The Master Mummer
By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
Author of "Anna, the Adventuress," "A Prince of Sinners," "The Betrayal," Etc.
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS
A. L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Copyright, 1904, BY LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
All rights reserved
The Master Mummer
Sheets of virgin manuscript paper littered my desk, the smoke of much uselessly consumed tobacco hung about the room in a little cloud. Many a time I had dipped my pen in the ink, only to find myself a few minutes later scrawling ridiculous little figures upon the margin of my blotting-pad. It was not at all an auspicious start for one who sought immortality.
There came a growl presently from the other side of the room, where Mabane, attired in a disreputable smock, with a short black pipe in the corner of his mouth, was industriously defacing a small canvas. Mabane was tall and fair and lean, with a mass of refractory hair which was the despair of his barber; a Scotchman with keen blue eyes, and humorous mouth amply redeeming his face from the plainness which would otherwise have been its lot. He also was in search of immortality.
"Make a start for Heaven's sake, Arnold," he implored. "To look at you is an incitement to laziness. The world's full of things to write about. Make a choice and have done with it. Write something, even if you have to tear it up afterwards."
I turned round in my chair and regarded Mabane reproachfully.
"Get on with your pot-boiler, and leave me alone, Allan," I said. "You do not understand my difficulties in the least. It is simply a matter of selection. My brain is full of ideas—brimming over. I want to be sure that I am choosing the best."
There came to me from across the room a grunt of contempt.
"Pot-boiler indeed! What about short stories at ten guineas a time, must begin in the middle, scented and padded to order, Anthony Hopeish, with the sugar of Austin Dobson and the pepper of Kipling shaken on ad lib.? Man alive, do you know what pot-boilers are? It's a perfect conservatory you're living in. Got any tobacco, Arnold?"
I jerked my pouch across the room, and it was caught with a deft little backward swing of the hand. Allan Mabane was an M.C.C. man, and a favourite point with his captain.
"You've got me on the hip, Allan," I answered, rising suddenly from my chair and walking restlessly up and down the large bare room. "The devil himself might have put those words into your mouth. They are pot-boilers, every one of them, and I am sick of it. I want to do something altogether different. I am sure that I can, but I have got into the way of writing those other things, and I can't get out of it. That is why I am sitting here like an owl."
Mabane refilled his pipe and smoked contentedly.
"I know exactly how you're feeling, old chap," he said sympathetically. "I get a dash of the same thing sometimes—generally in the springtime. It begins with a sort of wistfulness, a sense of expansion follows, you go about all the time with your head in the clouds. You want to collect all the beautiful things in life and express them. Oh, I know all about it. It generally means a girl. Where were you last night?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Where I shall be to-night, to-morrow night—where I was a year ago. That is the trouble of it all. One is always in the same place."
He shook his head.
"It is a very bad attack," he said. "Your generalities may be all right, but they are not convincing."
"I have not spoken a word to a woman, except to Mrs. Burdett, for a week or more," I declared.
Mabane resumed his work. Such a discussion, his gesture seemed to indicate, was not worth continuing. But I continued, following out my train of thought, though I spoke as much to myself as to my friend.
"You are right about my stories," I admitted. "I have painted rose-coloured pictures of an imaginary life, and publishers have bought them, and the public, I suppose, have read them. I have dressed up puppets of wood and stone, and set them moving like mechanical dolls—over-gilded, artificial, vulgar. And all the time the real thing knocks at our doors."
Mabane stepped back from his canvas to examine critically the effect of an unexpected dash of colour.
"The public, my dear Greatson," he said abstractedly, "do not want the real thing—from you. Every man to his metier. Yours is to sing of blue skies and west winds, of hay-scented meadows and Watteau-like revellers in a paradise as artificial as a Dutch garden. Take my advice, and keep your muse chained. The other worlds are for the other writers."
I was annoyed with Mabane. There was just sufficient truth in his words to make them sound brutal. I answered him with some heat.
"Not if I starve for it, Allan? The whole cycle of life goes humming around us, hour by hour. It is here, there, everywhere. I will bring a little of it into my work, or I will write no more."
Mabane shook his head. He was busy again upon his canvas.
"It is always the humourist," he murmured, "who is ambitious to write a tragedy—and vice versa. The only sane man is he who is conscious of his limitations."
"On the contrary," I answered quickly, "the man who admits them is a fool. I have made up my mind. I will dress no more dolls in fine clothes, and set them strutting across a rose-garlanded stage. I will create, or I will leave alone. I will write of men and women, or not at all."
"It will affect your income," Mabane said. "It will cost you money in postage stamps, and your manuscripts will be declined with thanks."
His gentle cynicism left me unmoved. I had almost forgotten his presence. I was standing over by the window, looking out across a wilderness of housetops. My own thoughts for the moment were sufficient. I spoke, it is true, but I spoke to myself.
"A beginning," I murmured. "That is all one wants. It seems so hard, and yet—it ought to be so easy. If one could but lift the roofs—could but see for a moment underneath."
"I can save you the trouble," Mabane remarked cheerfully, strolling over to my side. "Where are you looking? Chertsey Street, eh? Well, in all probability mamma is cooking the dinner, Mary is scrubbing the floor, Miss Flora is dusting the drawing-room, and Miss Louisa is practising her scales. You have got a maggot in your brain, Greatson. Life such as you are thinking of is the most commonplace thing in the world. The middle-classes haven't the capacity for passion—even the tragedy of existence never troubles them. Don't try to stir up the muddy waters, Arnold. Write a pretty story about a Princess and her lovers, and draw your cheque."
"There are times, Allan," I remarked thoughtfully, "when you are an intolerable nuisance."
Mabane shrugged his shoulders and returned to his work. Apparently he had reached a point in it which required his undivided attention, for he relapsed almost at once into silence. Following his example, I too returned to my desk and took up my pen. As a rule my work came to me easily. Even now there were shadowy ideas, well within my mental grasp—ideas, however, which I was in the humour to repel rather than to invite. For I knew very well whither they would lead me—back to the creation of those lighter and more fanciful figures flitting always across the canvas of a painted world. A certain facility for this sort of thing had brought me a reputation which I was already growing to hate. More than ever I was determined not to yield. Mabane's words had come to me with a subtle note of mockery underlying their undoubted common-sense. I thrust the memory of them on one side. Certain gifts I knew that I possessed. I had a ready pen and a facile invention. Something had stirred in me a late-awakened but irresistible desire to apply them to a different purpose than ever before. As I sat there the creations of my fancy flitted before me one by one—delicate, perhaps, and graceful, thoughtfully conceived, adequately completed. Yet I knew very well that they were like ripples upon the water, creatures without lasting forms or shape, images passing as easily as they had come into the mists of oblivion. The human touch, the transforming fire of life was wholly wanting. These April creations of my brain—carnival figures, laughing and weeping with equal facility, lacked always and altogether the blood and muscle of human creatures. The mishaps of their lives struck never a tragic note; always the thrill and stir of actual existence were wanting. I would have no more of them. I felt myself capable of other things. I would wait until other things came.
The door was pushed open, and Arthur smiled in upon us. This third member of our bachelor household was younger than either Mabane or myself—a smooth-faced, handsome boy, resplendent to-day in frock-coat and silk hat.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "Hard at work, both of you!"
Mabane laid down his brush and surveyed the newcomer critically.
"Arthur," he declared with slow emphasis, "you do us credit—you do indeed. I hope that you will show yourself to our worthy landlady, and that you will linger upon the doorstep as long as possible. This sort of thing is good for our waning credit. I am no judge, for I never possessed such a garment, but there is something about the skirts of your frock-coat which appeals to me. There is indeed, Arthur. And then your tie—the cunning arrangement of it——"
"Oh, rats!" the boy exclaimed, laughing. "Give me a couple of cigarettes, there's a good chap, and do we feed at home to-night?"
Mabane produced the cigarettes and turned back to his work.
"We do!" he admitted with a sigh. "Always on Tuesdays, you know. By-the-bye, are you going to the works in that costume?"
"Not likely! It's my day at the depot, worse luck," Arthur answered, pausing to strike a match. "What's up with Arnold?"
"Got the blues, because his muse won't work," Mabane said. "He wants to strike out in a new line—something blood-curdling, you know—Tolstoi-like, or Hall Caineish—he doesn't care which. He wants to do what nobody else ever will—take himself seriously. I put it down in charity to dyspepsia."
"Mabane is an ass!" I grunted. "Be off, Arthur, there's a good chap, and don't listen to him. He hasn't the least idea what he is talking about."
Arthur, however, happened to be in no hurry. He tilted his hat on the back of his head, and leaned upon the table.
"I have always noticed," he remarked affably, "that under Allan's most asinine speeches there usually lurks a substratum of truth. Are you really going to write a serious novel, Arnold?"
I lit a cigarette and leaned back in my chair resignedly. Arthur was a most impenetrable person, and if he meant to stay, I knew very well that it was hopeless to attempt to hurry him.
"I had some idea of it," I admitted. "By-the-bye, Arthur, you are a person with a deep insight into life. Can't you give me a few hints? I haven't even made a start."
Arthur considered the matter in all seriousness.
"It is a bit difficult for you, I daresay," he remarked. "You stop indoors so much, and when you do go out you mope off into the country by yourself. You want to knock about the restaurants and places to get ideas. That's what Gorman always does. You see you get all your characters from life in them, and they seem so much more natural."
"And who," I asked, "is Mr. Gorman? I do not recognize the name."
"Pal of mine," Arthur answered easily. "I don't bring him here because he's a bit loud for you chaps. Writes stories for no end of papers. Illustrated Bits and the Cigarette Journal print anything he cares to send. I thought perhaps you'd know the name."
Mabane went off into a peal of laughter behind his canvas. The boy remained imperturbable.
"Of course, I'm not comparing his work with Arnold's," he declared. "Arnold's stuff is no end better, of course. But, after all, the chap's got common-sense. If they want me to draw a motor I go and sit down in front of it. If Arnold wants to write of real things, real men and women, you know, he ought to go out and look for them. If he sits here and just imagines them, how can he be sure that they are the real thing? See what I mean?"
There was a short silence. Arthur was swinging his long legs backwards and forwards, and whistling softly to himself. I looked at him for a moment curiously. The words of an ancient proverb flitted through my brain.
"Arthur," I declared solemnly, laying down my pen, "you are a prophet in disguise, the prophet sent to lift the curtain which is before my eyes. Which way shall I go to find these real men and real women, to look upon these tragic happenings? For Heaven's sake direct me. Where, for instance, does Mr. Gorman go?"
Arthur swung himself off, laughing.
"Gorman goes everywhere," he answered. "If I were you I should try one of the big railway stations. So long!"
I rose to my feet, and taking down my hat commenced to brush it. Mabane looked up from his work.
"Where are you off to, Arnold?" he asked.
Some curious instinct or power of divination might indeed have given me a passing glimpse of the things which lay beyond, through the portals of that day, for I answered him seriously enough—even gravely.
"The prophet has spoken," I said. "I must obey! I shall start with Charing Cross."
Why the man should have spoken to me at all I could not tell. Yet it is certain that I heard his simple and courteous inquiry with a thrill of pleasure, not unmixed with excitement. From the first moment of my arrival upon the platform I had singled him out, the only interesting figure in a crowd of nonentities. Perhaps I had lingered a little too closely by his side, had manifested more curiosity in him than was altogether seemly. At any rate, he spoke to me.
"Do you know if the Continental train is punctual?" he asked.
"I have no idea," I answered. "This guard would tell us, perhaps."
"Signalled in, sir," the man declared. "Two minutes late only."
My new acquaintance thanked me and lit a cigarette. He seemed in no hurry to depart, and I was equally anxious to engage him in conversation. For although he was dressed with the trim and quiet precision of the foreigner or man of affairs, there was something about his beardless face, his broadly humorous mouth, and easy, nonchalant bearing which suggested the person who juggled always with the ball of life.
"Marvellous!" he murmured, looking after the guard. "Two minutes late from Paris—and perhaps beyond. It is a wonderful service. Now, if I had come to meet any one, and had a pressing appointment immediately afterwards, this train would have been an hour late. As it is—ah, well, one is foolish to grumble," he added, with a little shrug of the shoulders.
"You, like me, then," I remarked, "are a loiterer."
He flashed a keen glance upon me.
"I see that I have met," he said slowly, "with someone of similar tastes to my own. I will confess at once that you are right. For myself I feel that there is nothing more interesting in this great city of yours than to watch the people coming and going from it. All your railway stations fascinate me, especially those which are the connecting links with other countries. Perhaps it is because I am an idle man, and must needs find amusement somewhere."
"Yet," I objected, "for a single face or personality which is suggestive, one sees a thousand of the type which only irritates—the great rank and file of the commonplace. I wonder, after all, whether the game is worth the candle."
"One in a thousand," he repeated thoughtfully. "Yet think what that one may mean—a walking drama, a tragedy, a comedy, an epitome of life or death. There is more to be read in the face of that one than in the three hundred pages of the novel over which we yawn ourselves to sleep. Here is the train! Now let us watch the people together—that is, if you really mean that you have no friends to look out for."
"I really mean it," I assured him. "I am here out of the idlest curiosity. I am by profession a scribbler, and I am in search of an idea."
Once more he regarded me curiously.
"Your name is Greatson, is it not—Arnold Greatson? You were pointed out to me once at the Vagabonds' Club, and I never forget a face. Here they come! Look! Look!"
The train had come to a standstill. People were streaming out upon the platform. My companion laid his fingers upon my arm. He talked rapidly but lightly.
"You see them, my young friend," he exclaimed. "Those are returning tourists from Switzerland; the thin, sharp-featured girl there, with a plaid skirt and a satchel, is an American. Heavens! how she talks! She has lost a trunk. The whole system will be turned upside down until she has found it or been compensated. The two young men with her are silent. They are wise. Alone she will prevail. You see the man of commerce; he is off already. He has been to France, perhaps to Belgium also, to buy silks and laces. And the stout old gentleman? See how happy he looks to be back again where English is spoken, and he can pay his way in half-crowns and shillings. You see the milliner's head-woman, dressed with obtrusive smartness, though everything seems a little awry. She has been over to Paris for the fashions; in a few days her firm will send out a little circular, and Hampstead or Balham will be much impressed. And—what do you make of those two, my young friend?"
It seemed to me that my companion's tone was changed, that his whole appearance was different. I was suddenly conscious of an irresistible conviction. I did not believe any longer that he was, like me, an idle loiterer here. I felt that his presence had a purpose, and that it was connected in some measure with the two people to whom my attention was so suddenly drawn. They were, in that somewhat heterogeneous crowd, sufficiently noticeable. The man, although he assumed the jauntiness of youth, was past middle-age, and his mottled cheeks, his thin, watery eyes, and thick red neck were the unmistakeable hall-marks of years of self-indulgence. He was well dressed and groomed, and his demeanour towards his companion was one of deferential good humour. She, however, was a person of a very different order. She was a girl apparently between fifteen and sixteen, her figure as yet undeveloped, her dresses a little too short. Her face was small and white, her mouth had a most pathetic droop, and in her eyes—wonderful, deep blue eyes—there was a curious look of shrinking fear, beneath which flashed every now and then a gleam of positive terror. Her dark hair was arranged in a thick straight fringe upon her forehead, and in a long plait behind, after the schoolgirl fashion. Notwithstanding the gaucherie of her years and her apparent unhappiness, she carried herself with a certain dignity and grace of movement which were wonderfully impressive. I watched her admiringly.
"They are rather a puzzle," I admitted. "I suppose they might very well be father and daughter. It is certain that she is fresh from some convent boarding-school. I don't like the way she looks at the man, do you? It is as though she were terrified to death. I wonder if he is her father?"
My companion did not answer me. He was straining forward as though anxious to hear the instructions which the man was giving to a porter about the luggage; my presence seemed to be a thing which he had wholly forgotten. The girl stood for a moment alone. More than ever one seemed to perceive in her eyes the nameless fear of the hunted animal. She looked around her furtively, yet with a strange, half-veiled wildness in her dilated eyes. I should scarcely have been surprised to have seen her make a sudden dash for freedom. Presently, however, the man, having identified all his luggage, turned towards her.
"That's all right," he declared cheerfully. "Now I think that I shall take you straight away for lunch somewhere, and then we must go to the shops. Are you hungry, Isobel?"
"I—I do not know," she answered, so tremulously that the words scarcely reached us, though we were standing only a few feet away.
"We will soon find out," he said. "Hansom, there! Cafe Grand!"
The cab drove off, and I realized then how completely for the last few moments I had forgotten my companion. I turned to look for him, and found him standing close to my side. He was apparently absorbed in thought, and seemed to have lost all interest in our surroundings. His hands were thrust deep in his overcoat pockets, and his eyes were fixed upon the ground. The stream of people from the train had melted away now, and we were almost alone upon the platform. I hesitated for a moment, and then walked slowly off. I did not wish to seem discourteous to the man with whom I had exchanged a few remarks more intimate than those which usually pass between strangers, but he had distinctly the air of one wishing to be alone, and I was unwilling to seem intrusive. I had barely taken a dozen steps, however, before I was overtaken. My companion of a few minutes before was again by my side. All traces of his recent preoccupation seemed to have vanished. He was smoking a fresh cigarette, and his bright, deep-set eyes were lit with gentle mirth.
"Well, Mr. Novelist," he exclaimed, "have you succeeded? Is your languid muse stirred? Have you seen a face, a look, a gesture—anything to prick your imagination?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I have seen one thing," I answered, "which it is not easy to forget. I have seen fear, and very pathetic it was."
"In the face of that child, or rather girl, with that coarse-looking brute of a man."
The light seemed to die out from my companion's face. Once more he became stern and thoughtful.
"Yes," he agreed; "I too saw that. If one were looking for tragedy, one might perhaps find it there."
We stood now together on the pavement outside the station. My companion glanced at his watch.
"Come," he said; "I have a fancy that you and I might exchange a few ideas. I am a lonely man, and to-day I am not in the humour for solitude. Do me the favour to lunch with me!"
I did not hesitate for a moment. It was exactly the sort of invitation which I had coveted.
"I shall be delighted," I answered.
"I myself," my companion continued, "have no gift for writing. My talents, such as they are, lie in a different direction. But I have been in many countries, and adventures have come to me of various sorts. I may be able even to start you on your way—if, indeed, the author of The Lost Princess is ever short of an idea."
"I can assure you," I said, "that my pilgrimage this morning has no other object than to find one. I begin to fear that I have written too much lately. At any rate, the well of my inspiration, if I may use so grandiloquent a term, has run dry."
He put up his stick and hailed a hansom.
"After all," he said, "it is possible—yes, it is possible that you may succeed. Adventures wait for us everywhere, if only we go about in a proper frame of mind. We will lunch, I think, at the Cafe Grand."
I followed my prospective host into the cab. Was it altogether a coincidence, I wondered, that we were bound for the same restaurant whither the man and the girl had preceded us a few minutes before?
Mr. Grooten, as my new acquaintance called himself, belied neither his appearance nor his modest reference to himself. He proved at once that he knew how to order a satisfactory luncheon, going through the menu with the quiet deliberation of a connoisseur, neither seeking nor accepting any advice from the dark-visaged waiter who stood by his side, and finally writing out his few carefully chosen dishes with a special postscript as to the coffee, which, by-the-bye, we were never to taste. He then leaned over the table and began to talk.
Apparently my host had been in every country of the world, and mixed with people of note in each. His anecdotes were always pungent, personal without being egotistical, and savoured always with a certain dry and perfectly natural humour. I found myself both interested and fascinated by his constant flow of reminiscences, and yet at times my attention wandered. For within a few yards of us were seated the man and the child.
Everything that was noticeable in their demeanour towards one another at the station was even more apparent here. A bottle of champagne stood upon the table. The man had ordered such a luncheon that the head-waiter was seldom far from his side, and the manager in person had come to pay his respects. He himself was apparently doing full justice to it. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes moist, and his little bursts of laughter as he persevered in his attentions to his companion grew louder and more frequent. But opposite to him, the child's face was unchanged. Her glass was full of wine, but she seemed never to touch it. Her long white fingers played with her bread, but she seemed to eat little or nothing. Her face was pallid and drawn; there was terror—absolute, undiluted terror—in her unnaturally large eyes. Often when the man spoke to her she shivered. Her eyes seemed constantly trying to escape his gaze, wandering round the room, the terror of a hunted animal in their soft, luminous depths. Once they rested upon mine—I was seated in the corner facing her—and it seemed to me that there was appeal—desperate, frenzied appeal—in that long, tense look which thrilled all my pulses with passionate sympathy. Yet she held herself all the while stiff and erect. There was a certain sustaining pride in her close, firm-set mouth. There was never any sign of tears, though more than once her lips parted for a moment in a pitiful quiver.
The table at which we were sitting was just inside the door, in the left-hand corner. The man and the girl were upon the opposite side, and a few yards further in the room. My host, with his face to the door, could see neither of them, therefore, without turning round, and owing to our table being pushed far into the corner, only his back was visible to the people in the restaurant. I, sitting facing him, had an excellent view of the girl and her companion, and I was all the while a witness of the silent drama being played out between the two. There came a time when I felt that I could stand it no longer. I leaned over our small table, and interrupted my companion in the middle of a story.
"Forgive me," I said, "but I wish you could see that child's face. There is something wrong, I am sure. She is terrified to death. Look, that brute is trying to force her to drink her wine. I really can't sit and watch it any longer."
The man who was my host, and who had called himself Mr. Grooten, nodded his head slightly. I knew at once, however, that he was in close sympathy with me.
"I have been watching them," he said. "There is a mirror over your head; I have seen everything. It is a hideous-looking affair, but what can one do?"
"I know what I am going to do, at any rate," I said, laying my serviette deliberately upon the table. "I don't care what happens, but I am going to speak to the child."
Mr. Grooten raised his eyebrows. Beyond this faint expression of surprise his face betrayed neither approval nor disapproval.
"What will you gain?" he asked.
"Probably nothing," I answered. "And yet I shall try all the same. I dare not go away with the memory of that child's face haunting me. I must make an effort, even though it seems ridiculous. I can't help it."
My companion smiled softly.
"As you will, my impetuous young friend," he said. "This promises to be interesting. I will await your return."
I did not hesitate any longer. I rose to my feet, and crossed the space which lay between the two tables. As I drew nearer to her I watched the child's face. At first a flash of desperate hope seemed suddenly to illumine it; then a fear more abject even than before took its place as she glanced at her companion. She watched me come, reading without a doubt the purpose in my mind with a sort of fascinated wonder. Her eyes were still fastened upon mine when at last I paused before her. I leaned over the table, keeping my shoulder turned upon the man.
"You will forgive me," I said to her in a low tone, "but I believe that you are in trouble. Can I help you? Don't be afraid to tell me if I can."
"You—you are very kind, sir," she began, breathlessly; "I——"
Her companion intervened. Astonishment and anger combined to render his voice unsteady.
"Eh? What's this? Who the devil are you, sir, and what do you mean by speaking to my ward?"
I disregarded his interruption altogether. I still addressed myself only to the child, and I spoke as encouragingly as I could.
"Don't be afraid to tell me," I said. "Think that I am your brother. I want to help you if I can."
"Oh, if you only could!" she moaned.
Her companion seized me by the arm and forced me to turn round. His face was red almost to suffocation, and two thick blue veins stood out upon his forehead in ugly fashion. His voice was scarcely articulate by reason of his attempt to keep it low.
"Of all the infernal impertinence! What do you mean by it, sir? Who are you? How dare you force yourself upon strangers in this fashion?"
"I am quite aware that I am doing an unusual thing," I answered, "and I perhaps deserve all that you can say to me. At the same time, I am here to have my question answered. You have a child with you who is apparently terrified to death. I insist upon hearing from her own lips whether she is in need of friends."
White and mute, she looked from one to the other. It was the man who answered.
"If this were not a public place," he said, still struggling with his anger, "I'd punish you as you deserve, you impudent young cub. This young lady is my ward, and I have just brought her from a convent, where she has lived since she was three years old. She is strange and shy, of course, and I was perhaps wrong to bring her to a public place. I did it, however, out of kindness. I wanted her to enjoy herself, but I perhaps did not appreciate her sensitiveness and the fact that only a few days ago she parted with the friends with whom she has lived all her life. Now, sir," he added, with a sneer upon his coarse lips, "I have been compelled to answer your questions to avoid a disturbance in a public place; but I promise you that if you do not make yourself scarce in thirty seconds I will send for the manager."
I looked once more at the child, from whose white, set face every gleam of hope seemed to have fled.
"I can do nothing for you, then?" I asked.
Her eyes met mine helplessly. She shook her head. She did not speak at all.
"Is it true—what he has told me?" I asked.
She murmured an assent so faint, that though I was bending over her, it scarcely did more than reach my ears. I could do no more. I turned away and resumed my seat. Grooten smiled at me.
"Well, Sir Knight Errant," he said lightly; "so you could not free the maiden?"
"I was made to feel and look like a fool, of course," I answered, "but I don't mind about that. To tell you the truth, I am not satisfied now. The man says that he is her guardian, and that he has just brought her from a convent, where she has lived all her life. He vouchsafed to explain things to me to avoid a row, but he was desperately angry. She has never been out of the convent since she was three years old, and she is very nervous and shy. That was his story, and he told it plausibly enough. I could not get anything out of her, except an admission that what he said was the truth."
Mr. Grooten nodded thoughtfully.
"After all," he said, "she is only a child, fourteen or fifteen at the most, I should suppose. I have paid the bill, and, as you see, I have my coat on. Are you ready?"
"Directly I have finished my coffee," I answered. "It looks too good to leave."
"Finish it, by all means," he answered. "I am in no particular hurry. By-the-bye, I forget whether I showed you this."
He drew a small shining weapon, with rather a long barrel, from his pocket, but though he invited me to inspect it, he retained it in his own hand.
"I bought it in New York a few months ago," he remarked; "it is the latest weapon of destruction invented."
"Is it a revolver?" I asked, a little puzzled by its shape.
"Not exactly," he answered, fingering it carelessly; "it is in reality a sort of air-gun, with a wonderful compression, and a most ingenious silencer; quite as deadly, they say, as any firearm ever invented. It ejects a cylindrically-shaped bullet, tapered down almost to the fineness of a needle. Now," he added, with a faint smile and a rapid glance round the room, "if only one dared—" he turned in his chair, and I saw the thing steal out below his cuff, "one could free the child quite easily—quite easily."
It was all over in a moment—a wonderful, tense moment, during which I sat frozen to my chair, stricken dumb and motionless with the tragedy which it seemed that I alone had witnessed. For there had been a little puff of sound, so slight that no other ears had noticed it. The seat in front of me was empty, and the man on my right had fallen forwards, his hand pressed to his side, his face curiously livid, patchy with streaks of dark colour, his eyes bulbous. Waiters still hurried to and fro, the hum of conversation was uninterrupted. And then suddenly it came—a cry of breathless horror, of mortal unexpected agony—a cry, it seemed, of death. The waiters stopped in their places to gaze breathlessly at the spot from which the cry had come, a silver dish fell clattering from the fingers of one, and its contents rolled unnoticed about the floor. The murmur of voices, the rise and fall of laughter and speech, ceased as though an unseen finger had been pressed upon the lips of everyone in the room. Men rose in their places, women craned their necks. For a second or two the whole place was like a tableau of arrested motion. Then there was a rush towards the table across which the man had fallen, a doubled-up heap. A few feet away, with only that narrow margin of table-cloth between them, the girl sat and stared at him, still white and panic-stricken, yet with a curious change in her face from which all the dumb terror which had first attracted my attention seemed to have passed away.
The manager, who was very flurried, closed the door of the little room into which the wounded man had been carried.
"Can you tell me his name, or shall we look for his card-case?" he asked.
I glanced towards the child. She was by far the most composed of the three. Only she remained with her back turned steadily upon the sofa.
"His name is Delahaye," she said; "Major Sir William Delahaye, I think they called him."
"And where does he live—in London? Tell me his address. I will send a cab there at once!"
"I do not know his address," the child answered. "I do not know where he lives."
The manager stared at her.
"You were with him, were you not?" he asked.
"Then surely you must know something more about him than just his name?"
"He called himself my guardian. I believe that when I was very young he took me to the convent where I have been ever since. Two days ago he came to fetch me away."
"What is your name?"
"Isobel de Sorrens!"
"You are not related to him, then?"
She shuddered a little.
"I hope not," she said simply.
"Well, where was he taking you to?" the manager asked impatiently. "Surely there must be someone I can send to."
"I believe that he has a house in London," the child said. "I really do not know anything more. You could send to Madame Richard at the Convent St. Argueil. I suppose she knows all about him. She told me that I was to consider him my guardian."
The manager turned to me. I was an occasional customer, and he knew who I was.
"Can you tell me anything about him, Mr. Greatson? The doctor will be here in a moment, but I feel that I ought to be sending for some of his friends. I am afraid that he is very ill."
"You were not in the room at the time it happened?" I remarked.
The manager shook his head.
"No, I was in the office."
"Have you sent for the police?" I asked.
"Police, no!" he exclaimed. "What have the police to do with it? It was an ordinary fit, surely."
I felt that I had held my peace long enough.
"It was not a fit at all," I said gravely. "He was shot with a sort of air-gun by a man sitting at my table. I think that you ought to send for the police at once. The man's name was Grooten, but I know nothing else about him."
The manager was for a moment speechless. The child looked at me eagerly.
"It was the little old gentleman who was sitting with you who did it," she exclaimed. "I saw him at Charing Cross."
"Yes, it was he!" I answered.
The child turned away.
"Perhaps after all, then," she murmured to herself, "I may have friends in the world."
The manager, whose name was Huber, was inclined to be incredulous.
"An air-gun would have made as much noise as a revolver," he said. "Are you sure of what you say, Mr. Greatson?"
"There is no doubt at all about it," I answered, "and you ought to inform the police at once. This man—Grooten, he called himself—pulled the pistol out of his pocket, and was pretending to show it to me when he fired the shot. He told me that it was a new invention which he had bought in America, and which was quite noiseless."
The manager hurried from the room. The child and I were alone, except for the man on the couch. Every now and then he groaned—a sound I could not hear without a shiver. The child, however, was unmoved. She fixed her dark eyes on me.
"Do you think that he will get away?" she asked eagerly.
"You mean the man who shot Major Delahaye?"
"I think that it is very likely. He has a good start, and I expect that he had made his arrangements."
"I hope he does," she murmured passionately. "I wish that I could help him."
"You have no idea who he was?" I asked. "I do not believe that Grooten was his real name."
She shook her head.
"I have never seen him before in my life," she said. "If I did know I should not tell anyone."
The doctor came at last. In reality it was barely five minutes since he had been sent for, but time dragged itself along slowly in that little room. Directly afterwards Huber, the manager, returned, followed by a sergeant of the police. We all waited for the doctor's examination. I fetched a chair for the child, and she thanked me with a wan little smile. Always she sat with her back to the sofa. There was something terribly suggestive in her utter lack of sympathy with the wounded man.
The doctor finished his examination at last. He came towards us.
"The wound is a very curious one," he said, "and I am afraid that the bullet will be difficult to extract, but it is not in itself serious. It is really only a flesh wound, but the man is suffering from severe shock, and I don't like the action of his heart. He can be removed quite safely. If you like I will telephone for an ambulance and take him to the hospital. Do you know anything about this affair, sergeant?"
"Very little as yet, sir," the man answered. "I want this gentleman's description of the person who showed him the pistol. The commissionaire saw him leave, I understand, and one of the waiters saw something in his hand. Was he a friend of yours, sir?"
"I only know his name," I answered. "He called himself Mr. Grooten, and I judged him to be a foreigner, though he spoke perfect English. He seemed to be about fifty years old, clean-shaven, and of under medium height."
"Too vague," the sergeant remarked. "Had he any peculiarity of feature or expression, anything which would help towards identification?"
"None that I can remember," I answered.
"How was he dressed?"
"Quietly. I could not remember anything that he wore."
"Did he give you any idea of his intention? Did he speak of Major Delahaye at all as though he knew him?"
I shook my head.
"We simply both remarked," I said slowly, "that this—young lady seemed to be very frightened of her companion, and I do not think that we formed a favourable impression of him. He gave me not the slightest intimation, however, of his intention to interfere."
"It could not have been an accident, I suppose?" Mr. Huber suggested.
"I might have thought so," I answered, "if he had not immediately left the place. He disappeared so quickly that I did not even see him go."
"You sat by accident at the same table?" the sergeant asked.
"No, we came together," I answered. "We met at Charing Cross, and he spoke to me. He knew my name, and reminded me that we had once met at the 'Vagabonds' Club.'"
"Did you remember him?"
"I cannot say that I did," I answered.
"We talked together for some time, and when we left the station he asked me to lunch here."
"Did he arrive by train, or was he meeting anyone at Charing Cross?" the sergeant asked.
"Neither, so far as I could see," I answered. "He seemed to be simply loitering. I ought to tell you, though, that we saw Major Delahaye and this young lady arrive by the Continental train, and he seemed to be interested in them."
The sergeant turned to Isobel.
"Did you know him?" he asked.
"No," she answered. "I did not notice him at the station at all. I saw that he was sitting at the same table downstairs as this gentleman, but I am quite sure that I have never seen him before in my life."
The sergeant put away his pocket-book.
"I am very sorry to trouble you," he said, "but I think it would be better for you all to come to Bow Street and see the superintendent."
"I am quite willing to do so," I answered, "though I can tell him no more than I have told you."
The child moved suddenly towards me. Her thin, shabbily gloved fingers gripped my arm with almost painful force. Her eyes were full of passionate appeal.
"I may go with you," she murmured. "You will not leave me alone?"
"The young lady will be required also," the sergeant remarked.
"We will go together, of course," I said gently. "Come!"
We crossed the road from the police-station, and found ourselves in one of the narrow streets fringing Covent Garden. The air was fragrant here with the perfume of white and purple lilac, great baskets full of which were piled up in the gutter. The girl half closed her eyes.
"Delicious!" she murmured. "This reminds me of St. Argueil! You have flowers too, then, in London?"
I bought her a handful, which she sniffed and held to her face with delight.
"Ah!" she said a little sadly. "I had forgotten that there were any beautiful things left in the world. Thank you so much, Mr. Arnold."
"At your age," I said cheerfully, "you will soon find out that the world—even London—is a treasure-house of beautiful things."
She looked down the narrow, untidy street, strewn with the refuse from the market waggons and trucks which blocked the way, making all but pedestrian traffic an impossibility—at the piles of empty baskets in the gutter, and the slatternly crowd of loiterers. Then she looked up at me with a faint smile.
"London—is not all like this, then?" she remarked.
I shook my head.
"This is a back street, almost a slum," I said. "I daresay you have lived in the country always, and just at first it does not seem possible that there should be anything beautiful about a great city. When you get a little older I think that you will see things differently. The beauty of a great city thronged with men and women is a more subtle thing than the mere joy of meadows and hills and country lanes—but it exists all the same. And now," I continued, stopping short upon the pavement, "I must take you to your friends. Tell me where they live. You have the address, perhaps."
"What friends?" she asked me, with wide-open eyes.
"You told the superintendent of police that you had friends in London," I reminded her.
Then she smiled at me—a very dazzling smile, which showed all her white teeth, and which seemed somehow to become reflected in her dark blue eyes.
"But I meant you!" she exclaimed. "I thought that you knew that! There is no one else. You are my friend, I know very well, for you came and spoke kindly to me when I was terrified—terrified to death."
The shadow of gravity rested only for a moment upon her face. She laughed gaily at my consternation.
"Then where am I to take you?" I asked.
"Stupid," she murmured; "I am going with you, of course. Why—why—you don't mind, do you?" she asked, with a sudden catch in her throat.
I felt like a brute, and I hastened to make what amends I could. I smiled at her reassuringly.
"Mind! Of course I don't mind," I declared. "Only, you see, there are three of us—all men—and we live together. I was afraid——"
"I shall not mind that at all," she interrupted cheerfully. "If they are nice like you, I think that it will be delightful. There were only girls at the convent, you know, and the sisters, and a few masters who came to teach us things, but they were not allowed to speak to us except to give out the lessons, and they were very stupid. I do not think that I shall be any trouble to you at all. I will try not to be."
I looked at her—a little helplessly. After all, though she was tall for her years, she was only a child. Her dress was of an awkward length, her long straight fringe and plaited hair the coiffure of the schoolroom. The most surprising thing of all in connection with her was that she showed no signs of the tragedy which had so recently been played out around her. Her eyes had lost their nameless fear; there was even colour in her cheeks.
"Come along, then!" I said. "We will turn into the Strand and take a hansom."
She walked buoyantly along by my side, as tall within an inch or so as myself, and with a certain elegance in her gait a little hard to reconcile with her years. All the while she looked eagerly about her, her eyes shining with curiosity.
"We passed through Paris at night," she said, with a little reminiscent shudder, as though every thought connected with that journey were a torture, "and I have never really been in a great city before. I hope you meant what you said," she added, looking up at me with a quick smile, "and that there are parts of London more beautiful than this."
"Many," I assured her. "You shall see the parks. The rhododendrons will be out soon, and I think that you will find them beautiful, though, of course, the town can never be like the country. Here's a hansom with a good horse. Jump in!"
* * * * *
I think that our arrival at Number 4, Earl's Crescent, created quite as much sensation as I had anticipated. When I opened the door of the large, barely-furnished room, which we called our workshop, Arthur sprang from the table on which he had been lounging, and Mabane, who was still working, dropped his brush in sheer amazement. I turned towards the girl.
"These are my friends, Isobel, of whom I have been telling you," I said. "This is Mr. Arthur Fielding, who is the ornamental member of the establishment, and that is Mr. Allan Mabane, who paints very bad pictures, but who contrives to make other people think that they are worth buying. Allan, this young lady, Miss Isobel de Sorrens, and I have had a little adventure together. I will explain all about it later on."
They both advanced with extended hands. The girl, as though suddenly conscious of her position, gave a hand to each, and looked at them almost piteously.
"You will not mind my coming," she begged, with a tremulous little note of appeal in her tone. "I do not seem to have any friends, and Mr. Arnold has been so kind to me. If I may stay here for a little while I will try—oh, I am sure, that I will not be in anyone's way!"
The pathos of her breathless little speech was almost irresistible. The child, as she stood there in the centre of the room, looking eagerly from one to the other, conquered easily. I do not know if either of the other two were conscious of the new note of life which she seemed to bring with her into our shabby, smoke-smelling room, but to me it came home, even in those first few moments, with wonderful poignancy. An alien note it was, but a wonderfully sweet one. We three men had drifted away from the whole world of our womenkind. She seemed to bring us back instantly into touch with some of the few better and rarer memories round which the selfishness of life is always building a thicker crust. For one thing, at that moment I was deeply grateful—that I knew my friends. My task was made a sinecure.
"My dear young lady," Mabane exclaimed, with unmistakeable earnestness, "you are heartily welcome. We are delighted to see you here!"
"More than welcome," Arthur declared. "We are all one here, you know, Miss de Sorrens; and if you are Arnold's friend, you must be ours."
For the first time tears stood in her eyes. She brushed them proudly away.
"You are very, very kind," she said. "I cannot tell you how grateful I am to you both."
Arthur rushed for our one easy-chair, and insisted upon installing her in it. Mabane lit a stove and left the room swinging a kettle. I drew a little sigh of relief, and threw my hat into a corner. Apparently she had conquered my friends as easily as she had conquered me.
"Arthur," I said, "please entertain Miss de Sorrens for a few moments, will you. I must go and interview Mrs. Burdett."
"I'll do my best, Arnold," he assured me. "Mrs. Burdett's in the kitchen, I think. She came in just before you."
Mrs. Burdett was our housekeeper and sole domestic. She was a hard-featured but kindly old woman, with a caustic tongue and a soft heart. She heard my story unmoved, betraying neither enthusiasm or disapproval. When I had finished, she simply set her cap straight and rubbed her hands upon her apron.
"I'd like to see the child, as you call her, Mr. Arnold," she said. "You young gentlemen are so easy deceived, and it's an unusual thing that you're proposing, not to say inconvenient."
So I took Mrs. Burdett back with me to the studio. As we opened the door the music of the girl's strange little foreign laugh was ringing through the room. Arthur was mounted upon his hobby, talking of the delights of motoring, and she was listening with sparkling eyes. They stopped at once as we entered.
"This is Mrs. Burdett, Isobel," I said, "who looks after us here, and who is going to take charge of you. She will show you your room. I'm sorry that you will find it so tiny, but you can see that we are a little cramped here!"
Isobel rose at once.
"You should have seen our cells at St. Argueil," she exclaimed, smiling. "Some of us who were tall could scarcely stand upright. May I come with you, Mrs. Burdett?"
Mrs. Burdett's tone and answer relieved me of one more anxiety. The door closed upon them. We three men were alone.
"Is this," Mabane asked curiously, "a practical joke, or a part of your plot? What does it all mean? Where on earth did you come across the child? Who is she?"
I took a cigarette from my case and lit it.
"The responsibility for the whole affair," I declared, "remains with Arthur."
The boy whistled softly. He looked at me with wide-open eyes.
"Come," he declared, "I like that. Why, I have never seen the girl before in my life, or anyone like her. Where do I come in, I should like to know?"
"It was you," I said, "who started me off to Charing Cross."
"You mean to say that you picked her up there?" Mabane exclaimed.
"I will tell you the whole story," I answered. "She comes with the halo of tragedy about her. Listen!"
Then I told them of the things which had happened to me during the last few hours.
I certainly could not complain of any lack of interest on the part of my auditors. They listened to every word of my story with rapt attention. When I had finished they were both silent for several moments. Mabane eyed me curiously. I think that at first he scarcely knew whether to believe me altogether serious.
"The man who was with the girl," Arthur asked at last—"this Major Delahaye, or whatever his name was—is he dead?"
"He was alive two hours ago," I answered.
"Will he recover?"
"I believe that there is just a bare chance—no more," I answered. "He had a weak heart, and the shock was almost enough to kill him."
"And your friend—the man who shot him—where is he?" Mabane asked. "Is he in custody?"
I shook my head.
"He disappeared," I answered, "as though by magic. You see, we were sitting at the table next the door, and he had every opportunity for slipping out unnoticed."
"It was at the Cafe Grand, you said, wasn't it?" Arthur asked.
"How about the commissionaire, then?"
"He saw the man come out, but he took no particular notice of him," I answered. "He crossed the street at an ordinary walking pace, and he was out of sight before the commotion inside began."
"It seems to me," Mabane remarked, "that you must have found yourself in rather an awkward position."
"I did," I answered grimly. "Of course my story sounded a bit thin, and the police made me go to the station with them. As luck would have it, however, I knew the inspector, and I managed to convince him that I was telling the truth, or I doubt whether they would have let me go. I suppose," I added, a little doubtfully, "that you fellows must think me a perfect idiot for bringing the child here, but upon my word I don't know what else I could have done. I simply couldn't leave her there, or in the streets. I'm awfully sorry—"
"Don't be an ass," Arthur interrupted energetically. "Of course you couldn't do anything but bring her here. You acted like a sensible chap for once."
"Have you questioned her," Mabane asked, "about her friends? If she has none in London, she must have some somewhere!"
"I have questioned her," I answered, "but not very successfully. She appears to know nothing about her relations, or even her parentage. She has been at the convent ever since she can remember, and she has seen no one outside it except this man who took her there and came to fetch her away."
"And what relation is he?" Allan asked.
"None! He called himself simply her guardian."
Arthur walked across the room for his pipe, and commenced to fill it.
"Well," he said, "you are like the man in the Scriptures, who found what he went out for to see. You've got your adventure, at any rate. All owing to my advice, too. Hullo!"
We all turned round. The door of the room was suddenly opened and closed. My host of a few hours ago stood upon the threshold, smiling suavely upon us. He wore a low black hat, and a coat somewhat thicker than the season of the year seemed to demand. Every article of attire was different, but his face seemed to defy disguise. I should have known Mr. Grooten anywhere.
His unexpected presence seemed to deprive me almost of my wits. I simply gaped at him like the others.
"Great heavens!" I exclaimed. "You here!"
He stood quite still for a moment, listening. Then he glanced sharply around the room. He looked at Mabane, and he looked at Arthur. Finally he addressed me.
"I fancy that I am a fairly obvious apparition," he remarked. "Where is the child?"
"She is here," I answered, "in another room with our housekeeper just now. But——"
"I have only a few seconds to spare," Mr. Grooten interrupted ruthlessly. "Listen to me. You have chosen to interfere in this concern, and you must take your part in it now. You have the child, and you must keep her for a time. You must not let her go, on any account. Unfortunately, the man who sold me that pistol was a liar. Delahaye is not dead. It is possible even that he may recover. Will you swear to keep the child from him?"
I hesitated. It seemed to me that Grooten was taking a great deal for granted.
"You must remember," I said, "that I have absolutely no legal hold upon her. If Delahaye is her guardian it will be quite easy for him to take her away."
"He is not her legal guardian," Grooten said sharply. "He has no just claim upon her at all."
"Neither have I," I reminded him.
"You have possession," Grooten exclaimed. "I tell you that neither Delahaye, if he lives, nor any other person, will appeal to the law to force you to give the child up. This is the truth. I see you still hesitate. Listen! This also is truth. The child is in danger from Delahaye—hideous, unmentionable danger."
I never thought of doubting his word. Truth blazed out from his keen grey eyes; his words carried conviction with them.
"I will keep the child," I promised him. "But tell me who you are, and what you have to do with her."
"No matter," he answered swiftly. "I lay this thing upon you, a charge upon your honour. Guard the child. If Delahaye recovers there will be trouble. You must brave it out. You are an Englishman; you are one of a stubborn, honourable race. Do my bidding in this matter, and you shall learn what gratitude can mean."
Once more he listened for a moment intently. Then he continued.
"I am followed by the police," he said. "They may be here at any moment. You can tell them of my visit if it is necessary. My escape is provided for."
"But surely you will tell me something else about the child," I exclaimed. "Tell me at least——"
He held out his hand.
"You are safer to know nothing," he said quickly. "Be faithful to what you have promised, and you will never regret it."
With almost incredible swiftness he disappeared. We all three looked at one another, speechless. Then from outside came the sound of light footsteps, and a laugh as from the throat of a singing bird. The door was thrown open, and Isobel entered.
"Such a funny little man has just gone out!" she exclaimed. "He had a handkerchief tied round his face as though he had been fighting. What lazy people!" she added, looking around. "I expected to find tea ready. Will you please tell me some more about motor-cars, Mr. Arthur?"
She sat on a stool in our midst, and chattered while we fed her with cakes, and screamed with laughter at Mabane's toast. The tragedy of a few hours ago seemed to have passed already from her mind. She was all charm and irresponsibility. The gaunt, bare room, which for years had mocked all our efforts at decoration, seemed suddenly a beautiful place. Easily, and with the effortless grace of her fifteen years, she laughed her way into our hearts.
I waved my left hand.
"Don't disturb me for a few minutes, Allan, there's a good chap," I begged. "I'm hard at it."
"Found your plot, then, eh?"
"I've got a start, anyhow! Give me half an hour. I only want to set the thing going."
Mabane grunted, and took up his brush. For once I was thankful that we were alone. At last I saw my way. After weeks of ineffective scribbling a glimpse of the real thing had come to me.
The stiffness had gone from my brain and fingers. My pen flew over the paper. The joy of creation sang once more in my heart, tingled in all my pulses. We worked together and in silence for an hour or more. Then, with a little sigh of satisfaction, I leaned back in my chair.
"The story goes, then?" Mabane remarked.
"Yes, it goes," I assented, my eyes fixed absently upon the loose sheets of manuscript strewn all over my desk. Already I was finding it hard to tear my thoughts away from it.
There was a short silence. Then Mabane, who had been filling his pipe, came over to my side.
"You heard from the convent this morning, Arnold?"
"Yes! The letter is here. Read it!"
Mabane shook his head.
"I can't read French," he said.
"They want her back again," I told him, thoughtfully. "The woman appears to be honest enough. She admits that they have no absolute claim—they do not even know her parentage. They have been paid, she says, regularly and well for the child's education, and if she is now without a home they would like her to go back to them. She thinks it possible that Major Delahaye's relatives, or the people for whom he acted, might continue the payments, but they are willing to take their risk of that. The long and short of it is, that they want her back again."
"As a pupil still?" Mabane asked.
"They would train her for a teacher. In that case she would have to serve a sort of novitiate. She would practically become a nun."
Mabane withdrew his pipe from his mouth, and looked thoughtfully into the bowl of it.
"I never had a sister," he said, "and I really know nothing whatever about children. But does it occur to you, Arnold, that this—young lady seems particularly adapted for a convent?"
"I believe," I said firmly, "that it would be misery for her."
Mabane walked over to his canvas and came back again.
"What about Delahaye?" he asked.
"He is still unconscious at the hospital," I answered.
"I do not wish to seem intrusive, Arnold," he said, "but I can't help remembering that a certain lady with whom you were very friendly once married a Delahaye!"
"I should have told you, in any case," I said. "This is the man—Major Sir William Delahaye, whom Eileen Marigold married."
"Then surely you recognized him in the restaurant?"
"I never met him," I answered. "This marriage was arranged very quickly, as you know, and I was abroad when it took place. I called on Lady Delahaye twice, but I did not meet her husband on either occasion."
Mabane fingered the loose sheets of my manuscript idly.
"Your story, Arnold," he said, "is having a tragic birth. Will Delahaye really die, do you think?"
"The doctors are not very hopeful," I told him. "The wound itself is not mortal, but the shock seems to have affected him seriously. He is not a young man, and he has lived hard all his days."
"If he dies," Mabane said thoughtfully, "your friend Grooten, I think you said he called himself, will have to disappear altogether. In that case I suppose we—shall be compelled to send the child back to the convent?"
"Unless we provide for her ourselves," I answered boldly.
Mabane smoked furiously for a few moments. His hands were thrust deep down in his trousers pockets. He looked fixedly out of the window.
"Arnold," he said abruptly, "do you believe in presentiments?"
"It depends whether they affect me favourably or the reverse," I answered carelessly. "You Scotchmen are all so superstitious."
"You may call it superstition," Mabane continued. "Everything of the sort which an ignorant man cannot understand he calls superstition. But if you like, I will tell you something which is surely going to happen. I will tell you what I have seen."
I leaned forward in my chair, and looked curiously into Allan's face. His hard, somewhat commonplace features seemed touched for the moment by some transfiguring fire. His keen, blue-grey eyes were as soft and luminous as a girl's. He had actually the appearance of a man who sees a little way beyond the border. Even then I could not take him seriously.
"Speak, Sir Prophet!" I exclaimed, with a little laugh. "Let my eyes also be touched with fire. Let me see what you see."
Mabane showed no sign of annoyance. He looked at me composedly.
"Do not be a fool, Arnold," he said. "You may believe or disbelieve, but some day you will know that the things which I have in my mind are true."
I think that I was a little bewildered. I realized now what at first I had been inclined to doubt—that Mabane was wholly in earnest. Unconsciously my attitude towards him changed. It is hard to mock a man who believes in himself.
"Go ahead, then, Allan," I said quietly. "Remember that you have told me nothing yet."
Mabane turned towards me. He spoke slowly. His face was serious—almost solemn.
"The man Delahaye will never claim the child," he said. "I think that he will die. The man who shot him has gone—we shall not hear of him again, not for many years, if at all. He has gone like a stone dropped into a bottomless tarn. We shall not send the child back to the convent. She will remain here."
He paused, as though expecting me to speak. I shrugged my shoulders.
"Come," I said, "I shall not quarrel with your prophecy so far, Allan. The introduction of a feminine element here seems a little incongruous, but after all she is very young."
Mabane unclasped his arms, and looked thoughtfully around the room. Already there was a change since a few days ago. The ornaments and furniture were free from dust. There were two great bowls of flowers upon the table, some studies which had hung upon the wall were replaced with others of a more sedate character. The atmosphere of the place was different. Wild untidiness had given place to some semblance of order. There was an attempt everywhere at repression. Mabane knocked the ashes from his pipe.
"For five years," he said abstractedly, "you and I and Arthur have lived here together. Are you satisfied with those five years? Think!"
I looked from my desk out of the window, over the housetops up into the sunshine, and I too was grave. Satisfied! Is anyone short of a fool ever satisfied?
"No! I am not," I admitted, a little bitterly.
"Tell me what you think of these five years, Arnold. Tell me the truth," Mabane persisted. "Let me know if your thoughts are the same as mine."
"Drift," I answered. "We have worked a little, and thought a little—but our feet have been on the earth a great deal oftener than our heads have touched the clouds."
"Drift," Mabane repeated. "It is a true word. We have gained a little experience of the wrong sort: we have learnt how to adapt our poor little gifts to the whim of the moment. Such as our talent has been, we have made a servant of it to minister to our physical necessities. We have lived little lives, Arnold—very little lives."
"Go on," I murmured. "This at least is truth!"
Mabane paused. He looked at his pipe, but he did not relight it.
"There is a change coming," he said, slowly. "We are going to drift no longer. We are going to be drawn into the maelstrom of life. What it may mean for you and for me and for the boy, I do not know. It will change us—it must change our work. I shall paint no more guesses at realism—after someone else; and you will write no more of princesses, or pull the strings of tinsel-decked puppets, so that they may dance their way through the pages of your gaily-dressed novels. And an end has come to these things, Arnold. No, I am not raving, nor is this a jest. Wait!"
"You speak," I told him, "like a seer. Since when was it given to you to read the future so glibly, my friend?"
Mabane looked at me with grave eyes. There was no shadow of levity in his manner.
"I am not a superstitious man, Arnold," he said, "but I come, after all, of hill-folk, and I believe that there are times when one can feel and see the shadow of coming things. My grandfather knew the day of his death, and spoke of it; my father made his will before he set foot on the steamer which went to the bottom on a calm day between Dover and Ostend. Nothing of this sort has ever come to me before. You yourself have called me too hard-headed, too material for an artist. So I have always thought myself—until to-day. To-day I feel differently."
"Is it this child, then, who is to open the gates of the world to us?" I asked.
"Remember," Mabane answered, "that before many months have passed she will be a woman."
I moved in my chair a little uneasily.
"I wonder," I said, half to myself, "whether I did well to bring her here!"
Mabane laughed shortly.
"It was not you who brought her," he declared. "She was sent."
"Aye, these things are not of our choosing, Arnold. There is something behind which drives the great wheels. You can call it Fate or God, according to your philosophy. It is there all the time, the one eternal force."
I looked at Mabane steadfastly. He did not flinch.
"Psychologically, my dear Allan," I said, "you appear to be in a very interesting state just now."
Mabane shrugged his shoulders. He crossed the room for some tobacco, and began to refill his pipe.
"Well," he said, "I have finished. To-morrow, I suppose, I shall want to kick myself for having said as much as I have. Listen! Here they come."
Isobel came into the room, followed by Arthur in a leather jacket and breeches. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes danced with excitement. She threw off her tam-o'-shanter, and stood deftly re-arranging for a moment her wind-tossed hair.
"Glorious!" she exclaimed. "Oh, it has been glorious! Mr. Arthur, how can I thank you? I have never enjoyed myself so much in my life. If the Sister Superior could only have seen me—and the girls!"
"Motoring, I presume," Mabane remarked, "is amongst the pleasures denied to the young ladies of the convent?"
She laughed gaily.
"Pleasures! Why, there are no pleasures for those poor girls. One may not even smile, and as for games, even they are not permitted. I think that it is shameful to make such a purgatory of a place. One may not, one could not, be happy there. It is not allowed."
She caught the look which flashed from Mabane to me, and turned instantly around.
"Oh, Monsieur Arnold," she cried breathlessly, "you do not think—I shall not have to return there?"
"Not likely!" Arthur interposed with vigour. "By Jove! if anyone shut you up there again I'd come and fetch you out."
She threw a quick glance of gratitude towards him, but her eyes returned almost immediately to mine. She waited anxiously for me to speak.
"If we can possibly prevent it," I said slowly, "you shall never return there. I do not think that it is at all the proper place for you. But you must remember that we are, after all, people of no authority. Someone might come forward to-morrow with a legal right to claim you, and we should be helpless."
Slowly the colour died away from her cheeks. Her eyes became preternaturally bright and anxious.
"There is no one," she faltered, "except that man. He called himself my guardian."
"Had you seen him before he came to the convent and fetched you away?" I asked.
"Only once," she answered. "He came to St. Argueil about a year ago. I hated him then. I have hated him ever since. I think that if all men were like that I would be content to stay in the convent all my life."
"You don't remember the circumstances under which he took you there, I suppose?" Mabane asked thoughtfully.
She shook her head.
"I do not remember being taken there at all," she answered. "I think that I was not more than four or five years old."
"And all the time no one else has been to see you or written to you?" I asked.
She smothered a little sob as she answered me. It was as though my questions and Mabane's, although I had asked them gently enough, had suddenly brought home to her a fuller sense of her complete loneliness. Her eyes were full of tears. She held herself proudly, and she fought hard for her self-control. Arthur glanced indignantly at both of us. He had the wit, however, to remain silent.
"There are just one or two more questions, Isobel," I said, "which I must ask you some time or other."
"Now, please, then," she begged.
"Did Major Delahaye ever mention his wife to you?"
"You did not even know, then, when you arrived in London where he was taking you?"
"I knew nothing," she admitted. "He behaved very strangely, and I was miserable every moment of the time I was with him. I understood that I was to have a companion and live in London."
I felt my blood run cold for a moment. I did not dare to look at Mabane.
"I do not think," I said, "that you need fear anything more from Major Delahaye, even if he should recover."
"You mean—?" she cried breathlessly.
"We should never give you up to him," I declared firmly.
"Thank God!" she murmured. "Mr. Arnold," she added, looking at me eagerly, "I can paint and sing and play the piano. Can't people earn money sometimes by doing these things? I would work—oh, I am not afraid to work. Couldn't I stay here for a little while?"
"Of course you can," I assured her. "And there is no need at all for you to think about earning money yet. It is not that which troubles us at all. It is the fact that we have no legal claim upon you, and people may come forward at any moment who have."
Arthur glanced towards her triumphantly.
"What did I tell you?" he exclaimed.
She looked timidly across at Mabane.
"The other gentleman won't mind?" she asked timidly.
Mabane smiled at her, and his smile was a revelation even to us who knew him so well.
"My dear young lady," he said, "you will be more than welcome. I have just been telling Arnold that your coming will make the world a different place for us."
The girl's smile was illumining. It seemed to include us all. She held out both her hands. Mabane seized one and bent over it with the air of a courtier. The other was offered to me. Arthur was content to beam upon us all from the background. At that precise moment came a tap at the door. Mrs. Burdett brought in a telegram.
I tore it open, and hastily reading it, passed it on to Mabane. He hesitated for a moment, and then turned gravely to Isobel.
"Major Delahaye will not trouble you any more," he said. "He died in the hospital an hour ago."
"A shade more to the right, please. There, just as you are now! Don't move! In five minutes I shall have finished for the day."
"I think that your five minutes," she said, "last sometimes for a very long time. But I am not tired—no, not at all. I can stay like this if you wish until the light goes."
"You are splendid," Mabane murmured. "The best sitter—oh, hang it, who's that?"
"There is certainly some one at the door," Isobel remarked.
Mabane paused in his work to shout fiercely, "Come in!" I too looked up from my writing. A woman was ushered into the room—a woman dressed in fashionable mourning, of medium height, and with a wealth of fair, fluffy hair, which seemed to mock the restraining black bands. Mrs. Burdett, visibly impressed, lingered in the background.
The woman paused and looked around. She looked at me, and the pen slipped from my nerveless fingers. I rose to my feet.
"Eil—Lady Delahaye!" I exclaimed.
She inclined her head. Her demeanour was cold, almost belligerent.
"I am glad to find you here, Arnold Greatson," she said. "You are a friend, I believe, of the man who murdered my husband?"
"You have been misinformed, Lady Delahaye," I answered quietly. "I was not even an acquaintance of his. We met that day for the first time."
By the faintest possible curl of the lips she expressed her contemptuous disbelief.
"Ah!" she said. "I remember your story at the inquest. You will forgive me if, in company, I believe, with the majority who heard it, I find it a trifle improbable."
I looked at her gravely. This was the woman with whom I had once believed myself in love, the woman who had jilted me to marry a man of whom even his friends found it hard to speak well.
"Lady Delahaye," I said, "my story may have sounded strangely, but it was true. I presume that you did not come here solely with the purpose of expressing your amiable opinion of my veracity?"
"You are quite right," she admitted drily. "I did not."
She was silent for a few moments. Her eyes were fixed upon Isobel, and I did not like their expression.
"May I offer you a chair, Lady Delahaye?" I asked.
"Thank you, I prefer to stand—here," she answered. "This, I believe, is the young person who was with my husband?"
She extended a sombrely gloved forefinger towards Isobel, who met her gaze unflinchingly.
"That is the young lady," I answered. "Have you anything to say to her?"
"My errand here is with her," Lady Delahaye declared. "What is it that you call yourself, girl?"
Isobel was a little bewildered. She seemed scarcely able to appreciate Lady Delahaye's attitude.
"My name," she said, "is Isobel de Sorrens."
"You asserted at the inquest," Lady Delahaye continued, "that my husband was your guardian. What did you mean by such an extraordinary statement?"
Isobel seemed suddenly to grasp the situation. Her finely arched eyebrows were raised, her cheeks were pink, her eyes sparkling. She rose slowly to her feet, and, child though she was, the dignity of her demeanour was such that Lady Delahaye with her accusing forefinger seemed to shrink into insignificance.
"I think," she said, "that you are a very rude person. Major Delahaye took me to the convent of St. Argueil when I was four years old, and left me there. He visited me twelve months ago, and brought me to England you know when. I was with him for less than twenty-four hours, and I was very unhappy indeed all the time. I did not understand the things which he said to me, nor did I like him at all. I think that if he had left me out of his sight for a moment I should have run away."
Lady Delahaye was very pale, and her eyes were full of unpleasant things. I found myself looking at her, and marvelling at the folly which I had long since forgotten.
"You perhaps complained of him—to his murderer! It is you, no doubt, who are responsible for my husband's death!"
Isobel's lips curled contemptuously.
"Major Delahaye," she said, "did not permit me to speak to anyone. As for the man whom you call his murderer, I never saw him before in my life, nor should I recognize him again if I saw him now. I do not know why you come here and say all these unkind things to me. I have done you no harm. I am very sorry about Major Delahaye, but—but—"
Her lips quivered. I hastily interposed.
"Lady Delahaye," I said, "I do not know what the immediate object of your visit here may be, but——"
"The immediate object of my visit," she interrupted coldly, "is as repugnant to me, Mr. Greatson, as it may possibly be disappointing to you. I am here, however, to carry out my husband's last wish. This child herself has asserted that he was her guardian. By his death that most unwelcome post devolves upon me."
Isobel turned white, as though stung by a sudden apprehension. She looked towards me, and I took her hand in mine. Lady Delahaye smiled unpleasantly upon us both.
"You mean," I said, "that you wish to take her away from us?"
"Wish!" Lady Delahaye repeated coldly. "I can assure you that I am not consulting my own wishes upon the subject at all. What I am doing is simply my duty. The child had better get her hat on."
Isobel did not move, but she turned very pale. Her eyes seemed fastened upon mine. She waited for me to speak. The situation was embarrassing enough so far as I was concerned, for Lady Delahaye was obviously in earnest. I tried to gain time.
"May I ask what your intentions are with regard to the child? You intend to take her to your home—to adopt her, I suppose?"
Lady Delahaye regarded me with cold surprise.
"Certainly not," she answered. "I shall find a fitting position for her in her own station of life."
"May I assume then," I continued, with some eagerness, "that you know what that is? You are acquainted, perhaps, with her parentage?"
She returned my gaze steadily.
"I may be," she answered. "That, however, is beside the question. I intend to do my duty by the child. If you have been put to any expense with regard to her, you can mention the amount and I will defray it. I have answered enough questions. What is your name, child—Isobel? Get ready to come with me."
Isobel answered her steadily, but her eyes were filled with shrinking fear.
"I do not wish to come with you," she said. "I do not like you at all."
Lady Delahaye raised her eyebrows. It seemed to me that in a quiet way she was becoming angry.
"Unfortunately," she said, "your liking or disliking me makes very little difference. I have no choice in the matter at all. The care of you has devolved upon me, and I must undertake it. You had better come at once."
Isobel trembled where she stood. I judged it time to intervene.
"Lady Delahaye," I said, "the duty of looking after this child is evidently a distasteful one to you. We will relieve you of it. She can remain with us."
Lady Delahaye looked at me in astonishment. Then she laughed, and it seemed to all of us that we had never heard a more unpleasant travesty of mirth.
"Indeed!" she exclaimed. "And may I ask of whom your household consists?"
"Of myself and my two friends, Mabane and Fielding. We have a most responsible housekeeper, however, who will be able to look after the child."
"Until she herself can qualify for the position, I presume," Lady Delahaye remarked drily. "What a delightful arrangement! A sort of co-operative household. Quite Arcadian, I am sure, and so truly philanthropic. You have changed a good deal during the last few years, Mr. Arnold Greatson, to be able to stand there and make such an extraordinary proposition to me."
I was determined not to lose my temper, though, as a matter of fact, I was fiercely angry.
"Lady Delahaye," I said, "we are not prepared to give this child up to you. It will perhaps help to shorten a—a painful interview if you will accept that from me as final."
The change in Isobel was marvellous. The brilliant colour streamed into her cheeks. Her long-drawn, quivering sigh of relief seemed in the momentary silence which followed my pronouncement a very audible thing. Lady Delahaye looked at me as though she doubted the meaning of my words.
"You are aware," she said, "that this will mean great unpleasantness for you. You know the law?"
"I neither know it nor wish to know it," I answered. "We shall not give up the child."
I glanced at Mabane. His confirmation was swift and decisive.
"I am entirely in accord with my friend, madam," he said, with grim precision.
"The law will compel you," she declared.
"We will do our best, then," he answered, "to cheat the law."
"I should like to add, Lady Delahaye," I continued, "that our housekeeper, who has been in the service of my family for over thirty years, has willingly undertaken the care of the child, and I can assure you, in case you should have any anxieties concerning her, that she will be as safe under our charge as in your own."
Lady Delahaye moved towards the door. On the threshold she turned and laid her hand upon my arm. I was preparing to show her out. There was meaning in her eyes as she leaned towards me.
"Mr. Greatson," she said, "we were once friends, or I should drive straight from here to my solicitors. I presume you are aware that your present attitude is capable of very serious misrepresentation?"
"I must take the risk of that, Lady Delahaye," I answered. "I ask you to remember, however, that the law would also require you to prove your guardianship. Do you yourself know anything of the child's parentage?"
She did not answer me directly.
"I shall give you," she said, "twenty-four hours for reflection. At the end of that time, if I do not hear from you, I shall apply to the courts."
I held the door open and bowed.
"You will doubtless act," I said, "according to your discretion."
The moment seemed propitious for her departure. All that had to be said had surely passed between us. Yet she seemed for some reason unwilling to go.
"I am not sure, Mr. Greatson," she said, "that I can find my way out. Will you be so good as to see me to my carriage?"
I had no alternative but to obey. Our rooms were on the fifth floor of a block of flats overlooking Chelsea Embankment, and we had no lift. We descended two flights of the stone stairs in silence. Then she suddenly laid her fingers upon my arm.
"Arnold," she said softly, "I never thought that we should meet again like this."
"Nor I, Lady Delahaye," I answered, truthfully enough.
"You have changed."
I looked at her. She had the grace to blush.
"Oh, I know that I behaved badly," she murmured, "but think how poor we were, and oh, how weary I was of poverty. If I had refused Major Delahaye I think that my mother would have turned me out of doors. I wrote and told you all about it."
"Yes," I admitted, "you wrote!"
"And you never answered my letter."
"It seemed to me," I remarked, "that it needed no answer."
"And afterwards," she said, "I wrote and asked you to come and see me."
"Lady Delahaye——" I began.
"Eileen!" she interrupted.
"Very well, then, if you will have it so, Eileen," I said. "You have alluded to events which I have forgotten. Whether you or I behaved well or ill does not matter in the least now. It is all over and done with."
"You mean, then, that I am unforgiven?"
"On the contrary," I assured her, "I have nothing to forgive."
She flashed a swift glance of reproach up on me. To my amazement there were tears in her eyes.
"Mr. Greatson," she said, "I can find my way to the street alone. I will not trouble you further."
She swept away with a dignity which became her better than her previous attitude. There was nothing left for me to do but to turn back.
Isobel was standing quite still in the middle of the room, her hands tightly clenched, a spot of colour aflame in her cheeks. Arthur, who had passed Lady Delahaye and me upon the stairs, had apparently just been told the object of her visit.
"Oh, I hate that woman!" Isobel exclaimed as I entered, "I hate her! I would rather die than go to her. I would rather go back to the convent. She looks at me as though I were something to be despised, something which should not be allowed to go alive upon the earth!"
Arthur would have spoken, but Mabane interrupted him. He laid his hand gently upon her shoulder.
"Isobel," he said gently, "you need have no fear. I know how Arnold feels about it, and I can speak for myself also. You shall not go to her. We will not give you up. I do not believe that she will go to the courts at all. I doubt if she has any claim."
"Why, we'd hide you, run away with you, anything," Arthur declared impetuously. "Don't you be scared, Isobel, I don't believe she can do a thing. The law's like a great fat animal. It takes a plaguey lot to move it, and then it moves as slowly as a steam-roller. We'll dodge it somehow."
She gave them a hand each. Her action was almost regal. It some way, it seemed that in according her our protection we were receiving rather than conferring a favour.
"My friends," she said, "you are so kind that I have no words with which to thank you. But you will believe that I am grateful."
It was then for the first time that they saw me upon the threshold. Isobel looked at me anxiously.
"She has gone?"
"I do not think that she will trouble us again just yet," I said. "At the same time, we must be prepared. Tell me, whereabouts is this school from which you came, Isobel?"
"St. Argueil? It is about three hours' journey from Paris. Why do you ask?"
"Because I think that I must go there," I answered. "We must try and find out what legal claims Major Delahaye had upon you. What is the name of the Principal?"
"Madame Richard is the lay principal," Isobel answered, "but Sister Ursula is really the head of the place. We girls saw her, though, very seldom—only those who were going to remain," she added, with a little shudder.
"And this Madame Richard," I asked, "is she a kindly sort of a person?"
Isobel shook her head doubtfully.
"I did not like her," she said. "She is very stern. She is not kind to anyone."
"Nevertheless, I suppose she will tell me what she knows," I said. "Give me the Bradshaw, Allan, and that old Continental guide."
I presently became immersed in planning out my route. When at last I looked up, Mabane was working steadily. The others had gone. I looked round the room.
"Where are Arthur and Isobel?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Like calling to like," he remarked tersely. "They have gone trailing."
I put the Bradshaw down.
"I shall leave for Paris at midnight, Mabane," I said.
"It seems to be the most sensible thing to do," he remarked. "There is no other way of getting to the bottom of the affair."
So I went to pack my bag. And within an hour I was on my way to France.
* * * * *
I rose to my feet, after a somewhat lengthy wait, and bowed. Between this newcomer and myself, across the stone floor, lay the sunlight, a long, yellow stream which seemed to me the only living thing which I had as yet seen in this strange, grim-looking building. I spoke in indifferent French. She answered me in perfect English.
"I have the honour to address——"
"Madame Richard. I am the lay principal of the convent. Will you permit me?"
The blind fell, and there was no more sunlight. I was conscious of a sudden chill. The bare room, with its stone-flagged floor, its plain deal furniture, depressed me no less than the cold, forbidding appearance of the woman who stood now motionless before me. She was paler than any woman whom I had ever seen in my life. A living person, she seemed the personification of lifelessness. Her black hair was streaked with grey; her dress, which suggested a uniform in its severity, knew no adornment save the plain ivory cross which hung from an almost invisible chain about her neck. Her expression indicated neither curiosity nor courtesy. She simply waited. I, although as a rule I had no great difficulty in finding words, felt myself almost embarrassed.
"I have come from London to see you," I said. "My name is Greatson—Arnold Greatson."
There was not a quiver of expression in her cold acknowledgment of my declaration. Nevertheless, at that moment I received an inspiration. I was perfectly sure that she knew who I was and what I had come for.
"I have come to know," I continued, "if you can give me any information as to the friends or parentage of a young lady who was recently, I believe, a pupil of yours—a Miss Isobel de Sorrens?"
"The young lady is still in your charge, I hear," Madame Richard remarked quietly.
Notwithstanding my inspiration I was startled.
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"We despatched a messenger only yesterday to escort Isobel back here," Madame Richard answered. "Your address was the destination given us."
"May I ask who gave it you? At whose instigation you sent?"
"At the instigation of those who have the right to consider themselves Isobel's guardians," Madame Richard said quietly.
"Isobel's guardians!" I repeated softly. "But surely you know, Madame Richard—you have heard of the tragedy which happened in London? Major Delahaye died last week."
"We have been informed of the occurrence," she answered, her tone as perfectly emotionless as though she had been discussing the veriest trifle. "We were content to recognize Major Delahaye as representing those who have the right to dispose of Isobel's future. His death, however, alters many things. Isobel will be placed in even surer hands."
"Isobel has, I presume, then, relatives living?" I remarked. "May I know their names?"
Madame Richard was silent for a moment. She was regarding me steadily. I even fancied that the ghost of a hard smile trembled upon her lips.
"I have no authority to disclose any information whatever," she said.
"I have no desire to seem inquisitive," I said. "On the other hand, I and my friends are greatly interested in the child. I will be frank with you, Madame Richard. We have no claim upon her, I know, but we should certainly require to know something about the people into whose charge she was to pass before we gave her up."
"She is to come back here," Madame Richard answered calmly. "We are ready to receive her. She has lived with us for ten years. I presume under the circumstances, and when I add that it is the desire of those who are responsible for her that she should immediately return to us, that you will not hesitate to send her?"
"Madame Richard," I answered gravely, "you who live so far from the world lose touch sometimes with its worst side. We others, to our sorrow, know more, though our experience is dearly enough bought. Let me tell you that I should hesitate at any time to give back the child into the care of those who sent her out into the world alone with such a man as Major Delahaye."
Madame Richard touched the cross which hung upon her bosom. Her eyes, it seemed to me, narrowed a little.
"Major Delahaye," she said, "was the nominee of those who have the right to dispose of the child."
"Then," I answered, "I shall require their right proven before Isobel leaves us. I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but I was present when Major Delahaye was shot, and I am not sure that the bullet of his assassin did not prevent a worse crime. The child was terrified to death. It is my honest conviction that her fear was not uncalled for."
Madame Richard raised her hand slightly.
"Monsieur," she said, "such matters are not our concern. It is because of the passions and evil doing of the world outside that we cling so closely here to our own doctrine of isolation. Whatever she may have suffered, Isobel will learn to forget here. In the blessed years which lie before her, the memory of her unhappy pilgrimage will grow dim and faint. It may even be for the best that she has realized for a moment the shadow of evil things."
"Isobel is intended, then?" I asked.
"For the Church," Madame Richard answered. "That is the present decision of those who have the right to decide for her. We ourselves do not care to take pupils who have no idea at all of the novitiate. Occasionally we are disappointed, and those in whom we have placed faith are tempted back into the world. But we do our best while they are here to show them the better way. We feared that we had lost Isobel. We shall be all the more happy to welcome her back."
I shivered a little. I could not help feeling the cold repression of the place. A vision of thin, grey-gowned figures, with pallid faces and weary, discontented eyes, haunted me. I tried to fancy Isobel amongst them. It was preposterous.
"Madame," I said, "I do not believe that Isobel is adapted by nature or disposition for such a life."
"The desire for holiness," Madame Richard answered, "is never very apparent in the young. It is the child's great good fortune that she will grow into it."
"I am afraid," I answered, "that our views upon this matter are too far apart to render discussion profitable. You have spoken of those who have the right to dispose of the child's future. I will go and see them."
"It is not necessary," Madame Richard answered. "We will send to England for the child."
"Do I understand, Madame Richard," I said, "that you decline to give me the address of those who stand behind you in the disposal of Isobel?"
"They would not discuss the matter with you," she answered calmly. "Their decision is already made. Isobel is for the Church."
I took up my hat.
"I will not detain you any further, Madame," I said.
"A messenger is already in London to bring back the child," she remarked.
"As to that," I answered, "it is perhaps better to be frank with you, Madame Richard. Your messenger will return alone."
For the first time the woman's face showed some signs of feeling. Her dark eyebrows contracted a little. Her expression was coldly repellent.
"You have no claim upon the child," she said.
"Neither do I know of any other person who has," I answered.
"We have had the charge of her for ten years. That itself is a claim. It is unseemly that she should remain with you."
"Madame," I answered, "Isobel is meant for life—not a living death."
The woman crossed herself.
"There is but one life," she said. "We wish to prepare Isobel for it."
"Madame," I said, "as to that, argument between us is impossible. I shall consult with my friends. Your messenger shall bring back word as to our decision."
The face of the woman grew darker.
"But surely," she protested, "you will not dare to keep the child?"
"Madame," I answered, "humanity makes sometimes strange claims upon us. Isobel is as yet a child. She came into my keeping by the strangest of chances. I did not seek the charge of her. It was, to tell the truth, an embarrassment to me. Yet she is under my care to-day, and I shall do what I believe to be the right thing."
"Monsieur," she said, "you are interfering in matters greater than you have any knowledge of."
"It is in your power," I reminded her, "to enlighten me."
"It is not a power which I am able to use," she answered.
"Then I will not detain you further, Madame," I said.
As I passed out she leaned over towards me. She had already rung a bell, and outside I could hear the shuffling footsteps of the old servant who had admitted me.
"Monsieur," she said, "if you keep the child you make enemies—very powerful enemies. It is long since I lived in the world, but I think that the times have not changed very much. Of the child's parentage I may not tell you, but as I hope for salvation I will tell you this. It will be better for you, and better for the child, that she comes back here, even to embrace what you have called the living death."
"Madame," I said, "I will consider all these things."
"It will be well for you to do so, Monsieur," she said with meaning. "An enemy of those in whose name I have spoken must needs be a holy man, for he lives hand in hand with death."
So I was driven back to Argueil, the red-tiled, sleepy old town, with its great gaunt church, whose windows, as the lumbering cart descended the hill, were stained blood-red by the dying sunset. Behind, on the hillside, was the convent, with its avenue of stunted elms, its close-barred windows, its terrible prison-like silence. As I looked behind, holding on to the sides of the springless cart to avoid being jostled into the road, I found myself shivering. The convent boarding-schools which I had heard of had been very different sort of places. Even after my brief visit there this return into the fresh country air, the smell of the fields, the colour and life of the rolling landscape, were blessed things. I was more than ever satisfied with my decision. It was not possible to send the child back to such a place.
Across a great vineyard plain, through which the narrow white road ran like a tightly drawn band of ribbon, I came presently to the village of Argueil. The street which led to the inn was paved with the most abominable cobbles, and I was forced to hold my hat with one hand and the side of the cart with the other. My blue-smocked driver pulled up with a flourish in front of the ancient gateway of the Leon d'Or, and I was very nearly precipitated on to the top of the broad-backed horse. As I gathered myself together I was conscious of a soft peal of laughter—a woman's laughter, which came from the arched entrance to the inn. I looked up quickly. A too familiar figure was standing there watching me,—Lady Delahaye, trim, elegant, a trifle supercilious. By her side stood the innkeeper, white-aproned and obsequious.