THE INDISCRETION OF THE DUCHESS
Being a Story Concerning Two Ladies, a Nobleman, and a Necklace
BY ANTHONY HOPE
AUTHOR OF "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA," ETC.
I. A MULTITUDE OF GOOD REASONS
II. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A SUPPER-TABLE
III. THE UNEXPECTED THAT ALWAYS HAPPENED
IV. THE DUCHESS DEFINES HER POSITION
V. A STRATEGIC RETREAT
VI. A HINT OF SOMETHING SERIOUS
VII. HEARD THROUGH THE DOOR
VIII. I FIND THAT I CARE
IX. AN UNPARALLELED INSULT
X. LEFT ON MY HANDS
XI. A VERY CLEVER SCHEME
XII. AS A MAN POSSESSED
XIII. A TIMELY TRUCE
XIV. FOR AN EMPTY BOX
XV. I CHOOSE MY WAY
XVI. THE INN NEAR PONTORSON
XVII. A RELUCTANT INTRUSION
XVIII. A STRANGE GOOD HUMOR
XIX. UNSUMMONED WITNESSES
XX. THE DUKE'S EPITAPH
XXI. A PASSING CARRIAGE
XXII. FROM SHADOW TO SUNSHINE
THE INDISCRETION OF THE DUCHESS.
A Multitude of Good Reasons.
In accordance with many most excellent precedents, I might begin by claiming the sympathy due to an orphan alone in the world. I might even summon my unguided childhood and the absence of parental training to excuse my faults and extenuate my indiscretions. But the sympathy which I should thus gain would be achieved, I fear, by something very like false pretenses. For my solitary state sat very lightly upon me—the sad events which caused it being softened by the influence of time and habit—and had the recommendation of leaving me, not only free to manage my own life as I pleased, but also possessed of a competence which added power to my freedom. And as to the indiscretions—well, to speak it in all modesty and with a becoming consciousness of human frailty, I think that the undoubted indiscretions—that I may use no harder term—which were committed in the course of a certain fortnight were not for the most part of my doing or contriving. For throughout the transactions which followed on my arrival in France, I was rather the sport of circumstances than the originator of any scheme; and the prominent part which I played was forced upon me, at first by whimsical chance, and later on by the imperious calls made upon me by the position into which I was thrust.
The same reason that absolves me from the need of excuse deprives me of the claim to praise; and, looking back, I am content to find nothing of which I need seriously be ashamed, and glad to acknowledge that, although Fate chose to put me through some queer paces, she was not in the end malevolent, and that, now the whole thing is finished, I have no cause to complain of the ultimate outcome of it. In saying that, I speak purely and solely for myself. There is one other for whom I might perhaps venture to say the same without undue presumption, but I will not; while for the rest, it must suffice for me to record their fortunes, without entering on the deep and grave questions which are apt to suggest themselves to anyone who considers with a thoughtful mind the characters and the lives of those with whom he is brought in contact on his way through the world. The good in wicked folk, the depths in shallow folk, the designs of haphazard minds, the impulsive follies of the cunning—all these exist, to be dimly discerned by any one of us, to be ignored by none save those who are content to label a man with the name of one quality and ignore all else in him, but to be traced, fully understood, and intelligently shown forth only by the few who are gifted to read and expound the secrets of human hearts. That is a gift beyond my endowment, and fitted for a task too difficult for my hand. Frankly, I did not, always and throughout, discern as clearly as I could desire the springs on which the conduct of my fellow-actors turned; and the account I have given of their feelings and their motives must be accepted merely as my reading of them, and for what, as such, it is worth. The actual facts speak for themselves. Let each man read them as he will; and if he does not indorse all my views, yet he will, I venture to think, be recompensed by a story which even the greatest familiarity and long pondering has not robbed of all its interest for me. But then I must admit that I have reasons which no one else can have for following with avidity every stage and every development in the drama, and for seeking to discern now what at the time was dark and puzzling to me.
The thing began in the most ordinary way in the world—or perhaps that is too strongly put. The beginning was ordinary indeed, and tame, compared with the sequel. Yet even the beginning had a flavor of the unusual about it, strong enough to startle a man so used to a humdrum life and so unversed in anything out of the common as I. Here, then, is the beginning:
One morning, as I sat smoking my after-breakfast cigar in my rooms in St. James' Street, my friend Gustave de Berensac rushed in. His bright brown eyes were sparkling, his mustache seemed twisted up more gayly and triumphantly than ever, and his manner was redolent of high spirits. Yet it was a dull, somber, misty morning, for all that the month was July and another day or two would bring August. But Gustave was a merry fellow, though always (as I had occasion to remember later on) within the limits of becoming mirth—as to which, to be sure, there may be much difference of opinion.
"Shame!" he cried, pointing at me. "You are a man of leisure, nothing keeps you here; yet you stay in this bouillon of an atmosphere, with France only twenty miles away over the sea!"
"They have fogs in France too," said I. "But whither tends your impassioned speech, my good friend? Have you got leave?"
Gustave was at this time an extra secretary at the French Embassy in London.
"Leave? Yes, I have leave—and, what is more, I have a charming invitation."
"My congratulations," said I.
"An invitation which includes a friend," he continued, sitting down. "Ah, you smile! You mean that is less interesting?"
"A man may smile and smile, and not be a villain," said I. "I meant nothing of the sort. I smiled at your exhilaration—nothing more, on the word of a moral Englishman."
Gustave grimaced; then he waved his cigarette in the air, exclaiming:
"She is charming, my dear Gilbert!"
"The exhilaration is explained."
"There is not a word to be said against her," he added hastily.
"That does not depress me," said I. "But why should she invite me?"
"She doesn't invite you; she invites me to bring—anybody!"
"Then she is ennuye, I presume?"
"Who would not be, placed as she is? He is inhuman!"
"M. le mari?"
"You are not so stupid, after all! He forbids her to see a single soul; we must steal our visit, if we go."
"He is away, then?"
"The kind government has sent him on a special mission of inquiry to Algeria. Three cheers for the government!"
"By all means," said I. "When are you going to approach the subject of who these people are?"
"You will not trust my discernment?"
"Alas, no! You are too charitable—to one half of humanity."
"Well, I will tell you. She is a great friend of my sister's—they were brought up in the same convent; she is also a good comrade of mine."
"A good comrade?"
"That is just it; for I, you know, suffer hopelessly elsewhere."
"What, Lady Cynthia still?"
"Still!" echoed Gustave with a tragic air. But he recovered in a moment. "Lady Cynthia being, however, in Switzerland, there is no reason why I should not go to Normandy."
"Precisely. It is there that the duchess—"
"Oho! The duchess?"
"Is residing in retirement in a small chteau, alone save for my sister's society."
"And a servant or two, I presume?"
"You are just right, a servant or two; for he is most stingy to her (though not, they say, to everybody), and gives her nothing when he is away."
"Money is a temptation, you see."
"Mon Dieu, to have none is a greater!" and Gustave shook his head solemnly.
"The duchess of what?" I asked patiently.
"You will have heard of her," he said, with a proud smile. Evidently he thought that the lady was a trump card. "The Duchess of Saint-Maclou."
I laid down my cigar, maintaining, however, a calm demeanor.
"Aha!" said Gustave. "You will come, my friend?"
I could not deny that Gustave had a right to his little triumph; for a year ago, when the duchess had visited England with her husband, I had received an invitation to meet her at the Embassy. Unhappily, the death of a relative (whom I had never seen) occurring the day before, I had been obliged to post off to Ireland, and pay proper respect by appearing at the funeral. When I returned the duchess had gone, and Gustave had, half-ironically, consoled my evident annoyance by telling me that he had given such a description of me to his friend that she shared my sorrow, and had left a polite message to that effect. That I was not much consoled needs no saying. That I required consolation will appear not unnatural when I say that the duchess was one of the most brilliant and well-known persons in French society; yes, and outside France also. For she was a cosmopolitan. Her father was French, her mother American; and she had passed two or three years in England before her marriage. She was very pretty, and, report said, as witty as a pretty woman need be. Once she had been rich, but the money was swallowed up by speculation; she and her father (the mother was dead) were threatened with such reduction of means as seemed to them penury; and the marriage with the duke had speedily followed—the precise degree of unwillingness on the part of Mlle. de Beville being a disputed point. Men said she was forced into the marriage, women very much doubted it; the lady herself gave no indication, and her father declared that the match was one of affection. All this I had heard from common friends; only a series of annoying accidents had prevented the more interesting means of knowledge which acquaintance with the duchess herself would have afforded.
"You have always," said Gustave, "wanted to know her."
I relit my cigar and puffed thoughtfully. It was true that I had rather wished to know her.
"My belief is," he continued, "that though she says 'anybody,' she means you. She knows what friends we are; she knows you are eager to be among her friends; she would guess that I should ask you first."
I despise and hate a man who is not open to flattery: he is a hard, morose, distrustful, cynical being, doubting the honesty of his friends and the worth of his own self. I leant an ear to Gustave's suggestion.
"What she would not guess," he said, throwing his cigarette into the fireplace and rising to his feet, "is that you would refuse when I did ask you. What shall be the reason? Shocked, are you? Or afraid?"
Gustave spoke as though nothing could either shock or frighten him.
"I'm merely considering whether it will amuse me," I returned. "How long are we asked for?"
"That depends on diplomatic events."
"The mission to Algeria?"
I put my hands in my pockets.
"I should certainly be glad, my dear Gustave," said I, "to meet your sister again."
"We take the boat for Cherbourg to-morrow evening!" he cried triumphantly, slapping me on the back. "And, in my sister's name, many thanks! I will make it clear to the duchess why you come."
"No need to make bad blood between them like that," I laughed.
In fine, I was pleased to go; and, on reflection, there was no reason why I should not go. I said as much to Gustave.
"Seeing that everybody is going out of town and the place will be a desert in a week, I'm certainly not wanted here just now."
"And seeing that the duke is gone to Algeria, we certainly are wanted there," said Gustave.
"And a man should go where he is wanted," said I.
"And a man is wanted," said Gustave, "where a lady bids him come."
"It would," I cried, "be impolite not to go."
"It would be dastardly. Besides, think how you will enjoy the memory of it!"
"The memory?" I repeated, pausing in my eager walk up and down.
"It will be a sweet memory," he said.
"Because, my friend, it is prodigiously unwise—for you."
"And not for you?"
"Why, no. Lady Cynthia—"
He broke off, content to indicate the shield that protected him. But it was too late to draw back.
"Let it be as unwise," said I, "as it will—"
"Or as the duke is," put in Gustave, with a knowing twinkle in his eye.
"Yet it is a plan as delightful—"
"As the duchess is," said Gustave.
And so, for all the excellent reasons which may be collected from the foregoing conversation,—and if carefully tabulated they would, I am persuaded, prove as numerous as weighty,—I went.
The Significance of a Supper-Table.
The Aycons of Aycon Knoll have always been a hard-headed, levelheaded race. We have had no enthusiasms, few ambitions, no illusions, and not many scandals. We keep our heads on our shoulders and our purses in our pockets. We do not rise very high, but we have never sunk. We abide at the Knoll from generation to generation, deeming our continued existence in itself a service to the state and an honor to the house. We think more highly of ourselves than we admit, and allow ourselves to smile when we walk in to dinner behind the new nobility. We grow just a little richer with every decade, and add a field or two to our domains once in five years. The gaps made by falling rents we have filled by judicious purchases of land near rising towns; and we have no doubt that there lies before us a future as long and prosperous as our past has been. We are not universally popular, and we see in the fact a tribute to our valuable qualities.
I venture to mention these family virtues and characteristics because it has been thought in some quarters that I displayed them but to a very slight degree in the course of the expedition on which I was now embarked. The impression is a mistaken one. As I have said before, I did nothing that was not forced upon me. Any of my ancestors would, I am sure, have done the same, had they chanced to be thrown under similar circumstances into the society of Mme. de Saint-Maclou and of the other persons whom I was privileged to meet; and had those other persons happened to act in the manner in which they did when I fell in with them.
Gustave maintained his gayety and good spirits unabated through the trials of our voyage to Cherbourg. The mild mystery that attended our excursion was highly to his taste. He insisted on our coming without servants. He persuaded me to leave no address; obliged to keep himself within touch of the Embassy, he directed letters to be sent to Avranches, where, he explained, he could procure them; for, as he thought it safe to disclose when a dozen miles of sea separated us from the possibility of curious listeners, the house to which we were bound stood about ten miles distant from that town, in a retired and somewhat desolate bit of country lining the seashore.
"My sister says it is the most triste place in the world," said he; "but we shall change all that when we arrive."
There was nothing to prevent our arriving very soon to relieve Mlle. de Berensac's depression, for the middle of the next day found us at Avranches, and we spent the afternoon wandering about somewhat aimlessly and staring across the bay at the mass of Mont St. Michel. Directly beneath us as we stood on the hill, and lying in a straight line with the Mount, there was a large square white house, on the very edge of the stretching sand. We were told that it was a convent.
"But the whole place is no livelier than one," said I, yawning. "My dear fellow, why don't we go on?"
"It is right for you to see this interesting town," answered Gustave gravely, but with a merry gleam in his eye. "However, I have ordered a carriage, so be patient."
"For what time?"
"Nine o'clock, when we have dined."
"We are to get there in the dark, then?"
"What reason is there against that?" he asked, smiling.
"None," said I; and I went to pack up my bag.
In my room I chanced to find a femme-de-chambre. To her I put a question or two as to the gentry of the neighborhood. She rattled me off a few distinguished names, and ended:
"The duke of Saint-Maclou has also a small chteau."
"Is he there now?" I asked.
"The duchess only, sir," she answered. "Ah, they tell wonderful stories of her!"
"Do they? Pray, of what kind?"
"Oh, not to her harm, sir; or, at least, not exactly, though to simple country-folk—"
The national shrug was an appropriate ending.
"And the duke?"
"He is a good man," she answered earnestly, "and a very clever man. He is very highly thought of at Paris, sir."
I had hoped, secretly, to hear that he was a villain; but he was a good man. It was a scurvy trick to play on a good man. Well, there was no help for it. I packed my bag with some dawning misgivings; the chambermaid, undisturbed by my presence, went on rubbing the table with some strong-smelling furniture polish.
"At least," she observed, as though there had been no pause, "he gives much to the church and to the poor."
"It may be repentance," said I, looking up with a hopeful air.
"It is possible, sir."
"Or," cried I, with a smile, "hypocrisy?"
The chambermaid's shake of her head refused to accept this idea; but my conscience, fastening on it, found rest. I hesitated no longer. The man was a cunning hypocrite. I would go on cheerfully, secure that he deserved all the bamboozling which the duchess and my friend Gustave might prepare for him.
At nine o'clock, as Gustave had arranged, we started in a heavy carriage drawn by two great white horses and driven by a stolid fat hostler. Slowly we jogged along under the stars, St. Michel being our continual companion on the right hand, as we followed the road round the bay. When we had gone five or six miles, we turned suddenly inland. There were banks on each side of the road now, and we were going uphill; for rising out of the plain there was a sudden low spur of higher ground.
"Is the house at the top?" I asked Gustave.
"Just under the top," said he.
"I shall walk," said I.
The fact is, I had grown intolerably impatient of our slow jog, which had now sunk to a walk.
We jumped out and strode on ahead, soon distancing our carriage, and waking echoes with our merry talk.
"I rather wonder they have not come to meet us," said Gustave. "See, there is the house."
A sudden turn in the road had brought us in sight of it. It was a rather small modern Gothic chteau. It nestled comfortably below the hill, which rose very steeply immediately behind it. The road along which we were approaching appeared to afford the only access, and no other house was visible. But, desolate as the spot certainly was, the house itself presented a gay appearance, for there were lights in every window from ground to roof.
"She seems to have company," I observed.
"It is that she expects us," answered Gustave. "This illumination is in our honor."
"Come on," said I, quickening my pace; and Gustave burst out laughing.
"I knew you would catch fire when once I got you started!" he cried.
Suddenly a voice struck on my ear—a clear, pleasant voice:
"Was he slow to catch fire, my dear Gustave?"
I started. Gustave looked round.
"It is she," he said. "Where is she?"
"Was he slow to catch fire?" asked the voice again. "Well, he has but just come near the flame"—and a laugh followed the words.
"Slow to light is long to burn," said I, turning to the bank on the left side of the road, for it was thence that the voice came.
A moment later a little figure in white darted down into the road, laughing and panting. She seized Gustave's hand.
"I ran so hard to meet you!" she cried.
"And have you brought Claire with you?" he asked.
"Present your friend to me," commanded the duchess, as though she had not heard his question.
Did I permit myself to guess at such things, I should have guessed the duchess to be about twenty-five years old. She was not tall; her hair was a dark brown, and the color in her cheeks rich but subdued. She moved with extraordinary grace and agility, and seemed never at rest. The one term of praise (if it be one, which I sometimes incline to doubt) that I have never heard applied to her is—dignified.
"It is most charming of you to come, Mr. Aycon," said she. "I've heard so much of you, and you'll be so terribly dull!"
"With yourself, madame, and Mlle. de Berensac—"
"Oh, of course you must say that!" she interrupted. "But come along, supper is ready. How delightful to have supper again! I'm never in good enough spirits to have supper when I'm alone. You'll be terribly uncomfortable, gentlemen. The whole household consists of an old man and five women—counting myself."
"And are they all—?" began Gustave.
"Discreet?" she asked, interrupting again. "Oh, they will not tell the truth! Never fear, my dear Gustave!"
"What news of the duke?" asked he, as we began to walk, the duchess stepping a little ahead of us.
"Oh, the best," said she, with a nod over her shoulder. "None, you know. That's one of your proverbs, Mr. Aycon?"
"Even a proverb is true sometimes," I ventured to remark.
We reached the house and passed through the door, which stood wide open. Crossing the hall, we found ourselves in a small square room, furnished with rose-colored hangings. Here supper was spread. Gustave walked up to the table. The duchess flung herself into an armchair. She had taken her handkerchief out of her pocket, and she held it in front of her lips and seemed to be biting it. Her eyebrows were raised, and her face displayed a comical mixture of amusement and apprehension. A glance of her eyes at me invited me to share the perilous jest, in which Gustave's demeanor appeared to bear the chief part.
Gustave stood by the table, regarding it with a puzzled air.
"One—two—three!" he exclaimed aloud, counting the covers laid.
The duchess said nothing, but her eyebrows mounted a little higher, till they almost reached her clustering hair.
"One—two—three?" repeated Gustave, in unmistakable questioning. "Does Claire remain upstairs?"
Appeal—amusement—fright—shame—triumph—chased one another across the eyes of Mme. de Saint-Maclou: each made so swift an appearance, so swift an exit, that they seemed to blend in some peculiar personal emotion proper to the duchess and to no other woman born. And she bit the handkerchief harder than ever. For the life of me I couldn't help it; I began to laugh; the duchess' face disappeared altogether behind the handkerchief.
"Do you mean to say Claire's not here?" cried Gustave, turning on her swiftly and accusingly.
The head behind the handkerchief was shaken, first timidly, then more emphatically, and a stifled voice vouchsafed the news:
"She left three days ago."
Gustave and I looked at one another. There was a pause. At last I drew a chair back from the table, and said:
"If madame is ready—"
The duchess whisked her handkerchief away and sprang up. She gave one look at Gustave's grave face, and then, bursting into a merry laugh, caught me by the arm, crying:
"Isn't it fun, Mr. Aycon? There's nobody but me! Isn't it fun?"
The Unexpected that Always Happened.
Everything depends on the point of view and is rich in varying aspects. A picture is sublime from one corner of the room, a daub from another; a woman's full face may be perfect, her profile a disappointment; above all, what you admire in yourself becomes highly distasteful in your neighbor. The moral is, I suppose, Tolerance; or if not that, something else which has escaped me.
When the duchess said that "it"—by which she meant the whole position of affairs—was "fun," I laughed; on the other hand, Gustave de Berensac, after one astonished stare, walked to the hall door.
"Where is my carriage?" we heard him ask.
"It has started on the way back three, minutes ago, sir."
"Fetch it back."
"Sir! The driver will gallop down the hill; he could not be overtaken."
"How fortunate!" said I.
"I do not see," observed Mme. de Saint-Maclou, "that it makes all that difference."
She seemed hurt at the serious way in which Gustave took her joke.
"If I had told the truth, you wouldn't have come," she said in justification.
"Not another word is necessary," said I, with a bow.
"Then let us sup," said the duchess, and she took the armchair at the head of the table.
We began to eat and drink, serving ourselves. Presently Gustave entered, stood regarding us for a moment, and then flung himself into the third chair and poured out a glass of wine. The duchess took no notice of him.
"Mlle, de Berensac was called away?" I suggested.
"She was called away," answered the duchess.
"No," said the duchess, her eyes again full of complicated expressions. I laughed. Then she broke out in a plaintive cry: "Oh! were you ever dying—dying—dying of weariness?"
Gustave made no reply; the frown on his face persisted.
"Isn't it a pity," I asked, "to wreck a pleasant party for the sake of a fine distinction? The presence of Mlle. de Berensac would have infinitely increased our pleasure; but how would it have diminished our crime?"
"I wish I had known you sooner, Mr. Aycon," said the duchess; "then I needn't have asked him at all."
I bowed, but I was content with things as they were. The duchess sat with the air of a child who has been told that she is naughty, but declines to accept the statement. I was puzzled at the stern morality exhibited by my friend Gustave. His next remark threw some light on his feelings.
"Heavens! if it became known, what would be thought?" he demanded suddenly.
"If one thinks of what is thought," said the duchess with a shrug, "one is—"
"A fool," said I, "or—a lover!"
"Ah!" cried the duchess, a smile coming on her lips. "If it is that, I'll forgive you, my dear Gustave. Whose good opinion do you fear to lose?"
"I write," said Gustave, with a rhetorical gesture, "to say that I am going to the house of some friends to meet my sister!"
"Oh, you write?" we murmured.
"My sister writes to say she is not there!"
"Oh, she writes?" we murmured again.
"And it is thought—"
"By whom?" asked the duchess.
"By Lady Cynthia Chillingdon," said I.
"That it is a trick—a device—a deceit!" continued poor Gustave.
"It was decidedly indiscreet of you to come," said the duchess reprovingly. "How was I to know about Lady Cynthia? If I had known about Lady Cynthia, I would not have asked you; I would have asked Mr. Aycon only. Or perhaps you also, Mr. Aycon—"
"Madame," said I, "I am alone in the world."
"Where has Claire gone to?" asked Gustave.
"Paris," pouted the duchess.
Gustave rose, flinging his napkin on the table.
"I shall follow her to-morrow," he said. "I suppose you'll go back to England, Gilbert?"
If Gustave left us, it was my unhesitating resolve to return to England.
"I suppose I shall," said I.
"I suppose you must," said the duchess ruefully. "Oh, isn't it exasperating? I had planned it all so delightfully!"
"If you had told the truth—" began Gustave.
"I should not have had a preacher to supper," said the duchess sharply; then she fell to laughing again.
"Is Mlle. de Berensac irrecoverable?" I suggested.
"Why, yes. She has gone to take her turn of attendance on your rich old aunt, Gustave."
I think that there was a little malice in the duchess' way of saying this.
There seemed nothing more to be done. The duchess herself did not propose to defy conventionality to the extent of inviting me to stay. To do her justice, as soon as the inevitable was put before her, she accepted it with good grace, and, after supper, busied herself in discovering the time and manner in which her guests might pursue their respective journeys. I may be flattering myself, but I thought that she displayed a melancholy satisfaction on discovering that Gustave de Berensac must leave at ten o'clock the next morning, whereas I should be left to kick my heels in idleness at Cherbourg if I set out before five in the afternoon.
"Oh, you can spend the time en route," said Gustave. "It will be better."
The duchess looked at me; I looked at the duchess.
"My dear Gustave," said I, "you are very considerate. You could not do more if I also were in love with Lady Cynthia."
"Nor," said the duchess, "if I were quite unfit to be spoken to."
"If my remaining till the afternoon will not weary the duchess—" said I.
"The duchess will endure it," said she, with a nod and a smile.
Thus it was settled, a shake of the head conveying Gustave's judgment. And soon after, Mme. de Saint-Maclou bade us good-night. Tired with my journey, and (to tell the truth) a little out of humor with my friend, I was not long in seeking my bed. At the top of the stairs a group of three girls were gossiping; one of them handed me a candle and flung open the door of my room with a roguish smile on her broad good-tempered face.
"One of the greatest virtues of women," said I pausing on the threshold, "is fidelity."
"We are devoted to Mme. la Duchesse," said the girl.
"Another, hardly behind it, is discretion," I continued.
"Madame inculcates it on us daily," said she. I took out a napoleon.
"Ladies," said I, placing the napoleon in the girl's hand, "I am obliged for your kind attentions. Good-night!" and I shut the door on the sound of a pleased, excited giggling. I love to hear such sounds; they make me laugh myself, for joy that this old world, in spite of everything, holds so much merriment; and to their jovial lullaby I fell asleep,
Moreover—the duchess teaching discretion! There can have been nothing like it since Baby Charles and Steenie conversed within the hearing of King James! But, then discretion has two meanings—whereof the one is "Do it not," and the other "Tell it not." Considering of this ambiguity, I acquitted the duchess of hypocrisy.
At ten o'clock the next morning we got rid of my dear friend Gustave de Berensac. Candor compels me to put the statement in that form; for the gravity which had fallen upon him the night before endured till the morning, and he did not flinch from administering something very like a lecture to his hostess. His last words were an invitation to me to get into the carriage and start with him. When I suavely declined, he told me that I should regret it. It comforts me to think that his prophecy, though more than once within an ace of the most ample fulfillment, yet in the end was set at naught by the events which followed.
Gustave rolled down the hill, the duchess sighed relief.
"Now," said she, "we can enjoy ourselves fora few hours, Mr. Aycon. And after that—solitude!"
I was really very sorry for the duchess. Evidently society and gayety were necessary as food and air to her, and her churl of a husband denied them. My opportunity was short, but I laid myself out to make the most of it. I could give her nothing more than a pleasant memory, but I determined to do that.
We spent the greater part of the day in a ramble through the woods that lined the slopes of the hill behind the house; and all through the hours the duchess chatted about herself, her life, her family—and then about the duke. If the hints she gave were to be trusted, her husband deserved little consideration at her hands, and, at the worst, the plea of reprisal might offer some excuse for her, if she had need of one. But she denied the need, and here I was inclined to credit her. For with me, as with Gustave de Berensac before the shadow of Lady Cynthia came between, she was, most distinctly, a "good comrade." Sentiment made no appearance in our conversation, and, as the day ruthlessly wore on, I regretted honestly that I must go in deference to a conventionality which seemed, in this case at least—Heaven forbid that I should indulge in general theories—to mask no reality. Yet she was delightful by virtue of the vitality in her; and the woods echoed again and again with our laughter.
At four o'clock we returned sadly to the house, where the merry girls busied themselves in preparing a repast for me. The duchess insisted on sharing my meal.
"I shall go supperless to bed to-night," said she; and we sat down glum as two children going back to school.
Suddenly there was a commotion outside; the girls were talking to one another in rapid eager tones. The duchess raised her head, listening. Then she turned to me, asking:
"Can you hear what they say?"
"I can distinguish nothing except 'Quick, quick!'"
As I spoke the door was thrown open, and two rushed in, the foremost saying:
"Again, madame, again!"
"Impossible!" exclaimed the duchess, starting up.
"No, it is true. Jean was out, snaring a rabbit, and caught sight of the carriage."
"What carriage? Whose carriage?" I asked.
"Why, my husband's," said the duchess, quite calmly. "It is a favorite trick of his to surprise us. But Algeria! We thought we were safe with Algeria. He must travel underground like a mole, Suzanne, or we should have heard."
"Oh, one hears nothing here!"
"And what," said the duchess, "are we to do with Mr. Aycon?"
"I can solve that," I observed. "I'm off."
"But he'll see you!" cried the girl. "He is but a half-mile off."
"Mr. Aycon could take the side-path," said the duchess.
"The duke would see him before he reached it," said the girl. "He would be in sight for nearly fifty yards."
"Couldn't I hide in the bushes?" I asked.
"I hate anything that looks suspicious," remarked the duchess, still quite calm; "and if he happened to see you, it would look rather suspicious! And he has got eyes like a cat's for anything of that sort."
There was no denying that it would look suspicious if I were caught hiding in the bushes. I sat silent, having no other suggestion to make.
Suzanne, with a readiness not born, I hope, of practice, came to the rescue with a clever suggestion.
"The English groom whom madame dismissed a week ago—" said she. "Why should not the gentleman pass as the groom? The man would not take his old clothes away, for he had bought new ones, and they are still here. The gentleman would put them on and walk past—voil."
"Can you look like a groom?" asked the duchess. "If he speaks to you, make your French just a little worse"—and she smiled.
They were all so calm and businesslike that it would have seemed disobliging and absurd to make difficulties.
"We can send your luggage soon, you know," said the duchess. "You had better hide Mr. Aycon's luggage in your room, Suzanne. Really, I am afraid you ought to be getting ready, Mr. Aycon."
The point of view again! By virtue of the duchess' calmness and Suzanne's cool readiness, the proceeding seemed a most ordinary one. Five minutes later I presented myself to the duchess, dressed in a villainous suit of clothes, rather too tight for me, and wearing a bad hat rakishly cocked over one eye. The duchess surveyed me with great curiosity.
"Fortunately the duke is not a very clever man," said she. "Oh, by the way, your name's George Sampson, and you come from Newmarket; and you are leaving because you took more to drink than was good for you. Good-by, Mr. Aycon. I do hope that we shall meet again under pleasanter circumstances."
"They could not be pleasanter—but they might be more prolonged," said I.
"It was so good of you to come," she said, pressing my hand.
"The carriage is but a quarter of a mile off!" cried Suzanne warningly.
"How very annoying it is! I wish to Heaven the Algerians had eaten the duke!"
"I shall not forget my day here," I assured her.
"You won't? It's charming of you. Oh, how dull it will be now! It only wanted the arrival of—Well, good-by!"
And with a final and long pressure of the duchess' hand, I, in the garb and personality of George Sampson, dismissed for drunkenness, walked out of the gate of the chteau.
"One thing," I observed to myself as I started, "would seem highly probable—and that is, that this sort of thing has happened before."
The idea did not please me. I like to do things first.
The Duchess Defines Her Position.
I walked on at a leisurely pace; the heavy carriage was very near the top of the hill. In about three minutes' time we met. There sat alone in the carriage a tall dark man, with a puffy white face, a heavy mustache, and stern cold eyes. He was smoking a cigar. I plucked my hat from my head and made as if to pass by.
"Who's this?" he called out, stopping the carriage.
I began to recite my lesson in stumbling French.
"Why, what are you? Oh, you're English! Then in Heaven's name, speak English—not that gabble." And then he repeated his order, "Speak English," in English, and continued in that language, which he spoke with stiff formal correctness.
He heard my account of myself with unmoved face.
"Have you any writings—any testimonials?" he asked.
"No, my lord," I stammered, addressing him in style I thought most natural to my assumed character.
"That's a little curious, isn't it? You become intoxicated everywhere, perhaps?"
"I've never been intoxicated in my life, my lord," said I, humbly but firmly.
"Then you dispute the justice of your dismissal?"
"Yes, my lord." I thought such protest due to my original.
He looked at me closely, smoking his cigar the while.
"You made love to the chambermaids?" he asked suddenly.
"No, my lord. One evening, my lord, it was very hot, and—and the wine, my lord—"
"Then you were intoxicated?"
I fumbled with my hat, praying that the fellow would move on.
"What servants are there?" he asked, pointing to the house.
"Four maids, my lord, and old Jean."
Again he meditated; then he said sharply:
"Have you ever waited at table?"
We have all, I suppose, waited at table—in one sense. Perhaps that may save my remark from untruth.
"Now and then, my lord," I answered, wondering what he would be at.
"I have guests arriving to-morrow," he said. "My man comes with them, but the work will perhaps be too much for him. Are you willing to stay and help? I will pay you the same wages."
I could have laughed in his face; but duty seemed to point to seriousness.
"I'm very sorry, my lord—" I began.
"What, have you got another place?"
"No, my lord; not exactly."
"Then get up on the front seat. Or do you want your employers to say you are disobliging as well as drunken?"
"But the lady sent me—"
"You may leave that to me. Come, jump up! Don't keep me waiting!"
Doubtfully I stood in the road, the duke glaring at me with impatient anger. Then he leaned forward and said:
"You are curiously reluctant, sir, to earn your living. I don't understand it. I must make some inquiries about you."
I detected suspicion dawning in his eyes. He was a great man; I did not know what hindrances he might not be able to put in the way of my disappearance. And what would happen if he made his inquiries? Inquiries might mean searching, and I carried a passport in the name of Gilbert Aycon.
Such share had prudence; the rest must be put down to the sudden impulse of amusement which seized me. It was but for a day or two! Then I could steal away. Meanwhile what would not the face of the duchess say, when I rode up on the front seat!
"I—I was afraid I should not give satisfaction," I muttered.
"You probably won't," said he. "I take you from necessity, not choice, my friend. Up with you!"
And I got up beside the driver—not, luckily, the one who had brought Gustave de Berensac and myself the day before—and the carriage resumed its slow climb up the hill.
We stopped at the door. I jumped down and assisted my new master.
The door was shut. Nobody was to be seen; evidently we were not expected. The duke smiled sardonically, opened the door and walked in, I just behind. Suzanne was sweeping the floor. With one glance at the duke and myself, she sprang back, with a cry of most genuine surprise.
"Oh, you're mighty surprised, aren't you?" sneered the duke. "Old Jean didn't scuttle away to tell you then? You keep a good watch, young woman. Your mistress' orders, eh?"
Still Suzanne stared—and at me. The duke chuckled.
"Yes, he's back again," said he, "so you must make the best of it, my girl. Where's the duchess?"
"In—in—in her sitting-room, M. le Duc."
"'In—in—in,'" he echoed mockingly. Then he stepped swiftly across the hall and flung the door suddenly open. I believe he thought that he really had surprised Jean's slow aged scamper ahead of him.
"Silence for your life!" I had time to whisper to Suzanne; and then I followed him. There might be more "fun" to come.
The duchess was sitting with a book in her hand. I was half-hidden by the duke, and she did not see me. She looked up, smiled, yawned, and held out her hand.
"I hardly expected you, Armand," said she. "I thought you were in Algeria."
Anybody would have been annoyed; there is no doubt that the Duke of Saint-Maclou was very much annoyed.
"You don't seem overjoyed at the surprise," said he gruffly.
"You are always surprising me," she answered, lifting her eyebrows.
Suddenly he turned round, saying "Sampson!" and then turned to her, adding:
"Here's another old friend for you." And he seized me by the shoulder and pulled me into the room.
The duchess sprang to her feet, crying out in startled tones, "Back?"
I kept my eyes glued to the floor, wondering what would happen next, thinking that it would be, likely enough, a personal conflict with my master.
"Yes, back," said he. "I am sorry, madame, if it is not your pleasure, for it chances to be mine."
His sneer gave the duchess a moment's time. I felt her regarding me, and I looked up cautiously. The duke still stood half a pace in front of me, and the message of my glance sped past him unperceived.
Then came what I had looked for—the gradual dawning of the position on the duchess, and the reflection of that dawning light in those wonderful eyes of hers. She clasped her hands, and drew in her breath in a long "Oh!" It spoke utter amusement and delight. What would the duke make of it? He did not know what to make of it, and glared at her in angry bewilderment. Her quick wit saw the blunder she had been betrayed into. She said "Oh!" again, but this time it expressed nothing except a sense of insult and indignation.
"What's that man here for?" she asked.
"Because I have engaged him to assist my household."
"I had dismissed him," she said haughtily.
"I must beg you to postpone the execution of your decree," said he. "I have need of a servant, and I have no time to find another."
"What need is there of another? Is not Lafleur here?" (She was playing her part well now.)
"Lafleur comes to-morrow; but he will not be enough."
"Not enough—for you and me?"
"Our party will be larger to-morrow."
"More surprises?" she asked, sinking back into her chair.
"If it be a surprise that I should invite my friends to my house," he retorted.
"And that you should not consult your wife," she said, with a smile.
He turned to me, bethinking himself, I suppose, that the conversation was not best suited for the ears of the groom.
"Go and join your fellow-servants; and see that you behave yourself this time."
I bowed and was about to withdraw, when the duchess motioned me to stop. For an instant her eyes rested on mine. Then she said, in gentle tones:
"I am glad, Sampson, that the duke thinks it safe to give you an opportunity of retrieving your character."
"That for his character!" said the duke, snapping his fingers. "I want him to help when Mme. and Mlle. Delhasse are here."
On the words the duchess went red in the face, and then white, and sprang up, declaring aloud in resolute, angry tones, that witnessed the depth of her feelings in the matter:
"I will not receive Mlle. Delhasse!"
I was glad I had not missed that: it was a new aspect of my little friend the duchess. Alas, my pleasure was short-lived! for the duke, his face full of passion, pointed to the door, saying "Go!" and, cursing his regard for the dignity of the family, I went.
In the hall I paused. At first I saw nobody. Presently a rosy, beaming face peered at me over the baluster halfway up the stairs, and Suzanne stole cautiously down, her finger on her lips.
"But what does it mean, sir?" she whispered.
"It means," said I, "that the duke takes me for the dismissed groom—and has re-engaged me."
"And you've come?" she cried softly, clasping her hands in amazement.
"Doesn't it appear so?"
"And you're going to stay, sir?"
"Ah, that's another matter. But—for the moment, yes."
"As a servant?"
"Why not—in such good company?"
"Does madame know?"
"Yes, she knows, Suzanne. Come, show me the way to my quarters; and no more 'sir' just now."
We were standing by the stairs. I looked up and saw the other girls clustered on the landing above us.
"Go and tell them," I said. "Warn them to show no surprise. Then come back and show me the way."
Suzanne, her mirth half-startled out of her but yet asserting its existence in dimples round her mouth, went on her errand. I leaned against the lowest baluster and waited.
Suddenly the door of the duchess' room was flung open and she came out. She stood for an instant on the threshold. She turned toward the interior of the room and she stamped her foot on the parqueted floor.
"No—no—no!" she said passionately, and flung the door close behind her, to the accompaniment of a harsh, scornful laugh.
Involuntarily I sprang forward to meet her. But she was better on her guard than I.
"Not now," she whispered, "but I must see you soon—this evening—after dinner. Suzanne will arrange it. You must help me, Mr. Aycon; I'm in trouble."
"With all my power!" I whispered, and with a glance of thanks she sped upstairs. I saw her stop and speak to the group of girls, talking to them in an eager whisper. Then, followed by two of them, she pursued her way upstairs.
Suzanne came down and approached me, saying simply, "Come," and led the way toward the servants' quarters. I followed her, smiling; I was about to make acquaintance with a new side of life.
Yet at the same time I was wondering who Mlle. Delhasse might chance to be: the name seemed familiar to me, and yet for the moment I could not trace it. And then I slapped my thigh in the impulse of my discovery.
"By Jove, Marie Delhasse the singer!" cried I, in English.
"Sir, sir, for Heaven's sake be quiet!" whispered Suzanne.
"You are perfectly right," said I, with a nod of approbation.
"And this is the pantry," said Suzanne, for all the world as though nothing had happened. "And in that cupboard you will find Sampson's livery."
"Is it a pretty one?" I asked.
"You, sir, will look well in it," said she, with that delicate evasive flattery that I love. "Would not you, sir, look well in anything?" she meant.
And while I changed my traveling suit for the livery, I remembered more about Marie Delhasse, and, among other things, that the Duke of Saint-Maclou was rumored to be her most persistent admirer. Some said that she favored him; others denied it with more or less conviction and indignation. But, whatever might chance to be the truth about that, it was plain that the duchess had something to say for herself when she declined to receive the lady. Her refusal was no idle freak, but a fixed determination, to which she would probably adhere. And, in fact, adhere to it she did, even under some considerable changes of circumstance.
A Strategic Retreat.
The arrival of the duke, aided perhaps by his bearing toward his wife and toward me, had a somewhat curious effect on me. I will not say that I felt at liberty to fall in love with the duchess; but I felt the chain of honor, which had hitherto bound me from taking any advantage of her indiscretion, growing weaker; and I also perceived the possibility of my inclinations beginning to strain on the weakened chain. On this account, among others, I resolved, as I sat in the pantry drinking a glass of wine with which Suzanne kindly provided me, that my sojourn in the duke's household should be of the shortest. Moreover, I was not amused; I was not a real groom; the maids treated me with greater distance and deference than before; I lost the entertainment of upstairs, and did not gain the interest of downstairs. The absurd position must be ended. I would hear what the duchess wanted of me; then I would go, leaving Lafleur to grapple with his increased labors as best he could. True, I should miss Marie Delhasse. Well, young men are foolish.
"Perhaps," said I to myself with a sigh, "it's just as well."
I did not wait at table that night; the duchess was shut up in her own apartment: the duke took nothing but an omelette and a cup of coffee; these finished, he summoned Suzanne and her assistants to attend him on the bedroom floor, and I heard him giving directions for the lodging of the expected guests. Apparently they were to be received, although the duchess would not receive them. Not knowing what to make of that situation, I walked out into the garden and lit my pipe; I had clung to that in spite of my change of raiment.
Presently Suzanne looked out. A call from the duke proclaimed that she had stolen a moment. She nodded, pointed to the narrow gravel path which led into the shrubbery, and hastily withdrew. I understood, and strolled carelessly along the path till I reached the shrubbery. There another little path, running nearly at right angles to that by which I had come, opened before me. I strolled some little way along, and finding myself entirely hidden from the house by the intervening trees, I sat down on a rude wooden bench to wait patiently till I should be wanted. For the duchess I should have had to wait some time, but for company I did not wait long; after about ten minutes I perceived a small, spare, dark-complexioned man coming along the path toward me and toward the house. He must have made a short cut from the road, escaping the winding of the carriage-way. He wore decent but rather shabby clothes, and carried a small valise in his hand. Stopping opposite to me, he raised his hat and seemed to scan my neat blue brass-buttoned coat and white cords with interest.
"You belong to the household of the duke, sir?" he asked, with a polite lift of his hat.
I explained that I did—for the moment.
"Then you think of leaving, sir?"
"I do," I said, "as soon as I can; I am only engaged for the time."
"You do not happen to know, sir, if the duke requires a well-qualified indoor servant? I should be most grateful if you would present me to him. I heard in Paris that a servant had left him; but he started so suddenly that I could not get access to him, and I have followed him here."
"It's exactly what he does want, I believe, sir," said I. "If I were you, I would go to the house and obtain entrance. The duke expects guests to-morrow."
"But yourself, sir? Are not your services sufficient for the present?"
"As you perceive," said I, indicating my attire, "I am not an indoor servant. I am but a makeshift in that capacity."
He smiled a polite remonstrance at my modesty, adding:
"You think, then, I might have a chance?"
"An excellent one, I believe. Turn to the left, there by the chestnut tree, and you will find yourself within a minute's walk of the front door."
He bowed, raised his hat, and trotted off, moving with a quick, shuffling, short-stepping gait. I lit another pipe and yawned. I hoped the duke would engage this newcomer and let me go about my business; and I fancied that he would, for the fellow looked dapper, sharp, and handy. And the duchess? I was so disturbed to find myself disturbed at the thought of the duchess that I exclaimed:
"By Jove, I'd better go! By Jove, I had!"
A wishing-cap, or rather a hoping-cap—for if a man who is no philosopher may have an opinion, we do not always wish and hope for the same thing—could have done no more for me than the chance of Fate; for at the moment the duke's voice called "Sampson!" loudly from the house. I ran in obedience to his summons. He stood in the porch with the little stranger by him; and the stranger wore a deferential, but extremely well-satisfied smile.
"Here, you," said the duke to me, "you can make yourself scarce as soon as you like. I've got a better servant, aye, and a sober one. There's ten francs for you. Now be off!"
I felt it incumbent on me to appear a little aggrieved:
"Am I to go to-night?" I asked. "Where can I get to to-night, my lord?"
"What's that to me? I dare say if you stand old Jean a franc, he'll give you a lift to the nearest inn. Tell him he may take a farm-horse."
Really the duke was treating me with quite as much civility as I have seen many of my friends extend to their servants. I had nothing to complain of. I bowed, and was about to turn away, when the duchess appeared in the porch.
"What is it, Armand?" she asked. "You are sending Sampson away after all?"
"I could not deny your request," said he in mockery. "Moreover, I have found a better servant."
The stranger almost swept the ground in obeisance before the lady of the house.
"You are very changeable," said the duchess.
I saw vexation in her face.
"My dearest, your sex cannot have a monopoly of change. I change a bad servant—as you yourself think him—for a good one. Is that remarkable?"
The duchess said not another word, but turned into the house and disappeared. The duke followed her. The stranger, with a bow to me, followed him. I was left alone.
"Certainly I am not wanted," said I to myself; and, having arrived at this conclusion, I sought out old Jean. The old fellow was only too ready to drive me to Avranches or anywhere else for five francs, and was soon busy putting his horse in the shafts. I sought out Suzanne, got her to smuggle my luggage downstairs, gave her a parting present, took off my livery and put on the groom's old suit, and was ready to leave the house of M. de Saint-Maclou.
At nine o'clock my short servitude ended. As soon as a bend in the road hid us from the house I opened my portmanteau, got out my own clothes, and, sub there, changed my raiment, putting on a quiet suit of blue, and presenting George Sampson's rather obtrusive garments (which I took the liberty of regarding as a perquisite) to Jean, who received them gladly. I felt at once a different being—so true it is that the tailor makes the man.
"You are well out of that," grunted old Jean. "If he'd discovered you, he'd have had you out and shot you!"
"He is a good shot?"
"Mon Dieu!" said Jean with an expressiveness which was a little disquieting; for it was on the cards that the duke might still find me out. And I was not a practiced shot—not at my fellow-men, I mean. Suddenly I leaped up.
"Good Heavens!" I cried. "I forgot! The duchess wanted me. Stop, stop!"
With a jerk Jean pulled up his horse, and gazed at me.
"You can't go back like that," he said, with a grin. "You'll have to put on these clothes again," and he pointed to the discarded suit.
"I very nearly forgot the duchess," said I. To tell the truth, I was at first rather proud of my forgetfulness; it argued a complete triumph over that unruly impulse at which I have hinted. But it also smote me with remorse. I leaped to the ground.
"You must wait while I run back."
"He will shoot you after all," grinned Jean.
"The devil take him!" said I, picturing the poor duchess utterly forsaken—at the mercy of Delhasses, husband, and what not.
I declare, as my deliberate opinion, that there is nothing more dangerous than for a man almost to forget a lady who has shown him favor. If he can quite forget her—and will be so unromantic—why, let him, and perhaps small harm done. But almost—That leaves him at the mercy of every generous self-reproach. He is ready to do anything to prove that she was every second in his memory.
I began to retrace my steps toward the chteau.
"I shall get the sack over this!" called Jean.
"You shall come to no harm by that, if you do," I assured him.
But hardly had I—my virtuous pride now completely smothered by my tender remorse—started on my ill-considered return journey, when, just as had happened to Gustave de Berensac and myself the evening before, a slim figure ran down from the bank by the roadside. It was the duchess. The short cut had served her. She was hardly out of breath this time; and she appeared composed and in good spirits.
"I thought for a moment you'd forgotten me, but I knew you wouldn't do that, Mr. Aycon."
Could I resist such trust?
"Forget you, madame?" I cried. "I would as soon forget—"
"So I knew you'd wait for me."
"Here I am, waiting faithfully," said I.
"That's right," said the duchess. "Take this, please, Mr. Aycon."
"This" was a small handbag. She gave it to me, and began to walk toward the cart, where Jean was placidly smoking a long black cheroot.
"You wished to speak to me?" I suggested, as I walked by her.
"I can do it," said the duchess, reaching the cart, "as we go along."
Even Jean took his cheroot from his lips. I jumped back two paces.
"I beg your pardon!" I exclaimed, "As we go along, did you say?"
"It will be better," said the duchess, getting into the cart (unassisted by me, I am sorry to say). "Because he may find out I'm gone, and come after us, you know."
Nothing seemed more likely; I was bound to admit that.
"Get in, Mr. Aycon," continued the duchess. And then she suddenly began to talk English. "I told him I shouldn't stay in the house if Mlle. Delhasse came. He didn't believe me; well, he'll see now. I couldn't stay, could I? Why don't you get in?"
Half dazed, I got in. I offered no opinion on the question of Mlle. Delhasse: to begin with, I knew very little about it; in the second place there seemed to me to be a more pressing question.
"Quick, Jean!" said the duchess.
And we lumbered on at a trot, Jean twisting his cheroot round and round, and grunting now and again. The old man's face said, plain as words.
"Yes, I shall get the sack; and you'll be shot!"
I found my tongue.
"Was this what you wanted me for?" I asked.
"Of course," said the duchess, speaking French again.
"But you can't come with me!" I cried in unfeigned horror.
The duchess looked up; she fixed her eyes on me for a moment; her eyes grew round, her brows lifted. Then her lips curved: she blushed very red; and she burst into the merriest fit of laughter.
"Oh, dear!" laughed the duchess. "Oh, what fun, Mr. Aycon!"
"It seems to me rather a serious matter," I ventured to observe. "Leaving out all question of—of what's correct, you know" (I became very apologetic at this point), "it's just a little risky, isn't it?"
Jean evidently thought so; he nodded solemnly over his cheroot.
The duchess still laughed; indeed, she was wiping her eyes with her handkerchief.
"What an opinion to have of me!" she gasped at last. "I'm not coming with you, Mr. Aycon."
I dare say my face showed relief: I don't know that I need be ashamed of that. My change of expression, however, set the duchess a-laughing again.
"I never saw a man look so glad," said she gayly. Yet somewhere, lurking in the recesses of her tone—or was it of her eyes?—there was a little reproach, a little challenge. And suddenly I felt less glad: a change of feeling which I do not seek to defend.
"Then where are you going?" I asked in much curiosity.
"I am going," said the duchess, assuming in a moment a most serious air, "into religious retirement for a few days."
"Religious retirement?" I echoed in surprise.
"Are you thinking it's not my mtier?" she asked, her eyes gleaming again.
"But where?" I cried.
"Why, there, to be sure." And she pointed to where the square white convent stood on the edge of the bay, under the hill of Avranches. "There, at the convent. The Mother Superior is my friend, and will protect me."
The duchess spoke as though the guillotine were being prepared for her. I sat silent. The situation was becoming rather too complicated for my understanding. Unfortunately, however, it was to become more complicated still; for the duchess, turning to the English tongue again, laid a hand on my arm and said in her most coaxing tones:
"And you, my dear Mr. Aycon, are going to stay a few days in Avranches."
"Not an hour!" would have expressed the resolve of my intellect. But we are not all intellect; and what I actually said was:
"In case," said the duchess, "I want you, Mr. Aycon."
"I will stay," said I, nodding, "just a few days at Avranches."
We were within half a mile of that town. The convent gleamed white in the moonlight about three hundred yards to the left. The duchess took her little bag, jumped lightly down, kissed her hand to me, and walked off.
Jean had made no comment at all—the duchess' household was hard to surprise. I could make none. And we drove in silence into Avranches.
When there before with Gustave, I had put up at a small inn at the foot of the hill. Now I drove up to the summit and stopped before the principal hotel. A waiter ran out, cast a curious glance at my conveyance, and lifted my luggage down.
"Let me know if you get into any trouble for being late," said I to Jean, giving him another five francs.
He nodded and drove off, still chewing the stump of his cheroot.
"Can I have a room?" I asked, turning to the waiter.
"Certainly, sir," said he, catching up my bag in his hand.
"I am just come," said I, "from Mont St. Michel."
A curious expression spread over the waiter's face. I fancy he knew old Jean and the cart by sight; but he spread out his hands and smiled.
"Monsieur," said he with the incomparable courtesy of the French nation, "has come from wherever monsieur pleases."
"That," said I, giving him a trifle, "is an excellent understanding."
Then I walked into the salle—manger, and almost into the arms of an extraordinarily handsome girl who was standing just inside the door.
"This is really an eventful day," I thought to myself.
A Hint of Something Serious.
Occurrences such as this induce in a man of imagination a sense of sudden shy intimacy. The physical encounter seems to typify and foreshadow some intermingling of destiny. This occurs with peculiar force when the lady is as beautiful as was the girl I saw before me.
"I beg your pardon, madame," said I, with a whirl of my hat.
"I beg your pardon, sir," said the lady, with an inclination of her head.
"One is so careless in entering rooms hurriedly," I observed.
"Oh, but it is stupid to stand just by the door!" insisted the lady.
Conscious that she was scanning my appearance, I could but return the compliment. She was very tall, almost as tall as I was myself; you would choose to call her stately, rather than slender. She was very fair, with large lazy blue eyes and a lazy smile to match. In all respects she was the greatest contrast to the Duchess of Saint-Maclou.
"You were about to pass out?" said I, holding the door.
She bowed; but at the moment another lady—elderly, rather stout, and, to speak it plainly, of homely and unattractive aspect—whom I had not hitherto perceived, called from a table at the other end of the room where she was sitting:
"We ought to start early to-morrow."
The younger lady turned her head slowly toward the speaker.
"My dear mother," said she, "I never start early. Besides, this town is interesting—the landlord says so."
"But he wishes us to arrive for djeuner."
"We will take it here. Perhaps we will drive over in the afternoon—perhaps the next day."
And the young lady gazed at her mother with an air of indifference—or rather it seemed to me strangely like one of aversion and defiance.
"My dear!" cried the elder in consternation. "My dearest Marie!"
"It is just as I thought," said I to myself complacently.
Marie Delhasse—for beyond doubt it was she—walked slowly across the room and sat down by her mother. I took a table nearer the door; the waiter appeared, and I ordered a light supper. Marie poured out a glass of wine from a bottle on the table; apparently they had been supping. They began to converse together in low tones. My repast arriving, I fell to. A few moments later, I heard Marie say, in her composed indolent tones:
"I'm not sure I shall go at all. Entre nous, he bores me."
I stole a glance at Mme. Delhasse. Consternation was writ large on her face, and suspicion besides. She gave her daughter a quick sidelong glance, and a frown gathered on her brow. So far as I heard, however, she attempted no remonstrance. She rose, wrapping a shawl round her, and made for the door. I sprang up and opened it; she walked out. Marie drew a chair to the fire and sat down with her back to me, toasting her feet—for the summer night had turned chilly. I finished my supper. The clock struck half-past eleven. I stifled a yawn; one smoke and then to the bed was my programme.
Marie Delhasse turned her head half-round.
"You must not," said she, "let me prevent you having your cigarette. I should set you at ease by going to bed, but I can't sleep so early, and upstairs the fire is not lighted."
I thanked her and approached the fire. She was gazing into it meditatively. Presently she looked up.
"Smoke, sir," she said imperiously but languidly.
I obeyed her, and stood looking down at her, admiring her stately beauty.
"You have passed the day here?" she asked, gazing again into the fire.
"In this neighborhood," said I, with discreet vagueness.
"You have been able to pass the time?"
"Oh, certainly!" That had not been my difficulty.
"There is, of course," she said wearily, "Mont St. Michel. But can you imagine anyone living in such a country?"
"Unless Fate set one here—" I began.
"I suppose that's it," she interrupted.
"You are going to make a stay here?"
"I am," she answered slowly, "on my way to—I don't know where."
I was scrutinizing her closely now, for her manner seemed to witness more than indolence; irresolution, vacillation, discomfort, asserted their presence. I could not make her out, but her languid indifference appeared more assumed than real.
With another upward glance, she said:
"My name is Marie Delhasse."
"It is a well-known name," said I with a bow.
"You have heard of me?"
"What?" she asked quickly, wheeling half-round and facing me.
"That you are a great singer," I answered simply.
"Ah, I'm not all voice! What about me? A woman is more than an organ pipe. What about me?"
Her excitement contrasted with the langour she had displayed before.
"Nothing," said I, wondering that she should ask a stranger such a question. She glanced at me for an instant. I threw my eyes up to the ceiling.
"It is false!" she said quietly; but the trembling of her hands belied her composure.
The tawdry gilt clock on the mantelpiece by me ticked through a long silence. The last act of the day's comedy seemed set for a more serious scene.
"Why do you ask a stranger a question like that?" I said at last, giving utterance to the thought that puzzled me.
"Whom should I ask? And I like your face—no, not because it is handsome. You are English, sir?"
"Yes, I am English. My name is Gilbert Aycon."
"Aycon—Aycon! It is a little difficult to say it as you say it."
Her thoughts claimed her again. I threw my cigarette into the fire, and stood waiting her pleasure. But she seemed to have no more to say, for she rose from the seat and held out her hand to me.
"Will you 'shake hands?'" she said, the last two words in English; and she smiled again.
I hastened to do as she asked me, and she moved toward the door.
"Perhaps," she said, "I shall see you to-morrow morning."
"I shall be here." Then I added: "I could not help hearing you talk of moving elsewhere."
She stood still in the middle of the room; she opened her lips to speak, shut them again, and ended by saying nothing more than:
"Yes, we talked of it. My mother wishes it. Good-night, Mr. Aycon."
I bade her good-night, and she passed slowly through the door, which I closed behind her. I turned again to the fire, saying:
"What would the duchess think of that?"
I did not even know what I thought of it myself; of one thing only I felt sure—-that what I had heard of Marie Delhasse was not all that there was to learn about her.
I was lodged in a large room on the third floor, and when I awoke the bright sun beamed on the convent where, as I presume, Mme. de Saint-Maclou lay, and on the great Mount beyond it in the distance. I have never risen with a more lively sense of unknown possibilities in the day before me. These two women who had suddenly crossed my path, and their relations to the pale puffy-cheeked man at the little chteau, might well produce results more startling than had seemed to be offered even by such a freak as the original expedition undertaken by Gustave de Berensac and me. And now Gustave had fallen away and I was left to face the thing alone. For face it I must. My promise to the duchess bound me: had it not I doubt whether I should have gone; for my interest was not only in the duchess.
I had my coffee upstairs, and then, putting on my hat, went down for a stroll. So long as the duke did not come to Avranches, I could show my face boldly—and was not he busy preparing for his guests? I crossed the threshold of the hotel.
Just at the entrance stood Marie Delhasse; opposite her was a thickset fellow, neatly dressed and wearing mutton-chop whiskers. As I came out I raised my hat. The man appeared not to notice me, though his eyes fell on me for a moment. I passed quickly by—in fact, as quickly as I could—for it struck me at once that this man must be Lafleur, and I did not want him to give the duke a description of the unknown gentleman who was staying at Avranches. Yet, as I went, I had time to hear Marie's slow musical voice say:
"I'm not coming at all to-day."
I was very glad of it, and pursued my round of the town with a lighter heart. Presently, after half an hour's walk, I found myself opposite the church, and thus nearly back at the hotel: and in front of the church stood Marie Delhasse, looking at the faade.
Raising my hat I went up to her, her friendliness of the evening before encouraging me.
"I hope you are going to stay to-day?" said I.
"I don't know." Then she smiled, but not mirthfully. "I expect to be very much pressed to go this afternoon," she said.
I made a shot—apparently at a venture.
"Someone will come and carry you off?" I asked jestingly.
"It's very likely. My presence here will be known."
"But need you go?"
She looked on the ground and made no answer.
"Perhaps though," I continued, "he—or she—will not come. He may be too much occupied."
"To come for me?" she said, with the first touch of coquetry which I had seen in her lighting up her eyes.
"Even for that, it is possible," I rejoined.
We began to walk together toward the edge of the open place in front of the church. The convent came in sight as we reached the fall of the hill.
"How peaceful that looks!" she said; "I wonder if it would be pleasant there!"
I was myself just wondering how the Duchess of Saint-Maclou found it, when a loud cry of warning startled us. We had been standing on the edge of the road, and a horse, going at a quick trot, was within five yards of us. As it reached us, it was sharply reined in. To my amazement, old Jean, the duchess' servant, sat upon it. When he saw me, a smile spread over his weather-beaten face.
"I was nearly over you," said he. "You had no ears."
And I am sorry to say that Jean winked, insinuating that Marie Delhasse and I had been preoccupied.
The diplomacy of non-recognition had failed to strike Jean. I made the best of a bad job, and asked:
"What brings you here?"
Marie stood a few paces off, regarding us.
"I'm looking for Mme. la Duchesse," grinned Jean.
Marie Delhasse took a step forward when she heard his reference to the duchess.
"Her absence was discovered by Suzanne at six o'clock this morning," the old fellow went on. "And the duke—ah, take care how you come near him, sir! Oh, it's a kettle of fish! For as I came I met that coxcomb Lafleur riding back with a message from the duke's guests that they would not come to-day! So the duchess is gone, and the ladies are not come; and the duke—he has nothing to do but curse that whippersnapper of a Pierre who came last night."
And Jean ended in a rapturous hoarse chuckle.
"You were riding so fast, then, because you were after the duchess?" I suggested.
"I rode fast for fear," said Jean, with a shrewd smile, "that I should stop somewhere on the road. Well, I have looked in Avranches. She is not in Avranches. I'll go home again."
Marie Delhasse came close to my side.
"Ask him," she said to me, "if he speaks of the Duchess of Saint-Maclou."
I put the question as I was directed.
"You couldn't have guessed better if you'd known," said Jean; and a swift glance from Marie Delhasse told me that her suspicion as to my knowledge was aroused.
"And what will happen, Jean?" said I.
"The good God knows," shrugged Jean. Then, remembering perhaps my five-franc pieces, he said politely, "I hope you are well, sir?"
"Up to now, thank you, Jean," said I.
His glance traveled to Marie. I saw his shriveled lips curl; his expression was ominous of an unfortunate remark.
"Good-by!" said I significantly.
Jean had some wits. He spared me the remark, but not the sly leer that had been made to accompany it. He clapped his heels to his horse's side and trotted off in the direction from which he had come. So that he could swear he had been to Avranches, he was satisfied!
Marie Delhasse turned to me, asking haughtily:
"What is the meaning of this? What do you know of the Duke or Duchess of Saint-Maclou?"
"I might return your question," said I, looking her in the face.
"Will you answer it?" she said, flushing red.
"No, Mlle. Delhasse, I will not," said I.
"What is the meaning of this 'absence' of the Duchess of Saint-Maclou which that man talks about so meaningly?"
Then I said, speaking low and slow:
"Who are the friends whom you are on your way to visit?"
"Who are you?" she cried. "What do you know about it? What concern is it of yours?"
There was no indolence or lack of animation in her manner now. She questioned me with imperious indignation.
"I will answer not a single word," said I. "But—you asked me last night what I had heard of you."
"Well?" she said, and shut her lips tightly on the word.
I held my peace; and in a moment she went on passionately:
"Who would have guessed that you would insult me? Is it your habit to insult women?"
"Not mine only, it seems," said I, meeting her glance boldly.
"What do you mean, sir?"
"Had you, then, an invitation from Mme. de Saint-Maclou?"
She drew back as if I had struck her. And I felt as though I had struck her. She looked at me for a moment with parted lips; then, without a word or a sign, she turned and walked slowly away in the direction of the hotel.
And I, glad to have something else to occupy my thoughts, started at a brisk pace along the foot-path that runs down the hill and meets the road which would lead me to the convent, for I had a thing or two to say to the duchess. And yet it was not of the duchess only that I thought as I went. There were also in my mind the indignant pride with which Marie Delhasse had questioned me, and the shrinking shame in her eyes at that counter-question of mine. The Duke of Saint-Maclou's invitation seemed to bring as much disquiet to one of his guests as it had to his wife herself. But one thing struck me, and I found a sort of comfort in it: she had thought, it seemed, that the duchess was to be at home.
"Pah!" I cried suddenly to myself. "If she weren't pretty, you'd say that made it worse!"
And I went on in a bad temper.
Heard through the Door.
Twenty minutes' walking brought me to the wood which lay between the road and the convent. I pressed on; soon the wood ceased and I found myself on the outskirts of a paddock of rough grass, where a couple of cows and half a dozen goats were pasturing; a row of stunted apple trees ran along one side of the paddock, and opposite me rose the white walls of the convent; while on my left was the burying-ground with its arched gateway, inscribed "Mors janua vit." I crossed the grass and rang a bell, that clanged again and again in echo. Nobody came. I pulled a second time and more violently. After some further delay the door was cautiously opened a little way, and a young woman looked out. She was a round-faced, red-cheeked, fresh creature, arrayed in a large close-fitting white cap, a big white collar over her shoulders, and a black gown. When she saw me, she uttered an exclamation of alarm, and pushed the door to again. Just in time I inserted my foot between door and doorpost.
"I beg your pardon," said I politely, "but you evidently misunderstand me. I wish to enter."
She peered at me through the two-inch gap my timely foot had preserved.
"But it is impossible," she objected. "Our rules do not allow it. Indeed, I may not talk to you. I beg of you to move your foot."
"But then you would shut the door."
She could not deny it.
"I mean no harm," I protested.
"'The guile of the wicked is infinite,'" remarked the little nun.
"I want to see the Mother Superior," said I. "Will you take my name to her?"
I heard another step in the passage. The door was flung wide open, and a stout and stately old lady faced me, a frown on her brow.
"Madame," said I, "until you hear my errand you will think me an ill-mannered fellow."
"What is your business, sir?"
"It is for your ear alone, madame."
"You can't come in here," said she decisively.
For a moment I was at a loss. Then the simplest solution in the world occurred to me.
"But you can come out, madame," I suggested.
She looked at me doubtfully for a minute. Then she stepped out, shutting the door carefully behind her. I caught a glimpse of the little nun's face, and thought there was a look of disappointment on it. The old lady and I began to walk along the path that led to the burying-ground.
"I do not know," said I, "whether you have heard of me. My name is Aycon."
"I thought so. Mr. Aycon, I must tell you that you are very much to blame. You have led this innocent, though thoughtless, child into most deplorable conduct."
("Well done, little duchess!" said I to myself; but of course I was not going to betray her.)
"I deeply regret my thoughtlessness," said I earnestly. "I would, however, observe that the present position of the duchess is not due to my—shall we say misconduct?—but to that of her husband. I did not invite—"
"Don't mention her name!" interrupted the Mother Superior in horror.
We had reached the arched gateway; and there appeared standing within it a figure most charmingly inappropriate to a graveyard—the duchess herself, looking as fresh as a daisy, and as happy as a child with a new toy. She ran to me, holding out both hands and crying:
"Ah, my dear, dear Mr. Aycon, you are the most delightful man alive! You come at the very moment I want you."
"Be sober, my child, be sober!" murmured the old lady.
"But I want to hear," expostulated the duchess. "Do you know anything, Mr. Aycon? What has been happening up at the house? What has the duke done?"
As the duchess poured out her questions, we passed through the gate; the ladies sat down on a stone bench just inside, and I, standing, told my story. The duchess was amused to hear of old Jean's chase of her; but she showed no astonishment till I told her that Marie Delhasse was at the hotel in Avranches, and had declined to go further on her journey to-day.
"At the hotel? Then you've seen her?" she burst out. "What is she like?"
"She is most extremely handsome," said I. "Moreover, I am inclined to like her."
The Mother Superior opened her lips—to reprove me, no doubt; but the duchess was too quick.
"Oh, you like her? Perhaps you're going to desert me and go over to her?" she cried in indignation, that was, I think, for the most part feigned. Certainly the duchess did not look very alarmed. But in regard to what she said, the old lady was bound to have a word.
"What is Mr. Aycon to you, my child?" said she solemnly. "He is nothing—nothing at all to you, my child."
"Well, I want him to be less than nothing to Mlle. Delhasse," said the duchess, with a pout for her protector and a glance for me.
"Mlle. Delhasse is very angry with me just now," said I.
"Oh, why?" asked the duchess eagerly.
"Because she gathered that I thought she ought to wait for an invitation from you, before she went to your house."
"She should wait till the Day of Judgment!" cried the duchess.
"That would not matter," observed the Mother Superior dryly.
Suddenly, without pretext or excuse, the duchess turned and walked very quickly—nay, she almost ran—away along the path that encircled the group of graves. Her eye had bidden me, and I followed no less briskly. I heard a despairing sigh from the poor old lady, but she had no chance of overtaking us. The audacious movement was successful.
"Now we can talk," said the duchess.
And talk she did, for she threw at me the startling assertion:
"I believe you're falling in love with Mlle. Delhasse. If you do, I'll never speak to you again!"
"If I do," said I, "I shall probably accept that among the other disadvantages of the entanglement."
"That's very rude," observed the duchess.
"Nothing with an 'if' in it is rude," said I speciously.
"Men must be always in love with somebody," said she resentfully.
"It certainly approaches a necessity," I assented.
The duchess glanced at me. Perhaps I had glanced at her; I hope not.
"Oh, well," said she, "hadn't we better talk business?"
"Infinitely better," said I; and I meant it.
"What am I to do?" she asked, with a return to her more friendly manner.
"Nothing," said I.
It is generally the safest advice—to women at all events.
"You are content with the position? You like being at the hotel perhaps?"
"Should I not be hard to please, if I didn't?"
"I know you are trying to annoy me, but you shan't. Mr. Aycon, suppose my husband comes over to Avranches, and sees you?"
"I have thought of that."
"Well, what have you decided?"
"Not to think about it till it happens. But won't he be thinking more about you than me?"
"He won't do anything about me," she said. "In the first place, he will want no scandal. In the second, he does not want me. But he will come over to see her."
"Her" was, of course, Marie Delhasse. The duchess assigned to her the sinister distinction of the simple pronoun.
"Surely he will take means to get you to go back?" I exclaimed.
"If he could have caught me before I got here, he would have been glad. Now he will wait; for if he came here and claimed me, what he proposed to do would become known."
There seemed reason in this; the duchess calculated shrewdly.
"In fact," said I, "I had better go back to the hotel."
"That does not seem to vex you much."
"Well, I can't stay here, can I?" said I, looking round at the nunnery. "It would be irregular, you know."
"You might go to another hotel," suggested she.
"It is most important that I should watch what is going on at my present hotel," said I gravely; for I did not wish to move.
"You are the most—" began the duchess.
But this bit of character-reading was lost. Slow but sure, the Mother Superior was at our elbows.
"Adieu, Mr. Aycon," said she.
I felt sure that she must manage the nuns admirably.
"Adieu!" said I, as though there was nothing else to be said.
"Adieu!" said the duchess, as though she would have liked to say something else.
And all in a moment I was through the gateway and crossing the paddock. But the duchess ran to the gate, crying:
"Mind you come again to-morrow!"
My expedition consumed nearly two hours; and one o'clock struck from the tower of the church as I slowly climbed the hill, feeling (I must admit it) that the rest of the day would probably be rather dull. Just as I reached the top, however, I came plump on Mlle. Delhasse, who appeared to be taking a walk. She bowed to me slightly and coldly. Glad that she was so distant (for I did not like her looks), I returned her salute, and pursued my way to the hotel. In the porch of it stood the waiter—my friend who had taken such an obliging view of my movements the night before. Directly he saw me, he came out into the road to meet me.
"Are you acquainted with the ladies who have rooms on the first floor?" he asked with an air of mystery.
"I met them here for the first time," said I.
I believe he doubted me; perhaps waiters are bred to suspicion by the things they see.
"Ah!" said he, "then it does not interest you to know that a gentleman has been to see the young lady?"
I took out ten francs.
"Yes, it does," said I, handing him the money. "Who was it?"
"The Duke of Saint-Maclou," he whispered mysteriously.
"Is he gone?" I asked in some alarm. I had no wish to encounter him.
"This half-hour, sir."
"Did he see both the ladies?"
"No; only the young lady. Madame went out immediately on his arrival, and is not yet returned."
"She is in her room."
Thinking I had not got much, save good will, for my ten francs—for he told me nothing but what I had expected to hear—I was about to pass on, when he added, in a tone which seemed more significant than the question demanded:
"Are you going up to your room, sir?"
"I am," said I.
"Permit me to show you the way," he said—though his escort seemed to me very unnecessary.
He mounted before me. We reached the first floor. Opposite to us, not three yards away, was the door of the sitting-room which I knew to be occupied by the Delhasses.
"Go on," said I.
"In a moment, sir," he said.
Then he held up his hand in the attitude of a man who listens.
"One should not listen," he whispered, apologetically; "but it is so strange. I thought that if you knew the lady—Hark!"
I knew that we ought not to listen. But the mystery of the fellow's manner and the concern of his air constrained me, and I too paused, listening.
From behind the door there came to our strained attentive ears the sound of a woman sobbing. I sought the waiter's eyes; they were already bent on me. Again the sad sounds came—low, swift, and convulsive. It went to my heart to hear them. I did not know what to do. To go on upstairs to my own room and mind my own business seemed the simple thing—simple, easy, and proper. But my feet were glued to the boards. I could not go, with that sound beating on my ears: I should hear it all the day. I glanced again at the waiter. He was a kind-looking fellow, and I saw the tears standing in his eyes.
"And mademoiselle is so beautiful!" he whispered.
"What the devil business is it of yours?" said I, in a low but fierce tone.
"None," said he. "I am content to leave it to you, sir;" and without more he turned and went downstairs.
It was all very well to leave it to me; but what—failing that simple, easy, proper, and impossible course of action which I have indicated—was I to do?
Well, what I did was this: I went to the door of the room and knocked softly. There was no answer. The sobs continued. I had been a brute to this girl in the morning; I thought of that as I stood outside.
"My God! what's the matter with her?" I whispered.
And then I opened the door softly.
Marie Delhasse sat in a chair, her head resting in her hands and her hands on the table; and her body was shaken with her weeping.
And on the table, hard by her bowed golden head, there lay a square leathern box. I stood on the threshold and looked at her.
The rest of the day did not now seem likely to be dull; but it might prove to have in store for me more difficult tasks than the enduring of a little dullness.
I Find that I Care.
For a moment I stood stock still, wishing to Heaven that I had not opened the door; for I could find now no excuse for my intrusion, and no reason why I should not have minded my own business. The impulse that had made the thing done was exhausted in the doing of it. Retreat became my sole object; and, drawing back, I pulled the door after me. But I had given Fortune a handle—very literally; for the handle of the door grated loud as I turned it. Despairing of escape, I stood still. Marie Delhasse looked up with a start.
"Who's there?" she cried in frightened tones, hastily pressing her handkerchief to her eyes.
There was no help for it. I stepped inside, saying:
"I'm ashamed to say that I am."
I deserved and expected an outburst of indignation. My surprise was great when she sank against the back of the chair with a sigh of relief. I lingered awkwardly just inside the threshold.
"What do you want? Why did you come in?" she asked, but rather in bewilderment than anger.
"I was passing on my way upstairs, and—and you seemed to be in distress."
"Did I make such a noise as that?" said she. "I'm as bad as a child; but children cry because they mustn't do things, and I because I must."
We appeared to be going to talk. I shut the door.
"My intrusion is most impertinent," said I. "You have every right to resent it."
"Oh, have I the right to resent anything? Did you think so this morning?" she asked impetuously.
"The morning," I observed, "is a terribly righteous time with me. I must beg your pardon for what I said."
"You think the same still?" she retorted quickly.
"That is no excuse for having said it," I returned. "It was not my affair."
"It is nobody's affair, I suppose, but mine."
"Unless you allow it to be," said I. I could not endure the desolation her words and tone implied.
She looked at me curiously.
"I don't understand," she said in a fretfully weary tone, "how you come to be mixed up in it at all."
"It's a long story." Then I went on abruptly: "You thought it was someone else that had entered."
"Well, if I did?"
"Someone returning," said I stepping up to the table opposite her.
"What then?" she asked, but wearily and not in the defiant manner of the morning.
"Mme. Delhasse perhaps, or perhaps the Duke of Saint-Maclou?"
Marie Delhasse made no answer. She sat with her elbows on the table, and her chin resting on the support of her clenched hands; her lids drooped over her eyes; and I could not see the expression of her glance, which was, nevertheless, upon me.
"Well, well," I continued, "we needn't talk about him. Have you been doing some shopping?" And I pointed to the red leathern box.
For full half a minute she sat, without speech or movement. Then she said in answer to my question, which she could not take as an idle one:
"Yes, I have been doing some bargaining."
"Is that the result?"
Again she paused long before she answered.
"That," said she, "is a trifle—thrown in."
"To bind the bargain?" I suggested.
"Yes, Mr. Aycon—to bind the bargain."
"Is it allowed to look?"
"I think everything must be allowed to you. You would be so surprised if it were not."
I understood that she was aiming a satirical remark at me: I did not mind that; she had better flay me alive than sit and cry.
"Then I may open the box?"
"The key is in it."
I drew the box across, and I took a chair that stood by. I turned the key of the box. A glance showed me Marie's drooped lids half raised and her eyes fixed on my face.
I opened the box: there lay in it, in sparkling coil on the blue velvet, a magnificent diamond necklace; one great stone formed a pendent, and it was on this stone that I fixed my regard. I took it up and looked at it closely; then I examined the necklace itself. Marie's eyes followed my every motion.
"You like these trinkets?" I asked.
"Yes," said she, in that tone in which "yes" is stronger than a thousand words of rapture; and the depths of her eyes caught fire from the stones, and gleamed.
"But you know nothing about them," I pursued composedly.
"I suppose they are valuable," said she, making an effort after nonchalance.
"They have some value," I conceded, smiling. "But I mean about their history."
"They are bought, I suppose—bought and sold."
"I happen to know just a little about such things. In fact, I have a book at home in which there is a picture of this necklace. It is known as the Cardinal's Necklace. The stones were collected by Cardinal Armand de Saint-Maclou, Archbishop of Caen, some thirty years ago. They were set by Lebeau of Paris, on the order of the cardinal, and were left by him to his nephew, our friend the duke. Since his marriage, the duchess has of course worn them."
All this I said in a most matter-of-fact tone.
"Do you mean that they belong to her?" asked Marie, with a sudden lift of her eyes.
"I don't know. Strictly, I should think not," said I impassively.
Marie Delhasse stretched out her hand and began to finger the stones.
"She wore them, did she?"
"Ah! I supposed they had just been bought." And she took her fingers off them.
"It would take a large sum to do that—to buy them en bloc," I observed.
"Oh, I don't know! The market varies so much: perhaps a million francs, perhaps more. You can't tell how much people will give for such things."
"No, it is difficult," she assented, again fingering the necklace, "to say what people will give for them."
I leaned back in my chair. There was a pause. Then her eyes suddenly met mine again, and she exclaimed defiantly:
"Oh, you know very well what it means! What's the good of fencing about it?"
"Yes, I know what it means," said I. "When have you promised to go?"
"To-morrow," she answered.
"Because of this thing?" and I pointed to the necklace.
"Because of—How dare you ask me such questions!"
I rose from my seat and bowed.
"You are going?" she asked, her fingers on the necklace, and her eyes avoiding mine.
"I have the honor," said I, "to enjoy the friendship of the Duchess of Saint-Maclou."
"And that forbids you to enjoy mine?"
I bowed assent to her inference. She sat still at the table, her chin on her hands. I was about to leave her, when it struck me all in a moment that leaving her was not exactly the best thing to do, although it might be much the easiest. I arrested my steps.
"Well," she asked, "is not our acquaintance ended?"
And she suddenly opened her hands and hid her face in them. It was a strange conclusion to a speech so coldly and distantly begun.
"For God's sake, don't go!" said I, bending a little across the table toward her.
"What's it to you? What's it to anybody?" came from between her fingers.
"Your mother—" I began.
She dropped her hands from her face, and laughed. It was a laugh the like of which I hope not to hear again. Then she broke out:
"Why wouldn't she have me in the house? Why did she run away? Am I unfit to touch her?"
"If she were wrong, you're doing your best to make her right."
"If everybody thinks one wicked, one may as well be wicked, and—and live in peace."
"And get diamonds?" I added, "Weren't you wicked?"
"No," she said, looking me straight in the face. "But what difference did that make?"