THE GREY WIG
Stories and Novelettes
Author of "The Mantle of Elijah" "Children of the Ghetto" etc., etc.
TO MY MOTHER AND SISTERS THIS BOOK Mainly a Study of Woman IS LOVINGLY DEDICATED
This Volume embraces my newest and oldest work, and includes—for the sake of uniformity of edition—a couple of shilling novelettes that are out of print.
Mentone, February, 1903.
THE GREY WIG CHASSE-CROISE THE WOMAN BEATER THE ETERNAL FEMININE THE SILENT SISTERS THE BIG BOW MYSTERY MERELY MARY ANN THE SERIO-COMIC GOVERNESS
THE GREY WIG
They both styled themselves "Madame," but only the younger of the old ladies had been married. Madame Valiere was still a demoiselle, but as she drew towards sixty it had seemed more convenable to possess a mature label. Certainly Madame Depine had no visible matrimonial advantages over her fellow-lodger at the Hotel des Tourterelles, though in the symmetrical cemetery of Montparnasse (Section 22) wreaths of glass beads testified to a copious domesticity in the far past, and a newspaper picture of a chasseur d'Afrique pinned over her bed recalled—though only the uniform was the dead soldier's—the son she had contributed to France's colonial empire. Practically it was two old maids—or two lone widows—whose boots turned pointed toes towards each other in the dark cranny of the rambling, fusty corridor of the sky-floor. Madame Depine was round, and grew dumpier with age; "Madame" Valiere was long, and grew slimmer. Otherwise their lives ran parallel. For the true madame of the establishment you had to turn to Madame la Proprietaire, with her buxom bookkeeper of a daughter and her tame baggage-bearing husband. This full-blooded, jovial creature, with her swart moustache, represented the only Parisian success of three provincial lives, and, in her good-nature, had permitted her decayed townswomen—at as low a rent as was compatible with prudence—to shelter themselves under her roof and as near it as possible. Her house being a profitable warren of American art-students, tempered by native journalists and decadent poets, she could, moreover, afford to let the old ladies off coffee and candles. They were at liberty to prepare their own dejeuner in winter or to buy it outside in summer; they could burn their own candles or sit in the dark, as the heart in them pleased; and thus they were as cheaply niched as any one in the gay city. Rentieres after their meticulous fashion, they drew a ridiculous but regular amount from the mysterious coffers of the Credit Lyonnais.
But though they met continuously in the musty corridor, and even dined—when they did dine—at the same cremerie, they never spoke to each other. Madame la Proprietaire was the channel through which they sucked each other's history, for though they had both known her in their girlish days at Tonnerre, in the department of Yonne, they had not known each other. Madame Valiere (Madame Depine learnt, and it seemed to explain the frigidity of her neighbour's manner) still trailed clouds of glory from the service of a Princess a quarter of a century before. Her refusal to wink at the Princess's goings-on, her austere, if provincial, regard for the convenances, had cost her the place, and from these purpureal heights she had fallen lower and lower, till she struck the attic of the Hotel des Tourterelles.
But even a haloed past does not give one a licence to annoy one's neighbours. Madame Depine felt resentfully, and she hated Madame Valiere as a haughty minion of royalty, who kept a cough, which barked loudest in the silence of the night.
"Why doesn't she go to the hospital, your Princess?" she complained to Madame la Proprietaire.
"Since she is able to nurse herself at home," the opulent-bosomed hostess replied with a shrug.
"At the expense of other people," Madame Depine retorted bitterly. "I shall die of her cough, I am sure of it."
Madame showed her white teeth sweetly. "Then it is you who should go to the hospital."
Time wrote wrinkles enough on the brows of the two old ladies, but his frosty finger never touched their glossy brown hair, for both wore wigs of nearly the same shade. These wigs were almost symbolic of the evenness of their existence, which had got beyond the reach of happenings. The Church calendar, so richly dyed with figures of saints and martyrs, filled life with colour enough, and fast-days were almost as welcome as feast-days, for if the latter warmed the general air, the former cloaked economy with dignity. As for Mardi Gras, that shook you up for weeks, even though you did not venture out of your apartment; the gay serpentine streamers remained round one's soul as round the trees.
At intervals, indeed, secular excitements broke the even tenor. A country cousin would call upon the important Parisian relative, and be received, not in the little bedroom, but in state in the mustily magnificent salon of the hotel—all gold mirrors and mouldiness—which the poor country mouse vaguely accepted as part of the glories of Paris and success. Madame Depine would don her ponderous gold brooch, sole salvage of her bourgeois prosperity; while, if the visitor were for Madame Valiere, that grande dame would hang from her yellow, shrivelled neck the long gold chain and the old-fashioned watch, whose hands still seemed to point to regal hours.
Another break in the monotony was the day on which the lottery was drawn—the day of the pagan god of Luck. What delicious hopes of wealth flamed in these withered breasts, only to turn grey and cold when the blank was theirs again, but not the less to soar up again, with each fresh investment, towards the heaven of the hundred thousand francs! But if ever Madame Depine stumbled on Madame Valiere buying a section of a billet at the lottery agent's, she insisted on having her own slice cut from another number. Fortune itself would be robbed of its sweet if the "Princess" should share it. Even their common failure to win a sou did not draw them from their freezing depths of silence, from which every passing year made it more difficult to emerge. Some greater conjuncture was needed for that.
It came when Madame la Proprietaire made her debut one fine morning in a grey wig.
Hitherto that portly lady's hair had been black. But now, as suddenly as darkness vanishes in a tropic dawn, it was become light. No gradual approach of the grey, for the black had been equally artificial. The wig is the region without twilight. Only in the swart moustache had the grey crept on, so that perhaps the growing incongruity had necessitated the sudden surrender to age.
To both Madame Depine and Madame Valiere the grey wig came like a blow on the heart.
It was a grisly embodiment of their secret griefs, a tantalising vision of the unattainable. To glide reputably into a grey wig had been for years their dearest desire. As each saw herself getting older and older, saw her complexion fade and the crow's-feet gather, and her eyes grow hollow, and her teeth fall out and her cheeks fall in, so did the impropriety of her brown wig strike more and more humiliatingly to her soul. But how should a poor old woman ever accumulate enough for a new wig? One might as well cry for the moon—or a set of false teeth. Unless, indeed, the lottery—?
And so, when Madame Depine received a sister-in-law from Tonnerre, or Madame Valiere's nephew came up by the excursion train from that same quiet and incongruously christened townlet, the Parisian personage would receive the visitor in the darkest corner of the salon, with her back to the light, and a big bonnet on her head—an imposing figure repeated duskily in the gold mirrors. These visits, instead of a relief, became a terror. Even a provincial knows it is not convenable for an old woman to wear a brown wig. And Tonnerre kept strict record of birthdays.
Tears of shame and misery had wetted the old ladies' hired pillows, as under the threat of a provincial visitation they had tossed sleepless in similar solicitude, and their wigs, had they not been wigs, would have turned grey of themselves. Their only consolation had been that neither outdid the other, and so long as each saw the other's brown wig, they had refrained from facing the dread possibility of having to sell off their jewellery in a desperate effort of emulation. Gradually Madame Depine had grown to wear her wig with vindictive endurance, and Madame Valiere to wear hers with gentle resignation. And now, here was Madame la Proprietaire, a woman five years younger and ten years better preserved, putting them both to the public blush, drawing the hotel's attention to what the hotel might have overlooked, in its long habituation to their surmounting brownness.
More morbidly conscious than ever of a young head on old shoulders, the old ladies no longer paused at the bureau to exchange the news with Madame or even with her black-haired bookkeeping daughter. No more lounging against the newel under the carved torch-bearer, while the journalist of the fourth floor spat at the Dreyfusites, and the poet of the entresol threw versified vitriol at perfidious Albion. For the first time, too—losing their channel of communication—they grew out of touch with each other's microscopic affairs, and their mutual detestation increased with their resentful ignorance. And so, shrinking and silent, and protected as far as possible by their big bonnets, the squat Madame Depine and the skinny Madame Valiere toiled up and down the dark, fusty stairs of the Hotel des Tourterelles, often brushing against each other, yet sundered by icy infinities. And the endurance on Madame Depine's round face became more vindictive, and gentler grew the resignation on the angular visage of Madame Valiere.
"Tiens! Madame Depine, one never sees you now." Madame la Proprietaire was blocking the threshold, preventing her exit. "I was almost thinking you had veritably died of Madame Valiere's cough."
"One has received my rent, the Monday," the little old lady replied frigidly.
"Oh! la! la!" Madame waved her plump hands. "And La Valiere, too, makes herself invisible. What has then happened to both of you? Is it that you are doing a penance together?"
"Hist!" said Madame Depine, flushing.
For at this moment Madame Valiere appeared on the pavement outside bearing a long French roll and a bag of figs, which made an excellent lunch at low water. Madame la Proprietaire, dominatingly bestriding her doorstep, was sandwiched between the two old ladies, her wig aggressively grey between the two browns. Madame Valiere halted awkwardly, a bronze blush mounting to match her wig. To be seen by Madame Depine carrying in her meagre provisions was humiliation enough; to be juxtaposited with a grey wig was unbearable.
"Maman, maman, the English monsieur will not pay two francs for his dinner!" And the distressed bookkeeper, bill in hand, shattered the trio.
"And why will he not pay?" Fire leapt into the black eyes.
"He says you told him the night he came that by arrangement he could have his dinners for one franc fifty."
Madame la Proprietaire made two strides towards the refractory English monsieur. "I told you one franc fifty? For dejeuner, yes, as many luncheons as you can eat. But for dinner? You eat with us as one of the family, and vin compris and cafe likewise, and it should be all for one franc fifty! Mon Dieu! it is to ruin oneself. Come here." And she seized the surprised Anglo-Saxon by the wrist and dragged him towards a painted tablet of prices that hung in a dark niche of the hall. "I have kept this hotel for twenty years, I have grown grey in the service of artists and students, and this is the first time one has demanded dinner for one franc fifty!"
"She has grown grey!" contemptuously muttered Madame Valiere.
"Grey? She!" repeated Madame Depine, with no less bitterness. "It is only to give herself the air of a grande dame!"
Then both started, and coloured to the roots of their wigs. Simultaneously they realised that they had spoken to each other.
As they went up the stairs together—for Madame Depine had quite forgotten she was going out—an immense relief enlarged their souls. Merely to mention the grey wig had been a vent for all this morbid brooding; to abuse Madame la Proprietaire into the bargain was to pass from the long isolation into a subtle sympathy.
"I wonder if she did say one franc fifty," observed Madame Valiere, reflectively.
"Without doubt," Madame Depine replied viciously. "And fifty centimes a day soon mount up to a grey wig."
"Not so soon," sighed Madame Valiere.
"But then it is not only one client that she cheats."
"Ah! at that rate wigs fall from the skies," admitted Madame Valiere.
"Especially if one has not to give dowries to one's nieces," said Madame Depine, boldly.
"And if one is mean on New Year's Day," returned Madame Valiere, with a shade less of mendacity.
They inhaled the immemorial airlessness of the staircase as if they were breathing the free air of the forests depicted on its dirty-brown wall-paper. It was the new atmosphere of self-respect that they were really absorbing. Each had at last explained herself and her brown wig to the other. An immaculate honesty (that would scorn to overcharge fifty centimes even to un Anglais), complicated with unwedded nieces in one case, with a royal shower of New Year's gifts in the other, had kept them from selfish, if seemly, hoary-headedness.
"Ah! here is my floor," panted Madame Valiere at length, with an air of indicating it to a thorough stranger. "Will you not come into my room and eat a fig? They are very healthy between meals."
Madame Depine accepted the invitation, and entering her own corner of the corridor with a responsive air of foreign exploration, passed behind the door through whose keyhole she had so often peered. Ah! no wonder she had detected nothing abnormal. The room was a facsimile of her own—the same bed with the same quilt over it and the same crucifix above it, the same little table with the same books of devotion, the same washstand with the same tiny jug and basin, the same rusted, fireless grate. The wardrobe, like her own, was merely a pair of moth-eaten tartan curtains, concealing both pegs and garments from her curiosity. The only sense of difference came subtly from the folding windows, below whose railed balcony showed another view of the quarter, with steam-trams—diminished to toy trains—puffing past to the suburbs. But as Madame Depine's eyes roved from these to the mantel-piece, she caught sight of an oval miniature of an elegant young woman, who was jewelled in many places, and corresponded exactly with her idea of a Princess!
To disguise her access of respect, she said abruptly, "It must be very noisy here from the steam-trams."
"It is what I love, the bustle of life," replied Madame Valiere, simply.
"Ah!" said Madame Depine, impressed beyond masking-point, "I suppose when one has had the habit of Courts—"
Madame Valiere shuddered unexpectedly. "Let us not speak of it. Take a fig."
But Madame Depine persisted—though she took the fig. "Ah! those were brave days when we had still an Emperor and an Empress to drive to the Bois with their equipages and outriders. Ah, how pretty it was!"
"But the President has also"—a fit of coughing interrupted Madame Valiere—"has also outriders."
"But he is so bourgeois—a mere man of the people," said Madame Depine.
"They are the most decent sort of folk. But do you not feel cold? I will light a fire." She bent towards the wood-box.
"No, no; do not trouble. I shall be going in a moment. I have a large fire blazing in my room."
"Then suppose we go and sit there," said poor Madame Valiere.
Poor Madame Depine was seized with a cough, more protracted than any of which she had complained.
"Provided it has not gone out in my absence," she stammered at last. "I will go first and see if it is in good trim."
"No, no; it is not worth the trouble of moving." And Madame Valiere drew her street-cloak closer round her slim form. "But I have lived so long in Russia, I forget people call this cold."
"Ah! the Princess travelled far?" said Madame Depine, eagerly.
"Too far," replied Madame Valiere, with a flash of Gallic wit. "But who has told you of the Princess?"
"Madame la Proprietaire, naturally."
"She talks too much—she and her wig!"
"If only she didn't imagine herself a powdered marquise in it! To see her standing before the mirror in the salon!"
"The beautiful spectacle!" assented Madame Valiere.
"Ah! but I don't forget—if she does—that her mother wheeled a fruit-barrow through the streets of Tonnerre!"
"Ah! yes, I knew you were from Tonnerre—dear Tonnerre!"
"How did you know?"
"Naturally, Madame la Proprietaire."
"The old gossip!" cried Madame Depine—"though not so old as she feigns. But did she tell you of her mother, too, and the fruit-barrow?"
"I knew her mother—une brave femme."
"I do not say not," said Madame Depine, a whit disconcerted. "Nevertheless, when one's mother is a merchant of the four seasons—"
"Provided she sold fruit as good as this! Take another fig, I beg of you."
"Thank you. These are indeed excellent," said Madame Depine. "She owed all her good fortune to a coup in the lottery."
"Ah! the lottery!" Madame Valiere sighed. Before the eyes of both rose the vision of a lucky number and a grey wig.
The acquaintanceship ripened. It was not only their common grievances against fate and Madame la Proprietaire: they were linked by the sheer physical fact that each was the only person to whom the other could talk without the morbid consciousness of an eye scrutinising the unseemly brown wig. It became quite natural, therefore, for Madame Depine to stroll into her "Princess's" room, and they soon slid into dividing the cost of the fire. That was more than an economy, for neither could afford a fire alone. It was an easy transition to the discovery that coffee could be made more cheaply for two, and that the same candle would light two persons, provided they sat in the same room. And if they did not fall out of the habit of companionship even at the cremerie, though "two portions for one" were not served, their union at least kept the sexagenarians in countenance. Two brown wigs give each other a moral support, are on the way to a fashion.
But there was more than wigs and cheese-parings in their camaraderie. Madame Depine found a fathomless mine of edification in Madame Valiere's reminiscences, which she skilfully extracted from her, finding the average ore rich with noble streaks, though the old tirewoman had an obstinate way of harking back to her girlhood, which made some delvings result in mere earth.
On the Day of the Dead Madame Depine emerged into importance, taking her friend with her to the Cemetery Montparnasse to see the glass flowers blooming immortally over the graves of her husband and children. Madame Depine paid the omnibus for both (inside places), and felt, for once, superior to the poor "Princess," who had never known the realities of love and death.
Two months passed. Another of Madame Valiere's teeth fell out. Madame Depine's cheeks grew more pendulous. But their brown wigs remained as fadeless as the cemetery flowers.
One day they passed the hairdresser's shop together. It was indeed next to the tobacconist's, so not easy to avoid, whenever one wanted a stamp or a postcard. In the window, amid pendent plaits of divers hues, bloomed two wax busts of females—the one young and coquettish and golden-haired, the other aristocratic in a distinguished grey wig. Both wore diamond rosettes in their hair and ropes of pearls round their necks. The old ladies' eyes met, then turned away.
"If one demanded the price!" said Madame Depine (who had already done so twice).
"It is an idea!" agreed Madame Valiere.
"The day will come when one's nieces will be married."
"But scarcely when New Year's Day shall cease to be," the "Princess" sighed.
"Still, one might win in the lottery!"
"Ah! true. Let us enter, then."
"One will be enough. You go." Madame Depine rather dreaded the coiffeur, whom intercourse with jocose students had made severe.
But Madame Valiere shrank back shyly. "No, let us both go." She added, with a smile to cover her timidity, "Two heads are better than one."
"You are right. He will name a lower price in the hope of two orders." And, pushing the "Princess" before her like a turret of defence, Madame Depine wheeled her into the ladies' department.
The coiffeur, who was washing the head of an American girl, looked up ungraciously. As he perceived the outer circumference of Madame Depine projecting on either side of her turret, he emitted a glacial "Bon jour, mesdames."
"Those grey wigs—" faltered Madame Valiere
"I have already told your friend." He rubbed the American head viciously.
Madame Depine coloured. "But—but we are two. Is there no reduction on taking a quantity?"
"And why then? A wig is a wig. Twice a hundred francs are two hundred francs."
"One hundred francs for a wig!" said Madame Valiere, paling. "I did not pay that for the one I wear."
"I well believe it, madame. A grey wig is not a brown wig."
"But you just said a wig is a wig."
The coiffeur gave angry rubs at the head, in time with his explosive phrases. "You want real hair, I presume—and to your measure—and to look natural—and convenable!" (Both old ladies shuddered at the word.) "Of course, if you want it merely for private theatricals—"
"Private theatricals!" repeated Madame Depine, aghast.
"A comedienne's wig I can sell you for a bagatelle. That passes at a distance."
Madame Valiere ignored the suggestion. "But why should a grey wig cost more than any other?"
The coiffeur shrugged his shoulders. "Since there are less grey hairs in the world—"
"Comment!" repeated Madame Valiere, in amazement.
"It stands to reason," said the coiffeur. "Since most persons do not live to be old—or only live to be bald." He grew animated, professorial almost, seeing the weight his words carried to unthinking bosoms. "And since one must provide a fine hair-net for a groundwork, to imitate the flesh-tint of the scalp, and since each hair of the parting must be treated separately, and since the natural wave of the hair must be reproduced, and since you will also need a block for it to stand on at nights to guard its shape—"
"But since one has already blocks," interposed Madame Depine.
"But since a conscientious artist cannot trust another's block! Represent to yourself also that the shape of the head does not remain as fixed as the dome of the Invalides, and that—"
"Eh bien, we will think," interrupted Madame Valiere, with dignity.
They walked slowly towards the Hotel des Tourterelles.
"If one could share a wig!" Madame Depine exclaimed suddenly.
"It is an idea," replied Madame Valiere. And then each stared involuntarily at the other's head. They had shared so many things that this new possibility sounded like a discovery. Pleasing pictures flitted before their eyes—the country cousin received (on a Box and Cox basis) by a Parisian old gentlewoman sans peur and sans reproche; a day of seclusion for each alternating with a day of ostentatious publicity.
But the light died out of their eyes, as Madame Depine recognised that the "Princess's" skull was hopelessly long, and Madame Valiere recognised that Madame Depine's cranium was hopelessly round. Decidedly either head would be a bad block for the other's wig to repose on.
"It would be more sensible to acquire a wig together, and draw lots for it," said Madame Depine.
The "Princess's" eyes rekindled. "Yes, and then save up again to buy the loser a wig."
"Parfaitement" said Madame Depine. They had slid out of pretending that they had large sums immediately available. Certain sums still existed in vague stockings for dowries or presents, but these, of course, could not be touched. For practical purposes it was understood that neither had the advantage of the other, and that the few francs a month by which Madame Depine's income exceeded Madame Valiere's were neutralised by the superior rent she paid for her comparative immunity from steam-trams. The accumulation of fifty francs apiece was thus a limitless perspective.
They discussed their budget. It was really almost impossible to cut down anything. By incredible economies they saw their way to saving a franc a week each. But fifty weeks! A whole year, allowing for sickness and other breakdowns! Who can do penance for a whole year? They thought of moving to an even cheaper hotel; but then in the course of years Madame Valiere had fallen three weeks behind with the rent, and Madame Depine a fortnight, and these arrears would have to be paid up. The first council ended in despair. But in the silence of the night Madame Depine had another inspiration. If one suppressed the lottery for a season!
On the average each speculated a full franc a week, with scarcely a gleam of encouragement. Two francs a week each—already the year becomes six months! For six months one can hold out. Hardships shared are halved, too. It will seem scarce three months. Ah, how good are the blessed saints!
But over the morning coffee Madame Valiere objected that they might win the whole hundred francs in a week!
It was true; it was heartbreaking.
Madame Depine made a reckless reference to her brooch, but the Princess had a gesture of horror. "And wear your heart on your shawl when your friends come?" she exclaimed poetically. "Sooner my watch shall go, since that at least is hidden in my bosom!"
"Heaven forbid!" ejaculated Madame Depine. "But if you sold the other things hidden in your bosom!"
"How do you mean?"
"The Royal Secrets."
The "Princess" blushed. "What are you thinking of?"
"The journalist below us tells me that gossip about the great sells like Easter buns."
"He is truly below us," said Madame Valiere, witheringly. "What! sell one's memories! No, no; it would not be convenable. There are even people living—"
"But nobody would know," urged Madame Depine.
"One must carry the head high, even if it is not grey."
It was almost a quarrel. Far below the steam-tram was puffing past. At the window across the street a woman was beating her carpet with swift, spasmodic thwacks, as one who knew the legal time was nearly up. In the tragic silence which followed Madame Valiere's rebuke, these sounds acquired a curious intensity.
"I prefer to sacrifice the lottery rather than honour," she added, in more conciliatory accents.
The long quasi-Lenten weeks went by, and unflinchingly the two old ladies pursued their pious quest of the grey wig. Butter had vanished from their bread, and beans from their coffee. Their morning brew was confected of charred crusts, and as they sipped it solemnly they exchanged the reflection that it was quite equal to the coffee at the cremerie. Positively one was safer drinking one's own messes. Figs, no longer posing as a pastime of the palate, were accepted seriously as pieces de resistance. The Spring was still cold, yet fires could be left to die after breakfast. The chill had been taken off, and by mid-day the sun was in its full power. Each sustained the other by a desperate cheerfulness. When they took their morning walk in the Luxembourg Gardens—what time the blue-aproned Jacques was polishing their waxed floors with his legs for broom-handles—they went into ecstasies over everything, drawing each other's attention to the sky, the trees, the water. And, indeed, of a sunshiny morning it was heartening to sit by the pond and watch the wavering sheet of beaten gold water, reflecting all shades of green in a restless shimmer against the shadowed grass around. Madame Valiere always had a bit of dry bread to feed the pigeons withal—it gave a cheerful sense of superfluity, and her manner of sprinkling the crumbs revived Madame Depine's faded images of a Princess scattering New Year largess.
But beneath all these pretences of content lay a hollow sense of desolation. It was not the want of butter nor the diminished meat; it was the total removal from life of that intangible splendour of hope produced by the lottery ticket. Ah! every day was drawn blank now. This gloom, this gnawing emptiness at the heart, was worse than either had foreseen or now confessed. Malicious Fate, too, they felt, would even crown with the grand prix the number they would have chosen. But for the prospective draw for the Wig—which reintroduced the aleatory—life would scarcely have been bearable.
Madame Depine's sister-in-law's visit by the June excursion train was a not unexpected catastrophe. It only lasted a day, but it put back the Grey Wig by a week, for Madame Choucrou had to be fed at Duval's, and Madame Valiere magnanimously insisted on being of the party: whether to run parallel with her friend, or to carry off the brown wig, she alone knew. Fortunately, Madame Choucrou was both short-sighted and colour-blind. On the other hand, she liked a petit verre with her coffee, and both at a separate restaurant. But never had Madame Valiere appeared to Madame Depine's eyes more like the "Princess," more gay and polished and debonair, than at this little round table on the sunlit Boulevard. Little trills of laughter came from the half-toothless gums; long gloved fingers toyed with the liqueur glass or drew out the old-fashioned watch to see that Madame Choucrou did not miss her train; she spent her sou royally on a hawked journal. When they had seen Madame Choucrou off, she proposed to dock meat entirely for a fortnight so as to regain the week. Madame Depine accepted in the same heroic spirit, and even suggested the elimination of the figs: one could lunch quite well on bread and milk, now the sunshine was here. But Madame Valiere only agreed to a week's trial of this, for she had a sweet tooth among the few in her gums.
The very next morning, as they walked in the Luxembourg Gardens, Madame Depine's foot kicked against something. She stooped and saw a shining glory—a five-franc piece!
"What is it?" said Madame Valiere.
"Nothing," said Madame Depine, covering the coin with her foot. "My bootlace." And she bent down—to pick up the coin, to fumble at her bootlace, and to cover her furious blush. It was not that she wished to keep the godsend to herself,—one saw on the instant that le bon Dieu was paying for Madame Choucrou,—it was an instantaneous dread of the "Princess's" quixotic code of honour. La Valiere was capable of flying in the face of Providence, of taking the windfall to a bureau de police. As if the inspector wouldn't stick to it himself! A purse—yes. But a five-franc piece, one of a flock of sheep!
The treasure-trove was added to the heap of which her stocking was guardian, and thus honestly divided. The trouble, however, was that, as she dared not inform the "Princess," she could not decently back out of the meatless fortnight. Providence, as it turned out, was making them gain a week. As to the figs, however, she confessed on the third day that she hungered sore for them, and Madame Valiere readily agreed to make this concession to her weakness.
This little episode coloured for Madame Depine the whole dreary period that remained. Life was never again so depressingly definite; though curiously enough the "Princess" mistook for gloom her steady earthward glance, as they sauntered about the sweltering city. With anxious solicitude Madame Valiere would direct her attention to sunsets, to clouds, to the rising moon; but heaven had ceased to have attraction, except as a place from which five-francs fell, and as soon as the "Princess's" eye was off her, her own sought the ground again. But this imaginary need of cheering up Madame Depine kept Madame Valiere herself from collapsing. At last, when the first red leaves began to litter the Gardens and cover up possible coins, the francs in the stocking approached their century.
What a happy time was that! The privations were become second nature; the weather was still fine. The morning Gardens were a glow of pink and purple and dripping diamonds, and on some of the trees was the delicate green of a second blossoming, like hope in the heart of age. They could scarcely refrain from betraying their exultation to the Hotel des Tourterelles, from which they had concealed their sufferings. But the polyglot population seething round its malodorous stairs and tortuous corridors remained ignorant that anything was passing in the life of these faded old creatures, and even on the day of drawing lots for the Wig the exuberant hotel retained its imperturbable activity.
Not that they really drew lots. That was a figure of speech, difficult to translate into facts. They preferred to spin a coin. Madame Depine was to toss, the "Princess" to cry pile ou face. From the stocking Madame Depine drew, naturally enough, the solitary five-franc piece. It whirled in the air; the "Princess" cried face. The puff-puff of the steam-tram sounded like the panting of anxious Fate. The great coin fell, rolled, balanced itself between two destinies, then subsided, pile upwards. The poor "Princess's" face grew even longer; but for the life of her Madame Depine could not make her own face other than a round red glow, like the sun in a fog. In fact, she looked so young at this supreme moment that the brown wig quite became her.
"I congratulate you," said Madame Valiere, after the steam-tram had become a far-away rumble.
"Before next summer we shall have yours too," the winner reminded her consolingly.
They had not waited till the hundred francs were actually in the stocking. The last few would accumulate while the wig was making. As they sat at their joyous breakfast the next morning, ere starting for the hairdresser's, the casement open to the October sunshine, Jacques brought up a letter for Madame Valiere—an infrequent incident. Both old women paled with instinctive distrust of life. And as the "Princess" read her letter, all the sympathetic happiness died out of her face.
"What is the matter, then?" breathed Madame Depine.
The "Princess" recovered herself. "Nothing, nothing. Only my nephew who is marrying."
"The middle of next month."
"Then you will need to give presents!"
"One gives a watch, a bagatelle, and then—there is time. It is nothing. How good the coffee is this morning!"
They had not changed the name of the brew: it is not only in religious evolutions that old names are a comfort.
They walked to the hairdresser's in silence. The triumphal procession had become almost a dead march. Only once was the silence broken.
"I suppose they have invited you down for the wedding?" said Madame Depine.
"Yes," said Madame Valiere.
They walked on.
The coiffeur was at his door, sunning his aproned stomach, and twisting his moustache as if it were a customer's. Emotion overcame Madame Depine at the sight of him. She pushed Madame Valiere into the tobacconist's instead.
"I have need of a stamp," she explained, and demanded one for five centimes. She leaned over the counter babbling aimlessly to the proprietor, postponing the great moment. Madame Valiere lost the clue to her movements, felt her suddenly as a stranger. But finally Madame Depine drew herself together and led the way into the coiffeurs. The proprietor, who had reentered his parlour, reemerged gloomily.
Madame Valiere took the word. "We are thinking of ordering a wig."
"Cash in advance, of course," said the coiffeur.
"Comment!" cried Madame Valiere, indignantly. "You do not trust my friend!"
"Madame Valiere has moved in the best society," added Madame Depine.
"But you cannot expect me to do two hundred francs of work and then be left planted with the wigs!"
"But who said two hundred francs?" cried Madame Depine. "It is only one wig that we demand—to-day at least."
He shrugged his shoulders. "A hundred francs, then."
"And why should we trust you with one hundred francs?" asked Madame Depine. "You might botch the work."
"Or fly to Italy," added the "Princess."
In the end it was agreed he should have fifty down and fifty on delivery.
"Measure us, while we are here," said Madame Depine. "I will bring you the fifty francs immediately."
"Very well," he murmured. "Which of you?"
But Madame Valiere was already affectionately untying Madame Depine's bonnet-strings. "It is for my friend," she cried. "And let it be as chic and convenable as possible!"
He bowed. "An artist remains always an artist."
Madame Depine removed her wig and exposed her poor old scalp, with its thin, forlorn wisps and patches of grey hair, grotesque, almost indecent, in its nudity. But the coiffeur measured it in sublime seriousness, putting his tape this way and that way, while Madame Valiere's eyes danced in sympathetic excitement.
"You may as well measure my friend too," remarked Madame Depine, as she reassumed her glossy brown wig (which seemed propriety itself compared with the bald cranium).
"What an idea!" ejaculated Madame Valiere. "To what end?"
"Since you are here," returned Madame Depine, indifferently. "You may as well leave your measurements. Then when you decide yourself—Is it not so, monsieur?"
The coiffeur, like a good man of business, eagerly endorsed the suggestion. "Perfectly, madame."
"But if one's head should change!" said Madame Valiere, trembling with excitement at the vivid imminence of the visioned wig.
"Souvent femme varie, madame," said the coiffeur. "But it is the inside, not the outside of the head."
"But you said one is not the dome of the Invalides," Madame Valiere reminded him.
"He spoke of our old blocks," Madame Depine intervened hastily. "At our age one changes no more."
Thus persuaded, the "Princess" in her turn denuded herself of her wealth of wig, and Madame Depine watched with unsmiling satisfaction the stretchings of tape across the ungainly cranium.
"C'est bien," she said. "I return with your fifty francs on the instant."
And having seen her "Princess" safely ensconced in the attic, she rifled the stocking, and returned to the coiffeur.
When she emerged from the shop, the vindictive endurance had vanished from her face, and in its place reigned an angelic exaltation.
Eleven days later Madame Valiere and Madame Depine set out on the great expedition to the hairdresser's to try on the Wig. The "Princess's" excitement was no less tense than the fortunate winner's. Neither had slept a wink the night before, but the November morning was keen and bright, and supplied an excellent tonic. They conversed with animation on the English in Egypt, and Madame Depine recalled the gallant death of her son, the chasseur.
The coiffeur saluted them amiably. Yes, mesdames, it was a beautiful morning. The wig was quite ready. Behold it there—on its block.
Madame Valiere's eyes turned thither, then grew clouded, and returned to Madame Depine's head and thence back to the Grey Wig.
"It is not this one?" she said dubiously.
"Mais, oui." Madame Depine was nodding, a great smile transfiguring the emaciated orb of her face. The artist's eyes twinkled.
"But this will not fit you," Madame Valiere gasped.
"It is a little error, I know," replied Madame Depine.
"But it is a great error," cried Madame Valiere, aghast. And her angry gaze transfixed the coiffeur.
"It is not his fault—I ought not to have let him measure you."
"Ha! Did I not tell you so?" Triumph softened her anger. "He has mixed up the two measurements!"
"Yes. I suspected as much when I went in to inquire the other day; but I was afraid to tell you, lest it shouldn't even fit you."
"Fit me!" breathed Madame Valiere.
"But whom else?" replied Madame Depine, impatiently, as she whipped off the "Princess's" wig. "If only it fits you, one can pardon him. Let us see. Stand still, ma chere," and with shaking hands she seized the grey wig.
"But—but—" The "Princess" was gasping, coughing, her ridiculous scalp bare.
"But stand still, then! What is the matter? Are you a little infant? Ah! that is better. Look at yourself, then, in the mirror. But it is perfect!" "A true Princess," she muttered beatifically to herself. "Ah, how she will show up the fruit-vendor's daughter!"
As the "Princess" gazed at the majestic figure in the mirror, crowned with the dignity of age, two great tears trickled down her pendulous cheeks.
"I shall be able to go to the wedding," she murmured chokingly.
"The wedding!" Madame Depine opened her eyes. "What wedding?"
"My nephew's, of course!"
"Your nephew is marrying? I congratulate you. But why did you not tell me?"
"I did mention it. That day I had a letter!"
"Ah! I seem to remember. I had not thought of it." Then briskly: "Well, that makes all for the best again. Ah! I was right not to scold monsieur le coiffeur too much, was I not?"
"You are very good to be so patient," said Madame Valiere, with a sob in her voice.
Madame Depine shot her a dignified glance. "We will discuss our affairs at home. Here it only remains to say whether you are satisfied with the fit."
Madame Valiere patted the wig, as much in approbation as in adjustment. "But it fits me to a miracle!"
"Then we will pay our friend, and wish him le bon jour." She produced the fifty francs—two gold pieces, well sounding, for which she had exchanged her silver and copper, and two five-franc pieces. "And voila," she added, putting down a franc for pourboire, "we are very content with the artist."
The "Princess" stared at her, with a new admiration.
"Merci bien," said the coiffeur, fervently, as he counted the cash. "Would that all customers' heads lent themselves so easily to artistic treatment!"
"And when will my friend's wig be ready?" said the "Princess."
"Madame Valiere! What are you saying there? Monsieur will set to work when I bring him the fifty francs."
"Mais non, madame. I commence immediately. In a week it shall be ready, and you shall only pay on delivery."
"You are very good. But I shall not need it yet—not till the winter—when the snows come," said Madame Depine, vaguely. "Bon jour, monsieur;" and, thrusting the old wig on the new block, and both under her shawl, she dragged the "Princess" out of the shop. Then, looking back through the door, "Do not lose the measurement, monsieur," she cried. "One of these days!"
The grey wig soon showed its dark side. Its possession, indeed, enabled Madame Valiere to loiter on the more lighted stairs, or dawdle in the hall with Madame la Proprietaire; but Madame Depine was not only debarred from these dignified domestic attitudes, but found a new awkwardness in bearing Madame Valiere company in their walks abroad. Instead of keeping each other in countenance—duoe contra mundum—they might now have served as an advertisement for the coiffeur and the convenable. Before the grey wig—after the grey wig.
Wherefore Madame Depine was not so very sorry when, after a few weeks of this discomforting contrast, the hour drew near of the "Princess's" departure for the family wedding; especially as she was only losing her for two days. She had insisted, of course, that the savings for the second wig were not to commence till the return, so that Madame Valiere might carry with her a present worthy of her position and her port. They had anxious consultations over this present. Madame Depine was for a cheap but showy article from the Bon Marche; but Madame Valiere reminded her that the price-lists of this enterprising firm knocked at the doors of Tonnerre. Something distinguished (in silver) was her own idea. Madame Depine frequently wept during these discussions, reminded of her own wedding. Oh, the roundabouts at Robinson, and that delicious wedding-lunch up the tree! One was gay then, my dear.
At last they purchased a tiny metal Louis Quinze timepiece for eleven francs seventy-five centimes, congratulating themselves on the surplus of twenty-five centimes from their three weeks' savings. Madame Valiere packed it with her impedimenta into the carpet-bag lent her by Madame la Proprietaire. She was going by a night train from the Gare de Lyon, and sternly refused to let Madame Depine see her off.
"And how would you go back—an old woman, alone in these dark November nights, with the papers all full of crimes of violence? It is not convenable, either."
Madame Depine yielded to the latter consideration; but as Madame Valiere, carrying the bulging carpet-bag, was crying "La porte, s'il vous plait" to the concierge, she heard Madame Depine come tearing and puffing after her like the steam-tram, and, looking back, saw her breathlessly brandishing her gold brooch. "Tiens!" she panted, fastening the "Princess's" cloak with it. "That will give thee an air."
"But—it is too valuable. Thou must not." They had never "thou'd" each other before, and this enhanced the tremulousness of the moment.
"I do not give it thee," Madame Depine laughed through her tears. "Au revoir, mon amie."
"Adieu, ma cherie! I will tell my dear ones of my Paris comrade." And for the first time their lips met, and the brown wig brushed the grey.
Madame Depine had two drearier days than she had foreseen. She kept to her own room, creeping out only at night, when, like all cats, all wigs are grey. After an eternity of loneliness the third day dawned, and she went by pre-arrangement to meet the morning train. Ah, how gaily gleamed the kiosks on the boulevards through the grey mist! What jolly red faces glowed under the cabmen's white hats! How blithely the birds sang in the bird-shops!
The train was late. Her spirits fell as she stood impatiently at the barrier, shivering in her thin clothes, and morbidly conscious of all those eyes on her wig. At length the train glided in unconcernedly, and shot out a medley of passengers. Her poor old eyes strained towards them. They surged through the gate in animated masses, but Madame Valiere's form did not disentangle itself from them, though every instant she expected it to jump at her eyes. Her heart contracted painfully—there was no "Princess." She rushed round to another exit, then outside, to the gates at the end of the drive; she peered into every cab even, as it rumbled past. What had happened? She trudged home as hastily as her legs could bear her. No, Madame Valiere had not arrived.
"They have persuaded her to stay another day," said Madame la Proprietaire. "She will come by the evening train, or she will write."
Madame Depine passed the evening at the Gare de Lyon, and came home heavy of heart and weary of foot. The "Princess" might still arrive at midnight, though, and Madame Depine lay down dressed in her bed, waiting for the familiar step in the corridor. About three o'clock she fell into a heavy doze, and woke in broad day. She jumped to her feet, her overwrought brain still heavy with the vapours of sleep, and threw open her door.
"Ah! she has already taken in her boots," she thought confusedly. "I shall be late for coffee." She gave her perfunctory knock, and turned the door-handle. But the door would not budge.
"Jacques! Jacques!" she cried, with a clammy fear at her heart. The garcon, who was pottering about with pails, opened the door with his key. An emptiness struck cold from the neat bed, the bare walls, the parted wardrobe-curtains that revealed nothing. She fled down the stairs, into the bureau.
"Madame Valiere is not returned?" she cried.
Madame la Proprietaire shook her head.
"And she has not written?"
"No letter in her writing has come—for anybody."
"O mon Dieu! She has been murdered. She would go alone by night."
"She owes me three weeks' rent," grimly returned Madame la Proprietaire.
"What do you insinuate?" Madame Depine's eyes flared.
Madame la Proprietaire shrugged her shoulders. "I am not at my first communion. I have grown grey in the service of lodgers. And this is how they reward me." She called Jacques, who had followed uneasily in Madame Depine's wake. "Is there anything in the room?"
"Empty as an egg-shell, madame."
"Not even the miniature of her sister?"
"Not even the miniature of her sister."
"Of her sister?" repeated Madame Depine.
"Yes; did I never tell you of her? A handsome creature, but she threw her bonnet over the mills."
"But I thought that was the Princess."
"The Princess, too. Her bonnet will also be found lying there."
"No, no; I mean I thought the portrait was the Princess's."
Madame la Proprietaire laughed. "She told you so?"
"No, no; but—but I imagined so."
"Without doubt, she gave you the idea. Quelle farceuse! I don't believe there ever was a Princess. The family was always inflated."
All Madame Depine's world seemed toppling. Somehow her own mistake added to her sense of having been exploited.
"Still," said Madame la Proprietaire with a shrug, "it is only three weeks' rent."
"If you lose it, I will pay!" Madame Depine had an heroic burst of faith.
"As you please. But I ought to have been on my guard. Where did she take the funds for a grey wig?"
"Ah, the brown wig!" cried Madame Depine, joyfully. "She must have left that behind, and any coiffeur will give you three weeks' rent for that alone."
"We shall see," replied Madame la Proprietaire, ambiguously.
The trio mounted the stairs, and hunted high and low, disturbing the peaceful spider-webs. They peered under the very bed. Not even the old block was to be seen. As far as Madame Valiere's own chattels were concerned, the room was indeed "empty as an egg-shell."
"She has carried it away with the three weeks' rent," sneered Madame la Proprietaire. "In my own carpet-bag," she added with a terrible recollection.
"She wished to wear it at night against the hard back of the carriage, and guard the other all glossy for the wedding." Madame Depine quavered pleadingly, but she could not quite believe herself.
"The wedding had no more existence than the Princess," returned Madame la Proprietaire, believing herself more and more.
"Then she will have cheated me out of the grey wig from the first," cried Madame Depine, involuntarily. "And I who sacrificed myself to her!"
"Comment! It was your wig?"
"No, no." She flushed and stammered. "But enfin—and then, oh, heaven! my brooch!"
"She has stolen your brooch?"
Great tears rolled down the wrinkled, ashen cheeks. So this was her reward for secretly instructing the coiffeur to make the "Princess's" wig first. The Princess, indeed! Ah, the adventuress! She felt choking; she shook her fist in the air. Not even the brooch to show when her family came up from Tonnerre, to say nothing of the wig. Was there a God in the world at all? Oh, holy Mother! No wonder the trickstress would not be escorted to the station—she never went to the station. No wonder she would not sell the royal secrets to the journalist—there were none to sell. Oh! it was all of a piece.
"If I were you I should go to the bureau of police!" said Madame la Proprietaire.
Yes, she would go; the wretch should be captured, should be haled to gaol. Even her half of the Louis Quinze timepiece recurred to poor Madame Depine's brain.
"Add that she has stolen my carpet-bag."
The local bureau telegraphed first to Tonnerre.
There had been the wedding, but no Madame Valiere. She had accepted the invitation, had given notice of her arrival; one had awaited the midnight train. The family was still wondering why the rich aunt had turned sulky at the last hour. But she was always an eccentric; a capricious and haughty personage.
Poor Madame Depine's recurrent "My wig! my brooch!" reduced the official mind to the same muddle as her own.
"No doubt a sudden impulse of senescent kleptomania," said the superintendent, sagely, when he had noted down for transference to headquarters Madame Depine's verbose and vociferous description of the traits and garments of the runagate. "But we will do our best to recover your brooch and your wig." Then, with a spasm of supreme sagacity, "Without doubt they are in the carpet-bag."
Madame Depine left the bureau and wandered about in a daze. That monster of ingratitude! That arch-adventuress, more vicious even than her bejewelled sister! All the long months of more than Lenten rigour recurred to her self-pitiful mood, that futile half-year of semi-starvation. How Madame Valiere must have gorged on the sly, the rich eccentric! She crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cite, and came to the gargoyled portals of Notre Dame, and let herself be drawn through the open door, and all the gloom and glory of the building fell around her like a soothing caress. She dropped before an altar and poured out her grief to the Mother of Sorrows. At last she arose, and tottered up the aisle, and the great rose-window glowed like the window of heaven. She imagined her husband and the dead children looking through it. Probably they wondered, as they gazed down, why her head remained so young.
Ah! but she was old, so very old. Surely God would take her soon. How should she endure the long years of loneliness and social ignominy?
As she stumbled out of the Cathedral, the cold, hard day smote her full in the face. People stared at her, and she knew it was at the brown wig. But could they expect her to starve herself for a whole year?
"Mon Dieu! Starve yourselves, my good friends. At my age, one needs fuel."
She escaped from them, and ran, muttering, across the road, and almost into the low grey shed.
Ah! the Morgue! Blessed idea! That should be the end of her. A moment's struggle, and then—the rose-window of heaven! Hell? No, no; the Madonna would plead for her; she who always looked so beautiful, so convenable.
She would peep in. Let her see how she would look when they found her. Would they clap a grey wig upon her, or expose her humiliation even in death?
"A-a-a-h!" A long scream tore her lips apart. There, behind the glass, in terrible waxen peace, a gash on her forehead, lay the "Princess," so uncanny-looking without any wig at all, that she would not have recognised her but for that moment of measurement at the hairdresser's. She fell sobbing before the cold glass wall of the death-chamber. Ah, God! Her first fear had been right; her brooch had but added to the murderer's temptation. And she had just traduced this martyred saint to the police.
"Forgive me, ma cherie, forgive me," she moaned, not even conscious that the attendant was lifting her to her feet with professional interest.
For in that instant everything passed from her but the great yearning for love and reconciliation, and for the first time a grey wig seemed a petty and futile aspiration.
* * * * *
SET TO PARTNERS
"Oh, look, dear, there's that poor Walter Bassett."
Amber Roan looked down from the roof of the drag at the crossing restless shuttles, weaving with feminine woof and masculine warp the multi-coloured web of Society in London's cricket Coliseum.
"Where?" she murmured, her eye wandering over the little tract of sunlit green between the coaches with their rival Eton and Harrow favours. Before Lady Chelmer had time to bend her pink parasol a little more definitely, a thunder of applause turned Amber Roan's face back towards the wickets, with a piqued expression.
"It's real mean," she said. "What have I missed now?"
"Only a good catch," said the Hon. Tolshunt Darcy, whose eyes had never faltered from her face.
"My, that's just the one thing I've been dying for," she pouted self-mockingly.
"Poor Walter Bassett," Lady Chelmer repeated. "I knew his mother."
"Where?" Amber asked again.
"In Huntingdonshire, before the property went to Algy—"
"No, no, Lady Chelmer; I mean, where is poor Walter Whatsaname now?"
"Why, right here," said Lady Chelmer, involuntarily borrowing from the vocabulary of her young American protegee.
"Walter Bassett!" said the Hon. Tolshunt, languidly. "Isn't that the chap that's always getting chucked out of Parliament?"
"But his name doesn't sound Irish?" queried Amber.
"What are you talking about, Amber!" cried Lady Chelmer. "Why, he comes of a good old Huntingdon family. If he had been his own elder brother, he'd have got in long ago."
"Oh, you mean he never gets into Parliament," said Amber.
"Serve him right. I believe he's one of those independent nuisances," said the old Marquis of Woodham. "How is one ever to govern the country, if every man is a party unto himself?" He said "one," but only out of modesty; for having once accepted a minor post in a Ministry that the Premier in posse had not succeeded in forming, he had retained a Cabinet air ever since.
"Well, the beggar will scarcely come up at Highmead for a third licking," observed the Hon. Tolshunt.
"No, poor Walter," said Lady Chelmer. "He thought he'd be sure to get in this time, but he's quite crushed now. Wasn't it actually two thousand votes less than last time?"
"Two thousand and thirty-three," replied Lord Woodham, with punctilious inaccuracy.
Involuntarily Amber's eyes turned in search of the crushed candidate whom she almost saw flattened beneath the 2033 votes, and whom it would scarcely have been a surprise to find asquat under a carriage, humbly assisting the footmen to pack the dirty plates. But before she had time to decide which of the unlively men, loitering round the carriages or helping stout old dowagers up slim iron ladders, was sufficiently lugubrious to be identified as the martyr of the ballot-box, she was absorbed by a tall, masterful figure, whose face had the radiance of easeful success, and whose hands were clapping at some nuance of style which had escaped the palms of the great circular mob.
"I can't see any Walter Bassett," she murmured absently.
"Why, you are staring straight at him," said Lady Chelmer.
Miss Roan did not reply, but her face was eloquent of her astonishment, and when her face spoke, it was with that vivacity which is the American accent of beauty. What wonder if the Hon. Tolshunt Darcy paid heed to it, although he liked what it said less than the form of expression! As he used to put it in after days, "She gave one look, and threw herself away from the top of that drag." The more literal truth was that she drew Walter Bassett up to the top of that drag.
Lady Chelmer protested in vain that she could not halloo to the man.
"You knew his mother," Amber replied. "And he's got no seat."
"Quite symbolical! He, he, he!" and the old Marquis chuckled and cackled in solitary amusement. "Let's offer him one," he went on, half to enjoy the joke a little longer, half to utilise the opportunity of bringing his Ministerial wisdom to bear upon this erratic young man.
"I don't see where there's room," said the Hon. Tolshunt Darcy, sulkily.
"There's room on the front bench," cackled the Marquis, shaking his sides.
"Oh, I don't want you to roll off for him," said Miss Roan, who treated Ministerial Marquises with a contempt that bred in them a delightful sense of familiarity. "Tolshunt can sit opposite me—he's stared at the cricket long enough."
Tolshunt blushed with apparent irrelevance. But even the prospect of staring at Amber more comfortably did not reconcile him to displacement. "It's so awkward meeting a fellow who's had a tumble," he grumbled. "It's like having to condole with a man fresh from a funeral."
"There doesn't seem much black about Walter Bassett," Amber laughed. And at this moment—the dull end of a "maiden over"—the radiant personage in question turned his head, and perceiving Lady Chelmer's massive smile, acknowledged her recognition with respectful superiority, whereupon her Ladyship beckoned him with her best parasol manner.
"I want to introduce you to my friend, Miss Roan," she said, as he climbed to her side.
"I've been reading so much about you," said that young lady, with a sweet smile. "But you shouldn't be so independent, you know, you really shouldn't."
He smiled back. "I'm only independent till they come to my way of thinking."
Lady Chelmer gasped. "Then you still have hopes of Highmead!"
"I won a moral victory there each time, Lady Chelmer."
"How so, sir?" put in the Marquis. "Your opponent increased the Government majority—"
"And my reputation. A tiresome twaddler. Unfortunately," and he smiled again, "two moral victories are as bad as a defeat. On the other hand, a defeat at a bye-election equals a victory at a general. You play a solo—and on your own trumpet." A burst of cheering rounded off these remarks. This time Amber did not even inquire what it indicated—she was almost content to take it as an endorsement of Walter Bassett's epigrams. But Lord Woodham eagerly improved the situation. "A fine stroke that," he said, "but a batsman outside a team doesn't play the game."
"It will be a good time for the country, Lord Woodham," Mr. Bassett returned quietly, "when people cease to regard the Parliamentary session as a cricket match, one side trying to bowl over or catch out the other. But then England always has been a sporting nation."
"Ah, you allow some good in the old country," said Lady Chelmer, pleased. "Look at the trouble we all take to come here to encourage the dear boys;" and the words ended with a tired sigh.
"Yes, of course, that is the side on which they need encouragement," he rejoined drily. "Majuba was lost on the playing-field of Lord's."
There was a moment of shocked surprise. Lady Chelmer, herself a martyr to the religion of sport thus blasphemed—of which she understood as little as of any other religion—hastily tried to pour tea on the troubled waters. But they had been troubled too deeply. For full eight minutes the top of the drag became a political platform for Marquis-Ministerial denunciations of Mr. Gladstone, to a hail of repartee from the profane young man.
At the end of those eight minutes—when Lady Chelmer was at last able to reinsinuate tea into the discussion—Miss Amber Roan realised with a sudden shock that she had not "chipped in" once, and that "poor Walter Bassett" had commanded her ear for all that time without pouring into it a single compliment, or, indeed, addressing to it any observation whatever. For the first time since her debut in the Milwaukee parlour at the age of five, this spoiled daughter of the dollar had lost sight of herself. As they walked towards the tea-tent, through the throng of clergymen and parasols and tanned men with field-glasses, and young bloods and pretty girls, she noted uneasily that his eyes wandered from her to these types of English beauty, these flower-faces under witching hats. Indeed, he had led her out of the way to plough past a row of open carriages. "The shortest cut," he said, "is past the prettiest woman."
But he had to face her at the tea-table, where she blocked his view of the tables beyond and plied him with strawberries and smiles under the sullen glances of the Hon. Tolshunt Darcy and the timid cough of her chaperon.
"I wonder you waste your time on the silly elections," she said. "We don't take much stock in Senators in America."
"It's just because M.P.'s are at such a discount that I want to get in. In the realm of the blind the one-eyed is a king."
"They must be blind not to let you in," she answered with equal frankness.
"No, they see too well, if you mean the voters. They've got their eye on the price of their vote."
"What!" she cried. "You can't buy votes in England!"
"Oh, can't you—"
"But I'm sure I read about it in the English histories—it was all abolished."
"A good many things were abolished by the Decalogue even earlier," he replied grimly. "Half an hour before the poll closed I could have bought a thousand votes at a shilling each."
"Well, that seems reasonable enough," said Lady Chelmer.
"It was beyond my pocket."
"What! Fifty pounds?" cried Amber, incredulously.
The blush that followed was hers, not his. "But what became of the thousand votes?" she asked hurriedly.
He laughed. "Half an hour before the poll closed they had gone down to sixpence apiece—like fish that wouldn't keep."
"My! And were they all wasted?"
"No. My rival bought them up. Vide the newspapers—'the polling was unusually heavy towards the close.'"
"Really!" intervened Lady Chelmer. "Then at that rate you can unseat him for bribery."
"At that rate—or higher," he replied drily. "To unseat another is even more expensive than to seat oneself."
"Why, it seems all a question of money," said Miss Amber Roan, naively.
Lady Chelmer was glad when the season came to an end and the dancing mice had no longer to spin dizzyingly in their gilded cage. "The Prisoner of Pleasure" was Walter Bassett's phrase for her. Even now she was a convict on circuit. Some of the dungeons were in ancient castles, from which Bassett was barred, but all of which opened to Amber's golden keys, though only because Lady Chelmer knew how to turn them. He, however, penetrated the ducal doors through the letter-box.
The Hon. Tolshunt and Lord Woodham, in their apprehension of the common foe, began to find each other endurable. If it was politics that attracted her, Tolshunt felt he too could stoop to a career. As for the Marquis, he began to meditate resuming office. Both had freely hinted to her Ladyship that to give a millionaire bride to a man who hadn't a penny savoured of Socialism.
Galled by such terrible insinuations, Lady Chelmer had dared to sound the girl.
"I love his letters," gushed Amber, bafflingly. "He writes such cute things."
"He doesn't dress very well," said Lady Chelmer, feebly fighting.
"Oh, of course, he doesn't bother as much as Tolly, who looks as if he had been poured into his clothes—"
"Yes, the mould of fashion," quoted Lady Chelmer, vaguely.
An eruption of Walter Bassett in the Press did not tend to allay her Ladyship's alarm, especially as Amber began to dally with the morning paper and the evening.
Opening a new People's Library at Highmead—in the absence abroad of the successful candidate—he had contrived to set the newspapers sneering. He had told the People that although they might temporarily accept such gifts as "Capital's conscience-money," yet it was as much the duty of the parish to supply light as to supply street-lamps; which was considered both ungracious and unsound. The donor he described as "a millionaire of means," which was considered wilfully paradoxical by those who did not know how great capitals are locked up in industries. But what worked up the Press most was his denunciation of modern journalism, in malodorous comparison with the literature this Library would bring the People. "The journalist," he said tersely, "is Satan's secretary." No shorter cut to notoriety could have been devised, for it was the "Silly Season," and Satan found plenty of mischief for his idle hands to do.
"Oh, you poor man!" Amber wrote Walter. "Why don't you say you were thinking of America—yellow journalism, and all that? The yellow is, of course, Satan's sulphur. You would hardly believe what his secretaries have written even of poor little me! And you should see the pictures of 'The Milwaukee Millionairess' in the Sunday numbers!"
Walter Bassett did not reply regularly and punctually to Amber's letters, and it was a novel sensation to the jaded beauty who had often thrown aside masculine missives after a glance at the envelope, to find herself eagerly shuffling her morning correspondence in the hope of turning up a trump-card. A card, indeed, it often proved, though never a postcard, and Amber meekly repaid it fourfold. She found it delicious to pour herself out to him; it had the pleasure of abandonment without its humiliation. Verbally, this was the least flirtatious correspondence she had ever maintained with the opposite sex.
So when at last, towards the end of the holiday season, the pair met in the flesh at a country house (Lady Chelmer still protests it was a coincidence), Walter Bassett had no apprehension of danger, and his expression of pleasure at the coincidence was unfeigned, for he felt his correspondence would be lightened. In nothing did he feel the want of pence more keenly than in his inability to keep a secretary for his public work. "Money is time," he used to complain; "the millionaire is your only Methuselah."
The house had an old-world garden, and it was here they had their first duologue. Amber had quickly discovered that Walter was interested in the apiaries that lay at the foot of its slope, and so he found her standing in poetic grace among the tall sweet-peas, with their whites and pinks and faint purples, a basket of roses in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other.
As he came to her under the quaint trellised arch, "I always feel like a croquet ball going through the hoop," he said.
"But the ball is always driven," she said.
"Oh, I dare say it has the illusion of freewill. Doubtless the pieces in that chess game, which Eastern monarchs are said to play with human figures, come to think they move of themselves. The knight chuckles as he makes his tortuous jump at the queen, and the bishop swoops down on the castle with holy joy."
She came imperceptibly closer to him. "Then you don't think any of us move of ourselves?"
"One or two of us in each generation. They make the puppets dance."
"You admire Bismarck, I see."
"Yes. A pity he didn't emigrate to your country, like so many Germans."
"Do you think we need him? But he couldn't have been President. You must be born in America."
"True. Then I shall remain on here."
"You're terrible ambitious, Mr. Bassett."
"Yes, terrible," he repeated mockingly.
"Then come and help me pick blackberries," she said, and caught him by his own love of the unexpected. They left the formal garden, and came out into the rabbit-warren, and toiled up and down hillocks in search of ripe bushes, paying, as Walter said, "many pricks to the pint." And when Amber urged him to scramble to the back of tangled bushes, through coils of bristling briars, "You were right," he laughed; "this is terrible ambitious." The best of the blackberries plucked, Amber began a new campaign against mushrooms, and had frequent opportunities to rebuke his clumsiness in crumbling the prizes he uprooted. She knelt at his side to teach him, and once laid her deft fingers instructively upon his.
And just at that moment he irritatingly discovered a dead mole, and fell to philosophising upon it and its soft, velvet, dainty skin—as if a girl's fingers were not softer and daintier! "Look at its poor little pale-red mouth," he went on, "gaspingly open, as in surprise at the strange great forces that had made and killed it."
"I dare say it had a good time," said Amber, pettishly.
After the harvest had been carried indoors they scarcely exchanged a word till she found him watching the bees the next morning.
"Are you interested in bees?" she inquired in tones of surprise.
"Yes," he said. "They are the most striking example of Nature's Bismarckism—her habit of using her creatures to work her will through their own. Sic vos non vobis."
"I learnt enough Latin at College to understand that," she said; "but I don't see how one finds out anything by just watching them hover over their hives. I've never even been able to find the queen bee. Won't you come and see what beautiful woods there are behind the house? Lady Chelmer is walking there, and I ought to be joining her."
"You ought to be taking her an umbrella," he said coldly. Amber looked up at the sky. Had it been blue, she would have felt it grey. As it was grey, she felt it black.
"Oh, if you're afraid of a drop of rain—" And Amber walked on witheringly. It was a clever move.
Walter followed in silence. Amber did not become aware of him till she was in the middle of an embryonic footpath through tall bracken that made way, courtseying, for the rare pedestrian.
"Oh!" She gave a little scream. "I thought you were studying the bees—or the moles."
"I have only been studying your graceful back."
"How mean! Behind my back!" She laughed, pleased. "I hope you haven't discovered anything Bismarckian about my back."
"Only in the sense that I followed it, and must follow—till the path widens."
"Ah, how you must hate following—you, so terrible ambitious."
"The path will widen," he said composedly.
She planted her feet firm on Mother Earth—as though it were literally her own mother—and turned a mocking head over a tantalising shoulder. "I shall stay still right here."
He smiled maliciously. "And I, too; I follow you no farther."
"Oh, you are just too cute," she said with a laugh of vexation and pleasure. "You make me go on just to make you follow; but it is really you that make me lead. That's what you mean by Bismarckism, isn't it?"
"You put it beautifully."
She swung round to face him. "Is there nothing you admire but Force?"
"What's the difference?"
"Force is blind."
"So is love," she said. "Do you scorn that?" And her smile was daring and dazzling.
Ere he could reply Nature outdid her in dazzlement, and superadded a crash of thunder.
"Yes," he said, as though there had been no interruption. "I scorn all that is blind—even this storm that may strike you and me. Ah! the rain," as the great drops began to fall. "Poor Lady Chelmer—without an umbrella."
"We can shelter by these shrubs." In an instant she was crouching amid the ferns on a carpet of autumn leaves, making space for him beside her.
"Thank you—I will stand," he said coldly. "But I don't know if you're aware these are oak-shrubs."
"What of it?"
"I was only thinking of the Swiss proverb about lightning, 'Vor den Eichen sollst du weichen.' We ought to make for the beeches."
"I'm not going to leave my umbrella. I am sorry you won't accept a bit of it." And she bent the tall ferns invitingly towards him.
"I don't like cowering even before the rain," he laughed. "How it brings out the beautiful earthy smell."
"One enjoys the beautiful earthy smell the better for being nearer to the earth."
He did not reply.
"Oh, you dear fool," she thought. Hadn't she had heaps of Power from childhood—over her stern old father, over her weakling mother, over her governesses, and later over the whole tribe of "the boys," and now in Europe over Marquises and Honourables—and could it all compare in intensity to this delicious, poignant sense of being caught up into a masterful personality! No, not Power but Powerlessness was life's central reality; not to turn with iron hand the great wheels of Fate, but to faint at a dear touch, to be sucked up as a moth in the flame. And for him, too, it were surely as sweet to leave this strenuous quest for dominance, or to be content with dominating her alone. Oh, she would bring him to clear vision, to live for nothing but her, even as she asked for nothing but him.
The harsh scream of a bluejay struck a discord through her reverie. She remembered that he had yet to be won.
"But didn't you tell me people can't get power without money?" she said, forgetting the hiatus in the conversation.
"Nor with it generally," he replied, without surprise. "Money is but a lever. You cannot move the earth unless you have force and fulcrum, too."
"But I guess a man like you must get real mad to see so many levers lying about idle."
"Oh, I shall get on without a lever, like primitive man. I have muscles."
"But it seems too bad not to be able to afford machinery."
"I shall be hand-made."
"Yes, and by your own hand. But won't it be slow?"
"It will be sure."
Every one of his speeches rang like the stroke of a hammer. Yes, indeed he had muscles.
"But how much surer with money! You ought to turn your career into a company. Surely it would pay a dividend to its promoters."
"The directors would interfere."
"You could be chairman—with a veto."
He shook his head. "The rain is dripping through your umbrella. Don't you think we might run to the house?"
"It's only an old hat." It was fresh from Paris, broad-brimmed, beautiful, and bewitching. "Why don't you find"—she smiled nervously—"a millionaire of means?"
"And what would be his reward?"
"Just Virtue's. Won't you be a light to England? And isn't it the duty of parishes and millionaires to supply light?" She was plucking a fern-leaf to pieces.
"Millionaires' minds don't run that way."
"Not male millionaires, perhaps," she said, turning her face from him so jerkily that she shook the oak-shrub and it became a shower-bath.
He looked at her, slightly startled. It was the first emotion she had ever provoked in him, and her heart beat faster.
"I really do think it is giving over now," he said, gazing at her sopping hat.
'Twas as if he had shaken the shrub again and drenched her with cold water. He was mocking her, her and her dollars and her love.
"It is quite over," she said savagely, springing up, and growing even angrier when she found the rain had really stopped, so that her indignation sounded only like acquiescence. She strode ahead of him, silent, through the wet bracken, her frock growing a limp rag as it brushed aside the glistening ferns.
As she struck the broader path to the house, the cackling laugh of a goat chained to a roadside log followed her cynically. Where had she heard this bleat before? Ah, yes, from the Marquis of Woodham.
Walter Bassett had spoken truly. He did not admire love—that blind force. Women seemed to him delightfully aesthetic objects—to be kept at a distance, however closely one embraced them. They were unreasoning beings at the best, even when unbiassed by that supreme prejudice—love.
It was not his conception of the strong man that he must needs become as water at some woman's touch and go dancing and babbling like a sylvan brook. Women were the light of life—he was willing enough to admit it, but one must be able to switch the light on and off at will. All these were reasons for not falling in love—they were not reasons for not marrying. And so, Amber being determined to marry him, there was really less difficulty than if it had been necessary for him to fall in love with her.
It took, however, many letters and interviews, full of the subtlest comedy, infinite advancing and retiring, and recrossing and bowing, and courtesying and facing and half-turning, before this leap-year dance could end in the solemn Wedding March.
"You know," she said once, "how I should love the fun of seeing you plough your way through all the mediocrities."
"That is the means, not the end," he reminded her, rebukingly. "One only wants the world to swallow one's pills for the world's sake."
"I don't believe you," she said frankly. "Else you'd move mountains to get the money for the pills, not turn up your nose at the mountain when it comes to you."
He laughed heartily. "What a delightful confusion of metaphors! I'm sure you've got Irish blood somewhere."
"Of course I have. Did I never tell you I am descended from the kings of Ireland?"
He took off his hat mockingly. "I salute Miss Brian Boru."
"You're an awfully good fellow," he told her on a later occasion. "I almost believe I'd take your money if you were not a woman." "If I were not a woman I should not offer it to you—I should want a career of my own."
"And my career would content you?" he asked, touched.
"Absolutely," she lied. "The interest I should take in it—wouldn't that be sufficient interest on the loan?"
"There is one thing you have taught me," he said slowly—"how conventional I am! But every prejudice in me shrinks from your proposition, much as I admire your manliness."
"Perhaps it could be put on more conventional lines—superficially," she suggested in a letter that harked back to this conversation. "One might go through conventional forms. That adorable Disraeli—I have just been reading his letters. How right he was not to marry for love!"
The penultimate stage of the pre-nuptial comedy was reached in the lobby of the Opera, while Society was squeezing to its carriage. It was after the Rheingold, and poor Lady Chelmer could hardly keep her eyes open, and actually dozed off as she leaned against a wall, in patient martyrdom. Walter Bassett had been specially irritating, for he had not come up to the box once, and everybody knows (as the Hon. Tolshunt had said, with unwonted brilliance) the Rheingold is in heavy bars.
"I didn't know you admired Wagner so much," Amber said scathingly, as Walter pushed through the grooms. "Such a rapt devotee!"
"Wagner is the greatest man of the century. He alone has been able to change London's dinner-hour."
Amber could not help smiling. "Poor Lady Chelmer!" she said, nodding towards the drowsing dowager. "Since half-past six!"
"Is that our carriage?" said the "Prisoner of Pleasure," opening her eyes.
"No, dear—I guess we are some fifty behind. Tolly and the Marquis are watching from the pavement."
The poor lady sighed and went to sleep again.
"Behold the compensations of poverty," observed Walter Bassett. "The gallery-folk have to wait and squeeze before the opera; the carriage-folk after the opera."
"You forget the places they occupy during the opera. Poor Wagner! What a fight! I wish I could have helped his career." And Amber set a wistful smile in the becoming frame of her white hood.
"The form of the career appears to be indifferent to you," he said, with a little laugh.
"As indifferent as the man," she replied, meeting his eyes calmly.
The faint scent of her hair mingled with his pleasurable sense of her frank originality. For the first time the bargain really appealed to him. He could not but see that she was easily the fairest of that crush of fair women, and to have her prostrated at the foot of his career was more subtly delicious than to have her surrender to his person. The ball was at his foot in surely the most tempting form that a ball could take. And the fact that he must leave her hurriedly to write the musical criticism that was the price of his stall, was not calculated to diminish his appreciation of all the kingdoms of the world which his temptress was showing him from her high mountain.
"Alas! I must go and write a notice," he sighed.
"Satan's Secretary?" she queried mischievously.
He started. Had he not been just thinking of her as a Satan in skirts?
"En attendant that I become Satan's master," he replied ambiguously, as he raised his hat.
"Oh, to drive off with him into the peace and solitude of Love—away from the grinding paths of ambition," thought Amber, when the horses pranced up.
"Women, not measures," said the reigning wit anent the administration which Amber's Salon held together, and in which her husband occupied a position quite disproportionate to his nominal office, and still more so to the almost unparalleled brevity of his career as a private member.
Few, indeed, were the recalcitrants who could resist Amber's smiles, or her still more seductive sulkiness. Walter Bassett's many enemies declared that the young Cabinet Minister owed his career entirely to his wife. His admirers indignantly pointed out that he had represented Highmead for two sessions before he met Miss Roan. The germ of truth in this was that he had stipulated to himself that he would not accept the contract unless Amber, too, must admit "Value received," and in contributing a career already self-launched, and a good old Huntingdon name, his pride was satisfied. This, however, had wasted a year or so, while the Government was getting itself turned out, and it never entered his brain that his crushing victory at the General Election could owe anything to a corner in votes—at five dollars a head—secretly made by a fair American financier.
It was in the thick of the season, and Amber had just said good-bye to the Bishop, the last of her dinner-guests. "I always say grace when the church goes," she laughed, as she turned to her budget of unread correspondence and shuffled the letters, as in the old days, when she hoped to draw a letter of Walter's. But her method had become more scientific. Recognising the writers by their crests or mottoes, she would arrange the letters in order of precedence, alleging it was to keep her hand in, otherwise she would always be making the most horrible mistakes in "your Mediaeval British etiquette."
"Who goes first to-night?" said her husband, watching her movements from a voluptuous arm-chair.
"Only Lady Chelmer," Amber yawned, as she broke the seal.
"Didn't I see the scrawl of the Honourable Tolly?"
"Yes, poor dear. I do so want to know if he is happy in British Honduras. But he must take his turn."
"If he had taken his turn," Walter laughed, "he never would have got the appointment there."
"No, poor dear; it was very good of you."
"Of me?" Walter's tone was even more amused. His eyes roved round the vast drawing-room, as if with the thought that he had as little to do with its dignified grandeur. Then his gaze rested once more on his wife; she seemed a delicious harmony of silks and flowers and creamy flesh-tones.
"Mrs. Bassett," he said softly, lingering on the proprietorial term.
"Yes, Walter," she said, not looking up from her letter.
"Do you realise this is the first time we have been alone together this month?"
"No? Really?" She glanced up absently.
"Never mind that muddle-headed old Chelmer. I dare say she only wants another hundred or two." He came over, took the letter and her hand with it. "I have a great secret to tell you."
Now he had captured her attention as well as her hand. Her eyes sparkled. "A Cabinet Secret?" she said.
"Yes. At this moment every newspaper office is in a fever—to-morrow all England will be ringing with the news. It is a thunderbolt."
She started up, snatching her hand away, every nerve a-quiver with excitement. "And you kept this from me all through dinner?"
"I hadn't a chance, darling—I came straight from the scrimmage."
"You won't gloss it over by calling me novel names. I hate stale thunderbolts. You might have breathed a word in my ear."
"I shall make amends by beginning with the part that is only for your ear. Do you know what next Monday is?"
"The day you address your constituents, of course. Oh, I see, this thunderbolt is going to change your speech."
"Is going to change my speech altogether. Next Monday is the seventh anniversary of our wedding."
"Is it? But what has that to do with your speech at Highmead?"
"Everything." He smiled mysteriously, then went on softly, "Amber, do you remember our honeymoon?"
She smiled faintly. "Oh, I haven't quite forgotten."
"If you had quite forgotten the misery of it, I should be glad."
"I have quite forgotten."
"You are kinder than I deserve. But I was so startled to find my career was less to you than a kiss that I was more churlish than I need have been. I even wished that you might have a child, so that you might be taken up with it instead of with me."
She blushed. "Yes, I dare say I showed my hand clumsily as soon as it held all the aces."
"Ah, Amber, you were an angel and I was a beast. How gallantly you swallowed your disappointment in your bargain, how loyally you worked heart and soul that I might gain my one ideal—Power!"
"It was a labour of love," she said deprecatingly.
"My noble Amber. But did you think, selfishly engrossed though I have been with the Fight for Power, that this love-labour of yours was lost on me? No, 'terrible ambitious' as I was, I could still see I got the blackberries and you little more than the scratches, and the less you began to press your claim upon my heart, the more my heart was opening out with an answering passion. I began to watch the play of your eyes, the shimmer of light across your cheek, the roguish pout of your lips, the lock that strayed across your temple—as it is straying now."