THE gentle Tressa was remarkable in one respect: she never found bad people interesting.
When Lady Mary Midston told her about the burglar, Tressa was politely interested but not enthusiastic.
“Daddy was in Paris, otherwise I should have called him when I heard the noise in the hall. He’s simply furious with me for not calling Thomas. When I got downstairs there was a light in the drawing-room and a little man was tying up the silver in a tablecloth. I must say, Tressa, that he was awfully decent, and when he told me about his sick wife and his poor little children I hadn’t the heart to call any of the staff.”
“And you let him go?” said Tressa, coldly for her. “My child, you have a certain duty to society—I suppose you realise that? I know you acted as your own kind little heart dictated, but a burglar is a burglar, no matter what the state of his wife’s health—”
“That’s what daddy said,” remarked Mary complacently.
She was a slim, pretty girl, with flawless colouring and anybody but Mike Long would have spent sleepless nights in the fear of losing her. Mike, for the moment being in the grip of the Wembley Vampire, spent his evenings composing letters breaking off the engagement and his mornings in tearing them up.
“My dear Tressa, you are most original! Of course I let him go! And he was an honest man, apart from his burglaries, for he gave me his address, and when I went—”
“You went to his house?” gasped Tressa.
“Of course I went I wanted to know whether his story was true. And, darling, it was! He’s got two of the sweetest children, and a wretched, washed- out kind of wife without an ‘h’ to her name. And I’ve asked my cousin Arkwright, who’s in the City, to find him a job, so that he will never have to go out burgling any more.”
Tressa sighed; and then, after a pause:
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said, “and I am wrong. But I must confess that I do not like the most picturesque of burglars, and he doesn’t seem to have been particularly attractive. Bad people do not appeal to me.”
Mary said nothing, but thought a great deal, and Tressa, who was something of a thought-reader, smiled and went on:
“Meeting bad people in one’s own circle is unavoidable; and besides, there’s just a chance that one may be able to switch them on to the right track.”
“If you can switch Lila Morestel on to the right track, I shall be both surprised and pleased,” she said.
The taunt was not without justification, for Lila had been a constant visitor at the Piccadilly flat in the past few weeks.
“That is one of the things I cannot understand about you, Tressa. Everybody knows about Mrs. Morestel. Why, they took her name off the books of the Jacara Club and they are pretty broad-minded.”
“Lila is in trouble and wanted my help,” said Tressa shortly.
LILA MORESTEL was frequently in trouble: and as frequently, in her helpless, agonised way, appealed for the assistance of her friends. Sometimes the assistance was such that it could not be rendered without damage to the reputation of the helper.
Her history was a curious one. She had been a shop assistant in an Oxford Street establishment, and her beauty attracted the attention of Vivian Morestel. Nobody knew how Vivy earned his living. It was supposed that he sold cars on commission, and that he acted as agent for a firm of bookmakers in various members’ enclosures. He had other sources of income, which only the unfortunate young men who accepted invitations to play cards in his flat knew anything about, and they were naturally reticent.
For some inexplicable reason his hectic courtship of Lila culminated within a few weeks of his meeting her in a visit to the Marylebone Registry Office, where they were joined together in the business-like bonds of matrimony.
Lila’s social progress was amazing. There were vague stories in circulation of tremendous adventures with wealthy members of the British aristocracy, and the officials of the Royal Courts of Justice could tell of divorce suits begun by Vivy and ‘settled out of court’ for a consideration. Generally the sum was about £20,000, and Mr. and Mrs. Vivy Morestel grew opulent, bought Flynn Hall at Wembley, and lived there alternately.
Vivy had discovered a method of earning a livelihood more effective than the most cleverly manipulated pack of cards could give him. There were minor scandals within scandals. Big, bluff Scherzo, the maître d'hôtel at the Fourways Club, complained bitterly that he had introduced Lila to a rich Brazilian and that, no sooner had Lila got her landing hooks into his banking account, than she persuaded him to patronise another establishment—a dead loss to Scherzo of £100 a week, for the Brazilian was a liberal spender.
By mutual consent the two young people lived apart, and only met either in consultation, to decide for how much they could bleed Lila’s latest friend, or else to cut up the profits over a pleasant dinner. This sounds incredible, but it is true, and the partnership might have continued for a very long time, with profit to both but Vivy made the mistake of falling in love with somebody, and decided on a real divorce.
That is the story of Lila, known to every clubman in London. It is the story behind the dazzling picture of her published in the daily and weekly press. Into the web of Flynn Hall many bloated flies had flown and struggled helplessly, and had been duly blooded. And now the king fly was buzzing nearer and nearer to the viscid threads.
“I can only tell you, Tressa, that if she gets Mike I’ll—I’ll murder her!”
Tressa laughed softly.
“Mike’s much too sensible,” she said, conscious of her own hypocrisy, for she had told other women that other men were ‘much too sensible,’ and had had to watch the ruin of hopes and ambitions that littered the trail where the triumphant Lila had passed.
She decided in this particular case that it would be wise to see Mike himself; but days passed before she met him, and then the opportunity—it was at the opening match at Hurlingham—was not a particularly good one.
Mike listened, obviously ill at ease, whilst Tressa expatiated on the virtues and sweetness of his fiancée.
“Yes, of course, that’s all right,” he said awkwardly at last. “Mary is a dear—much too good for me, and all that sort of thing. I wouldn’t hurt her for the world. But I’m not so sure that our marriage would be the best thing for her in the long run. Honestly, Tressa, I’d give a million pounds if she’d get fed up with me and break it off.”
“Why?” asked Tressa.
Mike fumbled with his tie, ran his hand through his fair hair, pulled at his aristocratic nose, and stammered something about incompatability.
“The point is, Tressa,” he said at last. “Mary’s much too sweet a girl to marry a rough-and-tumble fellow like me. She’s unsophisticated, and it would simply hurt me most damnably to upset her. She’s a child. I feel that I ought to marry a girl who has—well, suffered—give her a sort of safe harbour after the storm.”
“In fact, Lila Morestel,” said Tressa brutally, and Mike went very red.
“Well, yes; I’m awfully fond of Lila, and she’s had a perfect hell of a time with that awful husband of hers. You’ve no idea, Tressa, what that girl has suffered.”
“I have a pretty shrewd idea, I think,” said Tressa drily, and Mike grew a little peevish.
“Of course, if you are one of the people who believe all these awful stories that are told about her, there’s no use in continuing the argument,” he said. “‘Malice loves a shining mark’, Tressa, and naturally these beastly women who invent all kinds of stories about the poor girl....”
Tressa realised that this was not the moment to give her views on Lila Morestel and her sufferings. More especially she was embarrassed by the knowledge that she had been the unwilling recipient of that lady’s confidence.
When she got home she wrote a little note asking Lila to come and see her, and the next morning came a telephone call from Flynn Hall.
“Is it very important, darling? I’m simply rushed off my feet. I have to see my solicitors today or tomorrow—or perhaps it’s next Monday: I’m not quite certain. But anyway, I’m fearfully rushed! You know just how terrible I’m feeling about the whole business.”
“Can you come tomorrow?” insisted Tressa, and there came from the other end of the wire a reluctant agreement.
“You know I’m selling Flynn Hall?” she added, just as Tressa thought the conversation was ended and was about to replace the receiver.
IT was perfectly true that Lila contemplated the sale of Flynn Hall. She discussed the matter with Vivy, who came to lunch that day, and he completely agreed with her plans. They sat together in the beautiful, panelled library that looked out on a stretch of lawn and a well tended garden. Lila was at her desk, and had before her a neat array of title deeds and accounts; for she was a business woman of extraordinary ability, methodical to a painful degree—it pained Vivy at any rate—even going so far as to keep the records of many strange but thrilling incidents in a steel filing cabinet. Because, as Lila told her husband:
“You never know when these things may be useful.”
A cigarette drooped from Vivy’s thin lips, his pale blue eyes surveyed the pleasant vista in a melancholy stare, his hands were thrust deep into his pockets, and his shoulders humped—a favourite attitude of his when he found himself in hopeless conflict with his businesslike partner.
“Well, have it your own way, Lila,” he said, “only tell me when you’ve made the decision. I’ve never known you to be so undecided before. It seems a perfectly easy thing to do: you can bring a petition: I’ll not defend it; and that will be the end of it.”
She looked at him thoughtfully.
“I’m not sure that is the best way,” she meditated. “Mike and I went to the El Moro last night and had a long talk. He’s worth three millions, Vivy, but the money is so tied up that I can’t see myself handling a great deal of it.”
“Here, what do you mean?” asked Vivian, galvanised to activity in his alarm. “You’re not going to cry off? I’ve promised that dear girl—”
“Never mind what you’ve promised that dear girl,” snapped Lila. “And how you can bring yourself to fall in love with her is beyond me. I’m not going to cry off—I want to marry Mike.”
“Isn’t he engaged or something?” asked Vivy, with a flicker of interest. “I thought he was tied up with Lady Mary Midston— rather a pretty girl, too.”
“He’s tied up with nobody,” said Lila decisively. “He likes her, and I suppose he is sort of engaged to her. I know he’s rather worried about breaking it off, but that’s nothing. The point is this”—she folded her hands on the desk and looked him straight in the eyes—“will it be the best for me to divorce you or for you to divorce me? If I bring the action, there’s nothing in it for either of us, and there’s always a chance that he might back out. On the other hand, if you bring the action, Mike’s got such a strange sense of honour that he’s certain to marry me and, what is more, there would be a settlement.”
Now settlements had been the foundation of Lila’s fortune and, incidentally, of Vivy’s and they were now on ground familiar to both.
“Only this time, of course,” Lila went on, “there would be no cut. Whatever I got would be mine, and I think, with a bit of luck, we could induce Mike to pay a hundred thousand pounds out of court. The only thing is that is mustn’t be settled on me, otherwise it might affect my marriage settlement.”
Vivian was now thoroughly alert, and for an hour they discussed ways and measures. At the end of that time Lila made a neat little memorandum of the arrangement, cursed her husband for his rapacity—he had ultimately accepted an eight per cent commission—and there, so far as the vampires were concerned, the matter was satisfactorily ended.
To Tressa, the next afternoon, she gave her own version of the agreement.
“My dear, the most terrible thing has happened! Vivy is filing a suit for divorce.”
Tressa was staggered.
“He is divorcing you?” she said incredulously. “I thought—”
“I know, I know,” said Lila, wringing her hands. She was a tall, svelte woman, with a willowy figure, an over-large chin and eyes of melting blue. “Isn’t it too dreadful, Tressa! And after all I have done for him, the sacrifices I have made, after all my subterfuges to keep his name clean!”
“Of course, Mike will defend the action, and you will counterpetition?” said Tressa.
Lila shook her head sadly.
“I could do that, of course,” she said mournfully, “but my dear, think of the publicity—I would make any sacrifice for Mike’s sake. In fact, I’ve just seen him and told him so. You can’t realise what this means to me, Tressa.”
“But,” said the incredulous Tressa, “You’re not allowing Vivian to bring this action and offering no defence, are you?”
“What can I do?” wailed Lila. “I have to consider Mike. It’s the awful publicity of a defended action that I’m thinking about.” Tressa frowned.
“Is your husband asking for damages?” she demanded suspiciously.
“I don’t know what he’s doing. My head is in a perfect whirl, and I’m positively sick with worry and anxiety,” said Lila. “Mike has been awfully good about the whole thing. Of course, it’s come as a great blow to the poor darling, especially as he is, in a manner of speaking, innocent; and he’s threatened to kill Vivy. But he realises that he’s been seen about with me so much, and under the circumstances he feels, as I do, that the thing to avoid is publicity—”
“How much is Vivy asking?”
Lila threw out tragic and despairing hands.
“I haven’t the slightest idea, darling,” she whimpered. “Please don’t ask me! The thing is so sordid and horrible that it doesn’t bear speaking of.”
Mike Long, a very dazed and serious young man, sat down that night and sent a letter which took him two hours to compose; and Mary Midston read it in bed and did not shed a tear. She read it twice, read it again, and then, reaching out of bed, lifted the telephone and called Tressa.
“Have you heard the news?” she asked.
Tressa, who had come in to breakfast early in the expectation of this call, replied cautiously:
“What news is this, Mary?”
“I’ve had a letter from Mike,” said Mary, and her voice was singularly even for one whose engagement had been so unceremoniously broken off. “I won’t read it to you, but it’s all about my youth and innocence, and the horrible unworthiness of Mike. In fact, Tressa, he’s ditched me!”
Tressa winced: she had never taken to the argot of the streets.
“And he’s going to marry the Vampire. In fact, Mr. Vampire is bringing an action for divorce, and Mike is the Foolish Third.”
There was a long pause.
“What are you going to do?” asked Tressa.
“I’m going to do all that I’m not expected to do,” said the cool voice at the other end of the line. “I should be sobbing into my pillow, or writing a tear-stained letter. But, Tressa, I’m not going to allow that poor child—”
“Which poor child?” asked the startled Tressa.
“Mike,” was the calm reply. “Do you know anybody who better fills the description? I’m not going to allow him to be ruined by that unspeakable reptile. I’m supposed to be unsophisticated but, Tressa, though I neither dope nor drink, nor indulge in the peculiar pleasures of our mutual friends, I know just enough of the wicked world and its ways to stop this divorce.”
“How?” asked Tressa.
“Ha ha!” said the voice, so sardonic that for the second time within twenty- four hours Tressa was staggered.
“I know something about Lila,” Mary went on, “and I’m going to learn a little more. Do you remember how she once settled a dispute we had at dinner, as to who won the money when we all went to Ascot with the Gladdings, by producing a four-year-old race-card with all the accounts neatly pencilled on the back?”
“But what on earth has that to do with the divorce?” asked Tressa in amazement.
“We shall see,” said Mary, and rang off.
Mike Long was on the point of going out that night when the visitor was announced, and he almost collapsed at the sight of the girl in shimmering blue and white who confronted him in the drawing-room.
“Mary!” he stammered. “My dear, I’m sorry you came. I don’t think it’s wise of you to distress yourself.”
“I’m not distressing myself at all,” said Mary. “I thought I would come along and make your mind easy. I’m consoling myself with Social Snaps”.
“With what?” gasped Mike.
Had his brutal conduct turned this unfortunate girl’s brain?
“You may not have heard of Social Snaps, she said apologetically. “It isn’t a very high-class paper—in fact, daddy says that it is a very low- class paper. It has been advertised for sale in the Press for months—you must have read the announcements. I bought it—daddy lent me the money.”
“But why in the name of fate do you want to go in for that sort of thing?”
He was so astonished that he forgot the painfulness of the interview.
“You’re not a journalist—you can’t write—"
“Can’t 1?” she said darkly. “Oh, can’t I!”
He looked at her uncomfortably.
“I’m glad—I mean, I’m glad that you have taken things so well. The whole business is rather awful, isn’t it? Vivy is a so-and-so, but I’ve got to go through with it. You don’t know how terrible I’m feeling....”
He babbled further inanities, and she heard him through. Then she made a statement, and he went red and then white.
“You mustn’t say that sort of thing about Lila: she’s as innocent as a child, and all these stories about her are lies. It is infamous to suggest that she has lived on blackmail—wicked!”
“You must subscribe to my paper, Mike,” she said at parting. “Can you drop me at the comer of Russett Street, Lambeth? I saw your car at the door.”
“Where!” he squeaked. “Russett Street—why that’s one of the lowest neighbourhoods in London!”
“We journalists have to go to strange places,” said Mary.
IT was on the fourth day of the second week after this interview that Lila stalked tragically into Tressa’s room and dropped onto a chair.
“If I could only find the man I’d give him five thousand pounds,” she groaned. “The fool didn’t trouble to take my jewel case.”
“But why should a burglar trouble to rob your library?” asked Tressa, who had read the account of the burglary in the morning newspaper.
“Because—I don’t know!” snapped the Vampire. “Oh my God, why did he? Every paper taken from my safe, every letter stolen from my file! He must have spent hours. And there were two of them. The fool of a policeman said that he saw a little man and a woman coming down the drive and got into a car that was waiting on the road.”
“Who was the woman?”
Lila could only wave despairing hands.
Tressa was genuinely puzzled for a day or two, and then one morning there came to her breakfast table a small weekly journal. She tore off the wrapper to examine Mary’s initial effort as a journalist, and the first thing that caught her eye was a black letter announcement.
In our next issue we shall tell the story of:
The Vampire of Wembley
and publish extracts from correspondence between
this sinister woman, her wretched victims, and her horrible husband.
We shall also give the confessions of a converted burglar
owing to the influence exercised by a young and charming society woman,
was induced to return to the paths of virtue.
Order Your Copies Now
And then Tressa understood.
Lila read the marked paragraph sent to her by registered post and also understood.
She got on the telephone to Vivy.
“That Midston girl has got the letters, Vivy. I don’t know what you’ll do, but I’m going to California till things look brighter. I think that is the only way to stop publication. Oh, yes, Mike has a copy of the worst letters. I called him up a few minutes ago, and his valet told me that he was not at home to me.”