than a ripple of ridicule.
"How do you do?" he inquired stiffly, and shook Miss Lorenzi's hand as she gave it without rising from the pink sofa. She gazed up at him with immense, yellowish brown eyes, then fluttered her long black lashes in a way she had, which was thrilling—the first time you saw it. But Stephen had seen it often.
"I am glad you've come, my White Knight!" she said in her contralto voice, which would have been charming but for a crude accent. "I was so afraid you were cross."
"I'm not cross, only extremely ang—vexed if you really did talk to that journalist fellow," Stephen answered, trying not to speak sharply, and keeping his tone low. "Only, for Heaven's sake, Margot, don't call me—what you did call me—anywhere, but especially here, where we might as well be on the stage of a theatre."
"Nobody can hear us," she defended herself. "You ought to like that dear little name I made up because you came to my rescue, and saved me from following my father—came into my life as if you'd been a modern St. George. Calling you my 'White Knight' shows you how I feel—how I appreciate you and everything. If you just would realize that, you couldn't scold me."
"I'm not scolding you," he said desperately. "But couldn't you have stopped in your sitting-room—I suppose you have one—and let me see you there? It's loathsome making a show of ourselves——"
"I haven't a private sitting-room. It would have been too extravagant," returned Miss Lorenzi. "Please sit down—by me."
Stephen sat down, biting his lip. He must not begin to lecture her, or even to ask why she had exchanged her quiet lodgings for the Carlton Hotel, because if he once began, he knew that he would be carried on to unsafe depths. Besides, he was foolish enough to hate hurting a woman's feelings, even when she most deserved to have them hurt.
"Very well. It can't be helped now. Let us talk," said Stephen. "The first thing is, what to do with this newspaper chap, if you didn't give him the interview——"
"Oh, I did give it—in a way," she admitted, looking rather frightened, and very beautiful. "You mustn't do anything to him. But—of course it was only because I thought it would be better to tell him the truth. Surely it was?"
"Surely it wasn't. You oughtn't to have received him."
"Then do you mind so dreadfully having people know you've asked me to marry you, and that I've said 'yes'?"
Margot Lorenzi's expression of pathetic reproach was as effective as her eyelash play, when seen for the first time, as Stephen knew to his sorrow. But he had seen the one as often as the other.
"You must know I didn't mean anything of the sort. Oh, Margot, if you don't understand, I'm afraid you're hopeless."
"If you speak like that to me, I shall simply end everything as my father did," murmured the young woman, in a stifled, breaking voice. But her eyes were blazing.
It almost burst from Stephen to order her not to threaten him again, to tell her that he was sick of melodrama, sick to the soul; but he kept silence. She was a passionate woman, and perhaps in a moment of madness she might carry out her threat. He had done a great deal to save her life—or, as he thought, to save it. After going so far he must not fail now in forbearance. And worse than having to live with beautiful, dramatic Margot, would it be to live without her if she killed herself because of him.
"Forgive me. I didn't mean to hurt you," he said when he could control his voice.
She smiled. "No, of course you didn't. It was stupid of me to fly out. I ought to know that you're always good. But I don't see what harm the interview could do you, or me, or any one. It lets all the world know how gloriously you've made up to me for the loss of the case, and the loss of my father; and how you came into my life just in time to save me from killing myself, because I was utterly alone, defeated, without money or hope."
She spoke with the curiously thrilling emphasis she knew how to give her words sometimes, and Stephen could not help thinking she did credit to her training. She had been preparing for the stage in Canada, the country of the Lorenzis' adoption, before her father brought her to England, whither he came with a flourish of trumpets to contest Lord Northmorland's rights to the title.
"The world knew too much about our affairs already," Stephen said aloud. "And when you wished our engagement to be announced in The Morning Post, I had it put in at once. Wasn't that enough?"
"Every one in the world doesn't read The Morning Post. But I should think every one in the world has read that interview, or will soon," retorted Margot. "It appeared only yesterday morning, and was copied in all the evening papers; in this morning's ones too; and they say it's been cabled word for word to the big Canadian and American dailies."
Stephen had his gloves in his hand, and he tore a slit across the palm of one, without knowing it. But Margot saw. He was thinking of the heading in big black print at the top of the interview: "Romantic Climax to the Northmorland-Lorenzi Case. Only Brother of Lord Northmorland to Marry the Daughter of Dead Canadian Claimant. Wedding Bells Relieve Note of Tragedy."
"We've nothing to be ashamed of—everything to be proud of," Miss Lorenzi went on. "You, of your own noble behaviour to me, which, as I said to the reporter, must be making my poor father happy in another world. Me, because I have won You, far more than because some day I shall have gained all that father failed to win for me and himself. His heart was broken, and he took his own life. My heart would have been broken too, and but for you I——"
"Don't, please," Stephen broke in. "We won't talk any more about the interview. I'd like to forget it. I should have called here yesterday, as I wired in answer to your telegram saying you were at the Carlton, but being at my brother's place in Cumberland, I couldn't get back till——"
"Oh, I understand," Margot cut in. Then she laughed a sly little laugh. "I think I understand too why you went to Cumberland. Now tell me. Confession's good for the soul. Didn't your brother wire for you the minute he saw that announcement in The Morning Post, day before yesterday?"
"He did wire. Or rather the Duchess did, asking me to go at once to Cumberland, on important business. I found your telegram, forwarded from my flat, when I got to Northmorland Hall. If I'd known you were moving, I wouldn't have gone till to-day."
"You mean, dear, you wouldn't have let me move? Now, do you think there's any harm in a girl of my age being alone in a hotel? If you do, it's dreadfully old-fashioned of you. I'm twenty-four."
During the progress of the case, it had been mentioned in court that the claimant's daughter was twenty-nine (exactly Stephen Knight's age); but Margot ignored this unfortunate slip, and hoped that Stephen and others had forgotten.
"No actual harm. But in the circumstances, why be conspicuous? Weren't you comfortable with Mrs. Middleton? She seemed a miraculously nice old body for a lodging-house keeper, and fussed over you no end——"
"It was for your sake that I wanted to be in a good hotel, now our engagement has been announced," explained Miss Lorenzi. "I didn't think it suitable for the Honourable Stephen Knight's future wife to go on living in stuffy lodgings. And as you've insisted on my accepting an income of eighty pounds a month till we're married, I'm able to afford a little luxury, dearest. I can tell you it's a pleasure, after all I've suffered!—and I felt I owed you something in return for your generosity. I wanted your fiancee to do you credit in the eyes of the world."
Stephen bit his lip. "I see," he said slowly.
Yet what he saw most clearly was a very different picture. Margot as she had seemed the day he met her first, in the despised South Kensington lodgings, whither he had been implored to come in haste, if he wished to save a wretched, starving girl from following her father out of a cruel world. Of course, he had seen her in court, and had reluctantly encountered her photograph several times before he had given up looking at illustrated papers for fear of what he might find in them. But Margot's tragic beauty, as presented by photographers, or as seen from a distance, loyally seated at the claimant's side, was as nothing to the dark splendour of her despair when the claimant was in his new-made grave. It was the day after the burial that she had sent for Stephen; and her letter had arrived, as it happened, when he was thinking of the girl, wondering whether she had friends who would stand by her, or whether a member of his family might, without being guilty of bad taste, dare offer help.
Her tear-blotted letter had settled that doubt, and it had been so despairing, so suggestive of frenzy in its wording, that Stephen had impulsively rushed off to South Kensington at once, without stopping to think whether it would not be better to send a representative combining the gentleness of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent, and armed for emergencies with a blank cheque.
Margot's hair, so charmingly dressed now, folding in soft dark waves on either side her face, almost hiding the pink-tipped ears, had been tumbled, that gloomy afternoon six weeks ago, with curls escaping here and there; and in the course of their talk a great coil had fallen down over her shoulders. It was the sort of thing that happens to the heroine of a melodrama, if she has plenty of hair; but Stephen did not think of that then. He thought of nothing except his sympathy for a beautiful girl brought, through no fault of her own, to the verge of starvation and despair, and of how he could best set about helping her.
She had not even money enough to buy mourning. Lorenzi had left debts which she could not pay. She had no friends. She did not know what was to become of her. She had not slept for many nights. She had made up her mind to die as her father had died, because it seemed the only thing to do, when suddenly the thought of Stephen had flashed into her mind, as if sent there by her guardian angel. She had heard that he was good and charitable to everybody, and once she had seen him looking at her kindly, in court, as if he were sorry for her, and could read something of what was in her heart. She had imagined it perhaps. But would he forgive her for writing to him? Would he help her, and save her life?
Any one who knew Stephen could have prophesied what his answer would be. He had hated it when she snatched his hand to kiss at the end of their interview; but he would scarcely have been a human young man if he had not felt a sudden tingle of the blood at the touch of such lips as Margot Lorenzi's. Never had she seemed so beautiful to him since that first day; but he had called again and again, against his brother's urgent advice (when he had confessed the first visit); and the story that the Duchess of Amidon was telling her friends, though founded entirely on her own imagination of the scene which had brought about Stephen's undoing, was not very far from the truth.
Now, he saw a picture of Margot as he had seen her in the lodgings she hated; and he wished to heaven that he might think of her as he had thought of her then.
"I've got something important to say to you," the girl went on, when she realized that Stephen intended to dismiss the subject of the hotel, as he had dismissed the subject of the interview. "That's the reason I wired. But I won't speak a word till you've told me what your brother and the Duchess of Amidon think about you and me."
"There's nothing to tell," Stephen answered almost sullenly. And indeed there was no news of his Cumberland visit which it would be pleasant or wise to retail.
Margot Lorenzi's complexion was not one of her greatest beauties. It was slightly sallow, so she made artistic use of a white cosmetic, which gave her skin the clearness of a camellia petal. But she had been putting on rather more than usual since her father's death, because it was suitable as well as becoming to be pale when one was in deep mourning. Consequently Margot could not turn perceptibly whiter, but she felt the blood go ebbing away from her face back upon her heart.
"Stephen! Don't they mean to receive me, when we're married?" she stammered.
"I don't think they've much use for either of us," Stephen hedged, to save her feelings. "Northmorland and I have never been great pals, you know. He's twenty years older than I am; and since he married the Duchess of Amidon——"
"And her money! Oh, it's no use beating about the bush. I hate them both. Lord Northmorland has a fiendish, vindictive nature."
"Come, you mustn't say that, Margot. He has nothing of the sort. He's a curious mixture. A man of the world, and a bit of a Puritan——"
"So are you a Puritan, at heart," she broke in.
Stephen laughed. "No one ever accused me of Puritanism before."
"Maybe you've never shown any one else that side of you, as you show it to me. You're always being shocked at what I do and say."
For that, it was hardly necessary to be a Puritan. But Stephen shrugged his shoulders instead of answering.
"Your brother is a cold-hearted tyrant, and his wife is a snob. If she weren't, she wouldn't hang on to her duchess-hood after marrying again. It would be good enough for me to call myself Lady Northmorland, and I hope I shall some day."
Stephen's sensitive nostrils quivered. He understood in that moment how a man might actually wish to strike a nagging virago of a woman, no matter how beautiful. And he wondered with a sickening heaviness of heart how he was to go on with the wretched business of his engagement. But he pushed the question out of his mind, fiercely. He was in for this thing now. He must go on.
"Let all that alone, won't you?" he said, in a well-controlled tone.
"I can't," Margot exclaimed. "I hate your brother. He killed my father."
"Because he defended the honour of our grandfather, and upheld his own rights, when Mr. Lorenzi came to England to dispute them?"
"Who knows if they were his rights, or my father's? My father believed they were his, or he wouldn't have crossed the ocean and spent all his money in the hope of stepping into your brother's shoes."
There were those—and Lord Northmorland and the Duchess of Amidon were among them—who did not admit that Lorenzi had believed in his "rights." And as for the money he had spent in trying to establish a legal claim to the Northmorland title and estates, it had not been his own, but lent him by people he had hypnotized with his plausible eloquence.
"That question was decided in court——"
"It would be harder for a foreigner to get an English nobleman's title away than for a camel to go through the eye of the tiniest needle in the world. But never mind. All that's buried in his grave, and you're giving me everything father wanted me to have. I wish I could keep my horrid temper better in hand, and I'd never make you look so cross. But I inherited my emotional nature from Margherita Lorenzi, I suppose. What can you expect of a girl who had an Italian prima donna for a grandmother? And I oughtn't to quarrel with the fair Margherita for leaving me her temper, since she left me her face too, and I'm fairly well satisfied with that. Everybody says I'm the image of my grandmother. And you ought to know, after seeing her picture in dozens of illustrated papers, as well as in that pamphlet poor father published."
"If you want me to tell you that you are one of the handsomest women who ever lived, I'll do so at once," said Stephen.
Margot smiled. "You really mean it?"
"There couldn't be two opinions on that subject."
"Then, if you think I'm so beautiful, don't let your brother and his snobbish Duchess spoil my life."
"They can't spoil it."
"Yes, they can. They can keep me from being a success in their set, your set—the only set."
"Perhaps they can do that. But England isn't the only country, anyhow. I've been thinking that when—by and by—we might take a long trip round the world——"
"Hang the world! England's my world. I've always looked forward to England, ever since I was a little thing, before mamma died, and I used to hear father repeating the romantic family story—how, if he could only find his mother's letters that she'd tried to tell him about when she was dying, perhaps he might make a legal claim to a title and a fortune. He used to turn to me and say: 'Maybe you'll be a great lady when you grow up, Margot, and I shall be an English viscount.' Then, when he did find the letters, behind the secret partition in grandmother's big old-fashioned sandal-wood fan-box, of which you've heard so much——"
"Too much, please, Margot."
"I beg your pardon! But anyway, you see why I want to live in England. My life and soul are bound up in my success here. And I could have a success. You know I could. I am beautiful. I haven't seen any woman whose face I'd change for mine. I won't be cheated out of my happiness——"
"Very well, we'll live in England, then. That's settled," said Stephen, hastily. "And you shall have all the success, all the happiness, that I can possibly give you. But we shall have to get on without any help from my brother and sister-in-law, and perhaps without a good many other people you might like to have for friends. It may seem hard, but you must make up your mind to it, Margot. Luckily, there'll be enough money to do pleasant things with; and people don't matter so immensely, once you've got used to——"
"They do, they do! The right people. I shall know them."
"You must have patience. Everybody is rather tired of our names just now. Things may change some day. I'm ready to begin the experiment whenever you are."
"You are a dear," said Margot. And Stephen did not even shiver. "That brings me to what I had to tell you. It's this: after all, we can't be married quite as soon as we expected."
"Can't we?" he echoed the words blankly. Was this to be a reprieve? But he was not sure that he wanted a reprieve. He thought, the sooner the plunge was made, the better, maybe. Looking forward to it had become almost unbearable.
"No, I must run over to Canada first, Stephen. I've just begun to see that. You might say, I could go there with you after we were married, but it wouldn't be the same thing at all. I ought to stay with some of my old friends while I'm still Margot Lorenzi. A lot of people were awfully good to father, and I must show my gratitude. The sooner I sail the better, now the news of our engagement has got ahead of me. I needn't stop away very long. Seven or eight weeks—or nine at most, going and coming."
"Would you like to be married in Canada?" Stephen asked; perhaps partly to please her, but probably more to disguise the fact that he had no impatient objections to raise against her plan. "If you wished, I could go whenever——"
"Oh no, no!" she exclaimed quickly. "I wouldn't have you come there for anything in the world. That is. I mean——" she corrected herself with an anxious, almost frightened side glance at him—"I must fight it out alone. No, I don't mean that either. What a stupid way of putting it! But it would bore you dreadfully to take such a journey, and it would be nicer anyhow to be married in England—perhaps at St. George's. That used to be my dream, when I was a romantic little girl, and loved to stuff my head full of English novels. I should adore a wedding at St. George's. And oh, Stephen, you won't change your mind while I'm gone? It would kill me if you jilted me after all. I shouldn't live a single day, if you weren't true."
"Don't talk nonsense, my dear girl. Of course I'm not going to change my mind," said Stephen. "When do you want to sail?"
"The end of this week. You're sure you won't let your brother and that cruel Duchess talk you over? I——"
"There's not the slightest chance of their talking to me at all," Stephen answered sharply. "We've definitely quarrelled."
When he had dutifully seen Miss Lorenzi off at the ship, leaving her with as many flowers, novels, and sweets as even she could wish, Stephen expected to feel a sense of relief. But somehow, in a subtle way, he was more feverishly wretched than when Margot was near, and while planning to hurry on the marriage. He had been buoyed up with a rather youthful sense of defiance of the world, a hot desire to "get everything over." The flatness of the reaction which he felt on finding himself free, at least of Margot's society, was a surprise; and yet Stephen vaguely understood its real meaning. To be free, yet not free, was an aggravation. And besides, he did not know what to do or where to go, now that old friends and old haunts had lost much of their attraction.
Since the announcement of his engagement to Miss Lorenzi, and especially since the famous interview, copied in all the papers, he disliked meeting people he knew well, lest they should offer good advice, or let him see that they were dying to do so.
If it had been weak to say, "Be my wife, if you think I can make you happy," one day when Margot Lorenzi had tearfully confessed her love for him, it would be doubly weak—worse than weak, Stephen thought—to throw her over now. It would look to the world as if he were a coward, and it would look to himself the same—which would be more painful in the end. So he could listen to no advice, and he wished to hear none. Fortunately he was not in love with any other woman. But then, if he had loved somebody else, he would not have made the foolish mistake of saying those unlucky, irrevocable words to Margot.
Stephen would have liked to get away from England for a while, but he hardly knew where to look for a haven. Since making a dash through France and Italy just after leaving Oxford, he had been too busy amusing himself in his own country to find time for any other, with the exception of an occasional run over to Paris. Now, if he stopped in England it would be difficult to evade officious friends, and soon everybody would be gossiping about his quarrel with Northmorland. The Duchess was not reticent.
Stephen had not yet made up his mind what to do, or whether to do anything at all in his brief interval of freedom, when a letter came, to the flat near Albert Gate, where he had shut himself up after the sailing of Margot. The letter was post-marked Algiers, and it was a long time since he had seen the writing on the envelope—but not so long that he had forgotten it.
"Nevill Caird!" he said to himself as he broke the neat seal which was characteristic of the writer. And he wondered, as he slowly, almost reluctantly, unfolded the letter, whether Nevill Caird had been reminded of him by reading the interview with Margot. Once, he and Caird had been very good friends, almost inseparable during one year at Oxford. Stephen had been twenty then, and Nevill Caird about twenty-three. That would make him thirty-two now—and Stephen could hardly imagine what "Wings" would have developed into at thirty-two. They had not met since Stephen's last year at Oxford, for Caird had gone to live abroad, and if he came back to England sometimes, he had never made any sign of wishing to pick up the old friendship where it had dropped. But here was this letter.
Stephen knew that Caird had inherited a good deal of money, and a house in Paris, from an uncle or some other near relative; and a common friend had told him that there was also an Arab palace, very ancient and very beautiful, in or near Algiers. Several years had passed since Nevill Caird's name had been mentioned in his hearing, and lately it had not even echoed in his mind; but now, the handwriting and the neat seal on this envelope brought vividly before him the image of his friend: small, slight, boyish in face and figure, with a bright, yet dreamy smile, and blue-grey eyes which had the look of seeing beautiful things that nobody else could see.
began the letter ("Legs" being the name which Stephen's skill as a runner, as well as the length of his limbs, had given him in undergraduate days).
"I've often thought about you in the last nine years, and hope you've occasionally thought of me, though somehow or other we haven't written. I don't know whether you've travelled much, or whether England has absorbed all your interests. Anyhow, can't you come out here and make me a visit—the longer it is, the more I shall be pleased. This country is interesting if you don't know it, and fascinating if you do. My place is rather nice, and I should like you to see it. Still better, I should like to see you. Do come if you can, and come soon. I should enjoy showing you my garden at its best. It's one of the things I care for most, but there are other things. Do let me introduce you to them all. You can be as quiet as you wish, if you wish. I'm a quiet sort myself, as you may remember, and North Africa suits me better than London or Paris. I haven't changed for the worse I hope, and I'm sure you haven't, in any way.
"You can hardly realize how much pleasure it will give me if you'll say 'yes' to my proposal.
"Yours as ever
"NEVILL CAIRD, alias 'Wings,'"
Not a word of "the case," though, of course, he must know all about it—even in Algiers. Stephen's gratitude went out to his old friend, and his heart felt warmer because of the letter and the invitation. Many people, even with the best intentions, would have contrived to say the wrong thing in these awkward circumstances. There would have been some veiled allusion to the engagement; either silly, well-meant congratulations and good wishes, or else a stupid hint of advice to get out of a bad business while there was time. But Caird wrote as he might have written if there had been no case, and no entanglement; and acting on his first impulse, Stephen telegraphed an acceptance, saying that he would start for Algiers in two or three days. Afterwards, when he had given himself time to think, he did not regret his decision. Indeed, he was glad of it, and glad that he had made it so soon.
A few weeks ago, a sudden break in his plans would have caused him a great deal of trouble. There would have been dozens of luncheons and dinners to escape from, and twice as many letters to write. But nowadays he had few invitations and scarcely any letters to write, except those of business, and an occasional line to Margot. People were willing to be neglected by him, willing to let him alone, for now that he had quarrelled with Northmorland and the Duchess, and had promised to marry an impossible woman, he must be gently but firmly taught to expect little of Society in future.
Stephen broke the news to his man that he was going away, alone, and though the accomplished Molton had regrets, they were not as poignant as they would have been some weeks earlier. Most valets, if not all, are human, and have a weakness for a master whose social popularity is as unbounded as his generosity.
Molton's services did not cease until after he had packed Stephen's luggage, and seen him off at Victoria. He flattered himself, as he left the station with three months' wages in his pocket, that he would be missed; but Stephen was surprised at the sense of relief which came as Molton turned a respectable back, and the boat-train began to slide out of the station. It was good to be alone, to have loosed his moorings, and to be drifting away where no eyes, once kind, would turn from him, or turn on him with pity. Out there in Algiers, a town of which he had the vaguest conception, there would be people who read the papers, of course, and people who loved to gossip; but Stephen felt a pleasant confidence that Nevill Caird would know how to protect him from such people. He would not have to meet many strangers. Nevill would arrange all that, and give him plenty to think about during his weeks of freedom.
Algiers seemed a remote place to Stephen, who had loved life at home too passionately to care for foreign travel. Besides, there was always a great deal to do in England at every season of the year, and it had been difficult to find a time convenient for getting away. Town engagements began early in the spring, and lasted till after Cowes, when he was keen for Scotland. Being a gregarious as well as an idle young man, he was pleased with his own popularity, and the number of his invitations for country-house visits. He could never accept more than half, but even so, he hardly saw London until January; and then, if he went abroad at all, there was only time for a few days in Paris, and a fortnight on the Riviera, perhaps, before he found that he must get back. Just after leaving Oxford, before his father's death, he had been to Rome, to Berlin, and Vienna, and returned better satisfied than ever with his own capital; but of course it was different now that the capital was dissatisfied with him.
He had chosen the night train and it was not crowded. All the way to Dover he had the compartment to himself, and there was no rush for the boat. It was a night of stars and balmy airs; but after the start the wind freshened, and Stephen walked briskly up and down the deck, shivering slightly at first, till his blood warmed. By and by it grew so cold that the deck emptied, save for half a dozen men with pipes that glowed between turned-up coat collars, and one girl in a blue serge dress, with no other cloak than the jacket that matched her frock. Stephen hardly noticed her at first, but as men buttoned their coats or went below, and she remained, his attention was attracted to the slim figure leaning on the rail. Her face was turned away, looking over the sea where the whirling stars dipped into dark waves that sprang to engulf them. Her elbows rested on the railing, and her chin lay in the cup of her two hands; but her hair, under a blue sailor-hat held down with a veil, hung low in a great looped-up plait, tied with a wide black ribbon, so that Stephen, without wasting much thought upon her, guessed that she must be very young. It was red hair, gleaming where the light touched it, and the wind thrashed curly tendrils out from the thick clump of the braid, tracing bright threads in intricate, lacy lines over her shoulders, like the network of sunlight that plays on the surface of water.
Stephen thought of that simile after he had passed the girl once or twice, and thinking of it made him think of the girl herself. He was sure she must be cold in her serge jacket, and wondered why she didn't go below to the ladies' cabin. Also he wondered, even more vaguely, why her people didn't take better care of the child: there must be some one belonging to her on board.
At last she turned, not to look at him, but to pace back and forth as others were pacing. She was in front of Stephen, and he saw only her back, which seemed more girlish than ever as she walked with a light, springing step, that might have kept time to some dainty dance-music which only she could hear. Her short dress, of hardly more than ankle length, flowed past her slender shape as the black, white-frothing waves flowed past the slim prow of the boat; and there was something individual, something distinguished in her gait and the bearing of her head on the young throat. Stephen noticed this rather interesting peculiarity, remarking it more definitely because of the almost mean simplicity of the blue serge dress. It was of provincial cut, and looked as if the wearer might have bought it ready made in some country town. Her hat, too, was of the sort that is turned out by the thousand and sold at a few shillings for young persons between the ages of twelve and twenty.
By and by, when she had walked as far forward as possible, the deck rising under her feet or plunging down, while thin spray-wreaths sailed by on the wind, the girl wheeled and had the breeze at her back. It was then Stephen caught his first glimpse of her face, in a full white blaze of electric light: and he had the picture to himself, for by this time nearly every one else had gone.
He had not expected anything wonderful, but it seemed to him in a flash of surprise that this was an amazing beauty. He had never seen such hair, or such a complexion. The large eyes gave him no more than a passing glance, but they were so vivid, so full of blue light as they met his, that he had a startled impression of being graciously accosted. It seemed as if the girl had some message to give him, for which he must stop and ask.
As soon as they had passed each other, however, that curious, exciting impression was gone, like the vanishing glint on a gull's wing as it dips from sun into shadow. Of course she had not spoken; of course she had no word to give him. He had seemed to hear her speak, because she was a very vital sort of creature, no doubt, and therefore physically, though unconsciously, magnetic.
At their next crossing under the light she did not look at him at all, and he realized that she was not so extraordinarily beautiful as he had at first thought. The glory of her was more an effect of colouring than anything else. The creamy complexion of a very young girl, whipped to rose and white by the sea wind; brilliant turquoise blue eyes under a glitter of wavy red hair; these were the only marvels, for the small, straight nose was exactly like most pretty girls' noses, and the mouth, though expressive and sweet, with a short upper lip, was not remarkable, unless for its firmness.
The next time they passed, Stephen granted the girl a certain charm of expression which heightened the effect of beauty. She looked singularly innocent and interested in life, which to Stephen's mood seemed pathetic. He was convinced that he had seen through life, and consequently ceased forever to be interested in it. But he admired beauty wherever he saw it, whether in the grace of a breaking wave, or the sheen on a girl's bright hair, and it amused him faintly to speculate about the young creature with the brilliant eyes and blowing red locks. He decided that she was a schoolgirl of sixteen, being taken over to Paris, probably to finish her education there. Her mother or guardian was no doubt prostrate with sea-sickness, careless for the moment whether the child paraded the deck insufficiently clad, or whether she fell unchaperoned into the sea. Judging by her clothes, her family was poor, and she was perhaps intended for a governess: that was why they were sending her to France. She was to be given "every advantage," in order to command "desirable situations" by and by. Stephen felt dimly sorry for the little thing, who looked so radiantly happy now. She was much too pretty to be a governess, or to be obliged to earn her own living in any way. Women were brutes to each other sometimes. He had been finding this out lately. Few would care to bring a flowerlike creature of that type into their houses. The girl had trouble before her. He was sure she was going to be a governess.
After she had walked for half an hour she looked round for a sheltered corner and sat down. But the place she had chosen was only comparatively sheltered, and presently Stephen fancied that he saw her shivering with cold. He could not bear this, knowing that he had a rug which Molton had forced upon him to use on board ship between Marseilles and Algiers. It was in a rolled-up thing which Molton called a "hold-all," along with some sticks and an umbrella, Stephen believed; and the rolled-up thing was on deck, with other hand-luggage.
"Will you let me lend you a rug?" he asked, in the tone of a benevolent uncle addressing a child. "I have one close by, and it's rather cold when you don't walk."
"Thank you very much," said the girl. "I should like it, if it won't be too much trouble to you."
She spoke simply, and had a pretty voice, but it was an American voice. Stephen was surprised, because to find that she was an American upset his theories. He had never heard of American girls coming over to Paris with the object of training to be governesses.
He went away and found the rug, returning with it in two or three minutes. The girl thanked him again, getting up and wrapping the dark soft thing round her shoulders and body, as if it had been a big shawl. Then she sat down once more, with a comfortable little sigh. "That does feel good!" she exclaimed. "I was cold."
"I think you would have been wiser to stop in the ladies' cabin," said Stephen, still with the somewhat patronizing air of the older person.
"I like lots of air," explained the girl. "And it doesn't do me any harm to be cold."
"How about getting a chill?" inquired Stephen.
"Oh, I never have such things. They don't exist. At least they don't unless one encourages them," she replied.
He smiled, rather interested, and pleased to linger, since she evidently understood that he was using no arts to scrape an acquaintance. "That sounds like Christian Science," he ventured.
"I don't know that it's any kind of science," said she. "Nobody ever talked to me about it. Only if you're not afraid of things, they can't hurt you, can they?"
"Perhaps not. I suppose you mean you needn't let yourself feel them. There's something in the idea: be callous as an alligator and nothing can hit you."
"I don't mean that at all. I'd hate to be callous," she objected. "We couldn't enjoy things if we were callous."
Stephen, on the point of saying something bitter, stopped in time, knowing that his words would have been not only stupid but obvious, which was worse. "It is good to be young," he remarked instead.
"Yes, but I'm glad to be grown up at last," said the girl; and Stephen would not let himself laugh.
"I know how you feel," he answered. "I used to feel like that too."
"Don't you now?"
"Not always. I've had plenty of time to get tired of being grown up."
"Maybe you've been a soldier, and have seen sad things," she suggested. "I was thinking when I first saw you, that you looked like a soldier."
"I wish I had been. Unfortunately I was too disgustingly young, when our only war of my day was on. I mean, the sort of war one could volunteer for."
"In South Africa?"
"Yes. You were a baby in that remote time."
"Oh no, I wasn't. I'm eighteen now, going on nineteen. I was in Paris then, with my stepmother and my sister. We used to hear talk about the war, though we knew hardly any English people."
"So Paris won't be a new experience to you?" said Stephen, disappointed that he had been mistaken in all his surmises.
"I went back to America before I was nine, and I've been there ever since, till a few weeks ago. Oh see, there are the lights of France! I can't help being excited."
"Yes, we'll be in very soon—in about ten minutes."
"I am glad! I'd better go below and make my hair tidy. Thank you ever so much for helping me to be comfortable."
She jumped up, unrolled herself, and began to fold the rug neatly. Stephen would have taken it from her and bundled it together anyhow, but she would not let him do that. "I like folded things," she said. "It's nice to see them come straight, and I enjoy it more because the wind doesn't want me to do it. To succeed in spite of something, is a kind of little triumph—and seems like a sign. Good-bye, and thank you once more."
"Good-bye," said Stephen, and added to himself that he would not soon again see so pretty a child; as fresh, as frank, or as innocent. He had known several delightful American girls, but never one like this. She was a new type to him, and more interesting, perhaps, because she was simple, and even provincial. He was in a state of mind to glorify women who were entirely unsophisticated.
He did not see the girl getting into the train at Calais, though he looked for her, feeling some curiosity as to the stepmother and the sister whom he had imagined prostrate in the ladies' cabin. By the time he had arrived at Paris he felt sleepy and dull after an aggravating doze or two on the way, and had almost forgotten the red-haired child with the vivid blue eyes, until, to his astonishment, he saw her alone parleying with a douanier, over two great boxes, for one of which there seemed to be no key.
"Those selfish people of hers have left her to do all the work," he said to himself indignantly, and as she appeared to be having some difficulty with the official, he went to ask if he could help.
"Thank you, it's all right now," she said. "The key of my biggest box is mislaid, but luckily I've got the man to believe me when I say there's nothing in it except clothes, just the same as in the other. Still it would be very, very kind if you wouldn't mind seeing me to a cab. That is, if it's no bother."
Stephen assured her that he would be delighted.
"Have your people engaged the cab already," he wanted to know, "or are they waiting in this room for you?"
"I haven't any people," she answered. "I'm all by myself."
This was another surprise, and it was as much as Stephen could do not to blame her family audibly for allowing the child to travel alone, at night too. The thing seemed monstrous.
He took her into the court-yard, where the cabs stood, and engaged two, one for the girl, and one for her large luggage.
"You have rooms already taken at an hotel, I hope?" he asked.
"I'm going to a boarding-house—a pension, I mean," explained the girl. "But it's all right. They know I'm coming. I do thank you for everything."
Seated in the cab, she held out her hand in a glove which had been cleaned, and showed mended fingers. Stephen shook the small hand gravely, and for the second time they bade each other good-bye.
In the cold grey light of a rainy dawn, which would have suited few women as a background, especially after a night journey, the girl's face looked pearly, and Stephen saw that her lashes, darker at the roots, were bright golden at the turned-up ends.
It seemed to him that this pretty child, alone in the greyness and rain of the big foreign city, was like a spring flower thrown carelessly into a river to float with the stream. He felt an impulse of protection, and it went against his instincts to let her drive about Paris unprotected, while night had hardly yielded to morning. But he could not offer to go with her. He was interested, as any man of flesh and blood must be interested, in the fate of an innocent and charming girl left to take care of herself, and entirely unfitted for the task; yet she seemed happy and self-confident, and he had no right, even if he wished, to disturb her mind. He was going away without another word after the good-bye, but on second thoughts felt that he might ask if she had friends in Paris.
"Not exactly friends, but people who will look after me, and be kind, I'm sure," she answered. "Thank you for taking an interest. Will you tell the man to go to 278A Rue Washington, and the other cab to follow?"
Stephen obeyed, and as she drove away the girl looked back, smiling at him her sweet and childlike smile.
Stephen had meant to stop only one day in Paris, and travel at night to Marseilles, where he would have twelve or fifteen hours to wait before the sailing of the ship on which he had engaged a cabin. But glancing over a French paper while he breakfasted at the Westminster, he saw that a slight accident had happened to the boat during a storm on her return voyage from Algiers, and that she would be delayed three days for repairs. This news made Stephen decide to remain in Paris for those days, rather than go on and wait at Marseilles, or take another ship. He did not want to see any one he knew, but he thought it would be pleasant to spend some hours picture-gazing at the Louvre, and doing a few other things which one ought to do in Paris, and seldom does.
That night he went to bed early and slept better than he had slept for weeks. The next day he almost enjoyed, and when evening came, felt desultory, even light-hearted.
Dining at his hotel, he overheard the people at the next table say they were going to the Folies Bergeres to see Victoria Ray dance, and suddenly Stephen made up his mind that he would go there too: for if life had been running its usual course with him, he would certainly have gone to see Victoria Ray in London. She had danced lately at the Palace Theatre for a month or six weeks, and absorbed as he had been in his own affairs, he had heard enough talk about this new dancer to know that she had made what is called a "sensation."
The people at the next table were telling each other that Victoria Ray's Paris engagement was only for three nights, something special, with huge pay, and that there was a "regular scramble" for seats, as the girl had been such a success in New York and London. The speakers, who were English and provincial, had already taken places, but there did not appear to be much hope that Stephen could get anything at the last minute. The little spice of difficulty gave a fillip of interest, however; and he remembered how the charming child on the boat had said that she "liked doing difficult things." He wondered what she was doing now; and as he thought of her, white and ethereal in the night and in the dawn-light, she seemed to him like the foam-flowers that had blossomed for an instant on the crests of dark waves, through which their vessel forged. "For a moment white, then gone forever." The words glittered in his mind, and fascinated him, calling up the image of the girl, pale against the night and rainy sea. "For a moment white, then gone forever," he repeated, and asked himself whence came the line. From Burns, he fancied; and thought it quaintly appropriate to the fair child whose clear whiteness had thrown a gleam into his life before she vanished.
All the seats for this second night of Victoria Ray's short engagement were sold at the Folies Bergeres, he found, from the dearest to the cheapest: but there was standing room still when Stephen arrived, and he squeezed himself in among a group of light-hearted, long-haired students from the Latin Quarter. He had an hour to wait before Victoria Ray would dance, but there was some clever conjuring to be seen, a famous singer of chansons to be heard, and other performances which made the time pass well enough. Then, at last, it was the new dancer's "turn."
The curtain remained down for several minutes, as some scenic preparation was necessary before her first dance. Gay French music was playing, and people chattered through it, or laughed in high Parisian voices. A blue haze of smoke hung suspended like a thin veil, and the air was close, scented with tobacco and perfume. Stephen looked at his programme, beginning to feel bored. His elbows were pressed against his sides by the crowd. Miss Ray was down for two dances, the Dance of the Statue and the Dance of the Shadow. The atmosphere of the place depressed him. He doubted after all, that he would care for the dancing. But as he began to wish he had not come the curtain went up, to show the studio of a sculptor, empty save for the artist's marble masterpieces. Through a large skylight, and a high window at the back of the stage, a red glow of sunset streamed into the bare room. In the shadowy corners marble forms were grouped, but in the centre, directly under the full flood of rose-coloured light, the just finished statue of a girl stood on a raised platform. She was looking up, and held a cup in one lifted hand, as if to catch the red wine of sunset. Her draperies, confined by a Greek ceinture under the young bust, fell from shoulder to foot in long clear lines that seemed cut in gleaming stone. The illusion was perfect. Even in that ruddy blaze the delicate, draped form appeared to be of carved marble. It was almost impossible to believe it that of a living woman, and its grace of outline and pose was so perfect that Stephen, in his love of beauty, dreaded the first movement which must change, if not break, the tableau. He said to himself that there was some faint resemblance between this chiselled loveliness and the vivid charm of the pretty child he had met on the boat. He could imagine that a statue for which she had stood as model might look like this, though the features seemed to his eye more regular than those of the girl.
As he gazed, the music, which had been rich and colourful, fell into softer notes; and the rose-sunset faded to an opal twilight, purple to blue, blue to the silver of moonlight, the music changing as the light changed, until at last it was low and slumberous as the drip-drip of a plashing fountain. Then, into the dream of the music broke a sound like the distant striking of a clock. It was midnight, and all the statues in the sculptor's bare, white studio began to wake at the magic stroke which granted them a few hours of life.
There was just a shimmer of movement in the dim corners. Marble limbs stirred, marble face turned slowly to gaze at marble face; yet, as if they could be only half awakened in the shadows where the life-giving draught of moonlight might not flow, there was but the faintest flicker of white forms and draperies. It was the just finished statue of the girl which felt the full thrill of moonshine and midnight. She woke rapturously, and drained the silver moon-wine in her cup (the music told the story of her first thought and living heart-beat): then down she stepped from the platform where the sculptor's tools still lay, and began to dance for the other statues who watched in the dusk, hushed back into stillness under the new spell of her enchantments.
Stephen had never seen anything like that dance. Many pretty premieres danseuses he had admired and applauded, charming and clever young women of France, of Russia, of Italy, and Spain: and they had roused him and all London to enthusiasm over dances eccentric, original, exquisite, or wild. But never had there been anything like this. Stephen had not known that a dance could move him as this did. He was roused, even thrilled by its poetry, and the perfect beauty of its poses, its poises. It must, he supposed, have been practised patiently, perhaps for years, yet it produced the effect of being entirely unstudied. At all events, there was nothing in the ordinary sense "professional" about it. One would say—not knowing the supreme art of supreme grace—that a joyous child, born to the heritage of natural grace, might dance thus by sheer inspiration, in ecstasy of life and worship of the newly felt beauty of earth. Stephen did know something of art, and the need of devotion to its study; yet he found it hard to realize that this awakened marble loveliness had gone through the same performance week after week, month after month, in America and England. He preferred rather to let himself fancy that he was dreaming the whole thing; and he would gladly have dreamed on indefinitely, forgetting the smoky atmosphere, forgetting the long-haired students and all the incongruous surroundings. The gracious dream gave him peace and pleasure such as he had not known since the beginning of the Northmorland case.
Through the house there was a hush, unusual at the Folies Bergeres. People hardly knew what to make of the dances, so different from any ever seen in a theatre of Paris. Stephen was not alone in feeling the curious dream-spell woven by music and perfection of beauty. But the light changed. The moonlight slowly faded. Dancer and music faltered, in the falling of the dark hour before dawn. The charm was waning. Soft notes died, and quavered in apprehension. The magic charm of the moon was breaking, had broken: a crash of cymbals and the studio was dark. Then light began to glimmer once more, but it was the chill light of dawn, and growing from purple to blue, from blue to rosy day, it showed the marble statues fast locked in marble sleep again. On the platform stood the girl with uplifted arm, holding her cup, now, to catch the wine of sunrise; and on the delicately chiselled face was a faint smile which seemed to hide a secret. When the first ray of yellow sunshine gilded the big skylight, a door up-stage opened and the sculptor came in, wearing his workman's blouse. He regarded his handiwork, as the curtain came down.
When the music of the dream had ceased and suddenly became ostentatiously puerile, the audience broke into a tumult of applause. Women clapped their hands furiously and many men shouted "brava, brava," hoping that the curtain might rise once more on the picture; but it did not rise, and Stephen was glad. The dream would have been vulgarized by repetition.
For fully five minutes the orchestra played some gay tune which every one there had heard a hundred times; but abruptly it stopped, as if on a signal. For an instant there was a silence of waiting and suspense, which roused interest and piqued curiosity. Then there began a delicate symphony which could mean nothing but spring in a forest, and on that the curtain went up. The prophecy of the music was fulfilled, for the scene was a woodland in April, with young leaves a-flicker and blossoms in birth, the light song of the flutes and violins being the song of birds in love. All the trees were brocaded with dainty, gold-green lace, and daffodils sprouted from the moss at their feet.
The birds sang more gaily, and out from behind a silver-trunked beech tree danced a figure in spring green. Her arms were full of flowers, which she scattered as she danced, curtseying, mocking, beckoning the shadow that followed her along the daisied grass. Her little feet were bare, and flitted through the green folding of her draperies like white night-moths fluttering among rose leaves. Her hair fell over her shoulders, and curled below her waist. It was red hair that glittered and waved, and she looked a radiant child of sixteen. Victoria Ray the dancer, and the girl on the Channel boat were one.
The Shadow Dance was even more beautiful than the Dance of the Statue, but Stephen had lost pleasure in it. He was supersensitive in these days, and he felt as if the girl had deliberately made game of him, in order that he should make a fool of himself. Of course it was a pose of hers to travel without chaperon or maid, and dress like a school girl from a provincial town, in cheap serge, a sailor hat, and a plait of hair looped up with ribbon. She was no doubt five or six years older than she looked or admitted, and probably her manager shrewdly prescribed the "line" she had taken up. Young women on the stage—actresses, dancers, or singers, it didn't matter which—must do something unusual, in order to be talked about, and get a good free advertisement. Nowadays, when professionals vied with each other in the expensiveness of their jewels, the size of their hats, or the smallness of their waists, and the eccentricity of their costumes, it was perhaps rather a new note to wear no jewels at all, and appear in ready-made frocks bought in bargain-sales; while, as for the young woman's air of childlike innocence and inexperience, it might be a tribute to her cleverness as an actress, but it was not a tribute to his intelligence as a man, that he should have been taken in by it. Always, he told himself, he was being taken in by some woman. After the lesson he had had, he ought to have learned wisdom, but it seemed that he was as gullible as ever. And it was this romantic folly of his which vexed him now; not the fact that a simple child over whose fate he had sentimentalized, was a rich and popular stage-dancer. Miss Ray was probably a good enough young woman according to her lights, and it was not she who need be shamed by the success of the Channel boat comedy.
He had another day and night in Paris, where he did more sightseeing than he had ever accomplished before in a dozen visits, and then travelled on to Marseilles. The slight damage to the Charles Quex had been repaired, and at noon the ship was to sail. Stephen went on board early, as he could think of nothing else which he preferred to do, and he was repaid for his promptness. By the time he had seen his luggage deposited in the cabin he had secured for himself alone, engaged a deck chair, and taken a look over the ship—which was new, and as handsome as much oak, fragrant cedar-wood, gilding, and green brocade could make her—many other passengers were coming on board. Travelling first class were several slim French officers, and stout Frenchmen of the commercial class; a merry theatrical company going to act in Algiers and Tunis; an English clergyman of grave aspect; invalids with their nurses, and two or three dignified Arabs, evidently of good birth as well as fortune. Arab merchants were returning from the Riviera, and a party of German students were going second class.
Stephen was interested in the lively scene of embarkation, and glad to be a part of it, though still more glad that there seemed to be nobody on board whom he had ever met. He admired the harbour, and the shipping, and felt pleasantly exhilarated. "I feel very young, or very old, I'm not sure which," he said to himself as a faint thrill ran through his nerves at the grinding groan of the anchor, slowly hauled out of the deep green water.
It was as if he heard the creaking of a gate which opened into an unknown garden, a garden where life would be new and changed. Nevill Caird had once said that there was no sharp, dividing line between phases of existence, except one's own moods, and Stephen had thought this true; but now it seemed as if the sea which silvered the distance was the dividing line for him, while all that lay beyond the horizon was mysterious as a desert mirage.
He was not conscious of any joy at starting, yet he was excited, as if something tremendous were about to happen to him. England, that he knew so well, seemed suddenly less real than Africa, which he knew not at all, and his senses were keenly alert for the first time in many days. He saw Marseilles from a new point of view, and wondered why he had never read anything fine written in praise of the ancient Phoenician city. Though he had not been in the East, he imagined that the old part of the town, seen from the sea, looked Eastern, as if the traffic between east and west, going on for thousands of years, had imported an Eastern taste in architecture.
The huge, mosque-like cathedral bubbled with domes, where fierce gleams of gold were hammered out by strokes of the noonday sun. A background of wild mountain ranges, whose tortured peaks shone opaline through long rents in mist veils, lent an air of romance to the scene, and Notre Dame de la Garde loomed nobly on her bleached and arid height. "Have no fear: I keep watch and ward over land and sea," seemed to say the majestic figure of gold on the tall tower, and Stephen half wished he were of the Catholic faith, that he might take comfort from the assurance.
As the Charles Quex steamed farther and farther away, the church on the mountainous hill appeared to change in shape. Notre Dame de la Garde looked no longer like a building made by man, but like a great sacred swan crowned with gold, and nested on a mountain-top. There she sat, with shining head erect on a long neck, seated on her nest, protecting her young, and gazing far across the sea in search of danger. The sun touched her golden crown, and dusky cloud-shadows grouped far beneath her eyrie, like mourners kneeling below the height to pray. The rock-shapes and island rocks that cut the blue glitter of the sea, suggested splendid tales of Phoenician mariners and Saracenic pirates, tales lost forever in the dim mists of time; and so Stephen wandered on to thoughts of Dumas, wishing he had brought "Monte Cristo," dearly loved when he was twelve. Probably not a soul on board had the book; people were so stupid and prosaic nowadays. He turned from the rail on which he had leaned to watch the fading land, and as he did so, his eyes fell upon a bright red copy of the book for which he had been wishing. There was the name in large gold lettering on a scarlet cover, very conspicuous on the dark blue serge lap of a girl. It was the girl of the Channel boat, and she wore the same dress, the same sailor hat tied on with a blue veil, which she had worn that night crossing from England to France.
While Stephen had been absorbed in admiration of Marseilles harbour, she had come up on deck, and settled herself in a canvas chair. This time she had a rug of her own, a thin navy blue rug which, like her frock, might have been chosen for its cheapness. Although she held a volume of "Monte Cristo," she was not reading, and as Stephen turned towards her, their eyes met.
Hers lit up with a pleased smile, and the pink that sprang to her cheeks was the colour of surprise, not of self-consciousness.
"I thought your back looked like you, but I didn't suppose it would turn out to be you," she said.
Stephen's slight, unreasonable irritation could not stand against the azure of such eyes, and the youth in her friendly smile. Since the girl seemed glad to see him, why shouldn't he be glad to see her? At least she was not a link with England.
"I thought your statue looked like you," he retorted, standing near her chair, "but I didn't suppose it would turn out to be you until your shadow followed."
"Oh, you saw me dance! Did you like it?" She asked the question eagerly, like a child who hangs upon grown-up judgment of its work.
"I thought both dances extremely beautiful and artistic," replied Stephen, a little stiffly.
She looked at him questioningly, as if puzzled. "No, I don't think you did like them, really," she said. "I oughtn't to have asked in that blunt way, because of course you would hate to hurt my feelings by saying no!"
Her manner was so unlike that of a spoiled stage darling, that Stephen had to remind himself sharply of her "innocent pose," and his own soft-hearted lack of discrimination where pretty women were concerned. By doing this he kept himself armed against the clever little actress laughing at him behind the blue eyes of a child. "You must know that there can't be two opinions of your dancing," said he coolly. "You have had years and years of flattery, of course; enough to make you sick of it, if a woman ever——" He stopped, smiling.
"Why, I've been dancing professionally for only a few months!" she exclaimed. "Didn't you know?"
"I'm ashamed to say I was ignorant," Stephen confessed. "But before the dancing, there must have been something else equally clever. Floating—or flying—or——"
She laughed. "Why don't you suggest fainting in coils? I'm certain you would, if you'd ever read 'Alice.'"
"As a matter of fact, I was brought up on 'Alice,'" said Stephen. "Do children of the present day still go down the rabbit hole?"
"I'm not sure about children of the present day. Children of my day went down," she replied with dignity. "I loved Alice dearly. I don't know much about other children, though, for I never had a chance to make friends as a child. But then I had my sister when I was a little girl, so nothing else mattered."
"If you don't think me rude to say so," ventured Stephen, "you would seem to me a little girl now, if I hadn't found out that you're an accomplished star of the theatres, admired all over Europe."
"Now you're making fun of me," said the dancer. "Paris was only my third engagement; and it's going to be my last, anyway for ever so long, I hope."
This time Stephen was really surprised, and all his early interest in the young creature woke again; the personal sort of interest which he had partly lost on finding that she was of the theatrical world.
"Oh, I see!" he ejaculated, before stopping to reflect that he had no right to put into words the idea which jumped into his mind.
"You see?" she echoed. "But how can you see, unless you know something about me already?"
"I beg your pardon," he apologized. "It was only a thought. I——"
"A thought about my dancing?"
"Not exactly that. About your not dancing again."
"Then please tell me the thought."
"You may be angry. I rather think you'd have a right to be angry—not at the thought, but the telling of it."
"Why," explained Stephen, "when a young and successful actress makes up her mind to leave the stage, what is the usual reason?"
"I'm not an actress, so I can't imagine what you mean—unless you suppose I've made a great fortune in a few months?"
"That too, perhaps—but I don't think a fortune would induce you to leave the stage yet a while. You'd want to go on, not for the money perhaps, but for the fun."
"I haven't been dancing for fun."
"No. I began with a purpose. I'm leaving the stage for a purpose. And you say you can guess what that is. If you know, you must have been told."
"Since you insist, it occurred to me that you might be going to marry. I thought maybe you were travelling to Africa to——"
She laughed. "Oh, you are wrong! I don't believe there ever was a girl who thinks less about marrying. I've never had time to think of such things. I've always—ever since I was nine years old—looked to the one goal, and aimed for it, studied for it, lived for it—at last, danced towards it."
"You excite my curiosity immensely," said Stephen. And it was true. The girl had begun to take him out of himself.
"There is lunch," she announced, as a bugle sounded.
Stephen longed to say, "Don't go yet. Stop and tell me all about the 'goal' you're working for." But he dared not. She was very frank, and evidently willing, for some reason, to talk of her aims, even to a comparative stranger; yet he knew that it would be impertinent to suggest her sitting out on deck to chat with him, while the other passengers lunched.
He asked if she were hungry, and she said she was. So was he, now that he came to think of it; nevertheless he let her go in alone, and waited deliberately for several minutes before following. He would have liked to sit by Miss Ray at the table, but wished her to see that he did not mean to presume upon any small right of acquaintanceship. As she was on the stage, and extremely attractive, no doubt men often tried to take such advantage, and he didn't intend to be one of them; therefore he supposed that he had lost the chance of placing himself near her in the dining-room. To his surprise, however, as he was about to slip into a far-away chair, she beckoned from her table. "I kept this seat for you," she said. "I hoped you wouldn't mind."
"Mind!" He was on the point of repaying her kindness with a conventional little compliment, but thought better of it, and expressed his meaning in a smile.
The oak-panelled saloon was provided with a number of small tables, and at the one where Victoria Ray sat, were places for four. Three were already occupied when Stephen came; one by Victoria, the others by a German bride and groom.
At the next table were two French officers of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, the English clergyman Stephen had noticed on deck, and a remarkably handsome Arab, elaborately dressed. He sat facing Victoria Ray and Stephen Knight, and Stephen found it difficult not to stare at the superb, pale brown person whose very high white turban, bound with light grey cord, gave him a dignity beyond his years, and whose pale grey burnous, over a gold-embroidered vest of dark rose-colour, added picturesqueness which appeared theatrical in eyes unaccustomed to the East.
Stephen had never seen an Arab of the aristocratic class until to-day; and before, only a few such specimens as parade the Galerie Charles Trois at Monte Carlo, selling prayer-rugs and draperies from Algeria. This man's high birth and breeding were clear at first glance. He was certainly a personage aware of his own attractions, though not offensively self-conscious, and was unmistakably interested in the beauty of the girl at the next table. He was too well-bred to make a show of his admiration, but talked in almost perfect, slightly guttural French, with the English clergyman, speaking occasionally also to the officers in answer to some question. He glanced seldom at Miss Ray, but when he did look across, in a guarded way, at her, there was a light of ardent pleasure in his eyes, such as no eyes save those of East or South ever betray. The look was respectful, despite its underlying passion. Nevertheless, because the handsome face was some shades darker than his own, it offended Stephen, who felt a sharp bite of dislike for the Arab. He was glad the man was not at the same table with Miss Ray, and knew that it would have vexed him intensely to see the girl drawn into conversation. He wondered that the French officers should talk with the Arab as with an equal, yet knew in his heart that such prejudice was narrow-minded, especially at the moment when he was travelling to the Arab's own country. He tried, though not very strenuously, to override his conviction of superiority to the Eastern man, but triumphed only far enough to admit that the fellow was handsome in a way. His skin was hardly darker than old ivory: the aquiline nose delicate as a woman's, with sensitive nostrils; and the black velvet eyes under arched brows, that met in a thin, pencilled line, were long, and either dreamy or calmly calculating. A prominent chin and a full mouth, so determined as to suggest cruelty, certainly selfishness, preserved the face from effeminacy at the sacrifice of artistic perfection. Stephen noticed with mingled curiosity and disapproval that the Arab appeared to be vain of his hands, on which he wore two or three rings that might have been bought in Paris, or even given him by European women—for they looked like a woman's rings. The brown fingers were slender, tapering to the ends, and their reddened nails glittered. They played, as the man talked, with a piece of bread, and often he glanced down at them, with the long eyes which had a blue shadow underneath, like a faint smear of kohl.
Stephen wondered what Victoria Ray thought of her vis-a-vis; but in the presence of the staring bride and groom he could ask no questions, and the expression of her face, as once she quietly regarded the Arab, told nothing. It was even puzzling, as an expression for a young girl's face to wear in looking at a handsome man so supremely conscious of sex and of his own attraction. She was evidently thinking about him with considerable interest, and it annoyed Stephen that she should look at him at all. An Arab might misunderstand, not realizing that he was a legitimate object of curiosity for eyes unused to Eastern men.
After luncheon Victoria went to her cabin. This was disappointing. Stephen, hoping that she might come on deck again soon, and resume their talk where it had broken off in the morning, paced up and down until he felt drowsy, not having slept in the train the night before. To his surprise and disgust, it was after five when he waked from a long nap, in his stateroom; and going on deck he found Miss Ray in her chair once more, this time apparently deep in "Monte Cristo."
He walked past, and she looked up with a smile, but did not ask him to draw his chair near hers, though there was a vacant space. It was an absurd and far-fetched idea, but he could not help asking himself if it were possible that she had picked up any acquaintance on board, who had told her he was a marked man, a foolish fellow who had spoiled his life for a low-born, unscrupulous woman's sake. It was a morbid fancy, he knew, but he was morbid now, and supposed that he should be for some time to come, if not for the rest of his life. He imagined a difference in the girl's manner. Maybe she had read that hateful interview in some paper, when she was in London, and now remembered having seen his photograph with Margot Lorenzi's. He hated the thought, not because he deliberately wished to keep his engagement secret, but because the newspaper interview had made him seem a fool, and somehow he did not want to be despised by this dancing girl whom he should never see again after to-morrow. Just why her opinion of his character need matter to him, it was difficult to say, but there was something extraordinary about the girl. She did not seem in the least like other dancers he had met. He had not that feeling of comfortable comradeship with her that a man may feel with most unchaperoned, travelling actresses, no matter how respectable. There was a sense of aloofness, as if she had been a young princess, in spite of her simple and friendly ways.
Since it appeared that she had no intention of picking up the dropped threads of their conversation, Stephen thought of the smoking-room; but his wish to know whether she really had changed towards him became so pressing that he was impelled to speak again. It was an impulse unlike himself, at any rate the old self with which he was familiar, as with a friend or an intimate enemy.
"I hoped you would tell me the rest," he blurted out.
"That you were beginning to tell."
The girl blushed. "I was afraid afterwards, you might have been bored, or anyway surprised. You probably thought it 'very American' of me to talk about my own affairs to a stranger, and it isn't, you know. I shouldn't like you to think Americans are less well brought up than other girls, just because I may do things that seem queer. I have to do them. And I am quite different from others. You mustn't suppose I'm not."
Stephen was curiously relieved. Suddenly he felt young and happy, as he used to feel before knowing Margot Lorenzi. "I never met a brilliantly successful person who was as modest as you," he said, laughing with pleasure. "I was never less bored in my life. Will you talk to me again—and let me talk to you?"
"I should like to ask your advice," she replied.
That gave permission for Stephen to draw his chair near to hers. "Have you had tea?" he inquired, by way of a beginning.
"I'm too American to drink tea in the afternoon," she explained. "It's only fashionable Americans who take it, and I'm not that kind, as you can see. I come from the country—or almost the country."
"Weren't you drawn into any of our little ways in London?" He was working up to a certain point.
"I was too busy."
"I'm sure you weren't too busy for one thing: reading the papers for your notices."
Victoria shook her head, smiling. "There you're mistaken. The first morning after I danced at the Palace Theatre, I asked to see the papers they had in my boarding-house, because I hoped so much that English people would like me, and I wanted to be a success. But afterwards I didn't bother. I don't understand British politics, you see—how could I?—and I hardly know any English people, so I wasn't very interested in their papers."
Again Stephen was relieved. But he felt driven by one of his strange new impulses to tell her his name, and watch her face while he told it.
"'Curiouser and curiouser,' as our friend Alice would say," he laughed. "No newspaper paragraphs, and a boarding-house instead of a fashionable hotel. What was your manager thinking about?"
"I had no manager of my very own," said Victoria. "I 'exploited' myself. It costs less to do that. When people in America liked my dancing I got an offer from London, and I accepted it and made all the arrangements about going over. It was quite easy, you see, because there were only costumes to carry. My scenery is so simple, they either had it in the theatres or got something painted: and the statues in the studio scene, and the sculptor, needed very few rehearsals. In Paris they had only one. It was all I had time for, after I arrived. The lighting wasn't difficult either, and though people told me at first there would be trouble unless I had my own man, there never was any, really. In my letters to the managers I gave the dates when I could come to their theatres, how long I could stay, and all they must do to get things ready. The Paris engagement was made only a little while beforehand. I wanted to pass through there, so I was glad to accept the offer and earn extra money which I thought I might need by and by."
"What a mercenary star!" Stephen spoke teasingly; but in truth he could not make the girl out.
She took the accusation with a smile. "Yes, I am mercenary, I suppose," she confessed with unashamed frankness, "but not entirely for myself. I shouldn't like to be that! I told you how I've been looking forward always to one end. And now, just when that end may be near, how foolish I should be to spend a cent on unnecessary things! Why, I'd have felt wicked living in an expensive hotel, and keeping a maid, when I could be comfortable in a Bloomsbury boarding-house on ten dollars a week. And the dresser in the theater, who did everything very nicely, was delighted with a present of twenty dollars when my London engagement was over."
"No doubt she was," said Stephen. "But——"
"I suppose you're thinking that I must have made lots of money, and that I'm a sort of little miseress: and so I have—and so I am. I earned seven hundred and fifty dollars a week—isn't that a hundred and fifty pounds?—for the six weeks, and I spent as little as possible; for I didn't get as large a salary as that in America. I engaged to dance for three hundred dollars a week there, which seemed perfectly wonderful to me at first; so I had to keep my contract, though other managers would have given me more. I wanted dreadfully to take their offers, because I was in such a hurry to have enough money to begin my real work. But I knew I shouldn't be blessed in my undertaking if I acted dishonourably. Try as I might, I've only been able to save up ten thousand dollars, counting the salary in Paris and all. Would you say that was enough to bribe a person, if necessary? Two thousand of your pounds."
"It depends upon how rich the person is."
"I don't know how rich he is. Could an Arab be very rich?"
"I daresay there are still some rich ones. But maybe riches aren't the same with them as with us. That fellow at lunch to-day looks as if he'd plenty of money to spend on embroideries."
"Yes. And he looks important too—as if he might have travelled, and known a great many people of all sorts. I wish it were proper for me to talk to him."