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E. Phillips Oppenheim wrote this series of ten mondaine, elegant tales of skulduggery on the French Riviera for Harper's Bazar, where they were published from July 1924 to April 1925. The British and American book editions followed in 1927. Although each story stands on its own, the continuity of place and protagonist lends the collection as a whole the characteristics of a serial novel. Thanks and credit for making this work available for publication at RGL go to Gary Meller, Florida, who made and donated image files of his personal copy of the first US edition of the book. —R.G.
"MADAME," one of the most brilliant personalities in French society before the War, runs a circle of dashing young adventurers, who commit all sorts of crimes, the members sharing the proceeds. The Virgins consist of Public School men and 'Varsity men who are virgins in crime until they bind themselves to "Madame." To ensure loyalty, each man gives her a written confession of his first crime. The gang flourishes for quite a time, and then comes the War and it is disbanded. Years pass, during which its members have attained responsible positions. From the seclusion of her villa on the French Riviera "Madame" sends out the call to bring them all back to earn their quittances, or, in other words, to win back the confessions they handed to her. To do this they have to commit a final crime, but by now these men are eminently respectable, princes of industry, barristers, artists, and so on, and you can imagine that they object most strongly to re-entering the paths of crime. How they arc made to do so in order to earn their quittances is told in these stories.
THE two men hesitated upon the tee, gazing down the glade towards the distant-green. Their caddies were still pointing in excitement to a motionless object stretched upon the smooth turf close to the flag.
"It's a man!"
"He is dead!"
The players paused to consider the situation. They were oddly contrasted combatants—one, Mr. Edgar Franks, elderly, large and florid, with a mass of flaxen hair only slightly streaked with grey, a transatlantic millionaire, and owner of the finest villa in the neighbourhood of Antibes the other tall and slim, a mere lad, whose name was Armand Toyes, and who motored down occasionally from his home somewhere in the hills behind Cagnes.
"I guess he's lying just about where I want to pitch," the former remarked in a tone of annoyance. "That is if it's a man at all."
"Whether it's a man or a bundle of rags," his companion observed, "I am afraid we shall have to walk the hole or send the caddies on. We might try a shout."
Both men lifted their voices, and the warning cry of the modern golfer rang through the sunlit stillness of the April morning. There was not the slightest movement from the object upon the green.
"We shall have to go and investigate," the American grumbled.
The two men skirted a little clump of marsh grasses, amongst which were clusters of yellow irises, and made their way down the fairway towards the green. Both, in their way, were of incurious disposition, yet they quickened their pace a little as they neared their destination.
"It's a man right enough," the younger golfer declared.
"A tramp," his companion pronounced, "and asleep. No dead man would lie like that. Hallo there!"
The sleeper started, raised himself on his elbow and struggled to his feet. He was dressed in the rags of a French tramp or labourer out of work, but his attitude, in the circumstances, was unusual. He turned a dark, scowling face upon the intruders as though in resentment at their interference with his slumbers.
"Queer place to choose for a bed, my man," Mr. Edgar Franks remonstrated. "Do you know that this is a golf course, and private property?"
"I did not know, and what does it matter?" was the none too civil reply. "I lost my way and I was overcome by sleep. In what direction does Cagnes lie?"
They pointed out the small town on its picturesque eminence. The man looked at them both for a moment with obvious distaste, turned away without another word, and started off.
"Well, I'm blessed!" Mr. Edgar Franks exclaimed.
"Surly devil!" his young companion laughed. "A tramp, without a doubt, but fancy his not asking for anything."
They watched him cross the links in a direct line towards the town which they had indicated. He walked as though his feet were sore, but he had none of the habitual slouch of the mendicant.
"Queer that he answered us in French," Edgar Franks remarked. "He looked English to me. His intonation was English too."
They strolled to the next tee and dismissed the affair from their minds.
The tramp crossed the links, found his way out on to the road, and entered a small café on the outskirts of the place. A woman, from behind the counter, watched his approach doubtfully.
"What does Monsieur desire?" she inquired with somewhat forced politeness.
"A wash," he replied shortly. "Afterwards some coffee."
He understood her look, and, from a pocket in his tattered coat, drew out several franc notes. She moved to the end of the counter and opened a door.
"Out there is a basin," she directed. "There is also water. One may wash there and afterwards the coffee shall be served."
The man made his toilet and returned. He chose a chair out in the sunlight. His clothes remained the clothes of a scarecrow and the frown had not left his face. Nevertheless, he was a person of no ordinary type. He was apparently still young, his features had strength, his mouth was straight and resolute. His hands were hard and tanned, but shapely.
"Monsieur has come far?" the woman asked, as she served his coffee.
"Far enough," he answered. "Can you direct me," he went on, after a moment's pause, "to the Villa Sabatin?"
"The Villa Sabatin?" the woman repeated. "But yes. It is up the valley on the left. One takes the little train there, and gets out at St. Oisette."
"It is far?" he demanded.
"Nine kilometres, perhaps," the woman replied.
The man paid for his coffee and roll, counted his remaining franc notes, and boarded the shabby little train-tram, waiting by the side of the road. Slowly and with many jolts he was transported some distance around the deep fertile basin of country lying between Cagnes and St. Jeanette in the hills. At St. Oisette he descended. There was a cluster of tiny houses, each standing in the middle of its cultivated plot of land, a café, an old church, and a rough road. He had no need to ask his way. At the corner of the road was a sign-post—"To the Villa Sabatin."
Arrived now at the final stages of his journey, which might, from his condition, have been a long one, he seemed in no hurry to conclude it. Often he stopped in the somewhat arduous climb and lingered to look around at the ever-increasing panorama. The view was one which had attracted many artists from divers places in the world, but if he felt any appreciation of it, there was no sign of such emotion in his face. His eyes rested with apparent indifference upon the green valley, with its slopes of vineyards and its clusters of olive trees, its neatly cultivated patches of rich vegetable land, and beyond, the walls of the ancient grey stone villages rising here and there in the shadow of the mountains. He even raised his head and gazed at the distant snow-clad Alps, whose tracery of white seemed more than ever virginal against the deep blue of the sky. He glanced backwards at the old town of Cagnes, rising from the plain and towering over the landscape, its buildings a thousand years old, separate, yet blended together with the strange unison of time, the flashes of blue beyond, the glittering bay eastwards. But whatever impression these things produced upon him remained entirely unrevealed. He simply looked and looked and climbed on.
He arrived at length before a pair of wonderfully handsome iron gates which stood open. A woman came out of the porter's lodge and screamed at him volubly, pointing to a back entrance. He took no notice of her and walked on by the masses of flowering roses, orange blossoms, and great clumps of heliotrope. He came upon the villa almost unexpectedly, white and cool in the sunlight, with green shutters and a wide veranda. He marched boldly up to the front door and pulled the iron bell. A very correct-looking manservant frowned out upon him.
"There's a back entrance," he admonished sharply. "You have no right here."
"I am a visitor," the tramp rejoined calmly. "Be so good as to inform Madame at once that I have arrived."
"It is impossible," the man refused. "Madame does not receive mendicants."
He would have closed the door, but the tramp's foot was already in the opening.
"You had better announce me," he insisted, "or there may be trouble."
The servant hesitated. A woman had issued from one of the large windows, a book under her arm, and was slowly approaching a wicker chair on the balcony. The tramp drew back and faced her. She was a woman of remarkable appearance, tall, fair, with beautiful complexion, and masses of auburn hair, carefully guarded from the sunlight by a small green parasol with a wonderful jade handle. She was slim and she walked gracefully, yet, though the traces of middle age were not apparent, it was obvious that she was no longer young. She came to a standstill a few yards away. The tramp had removed his cap and bowed low, with a sort of ironic grace.
"As wonderful as ever!" he murmured. "Behold the obedience of your slave!"
The woman looked at him with no expression in her face. Nevertheless, it was clear that she was studying him. Then, with a certain deliberation, her lips parted. She laughed softly and with evident amusement.
"But, my dear Hugh!" she exclaimed. "It has come to this, then?"
"It has come to this," he admitted.
She turned to the butler.
"William," she directed, "show this gentleman to a bathroom. Provide for him whatever you can in the way of clothes and necessities. Monsieur will lunch with us."
The man bowed and turned to usher the newcomer towards the stairs. The latter, however, hesitated for a moment.
"Your welcome," he said to the woman, "overjoys me. I beg, however, that
you will not feel undue alarm on my account. My clothes, it is true, were
better thrown away.
"You need not explain," she interrupted coldly. "Hasten to follow William. I am impatient to welcome you in more favourable circumstances, the first of my Virgins to obey the summons."
He turned away with a little shrug of the shoulders—scarcely the gesture of a tramp. Then he followed his guide up the broad marble stairs.
In a suit of grey English tweeds, obviously the production of a first-class tailor, shaved, manicured, and redolent of the odours of the bathroom, the tramp, when he made his way out on to the piazza an hour later, had certainly all the outward appearance of a gentleman. Madame regarded him with critical approval; William with such amazement that he nearly dropped the silver tray which he was carrying.
"A marvellous transformation!" Madame murmured. "You were always the handsomest of my little company, you know, Hugh, in your way. What a pity that your looks do not seem to have led you to prosperity!"
"Why should I regret ill-fortune," he rejoined, "which has brought me back to you?"
"Your coming was inevitable," she reminded him, "whether your fortune had been good or ill."
"True," he admitted. "It is odd, though, that I should be the first."
"Where were you?" she inquired.
"In Marseilles three days ago."
"I landed there from foreign parts," he explained. "The day I landed I picked up a newspaper in a café on the quay—and here I am."
"I do not inquire too closely into your adventures," Madame said, as she led the way towards the luncheon table, "but you know the one condition which breaks our tie?"
"I have never forgotten it," he replied. "Let me at once reassure you. I have met with various misfortunes during my wanderings, but I have not been in prison."
"Excellent!" she murmured. "For some of the others I fear. You, however, with all your faults, were always a man."
He bowed a little ironically.
"An alfresco lunch," he observed, watching the servants bring out a table. "I have had many on my way from Marseilles, but scarcely like this. One is perhaps discreet before your household?" he asked.
"My servants are still selected on the same principle," she replied. "But it is perhaps better."
"Why have you decided to disband us?" he demanded.
She shrugged her shoulders very slightly. They were served from a sideboard inside one of the rooms. She waited until William, who appeared to have dismissed his subordinates, was occupied there before she answered:
"I am getting old, perhaps, or poor, or weary. I need distraction. I wanted to see what had become of you all—and there is your quittance to earn, you must remember. It suits you to pay me this visit?"
"Suits me?" he repeated. "Why not? I am a ruined and broken man. I was on my way ten minutes after I had read your message. I followed the Mediterranean here and I came strangely. I walked by night, by day I rested and bathed. It has been quite a wonderful experience. I could write a new guide to the Riviera. I have a franc and a few sous left."
Madame stretched out her hand lazily, opened a silk bag which hung from her chair, took out a small volume and studied it carefully.
"You will be glad to hear, then," she announced, setting it down, "that you are better off than you imagine. There are sixty-two thousand, five hundred francs due to you."
"Impossible!" he exclaimed.
"A seventh share of the Gobert appropriation belonged to you," she explained. "You have not as yet received a penny."
"I disown the Gobert appropriation," he replied. "There was a woman in it."
"To disown an affair, which is already accomplished, is merely an affectation," she declared. "There was a woman concerned who chose to be disagreeable. Nothing happened to her. She was simply ignored. I shall write you out a cheque upon the Credit Lyonnais, which will enable you to present a reasonable appearance here."
"And my quittance?" he inquired.
"There is no great hurry about that," she told him. "A rest here will do you no harm, and there are several schemes in my mind. Your present business is to replenish your wardrobe and to take up your position as a guest in my house."
"The effort," he observed, "would appear easy."
The stillness of the sun-warmed, lazy air was suddenly broken. One heard no longer the humming of the bees, the drone of the countless insects, the downward rush of the little stream at the end of the garden. These fainter and more musical sounds were drowned by the insistent throb of an approaching car. A small two-seater tore round the last bend of the drive, and was pulled up with quite unforeseen abruptness at the bottom of the flight of steps. A girl, the sole occupant of the car, descended, and came smiling to meet them. She was very young, and as she drew near it became apparent that she was unexpectedly beautiful. She was tall and slim. Her hair, which escaped bounds a little, was almost the yellow of the Rhine maidens. Her eyes were a dark brown, her eyebrows very distinct and well-defined. Her mouth was delightful; soft and with a continual disposition to develop a humorous curve. She acknowledged, with some surprise, Madame's introduction.
"Mr. Hugh Cardinge—my niece, Claire Fantenay."
The girl shook hands with a pleasant word. Cardinge, who had watched her with an absorbed gaze, bowed. The servant was already preparing another place at the luncheon table.
"How is this?" Madame inquired. "I thought that you were lunching with Armand at the Golf Club."
The girl frowned a little, blushed, and bit her lip. It was obvious that she was younger than she had at first appeared, and her distress made her seem, to the man who had scarcely yet removed his eyes from her, more beautiful than ever.
"Armand annoyed me," she confessed. "I preferred to return. Besides, there was a message which he desired me to bring to you."
"A message?" Madame repeated.
The girl nodded.
"You may understand it," she continued. "Nobody else could. He told me to say that it had arrived this morning. What 'it' was he did not condescend to explain."
"You children!" she murmured tolerantly.
The girl took her place at the table. The shadow of some recent annoyance or hurt lingered still in her face.
"If Armand is a child," she said, "I prefer to consider myself grown-up. If he is grown-up, I should prefer to be a child."
"By the by," Madame inquired irrelevantly, "with whom did Armand play?"
"With a very dull man whom I specially dislike," the girl answered. "He could have had several better matches, but he insisted on waiting for this person. Most annoying for me, because I particularly wanted to walk round."
"You have omitted to mention the name of this objectionable person," Madame reminded her.
"Sorry," the girl replied, "I thought you'd guess. Mr. Edgar Franks, I think he calls himself—the man whom everyone kowtows to because he's a millionaire. What does Armand want with millionaires?"
For the remainder of luncheon Madame and her niece talked on indifferent subjects, chiefly in French. Their guest remained silent. Afterwards, however, when his hostess invited him to walk with her in the gardens, he had something to say.
"Madame," he began, "I have obeyed the call. I am here—as before. But you will remember that in the past there was one condition. Women remained outside everything to which we put our hands."
"The girl there," he went on. "She is very young, and I am sure that she is innocent. You have no niece."
Madame laughed softly. Again her laugh was devoid of any suggestion of mirth.
"Always the Sir Galahad," she scoffed. "I suppose you'd still cut a man's throat, if you wanted to?"
"If I wanted to, without a doubt," he admitted coolly. "I have killed several since we met."
"But the girl, chiefly, I suppose, because she has a baby face, and, from the standards of you men, is beautiful, must not be brought into touch with such things."
"That is so," he agreed. "You remember how it was in the old days? Children, dogs, and women one places outside. In other respects you have not known me scrupulous."
They sat side by side in the pleasant sunlit stillness. Madame was silent. The beauty of his surroundings seemed to act like an irritant upon her companion.
"Tell me," he asked abruptly. "Have you any definite plans, or is it your ambition to organise a new Decameron in this wonderful home of yours?"
"I have no plans," she answered. "Our covenant enjoined that when the time came for disbandment I should send for you all and require you to earn your quittance. That time seemed to me to have arrived. I need amusement badly."
"You have summoned us all?"
"Every one of you," she replied with a faint but poignant smile. "They are not all as prompt as you, but they will come. Most of them will hate it, but they dare not stay away."
"And in the matter of my quittance?" he persisted.
"Your enterprise is already arranged for," she told him. "The message which my niece brought from the Golf Club has confirmed it."
"It must be understood that the young lady is in no way concerned in the undertaking," he stipulated.
The light of a supreme and angry contempt flashed for a moment in her eyes.
"In the circumstances," she scoffed, "conditions from you seem a little absurd. You desire your quittance, I presume? You must earn it."
"Madame," he replied, unmoved, "you should never mock the unfortunate. I admit that I am a soldier of fortune, and to-day I am a pauper—except for the amount you spoke of. But my principles are unshaken."
"In effect, you weary me," she declared. "However, let it pass. All that I require of you is that you rob a fat man, not of money, but of information."
"The business appeals to me," he declared. "I hate fat men. I was annoyed by one this morning."
"Then listen," Madame enjoined...
Mr. Edgar Franks, as was his usual custom, drove himself home from the Golf Club in his superb two-seater Fiat. He drove himself on these brief excursions and dispensed with the services of a chauffeur because it was rather the thing to do amongst the young bloods of the neighbourhood. He was a vain and nervous man, with a great gift for imitation. He drove without skill and without pleasure, and even sometimes bragged about his speed. He was decidedly unused to emergencies, however, and his presence of mind was negligible. Consequently, when he turned one of the hairpin corners of the drive which led from the road below to his villa on the outskirts of Antibes, he was aghast to find another car blocking the way, the driver leaning over the wheel, as though he had been taken suddenly ill or fallen asleep.
The next few seconds were moments of hysterical flurry on the part of Mr. Edgar Franks. He shouted and swerved, and jammed on his brakes with the clumsy force of the terrified amateur. His first clear realisation, after he had brought his car to a standstill a few feet from the other, was a further amazing incident. The man who had been leaning over the wheel was now leaning over him—a tall man, wearing, in cold blood and in the middle of the afternoon, a black crape mask. Simultaneously he was introduced to an entirely new but not unpleasant odour, the disconcerting part of which was, however, that, with the first whiff, he completely forgot his state of terror, and lapsed into absolute unconsciousness....
Mr. Edgar Franks opened his eyes about a quarter of an hour later, and looked into the puzzled face of his head gardener. He blinked rapidly for several moments, but said nothing.
"I took the liberty of awakening Monsieur," the man explained diffidently. "It seemed to me that Monsieur had perhaps gone to sleep inadvertently."
Mr. Edgar Franks was not only a fat man, but he was given to self-indulgence, and it was well known that it was his custom to drink large quantities of white wine in the middle of the day, followed by various liqueur brandies. The fact of his going off to sleep in his car, therefore, was not so surprising to his gardener as it might otherwise have been. His subsequent behaviour, however, was less explicable.
"Where's the other car?" Mr. Edgar Franks demanded.
"The other car, monsieur?" the man repeated in a tone of surprise. "I have seen no other car."
Mr. Edgar Franks felt for his brakes, and found that they had been adjusted by some other and stronger hand than his. Then he tore open his coat, and searched his pockets.
His pocket-book was there untouched, containing, as a matter of fact, some ten-mille notes more than the sum which he was accustomed to carry about with him. There were the two letters which he had received by that morning's post still in their envelopes, and there was also the cable which had been brought to him on the links. His watch, and the gold chain to which were attached some harmless accessories, such as a cigarette-holder, a matchbox and a pencil, still remained. He was forced to come to two conclusions. The first was that he had been robbed of nothing. The second was that he was not only unhurt, but feeling remarkably awake and well. Still, just in front of him were the marks of the other car, where it had stopped.
"Damned if I can understand this!" he murmured, as his foot sought the self-starter.
Madame, already changed for dinner, was reclining in a sheltered corner of the wide flower-enclosed piazza. The late wistaria hung down and mingled with a profusion of roses—there was a background of orange blossom, and of pink-flowering shrubs. Amidst it all Madame sat sphinx-like, an elusive, almost an inappropriate figure, in a Paris gown, faintly redolent of perfume, her smooth complexion obviously a tribute to the enameller's art, her eyebrows delicately pencilled, her lips judiciously carmined, her hair, rich and soft and beautiful in colour, still seeming somehow to lack entire allegiance to the forehead which it skilfully encoiled. She was the supreme word in artistic artificiality, triumphing over its unpleasing suggestions by the exercise of faultless taste and the mystic gifts of sartorial genius....
She turned her head to watch the approach of her guest. Some miraculous foresight had provided him also with dinner clothes, which fitted him as adequately as the lounge suit of the morning. He was no longer even reminiscent of the tramp.
"So your first enterprise was successful?" she murmured. "I trust that it amused you."
"Indifferently," he answered, lighting a cigarette. "It was too easy. Still it appealed to one's sense of humour," he went on. "Mr. Edgar Franks turned out to be the fat man who woke me this morning on the golf links. I sent him to sleep this afternoon, with your wonderful new anaesthetic. Your Professor is to be; congratulated."
"Henri might well become the greatest scientist of this generation, if only he had application and could forget that there was such a thing in the world as absinthe," she observed.
"I am still puzzled," he confessed, sinking into a chair by her side. "All that I did was to read a cablegram, remember its contents, and telephone them to you from Nice."
"It was sufficient," she assured him. "That cable announced the secret purchase of another Oil Company to be added to the Edgar Franks group. The announcement is not to be made until nest week. I have already cabled my brokers in New York. It will be an affair of fifteen or twenty thousand pounds."
"What a brain!" he murmured. "At any rate, it is a comfort to feel that I am earning my bread and salt."
She turned her head and looked at him lazily.
"I wonder sometimes, Hugh," she said; "why you never did any good for yourself in, the world?"
"I very nearly did—once."
"Not long ago. Since the days of our little exploits together. Why, here comes my other golfing acquaintance of this morning," he went on, turning his head at the sound of approaching footsteps. "It is the youth who was playing with the fat man."
The newcomer quickened his pace a little, bent low over Madame and raised her fingers to his lips. She directed his attention to Cardinge,
"This is a very old friend, Armand," she laid. "Mr, Hugh Cardinge—my nephew, Armand Toyes."
"Charmed," the young man declared courteously.
They shook hands. Cardinge was conscious of a swift return of that queer feeling of dislike which had brought the scowl into his face only a few hours before. The young man possessed what seemed at first to be a pleasant face and a frank expression. Apart from a tinge of sunburn his colour was somewhat high, the faint down of a dark moustache adorned his lips, he had clear brown eyes, beautifully brushed silky hair, and the complexion of a girl. His manner was ingratiating. If he recollected his previous meeting with Cardinge, he betrayed no signs of it. Yet Cardinge, content, as a rule, with a superficial outlook upon life, a scoffer at psychics, found something in that young man's face which filled him with bitter and instinctive aversion. He glanced questioningly towards Madame.
"It surprises you," she inquired, "that I have discovered a nephew as well as a niece?"
"The relationship in one case being as mythical as in the other, I should imagine," he rejoined with faint sarcasm.
Madame did not accept the challenge. She was occupied in watching the approach of the girl who had stepped out on to the terrace a moment before. The sunlight had caught her hair, which seemed like a soft halo of gold around her face, a little paler now than earlier in the day. Her eyes were anxious, her expression palpably disturbed. The young man, who had risen to his feet at her coming, approached her with a conciliatory smile.
"My little friend is not angry with me any more?" he asked. "Here is William announcing dinner. Let me take you in."
His voice was soft, almost caressing, yet to Cardinge there seemed to be something of menace in it. The girl laid her fingers upon his arm without a word.
"If you children have quarrelled," Madame said, as she accepted Cardinge's arm, "you must make friends again. To-night is a night of rejoicing. We are going to drink champagne. Our friend Hugh Cardinge here has won his quittance."
She handed him a long, sealed envelope which she drew from the silk bag at her side. He glanced at it for a moment with reminiscent curiosity, and then deliberately tore it into fragments.
"You are no longer," she reminded him, with a faint smile, "one of my Virgins. Won't you stay with us for a little time, as my guest? You may have the good fortune to help me receive the next of your old associates."
He hesitated. Just at that moment the girl looked round. The arm on which Madame's fingers rested grew rigid. Cardinge changed his mind.
"You are very kind," he replied. "I will stay on for a short time with pleasure."
MADAME motioned slightly with her green silk parasol. She turned in her chaise-longue in order to see a little farther down the precipitous avenue.
"Our circle broadens," she murmured. "It is only by a matter of hours, Hugh, that you secured the honour of being the first comer."
They were seated upon the terrace, awaiting the summons to luncheon, Madame, dressed as though for the promenade at Longchamps, speckless, faultlessly turned out from the tips of her manicured fingers to the delicate but seemly touch of colour upon her cheeks. By her side, Hugh Cardinge, the arrival of yesterday, in cool white flannels, sat smoking a cigarette and gazing abstractedly up into the hills. Claire Fantenay, seated at a small table a little apart, was writing a letter. Armand, leaning against the balustrade, was watching her.
"My Virgins return in strange guise," Madame continued. "You, my dear Hugh, appear as a tramp. Our friend here resembles a bourgeois shopkeeper moving to his villa for the week-end."
Armand swung round. He had spent several years at an English public school, and was inclined to cultivate a certain slanginess of phrase.
"Who is the old Johnny?" he demanded. "And what's he bringing with him?"
"He appears to be some sort of itinerant artist," Hugh Cardinge declared.
"I do not remember such a person amongst my Virgins," Madame remarked. "We shall soon know."
An ancient victoria, drawn by a scraggy, flea-bitten horse, came creaking round the last bend of the avenue. The driver walked by the side of his steed, cracking his whip, eloquent in phrases of mingled threats and encouragement. His seat was occupied by an enormous easel. The body of the vehicle seemed almost filled with luggage of an indiscriminate character, amongst which sat a rather portly, neatly dressed man, in grey tweeds, with a flowing black tie and grey Homburg hat.
As the carriage crept up to the front steps the newcomer waved his hand to the little group. Madame leant back with half-closed eyes. It was a habit of hers when she feared that she might be tempted to laugh.
"It is Johnny," she murmured.
"Johnny Fardell, by Jove!" Cardinge echoed, as he rose to his feet.
The occupant of the victoria descended and made a dignified approach—dignified, that is to say, so far as a rather squat figure, a protuberant waistcoat and a consequential air would permit.
"No longer 'Johnny,' if you please," he begged. "At any rate until we have picked up the old threads, if ever we do. I am Sir John Fardell. Who is this? Cardinge? God bless my soul! Cardinge! Well, if there was one of our little company whom I should have expected to go to the dogs first and quickest—forgive me. I am lacking in tact, perhaps. Madame, I kiss your fingers. You are marvellous."
She smiled at him languidly.
"So long as you do not tell me that I have learnt the secret of perennial youth," she said, "you may rave about me as long as you like. This is my niece Claire, and my nephew Armand. They are cousins, not brother and sister. And now, my dear man, sit down for a moment while William brings you a cocktail, and tell us precisely what evil genius wafted you into the paths of virtue."
"My art," Sir John confided pompously. "I found it impossible to combine the irregular life with the pursuit of my ideals."
He had become the centre of the little group. They looked at him with varying expressions.
"Are you an R.A.?" Cardinge asked.
"Not yet," was the regretful admission. "I shall be, on the next vacancy."
"But, my dear John," Madame reminded him, "while you were in Paris you had a studio for three years, and you never painted anything. As regards morals, you were the Bluebeard of your profession. Time after time I have visited your studio to find the walls bare and your easel as virgin as your reputation."
"I laid foundation-stones in Paris," Sir John declared, disposing of the cocktail which had been brought to him in a single gulp. "Where can I wash my hands before luncheon? I am very hungry and very dirty."
Armand stepped gracefully forward.
"Let me show you, sir," he invited.
The two disappeared inside the house. Cardinge and Madame exchanged amused glances. Claire smiled across at them.
"Dear aunt," she complained, "and I thought that I was to witness the unfolding of many marvellous romances! I thought that all these old companions of yours would come back with the seared but interesting look of those who had led sinful lives—like Mr. Cardinge here—and in due course, with proper sympathy, might be led to tell their life's story. Why, Sir John is the most commonplace thing I have ever seen! Do you mean to tell me that he was really one of the Virgins?"
"Sir John has changed," Madame observed dryly.
"I myself have seen him," Cardinge declared, "fight and get away from a couple of gendarmes at the corner of the Place Pigalle one night when he had enough—"
"Hush!" Madame interrupted.
"What made you bring your easel, Johnny?" Madame inquired, soon after the service of: luncheon had commenced.
"It was my only possible excuse," Sir John explained. "I have an exceedingly respectable housekeeper and I am surrounded by a highly respectable circle of intimate friends. I could not possibly disappear from their midst without an excuse. Besides, from what I can see of it, this country appears to me to be quite worth a little attention. I may decide to immortalise it."
"Conceited brute!" Cardinge murmured. Sir John smiled.
"If I am conceited," he rejoined, "it is the world and my fellow-artists who have made me so. I have been successful—not only that, but I have deserved success. I paint very well indeed."
"You shall paint Claire," Madame suggested.
Sir John shook his head.
"Mademoiselle Claire is beautiful," he admitted, "but there is nothing in her face yet. It is not my metier to exploit the ingénue. The young man there—how old are you, sir?" he asked Armand.
"I am twenty years old, Sir John."
"Well, there is enough in your face to make it worth painting," Sir John declared. "Only you would probably sue me for libel."
"What do you mean?" Madame asked coldly.
"I paint the things which I see coming," her visitor replied. "In Mademoiselle's case these are at present indeterminate. Accordingly as she loves wisely or foolishly, as fate may chance to deal with her, so will she become paintable or the reverse. Our young friend there has already chosen his way in life, or, rather perhaps it has been chosen for him by latent propensities.... I will take a little more of the salad, please, and permit me to, say that your white wine is excellent."
Madame sighed. She shook her head—a gesture so mechanical that, coupled with the perfection of her toilet, the slight but artistic manipulation of her cosmetics, she was almost reminiscent of the toy-shop.
"There is very little left of our comrade Johnny," she bemoaned.
"It is the smear of worldly success," Cardinge declared. "He has been told that he is clever, and he is all the time delving into the place where his brain ought to be, to prove it."
Sir John continued his lunch undisturbed. His capacity for receiving chaff at least remained. He looked after the young people curiously when presently they left the table.
"Uncommonly good-looking girl, Mademoiselle Claire," he observed. "The young man's a limb of Satan all right. Face of a seraph and a blackened soul. You know the sort of thing, Cardinge. Ortorde used the type in those horrible caricatures of his. Cousins indeed! They're not of the same strain, Madame, and you know it. Am I keeping you both? I am sorry. The coffee on the train was undrinkable, and the roll like sawdust."
There was a brief silence—a scorching silence, the significance of which even Sir John felt. He looked across at his hostess.
"Johnny," she said, "you should remember that I never allowed any questions as regards members of my family."
Sir John smiled.
"I remind myself," he confided, "of a visit I once paid to my late headmaster. He showed me the rod with which he used to correct me. Somehow or other, I wasn't in the least terrified."
Madame stretched out her hand to a little casket which stood by her side, selected a cigarette and tapped it upon the table. She looked lazily through the open French windows out into a panorama of sunshine, of brightly coloured flowers and butterflies. The atmosphere of the room was like a little scented oasis. In the distance along the piazza the butler was arranging coffee and liqueurs upon a table. No one was within earshot.
"Johnny," she reminded him, "the conditions of fifteen years ago remain. Your privileges remain, also the penalties. If you do not realise this, you had better return to London. You will find that I shall know very well how to deal with that little packet entrusted to me—let me see, seventeen years ago last April."
Sir John laughed, but not altogether naturally. There was something disconcerting about Madame, with her cold voice, and her statuesque, artificial beauty; something disconcerting, too, in the almost cynical silence of Hugh Cardinge, the one companion of his wilder days whom he had half feared and half admired.
"Come, come, Madame!" he expostulated. "Those days are over and done with. You see what I am now—a well-known man, an artist of repute, famous, with a place in the orderly ways of life. Those two or three years of madness in Paris were all very well while they lasted, but they lie back in the past which one must forget. When I received your summons, I came—not because I recognised the obligation of the call, but as a matter of business, and because, of course, I want my confession back. I am not a wealthy man, but I have saved a little money. If you are not disposed to give me back the packet I deposited with you, I have come to buy it."
Again Madame sought evasion from that too-destroying laugh. Her eyes half closed, only the comers of her lips twitched.
"At least," she murmured, "the Sir John of to-day has not forgotten to be almost as amusing as the Johnny of seventeen years ago. Come, my guests, the moment for coffee has arrived."
She rose to her feet and walked towards the window. In the dim light of the room she seemed to move with the lithe freedom of a girl. The curve of her neck as she looked backwards at Sir John, still sitting sulkily in his place, was exquisitely graceful.
"It is London which has done this," she concluded. "He has probably lived in Kensington. If he had tramped from Marseilles in rags, perhaps he would have arrived differently."
Late that evening, Sir John, after many unsuccessful efforts, managed to secure a few minutes' private conversation with. Cardinge. They were in the billiard-room, and had been suddenly deserted by the two younger members of the party, who had gone outside to listen to a nightingale.
"Look here, Cardinge," Sir John confided. "It's very jolly down here, of course, and I hear that the golf's good and I'm glad that Madame has kept on her legs, but I don't feel altogether comfortable somehow."
"In what way?" his companion inquired.
"What's the old dear want with us? I made up my mind it was more or less something in the nature of blackmail. I've been expecting that for years, and I've put a bit on one side to buy my dossier back again. But you heard her at luncheon-time. Just scoffed at me when I tried to open up negotiations. She surely can't expect that at my time of life I am going to—well—er—start the old game again."
"It seems to me that she does expect something of the sort," Cardinge replied, gravely enough, but with a faint twinkle in his eyes. "I got through my little commission only yesterday."
"God bless my soul!" Sir John exclaimed. "Nothing of the old sort, I trust?"
"I'm not so sure about that. It was smart work while It lasted. An absolutely beautiful scene for the films. Believe me, companion of my youth, in these sober days, in the sunlight, mind, with a suddenly-assumed crape mask on my face, I held up a man, drugged—and robbed him."
Sir John shrank back in his seat. He looked at his companion aghast.
"You're joking, Cardinge!"
"I've told you the sober truth," was the calm reply. "I didn't think I had the nerve left. I did very well out of it, too."
"But there's been nothing in the papers," Sir John exclaimed. "I read the local rag through this morning." Cardinge smiled.
"Madame's coups very seldom do get into the newspapers," he said. "You ought to know that. You remember the time when the Duc de Soyau invited you down to the Chateau to paint—"
"Be quiet, you idiot!" the other interrupted. "Can't you realise my—er—my altered position? That part of my life rises up sometimes like a nightmare. Don't remind me of it. I've come here to buy forgetfulness, not to discuss re-embarking upon those—er—to make the best of it, questionable enterprises."
"Madame is a very peculiar character," Cardinge observed. "As you well know, it is the excitement she loves, the finesse and the diplomacy necessary to keep us all out of trouble which appeals to her. By the by, here is Madame. I expect she wants to talk to you."
Cardinge strolled out through the open windows on to the terrace. The girl was standing there on the end balcony alone, looking down into a tangled chasm of woodland below. She turned round at his coming. In the moonlight he could almost have fancied that there were tears in her eyes.
"I thought Armand was with you," he said.
"Armand has gone in to unpack some more cigarettes," she replied. "I am afraid, too," she went on, after a moment's hesitation, "that I was a little angry with him."
"For various reasons," she answered evasively.
"You children," he sighed, "take yourselves too seriously. Fancy quarrelling on a night like this!"
"We are always willing to listen to advice from our elders," she rejoined with mock humility. "Come and sit on the lower terrace with me. That is if, at your advanced age, you are not afraid of the night air."
"I'll risk it," he assented. "What will Armand say if he comes back and finds you gone, though?"
"I hope he will be annoyed," she replied. "It will serve him right. Even when he is possible, he is inclined to take me a great deal too much for granted. Come and show me how in the days of Owen Meredith and Jane Austen people used to flirt in moonlight like this."
"One can't flirt with children," he objected.
"It wasn't the custom in your young days, I suppose," she retorted. "But there are no children now after the nursery. Would you mind talking seriously just for five minutes?"
"I'm a better listener," he warned her.
"That's what you're going to be," she told him. "You see, I want your advice. You look as though you knew everything there was to be known in this world, and a little of the world underneath."
"Thanks," he muttered.
"You needn't mind," she went on. "Believe me, there's nothing so attractive as a suggestion of the Mephistophelian—especially to really nice girls like me. Now listen, please. Try and think of this as a problem—a girl at the crossways, you know, and that sort of thing! If I go on living in this atmosphere of flowers and sunshine and languor and moonlight with Armand, I shall certainly end by falling in love with him."
"I shouldn't advise you to," he said simply.
She abandoned her tone of badinage and became at once perfectly natural. Her manner was almost eager.
"Tell me why you feel like that," she begged.
"Instinct," he answered.
"That's queer," she mused. "Do you know what I sometimes feel about Armand?"
"I believe," she said deliberately, "that he was born without a soul."
There was real interest in his eyes as he turned a little further round towards her. The moonlight was strangely kind to him. The bitter lines seemed smoothed out from his face. Sympathy had rejuvenated him.
"It's a silly thing to try to explain," the girl went on, "because one can't. It's a sort of feeling that seems to come to me at odd times. We've wandered about here in these wonderful gardens and made little excursions up in the hills together. You know how beautiful it all is—the lights and the colour, the shadows on the mountains and the valleys, the patches of flowers in unexpected places—well, you know, anyhow."
"Yes, I know," he admitted.
"We've seen these things together," she went on. "In his way Armand appears to appreciate them. But it's a different way. There is something inside me which seems to be the better for looking at them. With him, it is just like a lizard stretching himself out on a wall to bask in the sunshine. His appreciation seems so terribly external. And he is cruel. He never goes out of his way to avoid treading upon anything alive. He breaks off flowers and blossoms as he passes and throws them away. He can laugh at suffering."
"How old are you?" he asked a little abruptly.
"Twenty," she replied. "But intelligent beyond my years!"
"Why do you ask for my advice? You don't need any."
"Oh, well, I'm not so sure. You know how fond one can be sometimes of wicked things that are beautiful. There are times when I'm very fond of Armand. He's clever," she went on, dropping her voice a little and looking uneasily around. "He watches me. He knows just the right thing to say at the right moment."
"You asked me a little time ago what I thought of him," Cardinge reminded her. "As I see that we are going to be interrupted, I will tell you. I think he has the makings of one of the greatest scoundrels ever born."
"I quite agree," she murmured under her breath. "I suppose that's what makes him sometimes so hatefully attractive."
The whole of the little party from the Villa Sabatin lunched next day at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo. Madame, welcomed like royalty and treated with the utmost respect by everyone, sat at the head of the table and presided over a specially ordered and specially served meal. There was one other guest—Mrs. Hodson Chambers. She was a large woman, a visitor from Minneapolis, with a mauve complexion, several chins, and a hundred thousand pounds worth of jewellery distributed about her ample person. Madame regarded her several times during the service of luncheon with almost affectionate interest.
"What do you think of Mrs. Hodson Chambers?" she whispered to Sir John, who sat on her right hand.
"I never saw anything so horrible in my life," he replied frankly.
"That," Madame rejoined, "is a pity, because you are going to paint her."
"If you were a man," he confided, "my reply would be that I would see you damned first. As it is, you can take it for said."
"Nevertheless," Madame repeated, "you are going to paint her. She will probably wear even a more outrageous gown than she has on to-day. She will certainly wear more jewellery. She will also wear the Van Dresser emeralds. You will insist upon that. You always did love emeralds, didn't you, Johnny?"
He laid down his knife and fork. The healthy colour had gone from his cheeks. The man's desire to eat good food had also left him.
"I won't do it," he declared.
"You will," she replied. "There is an artist's villa—a tiny little place—to be let at Cagnes, with a large studio. It is in the hands of the agents here. You will take it this afternoon. I shall lend you servants. You can charge two thousand guineas for the portrait. I believe she offered Sargent ten."
"I wouldn't paint her for twenty," he protested.
Madame smiled inscrutably.
After luncheon they sat in the bar waiting for the tables to open. Madame, in her easy chair set in a remote corner, still retained a semblance of royalty.
"Do you know what Sir John has just been telling me, Mrs. Hodson Chambers?" she confided during an interval of the conversation. "He wants to paint you. He has quite a charming idea about it."
Mrs. Hodson Chambers, like many a multi-millionairess before, had never been told the truth about herself and had never possessed a mirror which was capable of doing it. She looked upon the suggestion as flattering and delightful, but in no way improbable.
"Now, that's a very charming compliment, Sir John," she declared. "Could it be done down here, right away?"
"I—" Sir John began, "I really am not—"
"That is precisely Sir John's idea," Madame interrupted. "He is looking
for a subject for his next year's Academy picture. He has seen a charming
little villa at Cagnes with a studio he would like to take. I'm afraid he's
terribly extortionate, but, as you know, when a man is
at the top of his profession—"
"Say, you can cut that out," Mrs. Hodson Chambers intervened. "I guess I can afford to pay Sir John's fee."
"These dear men won't discuss such things themselves," Madame continued smoothly. "He wants two thousand guineas for the picture and a thousand guineas extra if it is hung in the Academy, and he wants to do you in black."
"In black!" Mrs. Hodson Chambers gasped. "I haven't a black gown to my name."
"Wearing every scrap of jewellery you possess," Madame went on, "including the Van Dresser emeralds."
Mrs. Hodson Chambers cheered up.
"That's some idea," she admitted. "I suppose my maid and Madame What's-her-name could fix up something. Mauve wouldn't do, would it, Sir John?" she asked, smiling sweetly at him across the table. "Mauve is rather my colour."
"Mauve would be impossible," Sir John pronounced. "In fact, on second thoughts—"
"Sir John is quite right," Madame interrupted ruthlessly. "Black it must be. Think of the emeralds!"
"Well, no one can say that I'm obstinate," Mrs. Hodson Chambers declared. "I always believe in letting anyone have their own way in a matter of this sort."
An attendant came and whispered in her ear. She rose to her feet.
"My seat at the baccarat table," she explained. "They always wait for me. That's settled, Sir John, isn't it? I can come any morning, and you'll let me know where."
"I suppose so," he answered with an attempt at cordiality.
Mrs. Hodson Chambers swept out. Madame threw back her head and smiled. Sir John lit a cigar and ordered some more coffee.
"It's an utterly foolish business," he grumbled. "All for the sake of three thousand guineas, too. Why, I'd have given you that for my packet and quittance."
"Three thousand guineas?" Madame repeated.
"Yes, I suppose they'll hang the confounded picture when it's finished." Madame leant forward.
"You very foolish man," she scoffed. "It isn't the three thousand guineas for the picture we're thinking about. It's the hundred thousand pounds those emeralds will fetch."
Sir John for a moment or two was absolutely speechless. He had, indeed, the appearance of a man about to indulge in a fit. The waiter looked at him in concern. Madame only smiled.
"The gentleman is troubled with indigestion," she confided. "Leave the brandy, waiter. He will be better directly. Hugh, and you two children, go and gamble. I will look after Sir John."
"Nothing," Sir John began, as soon as he had recovered the power of speech, "would ever induce me to consider this hideous proposition."
"Precisely," Madame murmured. "You would prefer, without doubt, to come home with me and listen to extracts from that interesting little document I have locked away in my safe with your signature attached. Now light your cigar again and attend to me."
Sir John entered upon his fifth morning of agony full of dire forebodings. He was already beginning to fancy things. Mrs. Hodson Chambers's smile as she had hung the emeralds round her neck and made her way to the chair on the rostrum at the north end of the studio, haunted him.
"You see how I trust you, Sir John," she said languishingly. "These emeralds are worth at least a hundred thousand pounds of your English money and you are the only man in the villa. Yet, somehow or other, I always feel quite safe with you."
Sir John felt his forehead and found it wet.
"Do you?" he muttered. "Well, I don't know, I'm sure. If you would feel more comfortable to leave them at home—"
"Cut that out," the lady enjoined, as she subsided into the chair which had been arranged for her. "Trust your friends, I say, and hate your enemies. You're a friend now, Sir John, aren't you?"
"I hope so," he answered, beginning to work vigorously.
Mrs. Hodson Chambers sighed. It was an audible sigh and intended to traverse the whole length of the studio.
"It seems to me, Sir John," she said, "that you've kind of got something on your mind. Ever since I began these sittings you've seemed thoughtful and absent. If there's anything you want to say to me, out with it! I'm not such a very terrible person, am I?"
"Nothing at all," he assured her. "I'm anxious to make a success of the picture."
"That's dear of you," she murmured. "When am I going to be allowed to see it?"
He looked at the canvas ruefully.
"Not yet," he insisted. "Not for some time. This is just the outline—the idea of the thing, so to speak. I shall finish the picture when you have gone."
She became thoughtful.
"Say, I feel somehow all set against going away, Sir John," she confided.
"Why, you've booked your place next Thursday," he reminded her.
"I know," she assented. "But what's the use, after all, of being one of the richest women in the world, if you can't change your mind now and then?"
"It's getting very hot here."
"Hot weather agrees with me. How long are you going to stay, Sir John?"
"I shall be leaving very soon after you," he assured her. "I shall probably finish the picture at home."
"In London?" she asked.
"Of course," he answered.
"London is one of the few places I haven't seen much of," she reflected. "I rather fancy—"
"I shan't return direct to London," he interrupted hastily. "I thought of a little tour first—round by the Madeira Islands or something of that sort."
"The Madeira Islands," she ruminated. "Say, that's strange. The last doctor I went to seemed all worked up about the Madeira Islands—wanted me to take the boat right there."
Sir John groaned under his breath. Every morning was becoming worse. He resorted to an old expedient.
"For five minutes," he insisted, "I must have complete silence. So! Just like that, please."
He painted with mechanical fingers. All the time he was listening for footsteps. He was in a state almost approaching nervous prostration. It was a cruel thing, this, to have the follies of one's youth dragged up against one.
"The five minutes are up," Mrs. Hodson Chambers called out gaily. "Say, Sir John, I've been studying you some. I'm great on that physiognomy stunt. Why are you an unhappy man?"
"It is a secret which I could never disclose—certainly not to you."
"You're lonely," she murmured.
"Hideously," he assented.
"Tell me," she went on, "have you ever been married?"
"Never!" he answered fervently.
A wealth of sympathetic understanding was there for him if he had troubled to glance towards his sitter.
"I knew it," she sighed tenderly. "And your wife, she would be Lady Fardell, wouldn't she?"
"I suppose so," he admitted.
"To think what some woman is missing!"
"Another five minutes' silence, please," he begged, painting vigorously.
She made a little grimace, intended to be coy. For the first time Sir John prayed that that thing which he had dreaded might come quickly. And almost immediately his prayer was granted. He himself heard nothing, was conscious of nothing. Suddenly, however, he saw a remarkable change in the face of his subject—a look of blank terror replaced her expression of supine amiability. She opened her mouth and began to scream. Sir John turned round quickly. The door of the studio had been opened silently. A man was walking towards him—a sufficiently alarming figure—a tall man in the blue linen clothes of a mechanic or workman, with a mask on his face and an ugly-looking pistol in his hand. Sir John dropped his brush and up went his hands.
"I am unarmed," he called out. "My pocket-book—"
The approaching figure muttered indistinguishable words. Suddenly the left hand shot out from his jacket pocket. Something which seemed like a sponge was thrust under Sir John's nostrils. He reeled back with a little groan. The masked figure turned and faced Mrs. Hodson Chambers. She had no more breath left with which to scream, and was rocking about in her chair—a terrified, nerveless monument of flesh. The man walked swiftly towards her.
"You will not be hurt," he said, "so long as you keep silent."
She opened her lips, but the only sound that came was a hoarse, croaking little cry. Then she fainted. The intruder paused for a moment and looked around. Sir John lay motionless where he had fallen. There were no sounds outside, save the humming of bees and the twittering of birds. He leant over and unfastened the jewels from the woman's neck and arms.
There was a clock in the studio, and Sir John knew exactly how long he had been unconscious when he sat up and looked about him. He staggered to his feet and hastened to the spot where Mrs. Hodson Chambers had slipped from her chair. She was lying on her back, her eyes wide open, groaning to herself.
"Mrs. Hodson Chambers! My dear lady!" he exclaimed, bending over her.
She caught at his hand.
"John," she murmured. "Lift me up."
The humour of her request altogether missed him. He, in fact, did his best, and actually succeeded in moving her a few inches. She herself did the rest.
"My emeralds!" she moaned. "My jewels!"
"We'll get them back," he promised. "Wait here a minute. I must give the alarm."
She threw her arms round his neck. He was absolutely powerless.
"Don't leave me!" she insisted.
"I won't," he assented, "but don't choke me."
She released him and tottered to a chair.
"Some wine or brandy," she begged.
"Good idea!" he muttered.
He staggered over to a cupboard, brought out a bottle of champagne, knocked the neck off against the wall and filled two tumblers. They drained the contents in silence. Mrs. Hodson Chambers became lachrymose.
"My emeralds!" she sobbed.
He filled her glass again hastily. She drank and thrust her arm through his.
"At least," she murmured, "we have one another. And, John, I think I hear the car. Go out and see, please, and then drive with me to the police station at Nice. Afterwards we will have some lunch."
"Not to-day," he declined. "I've had enough of this place. I'm going home to-night, if I have to stand in the corridor all the way."
"Afterwards," she repeated firmly, "we will; have some lunch, and you shall tell me what you know about my emeralds."
"What the devil do you mean?" he gasped.
"Wait until after luncheon," she told him.
Late that afternoon a hired motor-car came thumping up the drive to the Villa Sabatin, and stopped below the last bend. Madame looked lazily out from her place amongst the roses, raised her parasol a little, and smiled a welcome at the man who ascended the steps and hurried towards her.
"My dear Johnny!" she exclaimed, "Why so tragical an aspect? You have played your part quite nicely and the emeralds are on their way to Moscow."
Sir John had lost much of his healthy colour. He had lost also his fussy manner of speech. There was something approaching dignity in his tone as he took up his stand.
"Madame," he said, "I played fast and loose in those days when you and your Virgins were the sensation of Paris, but, young though you were, there was no place for fools with us. You send for me. You insist that I redeem my seventeen-year-old pledge. Very well—I agree. You force me into acquiescence. I place everything in your hands, and you send a babe and a fool to do a man's work."
Madame seemed suddenly older. One forgot In that moment the illusion of youth. Age looked out of her eyes.
"What do you mean?" she demanded.
"The situation was framed so that a baby could have worked it," he went on.
"You sent a bungling amateur. I expected Cardinge at least. There came this callow youth of a nephew of yours."
"How did you know?"
"How did I know? It isn't I only. It's the woman. She pretended to faint. She had no more fainted than I. He leant over her and stripped her of her jewels, and all the time she knew who he was. He believed in her faint. Alas! He held the sponge to her nostrils only when he left. Then, when we recover, and I say to her: 'It is finished. I go to England,' she mocks at me. She insists that I go with her to the police-station at Nice."
"My God!" Madame muttered.
"When we get to Nice," he went on, "she says: 'We will lunch first.' We lunch. 'And now. Sir John,' she says, 'there is Madame, Madame's nephew, you and my emeralds.' Then she told me how she had recognised Armand."
"What did you say?"
"I assured her that, if it was true, it was done for a joke. I guaranteed to return the emeralds."
Madame glanced at the watch which ticked upon her wrist.
"And then?" she asked.
"She told me her conditions."
"A return of the emeralds, of course. What else?"
Sir John groaned.
"Confound the emeralds!" he exclaimed. "She never mentioned them. I've got to marry her to-morrow in Paris."
Madame left the room, returning almost immediately. She held in her hand a sealed packet, yellow with age.
"Dear Johnny," she said, "here is that little secret of yours which bound you to me. I give it you back. You have earned your quittance. You are no longer Virgin of mine."
He snatched at it eagerly. There were matches and cigarettes upon a side table. He lit one of the former, held the corner of the envelope over it, watched the flames spread from end to end, dropped it and set his heel upon the ashes.
"I am sad, Johnny," Madame confessed. "You are the second of my Virgins whom I have set free. One by one, I suppose, they will all earn their liberty. Stay and let us have a farewell dinner."
He shook his head and pointed to where the car was drawn up at the bend of the drive.
"Mrs. Hodson Chambers is waiting there," he confided sadly. "We are leaving together by the night train."
Madame looked away. She felt that her smile was cruel. Sir John walked dejectedly down the avenue to the automobile.
THE wine-shop of Jacques Rousillon, situated in the principal street of Cagnes, was dark and cool and cleanly. Madame Rousillon, who stood behind the counter, flanked by rows of bottles of wine and syrups, was beautiful. Paul Ludor, who had just strolled across from the railway station, was in no wise disappointed.
"Madame," he exclaimed, pausing before the counter, hat in hand, "you are even more wonderful here, chez vous, than on the Promenade des Anglais yesterday! I offer you my salutations. You see that I am a man of my word."
Madame was flattered but confused. That this handsome stranger, altogether Parisian in type and dress, should have remembered their yesterday's brief flirtation and sought her out thus was distinctly pleasing to her vanity. On the other hand, Jacques Rousillon was not very far away, and Jacques was a very jealous husband.
"Monsieur will take something?" she asked a little timidly.
"A mixed vermouth, if you please, madame," he answered. "I gather that there are perhaps distracting circumstances."
Madame nodded confidentially.
"It is Jacques, my husband, who is around," she whispered. "One must be careful."
"My dear lady, do I not understand?" Ludor replied. "I am not without experience. I know these husbands. Still, they are to be eluded, are they not?"
"At times," Madame admitted, serving her visitor with his drink. "Just now, Jacques is difficult. He Is annoyed that I did not stay and serve in the café all yesterday while he went to the fête. He detests my going to Nice. It is absurd."
"Madame," Ludor declared, "if you were my wife you would never go to Nice."
She laughed gaily.
"Monsieur too is jealous, then?"
He tried to take her hand across the counter but with a nervous glance behind she evaded him.
"Not jealous, but a monopolist," he confessed. "Nice, if you would, or Monte Carlo, or Paris—but with me."
"Ah, the sound of those places!" she sighed.
"But you should know them all," he urged. "You have a great gift, madame. You are beautiful. Here they know nothing. In Monte Carlo or in Paris you would be acclaimed."
Her eyes—they were indeed soft and dark and lustrous—flashed with imagined joys. She leant towards him, and this time she forgot those shuffling footsteps behind.
"Monsieur flatters," she murmured.
"Do I not prove my words?" he insisted. "Am I not here? I, but yesterday from Paris, where indeed, madame, I have many friends."
"Sweethearts, perhaps," she sighed.
"Give me but the chance, madame," he begged, "and I will speak to you of these things."
She looked out over his shoulder into the hot, dusty little street. A tumble-down victoria was drawn up outside, and upon the driver's seat was a bibulous-looking man with a white hat and a red nose. His vehicle was in the last stage of dilapidation. He himself appeared to be asleep. There was nothing else to look at except the dreary front of the station.
Without a doubt she was weary of Cagnes and her life of hard work. There was no one here who spoke to her like this. If indeed she were as beautiful as this man seemed to think, why could she not also be happy?
"Monsieur is not serious," she said. "He is just a traveller. To-day he is here; tomorrow he will have passed and forgotten."
"Madame," he confided—"Céleste, you permitted me to say, during those few minutes yesterday—I have tried to forget, but I cannot. That is why I am here."
Again the shuffling behind, and Madame was frightened.
"If my husband comes out," she warned him, "you must be careful. Sit down, and will you not smoke? You have too much the air of being in earnest. It might seem so to him—alas, not to me!"
Ludor obeyed her wishes. He seated himself at a small table close to the counter.
"Monsieur returns to Nice this afternoon?" she inquired.
He shook his head.
"As it happens, no," he answered. "I have an old friend here whom I desire to visit. Madame de Soyau, of the Villa Sabatin. You know where it is?" She nodded.
"It is five miles away. Up in the hills towards Saint Paul," she told him. "It is to see his friend, then, that Monsieur has come."
"Indeed, no," he replied emphatically. "It is a chance that my friend lives here. Fate perhaps. Who knows? Nevertheless, believe this: even though I had not been on my way to the Villa Sabatin, to-day would have found me here. If to-night could only find me at your feet!"
The shuffling footsteps behind had ceased, but Madame was scarcely aware of the fact. She was like a beautiful animal fascinated by her trainer. The pallid cheeks, the cynical smile, the cold eyes, the perfectly tailored exterior of this man with his honeyed speech, were to her the last word in the things which women might desire. He was without doubt a type. She was his for the lifting of a finger—but there was Jacques.
"You are trying to turn my head, monsieur," she faltered. "And to-morrow you will have gone away."
"Not I," he assured her. "I shall stay with my friend at least a week. I have luggage at the station. I did not let them know that I was coming, on purpose, I wanted these few minutes with you to talk, perhaps to plan."
Madame had forgotten caution. She leant across the counter and her eyes were eloquent.
"If only there were another fête day!" she murmured.
"And what of it, if there were?" a harsh voice by her side demanded.
She turned around, terrified. Her husband had, unnoticed, pushed open the door at her back and was standing by her side. Already he was fingering the fastenings of the flap under the counter.
"Jacques!" she exclaimed. "But how quietly you came in!"
"Quietly!" he scoffed. "But that depends. A new customer! I do not seem to recognise your face, monsieur."
"Why should you?" Ludor answered carelessly. "I have never been inside your café before. I called in for a mixed vermouth and to ask the way to the Villa Sabatin."
Jacques Rousillon stooped down and emerged on the other side of the counter. It was obvious now that this visiting Lothario was a small man. He did not even reach to the shoulders of the giant who stood before him.
"There are customers who are welcome here," Jacques Rousillon declared, "and there are customers who are not. That is where you come in, my fine fellow. You understand?"
"Not in the least," Ludor replied. "I understand that you are very rude. What harm do I do in your café? Sit down and drink a glass of wine with me."
"A glass of wine?" Jacques Rousillon repeated. "Monsieur offers a glass of wine? Make it brandy and I will drink with him."
"Whatever you will," the visitor agreed.
Madame filled two glasses, received the money and handed back the change. Her fingers touched Ludor's for a moment. Then she drew her hand quickly away. Her husband was watching.
"Good health!" Ludor said, raising his glass.
"To hell with you!" was the scowling response. "There's your brandy. Clear out!" He dashed the contents of his glass into Ludor's face. The latter sprang to his feet. As quick as lightning his fists shot out and the innkeeper staggered backwards. He recovered himself in a moment, however. With a roar of anger he swung around, took hold of his assailant by the collar and the legs, and lifting him off his feet, carried him to the door. A moment later Ludor found himself lying in the dusty high-road. Jacques Rousillon stood in the doorway glaring at him. Behind the counter Madame sobbed. She knew her husband and his ways.
"Is it my fancy, Paul?" Madame de Soyau asked of the third of her returned Virgins, "or are you perhaps not quite so careful about your appearance as in the old days? Your clothes are as well-cut as usual, but your collar is crumpled and your tie has surely seen better days."
"Madame," her visitor replied, "my first words should have been words of apology. Believe me, I presented myself here with many misgivings. A slight contretemps in the town—I slipped while crossing the road and was dragged out of the way hurriedly to avoid being run over—accounts for the deficiencies of my toilet. But for a very persistent cab-driver who refused to leave me, I do not know how I should have arrived."
"I am relieved," Madame murmured. "In other respects I must confess that I find you marvellously unchanged."
"With you, without a doubt, Madame," he sighed, "the world has stood still."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I make a brave show," she said, "but the enameller, the coiffeur, the corsetière, and, above all, my modiste have to work hard for me. What do you think of our friend Cardinge here?"
"Monsieur remains, as ever, distinguished, but he is certainly fifteen years older," Ludor acknowledged.
"After all, then," Cardinge observed, "I remain natural. For it is fifteen years since we met. As for you, Ludor, you have sold yourself, I think, to the devil. There is not a grey hair on your head, not a line upon your face. Just as you were pale in those days, you are pale now. One would have guessed you then anywhere between twenty-five and thirty-five. One would guess the same now."
"Flattery, from a man!" Ludor exclaimed. "It is the real thing, that! May I not be presented to Mademoiselle?" he added, glancing to the farther end of the terrace where Madame's niece, Claire, was talking to Armand, her cousin.
"In good time," Madame replied. "First, about yourself?"
"I remain the same," Ludor acknowledged. "In the regrettable suspension of our mutual undertakings I have committed a few crimes and collected a humble fortune."
Madame regarded him curiously—Cardinge, fixedly.
"You have the same hobbies?" the former demanded.
"Precisely, Madame," Ludor confessed, with a little smile. "I am a murderer by instinct as well as by profession. I have never found any thrill to compare with that of taking life."
Madame bit her lip. She was on the point of shuddering.
"Are we to take you literally?" she inquired.
"Entirely. Why not? You remember the affair of the Maître Hellier, the day before the trial of Estelle and François? Also—?"
"Hellier was in arms against us," Madame broke in. "We did not call that murder. He had fair warning."
"Are we becoming squeamish?" he asked. "But no matter. There have been many since Maître Hellier. A motive is well enough, but I like to kill without a motive. The artistic sensation is more poignant, and the risk of detection almost nil. If it is permitted I will change my collar."
Madame touched a bell.
"They will show you your room," she said. "There will be some tea here presently. We dine at eight."
Ludor withdrew and Madame and Cardinge exchanged glances.
"Ludor is unchanged," the latter remarked.
"He will probably find us a little—shall I say, unenterprising."
"As we are, so I trust we will remain," Cardinge rejoined.
Madame looked at him for a moment, lazily.
"You are a free man," she reminded him. "I have no further claim upon you. Welcome though you are, I sometimes wonder why you stay on."
"Perhaps because I have nowhere to go to," he said bitterly. "If at any time—"
"Do not be blatant," she interrupted. "You are welcome here so long as you choose—for the rest of your life if you will. If ever I give you that little hint to pass on—well, you know what the cause will be."
She looked down towards the other end of the piazza. Claire had risen to her feet.
"I presume that I have a certain amount of common sense," Cardinge observed drearily. "At least I know that I am on the threshold of forty."
"There have been times," Madame murmured, "when I have fancied that you were beginning to forget that."
"Never seriously," he assured her. "One has dreams, but they pass."
"And prejudices," Madame added, "and they remain."
"It is true that I do not like Armand Toyes."
"It is my intention," Madame declared, "to marry Claire to Armand."
"In which case," Cardinge pronounced, "I had better leave your roof as soon as possible, for there will be war between us."
Madame was coldly but terribly angry. She drew back.
"After we have dealt with Ludor," she said, "it would perhaps be as well if we came to an understanding."
"I am entirely at your service, Madame," he replied politely. "Incidentally—what are you going to do about Ludor?"
Claire swung abruptly away from Armand and came down the piazza towards them. She spoke with an affectation of carelessness, but the colour had risen in her cheeks and her lips were trembling.
"I do not think that Budapest has improved Armand," she complained.
Armand turned towards them, long and thin, with a wicked sneer upon his lips, the beauty of his face temporarily obscured by his expression.
"The child misunderstands too readily," he protested. "Send her back, Madame. I must teach her wisdom."
Ludor, returning, created a diversion. He had eyes for no one but Claire.
"May I be presented?" he begged. "I had the felicity to see Mademoiselle in the distance, on my arrival."
Madame acquiesced without enthusiasm.
"Monsieur Ludor—my niece, Miss Claire Fantenay. I must warn you, Claire, not to believe a word that Monsieur Ludor says."
"It is treating me unfairly," Ludor protested. "The truth, however, proclaims itself. I find Mademoiselle the freshest and the sweetest flower in this wonderful valley of yours."
"My niece is not used to such compliments," Madame said coldly. "Return to Armand, child, or order a car and go to the Tennis Club. We elders have business to discuss."
Claire turned away and entered the house. Armand came strolling towards them, handsome once more, having completely regained his self-assurance.
"Business?" he repeated. "May I not join?"
"You may not," Madame replied. "That time has not come yet."
The young man stood his ground.
"It seems to me," he grumbled, "that you make use of me without allowing me to amuse myself by knowing beforehand what is to happen."
"No one is permitted to question my word, Armand," Madame reminded him. "You know that. Leave us."
Her nephew did not venture to dispute the matter further. He moved away and disappeared in the direction of the garage. Ludor looked after him curiously.
"I suggest that we proceed to business," Madame said.
"To business, by all means," Ludor assented, stretching himself in his easy chair. "Nothing interests me so much. You sounded the tocsin and behold, I arrive! Show me what it is that you desire. Incidentally it would be as well that I secure my quittance."
"I am not sure that we desire anything of you, Paul," Madame confided.
"What? That brain of yours sleeps, Madame? Nothing doing? Nobody for me to remove? Then for what purpose have I been brought all these miles?"
"I might answer," Madame replied, "to receive your quittance. You would be more fortunate than the others who came. They have had to work for it."
"To work? But that is the joy of my life," Ludor confessed, examining his carefully-manicured fingernails. "There is no one who loves his work as I do."
Madame shivered ever so slightly.
"Paul," she declared, "you're a tiger."
He smiled coldly, tapped a cigarette upon the table and played with a match.
"I at least do not change with the years," he said. "There were days when we played with life and death with a jest on our lips. Life was the ball we threw into the air and caught—perhaps. What did it matter? A few years either way. I come back and I find you, Madame, unenterprising, and my friend Cardinge, I gravely fear, a sentimentalist."
"I have earned my quittance," Cardinge reminded him.
"You are no longer one of the famous Virgins, then," Ludor remarked. "Well, as; for me, I am one still. I ask for work."
Madame rose to her feet and crossed the room. She unlocked the secretaire, drew from it a paper, and presently returned, leaving all behind secure. She carried in her hand a sealed envelope, yellow with age.
"Here is your quittance, Paul," she said. "I return your deposit."
He fingered the envelope doubtfully for a moment. Then he smiled.
"For the moment this had escaped my memory," he confessed, as he opened the envelope. "It contains a brief account of the first time I realised the curious fascination of destroying life—a matter forgotten now, beyond a doubt. A little girl who thought that I had deceived her! What a banal word! Nevertheless, she was about to open her mouth—so I closed it."
He drew a penknife from his pocket and amused himself by cutting the document into small pieces. Madame and Cardinge watched him. There was something in their faces which seemed to bring Madame into the likeness of a human being; Cardinge, into the rank of the sentimentalists whom Ludor had derided.
"I have been a criminal," Madame admitted. "The lights and shades of crime appealed to me so much in my younger days that I founded the most famous society of modern times with the sole object of defying the law. Even now they talk in Paris of 'Madame and her Virgins.' But either I have grown softer with the years, or you, Paul, offend my sense of what is humorous or beautiful in wrongdoing. I do not think that I shall ask you to become our guest. You have received your quittance. I require no service of you in return. At what time may I order you a car?"
Ludor seemed faintly amused, but, at the same time, annoyed. He looked across the valley.
"Dear me!" he sighed. "And I thought that I might have spent such a pleasant week here. I am not to be allowed to see more of your beautiful ward?"
"That happens naturally," Madame assured him. "I do not need to intervene there. Mademoiselle would most certainly detest you."
"I may not even dine?"
"I should prefer not," his hostess acknowledged. "It is fifteen years since we met, Paul, and I tell you quite frankly that I have taken a dislike to you."
"Are you not rash?" he asked softly. "I could turn, what they call in England, 'King's Evidence.' There are still some undiscovered tragedies of the time when 'Madame and her Virgins' were the terror of Paris."
She smiled scornfully.
"The law looks askance at turning back the leaves a score of years," she reminded him. "Besides, there are still a few of my Virgins unabsolved. You would scarcely be asked even to choose the manner of your death."
"I," Cardinge observed, "am absolved. But that would not save your life. Informers and vermin one kills as a matter of course."
The butler had answered Madame's ring. She turned to him.
"Monsieur finds that he will be unable to remain to-night," she said. "Repack his things and bring them down. Order a car to be round in a few minutes."
"Madame," the man replied, "Monsieur's clothes are as yet unpacked. Concerning the cars, however, there is a difficulty. Mademoiselle has taken the limousine to the Tennis Club and Monsieur Armand the Rolls-Royce into Nice. Madame will remember that the magneto from the third car has been sent away."
"Pray do not let the method of my departure disturb you," Ludor said. "Behold, for some reason my charioteer of an hour ago returns. He can take me to Cagnes."
Up the last stretch of the avenue came a tumble-down victoria, drawn by a weary horse and driven by the man with the red nose and the white hat. Madame signed to the butler to withdraw.
"He returns opportunely," she observed.
"But why?" Ludor murmured.
Cardinge rose from his place and strolled down the steps. The coachman removed his hat.
"It is for the monsieur whom I drove here," he announced. "I discovered in the bottom of the carriage—this."
He held out a small black memorandum book. Cardinge took it into his hand and turned towards Ludor, who had joined him at the foot of the steps.
"The pocket-book of Monsieur," the driver remarked triumphantly.
Ludor accepted the book, turned over the pages, carelessly at first; then with a certain suddenly developed interest. In the end he returned it to the man.
"You have had your drive for nothing," he told him. "The pocket-book is not mine."
The driver threw out his hands. He pointed to the tired horse. He tapped his watch.
"It is an affair of an hour," he grumbled. "No one else has been in the carriage to-day. How could I tell that the pocket-book did not belong to Monsieur?"
"You will not have had your journey for nothing," Ludor declared, "You can take me back to the railway station."
The driver was mollified. The luggage of Paul Ludor was brought down and stowed away. Ludor himself returned, hat in hand, to Madame.
"Madame," he observed, "it is an inglorious finish, this, to a wonderful epoch. Think well before you send me away. There is no one who can do what I can do so fearlessly, with so little risk. I come prepared, I carry a hundred deaths with me."
She shook her head.
"I have slipped down a notch in the code," she confessed. "I may still rob, but in my own way, and from those whom I select. To destroy no longer appeals."
"It is a great pity," he said simply. "And you, Cardinge?"
"I am even more of a renegade," was the apologetic reply. "I am seriously thinking of becoming an honest man."
A slight expression of pain flickered across Ludor's face. So might a great artist have listened to one of the discords of life.
"It is a great disappointment to me, this visit," he acknowledged, as he took his place in the victoria. "Nevertheless, farewell!"
He waved his hat. The driver cracked his whip. Ludor was driven away down the winding avenue, between the clumps of flowering rhododendrons, and little petals of orange blossom drifting to the ground through the lemon- and verbena-scented air. None of these things at the moment were appealing to the solitary passenger of the victoria. His air of indifferent toleration had vanished. There was something in his expression reminiscent of vermin suddenly conscious of danger. There was some sort of contraction to his mouth. His teeth gleamed white and set. He unfastened the straps of his dressing-bag, and from a leather case drew out a wicked-looking little implement of dull black metal. Then he watched the road; watched the fields around and waited. There was a certain point which he remembered where the road curved through a small plantation of pine trees with a precipice on the left-hand side. As they neared it he leant forward in his seat. The horse was still proceeding at a long shambling trot.
"You'll have that horse down, driver," he warned him. "I don't want to be thrown into the road. Drive more carefully—down-hill."
The man mumbled something and pulled his horse back into a walk. Ludor looked cautiously around, looked behind and leant over the side to see as much of the coming curve as possible. Then he struck with unerring and practised skill at a certain place at the back of the driver's head. The man rolled over like a log and fell into the road. Ludor sprang lightly from his place, reached the horse's head and brought him to a standstill.
At the bottom of the precipice on the left were great boulders of stone. In thirty seconds the body of the driver was rolling down amongst them. Then, without much effort, Ludor turned the victoria on to its side, dragging the horse with it. There was still no sound except the frightened snorting of the horse struggling to rise, the snapping of the shaft, the groaning and creaking of the old vehicle. All the time Ludor noticed and remembered afterwards that a blackbird on the top of the nearest tree went on singing unconcernedly. He then entered upon what was to him the most unpleasant part of his task. He deliberately lay down and rolled over in the dusty road, tore a fragment of his exceedingly well-cut trousers, gashed his left hand, turning at once away, for, as he was always willing to confess, the sight of blood made him sick. He then took up a heavy fragment of granite and made sure that the nature of the wound on the back of his unfortunate victim's head was undiscoverable. After which, with his dressing-bag in his hand, he tramped shouting down the hill.
Madame Rousillon looked up with mingled terror and delight at his entrance. Suddenly realising his condition she threw up her hands.
"But, monsieur," she exclaimed, "what has
happened? An accident? Jacques, too, my husband—"
"Have no fear," he interrupted, setting down his dressing-case. "Thy husband, with all the rest of the village, is crowding up the hill to see what remains of the catastrophe."
"Catastrophe!" she cried. "Monsieur is hurt?"
"Only shaken," he replied. "Nevertheless, while I talk, give me a glass of brandy. Good! I was descending from the Villa Sabatin in that rickety old victoria which stands at the station, when the horse shied and stumbled. The driver was thrown from the box and fell on his head. Carriage, horse and driver, they all rolled down the precipice. As for me, I was quick, and I escaped by a miracle. I walked down for help. They've all gone up. Your husband was one of the foremost. He cannot be back for half an hour at least. Madame listened.
"Monsieur," she whispered, "it is terrible to think that you have been in danger."
He moved towards the end of the counter. His eyes were fixed upon her. She seemed to obey their unspoken message and followed him. At the end he leant over. His arm was around her neck for a moment. Their lips met. Then he drew away.
"Céleste, you are wonderful," he murmured. "Life shall be wonderful for you."
"But what can I do?" she cried. "Even if I had the courage—If I left Jacques, he would follow and kill me."
"There is a way of providing against that," he assured her. "That is, if you have the courage. I will give you something. You put it in his coffee. It is tasteless. No one will ever know. He will be ill—at any rate, too weak to travel for weeks. A fortnight to-day—do you understand?—a fortnight to-day you get on the train which leaves Cagnes for Cannes at three thirty-five. I shall be in the train—in the back part. From Cannes we shall take the train for Paris. You will send me a telegram to the address I shall give you at Nice, to say that you are coming. Will you do this?"
"Yes," she answered.
Her voice—it was a very musical voice generally, with a pleasant inflection and a curious softness—had suddenly become thick and hoarse. Her eyes were like still fires of passion. Her hands, brown and hardened with work, but shapely, clutched the edge of the counter. He handed her a little packet and she dropped it into the bosom of her gown. Then he tore a sheet of paper from a pocket-book and wrote hastily upon it.
"I go now," he continued, "to make my report to the police on this wretched accident, Afterwards to Nice, perhaps to Monte Carlo to pass as best I may this fortnight. You will not fail me, Céleste?"
"I will not fail you," she promised.
He looked at her meaningly.
"You understand—that he will be ill? Have no fear. There is no living doctor who could tell the reason why."
"I understand," she answered.
Thirteen days later Cardinge, seated underneath one of the striped umbrellas outside the Café de Paris at Monte Carlo, became suddenly aware that the occupant of the next table was Paul Ludor. The recognition was mutual. The latter, with his glass in his hand, rose and slipped into the vacant chair at Cardinge's side.
"You permit?" he murmured. "I think, perhaps, I can amuse you if you have a minute or two to spare."
"I have plenty of time to spare," Cardinge admitted.
"I will tell you the story of my accident," Ludor continued. "I fancy that it will appeal to your sense of humour. You will remember that the driver of the victoria, who followed me up to the villa, came with the excuse of a pocket-book."
"It became immediately obvious to me that the return of that pocket-book was an excuse. The ink in it was not dry. Accordingly I studied the driver's face—providentially. Do you realise who he was?"
Cardinge shook his head.
"At the inquest they simply said that he was a newcomer who had brought his horse! and victoria over from Nice."
"His name," Ludor declared, "was Coichan He was a private detective who had caused me annoyance on more than one occasion. I shall never commit a crime in which detection is possible, but there was a little affair with a troublesome tradesman which left just a shadow of a clue—nothing that could ever be proved, but it was sufficient, perhaps, to create suspicion. Coichan got hold of it, and he has several times since made himself a nuisance to me. I realised that this must be put a stop to On the way down the hill I—pardon me, but I know your prejudice—I disposed of him stage-managed the incident, et voilà tout."
Cardinge shrugged his shoulders. He declined to show any emotion.
"A detective must take his risks," he observed.
"Precisely," the other agreed. "I was never afraid of Coichan, but he was as well out of the way and the opportunity was not to be missed. Cagnes was quite a fortunate place for me," he went on ruminatingly. "Women, I know, for some reason or other are not your weakness—but there is a little lady there, at the Café de L'Univers. I met her the day before in Nice—simply charming."
"Why, her husband died last week," Cardinge remarked. "I remember seeing the funeral."
"How unfortunate—and yet how opportune!" he exclaimed. "Madame joins me on the train which leaves here at two-thirty this afternoon. I am taking her to Paris. She will amuse me for some months at any rate."
His companion rose to his feet.
"Ludor," he pronounced, "I find you a detestable fellow. I desire to forget that we have ever been acquainted. Let that finish it between us. You understand?"
He strolled away. Ludor looked after his quondam associate and there was evil in his face.
There was not the slightest change in the expression of Paul Ludor as from the carriage window he watched the keeping of his tryst. Céleste was there on the platform; a little crowd of relatives bidding her affectionate adieux. He watched the embraces, watched the small company of sombrely-clad peasants wave their farewells as the train left the station. Presently he folded up his paper, and strolled through the train until he came to the compartment where she was sitting, the sole occupant.
"Céleste!" he murmured.
She looked at him out of her beautiful eyes.
"Sit down by my side," she begged. "I am afraid."
He patted her hand encouragingly.
"There is nothing to fear," he assured her. "All will be well now. We have an hour to wait at Cannes. I shall take you to the shops and buy you some pretty trifles. On the train to Paris I have everything arranged. We shall be very comfortable and very happy. Is it not so, Céleste?"
Those wonderful eyes were lifted for a moment, and Ludor was immensely interested. Was it possible that she was going to turn his head? Even her clothes, at the thought of which he had shuddered, were passable. Nevertheless, when they arrived at Cannes, he bought her a black silk travelling cloak and a black hat, some gloves, and a trifle of jewellery. As he watched the transformation he began to realise that he had found a prize. When the train for Paris came thundering in he showed her with pleasure the wagon-lit, into which their luggage was taken.
"It will be a great pleasure, this journey," he declared. "First of all, we must dine—there is a rush for places. And afterwards—"
"Our first embrace," she whispered.
They were very gay at dinner-time. Céleste ate little, but she drank her share of champagne and laughed when they compared the brandy to the brandy of the café Afterwards they made their way back to their compartment. He closed the door.
"Our first embrace," he reminded her.
She laughed softly.
"Tell me one thing," she begged. "Did you know when you gave me the powder that he would die?"
"It was so much better," he explained. "There might have been trouble afterwards. Now we have nothing to fear."
The train roared into a tunnel. His arms went around her. Then he saw a light in her eyes such as he had never dreamt of—the light of something else flashing in the jet blackness; heard the sickening hiss of steel, driven through human flesh, his flesh. Then a moment's pain and blackness. The train came tearing out into the light. Céleste looked at what she had done and laughed.
"I think my nerve must be going," Madame de Soyau sighed, as she laid down the newspaper. "This has given me quite a shock."
Cardinge paused in the act of lighting his cigarette.
"My nerves remain unaffected," he declared. "What I am suffering from is an obtrusive wave of morality. As a Virgin, even one who has received his quittance, I should regret this disaster to vice. Instead I find the whole affair most satisfactory."
THERE were three things in life of which Mr. Thomas Hopps possessed a nervous dread: the long yellow envelope, marked "On His Majesty's Service," suggestive of unpleasant curiosity on the part of the authorities with reference to his income; the Agony column of The Times, and any communication bearing a foreign stamp. For many years these apprehensions had interfered with his enjoyment of his morning post and newspaper. He had argued with himself in vain. The thing had become an obsession with him against which reason was useless. To a certain extent he felt a sort of gloomy triumph when at last the worst occurred.
There, on the top of his letters, one morning, was an envelope bearing the French postmark, which he instinctively felt contained his doom. He opened it with trembling fingers. The message which he had read and ignored in The Times a month ago was there copied out for his benefit. He was confronted with the one dark secret of his past.
He was able to secrete the letter before delivering his bombshell. Now that the moment had arrived he was endowed with a sort of courage. He looked across the breakfast table at his wife--and it took a certain amount of courage to do that on the mornings when Mrs. Hopps was not in the best of tempers.
"I regret to say, my dear," he announced, "that within the next few days I shall be obliged to visit our branch in Paris."
"Obliged to do what?" Mrs. Hopps demanded, gazing incredulously.
"To visit our branch in Paris," he repeated. "The matter has been discussed several times lately. It is the wish of Mr. Salteley that I should go."
"I never heard of such a thing," Mrs. Hopps declared. "What can you do in Paris?"
"After all, my dear," her husband ventured, "I did establish the branch of our business there, which has been, I may say, a very great success. It needs a little reorganisation. I shall take the two-twenty train to-morrow."
"I shall go with you," the lady announced.
Mr. Hopps frowned.
"Just as you like, my dear," he conceded artfully. "I must warn you, however, that I may not be obliged to stay more than a few hours. In which case I should return at once. I should recommend your waiting until I can send you a wire."
"I shall think the matter over," Mrs. Hopps concluded. "I may decide to go with you, or I may not."
Mr. Hopps presently took his departure for the City, where his position of partner in the great house of Salteleys, Ltd., enabled him to plan for his visit to Paris without trouble. Then, oppressed by the fear of his wife's insisting upon accompanying him, he decided upon a bold step. Ho sent a messenger home for his clothes--his wife, he knew, was out for the day--and caught the two-twenty that afternoon. By some curious inadvertence he forgot to leave his address in Paris, and, as a matter of fact, he caught the "Luxe" direct for Monte Carlo. On the second afternoon he presented himself at the Villa Sabatin in a taxicab hired from Nice.
There was no one at home, it appeared, and for an hour or more Mr. Hopps amused himself by wandering about the place, enjoying the beauty of the gardens and the scenery, and revelling in the sunshine. His spirits became lighter every moment. There was nothing sinister or poverty-stricken about the place. On the contrary, everything seemed to indicate that the confederates of his unregenerate days had prospered. If that were the case they were not in need of money, and he would perhaps be able to obtain possession of a certain document without undue financial strain.
In due course Madame returned in a limousine car with a footman on the box and Hugh Cardinge by her side. Another car containing: two young people who were strangers to him followed behind. It was obvious that at first Madame did not recognise him. Then she laughed softly and held out her hand.
"Why, it's Tommy!" she exclaimed. "Little Tommy Hopps! Hugh, do you recognise my visitor?"
Cardinge came over and greeted him. He too smiled. Fifteen years of unabated prosperity had made a great deal of difference to Mr. Thomas Hopps. He had been almost slim in the Paris days, whereas he was now distinctly rotund. His face and his person showed signs of good living. He carried himself with an undeniable air of well-being.
"You're looking fit," Cardinge said.
"The same to both of you," Mr. Hopps replied. "Madame does not look a day older."
"Come and have tea," she invited. "Afterwards you must tell us of all your doings."
Tea was served informally upon the piazza. Mr. Hopps found conversation difficult. He was so used to directing it upon the subject of himself and his marvellous prosperity, that he found it exceedingly hard to create the opposite impression, which, in the present circumstances, was what he desired. Madame and Cardinge watched his rather clumsy efforts with amusement.
As soon as the meal was over, the young people, first Claire and then Armand, drifted away. Mr. Hopps had the opportunity which lie desired.
"I received your summons on Tuesday morning," he began, pulling down his waistcoat. "I took the 'Luxe' the same day. You must admit that I have been prompt."
"I trust," Madame said softly, "that we may take your eagerness as indicating that the desire for adventure still stirs in your blood."
"Nothing of the sort," Mr. Hopps replied a little testily. "Circumstances are entirely changed with me. I have, to a limited extent, prospered in a mercantile career. I have become a partner in the great house of Salteley."
He stared hard at Cardinge, who felt that he was expected to say something.
"Most creditable!" he murmured.
"This house you speak of, are they bankers?" Madame inquired.
"Leather merchants," Mr. Hopps declared. "The best known firm in the world. You may not remember the fact now, but when I drifted in with you and your friends in Paris I was out there representing another firm in the same line of business."
"I believe I remember that you were interested in some commercial pursuit," she acknowledged. "Now tell me this. If you have lost your taste for adventure, why were you so prompt in answering my summons?"
Mr. Hopps leant forward in his chair. He spoke impressively.
"I want my quittance," he admitted. "You know what I mean. The little document you made me give you--sort of confession of the one time in my life I made an ass of myself."
"Just so," Madame murmured. "You have been able to keep your secret?"
"Absolutely," Hopps assured her. "The thing is buried now--finished."
Madame studied her very beautiful fingernails for a moment.
"Well," she said, "we must see what can be arranged."
Her visitor's face fell.
"I should like to have it this moment," he declared. "I should like to take it back to England with me to-morrow--or rather to destroy it before I go back to England."
"But you are not thinking of leaving us so soon?" Madame protested.
"Surely you are going to spend a few days here, now that you have come so far," Cardinge observed.
"I don't want to stay an hour longer than I need," was the dogged reply. "I want to get my fingers on that document."
"But the Riviera just now is at its best," Madame pointed out. "This is your first visit this season, isn't it?"
"I have never been here before," Mr. Hopps rejoined, "and I don't much care if I never come again. It's too hot for me and I've forgotten what little I knew of the language."
"Dear me!" Madame sighed.
"What a pity!" Cardinge regretted.
"Why is it a pity?" Mr. Hopps demanded.
"Because," Madame explained, "we wanted you to stay out here with us for at least a week to help us in a little scheme which is maturing."
"Can't be done," Mr. Hopps declared emphatically. "That is to say the scheme, you know. I'm chairman of Salteleys, Limited, an accepted candidate for Parliament, on the Board of two hospitals and churchwarden at St. Jude's, Sydenham."
"Dear me!" Cardinge murmured. "You have indeed made a success of life."
"I married a daughter of Sir John Fosten," Mr. Hopps went on pompously--"Fosten, the wholesale carpet manufacturers in Kidderminster and Queen Victoria Street. I've settled down to a steady and reputable life. You couldn't get me to touch anything in the nature of what we used to call an adventure if you offered me a million pounds. Why, the very thought of some of the risks we used to run makes me hot."
Mr. Hopps did indeed dab his forehead with his pocket-handkerchief and found it wet. He looked from one to the other of his two companions and became dimly conscious of a want of sympathy. Surely they must understand his position.
Madame sighed regretfully.
"Then I suppose there is nothing more to be said," she remarked.
"If you are really in such a terrible hurry," Cardinge suggested, "you might catch the night train at Nice."
"It would be an immense relief to me," Mr. Hopps confessed.
Madame held out her hand.
"Mr. Hopps would perhaps like to see the gardens before he goes," she said to Cardinge. "I will leave you to look after him. Do see that he has a whisky-and-soda or anything he fancies."
"Thank you. I have explored the gardens before you came," Mr. Hopps assured them. "Very pretty and all that, but not much in my line. If I can have that document I spoke of, I'll take the taxi straight back to Nice."
"The document?" Cardinge repeated. "Your quittance?" Madame murmured.
"That's what I came out to get," Mr. Hopps confided.
"You are a very sanguine person, Tommy," she declared. "You should remember that when our little society was formed, one of the conditions of my guidance and financial help was that you should place in my hands some unrecorded secret of your lives, affecting either your honour or your personal liberty. These documents were to be returned when the society ceased to exist, at my discretion."
"But surely," Mr. Hopps protested, "I can resign--I have resigned."
Madame shook her head.
"Several of my dear Virgins," she said, "have answered the call and have received their quittances--but they paid for them. There is no question of resignation."
"Paid?" her visitor repeated blankly.
"Not in money, but in service. There was a little task which we had allotted to you and which at its successful completion would have entitled you to your quittance."
"I'd rather pay if I must," he faltered.
Madame glanced at him scornfully.
"You were always the most pusillanimous of my helpers," she scoffed. "You seem now to have become perfectly flabby. I fear that your outlook upon life has been spoilt by the too easy acquisition of money."
"Easy!" Mr. Hopps objected. "I've worked as hard as any man."
"Nevertheless, like most successful people," Madame continued, "you have imbibed an exaggerated idea of the wealth you have amassed. You cannot buy your quittance, Tommy. You can only earn it."
"God bless my soul!" Mr. Hopps groaned. "Get on with it, then. Let me hear the worst."
The continental edition of The Daily Mail and The Riviera Post had a great deal to say about the luncheon party given by Madame at the Sporting Club a day or so later. Several well-known people were there, and Madame was, as usual, a gracious and successful hostess. One of the minor events of the luncheon was that Mr. Thomas Hopps sat next to Mr. de Peyser, the well-known cosmopolitan financier, and that they indulged in what appeared to be a very engrossing conversation. Later in the day Madame invited Mr. Hopps to take the empty seat in her limousine back to the Villa.
"Well?" she asked laconically.
"I am lunching with Mr. de Peyser at the Hotel de Paris to-morrow," Mr. Hopps announced without enthusiasm.
"Did he refer to his land scheme?"
"Ultimately," Mr. Hopps confessed. "I cannot imagine why he should have looked upon me as a person likely to embark upon hazardous speculations, but he undoubtedly did. He tried to interest me in a gold mine in Borneo. He spoke glowingly of some tin shares of which he appeared to have a few for disposal. He hinted at a vacant directorate on the board of the company formed to take over some famous oil wells."
"And you?" Madame murmured.
"I followed your suggestion. I told him that the only investments I cared about were in land."
"He was most complimentary on my judgment. He seemed to look upon my preference as a startling coincidence. 'Land,' he repeated to himself several times. When I invited him to go on, he shook his head. He assured me that his lips were sealed on the particular scheme which he had in his mind. There was a chance that he might be able to speak about it to-morrow. It was then that he invited me to lunch. He was very anxious, however, for me to understand that the meeting was to be merely a friendly one, and that it was most unlikely that anything would come of it except a pleasant chat."
"Capital!" Madame approved.
"Would it not be as well," her companion suggested, "to give me a little further information as to this scheme?"
Madame reflected for a moment.
"Ask Hugh to explain it to you," she said. "It was he who saw through it."
After dinner that evening Mr. Hopps drew Cardinge on one side. He had dined remarkably well, and Madame's champagne was much better than his own. Nevertheless, his distaste for his present enterprise was unabated.
"Look here, Cardinge," he began, "I'm hanging on, obeying orders. I made myself agreeable to that fellow de Peyser just as you told me, and let him know all about myself. Now he's going to talk to me to-morrow about a land scheme. What's it all mean? Am I to pretend to be interested in that or crab it? And what is the wretched scheme? And for what date can I take my seat in the train?"
"For the day on which you purchase the option Mr. de Peyser will try to sell you for ten thousand pounds."
"Option!" Mr. Hopps gasped. "Ten thousand pounds! I don't want to buy an option on anything."
"As it happens, you are not required to on your own account," Cardinge assured him. "You are to buy this on behalf of Madame and me."
"Why don't you deal with him yourselves?"
"A pertinent question," Cardinge admitted coolly. "The reason is this: the option is on the purchase of some land close here. If we tried to buy it, de Peyser would at once put the price up. He would realise that Madame, living here, must know the value. He only gave an old song for the option himself, and he believes it to be valueless. It isn't."
"I see," Mr. Hopps muttered. "If I succeed in buying the option for ten thousand pounds on Madame's behalf, I get my quittance."
"That's the idea," Cardinge assented.
It appeared, however, that there were difficulties. Mr. de Peyser on the following day was a genial, even an expansive host, but he seemed for some reason utterly disinclined to talk business.
"That land matter?" he repeated, in answer to an inquiry of his guest's. "Oh, yes, I remember. To tell you the truth, I was thinking it over last night and I came to the conclusion that I had better give a look at the property, and perhaps get an independent valuation before I sell it. You heard how it came into my possession, I suppose?"
"No, I haven't heard," Mr. Hopps admitted.
His host sipped his Château Yquem and smiled.
"Why, it came to me," he said, "very much in the same way that you will find the most wonderful jewellery in the world--in the back-parlours of some of these shops. A man here--quite a wealthy man in his way--absolutely lost his head at baccarat one night. He wasn't broke exactly, but he was in a devil of a mess because he had partners who would have gone crazy if they thought that he had been gambling to that extent. He came round to see me--they most of them know that if there's anything really good going, I can put my hand to the money. But, to cut a long story short, I bought the option from him, gave him a cheque and he was able to square himself. I was thinking of asking whether you cared to come in with me. So I brought a copy to show you. Your name as chairman, if we turned the thing into a company, would do us a bit of good, and there's no doubt that the land around Nice is valuable--especially this stretch."
Mr. Hopps shook his head.
"I haven't the time for that sort of thing," he explained. "My business keeps me close at it. I would rather listen to anything you might have to say about a deal for the land and the option outright."
Mr. de Peyser nodded indifferently.
"Well, we'll see about that later," he suggested. "There's quite a decent firm of valuers in Nice. I'll get them to give me an idea as to what the thing's worth, and we'll meet again. I don't want to sell 'a pig in a poke' and you don't want to buy one. Some day next week we'll have a little lunch together, eh?"
Mr. Hopps was disappointed. He went back and made his report to Madame, who was lunching at the club. She, too, was disappointed. So, apparently, was Cardinge.
"We've waited too long," the latter remarked.
"He's probably had a hint about the hotel," Madame observed.
"You're not expecting me to hang around here till next week with no prospect of anything doing then, I hope?" Mr. Hopps asked anxiously.
"Looks as though you'd have to postpone your departure, at any rate for the moment,"
Cardinge said. "If there's absolutely nothing doing with de Peyser, perhaps Madame may be able to think out something else."
"I dare say," Madame assented, turning away. "At present don't bother me, please. I'm going to play trente-et-quarante."
"This is all very well," Mr. Hopps muttered disconsolately, "but what about my partners, to say nothing of my wife?"
Cardinge laid his hand on the other's shoulder.
"Madame is a little annoyed," he confided. "She thought you would be able to get the option. Take my advice. Keep your eye on de Peyser. He's a changeable fellow. Anything may happen within the next two or three days."
"I don't know what will happen to me if my
wife discovers that I'm in Monte Carlo," Mr.
Hopps groaned. "I'm out of my element, Cardinge. I'm a business man with serious principles. I want to get back to my work. Look here," he went on persuasively, "I never dreamt that I should be expected to buy my
quittance, but if a reasonable sum--"
Cardinge shook his head.
"Madame is peculiar about that," he interrupted. "If you take my advice you won't suggest it to her. She hates taking money directly. She would much rather go out of her way to show you how to make it."
"Well, this time she isn't very successful, Is she?" his companion grumbled. "I'd make it for her if she'd show me how. She simply puts me on to a man who doesn't want to sell what she wants to buy. I can't do more than I have done."
"Keep your eye on de Peyser," Cardinge advised once more. "It's the only hope, unless Madame thinks of another scheme. If you have to spring another thousand on the land and the option, that will be better than letting it go."
"The question of title doesn't arise, I suppose?" Mr. Hopps asked. "You've been into all that?"
"Naturally," Cardinge assured him. "We know all about the deed, and we want it."
Mr. Hopps, who did not gamble, spent a dull afternoon. He came across de Peyser once or twice, but the latter made no effort to re-open the conversation. Gloomily he returned to his hotel--he had moved to Monte Carlo at Madame's advice--dressed and dined alone. After dinner he wandered to the casino, where he spent a couple of lonely hours. He was on the point of leaving when Cardinge hurried into the rooms and came at once over to him.
"I have been looking for you everywhere, Hopps," he said. "Get back to the Club as quick as you can--no, I am not coming."
"What's up?" was the anxious inquiry.
"De Peyser has been plunging. Every now and then he lets himself go. I believe he's lost a great deal. If you happen to stroll by just now he might feel differently about that option. You never can tell, anyhow. Leave it to him to mention it."
"You needn't teach me anything about business methods," Mr. Hopps replied, starting for the door with alacrity. "I'll handle him all right if he's a seller."
Mr. Hopps reached the Sporting Club, left his coat and hat with the vestiaire, strolled through the rooms in leisurely fashion, and turned into the bar. De Peyser was sitting there alone, and it was obvious that something was wrong. The moment he saw Mr. Hopps he beckoned to him energetically. The latter yawned.
"Hallo!" he exclaimed. "Not playing?"
"Not at the present," was the somewhat Vague rejoinder.
"I'm just off to bed," Mr. Hopps confided. "You look as though a night's rest wouldn't do you any harm."
De Peyser ordered another brandy-and-soda and forced his companion into a chair.
"Look here," he asked, "how much money have you on you?"
"Money?" Mr. Hopps repeated. "Oh, a fair amount."
"How much?" the other insisted.
Mr. Hopps took out his pocket-book.
"Twenty milles," he announced.
De Peyser showed signs of disappointment.
"Have you got your cheque-book?" he demanded.
"I always carry my cheque-book," Mr. Hopps admitted.
"Listen to me!" de Peyser said earnestly. "I'm not a gambler--in a general way, that is to say. To-night I think I have got a streak of madness in me. I've lost--well, it doesn't matter how much. I've had to leave off just as I was striking the right patch--hadn't a franc left. If I go back like this, I feel like a beaten man."
"You must excuse me," Mr. Hopps begged, "but I never lend money--a principle of mine in business. Not even," he added, with some emphasis, "to an old friend."
"I'm not proposing to ask you to," was the curt reply. "Give me that twenty milles and a cheque for the balance this minute and I'll sell you the option for ten thousand pounds--I believe it's worth twenty."
"But you haven't got it with you," the other pointed out.
"That's where you're wrong," de Peyser snapped. "I saw the land agent I spoke of in here this afternoon and I promised to bring it to show him after dinner. I have it in my pocket, and here it is."
He laid the document upon the table.
"Now are you on or not?" he demanded. "I can borrow money upon your cheque if I can't cash it."
Mr. Hopps sipped his brandy-and-soda and reflected. His manner of doing business had always been orthodox. He had never yet bought a thing at the price asked. He had never quoted a price which he was not prepared if necessary to abate.
"I have been making a few inquiries about the option," he said thoughtfully. "Some of the property's very good no doubt, but there's a lot of it that isn't worth much. I had made up my mind I was glad you weren't a seller."
"Rubbish!" his companion remonstrated angrily. "My option is to purchase at two and a half millions, and there isn't a man who wouldn't value the estate at three and a half. There's a cool million francs' profit to the man who puts up the money and exercises the option. Fifty thousand pounds going for ten thousand. You don't often have a chance like that."
Mr. Hopps looked doubtful.
"Sorry," he said. "I never was particularly fond of options. This one may be all right, of course, but it's a gamble. I shouldn't know what to do with it."
"You could sell it again to anyone who knew the property," the other insisted.
Mr. Hopps took out his cheque-book.
"I'll give you the twenty-mille notes I have and a cheque for six thousand pounds," he declared. "Not a penny more."
De Peyser rose to his feet. The veins stood out upon his temples like whipcord.
"You infernal huckster!" he exclaimed. "I'll see you in Hades first! Go back to London and buy and sell your hides!"
He strolled out of the room. Mr. Hopps looked after him with a faint smile. He was not in reality an intelligent person, but he had cunning. He made out the cheque for six thousand pounds, and, reserving one mille note for himself, he made a neat little packet of the remainder. He had scarcely completed his task when de Peyser reappeared. He was very pale and apparently still shaking with anger, but he came straight to the table and flung down the document.
"Give me the money," he demanded brusquely.
Mr. Hopps tore a leaf from his pocket-book and wrote a few lines to the effect that the six thousand pounds and nineteen mille notes were in payment of the option to purchase for two and a half million francs the estate known as the Hill of Cagnes. He purchased a stamp from the man at the bar and de Peyser signed the receipt for the money viciously.
"Even now," he muttered, "you've done me out of a mille."
"I cannot be left penniless," Mr. Hopps replied pleasantly. "Won't you take a drink before you start playing again?"
"Not with you," was the surly rejoinder.
Mr. Hopps drank alone, and, on the whole, he was well pleased with himself. There was a certain amount of risk before him, but he accepted it with confidence. A profit of two thousand five hundred pounds and freedom from anxiety for the rest of his life was not such a bad result, after all.
He had nearly an hour to wait for Madame on the following morning when he arrived at the Villa, and Cardinge, too, had been sent for from a neighbouring farm. They arrived almost together--Madame, very elegant in a rose-coloured morning gown, but a little displeased at having been aroused so early. Their visitor held out the option with a smile of triumph.
"I have succeeded," he announced. "I have saved you money too. I have bought the option for nine thousand pounds."
"Nine thousand pounds!" Madame repeated.
Cardinge picked up the document and examined it.
"Dear me!" he murmured.
"I went back to the Sporting Club as you advised," Mr. Hopps continued. "I found de Peyser penniless. He was aching to play again and he offered me the option for ten thousand. I bid him nine, paid him the money and there you are!"
Madame smiled--a smile, however, which was just a little enigmatic. She crossed the room, unlocked the cabinet, and drew out two sealed letters, tied up with tape. They were both a little yellow with age. She held them in her hand meditatively.
"Nine thousand pounds," she murmured. "Mr. Tommy Hopps, that lie will cost you precisely six thousand pounds, nineteen mille notes and your expenses out here. Charles!"
De Peyser lifted the curtains in the adjoining room and entered. Madame held out one of the packets.
"Here is your quittance, Charles," she said. "I give it to you with great pleasure. You have provided me with excellent entertainment. By the by," she added, turning to Hopps, "Charles de Peyser joined us just after you went to England."
"A Virgin!" Mr. Hopps gasped.
"A very successful one," Madame assured him. "But," she went on, "he does not gamble and he does not deal in options. He is better known at the Comédie Française or the Theatre des Capucines."
"Then what is that document?" Mr. Hopps asked, with a break in his voice.
"That was once an option," Cardinge observed, picking it up, "but if you look at it carefully you will see that it expired a matter of three years ago. It is worth, therefore, precisely the value of the paper. Take it with you as a little memento."
"And my quittance?" the other demanded, holding out his hand eagerly, the dawn of an idea already glimmering in his cunning eyes. He would stop his cheque at the bank and get the better of Madame yet.
"The day your cheque is paid," she murmured.
Mr. Hopps forgot himself. "Damn!" he exclaimed.
CLAIRE, Madame's beautiful niece, unusually attractive in her white tennis-clothes and simple hat, mounted the steps to the Sporting Club a little wearily. The smile with which she welcomed Cardinge, however, was transforming. She passed her arm through his and led him up the stairs.
"Give me some tea, please, Hugh, and talk nicely to me," she begged.
"What's wrong?" he asked kindly.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Nothing. Only atmosphere. There are times when I hate Armand and all his friends. I don't like those Spanish people he's so friendly with—the Lobetos. We've been playing tennis with them this afternoon. Half of their chaff I don't understand, and what I do, I hate. I think Armand ought to go into the Army or be made to work at something. I'm quite sure I shan't be in love with him very much longer."
"Are you in love with him now?" Cardinge demanded as they sat down and he ordered tea.
"I'm not in the least sure about it," she admitted. "He's very good-looking, you know, except for a hateful expression now and then. And no one else could make my name sound so much like music as he does—when he's in the humour. Sometimes it thrills me to have him near; sometimes he repels me."
"That doesn't sound very hopeful," Cardinge observed dryly.
"I suppose it doesn't," she agreed. "You see, Hugh, if I weren't really quite a nice girl, if I just wanted to flirt, I should adore Armand. But, as a matter of fact, I don't care about flirting with anyone, unless I really like them."
"Madame wishes you and Armand to marry," he reminded her.
"I know that quite well," the girl replied. "But I don't think Armand means to marry anyone if he can get out of it. And, so far as I'm concerned, I can't bring myself to look upon him as a possible husband. Whenever I try it seems to me that I see that look in his face which I hate. Life is a great problem for an unprotected girl," she added, making herself a sandwich.
"You have plenty of courage," he remarked, "and plenty of humour. I suppose the two go together. But, as a matter of fact, you are by way of being a little unprotected out here, don't you think? Madame appears to be your only guardian, and Madame is inclined to be autocratic."
"There's always you," she protested. "I rely upon you more than anybody."
"That is very nice of you, Claire," he acknowledged. "But I am not sure that it is wise. I am, after all, only a bird of passage."
"Don't be silly!" she exclaimed. "You're not thinking of going away?"
She was very quiet for a moment.
"I couldn't bear that," she said simply.
"My little obligation to Madame," he went on, "was disposed of a few days after my arrival. Since then I have merely been a guest."
"But you have helped Madame tremendously," she pointed out.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"I have been useful, perhaps. But Madame needs no one. She has the house full of her chosen servants. She could dispense with me at any moment."
"But aren't you happy here?" she ventured a little timidly.
He repeated the word as though it were a strange one to him.
"I don't think that anyone who leads my sort of life could expect to find happiness?" he observed.
"Why not? No one appreciates beautiful things and places more than you do. You don't do any harm."
"A negative position of doing no harm scarcely deserves happiness, does it?" he asked. "You see, my life in its way has been adventurous—bad adventures, most of them. One little golden streak, but most of them sordid."
"Tell me about the golden streak," she invited.
He shook his head.
"Not to speak of it is part of my sacrifice," he answered. "I have a fancy that some day I shall try to let you know about it—not yet."
"Tell me this," she begged, "was there a woman who belonged to it?"
"There was not," he assured her. "It had to do with different things."
"I wonder why I'm glad?" she reflected.
There was a brief pause. His expression darkened.
"I wonder whether you realise what I am?" he muttered. "Thirty-nine years old, a reputed criminal, a wastrel, an evil-doer—and now, a fool."
"You are not one of those things," she declared indignantly.
"I am at least a fool," he sighed.
A fool because he sat there with tingling pulses, afraid to meet the challenging eyes of the girl beside him. He was still in the quagmire, without the courage to fight his way clear. And she—he seemed to see her coming down the sunlit, flowery paths from her young girlhood to the garden of beautiful womanhood. Then he set his teeth. There was a sudden vision of Armand, cynical, with the age-long wickedness of the serpent in his soft brown eyes, lounging at the gate, waiting. Cardinge rose impetuously to his feet. His thoughts had wandered a long way from the bar of the Sporting Club.
"If you have finished," he suggested, "come and watch me gamble."
"I would rather talk," she persisted. "I can't bear to think of your going away."
"I can't bear to think of it, either," he acknowledged simply. "As a matter of fact—I suppose it is absurd of me, but do you know what I am trying to do?"
"I am trying to buy the farm on the other side of the road from the Villa—Bérard's they call it."
"But how lovely!" she exclaimed. "You really will be a neighbour then."
"The matter is not so easy. I have only half the money they want for the place."
"Madame would lend you anything," she assured him eagerly.
"Borrowing has never been one of my sins," he replied. "There is plenty of money in my name somewhere, but it is money that I do not propose to use."
"But I want you to buy the farm," she persisted.
"I want to myself," he admitted. "I'm going to make an effort."
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"Can't you guess? I'm going to gamble."
She looked dubious.
"But if you should lose?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Then I am very little worse off. I've lived somehow all my life. I shall go on living, I suppose."
"You dear, of course you will," she exclaimed, patting his hand. "I hate to hear you talk like that. You shall win the money and buy the farm, and I'll come and be dairymaid!"
"You can come now and bring me luck," he proposed.
"How much do you need to win?" she asked.
"Fifty thousand francs. Not much for a gambler."
"And what are you going to play?"
"Roulette," he replied. "I'm not going to prolong the agony, either. I'm going to do what I've never done before—bet in maximums."
He changed some money and took up his stand near one of the croupiers. Claire followed him to the tables. His first stake brought him in four milles. From that moment his luck was abominable. His favourite numbers eluded him, and he lost seven maximums following on the columns and dozens. He played on steadily and imperturbably, the girl by his side watching with growing distress. Finally he came to his last two mille notes. She leant over and snatched them out of his hand.
"Listen," she said. "I have never played, but I have often watched, and I know all about it. Will you trust to a beginner's luck?"
"Rather," he agreed. "I'll move off, though. I should ruin anything."
She slipped into a vacant chair and studied the board for a few minutes. Cardinge made his way out into the bar, drank a whisky-and-soda and talked to some acquaintances. After about half an hour he strolled back into the Rooms. Claire was still in her place, and he saw, with a little start of surprise, that she had a great pile of notes and plaques by her side. She had also a pencil and paper and seemed to be keeping an account.
"I have your fifty back again," she told him. "But only twenty-six towards the next fifty. You must go away, please, and don't watch me. It will take me about twenty minutes to win the rest."
He walked off a little dazed, watched the baccarat for a time, and made his way back into the bar. Presently Claire appeared. She was very pale, but her eyes seemed to be filled with an extraordinary light. She carried in her hand a roll of bills. One of the silent guardians of the place was following her. She held the roll out to Cardinge.
"I think there is one mille over," she announced. "That will pay the lawyer's fees. The croupier tells me that I have made a record. I have had fourteen en pleins within an hour."
"But I can't take this," he began to protest.
She looked at him, and it was his last word on that subject. He thrust the money into his pockets.
"I should like a glass of wine, please," she begged. "I am a little tired, but very happy."
Presently they strolled out to get some fresh air on the Terrace. They leant over the parapet to admire a beautiful yacht, newly arrived and flying the American flag. A clean-shaven man of youthful middle-age, who had just driven up in a little carriage from the harbour, descended and approached the foremost of the line of motor-cars waiting to be hired. Apparently unable to make himself understood, he appealed to Cardinge.
"Say, I've forgotten most of my French," he explained. "I wonder if you could tell me how far it is to Cagnes, and whether I could got there in one of these machines?"
"You can get there with me in about an hour's time," was the prompt reply. "Madame has been expecting you."
"Cardinge! For the love of Mike!"
"Let me introduce you to Madame's niece," he said. "We have a car here, and shall be going back almost at once. Mr. James Dickson—Miss Claire Fantenay."
"If this doesn't beat the band!" the newcomer declared enigmatically, as he shook hands.
Mr. James B. Dickson took stock of his surroundings at the Villa without any signs of the nervousness which had possessed most of his predecessors. He welcomed Madame as an old and dear friend. He praised the Villa, revelled in the beauty of the gardens, was almost solemnly impressed by the excellence of the cocktail offered him, and referred to the object of his coming in jocular fashion.
"Of course, I never see the London Times," he explained, seated at his ease on the piazza, a cigar in the corner of his mouth, and his fingers caressing the stem of a wine-glass. "That didn't make no odds, though. I got the message right enough. I tell you I had to guess at the cipher for a moment, simple though it is. What's become of the others? How many of them have shown up so far?"
Cardinge ran through the names. Mr. Dickson appeared to remember them all.
"You've a few scorchers to come," he remarked. "So you've had 'em here and sent them home again. What's the big idea?"
"Perhaps," she murmured, "I am making a mistake, but I am disbanding my Virgins."
"That's too bad," Dickson observed. "Don't see why we shouldn't all come together again and have some fun."
"Middle-age seems to have brought to most of my protégés," she declared, "the most bourgeois veneration for the law. So far everyone has been only too anxious to get hold of his quittance and depart. Hugh Cardinge here is the only one who has stayed on with me for a time."
"Well, well," Dickson sighed. "I guess we're getting on in life for pranks. What's this quittance you were speaking of?"
Madame betrayed signs of amusement. She was watching her visitor, weighing his every word.
"If you remember," she explained, "the first qualification for becoming one of my Virgins was to have committed some misdemeanour or crime, a confession of which was written down and deposited with me. I have an envelope here addressed to you containing a document which you handed over to me one night—I think it was somewhere in the Montmartre."
"Less said about that the better," Dickson protested. "I'm afraid I drew on my imagination a bit. I was kind of keen on being mixed up with your lot. All the rage you were in Paris, in those days!"
"Imagination!" Madame repeated softly. "Still, the man died in the hospital on the very day you mentioned."
Dickson had perhaps been smoking too many cigars. There was a chalky hue suddenly visible underneath the sunburn of his skin..
"You read the documents, then?"
"For purposes of verification," Madame replied. "It was my privilege."
Mr. James B. Dickson looked longingly at the silver cocktail shaker. Cardinge rose and filled his glass. He drained its contents, fingered the empty glass for a moment, then set it down and turned to Madame.
"Whether the confession was faked or not," he said. "I guess I'd better come into line with the others and ask for my quittance."
"You shall have it," Madame assured him, "as soon as you have earned it."
Madame sighed gently.
"You ought to know me better, my dear friend," she expostulated, "than to imagine that I would restore a valuable document like this without some sort of return. Each one of my departing Virgins has either amused me, or has successfully concluded some small enterprise of a financial nature."
"I haven't my letter of credit or my cheque-hook with me at the moment," Dickson remarked.
"They would be useless if you had," Madame rejoined coldly. "I do not propose to sell you your quittance."
"Then how am I going to get it?" Dickson asked bluntly.
"I shall have to consider that point," was the thoughtful reply. "I never know which of you is going to turn up next, so I cannot make plans ahead. You will stay and dine, if we send you back to the yacht?"
"Why, I should say so," Dickson assented. "But, just one word, Madame. Over in little New York I'm on my feet all right. I'm near to the Chief Commissioner and I'm in well with the whole bunch there. But that doesn't help me any out here. Things have changed since the old days. I've got a name and a big fortune to take care of."
"I am not a fool," Madame assured him coldly. "Show our guest where he can wash his hands, Hugh. The dinner-gong will go directly."
Mr. Edgar Franks, a few days later, lounged side by side with his friend, James B. Dickson, upon the deck of the latter's wonderful yacht. It was a moment of supreme contentment. By their sides were long tumblers full of an amber-coloured liquid, slightly effervescing and stirred every now and then into cloudiness by the clink of the ice against the glass. The Mediterranean was as blue and calm as a lake of fairyland. The breeze was just sufficient to temper the warmth of the sun.
"Queer thing, running across you like this, Jimmy," Edgar Franks observed. "Let me see, it must be nearly eighteen years since we met."
"Getting on," Dickson admitted.
"It was two years before poor Henry came to such a shocking end in Paris. You knew him, by the by, didn't you?"
"Not intimately," Dickson replied. "We ran across one another now and then."
Edgar Franks continued to look into the past.
"Now I come to think of it," he ruminated, "I seem to remember that you two didn't hit it off very well, did you? There was trouble about some concession you both went after in Rumania, and Henry always had an idea—about his wife. A jealous fellow, even when he was a lad!"
"I am afraid," Dickson confessed, "that we were not the best of friends."
"He came to a terrible end, poor fellow," Edgar Franks sighed.
Dickson made no reply. His clean-shaven jaw was set and stern. He was looking intently towards the horizon. His companion lifted his head. Above them the blue lightning sometimes crackled and flashed.
"It's a world of brains, this," Edgar Franks declared. "Don't care what anyone says, James—a world of brains."
"I get you," Dickson murmured. "People are pretty slick nowadays."
"Look at what's going on there," his guest observed, looking lazily up at the masthead. "An entire market on the New York Stock Exchange is being soothed by those half-a-dozen messages I have sent off during the last forty-eight hours. Not only that, but look at how they go. Straight from here to my own villa. Wireless telegraphy was a great invention in itself, but its installation into private houses was the most amazing thing that ever happened. Curiously enough, James," Mr. Edgar Franks went on, knocking the ash from his cigar, "I began to have grave suspicions a few months ago that the ordinary cable service in these parts was interfered with. Certainly some news cabled to me was by some means or other communicated to another line of speculators in the same market. Now, with one's own wireless, that is impossible."
"There is a great market in your oils," Dickson remarked.
"A huge one," the other acquiesced, "but very sensitive—sensitive to an amazing degree. You'd scarcely believe me, but, if I were to get out of touch with my brokers for two or three days and not let them hear from me at all, my oils would drop anywhere round to ten points. That's why I never miss cabling every day. Sometimes it pays me to let them slack a point or two. Sometimes they want bracing up. It's a great game."
"Supposing your wireless were to get out of order?" Cardinge, who had just strolled up, suggested.
"It never does," was the confident reply. "If by any chance it did, there is a station at Nice. And beyond that, of course, there is the ordinary cable, which I don't want to trust to again if I can help it."
"Did you see the postal authorities about that other affair?" Cardinge asked curiously.
"I saw them, but I did not press the matter," Mr. Edgar Franks confessed. "The fact of it is that I had a little adventure in which that cablegram may have been concerned which I have never mentioned to a soul, but which sometimes makes me wonder, when I think of it, whether the fault really did lie with the postal authorities."
"An adventure?" Cardinge repeated.
Edgar Franks nodded portentously.
"If I tell you two fellows," he said, "I hope you'll understand that I never want it talked about."
"Certainly not," they both promised.
"Well, I had the cable in my pocket when I motored home from the golf club on the morning it arrived. I admit that I had lunched pretty well and that I was very sleepy—but—well, you can judge for yourselves. What apparently happened was that I stopped the car in the drive on the way up to the villa and went fast asleep. I did that all right, but when I woke there were one or two circumstances connected with the whole affair which I was never able to understand. In the first place, there were marks as though another car had stopped just where mine had, and then, although nothing was missing from my pocket-book, I am perfectly certain that the cable was in a different compartment from that in which I had placed it. Furthermore, I seem to have a cloudy recollection that, sleepy though I was, I stopped for some definite reason, that there was another car about and a man with one of those silly little masks on his face, who spoke to me."
Dickson laughed heartily.
"Pretty good for the middle of the day," he commented.
"How many liqueurs did you say?" Cardinge asked politely.
Edgar Franks accepted his companions' incredulity good-humouredly.
"Well," he said, "I've let the matter slip out of my mind, anyway. Someone made a scoop in oil shares that day, but, of course, the leakage may have been on the other side. With my own private wireless I feel pretty safe nowadays. I can deal with stations I trust and get my messages over in code. Everything I have sent during the last few hours from your fellow will be received by my secretary and coded before it is dispatched."
"I suppose one needs some interest in life," he observed, "but personally, when I'd made my pile I was glad to cut out finance altogether. I've a few millions in stocks which vary, but the bulk of my money is in Uncle Sam's keeping. He don't allow me much interest, but it comes to about as much as I can spend."
"You're a richer man than I, James," his guest declared a little enviously.
"I'm a thirstier one," Dickson rejoined, finishing his tumbler and holding up his finger for a steward. "We shall land you in time for dinner, after all."
"I'm not worrying," his companion confessed. "I'm perfectly content here."
In an hour or two's time, however, Mr. Edgar Franks was worrying very much indeed. He was met on the quay by a pale-faced and excited-looking young man who came hurrying on to the yacht as soon as the gang-plank was down.
"Mr. Franks," he exclaimed breathlessly. "I've some bad news for you."
"What's wrong now?" his employer demanded anxiously.
"It's the wireless. It's been ruined—deliberately interfered with. Someone must have got into the villa and done it on Monday night. We didn't discover it until two or three hours after you left. I haven't received a single message from you."
Edgar Franks was speechless. He seemed unable to grasp the situation.
"I was expecting you back all day yesterday," the young man went on. "I thought when you didn't get my acknowledgment you'd realise that something was wrong."
"The receiving apparatus here was out of order, confound it!" Edgar Franks exclaimed furiously. "They told me directly we started I could only send messages. Come on, Simons. We must get up to the cable office at once."
The two men left the yacht at a run. Edgar Franks neglected even to take leave of his host. All his instincts of politeness were swept away by a cold and chilling fear. It was quite possible that he had lost a great deal of money.
Madame condescended to explain a little as they all sat round her chair on the piazza during that pleasant half an hour before dinner. First of all, though, she inquired about Cardinge's arm, which was still in a sling.
"Much more comfortable," he assured her.
"It's a perfectly terrible place, all the same," Claire insisted, "and it hasn't been properly looked after at all. I shall have to go on bandaging it every hour."
"Claire has found her métier at last," Armand sneered.
"I'd rather spend my life as a nurse, than as the wife of a man I didn't care about," Claire rejoined coldly.
"Children!" Madame exclaimed with a reproving glance.
"As a burglar," Cardinge intervened, "I am afraid that I am not a great success. If I had known as much about the wireless instrument as Madame I expect that I could have destroyed it without using any force at all."
Madame drew the familiar sealed envelope from the small bag by her side.
"You have, perhaps, earned your quittance more easily than any of them," she remarked turning to Dickson. "All that you had to do was to make yourself agreeable to a fool and keep him away for forty-eight hours."
"I'd like to know how you put things over on him?" Dickson asked curiously.
Madame waited until the butler, who had just
appeared with the cocktail tray, had moved away.
"Well," she explained, "as soon as Mr. Franks had accepted your invitation I cabled my brokers in New York and I arranged for them to let me know, every hour from opening time to-morrow morning, the prices of Franks oils. Then, of course, I picked up every message Edgar Franks sent from the yacht and which his secretary did not receive. It was quite easy to see from their tenor and from the fact that I cabled two days ago news of the serious illness, at his villa on the Riviera, of Mr. Edgar Franks, which way the market would go on his oils. I started by selling and, at closing time to-day, I bought heavily in readiness for to-morrow's explanations. It was really very simple."
"But where on earth did you learn to manipulate a wireless?" Dickson demanded.
"I had scientific hobbies even in the old days," she reminded him. "I had one of the first private wireless installations in my house in Paris, and I had it fitted here secretly directly I bought the Villa.... With my compliments, Jimmy!"
She banded him the document. Mr. James B. Dickson took it into his hand and tore it slowly to pieces. Claire had wandered down to the gardens. Armand had disappeared to the other end of the piazza in search of another cocktail. Dickson was gazing down at the scraps of paper in his hand.
"Do you know anything about this story of mine which you have been guarding all these years?" he inquired of Madame.
"You killed a man, didn't you?" she asked coolly.
"It was in a fair fight," he said. "The newspapers always spoke of it as a murder, but it wasn't. It was a fair fight. It was his life or mine—and I won."
He continued to gaze at the scraps of paper. He was still deep in thought. Madame looked at him questioningly. He glanced around as though to be sure of their isolation.
"The man was Edgar Franks's brother," he told her. "He was my bitterest enemy."
CLAIRE came down the long cypress avenue, at the end of which was the queer little building, half farm-house, half villa, in which Cardinge, having brought his negotiations to a successful issue, had taken up his residence. She was bare-headed and dressed for the evening in a gown of some filmy white material. Once or twice she stooped to pluck some of the coloured orchids growing in the long grass of the orchard, and though the turf was dry she had to pick her way to avoid soiling her satin shoes. Cardinge came to meet her silently.
"Why do you look at me as though I were a vision?" she laughed, as he almost reached her without any sign of recognition.
"You reminded me of 'Maud,'" he answered. "I was thinking of the days when I was very young."
"Stupid!" she exclaimed, thrusting her arm through his. "You're very young now—but very dirty. What have you been doing?"
"Showing some of my lazy Italians how to dig trenches," he replied, smiling. "I am in rather a state, am I not?"
"Do you know what you have to do?" she asked.
"More than that. You have to put on your nice dinner clothes and come up to the Villa for dinner."
"A royal command?"
"Madame insists. You can perhaps guess what has happened. Another Virgin has arrived."
"Who is it this time, I wonder?" he inquired. She shook her head.
"I was introduced, but the name sounded like a fire-cracker. He is fat, beaming and prosperous. Also, I should imagine, Teutonic."
"I wonder if, by any chance, it is Reinhardt," Cardinge muttered.
"'Reinhardt,' associated with a fantastic Christian name, it might very well be," she admitted. "The great thing is, however, that you have about a quarter of an hour to change. I shall come and sit on your piazza and enjoy your gorgeous view."
They had returned to the house by this time, the front of which faced south-east, and looked over the broad, fruitful valley of vineyards, cornfields and olive groves, mounting on the other side to the village of St. Paulos. Cardinge arranged a chair for his visitor and hurried upstairs. He splashed about for a few moments in the flat sponge bath, left for him twice a day in an empty room leading out of his own, dressed, with that slight irrelevance which a man who has been used to have all things arranged for him generally displays when left to his own resources, and finally made his apologies to a fat, dusky-complexioned lady in the kitchen—apologies which, by the by, were received most ungraciously.
"Behold," she exclaimed, pointing to the grate, "the dinner of Monsieur three parts cooked! What is to be done? Had I but known half an hour before!"
"But it is only within ten minutes that I have received the message, Marie," her master expostulated. "Eat the dinner yourself this evening—you and the good man Jean."
The wife of Jean was indignant.
"Such food for us!" she scoffed. "Of all things the most ridiculous. Jean would drink too much wine and go off to the village. One must do what one can," she wound up, snatching the pots from the fire.
Cardinge and Claire walked slowly down the avenue, across the strip of dusty road and along a winding path—a short-cut through the grounds to the Villa.
"How go things, Mr. Farmer?" Claire inquired.
"Well enough," he confided. "I sent sixty baskets of flowers and vegetables away to-day, and the vines look promising. I need a larger market, though, for my eggs."
"I will try and eat two every morning, instead of one," she promised.
"The Villa is already my best private customer," he told her. "Don't imperil your digestion for my sake, I beg."
"It isn't my digestion I'm afraid of. It's getting fat," she confessed.
He glanced at her with an admiration which he tried to conceal. She was long and slim, with the easy grace of an athletic figure, and yet with a certain stateliness in her movements. The clear sunburn of health had played no havoc with her complexion. Her eyes were thoughtful.
"It's a queer life for you here, child," he declared, a little abruptly.
"You have said that before," she remarked. "Why queer? From the moment I wake in the morning to the moment I go to sleep at night, I am surrounded by beautiful things. What can there be more wonderful than that?"
"You should have more friends," he argued. "Friends of your own age."
"I have Armand," she reminded him, "who is quite reasonable sometimes, and you, who are delightful always."
"I am not of your own age," he objected, a little harshly. "I belong to the generation of your elders."
"Really? I never look upon you as such. To me you are just—well, the companion I like to have, when you're not grumpy. And do leave off imagining that you're first cousin to Methuselah. How old are you, Hugh?"
"How dare you ask me such a question?" he protested.
"Well, I don't believe you're so old as you pretend," she persisted. "I don't believe you're a day more than thirty-seven. I'm twenty, and there should be twelve years' difference between a man and a woman to make for companionship. Therefore, you're four or five years older than I am. What's four or five years, Hugh?"
Her eyes sought his, filled with an appeal to which he remained adamant. He set his teeth hard.
"That murky past of yours again, I suppose," she sighed. "Why you should worry about it so much, I can't imagine. We all seem to be criminals in our little set. And, as for Armand, I should think in intent and disposition he's the biggest criminal of all. You will tell me what you do with the fat man, won't you, Hugh?"
"It's Madame who makes the plans," he reminded her. "However, I'll give you a hint if I can. Where is he?"
"Changing," the girl replied. "He brought a dressing-case with him. I have a feeling that he will be very magnificent. No one down yet," she added, looking along the piazza. "I raced into my things, so as to be able to come and fetch you. Wait here, and I'll let Madame know of my success."
She left him alone for a moment. He wandered to the little bower of roses behind which Madame's chair was generally concealed, took up a magazine and glanced at it. Suddenly he turned around at the sound of advancing footsteps. A fat man came lumbering along the piazza—a man with much flesh, yet also a strong man. There was power in his movements, elasticity in his frame. His abundant grey and brown hair was well brushed, his short moustache straight and spiky. His dress-coat was ornamented by a velvet collar, his white tie was very large, his pearl-stud immense. His trousers were short and displayed black silk socks with light blue clocks. His patent shoes shone.
"Have I perhaps the happiness to find an old comrade?" he asked.
Then he stopped short. He was face to face with Cardinge, only a few feet away, and Cardinge was looking at him intently. No further word passed between the two men for several seconds. The newcomer produced a large white cambric handkerchief and dabbed his forehead nervously.
"I thought you were dead," he muttered.
"So do most other people," Cardinge rejoined. "You had better go on thinking so. Do you understand?"
"You mean here—Madame and the others?"
"No one knows," he said.
"The silence," Reinhardt mumbled, "may be mutual."
"It shall," Cardinge promised. "But what a blessed nerve you've got to come here!"
Reinhardt sat down. He was beginning to feel more at his ease. Besides, in the room behind, he could hear the clink of ice, which seemed to establish his presence in the haunts of civilisation.
"I do not know about that," he protested. "An oath is a great thing. The summons called me. In the old days to have disobeyed it would have been equivalent to death. Besides, I seek my quittance."
"I see," Cardinge murmured.
"While we're upon the subject," Reinhardt continued, "I trust that Madame realises the altered conditions under which we now meet. I have no longer the figure or the ardour of youth. To undress a gendarme and throw him into the fountain would be to-day a prank of which I should be incapable."
"Madame has common sense," Cardinge assured him.
Madame came silently out to them, as imperturbable and mysterious as ever. She gave them her hand, which each man in turn raised to his lips. Then she sank into her chair.
"Even Otto has found his way here," she observed. "It is a sublime act of fidelity."
"Madame, it is my tribute to the power you have always exercised over your slaves," Reinhardt declared.
Dinner was announced a few minutes later. It was served, as usual, luxuriously and with great care for detail. The glass and silver shone in subdued splendour. The wines and food were the best the country could afford. In the centre of the table was an inset glass howl, lit by tiny electric lights—a bowl, floating in the waters of which were great clusters of cut roses. A butler and two footmen waited with noiseless efficiency. Armand, who had come in late and confessed to having lost money playing baccarat at Nice, ate and drank in sulky silence. Reinhardt was exceedingly careful in the topics of conversation which he introduced. Madame declined to allow any embarrassment, however, as to his nationality.
"Tell me how they receive you when you travel," she insisted. "Has the world changed yet? Do they dance lo your music at the restaurants, the hotels and the shops?"
"Madame," Reinhardt acknowledged frankly, "I call myself an Austrian. As such I am welcomed everywhere. Why this should be so," he added, with a momentary note of bitterness, "no sane being could determine. Of all the nations in the war Austria's exhibition was the most contemptible. Yet they are forgiven while we, who had at least our heroic moments, are still unpopular."
"The Austrians possess more social graces," Madame pointed out.
"They had no burden of atrocities to carry on their back," Cardinge observed dryly. "It was not even clear that they desired war."
Reinhardt became discreet.
"These matters," he pronounced, "do not lend themselves to profitable discussion."
After dinner the guest of the evening planted himself stolidly before Madame. He held his coffee-cup in one hand, his cigar and liqueur-brandy were near by.
"Madame," he said, "I received your summons. I am here."
"Very much here," Madame agreed. "You have grown very large, Otto Reinhardt."
"I am still active," he replied. "My size does not incommode me. I allude to the fact that I am here at Madame's commands. What service can I render her?"
"You desire your quittance?"
"I do indeed," he assured her earnestly. "The episode of which you possess a brief written narration is of slight import in itself, but, for various reasons, just now its publication would mean ruin."
"I am glad that you are frank," Madame commented coldly. "How do you desire to obtain possession of this quittance? By service or payment?"
"Madame," Reinhardt said, "compared with the majority of my country people I happen to be a rich and prosperous man. If a payment is necessary before I receive my quittance, I will make it. Service, I fear, will be more difficult. I have lost my taste for the irregular. I have taken my place amongst the sedate ones of the earth."
"Money," Madame rejoined, "I do not accept. Service of a sort I expect. What your task may be you shall know within a few hours. I can assure you that you will not find it beyond your powers."
"You will understand," Reinhardt persisted, "that it is not my desire, especially at the present moment, to run counter to the law."
"I understand also," she replied with a touch of sarcasm, "that you desire your quittance."
Reinhardt spent an uneasy evening. Madame and Cardinge were talking together for some time, and he was very well aware that he was the subject of their conversation. It interested him little to converse with Claire. The ingénue in his own country or any other was of no interest to him. What he did desire to feel in his possession was that envelope with the black seal, of which he had thought many times. So long as it was in existence the great aim of his life would be a hazardous adventure. It was his ambition to be the first ambassador of his country to France.
That night no relief was afforded him. Madame bade him good-night at a somewhat early hour, and her manner did not encourage any further questioning on his part. Cardinge departed soon afterwards, and in any case to be alone with Cardinge was the last thing he desired. He was left in charge of Armand, who, ascertaining that there was no two-handed game of cards in which he cared to indulge, promptly lost interest in him. There seemed to be nothing left but to drink a bottle of beer—procured with some difficulty—and to go to bed.
"Service, not money," he muttered to himself, as he undressed and reflected upon the luxury of his surroundings. "I do not like the sound of it. Still, one must remember that they do not yet know how rich I am."
He found his bag unpacked and his flannel pyjamas lying in readiness for him—in strange juxtaposition to the apple-green silk coverlet, the linen sheets, and embroidered pillow-slip. Ha undressed gloomily, closed all the windows Mid want to bed.
The latest visitor to the Villa was called and escorted to his bath in the morning by a capable young manservant who informed him that coffee would be served upon the piazza at half-past eight When he descended he found a little table set for one. On it was a note addressed to him in Madame's pencilled handwriting. He tore it open. It contained the briefest of messages:
"You will place yourself in Hugh Cardinge's hands for the day. If you are successful the quittance will be yours to-night.—Madame."
Reinhardt drank his very good coffee which he much appreciated, and ate his rolls and butter and preserved cherries with appetite. There was a shadow upon his face. A whole day with Cardinge was the last thing in the world he desired—a long day, apparently, for he had scarcely lit his cigar and leant back to enjoy the beauty of the morning when Cardinge, in a little two-seated car, came skimming up the avenue. Reinhardt looked at the vehicle doubtfully and at Cardinge with trepidation. His worst fears were speedily realised.
"Get a coat if you think you'll need it," Cardinge enjoined. "We may be going some distance."
"In that?" Reinhardt asked, looking apprehensively at the vacant seat by Cardinge's side.
"In this," was the equable reply. "Better get a coat if you're likely to feel the cold. I drive fast and we shall be going into the mountains."
The prospective passenger turned and made his way back to his room. He foresaw a thoroughly unpleasant day....
"Curse you and your car!" were Reinhardt's first intelligible words, as he staggered down to the little strip of white, dusty road.
Cardinge smiled mirthlessly as he shut off his engine. This was not an enterprise which appealed to him.
"Sorry you don't like us," he remarked briefly. "It isn't every thirty horse-power car would bring you up seven thousand feet without a pause."
"We might have been killed a score of times at those comers," Reinhardt declared angrily.
His companion stretched himself and descended,
"I couldn't help the fact that we were on the outside all the way coming up," he observed. "You'll be more comfortable going down."
"And now we're here, where are we?" his unwilling passenger demanded.
Cardinge indicated the panorama below with a sweep of his hand.
"You are enjoying, or you should be enjoying, one of the most beautiful views in Europe," he pointed out. "The silver streak in the distance is the Mediterranean. That mediaeval-looking fortress to the right is Grasse. This is the village of St. Joseph—the highest, point on the road. And we are going to pay a visit to the Château St. Joseph," he added, ringing a bell which hung down in the great stone portico before which they had halted.
"Does any sane man live up here?" Reinhardt growled.
"This château," Cardinge told him, "is the home of the great family of de Montercey—the Marquis de Montercey lives here now. We're going to call upon him."
"Why?" Reinhardt inquired suspiciously.
"The answer to that question will present itself shortly," Cardinge replied dryly.
A porter in ancient but well-preserved livery admitted them in due course. He received Cardinge's card with a bow.
"Monsieur le Marquis is expecting you, monsieur," he announced. "If you will have the goodness to follow me."
They passed out of a courtyard and stepped through a postern door into the lower of two terraced gardens. Even Reinhardt gave vent to a little exclamation of wonder as they stood for a moment looking about them. The gardens themselves were not large, the ground fell away precipitously on either side, but they were beautifully kept, and on the summit the château, with its round towers at either end, its grey front still in wonderful repair, notwithstanding its great age, seemed to appear out of space, with an unreality almost fantastic. The stone-flagged walks—crumbling and cracked with age—were flanked with roses, wonderfully luxuriant considering the altitude. There were great clumps of verbena, heliotrope and many sweet-scented flowers. Orange-trees were in blossom in the more sheltered places, and there was a little grove of olive-trees behind the wall. Seated about, some on the ancient benches, and some in long chairs, were a score or so of men, all clad alike, but strangely. Here and there amongst them, a nurse was moving about or seated talking.
"What the devil is this?" Reinhardt demanded. "A hospital?"
Cardinge shook his head.
"It is one of the most famous châteaux of France," he answered. "The Marquis, however, is a very unhappy man. He lost three sons in the war. For their sakes he entertains here a score of invalids. Can you guess what is the matter with these men, Reinhardt?"
"They look like consumptives," was the muttered reply.
Cardinge led him on, spoke to one of the nurses, who welcomed him as an habitué and exchanged a few words with some of the patients. Then he turned back to his companion.
"They are scarcely consumptives," he explained, "although there is not one of these men with sound lungs. They are the victims of that accursed device of your countrypeople which destroyed the chivalry of war for all time. They are suffering from poison gas."
"You used it yourselves," Reinhardt retorted.
"After you had invented it," Cardinge reminded him. "Just glance round at these poor fellows. There is not one of them who will ever know again the real joy of living, not one of them who could probably even live in any other climate. They weren't killed with man's joy of battle in their blood and the knowledge that they were fighting for the great things that make death splendid. They were just the victims of a horrible and debased science, made to live on like this—men still, but without the heart and blood of men."
"Why have you brought me here to see them?" Reinhardt demanded.
"That you shall know in good time," Cardinge replied. "At present I'm going to take you inside. Your appearance is a little against you, Reinhardt. Some of them are looking at you as though they knew. We will go and visit Monsieur le Marquis."
They passed into the Château. The great doors stood wide open. Inside was a wonderful wall, extending almost to the roof of the building—a wall hung with tapestries and sombre paintings. A servant came forward to greet them.
"Ask if Monsieur lo Marquis will receive me with the person whom he is expecting?" Cardinge begged.
"Monsieur le Marquis expects you, monsieur," the man announced, leading the way.
They followed him into a very beautiful room with groined arches, and a stained-glass window at the farther end, below which was built what seemed to be a shrine. Upon a dais adjoining and covered with a white cloth, were three swords. The room was scantily furnished but had an air of severe and soldierly dignity. There were only one or two paintings upon the bare walls, and another small shrine, beneath which was a bowl of white roses. A man who had been writing at a table, rose slowly to his feet as his two visitors entered. He was thin and not very tall. His hair was perfectly white. His eyes were kindly and his mouth seemed almost the mouth of a woman. As he looked behind Cardinge, however, its lines grew suddenly hard and firm.
"You are welcome, Monsieur Cardinge," he said, shaking hands.
Cardinge turned to Reinhardt.
"I shall not present you, Monsieur le Marquis, to my companion," he announced, "but I will tell you that his name is Reinhardt. I have brought him here for the purpose you know of."
The Marquis looked at Reinhardt. The action appeared to require some self-control.
"You have seen my poor patients?" he inquired.
"I have seen them," Reinhardt admitted. "I am very sorry for them. The war has brought great misery to many people."
"Our friend, as you see, is sympathetic," Cardinge observed. "Sympathy may be expressed in many ways. Monsieur Reinhardt has not much heart but he has a very long purse."
"Wealth is sometimes strangely directed," the Marquis murmured.
"But for the state of terror in which my companion found himself during our journey here," Cardinge continued, "I should have given him a hint as to its object. However, that makes very little difference. Monsieur le Marquis, Reinhardt, has lost three sons during the war and has devoted the remainder of his life to taking care of those who suffered as they suffered, but whose lives were spared. Monsieur le Marquis's three sons died of gas-poisoning."
"It is most regrettable," Reinhardt muttered.
"Monsieur le Marquis's whole income," Cardinge proceeded, "goes to the support of these poor fellows. It is not sufficient. He has a small grant from the French Government. Other friends—Madame amongst them—have been privileged to subscribe, I have told him that he will find in you a very generous sympathiser. You have your cheque book with you probably."
"Yes," Reinhardt admitted sullenly.
"Monsieur le Marquis will accept in the cause of charity," Cardinge concluded, "the sum of five hundred thousand francs. That sum was fixed by Madame."
Reinhardt opened his lips. He looked first at the Marquis and turned away with a little shiver. Then he looked at Cardinge and his fingers began to shake. There was something in the atmosphere of the room—its sombre stillness, the perfume from that bowl of white roses—which seemed suddenly terrifying. He drew the cheque book from his pocket. The Marquis motioned to Cardinge, who placed pen and ink before his companion. The cheque was written, signed and the ink blotted. Cardinge placed it in an envelope.
"Address it, if you please," the Marquis begged, "to my Bank, the Société Générale at Grasse. It is for my poor fellows but—"
"I understand," Cardinge interrupted.
"You shall not touch it, sir. Remember it is an act of justice."
Reinhardt gripped at his companion's arm.
"Well," he exclaimed harshly, "if this is what you brought me here for—if this is what I have to pay for my quittance—I have done it. Get me out of this place. I'm ill."
Cardinge and the Marquis shook hands.
"I think," the former said, "the sooner I take him away the better."
The Marquis made no reply. He kept his face averted from the man he loathed. They left the room and crossed what seemed to Reinhardt the nightmare hall, into the nightmare gardens, where many pairs of burning eyes seemed to be seeking his, where more than one of those strangely-garbed men seemed to be making vain efforts to rise to his feet as he approached, where hate flashed from the eyes of the white-capped nurses, whispering to their charges. The porter threw open the gate and they passed out. Reinhardt's hands clasped his forehead as they stood in the little strip of dusty road. Opposite was a café He stumbled towards it....
Downwards in ever-widening circles they glided, from the crisp champagne-like air of the mountains, into the mellow warmth of the sun-baked valleys below. As they left the château behind Reinhardt recovered himself. Half-way down he lit a cigar.
"Well," he said, "you have made me pay a stiff price for my quittance. A little theatrical, too. Why couldn't I have written you a cheque down on your balcony?"
"You have not enjoyed your visit to the château?" Cardinge inquired politely.
"I have hated it like poison," was the frank rejoinder.
"Precisely. It is for that reason that I took you. A few minutes of personal suffering sometimes hurts more than a slight depletion of one's banking account."
"Shall I be able to catch the night train from Nice?" Reinhardt demanded.
"It will be for Madame to say," Cardinge replied....
Madame listened to an account of their excursion into the mountains, silent and imperturbable. Reinhardt, in whom the bully had arisen again, fortified by an excellent luncheon and much old brandy, was disposed to be loquacious.
"Look here," he announced, "I don't want any more of this theatrical business—motoring up into the clouds on two wheels and pressed to endow hospitals. A pretty good thing that Marquis of yours makes out of it, I know. Anyway, I've paid—half a million francs, too—money that takes earning in Germany to-day. I want my quittance, and so to Nice."
Madame stretched out her fingers and plucked a rose. She sniffed it for a moment with half-closed eyes.
"You will be relieved, will you not, Otto Reinhardt, when that quittance is in your hands?"
"Why not?" he answered bluntly. "We're all criminals, or were. Why shouldn't I be glad to bury my little indiscretion?"
"We were all criminals in those days," Madame admitted—"more or less. But we were not spies."
"You have read my confession!" he exclaimed.
"I read every one," Madame replied coolly. "Most of them I set myself sedulously to forget. Yours I have never forgotten. You accepted the hospitality of France to spy against her."
"I obeyed orders."
"Your day by day life," Madame continued, "was a fraud. Your friendship for France was a pretence. These things are hard to forgive."
"It is finished," he muttered. "Give me my quittance."
Madame shrugged her shoulders slightly.
"You must remember, if you please," she said, "that that does not come to you as a right, but rather as an act of grace. When I think of your life in Paris at the time of your association with us, I am angry. Day by day you were 'hail fellow well met' with everybody, and at night you wrote your reports to the German Government. Then came the war. You did well out of the war, Otto Reinhardt."
"Other people made fortunes beside myself," he answered sullenly.
"Other people," Madame remarked, "will have more chance of keeping them. I have a list here "—she stretched out her hand and drew a slip of paper from a box by her side—"of seven societies formed in France to alleviate the very grievous distress caused by the war. I have put your name down as a subscriber to each of one million francs."
Reinhardt laughed harshly.
"You are mad!" he exclaimed.
"On the contrary," Madame assured him. "I have given especial care to the matter. So far as my information goes, the payment of these sums will absorb half of your fortune. It will leave you still a rich man and without that fear, which must surely sometimes haunt you, of having your back to a wall and the bandage over your eyes."
"I decline!" Reinhardt declared furiously. "That is all there is to say about it. You understand? I decline. You can keep my quittance."
"That," she said, "is very unwise. The Chef de Sûreté at Nice is a particular friend of mine. I have asked him to send me a trusted man from his office—who, by the by, is now reading in the garden. He imagines that I am only on the track of a robber, but what do you think would give the French police more satisfaction than to lay their hands on Otto Reinhardt—the man who spied on them for three years and whose name, in their Statute Book, is, I believe, 'Max Milan'?"
Reinhardt collapsed. He seemed to have shrunk within his clothes—to have become a smaller and stricken man.
"Don't mention that name!" he begged feverishly.
"Then sit up and ask yourself how long it will take you to deposit that money at the Société Générale at Nice."
"I should have to return to Germany," he groaned, looking down at the carpet.
"That would not be advisable," Madame replied. "My nephew here will act as your messenger. He is a young man of great discretion. You can have every confidence in him. The moment I hear that he has the money and is on French soil, you shall be welcome to go where you will. Until then you will be my guest."
Again Reinhardt looked down at the carpet, and again Madame read his thoughts.
"My friend the Chef de Sûreté at Nice has been exceedingly kind to me in this matter," she confided. "Although if he knew who you were nothing that I could do or say would prevent your arrest, he is willing to believe that you are simply a person I suspect of planning a robbery here. He is content to leave the matter of collecting evidence entirely in my hands, and yet have you watched day and night. If you try to escape, Otto Reinhardt, it will be 'Max Milan' whom they will capture."
The baffled man sat still for several minutes, biting his nails, looking sometimes out of the window, sometimes up at the ceiling. Opposite to him, like a figure of fate in her calm and absolute self-possession, sat Madame. Reinhardt was fond of his money, but he was fonder of his life.
"If half the amount—" he began.
Madame closed her eyes wearily.
"Have you ever known me bargain about money or life or anything that counts?" she asked.
"It will take time to realise such an outrageous amount," he pointed out.
"There is no limit to our hospitality," she assured him ironically....
Armand returned on the ninth day and Otto Reinhardt received his quittance. He burnt it out on the piazza, and remained there until the grey ashes had all floated away. Afterwards he took leave of no one. Madame, leaning a little on Cardinge's shoulder, watched him climb into the car and drive off without a backward glance.
"The only one of my Virgins, Hugh," she sighed, "of whom I have been really and honestly ashamed."
IT was one of Madame's black days. For forty-eight hours the sun had not shone, yet a heat seemed to arise from the ground itself—a baking, enervating heat, which left even the birds tired, and sapped the energy of human beings and animals. In no corner of the garden of the villa was there any breeze, yet above St. Jeanette, covering the blunt mountain-top, hung a cloud almost as black as ink—a cloud which had hung there stationary hour after hour.
Away in the sloping stretch of vineyard at the back of his farm-château, Cardinge was walking slowly with one of his labourers who was spraying the vines. By his side was Claire. Madame watched them, and the lifelessness of her expression for a moment vanished. The mask was lifted. She looked at them with suspiciously-brightened eyes. Presently she rang the bell by her side. A footman answered her summons.
"Tell Denise I want her," she ordered.
There was a brief delay. Presently an elderly, almost an old woman, dressed in plain black with a white cap, made her appearance. She looked at Madame with the eyes of many years' faithful service.
"Denise, how old am I?" Madame asked.
The woman hesitated for a moment.
"Madame has several ages," she murmured.
"The truth," her mistress insisted.
"Madame is forty-six years old this month," Denise confided. "I ought to know, for I was in the room when Madame was born.
"And how old do I look, Denise?"
"Between thirty and thirty-five," she decided. "Madame has been very successful with her complexion."
"Nevertheless, I am getting old."
The little gesture of Denise was full oft incredulous contempt.
"Not for many years yet," she assured her mistress. "Besides, before that time comes, he will arrive and Madame will know youth again."
The woman of forty-six who looked so sadly towards the mountains sighed.
"They have all come save four, Denise," she said. "But not he."
"He will come," the maid pronounced confidently.
"To-day I feel that he will never come."
Denise spread out her brown palms.
"To-day? But who takes count of to-day?" she exclaimed. "There is a feeling in the air which might be even of death. In the kitchen no one can work. I saw one of the gardeners just now asleep, with his tools in his hands, in the shadow of a pine-tree. Soon there will be a storm and all this will pass."
"You are sure that you have told me the truth about my age, Denise?" Madame persisted.
The woman smiled.
"Even I," she said, "would never dare to tell you a falsehood."
"You can go," Madame ordered. "Rest well. Remember this weather is trying."
"Thanks to Madame, there is little else but rest in my life," the woman replied, as with a curtsy she turned and departed....
Away on the hillside Claire watched the spraying of the vines and almost choked. The heat was insufferable—a heat, too, from which there seemed no escape. Her green parasol was useless, for there was no sun. By her side, Cardinge, although he was as hard as nails, shed his coat and waistcoat. There were drops of perspiration breaking from his forehead. The ground upon which they trod burned.
"Please come to lunch, Hugh," Claire begged.
"My child," Cardinge answered, "I am not sure that it is seemly for you to call a person of my mature years by his Christian name, and how the mischief can I come to lunch? It is half-past eleven already, and look at me!
"I will sit in the shade of your portico and wait for you," she proposed. "Any old clothes will do, and I shall call you exactly what I like—and you are not mature." He smiled.
"I fancy I see Madame's face," he said, "if I should present myself to lunch in any modification of my present costume. Madame has carried with her all over the world her love of ceremony."
"It wouldn't take you long, Hugh," she suggested, "to put on a suit of nice grey tweeds—and you look so nice in tweeds, with a white collar and one of the club ties you hide away so carefully."
"You are an observant child, aren't you?" he remarked, smiling. "What will become of my vines while I go away and play?"
"You won't get your men to go on working through the midday hours," she assured him. "Look at Jacques now. He's almost done. They'll have to have their siesta."
He glanced upwards at the motionless clouds.
"I can't think why we don't have a storm," he said. "I want to get the spraying done first. However, so be it, child. Jacques," he added, turning to his assistant, "for the morning it is finished. Go and get your lunch somewhere in the shade."
The husbandman's face was expressionless. As he paused to straighten himself he, too, glanced upwards. Then he took a bottle which hung from the belt by his side and drank.
"In an hour, monsieur," he declared, "one must work again."
Claire and Hugh strolled down towards where the roof of the low farm-house showed at the bottom of the field.
"Wonderful fellows, these labourers," he observed. "To them there is something almost sacred in the thought of the vintage. I really believe Jacques there would give his life to avert disaster. No wonder they let themselves go afterwards!"
"If I'm here," Claire announced, "I shall go to the celebrations this year up at St. Paulos. Everybody says that it's perfectly wonderful. I should like to realise that there is such a thing as real gaiety in the world. Somehow or other we all seem so sad lately."
He looked at her a little surprised.
"At your time of life," he protested, "gaiety should come naturally. I thought that you were so happy here, that you loved the place."
"I do love the place," she assented, "but what is there to make me really happy? Madame speaks kindly to me very seldom. She herself, I feel, has something continually on her mind. Always she has the air of one who sits and waits."
"With Armand I am absolutely dissatisfied," she confessed frankly. "I thought once that I could marry him if Madame wished it. I permitted him to talk of such things. I allowed him," she went on simply, "to embrace me. And afterwards I was unhappy. I do not think that I can have any love for Armand. I do not think that he himself knows what real love is."
"You are very young," he ventured a little lamely.
"Even the young have instincts," she replied. "And wasn't it you yourself who once said that the ignorance of youth is a surer guide to the truth than the wisdom gained by experience? I am glad that Armand is away at Deauville, and I hope that Madame says no more about my going there. Tell me, Hugh, how many more of these strange visitors does Madame expect?"
"If they all obey the call," he answered, "there are four more of them; but the one whom she would like most to see, I feel, will never come."
"Is that what keeps her so sad, do you think?"
"And you?" she went on, suddenly looking Up at him. "Why are you always so depressed, Hugh?"
"Me depressed?" he laughed. "How can you say so? I am perfectly happy. Since I bought this little farm I have everything a man could want."
"Idiot!" she scoffed.
They had reached the entrance to the farm-house. He arranged a chair for her on the stretch of piazze which overlooked the valley. Then he turned to leave.
"Hugh!" she called out to his departing figure..
"I know what's really the matter with you. You're lonely."
"Rubbish!" he exclaimed. The irritation of his little outburst seemed to please her. She sat quite still, laughing softly to herself. A touch of her old lightheartedness had returned.
After luncheon Madame remained in the only cool place in the house—her drawing-room. The windows were open, but the blinds drawn. Cardinge, however, stepped out on to the piazza and Claire followed him. There were signs of a change. The wind was springing up, blowing in eddies—a wind which had neither the faint sting of the sea, nor the chill of the mountains—which seemed, indeed, as though it had come up from the seething earth. The air was no longer stagnant. There were shades of violet in the great bank of clouds, little portions of which were becoming detached.
"In a few minutes," Cardinge prophesied, "we shall see the lightning; after that the deluge. Well, we have done all we can."
Almost as he spoke their eyes were dazzled for a moment, and the air seemed filled with invisible lightning. Afterwards they stood still, listening. The thunder was coming from the back of the mountains, far away, low at first and menacing. The first peal had scarcely died away when it was succeeded by another and louder one. A single drop of rain as large as half-a-crown dropped on the piazza. Round the last comer of the avenue came a great motor-car—a black limousine with silver mountings. Claire clutched at her companion's arm.
"Look, Hugh!" she exclaimed. "There is just one man inside. Is it a Virgin?"
There was another peal of thunder. The wind brought down a shower of rose-leaves and orange-blossom petals, which filled the air like a hailstorm.
"Whoever it is," Cardinge observed, "he comes in dramatic fashion."
There was an hour's interval during which the visitor lunched. Afterwards Cardinge brought him in to Madame. He advanced towards her at once—his rather fat, pudgy hands outstretched, a smile, which a generation of womankind had found irresistible, parting his lips and showing his very white teeth.
"Madame," he exclaimed, "as always, your servant and your slave! You do not remember me?"
"Of course!" she murmured.
"I am still Rapasto," he proclaimed as he raised her beautiful hands to his lips and released them again with artistically assumed reluctance. "I am known all the world over by no other name. I have been offered titles in many countries. I declined. I am myself what I am myself. I am Rapasto! You knew?"
"I knew," Madame assented.
"I guessed," Cardinge echoed.
"Sometimes I thought of sending word," the visitor continued. "I thought it would make you happy to remind you that I, who have become world-famed, was once your associate. But the time slipped on. Opportunities passed. As you know, I travel around the world at the call of my art. Other matters fade from the mind. I sing, and I forget myself that there is a world around me."
Cardinge and Claire exchanged a swift glance of sympathetic understanding. It was gone in a moment, but both had experienced the pleasure of it. Claire's expression became one of ingenuous and childish hero-worship. A quaint air of introspective enjoyment seemed to have temporarily rejuvenated Cardinge.
"You must please let me get you a comfortable chair," Claire begged, "so that you can talk to Madame. When the storm is over you will enjoy the view from our piazza."
Rapasto accepted the chair. He was a little corpulent and he was not fond of standing.
"I thank you, child," he said. "Madame, your ward delights me. She is of a charming age and appearance."
"She will be very flattered," Madame murmured.
"Cigar or cigarettes?" Cardinge invited.
Rapasto closed his eyes with a little shiver.
"Neither," he answered. "I have in my keeping one of the greatest gifts God has ever presented to the world. It is a sacred charge. I should love to smoke, but I may not."
There was a moment's silence. Rapasto smiled around at them all as though anxious to put them at their ease. He wished to be gracious. He sat in their midst and was disposed to be conversational. In all ways he desired that they should look upon themselves as his equals.
"Madame," he pronounced, pressing the tips of his forefingers together, and displaying three, if not more, rings with marvellously cut stones, "you are amazing. You look no older than in those very gay and happy days we spent together some—shall I say fifteen years ago?"
"Let us leave dates alone," Madame sighed.
"Why not?" he agreed. "I too have been fortunate. I am still a young man, it is true, but a careful life has also enabled me to preserve my figure."
The eyes of all of them seemed attracted as though by some common fascination towards the broad expanse of waistcoat. He himself looked down with complacency.
"I have on," he remarked, "an ill-fitting waistcoat, but in the gymnasium, the swimming bath—ah, well, I must not boast! Now, tell me what you thought, Madame, when you realised that it was indeed I, who had been one of your—what did we call ourselves?—'Virgins.' Capital, that! 'Virgins'!"
"You still are," Madame reminded him dryly. "You are one of those who are, as yet, not disbanded."
Rapasto stroked his moustache.
"Quite so," he murmured. "There was to be a little formality, I remember—a visit and the return of a document—one's quittance it was called. But that can come later. I have only just arrived. It interests me to meet those who knew me in my younger days when I was just an ordinary person, and to hear from their own lips what they felt when they realised the great fame which had come to their companion. It was wonderful, eh, Madame?"
"Amazing!" Madame assented. "I never thought you could sing a note."
Rapasto leant back in his chair and laughed. There was not much real merriment in his laugh, but a great deal of sound.
"That is good!" he declared. "Still—why should I wonder at it? I remember I used to go about in those days utterly unconscious that there was something in me which no other man could share—that I was set apart from the whole of the world, that a gift had been bestowed upon me which kings and princes might have craved for in vain. I should have taken more care of myself in those days, my friend Cardinge, had I known—a little more care, eh?"
"I never noticed that you were particularly reckless in our little enterprises," he remarked.
"You have a bad memory," the other rejoined a little curtly. "I remember several occasions upon which I ran great risks. If only the world had known! However, fortunately they did not. You have read many sketches of my career, of course," he went on, "but for the sake of the little girl here, who will no doubt remember this occasion all her life, I will tell you direct from my own lips that it is the American newspapers whose account of my triumphant progress has been the most truthful. It was in New York, as you know, that I suddenly stepped on to the mountain-top where no other has ever stood—where no other will ever reach, while I live."
"In New York?" Claire exclaimed breathlessly. "Won't you tell us about it?"
Rapasto smiled tolerantly.
"My child," he replied, "it is world's history. I could tell you nothing of that great occasion which has not already been written in letters of gold. Simply, I sang, and there was not a single person in that great audience who did not know that something new had come into the world. That night," he went on, "after the performance was over, the stage was strewn with flowers and articles of jewellery, shawls, passionate notes, a tiara, I remember, torn from the brow of a princess. In my dressing-room they had to barricade the door. There were women waiting for me in their automobiles all up the street!"
"And you?" Claire cried. "What did do?"
Rapasto's fingers strayed once more to his moustache.
"My child," he answered, "if I had been another sort of man, that might have been a dangerous question, but, before all things, I am an artist. There was nothing else but the glory of my art in my veins that night. My soul triumphed over everything. I had myself escorted back to my room in the hotel, and locked in. I supped alone before an open window. I looked out over New York. I prayed. I gave thanks that it was I, Rapasto, who knew himself in that moment to be the greatest singer in the world's history."
Madame's face was like the face of a sphinx. If she was enjoying herself she gave no sign of it.
"Perhaps our guest will take a little coffee?" she invited.
"I never touch it," he declared. "Beer, champagne, and old brandy sometimes at my physician's advice. A little old brandy now, if you will."
He was promptly served. Claire herself took him a large glass. He patted her on the shoulder.
"You must remember, child," he said kindly, "that you gave me brandy with your own hand. It will be something to tell your children when you are happily married. Alas, Madame," he went on, "I grieve to announce that this visit must be a short one. I have been staying with my friend the Prince Madorni at his villa in Nice. He insists that I am back by six o'clock. The King of Gothland is coming to meet me, and I must not disappoint him."
Madame inclined her head understandingly.
"Perhaps," she murmured, "you will pay us a linger visit while you are in the neighbourhood?"
"I shall make every effort," Rapasto promised, with a sigh, glancing towards Claire. "Still, we are all human. The fates might intervene. Let us go through our little ceremony now. Give me that scrap of paper, Madame, and we will shake hands and bid one another farewell. Then," he added, with a smile, "I shall no longer be a Virgin."
Madame made no movement.
"You are the eighth who has presented himself here to seek his quittance," she replied. "I must not treat you any differently from the others. Each one was called upon to perform some service before he received his discharge."
"Service?" Rapasto repeated, a little querulously.
"It varies, of course, according to their capacities," she continued. "Our friend Cardinge here has still the love of adventure in his veins, and the courage of a lion. I was obliged to ask him, I admit, to run some slight risk—a little daylight hold-up—a matter you would have enjoyed yourself, fifteen years ago."
Rapasto moved uneasily in his chair.
"Anything of that sort for me, in my present position, would of course be impossible," he pointed out.
"Naturally," Madame agreed softly. "I do not ask my Virgins to fill unsuitable roles. I should never make a bandit of you. Still, something must be thought of."
Rapasto shrugged his shoulders.
"Madame," he said, "I am not a vain man, but when there comes to see you one of your Virgins who has achieved immortal fame, I ask you whether you think that the conditions which apply to those others apply also to him? I say no more than this. You will be able to remember always that Rapasto was one of your Virgins. Those others will be able to remember it. I ask you whether this is not of itself a greater thing by far than any last service I could perform?"
"The reflection to which you allude," Madame conceded, "will always be a proud one. The last service, however, must be rendered even by you."
"Even by me?" he repeated incredulously.
"It will not be difficult," Madame assured him. "An idea even now presents itself to me. My friend, the Comtesse de Pleyell, who has a villa at Cap Ferrat, is giving in Nice three concerts during the next month for the benefit of the French Red Cross Society At each one of those three you shall sing."
"I shall what?" Rapasto gasped,
"You shall sing," Madame reiterated. "It will be a great gift of yours to a great cause. You will, without doubt, fill the Casino."
Rapasto held tightly on to the arms of his chair.
"Fill the Casino!" he shouted. "You are proposing to me—Rapasto—that I sing for charity?"
"Undoubtedly," Madame replied. "It will earn you your quittance."
Rapasto had genuinely the appearance of a man who has received a terrible shock. He sat quite still for a moment with his eyes closed.
"The prices were to have been popular ones," Madame went on. "Ten francs was to have admitted anyone, and there were to have been a few reserved seats. In the circumstance I dare say the Comtesse will be able to charge twenty francs. I shall—"
"Stop!" Rapasto thundered.
Madame looked at him without change of expression. He was white and trembling.
"It is a sacrilege!" he declared. "Blasphemous! I never dreamt—I never believed it possible that I should ever find anyone in the world who would dare to ask me to sing in a Casino for charity at twenty francs a head. It is the most ghastly suggestion—a nightmare!"
"Really!" Madame exclaimed, with upraised eyebrows. "I am afraid you will have to explain yourself a little."
"Explain myself!" Rapasto groaned. "It it a terrible thing to be confronted with ignorance so profound—such callousness towards the greatest art in the world. Madame, it is incredible to me that you should have spoken these words. Do you not realise that when it is proposed that I should sing, they come to me, two or three—a committee—from some great undertaking—from Covent Garden or from New York, from Paris—and they ask humbly for an audience. I grant it for some time my secretary finds convenient. My man of affairs is there. They produce a contract. My man of affairs discusses it. I myself am not offended with the details. When all is ready for my signature the document is presented. I sign it. Occasionally I shake hands with my visitors. They depart filled with happiness. They have performed a great task for the world. I have promised to sing. The next day the Press of the world is ablaze with the news. Thousands of people are made happy. Rapasto has promised to sing."
"Very interesting," Madame murmured.
"And, mind you, this is only a trifle," he continued. "Such affairs are not for me. I never discuss them. I know nothing of them. But they pay vast sums. They pay more money than they have ever paid anybody else in the world. They are right. When it is known that I sing, price is of no account. Every seat is sold ten times over. Even then there are women who weep their eyes out because they cannot hear me."
"Most graphic," Madame declared. "You must be a very rich man, my friend."
"Very likely," he replied. "I do not know. Perhaps my secretary could tell you. I have never asked him."
"Please forgive me if I seem very ignorant," Claire intervened, "but why does it matter so much if for three times only you sing for a great cause without all these wonderful arrangements?"
His smile was almost pitiful.
"Dear child," he explained softly, "a gift such as mine is most precious because of its rarity. Queens have begged me to sing at their Courts. The most wonderful women in Europe have offered everything they possess for half a dozen notes in their boudoir. It is not for me to grant such requests. I am the trustee of an Immortal gift. There are many who may sing for charity—not Rapasto!"
"It seems a pity," she remarked. "Those are my terms."
The singer looked at her in frank amazement. Real tears stood in his eyes. It was incredible that there could be any person living with so little understanding.
"Madame," he pleaded, "what you suggest is sheer sacrilege. The Press of the world would be horrified. My manager, my secretary, the committees who wait upon me from the opera houses of the world, would protest. There are others who could fill your Casino at twenty francs a seat."
"I am not so sure of that," Madame replied. "It takes a great deal to make people go to concerts nowadays."
He rose to his feet, shaken but indomitable.
"I will go home," he announced, "back to the villa of my friend the Prince. When I faced the storm this afternoon I felt the imminence of some strange and mysterious discord. Now that it has arrived I find it worse even than I had imagined. I am unnerved. I must leave at once."
"You don't care about singing at my concerts, then?" Madame persisted.
He folded his arms, closed his eyes and shivered.
"So might one ask the popular tenor of a suburban district to give his services at a bazaar," he groaned. "Madame, I implore you, seek the advice of someone who knows. Tell them what you have done and be guided by them. I am not angry, I am only shocked."
"The programmes," Madame observed calmly, as he made a tragical bow of farewell, "will have to be printed next week. If you desire your quittance, you will know what to do. Hugh, will you ring the bell for Signor Rapasto's car?"
Claire and Cardinge stepped out on to the piazza to wave their farewells. The whole world was storm-drenched. Great boughs had been broken off from the trees. The flowers were beaten down. In the distance the slanting rain was still falling. The sulphurous heat, however, had passed. The air was soft and sweet. Rapasto, his arms folded, his pose Napoleonic, drove off. Claire laughed till the tears stood in her eyes.
"If only he would come again!" she cried.
"He will come again," Cardinge assured her....
In two days he arrived. He brought with him a person whom he introduced as Signor Saul Mattino, who looked like a watered-down caricature of himself, and whom he introduced as his secretary and manager. Signor Mattino was urbane, but he did not beat about the bush.
"Our great friend here," he began, "has confided to me the proposition which you made to him on his last visit."
Madame's interest was a little languid.
"It was scarcely a proposition," she explained. "I want him to sing for charity. The greatest in the world can do that."
Signor Saul Mattino was shocked.
"Madame," he said, "you probably live a retired life. You do not know what it means to the world when Rapasto sings."
"It seems to mean the lightening of their pockets to a very considerable extent, for one thing," Madame murmured.
"Must we be frivolous?" Mattino protested, with a ponderous frown. "It is not indeed a matter for jest. A promise to sing from our great friend is published throughout the Press of the world as an event unique in its interest—amazing in its prospects of happiness. People who have been fortunate enough to secure seats count the days before the moment of their rapture arrives."
Madame closed her eyes. Cardinge had caught the wave of her hand.
"Am I correct, Signor Mattino," he inquired, "in surmising that you were born an American?"
"I was born in New York," the other confessed.
"Then let us use the vernacular which we both understand," Cardinge suggested. "Cut this out and come to the point. Will 'our great friend,' as you call him, sing or will he not?"
"The world would not permit it," Signor Mattino replied. "His managers would not permit it. There would be an outcry from hemisphere to hemisphere."
"Then let Signor Rapasto understand that the object of his visit here will remain unattained," Cardinge said dryly.
Rapasto personally intervened. His attitude was one of incredulity.
"But, Madame," he expostulated, "it is I, Rapasto, who comes to you. I have brought everlasting glory upon your Society. The world rings with my name. It is I who have come to see you, who sits in your room with you, who accepts you all as friends of the past. I ask the simple boon of my quittance. Do you still refuse?"
"My dear man," Madame declared, "if this goes on any longer, I shall relate that little story to everyone present."
Rapasto rose to his feet. He was like a man who scarcely knows which way to turn.
"Mattino," he begged, "take me away."
"An excellent suggestion," Mattino agreed.
"You need not come to see me again, either of you, unless you are prepared to send me the names of the songs 'our great friend' would like to sing. The announcements will be out to-morrow."
There were no words left. In solemn silence the two men left the Villa. Once more Claire and Cardinge watched their departure from the piazza.
"Isn't he lovely!" Claire exclaimed. "Do you think he will sing, Hugh?"
"I think so," he answered. "He bluffs about it, but I think he's frightened out of his life...."
On the following day a very imposing person presented himself. His name it appeared was Stuttaker. He made no effort to conceal the fact that he was an American. Madame received him on the piazza, and Cardinge, who had left a short time before, was fetched back in hot haste by Claire.
"Madame," Mr. Stuttaker began, "I am the business manager of Rapasto."
"Is that so?" Madame rejoined. "I should scarcely have thought that he needed one."
Mr. Stuttaker smiled a superior smile.
"Dear Madame," he said, "you probably lead a retired life. You have no idea of the consequence in the world which a man like our great friend has achieved. There is not an artist in the universe who does not look upon it as an event when Rapasto sings."
Madame suddenly sat bolt upright.
"Look here, Mr. Stuttaker," she protested. "I've been through all this from Rapasto himself, and from his secretary, and I don't want any more of it from you."
"You have actually billed the great Rapasto to sing at a charity concert!" Mr. Stuttaker complained with horror.
"Yes, and he's going to sing there," Madame replied, "or he does not get what he wants from me."
"I will not appeal any longer to your finer feelings as regards this matter," Mr. Stuttaker said coldly. "I will simply proceed to discuss the affair from a business point of view. I have been to the Casino and interviewed the manager. I find that the full capacity of the place, at your announced prices, would be forty-two thousand francs. I am prepared to offer you a cheque for that amount."
Madame turned to Claire and Cardinge who had just arrived.
"Listen!" she exclaimed. "This is Rapasto's business manager. He offers a cheque for the whole of the receipts of the house."
"What a pity!" Claire sighed. "I was beginning to think that I should quite like to hear him sing."
"You still may," Madame rejoined dryly. "Mr. Stuttaker, your offer is declined."
"You mean that you insist upon Rapasto singing?"
"He has signed a bond not to sing a note except under my direction," Mr. Stuttaker pointed out.
"Then you had better direct him," Madame suggested. "Go back and tell Rapasto, if he wants his quittance, he sings at the Comtesse de Pleyell's concerts. That is the end of it."
"Madame," Mr. Stuttaker said solemnly, as he rose to his feet, "I do not know what your hold over our great friend may be, but I venture to tell you that this is blackmail of the most terrible description."
"You are a shockingly rude man," Madame declared. "But I really am not cross with you. The whole business is so funny."
"Funny!" Mr. Stuttaker gasped.
"First of all," she explained, "there is Rapasto's vanity, which affords illimitable scope for humour, and would afford more still if it were not a little pathetic. Then there is Signor Mattino and you, his entourage, bent on making as much as you can out of the man and keeping him puffed up to the skies all the time with the idea that he is a sort of superman, a great artist who flatters the earth he treads upon. The man sings well, I have no doubt. If I feel like it I shall go to one of the three concerts. But he's just a professional singer, and for the first time in his life he's going to sing for nothing. You go and tell him so, with my compliments. Hugh, will you fetch Mr. Stuttaker's car?"
"Blackmail!" Mr. Stuttaker repeated, rising to his feet. "Disgraceful blackmail!"
"Tell your man to be very careful going down the avenue," Madame advised. "There are some awkward corners."
On the afternoon after his third concert Rapasto drove up to the Villa. Madame and Claire received him upon the piazza. His manner was grave and dignified. He was like a man who had passed through the valley of an undeserved humiliation. There was a moment, however, when he was almost himself. It was when Claire stood up to greet him.
"You have heard me sing?" he asked, looking at her earnestly.
"Rather!" she answered. "I was in the front row, and I stayed until nearly the end. I had to miss your last song because the Comtesse was giving a supper party and Hugh was waiting to take me there. Do tell me, is your voice a tenor, or do you call it a baritone?"
He drew away with a little shiver.
"My voice," he replied, "has never been classified."
Madame handed him a sealed envelope. He buttoned it up in the pocket of his coat.
"Madame," he said, "I understand that I have had seven predecessors. Seven before myself have been put to difficult tasks to win their quittances. Yet I can safely say this—not one of them has paid as I have."
He looked at them both for a moment, intently. Then he bowed and turned away. Madame rang the bell.
"Be sure to remind your chauffeur about the corners," she advised him.
"And if you are singing again in these parts," Claire begged, as he stepped into the car, "do let us know. I should like to come if it's not too far."
Rapasto bowed once more. Then he folded his arms. The black and silver car started off. At the first corner they all caught a glimpse of him, seated there—silent, motionless, shocked.
THERE was neither pomp nor circumstance connected with the coming of Andrew Sarle to the Villa Sabatin. He climbed the flower-bordered avenue which turned and twisted through a labyrinth of orange trees and sweet-smelling shrubs, with a knapsack on his back, dust-covered from head to foot. When he presented himself at the front door, William, the most discreet and understanding of butlers, was on the point of stretching out his arm to indicate the servants' and mendicants' approach to the house, when he paused. This shabby stranger had at least a manner.
"I desire to see Madame," he announced. "Is she within?"
"Madame is within, but she receives very seldom," was the doubtful reply. "You have, perhaps, an appointment?"
"I have," was the calm rejoinder. "Madame has sent for me. My name is Andrew Sarle."
William compromised in the matter by showing the visitor into a small morning-room, cut off from the more elaborate reception-rooms. He disappeared to make his announcement and returned within a few minutes.
"Madame trusts that you are not pressed for time, sir," he confided, "as she finds your call early. She can see you in an hour's time. Meanwhile, she suggests, as you are doubtless on a walking tour, that you might care for a wash and some refreshment."
The visitor unslung his knapsack.
"More than anything else in the world," he confessed, "I should like a bath."
"If you will follow me, sir," William invited, "I will show you a bath-room on the first floor."
Andrew Sarle was still shabby when he descended half an hour later, but he was at least clean and he had regained something of that distinction which had belonged to him in former days. He wandered round the cool and flower-perfumed apartments on the ground floor, until out on the piazza he found a small table set for one with an electric heater by the side. A footman served him silently with delicious coffee, rolls and butter, and an unexpected omelette. He ate with deliberate and self-respecting concealment of the fact that he was almost starving.
When he had finished he lit a cigarette from the box which the man handed to him, and strolled to the farther end of the terrace. He leant over amongst the climbing roses and looked out, seawards. So he was when Claire came down and found him. He turned his head at the sound of her light footsteps. She smiled a welcome.
"Madame desired me to say that she will be down in a few minutes," she announced. "She does not usually rise before eleven."
"It is I who should apologise for the earliness of my visit," Sarle replied. "I fear that I have lost count of the conventions. I have been walking day after day, and when I arrived—well, I declared myself."
"You have come a long distance?" she asked.
"A very long distance indeed," he answered gravely. "Sometimes it seems to me that I was born walking, always with a pack upon my shoulders. One gets to feel like that in time."
She looked at him curiously, wondering how much he had spoken allegorically. His face, in its way, was very attractive, with its lines of suffering, and its pallor only faintly obliterated by the marks of the sun.
"I must not be inquisitive, but are you an old friend of Madame's?" Claire inquired.
"I am an old friend and an unfortunate one," he told her. "I have been a gambler, but not at the gambling tables.... I am not keeping you, I trust?"
He glanced at her questioningly. She was wearing a walking costume of dark green linen, with a small Napoleonic hat, thick shoes and she carried a stick. Around her several dogs were waiting impatiently. She was, as a matter of fact, on her way to Cardinge's château-farm.
"I was just going across to a farm near here," she explained. "At this time of the year, when we are interested, we go every day to see how the vines are looking. It is a great friend of Madame's who lives close here—Mr. Hugh Cardinge. You know him, perhaps?"
"Cardinge!" he repeated reminiscently. "Yes," he admitted, "I knew Cardinge. He was like me in one respect. He was not altogether one of fortune's favourites."
"You too, then," she ventured, "were one of Madame's Virgins."
His lips curled for a moment.
"I belonged to that astounding Society," he confessed. "We are being disbanded, I understand. I have come a great distance to keep my oath and receive my quittance."
"A great many have already visited us," she observed. "You must be almost the last."
"Has Maurice Tringe been here?" he demanded.
The question was an ordinary one enough, but the manner of his asking was amazing. The words had almost leapt from his mouth. It was like the flash of a rapier, and there was something in his eyes from which she shrank.
"Not yet," she answered, a little hesitatingly. "Madame has heard from him, though. He comes, I think, to-day or to-morrow."
The man was suddenly transformed. In appearance he had become somehow less prepossessing but more vital. He was all nerves and intentness.
"Where does he come from?" he asked.
"From Italy," the girl replied. "He spends the night at Monte Carlo."
"And I am here," Andrew Sarle muttered. "Then I still believe in a God."
He turned away, almost as though he had forgotten her presence. It was her opportunity to depart, but for some reason or other she lingered. She too leant, a few feet away, upon the flower-smothered rail of the veranda and looked across the valley.
"You two," she repeated presently, "will be almost the last."
"It is fitting," he pronounced shortly.
He had relapsed into moodiness. It was perfectly clear that he had no mind for further conversation. Yet Claire was somehow indisposed to leave him. His suffering had at first enchained her pity. This new look in his face moved her almost to fear.
"I wonder if you are a painter?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"No," he confided. "I have no profession. At the time when Madame knew me I had but one thought. We were all the same. There was the common bond—adventure. The spirit of adventure, I suppose," he went on, "has brought me to what I am. I took a risk, et voilà!—this is the result!"
"A gambler can always recover," Claire reminded him gently.
"Material things," he assented. "Happiness is scarcely involved in the gain or loss of material things."
There was the sound behind of smooth footsteps—Madame's languid voice.
"The old Andrew," she murmured. "Always moralising! Claire, you had better set oft on your walk. Let Hugh know who has arrived. See that he returns with you to luncheon.... So you, too, have found your way here, Andrew Sarle?"
"I too have obeyed, Madame," he acquiesced. "For me it has been a weary journey."
"You have come far?"
"From the Pyrenees, begging my way most of the time."
Madame received the information equably.
"You were a rich man in our days, Andrew," »he remarked. "You have, I fear, neglected your gifts. That was a charming little play you wrote for Comier, and which he produced at the 'Capucines.' Have you written anything else like that?"
"I have not touched a pen for ten years."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"We each know our own lives! No one can help those without the will to help themselves.... So you have come for your quittance?"
"And to offer you, perhaps," he said, "a last service."
"You use our own formula," she observed. "But for you—well, I have nothing planned. Perhaps I shall be very good-natured and hand you your quittance without exacting service. Your confession was never a terrible affair."
"As you like," he answered indifferently. "As a matter of fact, I had imagined that I might be more useful to you than any of the others."
"In what way?"
"Oh, I know them all," he declared. "I've come across them or heard of their careers at different times. Most have been successful. Most have come to you shivering with fear lest they should be asked to flout the law at your bidding—to embroil themselves with the conventionalities in the carrying out of this last service. I come to you free from all that. That is why I thought I might be useful."
"No fears, no conscience, eh?" Madame queried.
"I will not go so far as that," he objected. "I have my own standard. The point is that, within a month or so, I shall be dead. What I do between now and then is of no account to any human being. Show me an action, in itself great, but which must be performed illegally—a batch of human vermin without whom the world were the better—even a single individual who stands in the light, and I have no scruples."
"All for the sake of that insignificant quittance."
"You can keep my quittance if you will," he answered. "My request will sound more sordid. I require enough money to travel a little distance, to attire myself and to live like a gentleman until the end."
"And why the end?"
"Because my search is nearly over. Within a few days I am going to kill a man—a murder, people will call it, I suppose. Well, that doesn't matter. Afterwards you will understand that it will be necessary for me also to disappear."
Madame sighed contentedly.
"I am so glad you came, Andrew," she confided. "You bring with you a most inspiring breath of real vitality. Who is the man who you are going to kill?"
Madame nodded thoughtfully.
"More and more interesting. There was a woman, wasn't there?"
"But surely," she reflected, "that was seven years ago."
He indicated himself and his condition by a gesture.
"Maurice was always a coward," he declared passionately. "I have hunted him this seven years. Hence my idle pen, my empty banking account. He had wealth, and he used it to avoid me—a yacht in the southern seas—I had to follow by steamer. Steamers and sailings were well known to him. He took his ease until a day or two before my arrival and then passed on.... Yet I have given him no rest. There has never been a moment when he has not felt that I was coming—coming as surely as the thud of the engines which drove my steamer. For seven years he has found no home. He tried to communicate with me—suggested an interview—a compromise—he even asked for pity. I never answered letter or advertisement."
"You have been extraordinarily persevering," Madame remarked, fanning herself.
"It is your summons," Andrew Sarle went on, "which will draw him to his death. I heard of him in Italy after I had sought for him in vain at Pau. Then I, too, had my call. From Pau to here is, they tell me, a pleasant motor ride—a railway journey, perhaps, of two or three days, pleasantly broken. To walk it takes two months. My lungs are not what they were."
"You have walked from Pau?" Madame asked.
"From Pau," he answered. "And I was on my way to Italy. Perhaps Italy will not be necessary."
"How do you know that Maurice has not already been here?"
He was silent. Madame understood.
"Claire, of course," she murmured.
"I should have known in any case," he assured her.
"You are still," Madame reminded him, "a Virgin."
"Until I receive my quittance," he agreed.
"You will remember, perhaps," she continued, "one of the privileges I enforced. Your friendships and your enmities were nothing to me outside my circle. Your friendships and your enmities with one another were my concern."
"In the case of any quarrel between two of you it was I who adjudicated."
"You are still a Virgin. You will recount to me your grievance against Maurice Tringe."
The man brooded over the matter for several minutes.
"You insist?" he asked at last.
Sarle told his story in a perfectly level, mechanical tone.
"I will spare you evidence," he said. "I will tell you only facts of which I have the proof. In nineteen-fourteen, at the time when you, Madame, and your Virgins, were the sensation in Paris, we were compelled to disband. Maurice Tringe and I were curiously brought together. We were never friends, yet the War, two years of fighting side by side, brought a certain comradeship. At Soissons I was Tringe's superior officer. I saved his life. I myself was wounded, more dangerously than he. He was sent to England. I was too ill to be moved. I gave him a letter to my wife. You will remember that I married Pauline de Neuilly."
"It was many months before I could travel to England. When I arrived—they had gone. There was a letter from her—an illuminating letter! From him—nothing. I went into hospital. As soon as I was cured—as nearly cured as I shall ever be—I started on my quest."
"And your poverty?" Madame inquired.
"When war broke out," he explained, "I divided my fortune. I gave half to my wife. My half I have spent travelling round the world on my quest."
"An old and simple story," Madame mused.
"As old as the hills," he acknowledged, "but with a different meaning to every man. My wife was my life, and she was a good woman. He blasted my happiness—he must have blasted hers."
"Really," she decided, "the whole thing seems to me to be most regular. I scarcely see how I can interfere."
"Then let me go," he rejoined quickly. "You know all that I want from you."
"Age has not corrected your impetuosity," Madame yawned. "Why make such a rush of life? Take a more comfortable chair and light a cigarette. You remember Cardinge? He will be here for luncheon."
"I must move on," Andrew Sarle declared. "My rags are not for your table."
"Don't tell me that you have lost your good taste, too," Madame begged. "Such a remark is inadmissible. Place yourself in my butler's hands. He has clothes here—relics of the old days. Between now and luncheon-time I will think over the situation. There is William inside the salon. Let him look after you for half an hour, and when you come down there will he an apéritif ready. Afterwards luncheon—then talk."
"Supposing Maurice Tringe should arrive while I am here?" he asked, lingering.
"I do not think that there is any chance of it. Maurice reaches Monte Carlo to-night and will probably stay there."
"If I remain," Andrew Sarle stipulated, "will you provide me with the means of reaching Monte Carlo to-night? I shall be too late to get there on foot."
"A ridiculous question," Madame murmured. "You certainly will not leave here as a pauper or in those clothes. Very likely I will take you in to Monte Carlo myself. Very likely I may think of a better scheme."
"Then I accept with gratitude your invitation," he announced.
Andrew Sarle, shaved and attired in the garments of civilisation, became at once a personable although a silent guest at the Villa. He greeted Cardinge civilly but incuriously, and seldom spoke except when he was addressed. All the time he looked only in one direction—along the thread of empty and dusty road. After coffee had been served on the piazza Madame waved the others away. Her guest rearranged his chair so that he commanded a view of the road.
"Andrew," his hostess began, "I suppose if you were asked you would be able to say what you considered had been the ruling passion of my life."
"Love of adventure," he answered without removing his eyes from the road.
"Quite true," she assented. "It was without doubt my love of adventure which induced me when I was only a child to marry the Duc de Soyau, although there was not a single one of my friends or relatives—or, even, for that matter, his—who did not assure me that he was the greatest scoundrel in Europe. However, he had the good taste to die. My second adventure was the gathering together of you, my Virgins."
The glimmerings of a smile parted her guest's lips.
"You had all the adventure you wanted then."
"Of a sort," she acquiesced. "And yet, partly by chance, partly I suppose owing to the handicap of my sex, there are several things which I have missed. I have never seen a murder committed."
He moved a little uneasily in his chair.
"What are you leading up to?" he asked bluntly.
"This," she answered, "I have a proposition to make to you. You have decided to murder Maurice Tringe, and I find no moral reason why you should not. You desire your quittance from me and a certain amount of help. Both you shall have, on one condition. Wait here for Maurice Tringe. Let that murder take place under this roof and let it be stage-managed by me."
"I must kill him at sight," Andrew Sarle pointed out. "If not he will escape."
"He shall not escape," Madame promised calmly. "He is coming for his quittance, and he will not go away without it. Leave it all in my hands, Andrew. Let it be I who say the word, and our bargain is struck. In this house and with my help, Maurice Tringe cannot possibly escape."
"On one condition, I agree," he declared.
"You must assure me that this is not a trap. You will not ask me to show him mercy?"
Madame laughed with a quiet sense of enjoyment.
"Am I that sort of person?" she demanded. "I am a believer in justice. Mercy is the weakness of others. I promise that I will interfere in no way whatever except to choose the moment when you may strike."
"Then I accept your terms," he acquiesced.
Later in the afternoon Madame ordered her limousine.
"I am going to drive as far as the sea," she told her guest. "Please accompany me."
He shook his head. His eyes were seldom far away from that dusty strip of high-road.
"I prefer to watch the road," he said. "He may come at any minute."
Madame passed him a telegraphic dispatch which had been brought to her some time before. He read it eagerly. It was dated from Monte Carlo early that morning:
Just arrived here. Shall be with you twelve midday to-morrow.—Maurice.
"To-morrow!" he muttered.
"At midday," Madame echoed. "So you see you waste your time sitting there brooding. Come with me instead. I have something to show you."
"It is a long time," Andrew Sarle reflected, as he rose to his feet, "since I have been interested in my whereabouts. However, as you wish it, I am ready."
Madame spent a few minutes preparing herself, and William, from an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe, produced a grey Homburg hat, gloves and cane for the visitor. Then they started off, winding their way down the narrow lane, through the strip of wood and across the broad high-road to the avenue which led to the sea. They drove always very slowly, and more than once Madame brought the car to a standstill by pressing a button. She showed her companion a beautiful view, a famous garden, and later on the golf links. In the distance they could see Cardinge and Claire playing.
They drove on as far as the road went, to the verge of the great shingly beach, lapped by the Mediterranean. Andrew Sarle looked in one direction only. He ignored the beautiful neck of Antibes. He took no notice of a large sailing yacht close to the land. He looked steadfastly past Cap Ferrat towards Monte Carlo.
"It seems like a waste of time," he muttered. "He is so near."
"At midday to-morrow," Madame reminded him, "he comes to you. He will be under the same roof. You are free from all restraint. Surely that is better."
"To-morrow is a long time," he complained. "There is another night to pass."
Madame gave an order and the car was turned around. They drove slowly past the Club House. Madame Dombelle, the secretary, was seated at her desk, working. She raised her head for a moment as the car passed. Madame waved her hand.
"That is the secretary of the Golf Club," she told her companion. "She is a French woman who appealed to me for help. I found her the place. They tell me she is very efficient."
"A war widow, perhaps?" Andrew Sarle inquired.
Madame shook her head.
"Her husband is alive," she said. "There are others who are unhappy."
The car came to a standstill again a few hundred yards farther on. Madame gave some instructions through the speaking-tube. At the entrance to the valley they drew up, close to where a footpath from the golf links disappeared into a wood. Madame passed cigarettes to her companion.
"Here we rest for a time," she announced. "This is a spot I always love. Let your window down, Andrew. Do you smell the orange blossoms?"
"They are very beautiful," he answered.
"The perfume comes from that tiny villa," she went on—"the villa from which the child has just come out. A pretty child, Andrew!"
"Children of that age," he confessed, "always remind me of things I hate to be reminded about."
He watched the child as she passed down the footpath. His hand, which rested upon the window, shook. He gazed after her until she was out of sight. Then he leant back in his place. Madame looked at him curiously.
"That is the daughter of the golf secretary," she told him. "She is going, I suppose, to meet her mother."
"She was just about the same age as Pauline," he said, "and her hair—Bah! I thought I had forgotten those things."
"What became of your child?" Madame asked.
"She took it—robbed me of her as she did of everything else."
Madame was silent. She was watching the approach of two figures along the winding footpath.
"You have had some, very unhappy years,
Andrew," she admitted, "but for a man of your courage you are very morbid. To bear sorrow with dignity is the greatest discipline in life. Look at that woman who comes—our golf secretary. She has known a sorrow as great as yours. Still she has kept her self-respect. She has her child, her tiny villa, and she, who was born to every luxury, works for her living. What do you think of her, Andrew? She is still a beautiful woman."
Andrew Sarle leant forward and a little cry broke from his lips. He made a quick movement to rise and then collapsed in his seat. Madame pressed the button and the car started on. She unfastened the waistcoat of the man by her side and felt his heart. Andrew Sarle had fainted.
An hour or so later she descended from her room and found Andrew lying in her own chaise longue on the piazza. He welcomed her eagerly.
"I wanted to talk to you," he began—"to ask you something. Madame, tell me! I had the strangest vision just as my senses went. That child came back and a woman. Who was she?"
"Your wife," Madame answered, "and the child is your daughter. Now you see why I Insisted."
Madame handed across to him the sealed envelope which she was carrying.
"Your quittance," she observed. "The price of it is your silence for twenty-four hours."
The scraps of torn paper fluttered down the breeze. The man buried his face in his hands.
At a few minutes before midday on the following morning, Hugh Cardinge climbed the avenue of the Villa and was welcomed upon the steps of the rose-wreathed piazza by Madame.
"You are just in time, my friend," she said, "to help me receive very nearly the last of your fellow-Virgins. I think that it is Maurice Tringe's car which climbs the hill there."
Cardinge glanced around and into the Villa.
"What about Sarle?" he asked.
Madame shrugged her shoulders.
"I imagine that Sarle may kill him. We shall see!"
A closed car, covered with dust, drew up at the front entrance. They both watched curiously the descent of its solitary occupant. Maurice Tringe was certainly no longer a pleasant person to look upon. He was coarse of flesh without being absolutely stout. His cheeks were puffy and sagged a little over his nerveless mouth. His eyes were weak and vapid. His complexion was bad, his carriage gone. He shambled rather than walked. He came towards them, hat in hand, but his eyes were wandering about restlessly.
"Dear Madame!" he exclaimed. "Unchanged! And Cardinge, isn't it? I thought I recognised you. Well, well, I am here, you see. I have obeyed."
"I am very glad to see you, Maurice," Madame said.
He stood close to her. He dropped his voice almost to a whisper. His head was never still. All the time his eyes were travelling around.
"Tell me," he begged, "are any of the others here? That fellow Andrew Sarle, for instance?"
"Why should you ask for him especially?" Madame demanded, with well-simulated indifference.
"That fellow," Maurice Tringe continued earnestly, "has ruined my life.... I wonder, could I have a drink?"
A servant hurried forward.
"Order what you will," Madame invited, leading the way to the farther end of the piazza.
"A little brandy," Tringe begged in a hoarse undertone. "Just a wineglassful—no more. These last few years have been such a strain. And everything against me, too."
"What has been against you?" Madame asked.
"Ill-health, for one thing," he replied. "Sleeplessness—my nerve's gone. That fellow Sarle started it. You know, of course, that there was some trouble about his wife?"
"We know that you look her away," Madame observed.
"Well, well, that's all over and done with—over and done with," he repeated, holding out his hand eagerly for the wine-glass which a servant was tendering. "We do these things. We may say that we regret them. It makes no difference. But that fellow Sarle—hell murder me some day. He's sworn to."
"Really?" Madame murmured.
"He followed me pretty well all round the world," Tringe went on. "It got on her nerves, too, just as it did on mine. That's why she left me. She couldn't stand it any longer. So she went—left me without a word. I've been alone for five years, and I've scarcely slept a night without waking up and thinking I heard footsteps around the bed, or the sound of his voice. God, the nightmares I have had!"
He finished the brandy and was the first to seize one of the wine-glasses from the cocktail tray. He held it suspended in mid-air for a moment, on its way to his lips. Then the glass slipped from his nerveless fingers on to the tesselated floor and was smashed into atoms. His eyes were fixed upon a window only a few yards away—an open window, so covered with crimson ramblers that scarcely its outline was left. Something glittering had been thrust through the roses—something on which the sun was flashing—something held by invisible fingers, pointing straight to his heart. A hand brushed aside the screen of roses and a figure appeared.
"My God! He is here!" Tringe groaned. "He is here at last—here!"
He sat in his chair, powerless to move, fascinated, shrunken and incoherent in the face of this horror. Andrew Sarle stepped out on to the piazza. He was pale, almost livid, and an expression of cruel joy flamed in his eyes. The pistol was still pointed at his enemy's heart. Madame looked at him coolly.
"That will do, Andrew," she rejoined. "I am sure Maurice Tringe realises that this is the end. Remember the truce is not up yet—not until after lunch. Put that thing away. Come and take your apéritif. I don't wish my servants to think that we are rehearsing a film for the cinema."
Sarle obeyed reluctantly, but without protest. The pistol dropped into his jacket pocket. He nodded to Cardinge and drank his apéritif. His fingers were quite firm. The coming of the enemy seemed to have brought him a great composure.
"It is a trap, this," Tringe mumbled.
"Do not be foolish. Remember if you can," she added, "that the one inevitable quality of a Virgin was always 'courage.' So far as regards your personal safety you have, at the worst, a clear hour before you. I had Andrew Sarle's word of honour that, for that time—until after the service of luncheon and we have had a brief conversation—your life shall be spared."
"Give me another cocktail," Tringe begged.
A little chime of bells announced the service of luncheon. Madame rose to her feet.
"I trust," she said, "that you will all remember my request. We are in a civilised country. Whatever may come afterwards, luncheon at least remains. Come! Claire, this is Major Tringe, another of the protégés of my early life. Show him the way to luncheon."
The habits of the roué by instinct are ineradicable. Tringe straightened his tie as he bowed and permitted his eyes, weak vessels though they were, to express his admiration. Claire led him to his place, talking to him with unexpected kindness. She had the uneasy feeling that this was a doomed man.
From beginning to end it was a strange meal, perfectly served as usual, with exquisite appointments of flowers, linen and wine. Madame was an exceptionally silent hostess and Cardinge only spoke when it served his purpose. Andrew Sarle was an intelligent contributor of monosyllables. Tringe was garrulous and greedy in turn.
"I see, Madame," he remarked, "that you have not forgotten the art of having the best cook in the world. I have seldom tasted such an omelette, and this sauce—wonderful!"
"One is reminded," Andrew Sarle observed, "of the famous dinners, Madame, which you used to give us in the Bois de Boulogne—generally on the eve of one of our enterprises. Everything then, as now, was faultless. One misses only that little inscription, painted by our friend Fardell, upon the wall, with its allegorical illustrations—'Let us eat and drink and be merry, for to-morrow we shall die!'"
Tringe set down his glass. He was momentarily discomposed.
"The subject just now is rather too personal," Madame interposed dryly. "Tell us, did you play last night at Monte Carlo, Maurice?"
"I played, yes," he answered, "and with my usual accursed luck. For years everything that I have touched has gone to pot. I took two hundred pounds with me into the Rooms last night, and when I came out I couldn't tip the boy who gave me my hat. You all appear to have prospered, by the look of you. I am pretty well broke. Ten years ago, I was so rich. I thought myself a millionaire. To-day everything seems to have crumbled away. I have no luck—that's what it is," he went on. "Everything I touch goes against me."
Madame glanced at the clock.
"Serve coffee here," she directed the butler. "You will excuse some slight hurry," she added, turning to Tringe. "I have given a promise to Andrew which expires in half an hour. The matter it refers to must be dealt with before then."
Tringe shivered a little as he glanced around the table. He seemed conscious of the lack of sympathy everywhere. Chill fear sat in his heart. The service of the meal was concluded almost in silence. Madame rose to her feet.
"Will you all come with me, please," she said,"except Claire? I shall want you, Hugh."
She led the way to a seldom-used room which opened out of her salon, an apartment less ornate than the others, but looking out upon the gardens, and pleasantly furnished. In the middle of the floor there was a table strewn with magazines. Madame took a seat at the end of it, and pointed to a chair on either side of her.
"Sit down, Andrew Sarle," she invited, "and you, Maurice Tringe. First, have either of you any weapon?"
"I have a revolver," the former admitted, "with which, I may add," he went on, glancing at the clock, "I am not disposed to part."
"If it comes to that," Tringe said, scowling, "I have one, too. What about it?"
At a gesture from Madame, Cardinge suddenly pinioned his arms and drew the revolver from his hip pocket. Tringe spluttered with rage.
"Look here," he protested, "am I to be butchered in cold blood without defending myself?"
"I am not inclined to trust you," Madame rejoined coolly. "Now, please listen, both of you. You once took an oath—private quarrels between members of our society were to be adjudicated upon by me. That oath you have probably both forgotten. You have a complaint to make against Maurice Tringe," she went on, turning to Andrew. "Can you put it into half a dozen sentences?"
"Less," was the fierce reply. "We were brother officers. I saved his life. When he returned from the trenches to England, leaving me in hospital, I gave him a letter to my wife. I trusted him. I trusted her, for I know that at heart she was a good woman. He robbed me of my wife. He took her away and fled all over the world to escape my vengeance. I claim the man's right against the man who dishonours his wife—the right to kill."
Madame turned towards Maurice Tringe.
"And you?" she asked, "What have you to say?"
"I had no idea what was likely to happen when I went to see her," he explained. "From the moment I saw her I forgot everything. I wanted her and I took her."
"Then you are now, I suppose, prepared to pay the price?"
"This is all theatrical tommy-rot," Tringe declared savagely. "Why doesn't he go to the Law Courts like any other reasonable person? Men don't kill one another nowadays for a thing like this. If they did there would be half a dozen murders in the paper every day."
"And, on the other hand," Madame pointed out icily, "if they did, men would probably have their friends' wives alone. But, one moment! There is someone else to be heard."
"Someone else?" Tringe muttered.
Cardinge had rung the bell. No servant answered it, but in a moment the door was softly opened and closed. Madame Dombelle entered. As she walked into the light Sarle rose to his feet, still pale, shaking in every limb. Tringe was crouching against the table, his eyes fixed fearfully upon her.
"Pauline!" he gasped. "My God! What brought you here?"
She made no answer. She looked steadily at Madame.
"Pauline," Madame said, "you are concerned in this matter. Have you anything to say?"
"Yes," was the quiet reply. "I desire to tell the truth, even though it may seem that I am trying to excuse myself. I loved my husband Andrew. I never had any real feeling—for that man."
She indicated Tringe with a gesture of hate. The contempt in her soul broke through her effort at unemotionalism.
"He came as my husband's friend," she went on. "I was twenty-two years old, bored, idiotically fond of pleasure. From the very first lie had but one idea concerning me. I sent him away twice. He came back repentant. The third time he brought a yacht. We were to go for a short cruise. I have little to say about that. We did not return."
"And afterwards?" Madame asked.
"Very soon afterwards," Pauline continued, "I discovered that he was a coward. He was terrified to death of Andrew. We lived as fugitives for over two years. There was no peace nor any happiness for me. The man to whom I had given my life was a coward. He was not even faithful. At San Francisco he brought a friend, an actress from one of the smaller theatres, on board. I left, travelling overland to New York. I have not seen him since, until to-day. That was seven years ago. Since then I have supported my child somehow or other. Through the kindness of Madame I obtained the post of golf secretary here two years ago."
Andrew raised his head. He looked at her for a moment—speechless. "You had half my fortune," he reminded her.
"So far as I know the money is still in the bank," she answered. "I have never drawn a cheque since the day he came."
Madame glanced at the clock.
"Andrew," she said, "there are still seven minutes. I require to speak to Maurice Tringe alone. Please be so good as to escort—your wife from the room."
There was a moment's hesitation. Pauline was looking across at him with a wonderful appeal in her eyes. She held out her hands. Andrew moved towards her. They left the room together, her hand resting upon his shoulder, as though for support. Maurice Tringe watched them with the light of a new hope in his face. Then he turned eagerly to Madame.
"Well, that's all right," he exclaimed. "They're going to make it up."
"They may," Madame assented. "But what about you?"
"Well, I'll say I'm sorry. I can't do more. You see what the whole thing's done for me. I've suffered. It's broken me. I'm ill—miserably ill," he went on. "My doctor tells mr that my heart is diseased. I have only a few years to live anyhow. Let them go away and leave me in peace."
"Andrew will not do that," Madame assured him. "He claims the right to kill you, and he will kill you. When he does that, he will either have to kill himself too or give himself up to the law. Two lives will be wasted instead of one. Can't you see your duty?"
"No," he answered sullenly.
Madame rose to her feet.
"I shall leave you to consider the matter," she said. "Here is your revolver."
She pushed it towards him.
"And here," she added, taking a little gold box from her purse and carefully selecting a white tabloid, "is something which you may prefer. In the old days when we skirted the thin edge of safety, I was never without one of these. There is no pain, they leave no possible trace behind, and they are speedy. Between the two try and find your courage. You can at least die like a man."
"Die!" he muttered. "Why should I die?"
Madame glanced at the clock.
"Andrew Sarle is a man of his word," she warned him. "If you cannot find your courage in two minutes you will die at his hand. If you have a spark of manhood left in you, you will die by your own. I am taking Andrew his revolver."
She moved quietly towards the door, and passed out without a backward glance. Tringe was left alone. He sat with his eyes fixed upon the tall clock.
In the rose-screened corner of the balcony the woman pleaded and Andrew listened.
"It is not for his life I beg," she declared. "It is that you may keep your own for me. You cannot kill him and escape, and it isn't worth it. Look what he has become."
"There is a code which you do not understand," he replied. "We cannot both live."
"But does he live?" she persisted. "Look at him now. He's on the threshold of the grave. I have been lonely for so long, and there is Pauline."
Madame came through the window and approached them. She handed Andrew his revolver. The clock was striking.
"The matter is one for your own will, Andrew," she conceded. "Personally I think that you are wrong to waste a single further thought upon such a creature. Still, the clock strikes. The hour is yours."
He took the revolver into his hand.
"I shall go in to him," he announced. "I shall shoot or leave him to the dregs of life according to what I see in his face."
"It is reasonable," Madame declared.
He walked across the salon and threw open the door of the inner room. The women followed him at a little distance. Tringe was seated in his old place, his arms stretched out upon the table, his head bent forward. Sarle walked to within a few paces of him and stopped.
"Maurice Tringe!" he called out.
There was no answer.
"Maurice Tringe!" he repeated.
Still no movement. The man who had come to slay leant over the crouching figure. A single glance was sufficient. He turned round and held out his hand to the women.
"Go back," he begged.
"Is he dead?" Pauline called out.
"He is dead," was the solemn reply.
Madame crossed the room and stood by his side. The tabloid lay there untouched. She looked at the pistol. All six chambers were still loaded. She thrust the tabloid back into her case and sighed.
"A worthy quittance!" she murmured contemptuously. "He died of fear!"
THE crowds had melted away from the front of the Hôtel de Ville at Cannes when the Honourable Eric Brownleys and his friend Sidney Trench, both aspiring politicians and junior members of the European Congress then in session there, came out together. The former made a little grimace as he noticed the emptying street.
"No interest in us whatever," he observed. "The fact that I am private secretary to an English Cabinet Minister seems to leave these people unmoved. Not an upraised hat—not even a bunch of flowers."
"Seems too bad," his friend sympathised. "Especially when you're lugging that infernal portfolio about, so that everyone shall know you're part of the show."
Eric Brownleys summoned a little carriage.
"Not even a photographer," he grumbled.
"We will just leave this at the hotel and go and read the papers in front of the Casino."
They drove through the clean, sunlit streets with their ever-present air of holiday-making, pulled at the hotel for a few minutes and sauntered back to the Casino. They bought English newspapers at the kiosk, and sat down to read under the red-striped umbrellas. Trench, an exceedingly British young man, ordered English tea and, ignoring the rest of the news, devoted himself to an article on the cricket prospects for the forthcoming season. The article was absorbing. It was not until he had finished the last line, and decided that, on the evidence, every county except his own had a chance for the championship, that he happened to notice a somewhat remarkable change in his companion's demeanour. The Times had slipped through his fingers onto the ground, and lay there unnoticed. His hands were clasping the sides of his chair. He was looking out across the harbour, looking at nothing in particular, but with that set, strange expression in his eyes which seems to come with a sense of danger.
"Hullo, Eric!" his friend exclaimed. "Anything wrong?"
The Honourable Eric Brownleys forced himself back into the present. The effort was obvious.
"Not exactly wrong," he rejoined, stooping and picking up the paper. "There was something here which reminded me—well, of a time in my life I should rather like to forget. We all have those qualms, you know, especially when one is going to be married."
"You're not going to play the man of sentiment, I hope," he protested. "Anyhow, you'd better postpone it for a minute. Here comes Peggy and all the crowd."
Peggy, a very popular person, followed by a little crowd of satellites and companions, bore down upon the two young men. She was more generally known as Lady Margaret Rossiter, and she had been engaged for exactly three days to Eric Brownleys. It was a very satisfactory arrangement, and everybody was pleased about it.
"Dear me!" she laughed. "How interesting! The British statesmen taking a rest. What's in that glass, Eric?"
"Syrup and soda water, Peggy. Wouldn't suit you."
She made a little grimace.
"Come and have some tea in the Casino," she invited. "We're going to touch them up at baccarat afterwards. And, Eric, are you good for a cruise to-morrow? Your show isn't sitting, is it?"
"I'm afraid not," he answered doubtfully. "I—well, as a matter of fact, I am afraid I shall have to go over to Nice."
"To Nice! Whatever for?"
"A silly errand," he admitted. "But I'm afraid I shall have to go."
"Why don't you go this evening?" she suggested. "You'll have lots of time before dinner, and you hate baccarat."
"It's an idea," he agreed, "if I could borrow a car. It isn't as far as Nice, either. It's only to Cagnes."
"You can have the Rolls-Royce," she assured him. "We can walk back to the villa. It's only a few yards. I very nearly didn't have it out at all."
"You really mean it?"
"Of course. Don't be late for dinner. Some people are coming. And good luck to you on your mysterious errand, whatever it may be."
"Mysterious errand!" Eric Brownleys, a few minutes later, sat back in a corner of the car with The Times a crumpled heap upon the opposite seat and cursed that errand and all that had led to it. He was thirty-seven years old; far enough removed from the follies and weaknesses of his somewhat callow youth.
Things had changed for him vastly during the last twelve years, and more settled prospects had entirely destroyed his love of adventure. The memories conjured up by that short notice had become a nightmare over which he brooded gloomily as he neared his destination.
A change in the weather corresponding to his own state of depression came about as, after a pause for inquiries in Cagnes, they turned inland and swung up the steep narrow road that led to the hills. The sky had become grey and leaden and a mistral was blowing across from the mountains. The air was white with falling blossoms as the car mounted the long avenue. The wheat fields were bent as though a wave were passing over them. Spiky buds from the chestnut trees fell all around him. The rose petals caught and tossed by the wind came down to lie like velvety snow on the broad empty piazza. There was no sign of life in the villa, the chairs outside were unoccupied. He gave a little shiver as he stepped out and rang the bell.
The coming of Madame amazed him. In the darkened room he was unable to appreciate at first the subtleties of her wonderful preservation. It was the Madame of fifteen years ago whose fingers he raised to his lips, her smile a little more languid perhaps, her movements more sedate, her voice carrying the same note.
"You are almost the last, my dear Eric, to obey the call," she told him. "Where have you been hiding?"
"I was in Washington for six months on a special mission," he answered, "and afterwards in Tokio. Very few of my letters have reached me and I only saw the summons in The Times this afternoon. Tell me about some of the others."
"Hugh Cardinge has bought a farm just opposite and spends a great deal of time with us, although he has obtained his quittance," she confided. "Then Sir John Fardell paid us a brief visit," she added, with a gleam of humour in her eyes.
"Good old Johnny!" Eric laughed. "He's married the richest and the largest woman in the United States."
"A romance of the studio," Madame murmured.
"Johnny was always a little after the shekels. Even in the Montmartre he loved the flesh-pots. But Cardinge—I'm interested in Cardinge. Fancy his settling down here!"
"He arrived in rags," Madame said. "Landed at Marseilles from a South American tramp steamer and walked all the way. You seem to have been the successful one, Eric—heir to an earldom now, they tell me, private secretary to a Cabinet Minister, and engaged to Lady Margaret Rossiter."
He was a little startled.
"You've kept tabs on me pretty well," he observed.
"I hear things," she admitted. "Do you want your quittance?"
"I do, indeed," he assured her. "More than ever, because I'm going to be married."
"You will have to earn it," she warned him.
He moved restlessly in his place. The room with its rather heavy hangings and dim light seemed suddenly oppressive. It was overfilled with flowers, or perhaps their perfume was a little stifling on account of the lack of air. Opposite to him, Madame, so reminiscent of the past, seemed yet to have lost some note of humanity, to have become the effigy of herself.
"They have their quittances, those others, I suppose," he remarked. "My own confession is not a serious matter, but I want it back before I am married."
"You can have your quittance," she repeated, "when you have earned it, as the others have done."
"What can I do?" he asked, a little despairingly. "In the old days I had neither name nor future and nothing mattered. To-day I have both."
There was a trace of scorn in her slowly parted lips.
"Bourgeois," she murmured.
"We all revert," he declared, a little stubbornly. "My grandfather was a shop-keeper. I've got to run straight now whether I want to or not. It happens that I do want to."
"My dear Eric," she sighed, "you are very simple. One can only make use of people for what they are. I can only make use of you, in your present character—a young man of the highest respectability, engaged to be married, a budding diplomat."
"And entirely at your service so long as that is understood," he put in.
"You have been attending the meetings of the European Congress at Cannes every day," she went on. "You know the delegates?"
"I have met them all."
"The man from the new East, Nicholas Kornstamm?"
"I know him very slightly. We have to be civil. No one wants to be anything more to those people."
"You don't know him well enough, for instance, to bring him out here to see me?"
"Great heavens, no!" the young man replied. "There's been nothing doing in social amenities with that crowd. And you, Madame—I should have thought that you would be the last person in the world to have anything to do with them."
Madame smiled cryptically.
"Life brings us strange acquaintances at times," she said. "It is necessary that I meet Nicholas Kornstamm. Come, don't look so blank, Eric. You are more or less a diplomatist, aren't you? There is more than one side to your brain. You know how things stand between us. I repeat that it is necessary that I meet Nicholas Kornstamm."
"It is a rotten business," the young man grumbled, "and I tell you frankly I don't see how to set about it. Kornstamm and I never exchange more than the commonest civilities."
"You shall have your cue," Madame promised him.
"In that case, of course, I will do my best," he assured her.
Nicholas Kornstamm was not in the least true to type. A representative of one of those new States whose amazing and eruptive appearance had transformed the map of Europe, there was nothing in common between him and the unkempt, uncivilised crowd of emissaries who had at first flooded the Western capitals. He was a small man with rather delicate features, carefully dressed, and well-versed in the social decencies of life. There were rumours that he had been valet to a Swedish nobleman in Paris. At any rate he spoke French and English with equal ease and was far more tolerant in his outlook than either his predecessors or his co-agitators.
His weakness was the eternal one of his Oriental attitude towards the other sex. He paid tribute to it on many an occasion; noticeably a few days after Eric Brownleys' visit to the Villa. Two women looked at him as he lounged on the steps of the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo—an elder woman and a younger one, both, it seemed to him, beautiful, both, it seemed, of the world against which he was in arms. The elder woman wore a wonderful coat of ermine, and if there was a suggestion of artificiality about her looks, the artifice was skilful enough to be attractive. He had a sense for detail, and he liked her patent shoes and white silk stockings as he watched her descend from the automobile.
The girl was beautiful too, but very young. They had most certainly looked at him as he had stood aside to let them pass. He hesitated for a moment, abandoned the idea of moving on to the Salon Privé, and returned to the Club.
They were watching one of the roulette tables when he entered the room, recognised by several habitués, obviously people of consequence. Kornstamm had been unfortunate so far in his attempt at adventures. A young American married lady, temporarily separated from her husband, who had seemed to him promising, he had found the next evening among the professional dancers at a night restaurant.
A little milliner at Cannes whom he had even taken out to dine had proved a still greater disappointment. These women, however, without a doubt, were of a different class. They knew who he was. They had betrayed their interest. If only they would sit down and play he would manoeuvre for a seat near. Unfortunately, however, they seemed to have too many acquaintances.
A gleam of hope came to him at last. Eric Brownleys had stopped to speak to them, and he remembered with interest that the Englishman, during the last two days, had been almost civil to him. It was a slim chance perhaps, but he made the most of it. When Eric left his friends he took care to catch his eye. The recognition afforded to him was almost normal. He took his courage into his hands and spoke.
"More amusing than Cannes, Mr. Brownleys," he remarked.
"I'm rather glad that show's over," he observed. "Are you off back again this week?"
"On Saturday," the other answered. "Would you care for a cocktail?"
For a single moment Eric hesitated. He even wondered whether the price he was paying was not exorbitant. A moment later he pushed the thought away from him.
"Thanks very much," he said. "I'll have a whisky-and-soda, if you don't mind."
They made their way to the bar and exchanged polite inanities until the young diplomat from the East found the courage for which he sought.
"If one might be permitted to say so," he mumbled, "I admire very greatly the ladies with whom you were speaking in the roulette room."
Eric choked back his instinctive desire to kick his companion, and nodded with affected carelessness.
"A very charming woman, Madame de Soyau," he observed. "Her niece, too, is very attractive."
"Madame is French?" Kornstamm inquired.
"American, I believe. She married a Frenchman. She is, by the way, rather interested in your country. Would you care to be presented?"
"It would afford me the greatest happiness," Kornstamm assented with enthusiasm.
The introduction was effected within the next few minutes. Madame was gracious, although her attitude sometimes was inclined to be cryptic. Kornstamm, however, when the time for his dismissal had arrived, was exultant. He was invited to the Villa on the following afternoon, for the purpose of explaining to Madame the new map of Eastern Europe.
Once more, with the passing of midday, the mistral came sobbing and booming down from the hills. The sky was suddenly overcast, the olive trees bent their heads, showing the silver of their leaves, the fields of young wheat were like waves of the sea, even the sturdy vines shook, and the petals from the stripped blossoms of the fruit trees floated down, to sink into sad little heaps in the sheltered places. Sky and sea were alike grey. The loungers at the little cafés found their way inside. Only the workers in the fields pursued their tasks unmoved—a glance at the hills, a shrug of the shoulders, then back to the work which must be done.
Even Kornstamm, as the car which had been sent to fetch him at the station climbed the last ascent and neared the Villa, was conscious of a chill sense of depression. It was a sun palace, this flower-hung building with its solitary tower in the background, the remains of the old château, but with the wind stripping the petals from the flowers and, under these grey skies, there was something almost sinister about its air of seclusion.
Inside, however, everything was different. It was an attribute of Madame that she never failed to surround herself with an atmosphere of luxury. There were white rugs, thickly piled in the marble hall, and upon the marble stairway. With the first threat of the mistral the chauffage had been lit, and the atmosphere of the place was warm and exotic. Madame, stretched upon a sofa, gave her hand to her visitor without moving.
"So you have come," she exclaimed. "I was not sure whether it was to-day or tomorrow that we were to expect you. My niece will be glad. So am I. You do not find the house too warm?"
"Not in the least," he assured her. "In my own country we have all the cold we care to face out of doors. Indoors we keep our rooms at a higher temperature than you do."
"Tell me about yourselves," she enjoined—"you of the new race who mean to unmake and remake the world. You have many sins piled up against you. How do you justify yourselves?"
Kornstamm's sense of humour was almost negligible. Nevertheless he smiled.
"There is indeed nothing new in life," he declared. "I feel as though I were born on the defensive. We're doing our best, Madame, to assist in the birth of a nation. It is a terrible sponsorship. Sometimes we fail. In the main we are succeeding."
Madame sank a little lower into her cushions.
"Tell me about it," she ordered.
When his voice died away, after almost half an hour's monologue, it seemed at first as if Madame slept, though her eyes were wide open. She moved a little restlessly in her place.
"You are eloquent, Mr. Kornstamm," she laid.
"I have a great cause behind me," he answered.
"I have heard you without interruption," she continued. "You have represented your side of the matter well. I must confess that I should like to hear one of your peasants speak."
"For that, Madame, I fear that you must come Eastwards."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It would be worth while," she mused, "if one believed—but never mind that. I have a fancy to show you some parts of this Villa. You would like to see over it?"
"Without a doubt, Madame," he assented.
She rose and led him from the room. She showed him briefly the little winter-garden, the dining-room, her boudoir. Then she led him along a flagged way to the tower, the sole remnant of the old château. The lower room was furnished only with a few benches. It had the chill air of a dungeon. Madame shivered.
"Mount but one flight," she invited, pointing to a ladder staircase. "You will find there a surprise for you."
"Madame will not accompany me?" he asked politely.
"You will find another guide there," she replied.
Kornstamm, a little intrigued, climbed the ladder. It was perhaps Mademoiselle he would find. But when he got to the top, it was a man whom he found waiting for him—a man of not wholly prepossessing appearance. Cardinge, who had been writing at a table, looked up at the sound of the voices. He watched Kornstamm's head and shoulders appear. Then he rose to his feet. The visitor stepped out into the room. He looked about him with a little courteous shiver. The place without doubt had a sinister appearance.
"Madame has indicated that you will be my guide, sir," he announced with a bow. "I frankly confess, however, that I have no desire for further exploration. The Villa itself is charming, but there appears, if I may say so, to be something a little crude about this ruin, it reminds me," he added, looking round—"well, I will not say of what."
Madame's head and shoulders appeared at the top of the stairway. Cardinge stepped forward and assisted her. She came into the room shaking the dust from her gown.
"I had hoped, Mr. Kornstamm," she said, "that it might have reminded you of a little room in the Prison of St. Joseph at Minkt."
Kornstamm stood for a moment as still as though turned to stone.
"I do not understand," he muttered.
"Very soon," Madame replied, "all will be made clear to you. It was my wish to reproduce as far as possible the interior of that prison as it has been revealed to me. Hugh, read Mr. Kornstamm the letter I have entrusted to you."
"A letter!" Kornstamm exclaimed.
Cardinge drew a sheet of paper from his pocket. It was not a sheet of ordinary writing paper. It more closely resembled one side of a large sugar bag, coarse and crumpled in places.
"It is your wish that I read this, Madame?" he inquired.
"But I do not understand," Kornstamm began.
"At once," Madame reiterated, and there was a new note in her voice.
He protested no further. Cardinge smoothed out the letter and read:
The fates have played me a strange trick. After four years of torture here, during which I have never once seen an English or French newspaper, there came into my hands to-day a copy of "The Times." I have read your summons. Nothing in the world would give me such great joy as to respond to it. But behold me here—an unclean, half-starved thing, unmurdered, because my poor carcass seems unworthy of the bullet which would mercifully end my sufferings. I have dragged out these days without decency, without hope, side by side always with the dreadful harbingers of death. Yet the breath lingers in my body. I do not know why. I only know that I resent it. Yesterday a newcomer here, a warder, took pity upon me. He threw in the newspaper left by a traveller in the town hotel. He has promised to post this letter. Well, even if he does I fear that I have little to hope for. Yet you, Madame, most lovable though most terrible of mistresses, had one amazing trait. You would take the life yourself of a faithless friend or servant and kick his body into the dust, but those of your Virgins who served you faithfully, you allowed no one to touch. I have known you risk life, fortune and freedom on behalf of the least worthy of us. I die here, Madame, for no sin save that I am an aristocrat of my country and have fought as a man should do for his family and his order.... But enough of that. I call to you for help, Madame, and may it come before another winter, or my blood will have frozen and my bones snapped.
And, if no help is possible, then, Madame, accept this excuse that I may not answer your summons, and with it, my farewell.
Paul of Smolatensk.
Cardinge folded up the letter quietly and remained with his eyes fixed upon Madame. Kornstamm looked from one to the other and back to the staircase over which the trap-door had fallen. Surely it could not be possible that he had blundered through this land of roses into tragedy. He seemed a changed man as he stood there. His air of trim and curled perfection had left him. Even his moustache drooped. He was a small man, with a mean-looking mouth, who was confronted with unexpected danger.
"I do not understand," he protested, "why this letter has been read to me."
"I should have explained," Madame said smoothly. "The letter is from an old friend of mine—Prince Paul of Smolatensk. You will remember him as the commander of an army and a very gallant general. His death was reported some four years ago."
"One is inclined to regret the inaccuracy of the report," Kornstamm snarled.
"Death is sometimes merciful," Madame replied. "Paul lives, it appears, in misery and torture."
"On my return, Madame," Kornstamm promised, "I will inquire into the conditions of this man's imprisonment, if indeed the letter is genuine. I will see if anything can be done to alleviate his discomforts."
Madame and Cardinge had changed places. The latter now was guarding the trap-door. Madame had taken the chair from which he had risen. Her head drooped a little backwards. She smiled.
"Is that all you can promise?" she asked.
"I do not know," Kornstamm rejoined. "I might inquire when I return into the circumstances of his detention. It is possible that a certain measure of freedom might be arranged."
"When you return?" Madame repeated softly.
"So I have said."
"But," she pointed out, "you will not be returning just yet."
"I have taken my place in the train to Berlin on Sunday," Kornstamm announced.
Madame shook her head.
"That," she told him, "was premature. The day that Prince Paul of Smolatensk is free, and not before."
He laughed contemptuously, though uneasily.
"I defy you to keep me," he said. "I am a subject of a friendly country, and an official personage."
"And I," Madame retorted, "am myself and I do as I choose."
There was a tense moment of silence. Then Kornstamm shook himself, and struggled against his gathering forebodings.
"This is absurd," he insisted. "You cannot keep me here against my will. I shall be missed, searched for, beyond a doubt."
"You flatter yourself," Madame assured him coolly. "I doubt whether anyone will miss you unless you have failed to pay your bill. Your colleagues, as you know, left this afternoon. I cannot conceive anyone thinking it worth while to search for you. They will imagine that you are off on some adventure. You have already established a reputation, I understand, for unexplained absences from your hotel."
"Very well," he submitted. "Do what you will with me."
Madame rose to her feet.
"Excellent!" she exclaimed. "My friend here and I will do our best to reproduce the conditions of your prison at Minkt. I fear that we shall err on the side of luxury. Our water is more drinkable, and our bread, I fancy, not so coarse. Still, as you see, we have stripped the place of rugs, and I think I can promise you that you will not be pampered as regards diet."
"Before this goes any further," Kornstamm demanded, "tell me exactly the terms of my liberty."
"A telegram to the governor of the prison at Minkt," Madame replied, "ordering him to release Prince Paul and advance him the funds for his journey here."
"Thank you," Kornstamm sneered. "I only wanted to know."
Madame rose and walked towards the trapdoor. Kornstamm made a rush for it, but Cardinge's hand was upon his throat. He swung him round and felt him all over.
"No weapons," he announced. "I don't suppose you'd have the pluck to use a pistol, though, if you had it."
Kornstamm used an ugly word, and Cardinge sent him staggering across the room, dizzy with a blow on the side of his face.
"Bread and water at ten," Madame declared, looking backwards. "Make as much noise as you like. The servants are expecting it."
"You'll pay for this," Kornstamm shouted after them as he heard the bolt drawn in the trap-door.
Cagnes and the hill-side was itself again one afternoon about three weeks later when a car from Nice turned in at the avenue. The sunlight glowed and burned in the heart of the olive trees and in the bosom of the hills. The little vines flourished with the glory of it. The blue waters of the Mediterranean glittered with a million pin-pricks of fire. The great piazza was more overhung than ever with the drooping pink and white blossoms.
Madame, standing on the topmost step in her cool white gown—Madame watching the slim figure who leant back in a corner of the touring car—seemed suddenly to have borrowed youth and joy from their sun-drawn sweetness. Perhaps her eyes looked back for a moment into the world which lay behind; the world which the pulses of youth made beautiful; the world where romance flourished as bountifully as the roses that hung on every side of her. For Madame grew younger with the pity which shone in her eyes, as the car drew up, and its solitary occupant, tall still, but bent, the spectre of a grey, handsome man, stepped out and came towards her with nervous footsteps. He seemed even to welcome the support of her hand.
"Madame," he murmured, "I have obeyed. But how the miracle was worked for me, I do not know. I have a fancy that you could tell me."
"Presently, Paul," she promised, leading him to a chair. "You have had a long journey."
The servants came out, the car was dismissed. Wine and fruit were spread upon the table. The voice of the traveller grew stronger. Madame became herself again—a little stony, a vital force working from behind a mask.
"You remember Cardinge?" she asked, as Hugh came out at her summons.
The two men shook hands. Smolatensk passed his hand over his forehead a little wearily.
"I remember," he acknowledged, "but the effort of memory pains. Soon it will be better. I have had a long journey—Budapest, Trieste, Venice, Genoa—yet every breath of air from the carriage was glorious. Now I must know the riddle of it all, Madame. I never believed that they would let me go."
"A little comedy," she told him. "The tragedy was at your end. We, perhaps, have had the amusement; you, the suffering. Come!"
They took him through the Villa to the tower, up the stairs, through the trap-door. He found himself in a perfectly bare room with whitewashed walls and windows too high to let in more than a slit of light. The only article of furniture in the room was a single hard chair and upon this, with folded arms, a small man was seated—a small unshaven man from whom the conceit had gone, whose mouth was drooping and whose eyes were like the eyes of vermin. He was a very unpleasant-looking spectacle.
"Here," Madame announced, "is your unwilling liberator. He is not a pleasant-looking object, is he? We have been compelled, also, to keep him clean. Otherwise we have tried to reproduce in this little chamber the conditions of Minkt."
Smolatensk shook his head.
"This is a palace," he assured them. "But who is the man?"
"I am afraid we have rather broken his spirit," Cardinge confessed. "He used to tell us who he was fifty times a day for the first week. His name is Nicholas Kornstamm. He was second envoy and representative of your nation at the recent Conference here. He has also a position there which, I understand, is practically equivalent to our Lord Chief Justice."
"You kidnapped him?" Smolatensk gasped.
"Why not?" Madame demanded. "One must have one's amusement. I had Cardinge here too. He stayed on purpose to help. Kornstamm," she went on, "this is Prince Paul of Smolatensk. Stand up and bow to your superior."
Kornstamm rose to his feet. Twice he tried to speak and choked back the words. He feared Cardinge no more than a coward fears any other man, but the sound even of Madame's voice filled him with terror.
"I have kept my word," he faltered.
"And you are free," she rejoined. "Mr. Cardinge will give you your coat and waistcoat, and the car which brought the Prince here is waiting to take you to Nice."
"To Nice," he muttered, already on his way to the staircase.
They all three descended, Kornstamm a little unsteadily. Cardinge took him to his own room, restored him his coat and waistcoat, escorted him out to the piazza and gave him some wine. He drank eagerly and held out his glass for more.
"Better go steady at first," Cardinge advised him. "You've got heaps of money in your pocket-book, I noticed. I should recommend you to spend an hour at the coiffeur's in Nice. The train through to Italy goes at three o'clock."
"How do you know," Kornstamm demanded, "that it is not to the police I shall go?"
Cardinge laughed scornfully.
"What Chief of Police in France," he asked, "would listen to your story? What Frenchman is there who would not throw up his hat with joy to think that one of your self-appointed plutocrats had been forced to taste for a little time some of the degradation you have brought upon others? Why, Prince Paul is one of France's heroes! Upon my word, if you promise to go to the Chief of Police I almost think I must come in to Nice with you!"
"My Government at least will have something to say about this," Kornstamm threatened.
"Perhaps. But what Government will they find to listen to them?" Cardinge replied contemptuously.
Claire came out upon the piazza just as the car drove off. She waved her hand to the scowling figure.
"You might have let me in for the finish," she complained.
Cardinge shrugged his shoulders.
"One can never tell with this breed of person," he observed. "There might have been trouble."
"And the Prince?" she asked breathlessly.
"Madame is showing him the south gardens. I left them in the rose arbour. The Prince is drinking in the sunshine like a thirsty man drinks wine, and Madame has forgotten all about her complexion."
A voice came from the gardens below, a little raised for Madame, yet with something of its old quality of music.
"Claire, send Denise with my parasol at once."
GEOFFREY FRANCIS, Earl of Westerton, like many a man of his age, state of health and profession—he had been a Guardsman in his younger days—was disposed to be irritable. Three times he had blown the whistle of the speaking-tube which was supposed to communicate with his chauffeur, and on none of these occasions had the man taken the slightest notice. He was still sitting, stolid and immovable, in his place, and his passenger, who on entering the limousine had distinctly indicated his desire to be driven to Nice, was rapidly losing his temper. Without a word of warning or explanation the chauffeur had taken an abrupt turn to the left off the main road and was proceeding inland at a pace which, along such narrow roads and in an entirely unknown direction, was certainly on the venturesome side.
"Hi! You there! Where the devil are you going to? I told you Nice," Lord Westerton bawled down the tube.
There was no response whatever. The occupant of the car suddenly remembered that this temporary chauffeur might possibly not understand English. He repeated his protestations in French with similar lack of success, and afterwards let down the window and reiterated in both languages everything which he had previously said to the motionless figure at the wheel. Still the man took not the slightest notice.
"Are you deaf, confound you?" his lordship demanded at last, leaning out so that he could jog the other's arm.
The chauffeur spoke for the first time, choosing his own language. He was obviously a Frenchman.
"Milord is not to derange himself," he said. "All will be well. It is a little call which we pay amongst the hills quite close at hand."
Milord, who was exhausted, leant back in his seat.
"Abducted, by Jove!" he muttered.
Lord Westerton, amongst other qualities, not all so admirable, possessed a sense of humour and an inclination towards philosophy. He clearly perceived that, situated as he was, he was helpless. They were travelling at thirty miles an hour, and any form of appeal to a casual passer-by or to the peasants working in the fields would be only ridiculous. For some reason or other, not in the least apparent, this chauffeur, who had taken the place of his own man, suddenly indisposed, had made up his mind to disobey instructions and to pilot him to some unknown spot. To leave the car was impossible. To make any sort of attack upon the chauffeur in this narrow thoroughfare would be dangerous. On the whole he decided to resign himself. The country through which they were passing was at least interesting—a great improvement upon the main road.
There were many little homesteads with their vineyards and strip of meadow land, here and there a sheltered orchard, a flurry of cherry blossoms in the soft wind, the perfume of an occasional grove of orange trees, fainter but more insistent. It was a country which Lord Westerton knew indifferently well and into which he had always felt an inclination to penetrate.
The road wound round a great château of historic memory and curved itself deeper into the bosom of the hills. In his younger days this involuntary passenger had been fond of adventures. Some faint revival of this instinct for the unexpected stirred in his blood with every kilometre. Where was he to be taken? How was it possible to escape far enough from civilisation to be held anywhere against his will? Or was it, perhaps, a joke on the part of one of his friends?
Meanwhile it was a very pleasant drive, a little change from the monotony of his ordinary life. Of fear or apprehension he had none whatever. Such evil qualities were unknown in his family. So with his irritability merging into a faintly excited sense of curiosity, Lord Westerton gave himself up to the enjoyment of his unforeseen adventure. Its meaning was hidden from him even when at last they turned into the gates of the Villa, and, climbing the avenue of oleanders, budding rhododendrons and many flowering shrubs, drew up at last before the wide-flung piazza.
Obeying, apparently, a summons from the porter's lodge, a very correct-looking English butler descended the steps and threw open the door of the car. Lord Westerton was conscious for a moment of a ridiculous feeling of disappointment. Nothing exceptional could happen with such an environment.
"Will your lordship be so good as to descend?" the man invited.
"Why the dickens should I?" was the querulous response. "I don't even know who lives here or why I have come."
A woman who had been reclining in a long chair hidden by the clustering roses came slowly to the steps. She was dressed in a very beautiful morning wrap, draped with wonderful lace. She was obviously no longer young, but her eyes were still brilliant, her figure slim, and she carried herself with grace and dignity. Her involuntary visitor gazed at her in bewilderment. Then her lips parted in a faint smile of welcome, and he remembered. He also understood
"Madame!" he exclaimed.
"I am very glad to welcome you at last, dear friend," she said, holding out her hands. "I have been very patient, but I must remind you that you are the last of my Virgins. It was not like that years ago."
Lord Westerton descended from the car and bowed over the fingers which he raised to his lips.
"Madame," he declared, "in one respect, at least, you are unchanged. You are an epicure in the unexpected. May I hope that my humble apologies will be received?"
"That depends upon your state of mind," was the not ungracious reply. "His lordship will lunch here, William," she added, turning to the butler. "Send the car to the garage. We will telephone when it is required. Meanwhile," she went on, pointing to two chairs on the piazza, "we will talk for a little time."
Lord Westerton seated himself by her side with a chuckle.
"So I was abducted!" he observed.
She looked at him reproachfully.
"You should not have needed such a method of persuasion," she declared.
He sighed. After all, it was amazing how easily the threads were picked up. For a moment he forgot that he was sixty-nine years old. He thought only of the days when the near presence of Madame meant always the stir of life.
"I have been to blame," he admitted.
"You knew that you were summoned?" she asked.
"I knew," he assented, "but for a man of my age what did it mean?"
"You have not received your quittance," she reminded him. "I still hold your confession."
"A foolish affair," he murmured.
"Nevertheless," she persisted, "it would be better destroyed."
"Perhaps," he admitted. "Will you destroy it for me?"
"Upon terms," she answered.
He looked at her curiously.
"What terms?" he inquired. "What is there I could do for you? One knows that you are wealthy. One imagines that you have long since passed from that exotic but wonderful world in which for a few years we lived. What service could I render you?"
"That I shall explain presently," she promised. "Do you remember why you broke off your connection with us so abruptly?"
"I do," he answered dryly. "I broke it off because I discovered one day that my son had joined the little band of your adherents. The Virgins were a wonderful society, dear Madame, but there was something incongruous in the idea of a father and son both belonging."
She assented with a little sigh.
"It is your foolish English custom of varying names," she observed. "How was I to know that Hugh Cardinge was the son of the Earl of Westerton?... Have you seen or heard of your son lately?" she continued, after a moment's pause.
Her visitor's face hardened. Only his voice, so carefully restrained that its inflections became almost unnatural, gave some indication of his suffering.
"Not for sixteen years," he replied. "That was about the time that the few pounds a week I was sending out to Canada began to come back to me. I had hoped," he went on, "that the war might have brought him once more into the world. He had led a wild life enough, but there were many who found salvation in that way."
Madame leant over and deliberately possessed herself of his hand. She called him by a name which belonged to the past.
"Francis," she said, "I suppose you read—there were notices about him in all the English papers—of a Colonel Carde, a Canadian private when he joined up at the beginning of the war, a V.C. and a Brigadier when he finished."
"What about him?" he demanded sharply.
"That Colonel Carde was Hugh Cardinge—your son."
For a moment he knew then that it must be all a dream—that forced drive up into the hills, the stolid chauffeur, the Villa, Madame, this odour of roses and lemon verbena which seemed all the time in his nostrils. Now it was fading away. Yet Madame was still there, leaning over him; the sound of her voice, too, the pressure of a glass between his lips. The sudden darkness was passing.
"Francis, be brave, dear friend," she whispered. "Drink this.... Now sit quite close to me. I shall tell you the story of a hero, and presently—well—you shall see!"
Claire, a vision of loveliness in her pale pink summer gown, bareheaded, as though defying alike the wind or the sun itself to affect her almost perfect complexion, crossed the road a few minutes before the car containing Lord Westerton turned in at the Villa gates, passed along the avenue of cypresses, and, skirting the farm-house beyond, climbed to where Cardinge was working in a field adjoining the vineyard. He welcomed her cordially enough, but showed slight disposition for conversation.
"No golf this morning?" he asked.
"No golf, no tennis, no diversion of any sort," she replied. "Consequently, here I am."
"You are very welcome," he assured her, "but I am desperately busy."
"That is fortunate," she observed, picking up an empty basket, "because I am in the mood to make myself useful in any desired direction. There are preparations for a visitor at the Villa, and Madame, my dear aunt, although she will never admit it, is, I think, a little nervous. What can I do?"
"You can pick that second row of peas," Cardinge directed. "Who is this visitor? I thought we had come to the end of the list."
"He is the last," Claire confided. "I do not know his name, but I do not imagine from Madame's manner that it is a serious affair. In any case, you will meet him. I was to tell you to be sure and not forget that you were expected to luncheon this morning."
"Madame is indeed hospitable," he observed, "but I wish that it were not right in the middle of a busy day."
"What swank!" she scoffed. "Just because you are doing a few days' work—probably for the first time in your life—you pretend that the place can't get on without you for an hour or so. What do you think could possibly happen to the peas and the strawberries and the artichokes, the vines and the beans and the little field of corn? Nobody's going to run away with them, are they?"
"My child," he replied with a grin, as he paused in his labours for a moment to fill his pipe and light it, "you are profoundly ignorant of the arts of husbandry. These things all need attention."
She laughed back at him as she turned at the end of one row of peas and began another.
"So proud of your little farm, aren't you?" she observed. "You think that everything on it languishes if you are not strolling about with your hands in your pockets encouraging things to grow."
He removed his pipe from his mouth and looked at her fixedly.
"Is it my fancy," he demanded, "or are you making fun of me?"
"No one would dare do such a thing," she assured him hastily. "Certainly not a little coward like me.... This basket of peas is getting very heavy."
"Set it down and fill another," he advised. "There are plenty of empty ones at the end of the row. You haven't been working for a quarter of an hour yet."
She fetched another basket.
"Another ten minutes will be all you're getting out of me this morning," she declared. "Luncheon is at twelve o'clock, and Madame likes us to be on the terrace a few minutes before."
He glanced at his watch.
"I must go and get ready," he announced. "Come and sit under the porch when you have done as much as you want to."
Claire watched him descend the hill; a lean, masterful figure, whom no one could possibly have mistaken for a peasant, although he wore the blue jean clothes and thick boots of his fellow labourers. After he had disappeared she filled her second basket and presently strolled down to the farm, sinking with a little exclamation of relief into a comfortable chair on the cool white flags, and drinking half a glass of the cider which Marthe, the fat old bonne, brought out to her.
Marthe was in a depressed state of mind. She extended her hands with a lugubrious gesture.
"Again to-day," she complained, "Monsieur takes his déjeuner away. And to me not a word of warning. All is ready for the omelette. The chicken, the vegetables, they prepare themselves. It is the third time in five days. I ask you, mademoiselle, how can one keep house with economy under such conditions?"
"Very soon," Claire reminded her, "we shall be away. Then the Villa will be shut and monsieur will take his luncheon here every day."
Marthe withdrew, still grumbling, and Claire leant back in her seat. Several pigeons were waddling about in the shade, and there was an insistent buzzing from the long row of hives a few yards away. Overhead the sky was blue and unclouded and a little breeze came murmuring down the rustic rose-pergola. The farmhouse had been built on the ruins of an old château and masses and pinnacles of the cool grey stone still remained. It was a place which seemed to breathe the very atmosphere of rest.
Claire rose to her feet with a little sigh of regret when at last Cardinge appeared.
"I cannot tell you why," she remarked, "but it seems so much more peaceful down here than at the Villa. You don't want a housekeeper, do you, Hugh?"
"Badly," he answered.
"My keep might be a little expensive," she ruminated. "I always seem to eat more than anyone else in hot weather, and you know I am naturally very lazy. I could not possibly get up at those awful hours you say you are in the fields. Otherwise I should certainly not be grasping."
"And the Villa?" he queried.
She made a little grimace.
"Hugh," she confided. "Madame is getting restless. I know the signs so well. To-day she is expecting the last of her Virgins. I am sure that when he is gone, she will make up her mind to leave—that one morning I shall wake up and find a maid packing my things."
"Well," he reminded her, "it is getting late in the season for this part of the world. You will probably go to Deauville where Armand is, or to Aix. It will be gayer for you there."
"But I do not wish to go," she protested vigorously. "I have taken this country into my heart. I do not wish to leave it. I prefer to wait for the vintage. I want to see you press your grapes, Hugh. I want to see you unbend and attend the fête up at the village."
"It would give me great pleasure to have you stay here," he assured her fervently. "I shall find it very lonely without you."
She was suddenly serious; a condition of mind to which she seldom attained.
"How nice to hear that, Hugh!" she exclaimed. "I wish you would tell me so more often."
She seized his hand impulsively and they went swinging up the steep meadow together. Presently she looked at him with anxious eyes.
"I believe that you are not well, Hugh," she declared.
"Well? I am perfectly well," he insisted. "Whatever put such an idea into your head?"
"Why, your hand is hot, for one thing," she told him, "and you seem out of breath already. Am I walking too fast? I always have the idea that I can never tire you."
He laughed and slackened his pace.
"All the same," he confessed, "I am getting old."
"Rubbish!" she scoffed. "I wish you would not talk like that, Hugh. You are always trying to play the elder brother with me and I do not like it. I know exactly how old you are, so it makes no difference. I suppose you realise, too, that you look years younger since you settled down here."
"Who wouldn't?" he answered. "One thrives always in the surroundings one loves, and I do love the place and the life here."
"So do I," she agreed. "I love the Villa, too," she added, as they crossed the road and entered the grounds through a small gate. "The only drawback is that sometimes I feel absolutely terrified here. There is sometimes an atmosphere about the place which is almost sinister. That dear aunt of mine creates it, I suppose, with all these strange visitors and the things she sets them to do. I was simply terrified last week. I loved Mr. Sarle and I have never seen anyone in the world I detested so much as Maurice Tringe. Shall you ever forget that luncheon?"
"It was not a cheerful meal," he admitted.
"It was ghastly," she declared. "My aunt always tells me," Claire continued, "that I must walk through these days of my life with my eyes shut. But how can I, Hugh? I am not a child any longer. Aunt forgets sometimes my age. She often treats me as though I were a child."
"When is Armand coming home, Claire?" he asked her abruptly.
"When I promise to marry him, he says," she replied. "If he means it, then it will be never."
"That will be a great disappointment to him," Cardinge said gravely.
"I am not so sure," she rejoined. "You know how short a time he has been in Deauville, and he has confided to me that he has already a love affair with a manicurist, a professional dancer and an English countess. He is willing, however, it seems, to relinquish all these if I send for him."
"And you?" he asked. "As you are not able to indulge in the feminine equivalent of these little enterprises, how do you feel about his absence?"
"I miss him for golf and tennis," she admitted. "Sometimes I used to enjoy an expedition up into the hills with him, although he grumbled always when I made him walk far. On the whole, though, I find life a great deal more comfortable when he is not here. There have been times when I have hated him."
"Madame still clings to her scheme. She wishes you to marry him, I am sure," he remarked.
"Do you?" she asked him point-blank.
Claire halted for a moment and laughed; laughed gaily and happily. She thrust her arm through his.
"Why not?" she ventured softly.
There was a fire in his eyes which for a moment brought her a sort of frightened ecstasy. The smile faded from her lips. She listened eagerly.
"Because," he said, "if I were Armand's age and if I were not next door to a pauper, I should want to marry you myself."
"I should never marry anyone so young as Armand," she told him, "and—I have plenty of money."
He laughed a little hardly. In the distance he could see Madame watching them from the piazza,
"We don't understand that sort of marriage in England," he said. "If a man has nothing to give, he offers nothing."
"You have your dear self," she whispered, with a little sob in her throat.
Madame leant over the balcony and called to Claire. To Cardinge's surprise Eric Brownleys descended the steps and advanced to meet him.
"Hallo, Brownleys!" he exclaimed as they exchanged greetings. "I thought you'd shaken the dust of this place off your feet—got your quittance, and all that."
"I came over to-day," he explained, "on rather a different errand. There's someone up there, Cardinge, wants to see you very much—someone whom I think you, too, ought to be glad to see."
Cardinge seemed unconsciously to stiffen. Brownleys laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Look here, Cardinge," he continued. "I don't know a blessed thing about the trouble there was in the past between you and your father, but, although we're sort of distant connections, I wouldn't have dreamt of interfering if it hadn't been kind of thrust upon me. But, after all, you know, we're none of us getting any younger, and the old man—I beg his pardon, Lord Westerton—has been shaky for a year or two. They roped me in this morning to come and look after him. Couldn't make out where he'd got to!"
"Hold on, old fellow! Think well before you turn away. He is your father, after all, and to be brutally frank, I am afraid his number isn't far from being up. I'll tell you something you perhaps don't know. Before you joined Madame's little company, he was one of the Virgins—her senior Virgin, she used to call him."
"Good God!" Cardinge muttered.
"He cleared out when you came along. Father and son in that galère didn't seem exactly in order. Anyway, Madame sent for him, and, though he wouldn't come at first, he's here now right enough. She's just told him that little story about Colonel Carde, and the old man's as proud as Lucifer. Of course, he was wrong to cut up so rough just because you went the pace a bit, and he knows it, but you can afford to be generous. You've a good many years left. He hasn't."
"Where is he?" Cardinge asked, a little unsteadily.
"On the terrace there, waiting."
Cardinge started off at once. They met on the steps, the likeness curiously apparent as the elder man straightened himself. They grasped hands.
"Hugh, my dear boy," his father began.
"Your coming here is quite sufficient, sir," Cardinge interrupted. "Come and sit down. I want to hear about Westerton."
"And I," his father said, "want to hear a little more about this 'Colonel Carde '—"
Presently the bell rang for luncheon and the others found their way on to the terrace.
"And who is the young lady?" Lord Westerton inquired, as he took his son's arm. "I saw you coming through the wood together. May I not be presented?"
Cardinge held out his hand to Claire.
"Claire," he said, "this is my father, Lord Westerton. I hope that you will be very great friends."
Lord Westerton bowed; an art which he had learnt in the days of his youth in Paris.
"You are my son's friend," he said, "and I am grateful to all those who have tried to make up for the shortcomings—I am afraid I must say the injustice—"
"Not another word, sir, please," Cardinge interrupted.
His father let go his arm and took Claire's.
"If Madame permits, you will sit next me, perhaps," he begged. "Afterwards, I hope to persuade you and Hugh to motor back with me to Cannes."
Madame met Cardinge and Claire on their return from Cannes that evening with an open telegram in her hand. There was tragedy in her face, but also more than a gleam of humour.
"Hugh!" she exclaimed. "Claire! What am I to make of this? I had a long letter from Armand this morning—a third of it about an English countess—I have forgotten her name—a third about a little manicurist, and a third about a danseuse at the Casino. There was a postscript, too, about an American widow whom he had just met. Now I get this message. Listen! 'Have married her. Love. Armand.'"
"But which?" Claire cried.
Madame extended her hands. Her expression was one of helpless consternation.
Then she began to laugh softly.
"Armand is a fool," she said. "He has enough money, fortunately, and I have no real responsibility with regard to his doings. I suppose the world would say, though, that he is not more of a fool than I. Prince Paul needs my care, so I have promised to marry him next week. It is your future alone which disturbs me, Claire."
"My affair entirely," Cardinge declared joyfully. "We've got most of it planned already. I am putting a caretaker in at the farm and we arc going back to England with my father next week, and returning here at vintage time for our honeymoon."
Madame leant over in a rare fit of graciousness and kissed her niece tenderly.
"So we are all fools together," she murmured.
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