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Our Library => Henry Seton Merriman - Dross (1899) => Topic started by: Admin on March 18, 2023, 01:38:18 am

Title: 20: Underhand
Post by: Admin on March 18, 2023, 01:38:18 am
"Le doute empoisonne tout et ne tue rien."

As I walked through the park towards Isabella's house on the evening of the dinner-party, Devar's hansom cab dashed past me and stopped a few yards farther on. The man must have had sharp eyes to recognise me in a London haze on a November evening. Devar leapt from his cab and came towards me.

"Shall I walk with you or will you drive with me?" he said.

Placed between two evil alternatives, I suggested that it would be better for his health to walk with me---hoping, although it was a dry night, that his shiny boots were too precious or tight for such exercise. Mr. Devar, however, made a sign to the groom to follow, and slipped his hand engagingly within my arm.

"Glad of the chance of a walk," he said. "Wish I was a free man like you, Howard, London would not often see me!"

"What would?" I asked, for I like to know where vermin harbours.

"Ah!"---he paused, and, as I thought, glanced at me. "The wide world. Should like, for instance, a roving commission such as yours---to look for a scoundrel with a lot of money-bags, who may be in London or Timbuctoo."

I walked on in silence, never having had quick speech or the habit of unburthening my soul to the first listener.

"Not likely to stay in London in November if he is a man of sense as well as enterprise," he added, jerking up the fur collar of his coat.

We walked on a little farther.

"Suppose you have no notion where he is?" said my bland companion, to which I made no articulate reply.

"Do you know?" he asked at length, as one in a corner.

"Do you want to know?" retorted I.

"Oh---no," with a laugh.

"That is well," said I finally. And we walked on for a space in silence, when my companion changed the conversation with that ease of manner under the direct snub which only comes from experience. Mr. Devar was certainly a good-natured person, for he forgave my rudeness as soon as it was uttered.

I know not exactly how he compassed it, but he restored peace so effectually that before we reached Hyde Park Street he had forced me to invite him to lunch with me at my club on the following Saturday. This world is certainly for the thick-skinned.

We entered Isabella's drawing-room, therefore, together, and a picture of brotherly love.

"Force of good example," explained Mr. Devar airily. "I saw Howard walking and walked with him."

There were assembled the house-party only, Devar and I being the guests of the evening. Isabella frowned as we entered together. I wondered why.

Devar attached himself to Alphonse Giraud, whom he led aside under pretext of examining a picture.

"Monsieur Giraud," he then said to him in French, "as a man of affairs I cannot but deplore your heedlessness."

He was a much older man than Giraud, and had besides the gift of uttering an impertinence as if under compulsion.

"But, my dear sir----" exclaimed Alphonse.

"Either you do not heed the loss of your fortune or you are blind."

"You mean that I cannot trust my friend," said Alphonse.

Mr. Devar spread out his hands in denial of any such meaning.

"Monsieur Giraud," he said, "I am a man of the world, and also a lawyer. I suppose I am as charitable as my neighbours. But it is never wise to trust a single man with a large sum of money. None of us knows his own weakness. Put not thy neighbour into temptation."

Which sounded like Scripture, and doubtless passed as such. Mr. Devar nodded easily, smiled like an advertisement of dentifrice, and moved back to the centre of the room. It naturally fell to him to offer his arm to the hostess, while Madame accompanied me to the dining-room. Alphonse and Lucille paired off, as it seemed to me, very naturally.

As we passed down the stairs I fell into thought, and made a mental survey of all these people as they stood in respect to myself. Alphonse had progressed, as was visible on his telltale face, from suspicion to something near hostility. Isabella---always a puzzle---was more enigmatic than ever; for she showed herself keenly alive to my faults, and made no concealment of her distrust, though she threw open her house to me with a persistent and almost anxious hospitality. Here was no friend. Had I, in Isabella, an enemy? Of Devar, all that I could conclude was that he was suspicious. His interest in myself was less gratifying than the deepest indifference. In Madame de Clericy I had one who wished to be my friend, but her attitude towards me was inscrutable. She seemed to encourage Alphonse. Did she, like the rest of them, suspect me of seeking to frustrate his suit by withholding his fortune? She merely looked at me, and would say no word. And of Lucille, what could I think but that she hated me?

At dinner we spoke of the siege, and of those sad affairs of France which drew all men's thoughts at this time. Mr. Devar was, I remember, well informed on the points of the campaign, and seemed to talk of them with equal facility in French and English; but I disliked the man, and determined to make my thoughts known to Isabella.

It was no easy matter to outstay Mr. Devar, but, asserting my position as an old friend, this was at last accomplished. When we were left alone, Alphonse must have divined my intention in the quick way that was natural to him; for he engaged Lucille and her mother in a discussion of the latest news, which he translated from an evening paper. Indeed, Lucille and he put their heads together over the journal, and seemed to find it damnably amusing.

"Isabella," I said, "will you allow me to make some inquiries concerning this man Devar before you ask him to your house again?"

"Are you afraid that Mr. Devar will interfere with your own private schemes?" she replied, in that tone of semi-banter which she often assumed towards me when we were alone.

"Thanks---no. I am quite capable of taking care of myself, so far as Mr. Devar is concerned. It is---if you will believe it---in regard to yourself that I have misgivings. I look upon myself as in some sort your protector."

She looked at me, and gave a sudden laugh.

"A most noble and competent protector!" she said, in her biting way, "when you are always fortune-hunting, or else in France taking care of beauty in distress."

She glanced across the room towards Lucille in a manner strangely cold.

"Why do you encourage this man?" I asked, returning to the subject from which Isabella had so easily glided away. "He is not a gentleman. Seems to me the man is a---dark horse!"

"Well, you ought to know," said Isabella, with a promptness which made me reflect that I was no match for the veriest schoolgirl in a warfare of words.

"I did not understand," continued Isabella, looking at me under her lashes, "that you looked upon yourself as my protector. It is rather an amusing thought!"

"Oh! I do not pretend to competence," answered I; "I know you to be cleverer, and quite capable of managing your own affairs. If there was anything you wanted, no doubt you could get it better without my assistance than with it."

"No doubt," put in Isabella, with a queer curtness.

"But my father looked upon you rather in the light I mentioned. He was very fond of you, and thought much of your welfare, and----"

"You think the burden should be hereditary," she interrupted again, but she smiled in a manner that softened the acerbity of her words.

"No, Dick," she said, "you are better at your fortune-hunting."

"It is not for myself," I said too hurriedly; for Isabella had always the power to make me utter hasty words, involving me in some quarrel in which I invariably fared badly.

"Who knows?"

"You think that if the fortune fell into my hands, the temptation would be too strong for a poor man like myself?" I inquired.

"Poor by choice!" The words were hardly audible, for Isabella was busying her fingers with some books that lay on the table between us. It may have been the effect of the lamp shade, but I thought her colour heightened when I glanced at her face.

"It is hard to believe that you are honestly seeking a fortune, which, when found, will enable another man to marry Lucille," she said significantly, without looking at me. And I suppose she knew that which was in my heart.

"Some day," I retorted, "you will have to apologise for having said that!"

"Then others will need to do the same! Lucille herself does not believe in you."

"Yes," I answered, "others will have to do the same, and thank you for it."

"Lucille will not," answered Isabella, with a note of triumph in her voice, "for she had reason to distrust you in Paris."

"You seem to be on very confidential terms with Mademoiselle."

"Yes," she answered, looking at me with quiet defiance.

"Is the confidence mutual, Isabella?" asked I, rising to go; and received no answer.

When I bade good-night to Madame de Clericy, she was standing alone at the far end of the room.

"Ah! mon ami," she said, as she gave me her hand, "I think you are blinder than other men. Women are not only clothes. We have feelings of our own, which spring up without the help of any man---in despite of any, perhaps---remember that."

Which I confess was Greek to me, and sent me on my way with the feeling of a hunter who, in following one all-absorbing quarry through the forest, and hearing on all sides a suppressed rustle or hushed movement, pauses to wonder whence they come and what they mean.

"Tell me," said Alphonse, who helped me with my heavy coat, "if you have news of Miste or propose to follow him. I will accompany you."

He said it awkwardly, after the manner of one avowing an unworthy suspicion of which he is ashamed. So Alphonse Giraud was to follow me and watch my every movement, treating me like a servant unworthy of trust. I made answer, promising to advise him of any such intention; for Giraud's company was pleasant under any circumstances, and there would be some keen sport in running Miste to earth with him beside me.

Thus I came away from Isabella's house with the conviction that she and no other was my most active enemy. It was Isabella who had poisoned Giraud's mind against me. He was too simple and honest to have conceived unaided such thoughts as he now harboured. Moreover, he was, like many good-hearted people, at the mercy of every wind that blows, and, like the chameleon, took his colour from his environments.

It was to no other than Isabella that I owed Lucille's coldness, and I shrewdly suspected some ulterior motive in the action that transferred the home of the distressed ladies---for a time at least---from my house at Hopton to her own house in London. Madame de Clericy and Lucille were no longer my guests, but hers; and each day diminished their debt towards me and made them more beholden to Isabella.

"I know," Lucille had said to me one day, "that you despise us for being happier in London than at Hopton; we are conscious of your contempt."

And with a laugh she linked arms with Madame de Clericy, who hastened to say that Hopton was no doubt charming in the spring.

I had long ago discovered that Lucille ruled her mother's heart, where, indeed, no other interest entered. This visit to Isabella's town house had, it appears, been arranged by the two girls, Madame acquiescing, as she acquiesced in all that was for her daughter's happiness.

In whatsoever line I moved, Isabella seemed to stand in my path ready to frustrate my designs and impede my progress. And Isabella Gayerson had been my only playmate in childhood---the companion of my youth, and, if the matter had rested with me, might have remained the friend of my whole lifetime.

As I walked down Oxford Street (for in those days I could not afford a cab, my every shilling being needed to keep open Hopton and pay the servants there) I pondered over these things, and quite failed to elucidate them. And writing now, after many stormy years, and in quiet harbour at Hopton, I still fail to understand Isabella; nor can I tell what it is that makes a woman so uncertain in her friendships.

Then my thoughts returned to Mr. Devar, where the necessity for action presented difficulties more after my own heart.

I went to the club and there wrote a letter to Sander, who was still in the Netherlands, asking him if he knew aught of a gentleman calling himself Devar, who appeared to me to be no gentleman, who spoke French like any Frenchman, and had the air of a prosperous scoundrel.