THE UTTERMOST FARTHING
BY MRS. BELLOC LOWNDES
COLLECTION OF BRITISH AUTHORS COPYRIGHT EDITION VOL. 4174. LEIPZIG: BERNHARD TAUCHNITZ. PARIS: LIBRAIRIE H. GAULON & CIE, 39, RUE MADAME. PARIS: THE GALIGNANI LIBRARY, 224, RUE DE RIVOLI, AND AT NICE, 8, AVENUE MASSENA.
"Thou shalt by no means come out thence till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."
Laurence Vanderlyn, unpaid attache at the American Embassy in Paris, strode down the long grey platform marked No. 5, of the Gare de Lyon. It was seven o'clock, the hour at which Paris is dining or is about to dine, and the huge station was almost deserted.
The train de luxe had gone more than an hour ago, the Riviera rapide would not start till ten, but one of those trains bound for the South, curiously named demi-rapides, was timed to leave in twenty minutes.
Foreigners, especially Englishmen and Americans, avoid these trains, and this was why Laurence Vanderlyn had chosen it as the starting point of what was to be a great adventure, an adventure which must for ever be concealed, obliterated as much as may be from his own memory—do not men babble in delirium?—once life had again become the rather grey thing he had found it to be.
In the domain of the emotions it is the unexpected which generally happens, and now it was not only the unexpected but the incredible which had happened to this American diplomatist. He and Margaret Pargeter, the Englishwoman whom he had loved with an absorbing, unsatisfied passion, and an ever-increasing concentration and selfless devotion, for seven years, were about to do that which each had sworn, together and separately, should never come to pass,—that is, they were about to snatch from Fate a few days of such free happiness and communion as during their long years of intimacy they had never enjoyed. In order to secure these fleeting moments of joy, she, the woman in the case, was about to run the greatest risk which can in these days be incurred by civilised woman.
Margaret Pargeter was not free as Vanderlyn was free; she was a wife,—not a happy wife, but one on whose reputation no shadow had ever rested,—and further, she was the mother of a child, a son, whom she loved with an anxious tenderness.... It was these two facts which made what she was going to do a matter of such moment not only to herself, but to the man to whom she was now about to commit her honour.
Striding up and down the platform to which he had bought early access by one of those large fees for which the travelling American of a certain type is famed, Vanderlyn, with his long lean figure, and stern pre-occupied face, did not suggest, to the French eyes idly watching him, a lover,—still less the happy third in one of those conjugal comedies which play so much greater a part in French literature and in French drama than they do in French life. He had thrust far back into his heart the leaping knowledge of what was about to befall him, and he was bending the whole strength of his mind to avert any possible danger of ignoble catastrophe to the woman whom he was awaiting, and whose sudden surrender was becoming more, instead of less, amazing as the long minutes dragged by.
Vanderlyn's mind went back to the moment, four short days ago, when this journey had been suddenly arranged. Mrs. Pargeter had just come back from England, where she had gone to pay some family visits and to see her little son, who was at a preparatory school; and the American diplomatist, as was so often his wont, had come to escort her to one of those picture club shows in which Parisian society delights.
Then, after a quarter of an hour spent by them at the exhibition, the two friends had slipped away, and had done a thing which was perhaps imprudent. But each longed, with an unspoken eager craving, to be alone with the other; the beauty of Paris in springtime tempted them, and it was the woman who had proposed to the man that they should spend a quiet hour walking through one of those quarters of old Paris unknown to the travelling foreigner.
Eagerly Vanderlyn had assented, and so they had driven quickly down the Rue de Rivoli, right into the heart of that commercial quarter which was the Paris of Madame de Sevigne, of the bitter witty dwarf, Scarron, of Ninon de l'Enclos, and, more lately, of Victor Hugo. There, dismissing their cab, they had turned into that still, stately square, once the old Place Royale, now the Place des Vosges, of which each arcaded house garners memories of passionate romance.
Walking slowly up and down the solitary garden there, the two had discussed the coming August, and Margaret Pargeter had admitted, with a rather weary sigh, that she was as yet quite ignorant whether her husband intended to yacht, to shoot, or to travel,—whether he meant to take her with him, or to leave her at some seaside place with the boy.
As she spoke, in the low melodious voice which still had the power to thrill the man by her side as it had had in the earlier days of their acquaintance, Mrs. Pargeter said no word that all the world might not have heard, yet, underlying all she said, his questions and her answers, was the mute interrogation—which of the alternatives discussed held out the best chance, to Vanderlyn and herself, of being together?
At last, quite suddenly, Mrs. Pargeter, turning and looking up into her companion's face, had said something which Laurence Vanderlyn had felt to be strangely disconcerting; for a brief moment she lifted the veil which she had herself so deliberately and for so long thrown over their ambiguous relation—"Ah! Laurence," she exclaimed with a sigh, "the way of the transgressor is hard!"
Then, speaking so quietly that for a moment he did not fully understand the amazing nature of the proposal she was making to him, she had deliberately offered to go away with him—for a week. The way in which this had come about had been strangely simple; looking back, Vanderlyn could scarcely believe that his memory was playing him true....
From the uncertain future they had come back to the immediate present, and Mrs. Pargeter said something of having promised her only intimate friend, a Frenchwoman much older than herself, a certain Madame de Lera, to go and spend a few days in a villa near Paris—"If you do that," he said, "then I think I may as well go down to Orange and see the house I've just bought there."
She had turned on him with a certain excitement in her manner. "You've bought it? That strange, beautiful place near Orange where you used to stay when you were studying in Paris? Oh, Laurence, I'd no idea that you really meant to buy it!"
A little surprised at the keenness of her interest, he had answered quietly, "Yes, when the owner was going through Paris last week, I found he wanted the money, so—so the house is mine, though none of the legal formalities have yet been complied with. I'm told that the old woman who was caretaker there can make me comfortable enough for the few days I can be away." He added in a different, a lower tone, "Ah! Peggy, if only it were possible for us to go there together—how you would delight in the place!"
"Would you like me to come with you? I will if you like, Laurence." She had asked the question very simply—but Vanderlyn, looking at her quickly, had seen that her hand was trembling, her eyes brimming with tears. Then she had spoken gently, deliberately—seeming to plead with herself, rather than with him, for a few days of such dual loneliness for which all lovers long and which during their long years of intimacy they had never once, even innocently, enjoyed. And he had grasped with exultant gratitude—what man would have done otherwise?—at what she herself came and offered him.
Walking up and down the solitary platform, Vanderlyn lived over again each instant of that strange momentous conversation uttered four days ago in the stately sunlit square which forms the heart of old Paris. How the merry ghost of Marion Delorme, peeping out of one of the long narrow casements of the corner house which was once hers, must have smiled to hear this virtuous Englishwoman cast virtue to the light Parisian winds!
Vanderlyn also recalled, with almost the same surprise and discomfort as he had experienced at the time itself, the way in which Margaret Pargeter, so refined and so delicately bred, had discussed all the material details connected with their coming adventure—details from which the American diplomatist himself had shrunk, and which he would have done almost anything to spare her.
"There is one person, and one alone," she had said with some decision, "who must know. I must tell Adele de Lera—she must have my address, for I cannot remain without news of my boy a whole week. As for Tom"—she had flushed, and then gone on steadily—"Tom will believe that I am going to stay with Adele at Marly-le-Roi, and my letters will be sent to her house. Besides," she had added, "Tom himself is going away, to England, for a fortnight."
To the man then walking by her side, and even now, as he was remembering it all, the discussion was inexpressibly odious. "But do you think," he had ventured to ask, "that Madame de Lera will consent? Remember, Peggy, she is Catholic, and what is more, a pious Catholic."
"Of course she won't like it—of course she won't approve! But I'm sure—in fact, Laurence, I know—that she will consent to forward my letters. She understands that it would make no difference—that I should think of some other plan for getting them. Should she refuse at the last moment—but—but she will not refuse—" and her face—the fair, delicately-moulded little face Vanderlyn loved—had become flooded with colour.
For the first time since he had known her, he had realised that there was a side to her character of which he was ignorant, and yet?—and yet Laurence Vanderlyn knew Margaret Pargeter too well, his love of her implied too intimate a knowledge, for him not to perceive that something lay behind her secession from an ideal of conduct to which she had clung so unswervingly and for such long years.
During the four days which had elapsed between then and now,—days of agitation, of excitement, and of suspense,—he had more than once asked himself whether it were possible that certain things which all the world had long known concerning Tom Pargeter had only just become revealed to Tom Pargeter's wife. He hoped, he trusted, this was not so; he had no desire to owe her surrender to any ignoble longing for reprisal.
The world, especially that corner of Vanity Fair which takes a frankly materialistic view of life and of life's responsibilities, is shrewder than we generally credit, and the diplomatist's intimacy with the Pargeter household had aroused but small comment in the strange polyglot society in which lived, by choice, Tom Pargeter, the cosmopolitan millionaire who was far more of a personage in Paris and in the French sporting world than he could ever have hoped to be in England.
To all appearance Laurence Vanderlyn was as intimate with the husband as with the wife, for he had tastes in common with them both, his interest in sport and in horseflesh being a strong link with Tom Pargeter, while his love of art, and his dilettante literary tastes, bound him to Peggy. Also, and perhaps above all, he was an American—and Europeans cherish strange and sometimes fond illusions as to your American's lack of capacity for ordinary human emotion.
He alone knew that his tie with Mrs. Pargeter grew, if not more passionate, then more absorbing and intimate as time went on, and he was sometimes, even now, at considerable pains to put the busybodies of their circle off the scent.
But indeed it would have required a very sharp, a very keen, human hound to find the scent of what had been so singular and so innocent a tie. Each had schooled the other to accept all that she would admit was possible. True, Vanderlyn saw Margaret Pargeter almost every day, but more often than not in the presence of acquaintances. She never came to his rooms, and she had never seemed tempted to do any of the imprudent things which many a woman, secure of her own virtue, will sometimes do as if to prove the temper of her honour's blade.
So it was that Mrs. Pargeter had never fallen into the ranks of those women who become the occasion for even good-natured gossip. The very way in which they had, till to-night, conducted what she, the woman, was pleased to call their friendship, made this which was now happening seem, even now, to the man who was actually waiting for her to join him, as unsubstantial, as likely to vanish, mirage-wise, as a dream.
And yet Vanderlyn passionately loved this woman whom most men would have thought too cold to love, and who had known how to repress and tutor, not only her own, but also his emotions. He loved her, too, so foolishly and fondly that he had fashioned the whole of his life so that it should be in harmony with hers, making sacrifices of which he had told her nothing in order that he might surround her—an ill-mated, neglected wife—with a wordless atmosphere of devotion which had become to her as vital, as necessary, as is that of domestic peace and happiness to the average woman. But for Laurence Vanderlyn and his "friendship," Mrs. Pargeter's existence would have been lacking in all human savour, and that from ironic circumstance rather than from any fault of her own.
* * * * *
Vanderlyn had spent the day in a fever of emotion and suspense, and he had arrived at the Gare de Lyon a good hour before the time the train for Orange was due to leave.
At first he had wandered about the great railway-station aimlessly, avoiding the platform whence he knew he and his companion were to start. Then, with relief, he had hailed the moment for securing coming privacy in the unreserved railway carriage; this had not been quite an easy matter to compass, for he desired to avoid above all any appearance of secrecy.
But he need not have felt any anxiety, for whereas in an English railway-station his large "tip" to the guard, carrying with it significant promise of final largesse, would have spelt but one thing, and that thing love, the French railway employe accepted without question the information that the lady the foreign gentleman was expecting was his sister. Such a statement to the English mind would have suggested the hero of an innocent elopement, but as regards family relations the French are curiously Eastern, and then it may be said again that the American's stern, pre-occupied face and cold manner were not those which to a Parisian could suggest a happy lover.
As he walked up and down with long, even strides, his arms laden with papers and novels, it would have been difficult for anyone seeing him there to suppose that Vanderlyn was starting on anything but a solitary journey. Indeed, for the moment he felt horribly alone. He began to experience the need of human companionship. She had said she would be there at seven; it was now a quarter-past the hour. In ten minutes the train would be gone——
Then came to him a thought which made him unconsciously clench his hands. Was it not possible, nay, even likely, that Margaret Pargeter, like many another woman before her, had found her courage fail her at the last moment—that Heaven, stooping to her feeble virtue, had come to save her in spite of herself?
Vanderlyn's steps unconsciously quickened. They bore him on and on, to the extreme end of the platform. He stood there a moment staring out into the red-starred darkness: how could he have ever thought that Margaret Pargeter—his timid, scrupulous little Peggy—would embark on so high and dangerous an adventure?
There had been a moment, during that springtime of passion which returns no more, when Vanderlyn had for a wild instant hoped that he would be able to take her away from the life in which he had felt her to be playing the terrible role of an innocent and yet degraded victim.
Even to an old-fashioned American the word divorce does not carry with it the odious significance it bears to the most careless Englishwoman. He had envisaged a short scandal, and then his and Peggy's marriage. But he had been compelled, almost at once, to recognise that with her any such solution was impossible.
As to another alternative? True, there are women—he and Margaret Pargeter had known many such—who regard what they call love as a legitimate distraction; to them the ignoble, often sordid, shifts involved in the pursuit of a secret intrigue are as the salt of life; but this solution of their tragic problem would have been—or so Vanderlyn would have sworn till four days ago—impossible to the woman he loved, and this had added one more stone to the pedestal on which she had been placed by him from the day they had first met.
And yet? Yet so inconsequent and so illogical is our poor human nature, that she, the virtuous woman, had completely lacked the courage to break with the man who loved her, even in those, the early friable days of their passion. Nay more, whatever Peggy might believe, Vanderlyn was well aware that the good, knowing all, would have called them wicked, even if the wicked, equally well-informed, would have sneered at them as absurdly good.
* * * * *
Vanderlyn wheeled abruptly round. He looked at the huge station clock, and began walking quickly back, down the now peopled platform to the ticket barrier. As he did so his eyes and mind, trained to note all that was happening round him, together with an unconscious longing to escape from the one absorbing thought, made him focus those of his fellow-travellers who stood about him. They consisted for the most part of provincial men of business, and of young officers in uniform, each and all eager to prolong to the uttermost their golden moments in Paris; more than one was engaged in taking an affectionate, deeply sentimental farewell from a feminine companion who bore about her those significant signs—the terribly pathetic, battered air of wear and tear—which set apart, in our sane workaday world, the human plaything.
The sight of these leave-takings made the American's face flush darkly; it was hateful to him to think that Mrs. Pargeter must suffer, even for a few moments, the proximity of such women—of such men. He felt a violent shrinking from the thought that any one of these gay, careless young Frenchmen might conceivably know Peggy—if only by sight—as the charming, "elegant" wife of Tom Pargeter, the well-known sportsman who had done France the signal honour of establishing his racing stable at Chantilly instead of at Newmarket! The thought that such an encounter was within the bounds of possibility made Vanderlyn for a moment almost hope that the woman for whom he was waiting would not come after all.
He cursed himself for a fool. Why had he not thought of driving her out to one of the smaller stations on the line whence they could have started, if not unseen, then unobserved?
But soon the slowly-growing suspicion that she, after all, was perhaps not coming to-night, brought with it an agonising pang. Very suddenly there occurred to him the horrible possibility of material accident. Mrs. Pargeter was not used even to innocent adventure; she lived the guarded, sheltered existence which belongs of right to those women whose material good fortune all their less fortunate sisters envy. The dangers of the Paris streets rose up before Vanderlyn's excited imagination, hideous, formidable....
Then, quite suddenly, Margaret Pargeter herself stood before him, smiling a little tremulously.
She was wearing a grey, rather austere tailor-made gown; it gave a girlish turn to her slender figure, and on her fair hair was poised the little boat-shaped hat and long silvery gauze veil which have become in a sense the uniform of a well-dressed Parisienne on her travels.
As he looked at her, standing there by his side, Vanderlyn realised how instinctively tender, how passionately protective, was his love for her; and again there came over him the doubt, the questioning, as to why she was doing this....
"Messieurs, mesdames, en voiture, s'il vous plait! En voiture, s'il vous plait!"
He put his hand on her shoulder—her head was very little higher than his heart—and guided her to the railway carriage which had been kept for them.
And now Laurence Vanderlyn and Margaret Pargeter were speeding through the night, completely and physically alone as they had never been during the years of their long acquaintanceship; and, as he sat there, with the woman he had loved so long and so faithfully wholly in his power, there came over Vanderlyn a sense of fierce triumph and conquest.
The train had not started to time. There had come a sound of eager talking on the platform, and Vanderlyn, filled with a vague apprehension, had leaned out of the window and with some difficulty ascertained the cause of the delay. The guard in charge of the train, the man, that is, whom he had feed so well in order to secure privacy, had strained his hand in lifting a weight, and another employe had had to take his place.
But at last the few moments of waiting—to Vanderlyn they had seemed an hour—had come to an end. At last the train began to move, that slow and yet relentless movement which is one of the few things in our modern world which spell finality. To the man and the woman it was the starting of the train which indicated to them both that the die was indeed cast.
Vanderlyn looked at his companion. She was gazing up at him with a strange expression of gladness, of relief, on her face. The long years of restraint and measured coldness seemed to have vanished, receded into nothingness.
She held out her ringless hand and clasped his, and a moment later they were sitting hand in hand, like two children, side by side. With a rather awkward movement he slipped on her finger a thin gold ring—his dead mother's wedding-ring,—but still she said nothing. Her head was turned away, and she was staring out of the window, as if fascinated by the flying lights. He knew rather than saw that her eyes were shining, her cheeks pink with excitement; then she took off her hat, and he told himself that her fair hair gleaming against the grey-brown furnishings of the railway carriage looked like a golden aureole.
Suddenly Laurence Vanderlyn pressed the hand he was holding to his lips, dropped it, and then stood up. He pulled the blue silk shade over the electric light globe which hung in the centre of the carriage; glanced through one of the two tiny glazed apertures giving a view of the next compartment; then he sat down by her, and in the half darkness gathered her into his arms.
"Dear," he said, in a voice that sounded strange and muffled even to himself, "do you remember the passage at Bonnington?"
As he held her, she had been looking up into his face, but now, hearing his question, she flushed deeply, and her head fell forward on his breast. Their minds, their hearts, were travelling back to the moment, to the trifling episode, which had revealed to each the other's love.
It had happened ten years ago, at a time when Tom Pargeter, desiring to play the role of country gentleman, had taken for awhile a certain historic country house. There, he and his young wife had brought together a great Christmas house-party composed of the odd, ill-assorted social elements which gather at the call of the wealthy host who has exchanged old friends for new acquaintances. Peggy's own people, old-fashioned country gentry, were regarded by Pargeter as hopelessly dowdy and "out of it," so none of them had been invited. With Laurence Vanderlyn alone had the young mistress of the house had any link of mutual interests or sympathies; but of flirtation, as that protean word was understood by those about them, there had been none.
Then, on Christmas Eve, had come the playing of childish games, though no children were present, for the two-year-old child of the host and hostess was safe in bed. It was in the chances of one of these games that Laurence Vanderlyn had for a moment caught Margaret Pargeter in his arms——
He had released her almost at once, but not before they had exchanged the long probing look which had told to each their own as well as the other's secret. Till that moment they had been strangers—from that moment they were lovers, but lovers allowing themselves none of love's license, and very soon Vanderlyn had taught himself to be content with all that Peggy's conscience allowed her to think possible.
She had never known—how could she have known?—what his acquiescence had cost him. Now and again, during the long years, they had been compelled to discuss the abnormal relation which Peggy called their friendship; together they had trembled at the fragile basis on which what most human beings would have considered their meagre happiness was founded.
More than once she had touched him to the heart by asserting that she felt sure that the inscrutable Providence in which she had retained an almost childish faith, could never be so cruel as to deprive her of the only source of happiness, apart from her little son, which had come her way; and so, although their intimacy had become closer, the links which bound them not only remained platonic, but, as is the way with such links, tended to become more platonic as the time went on.
Even now, as he sat there with the woman he loved wholly in his power, lying in his arms with her face pressed to his breast, Vanderlyn's mind was in a maze of doubt as to what was to be their relationship during the coming days. Even now he was not sure as to what Peggy had meant when she had seemed to plead, more with herself than with him, for a short space of such happiness as during their long intimacy they had never enjoyed.
All his acquaintances, including his official chief, would have told you that Laurence Vanderlyn was an accomplished man of the world, and an acute student of human nature, but now, to-night, he owned himself at fault. Only one thing was quite clear; he told himself that the thought of again taking up the thread of what had been so unnatural an existence was hateful—impossible.
Perhaps the woman felt the man's obscure moment of recoil; she gently withdrew herself from his arms. "I'm tired," she said, rather plaintively, "the train sways so, Laurence. I wonder if I could lie down——"
He heaped up the cushions, spread out the large rug, which he had purchased that day, and which formed their only luggage, for everything else, by her wish, had been sent on the day before.
Very tenderly he wrapped the folds of the rug round her. Then he knelt by her side; and at once she put out her arms, and pulled his head down close to hers; a moment later her soft lips were laid against his cheek. He remembered, with a retrospective pang, the ache at his heart with which the sight of her caresses to her child had always filled him.
"Peggy," he whispered, "tell me, my beloved, why are you being so good to me—now?"
She made no direct answer to the question. Instead, she moved away a little, and raised herself on her elbow; her blue eyes, filled with a strange solemnity, rested on his moved face.
"Listen," she said, "I want to tell you something, Laurence. I want you to know that I understand how—how angelic you have been to me all these years. Ever since we first knew one another, you have given me everything—everything in exchange for nothing."
And as he shook his head, she continued, "Yes, for nothing! For a long time I tried to persuade myself that this was not so—I tried to believe that you were as contented as I had taught myself to be. I first realised what a hindrance"—she hesitated for a moment, and then said the two words—"our friendship—must have proved to you four years ago,—when you might have gone to St. Petersburg."
As Vanderlyn allowed an exclamation of surprise to escape him, she went on, "Yes, Laurence, you have never known that I knew of that chance—of that offer. Adele de Lera heard of it, and told me; she begged me then, oh! so earnestly, to give you up—to let you go."
"It was no business of hers," he muttered, "I never thought for a moment of accepting——"
"—But you would have done so if you had never known me, if we had not been friends?" She looked up at him, hoping, longing, for a quick word of denial.
But Vanderlyn said no such word. Instead, he fell manlike into the trap she had perhaps unwittingly laid for him.
"If I had never known you?" he repeated, "why, Peggy—dearest—my whole life would have been different if I had never known you! Do you really think that I should have been here in Paris, doing what I am now doing—or rather doing nothing—if we had never met?"
The honest, unmeditated answer made her wince, but she went on, as if she had not heard it—
"As you know, I did not take Adele's advice, but I have never forgotten, Laurence, some of the things she said."
A look which crossed his face caused her to redden, and add hastily, "She's not given to speaking of you—of us; indeed she's not! She never again alluded to the matter; but the other day when I was persuading her,—she required a good deal of persuasion, Laurence—to consent to my plan, I reminded her of all she had said four years ago."
"And what was it that she did say four years ago?" asked Vanderlyn with a touch of angry curiosity; "as Madame de Lera is a Frenchwoman, and a pious Catholic, I presume she tried to make you believe that our friendship was wrong, and could only lead to one thing——" he stopped abruptly.
"No," said Peggy, quietly, "she did not think then that our friendship would lead to—to this; she thought in some ways better of me than I deserve. But she did tell me that I was taking a great responsibility on myself, and that if anything happened—for instance, if I died——" Vanderlyn again made a restless, almost a contemptuous movement—"I should have been the cause of your wasting the best years of your life; I should have broken and spoilt your career, and all—all for nothing."
"Nothing?" exclaimed Vanderlyn passionately. "Ah! Peggy, do not say that. You know, you must know, that our love—I will not call it friendship," he went on resolutely, "for this one week let no such false word be uttered between us—you must know, I say, that our love has been everything to me! Till I met you, my life was empty, miserable; since I met you it has been filled, satisfied, and that even if I have received what Madame de Lera dares to call—nothing!"
He spoke with a fervour, a conviction, which to the woman over whom he was now leaning brought exquisite solace. At last he was speaking as she had longed to hear him speak.
"You don't know," she whispered brokenly, "how happy you make me by saying this to-night, Laurence. I have sometimes wondered lately if you cared for me as much as you used to care?"
Vanderlyn's dark face contracted with pain; he was no Don Juan, learned in the byways of a woman's heart. Then, almost roughly, he caught her to him, and she, looking up, saw a strange glowing look come over his face—a look which was, even to her, an all-sufficing answer, for it told of the baffled longing, of the abnegation, and, even now, of the restraint and selflessness, of the man who loved her.
"Did you really think that, Peggy?" was all he said; then, more slowly, as the arms about her relaxed their hold, "Why, my dear, you've always been—you are—my life."
A sudden sob, a cry of joy broke from her. She sat up, and with a quick passionate movement flung herself on his breast; slowly she raised her face to his: "I love you," she whispered, "Laurence, I love you!"
His lips trembled for a moment on her closed eyelids, then sought and found her soft, quivering mouth. But even then Vanderlyn's love was reverent, restrained in its expression, yet none the less, perhaps the more, a binding sacrament.
At last, "Why did you subject us," he said, huskily, "to such an ordeal? What has made you give way—now? How can you dream of going back, after a week, to our old life?" But even as he asked the searching questions, he laid her back gently on her improvised couch.
Woman-like she did not give him a direct response, then, quite suddenly, she yielded him the key to the mystery.
"Because, Laurence, the last time I was in England, something happened which altered my outlook on life."
She uttered the words with strange solemnity, but Vanderlyn's ears were holden; true, he heard her answer to his question, but the word conveyed little or nothing to him.
He was still riding the whirlwind of his own poignant emotion; he was telling himself, with voiceless and yet most binding oaths, that never, never should the woman whose heart had just beaten against his heart, whose lips had just trembled beneath his lips, go back to act the part of even the nominal wife to Tom Pargeter. He would consent to any condition imposed by her, as long as they could be together; surely even she would understand, if not now, then later, that there are certain moments which can never be obliterated or treated as if they have not been....
It was with difficulty—with a feeling that he was falling from high heaven to earth—that he forced himself to listen to her next words.
"As you know, I stayed, when in England, with Sophy Pargeter——"
Again she looked up at him, as if hesitating what she should say.
"Sophy Pargeter?" he repeated the name mechanically, but with a sudden wincing.
Vanderlyn had always disliked, with a rather absurd, unreasoning dislike, Peggy's plain-featured, rough-tongued sister-in-law. To him Sophy Pargeter had ever been a grotesque example of the deep—they almost appear racial—differences which may, and so often do, exist between different members of a family whose material prosperity is due to successful commerce.
The vast inherited wealth which had made of Tom Pargeter a selfish, pleasure-loving, unmoral human being, had transformed his sister Sophy into a woman oppressed by the belief that it was her duty to spend the greater part of her considerable income in what she believed to be good works. She regarded with grim disapproval her brother's way of life, and she condemned even his innocent pleasures; she had, however, always been fond of Peggy. Laurence Vanderlyn, himself the outcome and product of an old Puritan New England and Dutch stock, was well aware of the horror and amazement with which Miss Pargeter would regard Peggy's present action.
"Well, Laurence, the day that I arrived there, I mean at Sophy's house, I felt very ill. I suppose the journey had tired me, for I fainted——" Again she hesitated, as if not knowing how to frame her next sentence.
"Sophy was horribly frightened. She would send for her doctor, and though he said there was nothing much the matter with me, he insisted that I ought to see another man—a specialist."
Peggy looked up with an anxious expression in her blue eyes—but again Vanderlyn's ears and eyes were holden. He habitually felt for the medical profession the unreasoning dislike, almost the contempt, your perfectly healthy human being, living in an ailing world, often—in fact almost always—does feel for those who play the role of the old augurs in our modern life. Mrs. Pargeter had never been a strong woman; she was often ill, often in the doctor's hands. So it was that Vanderlyn did not realise the deep import of her next words——
"Sophy went with me to London—she was really very kind about it all, and you would have liked her better, Laurence, if you had seen her that day. The specialist did all the usual things, then he told me to go on much as I had been doing, and to avoid any sudden shock or excitement—in fact he said almost exactly what that dear old French doctor said to me a year ago——"
She waited a moment: "Then, Laurence, the next day, when Sophy thought I had got over the journey to London," Peggy smiled at him a little whimsical smile, "she told me that she thought I ought to know—it was her duty to tell me—that I had heart disease, and that, though I should probably live a long time, it was possible I might die at any moment——"
A sudden wrath filled the dark, sensitive face of the man bending over her.
"What nonsense!" he exclaimed with angry decision. "What will the doctors say next, I wonder! I wish to God you would make up your mind, Peggy, once and for all, never to see a doctor again! I beg of you, if only for my sake, to promise me that you will not go again to any doctor till I give you permission to do so. You don't know what I went through five years ago when one of those charlatans declared that he would not answer for the consequences if you didn't winter South, and—and Tom would not let you go!"
He paused, and then added more gently, "And yet nothing happened—you were none the worse for spending that winter in cold Leicestershire!"
"Yes, that's true," she answered submissively, "I will make you the promise you ask, Laurence. I daresay I have been foolish in going so often to doctors; I don't know that they have ever done me much good."
His eyes, having now become quite accustomed to the dim light, suddenly seemed to see in her face a slight change; a look of fatigue and depression had crept over her mouth. He told himself with a pang that after all she was a delicate, fragile human being—or was it the blue shade which threw a strange pallor on the face he was scrutinising with such deep, wistful tenderness?
He bent over her and tucked the rug round her feet.
"Turn round and try to go to sleep," he whispered. "It's a long, long journey by this train. I'll wake you in good time before we get to Dorgival."
She turned, as he told her, obediently, and then, acting on a sudden impulse, she pulled him down once more to her, and kissed him as a child might have done. "Good night," he said, "good night, my love—'enchanting, noble little Peggy!'"
A smile lit up her face radiantly. It was a long, long time since Vanderlyn had last uttered the charming lines first quoted by him very early in their acquaintance, when he had seen her among her own people, one of a band of joyous English boys and girls celebrating a family festival—the golden wedding of her grandparents. Peggy had been delicately, deliciously kind to the shy, proud American youth, whom an introduction from valued friends had suddenly made free of an English family clan.
That had been a year before her marriage to Tom Pargeter, the inheritor of a patent dye process which had made him master of one of those fantastic fortunes which impress the imagination of even the unimaginative. That the young millionaire should deign to throw the matrimonial handkerchief at their little Peggy had seemed to her family a piece of magic good fortune. She could bring him good old blood, and certain great social connections, in exchange for limitless wealth; it had been regarded as an ideal marriage.
More than four years went by before Vanderlyn again saw Peggy, and then he had found her changed—transformed from a merry, light-hearted girl into a pensive, reserved woman. During the interval he had often thought of her as one thinks of a delightful playfellow, but he only came to love her after their second meeting—when he had seen, at first with honest dismay, and then with shame-faced gladness, how utterly ill-mated she and Tom Pargeter were the one to the other.
* * * * *
Vanderlyn made his way over to the other side of the railway carriage; there he sat down, and, crossing his arms on his breast, after a very few moments he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Vanderlyn woke with a start. He looked round, bewildered for a moment. Then his brain cleared, and he felt vexed with himself, a little ashamed of having slept. It seemed to him that he had been asleep hours. How odious it would have been if at the first stopping place of the demi-rapide some stranger had entered the railway carriage! Instead of sleeping, he ought to have remained watching over that still figure which lay so quietly resting on the other side of the carriage.
He stood up. How tired he felt, how strangely depressed and uneasy! But that, after all, was natural, for his last four nights had been wakeful, his last four days full of anxiety and suspense.
He turned and looked out of the window, wondering where they were, how far they had gone; the train was travelling very quickly, he could see white tree-trunks rushing past him in the moonlight.
Then Vanderlyn took out his watch. Surely it must be later than nine o'clock? He moved from the window and held the dial close under the blue silk shade of the lamp. Why, it was only three minutes to nine! Then they hadn't yet passed Dorgival; in fact they wouldn't be there for another twenty minutes, for this train took two hours to do what the quick expresses accomplished in an hour and a quarter.
It was good to know that he had only slept for quite a little while. The desire for sleep had now left him completely, and he began to feel excited, restless, and intensely, glowingly alive....
The curious depression and unease which had possessed him a few moments ago lifted from his soul; the future was once more full of infinite possibilities.
His darling little Peggy! What strange beings women were! With what self-contempt, with what scorpions would he have lashed himself, had he been the one to evolve this plan of this furtive flight, to be followed at the end of a week by a return to the life to which he now looked back with shame as well as distaste! And yet she, the woman he loved, had evolved it, and thought out every detail of the scheme—before telling him of what was in her mind...
As to the future? Vanderlyn threw back his head; nay, nay, there could be no going back to what had been. Even Peggy would see that. She had herself broken down the barrier erected with such care; and soon, very soon she would—she must—see that such breaches can never be repaired or treated as if they had not been made. What had happened, what was happening, to-night, was, in very truth the beginning, for them both, of a new life.
So Laurence Vanderlyn swore to himself, taking many silent vows of chivalrous devotion to the woman who, for love of him, had broken, not only with life-long traditions of honour, but also with a conscience he had known to be so delicately scrupulous.
* * * * *
From where he was standing in the middle of the swaying carriage, something in the way in which his sleeping companion's head was lying suddenly aroused Vanderlyn's quick, keen attention. Putting out a hand to steady himself against the back of the compartment, he bent down—indifferent to the risk of rousing the still figure.
Then, with a rapid movement, he straightened himself; his face had gone grey—expressionless. He pushed back the blue shade off the globe of light, careless of the bright rays which suddenly illumined every corner of the railway carriage....
With an instinctive gesture, Vanderlyn covered his eyes and shut out the blinding light. He pressed his fingers on his eyeballs; every fibre of his body, every quivering nerve was in revolt: for he realised, even then, that there was no room for hope, for doubt,—he knew that what he had looked upon in the dim light was death.
With an awful pang he now understood why Peggy had made him that strange pathetic offer. How blind he had been! The English doctor, the man on whom he had poured such careless scorn, had been right,—terribly right.
At last he uncovered his eyes, and forced himself to gaze upon what lay before him——
Margaret Pargeter had died in her sleep. She was lying exactly as Vanderlyn had left her, still folded closely in the rug he had placed so tenderly about her. But a terrible change had come over the delicate features—the sightless eyes were wide open, the lips had fallen apart; his glance, travelling down, saw that her left hand, the hand where gleamed his mother's wedding ring, was slightly clenched.
Again Vanderlyn passed his hand over his eyes. He stared about him with a touch of helpless bewilderment, but he could do nothing, even if there had been anything to do; it was she who had insisted that they should be unencumbered by any luggage.
He crouched down, and, with an involuntary inward shrinking, took up the chilly, heavy hand and tried to warm it against his cheek; then he shivered, his teeth chattered, with a groan of which the sound echoed strangely in his ears he hid his face in the folds of her grey cloth gown——For a few moments the extent of his calamity blotted out everything.
And then, as Vanderlyn lay there, there suddenly opened before him a way of escape from his intolerable agony and sense of loss, and he welcomed it with eager relief. He raised his head, and began to think intently. How inexplicable that he had not thought of this—the only way—at once! It was so simple and so easy; he saw himself flinging wide open the narrow carriage door, and then, with that still figure clasped in his arms, stepping out into the rushing darkness....
His mind was now working with incredible quickness and clearness. How good it was to know that here, in France, there need be—there would be—no public scandal! In England or America the supposed suicide of two such people as were Margaret Pargeter and himself could not hope to be concealed; not so in France.
Here, as Vanderlyn knew well, there was every chance that such a love tragedy as the one of which he and Mrs. Pargeter would be supposed to have been hero and heroine, would remain hidden—hidden, that is, from everyone except those closely connected with her and with himself. His own chief, the American Ambassador, would be informed of what had happened, but he was a wise old man, there was no fear of indiscretion in that quarter; but—yes, he, Vanderlyn, must face that fact—Tom Pargeter would know the truth.
Vanderlyn's hidden abhorrence of the other man,—of the man whose friend he had perforce compelled himself to be for so long, rose in a great flood.
Tom Pargeter? The selfish, mean-souled, dull-witted human being, whose huge fortune, coupled with the masculine virtues of physical courage and straightness in matters of sport, made him not only popular but in a small way a personage! Pargeter, no doubt, would suffer, especially in his self-esteem; on the other hand, he, the husband, would feel that so had his own conduct, his coarse infidelity, his careless neglect of his wife, been fully condoned.
With a choking feeling of sharp pain, Vanderlyn suddenly remembered that what Tom Pargeter knew now, poor Peggy's son would some day have to know. For awhile, no doubt, the boy would be kept in merciful ignorance of the tragedy, but then, when the lad was growing into manhood, some blundering fool, or more likely some well-intentioned woman, probably his aunt, Sophy Pargeter, would feel it her duty to smirch for him his mother's memory....
Nay, that could not, that must never, be! Vanderlyn's head fell forward on his breast; there came back, wrapping him as in a shroud, the awful feeling of desolation, of life-long loss,—for he now knew, with inexorable knowledge, what the future held for him.
It must be his fate to live, not die; he must live in order to safeguard the honour of Margaret Pargeter, the beloved woman who had trusted him wholly, not only in this, which was to have been their supreme adventure, but during the whole of their long, almost wordless love. It was for her sake that, she dead, he must go on living; for her sake he must make what now, at this moment, seemed to be a sacrifice almost beyond his power, for reason told him that he must leave her, and as soon as possible, lying there dead—alone.
With tender, absent fingers he smoothed out the woollen folds to which his face had been pressed; he slipped from her finger the thin gold ring, and placed it once more where he had always worn it from the day of his mother's death till an hour ago.
Then he stood up, and turned deliberately away.
There came the loud wailing whistle which told that the train was nearing a station. He leaned out of the window; the lights of a town were flashing past, and he grimly told himself that there was no time to lose.
Vanderlyn again bent down; the instinctive repugnance of the living for the dead suddenly left him. His darling little Peggy! How could he bear to leave her there—alone? If he and she had been what they ought to have been—husband and wife—even then, he felt that never would he have left her to the neglect, to the forgetfulness to which other men leave their beloved dead. There rose before him the memory of one of the most moving of the world's great pictures, Goya's painting of mad Queen Joan bearing about with her the unburied body of Philip.
He turned that which had been Margaret Pargeter so that her face would be completely hidden from anyone opening the door and looking into the carriage.
Yet, even as he was doing this, Vanderlyn kept a sharp watch and ward over his own nerves. His had now become the mental attitude of a man who desires to save the living woman whom he loves from some great physical danger. Blessing his own foresight in providing the large rug which he had folded about her so tenderly an hour ago, he pulled up a fold of it till it covered, and completely concealed, her head. Should a traveller now enter the carriage he would see nothing but a woman apparently plunged in deep slumber.
Again Vanderlyn glanced, with far more scrutinising eyes than he had done when first entering the train, through the two glazed apertures which commanded a view of the next carriage; it was, as he knew well, empty.
He turned once more the silk shade over the lamp, jammed his hat down over his eyes, set his lips together, and, averting his eyes from what he was leaving, opened the railway carriage door....
The train was slowing down; a few hundred yards ahead lay the station. Vanderlyn stepped to one side of the footboard, and waited till the door through which he had just passed swung to; then he turned the handle, securing it firmly.
With soft, swift steps, he walked past the window of the now darkened carriage and slipped into the next empty, brightly-lighted compartment. There came over him a strong temptation to look through the little apertures giving into the darkened carriage he had just left, but it was a temptation which he resisted. Instead, he leant out of the window, as does a traveller who is nearing his destination.
Soon there floated up to him the shouting of "Dorgival! Cinq minutes d'arret!" and when the train at last stopped, there arose the joyous chatter which attends every arrival in a French station.
Vanderlyn waited for a few moments; then he stepped down from the carriage, and began walking quietly down the platform. With intense relief he remembered that the guard of the train whom he had feed so well, and who must have noticed him with Peggy, had been left behind in Paris.
Having passed the end compartment and guard's van he stood for awhile staring down at the permanent way, counting the rails which gleamed in the half darkness. He measured with his eyes the distance which separated the platform on which he was standing from that whence the next train back to Paris must start.
There was very little risk either of accident or detection, but it was his duty to minimise whatever risk there was. He dropped down gently onto the permanent way, and stood for a moment in the deep shadow cast by the rear of the train he had just left; then, cautiously advancing, he looked both up and down the line, and made his way to the other side.
The platform on which he now found himself was deserted, for the whole life of the station was still centred round the train which had just arrived; but as he started across the rails Vanderlyn became possessed with a feeling of acute, almost intolerable, suspense. He longed with a feverish longing to see the demi-rapide glide out into the darkness. He told himself he had been a fool to suppose that anyone could enter the darkened carriage where the dead woman lay without at once discovering the truth,—and he began asking himself what he would do were the awful discovery made, and were the fact that he had been her travelling companion suddenly revealed or suspected.
But Laurence Vanderlyn was not subjected to so dread an ordeal; at last there floated to where he was standing the welcome cry of "En voiture! En voiture, s'il vous plait!" The dark serpentine mass on which the lonely man's eyes were fixed shivered as though it were a sentient being waking to life, and slowly the train began to move.
Vanderlyn started walking up the platform, and for awhile he kept in step with the slowly gliding carriages; then they swept by more quickly, a swift procession of gleaming lights....
As at last the red disc melted into the night, he gave a muffled groan of anguish, for mingling with his sense of intense relief, came that of eternal, irreparable loss.
Ironic fortune was kind to Vanderlyn that night; his return ticket from far-away Orange, though only issued in Paris some two hours before, was allowed to pass unchallenged; and a couple of francs bestowed on a communicative employe drew the welcome news that a southern express bound for Paris was about to stop at Dorgival.
It was only eleven o'clock when Vanderlyn found himself once more in the Gare de Lyon. He walked quickly out of the great station which was henceforth to hold for him such intimately tender and poignant memories; and then, instead of taking a cab, he made his way on foot down to the lonely Seine-side quays.
There, leaning over and staring down into the swift black waters of the river, he planned out his drab immediate future.
In one sense the way was clear before him,—he must of course go on exactly as before; show himself, that is, in his usual haunts; take the moderate part he had hitherto taken in what he felt to be the dreary round of so-called pleasures with which Paris was now seething. That must be his task—his easy and yet intolerable task—during the next week or ten days, until the disappearance of Margaret Pargeter became first suspected, and then discovered.
But before that was likely to happen many long days would certainly go by, for,—as is so often the case when a man and woman have become, in secret, everything to one another, Laurence Vanderlyn and Mrs. Pargeter had gradually detached themselves from all those whom they had once called their friends, and even Peggy had had no intimate who would miss a daily, or even a weekly, letter.
Indeed, it was just possible, so Vanderlyn, resting his arms on the stone parapet, now told himself, that the first part of his ordeal might last as long as a fortnight, that is, till Tom Pargeter came back from England.
There was of course yet another possibility; it was conceivable that everything would not fall out as they, or rather Peggy, had imagined. Pargeter, for instance, might return sooner; and, if he did so, he would certainly require his wife's immediate presence in Paris, for the millionaire was one of those men who hate to be alone even in their spare moments. Also more than his wife's company, Pargeter valued her presence as part of what the French so excellently style the decor of his life; she was his thing, for which he had paid a good price; some of his friends, the sycophants with which he loved to be surrounded, would have said that he had paid for her very dearly.
It was very unlikely, however, that Tom Pargeter would return to Paris before he was expected to do so. For many years past he had spent the first fortnight of each May at Newmarket; and, as is the curious custom of his kind, he seldom varied the order of his rather monotonous pleasures.
But stay—Vanderlyn suddenly remembered Madame de Lera, that is the one human being who had been in Peggy's confidence. She was a real and terrible point of danger—or rather she might at any moment become so. It was with her, at the de Lera villa in the little village of Marly-le-Roi, that Mrs. Pargeter was, even now, supposed to be staying. This being so, he, Vanderlyn, must make it his business to see Madame de Lera at the first possible moment. Together they would have to concoct some kind of possible story—he shuddered with repugnance at the thought.
Long before Peggy's confidences in the train, the American diplomatist had been well aware that Adele de Lera disapproved of his close friendship with Mrs. Pargeter; and she had never lent herself to any of those innocent complicities with which even good women are often so ready to help those of their friends who are most foolish—whom perhaps they know to be more tempted—than themselves.
The one thing of paramount importance, so Vanderlyn suddenly reminded himself, was that no one—not even Madame de Lera—should ever know that he and Margaret Pargeter had left Paris that night, together. How could this fact be best concealed, and concealed for ever?
To the unspoken question came swift answer. It flashed on the man lingering on the solitary river-side quay, that even now, to-night, it was not too late for him to establish the most effectual of alibis. By taking a fiacre and bribing the man to drive quickly he could be back in his rooms in the Rue de Rivoli, dressed, and at his club, before midnight. Fool that he was to have wasted even a quarter of an hour!
Vanderlyn struck sharply across the dimly-lighted thoroughfare; he started walking down one of the narrow streets which connect the river quays with commercial Paris. A few moments later, having picked up a cab, he was driving rapidly westward, down the broad, still seething Boulevard du Temple, and, as he suddenly became aware with a sharp pang at his heart, past the entrance to the quiet mediaeval square, where, only four short days ago, he and Peggy walking side by side, had held the conversation which was to prove pregnant of so much short-lived joy, and of such long-lived pain.
Like so many modern Americans, to whom every material manifestation of wealth has become distasteful, Laurence Vanderlyn had chosen to pitch his Paris tent on the top floor of one of those eighteenth-century houses which, if lacking such conveniences as electric light and lifts, can command in their place the stately charm and spaciousness of which the modern Parisian architect seems to have lost the secret. His appartement consisted of a few large, airy, low-pitched rooms, of which the stone balconies overlooked the Tuileries gardens, while from a corner window of his sitting-room Vanderlyn could obtain what was in very truth a bird's-eye view of the vast Place de la Concorde.
Very soon after his arrival in Paris the diplomatist had the good fortune to come across a couple of French servants, a husband and wife, who exactly suited his simple and yet fastidious requirements. They were honest, thrifty, clean, and their only fault—that of chattering to one another like magpies—was to Vanderlyn an agreeable proof that they led a life quite independent of his own. Never had he been more glad to know that this was so than to-night, for they greeted his return home with the easy indifference, and real pleasure, very unlike the surface respect and ill-concealed resentment with which a master's unexpected appearance would have been received by a couple of more cosmopolitan servitors.
With nerves strung up to their highest tension, forcing himself only to think of the present, Vanderlyn put on his evening clothes. It was still wanting some minutes to midnight when he left the Rue de Rivoli for the Boulevard de la Madeleine. A few moments later he was at the door of the club where he was sure of finding, even at this time of night, plenty of friends and acquaintances who would be able to testify, in the very unlikely event of its being desirable that they should do so, to the fact that he had been there that evening.
* * * * *
L'Union is the most interesting, as it is in a certain sense the most exclusive, of Paris clubs. Founded in memory of the hospitality shown by the English gentry to the French emigrees, during the Revolution, this, the most old-fashioned of Paris clubs, impales the Royal arms of France, that is, the old fleur-de-lys, with those of England.
At all times L'Union has been in a special sense a resort of diplomatists, and Vanderlyn spent there a great deal of his spare time. The American was popular among his French fellow-members, to whom his excellent French and his unobtrusive good breeding made him an agreeable companion. There could have been no greater proof of how he was regarded there than the fact that, thanks to his efforts, Tom Pargeter had been elected to the club. True, the millionaire-sportsman did not often darken the threshold of the stately old club-house, but he was none the less exceedingly proud of his membership of L'Union, for it gave him an added standing in the cosmopolitan world in which he had early elected to spend his life. Perhaps it was fortunate that he had so little use for a club where gambling games are not allowed to be played—where, indeed, as the younger members are apt to complain, dominoes take the place of baccarat!
The tall Irish footman whose special duty it was to wait on the foreign members, came forward as Vanderlyn walked into the hall. "Mr. Pargeter has been asking for you, sir; he's in the card-room."
Vanderlyn felt a curious sensation sweep over him. That which he had thought so improbable as to be scarcely worth consideration had come to pass. Pargeter had not gone to England that night. He was here, in Paris, at L'Union, asking for him. In a few moments they would be face to face.
As Vanderlyn walked up the broad staircase, he asked himself, with a feeling of agonising uncertainty, whether it was in any way possible that Peggy's husband had found out, even suspected, anything of their plan. But no! Reason told him that such a thing was quite inconceivable. No compromising word had been written by the one to the other, and every detail had been planned and carried out in such a way as to make discovery or betrayal impossible.
But to-night reason had very little to say to Laurence Vanderlyn, and his strongly drawn face set in hard lines as he sauntered through now fast thinning rooms, for the habitue of L'Union generally seeks his quiet home across the Seine about twelve.
As he returned the various greetings which came to him from right and left,—for a French club has about it none of the repressive etiquette which governs similar institutions in England and America,—the diplomatist felt as doubtless feels any imaginative man who for the first time goes under fire; what he experienced was not so much dread as a wonder how he was likely to bear himself during this now imminent meeting with Peggy's husband.
Suddenly Vanderlyn caught sight of Pargeter, and that some moments before he himself was seen by him. The millionaire was standing watching a game of whist, and he looked as he generally looked when at L'Union, that is, bored and ill at ease, but otherwise much as usual.
Tom Pargeter was a short man, and though he was over forty, his fair hair, fat face, and neat, small features gave him an almost boyish look of youth. He had one most unusual physical peculiarity, which caused him to be remembered by strangers: this peculiarity consisted in the fact that one of his eyes was green and the other blue. His manners were those of a boy, of a boorish lad, rather than of a man; his vocabulary was oddly limited, and yet he seldom used the correct word, for he delighted in verbal aliases.
Seeing Pargeter there before him, Laurence Vanderlyn, for the first time in his life, learned what so many men and women learn very early in their lives,—what it is to be afraid of a person, who, however despicable, is, or may become, your tyrant.
Hitherto his relations with Peggy's husband, though nothing to be proud of, had brought with them nothing of conscious shame. Nay more, Laurence Vanderlyn, in that long past of which now nothing remained, had tried to see what was best in a character which, if fashioned meanly, was not wholly bad. But now, to-night, he felt that he despised, hated, and, what was to him, far worse, feared the human being towards whom he was advancing with apparently eager steps.
Suddenly the eyes of the two men met, but Pargeter was far too pre-occupied with himself and his own concerns to notice anything strained or unusual in Vanderlyn's face. All he saw was that here at last was the man he wanted to see; his sulky face lightened, and he walked forward with hand outstretched.
"Hullo! Grid," he cried, "so here you are at last! You see I've not gone? There came a wire from the boy; he's hurt his knee-cap!"
Vanderlyn murmured an exclamation of concern; as they met he had wheeled round, thus avoiding the other's hand.
"Nothing much," went on Pargeter quickly, "but of course Peggy will be wild to go to him, so I thought I'd wait and take her to-morrow, eh! what?"
Side by side they began walking down the long reception-room. Vanderlyn was telling himself, with a feeling of sore, dull pain, that this was the first time, the very first time, that he had ever known Tom Pargeter show a kindly touch of consideration for his wife. But then this concerned the boy, of whom the father, in his careless way, was fond and proud; their child had always remained a link, if a slight link, between Tom and Peggy.
"It was just too late to get a wire through to her," went on Pargeter, fretfully, "I mean to that God-forsaken place where she's staying with Madame de Lera; but I've arranged for her to be wired to early in the morning. If I'd been half sharp I'd have sent the trolley for her——"
"The trolley?" repeated Vanderlyn, mechanically.
"The motor—the motor, man! But it never occurred to me to do it till it was too late."
"Would you like me to go out to-morrow morning and fetch her back?" asked Vanderlyn slowly.
"I wish you would!" cried the other eagerly, "then I should be sure of her coming back in time for us to start by the twelve-twenty train. When shall I send the trolley for you?"
"I'll go by train," said Vanderlyn shortly. "Madame de Lera's villa is at Marly-le-Roi, isn't it?"
"Yes, haven't you ever been there?"
Vanderlyn looked at Pargeter. "No," he said very deliberately, "I scarcely know Madame de Lera."
"How odd," said Pargeter indifferently. "Peggy's always with her, and you and Peggy are such pals."
"One doesn't always care for one's friends' friends," said Vanderlyn dryly. He longed to shake the other off, but Pargeter clung closely to his side. Each put on the hat and light coat handed to him; and, when once out on the boulevard, Pargeter slipped his hand confidingly through the other's arm.
His touch burnt Vanderlyn.
"By the way, Grid, I've forgotten to tell you why I wanted to see you to-night. I'd be so much obliged if you would go down to Chantilly at the end of the week and see how that new josser's getting on. You might drop me a line if everything doesn't seem all right."
Vanderlyn murmured a word of assent. This, then, was the reason why Pargeter had come to L'Union that night,—simply in order to ask Vanderlyn to keep an eye on his new trainer! To save himself, too, the trouble of writing a letter, for Tom Pargeter was one of those modern savers—and users—of time who prefer to conduct their correspondence entirely by telegram.
They were now close to the Place de l'Opera. "Let's go on to 'The Wash,'" said Pargeter suddenly.
The eyes of the two men became focussed on the long line of brilliantly lit up windows of a flat overlooking the square. Here were the headquarters of a Paris club, bearing the name of America's first and greatest President, which had earned for itself the nickname of "Monaco Junior."
Tom Pargeter was no gambler,—your immensely wealthy man rarely is,—but it gave him pleasure to watch the primitive emotions which gambling generally brings to the human surface, and so he spent at what he called "The Wash" a good many of his idle hours.
"Let's turn in here for a minute," he said, eagerly, "Florac was holding the bank two hours ago; let's go and see if he's still at it."
Vanderlyn made a movement of recoil; he murmured something about having to be up early the next morning, but Pargeter, with the easy selfishness which so often looks like good-nature, pressed him to go in. "It's quite early," he urged again, and his companion was in no state of body or mind to resist even the slight pressure of another's will.
* * * * *
The brightly lighted rooms of "Monaco Junior" were full of colour, sound, and movement; the atmosphere was in almost ludicrous contrast to that of the decorous Union. The evening was only just beginning, the rooms were full, and Pargeter was greeted with boisterous warmth; here, if nowhere else, his money made him king.
He led the way to the card-room which, with its crowd of men surrounding each of the tables, was very evidently the heart of the club. "Do look at Florac!" he murmured to Vanderlyn. "When I left here a couple of hours ago, he was winning a bit, but I expect he's losing now. I always like to watch him play—he's such a bad loser!"
The two men had threaded their way close to the baccarat table, and now they formed the centre of a group who were throwing furtive glances at the banker, a pale lean Frenchman of the narrow-jowled, Spanish type so often repeated in members of the old noblesse.
The Marquis de Florac was "somebody," to use the expressive French phrase,—a member of that small Parisian circle of which each individual is known by reputation to every provincial bourgeois, and to every foreign reader of French social news.
There had been a time when de Florac had set the fashion, and that not only in waistcoats and walking-sticks. He was a fine swordsman, and was even now in some request as second at fashionable duels. None knew more certainly than he every punctilio of those unwritten laws which govern affairs of honour, and, had he been born to even a quarter of the fortune of Tom Pargeter, his record would probably have remained unstained. Unfortunately for him this had not been the case; he had soon run through the moderate fortune left him by his father, and he had ruined by his own folly, and his one vice of gambling, any chance that might have remained to him of a good marriage.
Even in the Faubourg St. Germain,—loyal to its black sheep as are ever the aristocracies of the old world,—Florac was now looked at askance; and in the world of the boulevards strange stories were told as to the expedients by which he now made—it could not be called earned—a living. The playing of those games which can best be described as requiring a minimum of judgment and a maximum of luck was apparently the only occupation remaining to the Marquis de Florac, and when in funds he was often to be found in the card-rooms of "Monaco Junior."
"He's losing now," whispered Pargeter. "I should think he's near the end of his tether, eh? Funny how money goes from hand to hand! I don't suppose Florac knows that it's my money he's chucking away!"
"Your money?" repeated Vanderlyn with listless surprise, "d'you mean to say that you've been lending Florac money?" He looked, with a pity in which there entered a vague fellow-feeling, at the mask-like face of the man against whom the luck seemed to be going so dead.
"I'm not quite a fool!" exclaimed Pargeter, piqued at the suggestion. "All the same, Grid, it is my money, or a little bit of it at any rate!"
An English acquaintance of the two men came up to them. "The French are a wonderful people," he said rather crossly, "everybody says that Florac is ruined,—that he's living on ten francs a day allowed him by a kind grandmother—and yet since I have been standing here he's dropped, at least so I've calculated, not far short of four hundred pounds!"
A grin came over Pargeter's small neat face, and lit up his odd, different-coloured eyes. "'Cherchez la femme,'" he observed, affecting an atrocious English accent; and then he repeated, as if he were himself the inventor, the patentee, of the admirable aphorism, "'Cherchez la femme!' That's what you have got to do in the case of Florac, and of a good many other Frenchmen of his kind, I fancy!"
"I'm going home now, Pargeter," said Vanderlyn with sudden, harsh decision. "If you really wish me to go out to Marly-le-Roi in one of your cars to-morrow morning, will you please give orders for it to be round at my place at nine o'clock?"
From what seemed an infinite distance, Vanderlyn awoke the next morning to hear the suave voice of his servant, Poulain, murmuring in his ear, "The automobile is here to take Monsieur for a drive in the country. I did not wish to wake Monsieur, but the chauffeur declared that Monsieur desired the automobile to be here at nine."
Poulain's master sat up in bed and stared at Poulain. Then suddenly he remembered everything that had happened to him the evening before. In a flash he even lived once more the wakeful hours of the night which had had so awful a beginning; only at four o'clock had he found sleep.
"Yes?" he said. Then again, "Yes, Poulain. I wished to start at nine o'clock. Say that I shall be down in a quarter of an hour."
"And then, while Monsieur is dressing, my wife will be preparing his little breakfast—unless, indeed, Monsieur would rather wait, and have his little breakfast in bed?"
"No," said Vanderlyn, quickly, "I shall not have time to wait for coffee."
* * * * *
The keen morning air, the swift easy motion of the large car revived Vanderlyn and steadied his nerves. He elected to sit in front by the side of Pargeter's silent English chauffeur. At this early hour the Paris streets were comparatively clear, and a few moments brought them to the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. There, half way down was Tom Pargeter's splendid villa; as they passed it in a flash, Vanderlyn averted his head. To his morbid fancy it suddenly assumed the aspect of a great marble tomb.
The car swung on through the now deserted Bois; soon it was rushing up the steep countrified streets of St. Cloud, and then, settling down to a high speed, they found themselves in the broad silent alleys of those splendid royal woods which form so noble a girdle about western Paris. They sped through sunlit avenues of fresh green foliage, past old houses which had seen the splendid pageant of Louis the Fifteenth and his Court sweep by on their way to Marly-le-Roi, and so till they gained the lofty ridge which dominates the wide valley of the Seine.
Suddenly the chauffeur turned to Vanderlyn, and spoke for the first time: "Would you like to slow down a bit, sir? Mrs. Pargeter generally stops the car here to have a look at the view."
"No," said Vanderlyn hoarsely, "we haven't time to-day; we've got to get back to Paris in time for Mr. and Mrs. Pargeter to catch, if possible, the twelve-twenty o'clock train."
He leant back—a feeling of horror and self-contempt possessed him. His life was now one long lie; even when speaking to a servant, he was compelled to imply what he knew to be untrue.
They ran down into the quaint little town which has scarcely altered since the days when Madame du Barry was dragged hence, screaming and wringing her hands, to Paris, to prison, and to the guillotine. Vanderlyn's distraught imagination saw something sinister in the profound quietude of the place; it was full of shuttered villas, for through the winter each village in the neighbourhood of Paris hibernates, those whom the peasants style les bourgeois still regarding country life as essentially a summer pastime.
They now came to a high blank wall, broken by an iron gate. "This is the house, sir," said the chauffeur abruptly.
Vanderlyn jumped out, and rang a primitive bell; he waited some minutes and then rang again. At last he heard the sound of steps hurrying along a gravel path; and the gate was opened by an old woman.
"You have come to the wrong house," she said curtly, "this is Madame de Lera's villa." Then, as she caught sight of the Pargeters' chauffeur, a more amiable look stole over her wizened face,—"Pardon, perhaps Monsieur has brought a letter from Madame Pargeter?" She wiped her hand on her apron and held it out.
Vanderlyn remained silent a moment; he knew that now had come the moment for him to utter an exclamation of surprise, to explain that he had thought to find Mrs. Pargeter here,—but his soul revolted from the lie.
"Yes, I have come to see Madame de Lera," he said in a low voice. "Kindly give her my card, and ask her if she will be good enough to receive me?"
The old woman turned on her heel; she led Vanderlyn into the silent house, and showed him into a large sitting-room where the furniture was still swathed in the rough sheeting with which the careful French housewife drapes her household goods when leaving them for the winter.
"I will light the fire," said the servant, apologetically; "Madame does not use this room when we are here alone."
"I am quite warm," said Vanderlyn quickly. "Besides, I shall only be here a very few moments."
The woman gave him a curious, rather suspicious look, and went to find her mistress.
Vanderlyn, in spite of the words he had just uttered, suddenly told himself that, he felt cold—cold and dizzy. He moved over to the window. It overhung a wooded precipice, below which sparkled the Seine,—that same river into whose dark depths he had gazed so despairingly the night before. Here, looking at the sunlit panorama of wood, water, and sky spread out before him, Peggy must often have stood. For the first time since the terrible moment when he had watched the train bearing her dead body disappear into the darkness, Vanderlyn thought of her as living; he seemed to feel her soft, warm presence in this place which she had loved, and where she had spent peaceful, happy hours.
He heard the door open and shut, and, turning round, found himself face to face with the Frenchwoman whom he knew to have been Margaret Pargeter's devoted friend. Although he was well aware that Madame de Lera had never liked or trusted him, he, on his side, had always admired and appreciated her serenity and simple dignity of demeanour. As she came forward, clad in the austere dress of a French widow, he noted the expression of constraint, of surprise, on her worn face.
"Mr. Vanderlyn?" she said, interrogatively; and, as she waited for an explanation of the American's presence, surprise gave way to a look of great sternness and severity, almost of dislike. Nay more, Madame de Lera's attitude was instinct with protest—the protest of an honest woman drawn unwillingly into what she feels to be an atmosphere of untruth and intrigue. She was telling herself that she owed the fact of Vanderlyn's visit to some slight hitch in the plan in which she had been persuaded to play the part of an accomplice; she felt that Margaret Pargeter ought not to have subjected her to an interview with her lover.
Vanderlyn reddened. He felt suddenly angered. Madame de Lera's manner was insulting, not only to him, but—but to Mrs. Pargeter, to his poor dead love. Any thought of telling Madame de Lera the truth, or even part of the truth, left him.
"You must forgive my intrusion," he said, coldly; "I have come with a message from Mr. Pargeter. He believes his wife to be here, and he wishes her to be informed that her son, little Jasper, has had an accident. When the news arrived last night, it was too late to telegraph, and so he asked me to come here this morning in his motor in order to bring Mrs. Pargeter back to Paris. He proposes that she should accompany him to England to-day by the twelve o'clock train."
An expression of deep bewilderment crossed Madame de Lera's face. For the first time since she had glanced at Vanderlyn, she became aware that she was in the presence of a man who was suffering under some keen stress of feeling. She became oppressed with a great misgiving. What did his presence here this morning, his strange unreal words, signify? What was the inward meaning of this sinister comedy? It was of course clear that the secret elopement had not taken place. But then, where was Mrs. Pargeter?
She cast a long searching look at Laurence Vanderlyn. The American's face had become expressionless. He seemed tired, like a man who had not slept, but the look she thought she had surprised,—that look telling of the suppression of deep feeling, of hidden anguish,—had gone. The fact that she did not know how much Vanderlyn knew she knew added to Madame de Lera's perplexity. She was determined at all costs not to betray her friend.
"I regret to inform you," she said, quietly, "that Mrs. Pargeter is not here. It is true that I was expecting her to come yesterday. But she disappointed me—she did not come. Does no one know where she is?" She threw as great an emphasis as was possible in the impassive French language into her question.
Vanderlyn avoided her perplexed, questioning glance. "Since yesterday evening," he answered, "all trace of Margaret Pargeter has been lost. She seems to have left her house about six o'clock, and then to have disappeared—utterly. The servants believed," he added, after a pause, "that she was coming straight to you; she had, it seems, taken some luggage to the station the day before, and seen personally to its despatch."
There was a pause; neither spoke for some moments, and Madame de Lera noticed that Vanderlyn had not asked her if Peggy's luggage had arrived at her house.
"Then, Monsieur, it is surely clear," she exclaimed at last, "that there has been an accident, a terrible accident to our poor friend! I mean on her way to—to the station. But doubtless that thought has also occurred to you—if not to Mr. Pargeter—and you have already made all necessary enquiries?"
Vanderlyn, from being pale, flushed deeply. "No," he said, "I am afraid nothing of the kind has been done—yet. You see, Pargeter believes her to be here."
The words "But you—you knew she was not here!" trembled on Madame de Lera's lips, but she did not utter them. She felt as if she were walking amid quicksands; she told herself that there was far more danger in saying a word too much than a word too little.
"I regret," she said, "that you have made a useless journey, Mr. Vanderlyn. I must request you to go back and tell Mr. Pargeter that his wife is not here, and I beg, I entreat, you to inform the police that she is missing! For all we know,"—she looked at him with indignant severity,—"she may be lying ill, mortally injured, in one of our terrible Paris hospitals!"
As he made no assent to her imploring words, a look of anger came into Madame de Lera's eyes.
"I will ask you to allow me to return with you to Paris," she said, quickly. "I cannot rest inactive here in the face of the possibility, nay, the probability, I have indicated. If you, Mr. Vanderlyn, do not feel justified in making the enquiries I have suggested, no such scruple need restrain me."
She turned away, making no effort to mask her displeasure, almost her contempt, for the man who seemed to be so little moved by the mysterious disappearance of the woman he loved.
A few moments later Madame de Lera came back dressed for the drive. As they walked through into the hall of the villa, she suddenly turned, and with a strange gentleness asked her silent companion a question, "Mr. Vanderlyn, you look very tired; have you had any breakfast?"
He looked at her without answering, and she repeated her words.
"Yes," said Vanderlyn,—"that is, no, I have not. I was up late last night,—there was no time this morning," he spoke hurriedly, confusedly; the sudden kindness in her tone had brought scalding tears to his eyes, and he felt a nervous fear that he was about to break down. Madame de Lera took his arm; she opened a door and pushed him through into the kitchen, just now the one bright, warm, cheerful room in the house.
"My good Catherine," she said, "give this gentleman a cup of coffee—quickly!"
The presence of the old servant steadied Vanderlyn's nerves; with a muttered word of thanks he drank what was put before him, and then they went out, across the dewy lawn, to the gate.
Vanderlyn placed his companion in the back of the car, and himself took the vacant seat next to Pargeter's phlegmatic chauffeur, for he wished to remain silent. Madame de Lera's alteration of manner, her gentleness, her implied sympathy, frightened him. He would rather have endured her cold air of protest, of dislike.
And yet, as they drove swiftly back to Paris, taking, however, rather longer on the return journey, for the country roads were now full of animation and movement, Vanderlyn felt himself leaning, as against a wall, on Madame de Lera's strong upright nature. She might dislike, disapprove, even despise him,—but in this matter they would be one in their desire to shield Peggy's fair name. He would have given much to be able to still her evident anxiety, but that course was, so he felt, forbidden to him; he had no right to share with another human being the burden of his knowledge, of his awful grief. With a pang he reminded himself that even Madame de Lera's state of suspense was preferable to a knowledge of the truth.
At last they turned into the Bois de Boulogne, rushing through the leafy roads at a high speed; a few moments more would see them in the beautiful avenue where stood, isolated from its neighbours, the Villa Pargeter, instinct with flamboyant luxury and that perfection only achieved by the lavish use of money.
Tom Pargeter had a supreme contempt for the careless way in which the French millionaires of his acquaintance conducted their lives. He liked to get the full value of his money, and was proud of boasting to his intimates that he kept the people who worked for him up to the top mark. So it was that the sanded garden, even now blazing with flowers, which surrounded the square marble villa, and separated it from the carriage road and tan gallop, looked like a set piece, a vivid bit of scene painting, in the bright morning sunlight.
When they came within sight of the wrought bronze gates of the villa, Madame de Lera stood up in the car and leant over the front. She touched Vanderlyn on the shoulder. "Then if we find that Mr. Pargeter is still without any knowledge of his wife, I am to say that I know nothing—that I was expecting her yesterday evening, and that she never arrived?"
"Yes," he answered, "that is, Madame, what I expect to hear you say. It will then be for Mr. Pargeter to take what steps he judges proper."
As the powerful car swung through the gates, Vanderlyn saw that the front-door was wide open, and that the English butler was waiting to receive them; when the man saw that his mistress was not in the car, a look of perplexity came over his impassive face.
"Mr. Pargeter has been awaiting you, sir, for the last half hour," he said, "he is very anxious to catch the twelve o'clock express. The luggage has already gone on to the station. Mr. Pargeter wished the car to wait,—but—but is it to wait, sir?" he asked, helplessly.
"Yes," said Vanderlyn, shortly, "the car had better wait. Where is Mr. Pargeter?"
"He's not down yet, sir; he is breakfasting in his dressing-room. All the arrangements were made last night, but I will let him know you have arrived, sir." He looked doubtfully at Madame de Lera, too well trained to ask any question, and yet sufficiently human not to be able to conceal his astonishment at Mrs. Pargeter's non-appearance. Then, preceding the two visitors upstairs, he led them through the suite of large reception-rooms into a small octagon boudoir which was habitually used by Margaret Pargeter as her sitting-room.
There he left them, and, standing amid surroundings which all spoke to them, to the woman, of her friend, to the man of his love,—from the hooded chair where Peggy generally sat to the little writing-table where she had written so many notes to them both,—Madame de Lera and Laurence Vanderlyn felt overwhelmed with a common feeling of shame, of guilt. In silence they waited for Tom Pargeter, avoiding each other's eyes; and the Frenchwoman's fine austere face grew rigid—this was the first time in her long life that she had been connected with an intrigue. She felt humiliated, horrified at the part she now found herself compelled to play.
In spite of its costly luxury, and its wonderful beauty of decoration,—an exquisite Nattier was let into a panel above the fireplace, and a row of eighteenth-century pastels hung on the light grey walls,—the octagon apartment lacked the restful charm which belongs to many a shabby little sitting-room. The architect of the villa had sacrificed everything to the great reception-rooms, and in the boudoir were far too many doors.
One of these, which Vanderlyn had never noticed before, was now suddenly flung open, and, outlined against a narrow winding staircase, stood a figure which appeared at once grotesque and menacing to the man and woman who stood staring at the unexpected apparition. It was Tom Pargeter, clad in a bright yellow dressing-gown, and holding a fork in his left hand.
"I say, Peggy, look sharp,—there's no time to be lost! I told Plimmer to pack some of your things—not that there's any reason why you should come if you don't want to—for there's nothing much the matter with the boy, and he'll probably get well all the quicker if you——"
The speaker suddenly broke short the quick sentences; he stared round the little room, and then, catching sight of Madame de Lera who had been partly concealed by a screen, "Damn!" he said, and turning, scampered heavily up the staircase, leaving the door behind him open.
Vanderlyn and his companion looked at each other uncomfortably. Madame de Lera was not perhaps quite so shocked, either by Pargeter's appearance or by his one exclamation apparently addressed to herself, as the punctilious American supposed her to be. She knew no word of the English language, and in her heart regarded all foreigners as barbarians.
They waited,—it seemed a long, long time, but as a matter of fact it was but a very few minutes after Pargeter's abrupt entrance and exit, when his short quick steps were heard resounding down the long suite of reception-rooms. As he walked into the boudoir, the master of the house—this time dressed in a suit of the large checks he generally wore—bowed awkwardly to Madame de Lera, and then went over and shut the door giving access to the winding staircase, that which in his hurry he had omitted to close behind him. Then, and not till then, he turned to Laurence Vanderlyn.
"Well?" he said, "what's happened to Peggy? I'm told she's not here. Is she ill?"
"Peggy never arrived at Marly-le-Roi," said Vanderlyn.
To himself his very voice seemed changed, his words charged with terrible significance; but to Pargeter, the answer given to his question sounded disagreeably indifferent and matter-of-fact.
"Never arrived?" he echoed. "Where is she then? You don't mean to say she's lost?"
"Madame de Lera," said Vanderlyn, still in the same quiet, emotionless voice, "thinks that she's met with an accident,"—he looked imploringly at the Frenchwoman; surely it was time that she should come to his help. "I am telling Mr. Pargeter," he said to her in French, "that you fear she has met with an accident"
"Yes!" she exclaimed, eagerly turning to Pargeter, "how can it be otherwise, Monsieur?" She hesitated, looked at Vanderlyn, then quickly withdrew her eyes from his face. His eyes were full of agony. She felt as if she had peered through a secret window of another's soul.
"That is why I have come back to Paris," she went on, addressing Peggy's husband, "for I feel that not a moment should be lost in making enquiries. There are certain places where they take those who meet with accidents in our streets—accidents, alas! more and more frequent every day. Let us start at once and make enquiries."
Tom Pargeter heard her out with obvious impatience. But still his varnish of good breeding so far lasted that he muttered a word or two of gratitude for the trouble she had taken. Then he turned to Laurence Vanderlyn.
"Surely you don't think anything has happened to her, Grid?" he asked, nervously. "Now I come to think of it, she was a fool not to take one of the cars. Then we should have had none of this worry. I've always said the Paris cabs weren't safe. What d'ye think we had better do? We can't start out and make a round of all the hospitals—the idea's absurd!" Waiting a moment, he added dismally, "It's clear I can't take that twelve-twenty train."
He walked over to one of the windows, and drummed with his fingers on the pane.
Although Madame de Lera did not understand a word he said, Pargeter's attitude was eloquent of how he had taken the astounding news, and she looked at him with angry perplexity and pain. She said something in a low voice to Vanderlyn; as a result he walked up to Pargeter and touched him on the shoulder.
"Tom," he said, "I'm afraid something ought to be done, and done quickly. Madame de Lera suggests that we go to the Prefecture of Police; every serious accident is, of course, always reported there at once."
The other turned—"All right," he said, sullenly, "just as you like! But I bet you anything that after we have taken all that trouble, we shall come back to find Peggy, or news of her, here. You don't know her as well as I do! I don't believe she's had an accident; I daresay you'll laugh at me, Grid, but all I can say is that I don't feel she's had an accident. Take my word for it, old man, there's nothing to be frightened about. Why, you look quite pale!"
There came the distant sound of a telephone bell. "There!" he cried, "I expect that is Peggy, or news of her. What a bore it is having three telephones in a house!" He left the room, and a moment later they heard him shouting to his butler.
Vanderlyn turned to Madame de Lera. "He doesn't believe that Mrs. Pargeter has had an accident," he said, quietly, "you must not judge him too harshly." He added, after a moment, "I think you must know, Madame de Lera, that Mrs. Pargeter's husband has always been lacking in imagination."
Her only answer was a shrug of her shoulders.
Once a year the newspapers of each great capital publish, among other statistics, a record of the disappearances which have occurred in their midst during the preceding twelve months. These disappearances are not counted by tens or by hundreds, but by thousands; and what is true of every great city is in a very special sense true of Paris, the human Cloaca Maxima of the world. There, the sudden vanishing, the obliteration as it were, of a human being—especially of a foreigner—arouses comparatively little surprise or interest among those whose weary duty it is to try and find what has become of the lost one.
To Madame de Lera,—even to Tom Pargeter,—the beginning of what was to be so singular and perplexing a quest had about it something awe-inspiring and absorbing. So it was that during the few minutes which elapsed between their leaving the Avenue du Bois de Bologne and their reaching the ancient building where the Paris Police still has its headquarters, not a word was spoken by either of the two ill-assorted companions who sat together in the rear of the car, for Vanderlyn, the only one of the three who knew where the Prefecture of Police is situated, had been placed next to the chauffeur in order that he might direct him as to the way thither.
By such men as Tom Pargeter and their like, the possibility of material misfortune attacking themselves and those who form what may be called their appanage, is never envisaged; and therefore, when such misfortune comes to them, as it does sooner or later to all human beings, the grim guest's presence is never accepted without an amazed sense of struggle and revolt.
The news of the accident to his little son had angered Pargeter, and made him feel ill-used, but that it should have been followed by this mystery concerning his wife's whereabouts seemed to add insult to injury. So it was an ill-tempered, rather than an anxious man who joined Vanderlyn on the worn steps of the huge frowning building wherein is housed that which remains the most permanent and the most awe-inspiring of Parisian institutions.
As they passed through the great portals Tom Pargeter smiled, for the first time; "We shall soon have news of her, Grid," he murmured, confidently.
Vanderlyn winced as he nodded a dubious assent.
But at first everything went ill with them. Pargeter insisted on sending for the police interpreter and stating his business in English; then, irritated at the man's lack of comprehension, he broke out—to Vanderlyn's surprise—into voluble French. But as the two foreigners were sent from room to room in the old-fashioned, evil-smelling building, as endless forms were placed before them to be filled up, it became increasingly clear that the disappearance of a human being, especially of an Englishwoman, did not strike the listless employees as being particularly remarkable.
The more angry Pargeter grew and the more violent in his language, the more politely, listlessly, indifferent became those to whom he addressed his questions and indignant complaints.
The cosmopolitan millionaire-sportsman, accustomed to receive a constant stream of adulation and consideration from all those with whom life brought him in contact, was first amazed, and then angered, by the lack of interest shown in him and in his affairs at the Prefecture of Police.
Then, to his surprise and only half-concealed mortification, a reference made by Laurence Vanderlyn to an incident which had taken place the year before—that is, to the disappearance of an American citizen—followed by the production of the diplomatist's card, brought about a magic change.
Immediately the two friends were introduced into the presence of an important official; and a moment later Tom Pargeter's outraged dignity and sense of importance were soothed by an outpouring of respectful sympathy, while in an incredibly short time the full particulars of every accident which had occurred in the streets of Paris during the last twenty-four hours were laid before the anxious husband. But it soon became clear that in none of these had Mrs. Pargeter been concerned.