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Chapter XLI - The Count de Cartienne

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Author Topic: Chapter XLI - The Count de Cartienne  (Read 23 times)
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« on: December 07, 2022, 05:31:50 am »

My surprise at this last piece of information could not pass unnoticed. Both the hall-porter and his assistant were evidently well-trained servants, but they looked curiously at me and then exchanged rapid glances with one another. I recovered myself, however, in an instant.

“This Count de Cartienne,” I asked, “is he young? I think I know him. Rather dark and thin and short? Is that he?”

The man shook his head.

“No, sir. Count de Cartienne is a tall, aristocratic-looking gentleman, middle-aged. You are certain to see him about the hotel. He is in and out a great deal.”

I thanked him and moved away, for the people were beginning to flock in, inquiring for their keys. As it was nearly dinner-time, I followed their example and went to my room to change my travelling clothes for more conventional attire.

The lift was almost full when I entered it; but as we were on the point of starting, a lady, followed by an elderly gentleman, stepped in. I rose at once, being nearest the gate, to offer my seat, but the words which I had intended to speak died away upon my lips.

Something in the graceful figure, the soft, sweet eyes, and the delicately-cut features, seemed to remind me of my mother. It was a faint resemblance, perhaps—scarcely more than a suggestion—but it was still enough to make my heart beat fast, and to arrest for a moment my recollection of where I was. Then suddenly I remembered that I was behaving, to say the least of it, strangely, and I turned abruptly away.

At the third floor I stepped out and walked across the corridor to my room without glancing once behind. But it was some time before I unpacked my portmanteau, or even thought of dressing. Then I remembered that if they were dining at the hotel I should see them again, and, turning out my clothes at once, I dressed with feverish haste. For the moment I had forgotten all about Count de Cartienne, forgotten even the very purpose of my visit to London. Only one face, linked with a memory, dwelt in my mind and usurped all my thoughts. I felt a strange excitability stealing through my frame, and the fingers which sought to fasten my tie shook so that they failed in their duty. I seemed to have stepped into another state of being.

When I descended into the dining-room it was already almost full, and there were very few empty tables. For a minute or two I stood behind the entrance screen, looking around. Nowhere could I see any sign of the lady whose face had so interested me. Either she was dining away from the hotel or had not yet put in an appearance. Hoping devoutly that the latter was the case, I took possession of a small table laid for three facing the door and ordered my dinner.

I had scarcely finished my soup before an instinctive consciousness that I was being watched made me look quickly up. Standing just inside the room, calmly surveying the assembled guests, and myself in particular, was a tall, distinguished-looking man, perfectly clean-shaven, rather fair than otherwise, with a single eye-glass stuck in his eye, through which he was coolly examining me. He carried an Inverness cape and an opera-hat, and his evening clothes, which fitted him perfectly, were in the best possible taste, even down to the plain gold stud in his shirt front. His age might have been anything from thirty to fifty, for his carriage was perfectly upright, and his hair only slightly streaked with grey. Altogether his appearance was that of a well-turned-out, well-bred man, and as I glanced away I felt a little mild curiosity to know who he was.

He came a few steps farther into the room, and after a moment’s hesitation passed by a larger table laid for six and took the vacant seat at mine. He wished me good-evening in a clear, pleasant voice, with a slight foreign accent, resigned his coat and hat to a more than ordinarily attentive waiter, and drawing a card from his pocket began deliberately to write out his dishes from the menu. Then he shut up his pencil, and leaning back in his chair once more glanced round at the roomful of people. Having apparently satisfied his curiosity, he yawned, and turning towards me, began to talk.

Soon I began to feel myself quite at home with him, and to enjoy my dinner with a greatly-added zest. Indeed, in listening to some of his quaint recitals of adventures at foreign hotels, I almost forgot to watch for the advent of the lady and gentleman for whom I had been looking out so eagerly only a few minutes before.

As it happened, however, I saw them enter, and my attention immediately wandered from the story which my companion was telling.

Something in the fragility of her appearance, and the weight with which she leaned upon her husband’s arm, seemed to mark her as an invalid, and this expression was in a measure heightened by her black lace dress, which, combined with the too perfect complexion and slight figure, gave to her face an almost ethereal expression. As I looked into the deep blue eyes I seemed again to be able to trace that vague likeness to my mother, and I felt my heart beat fast as the impression grew upon me. It was only when my new friend stopped abruptly in his anecdote and looked at me questioningly, that I could withdraw my eyes from her.

“Are they friends of yours who have just come in?” he asked, without turning round.

“No; I never saw them before this afternoon in my life. I wonder if you could tell me who they are?”

He moved his chair a little, so as to be able to do so without rudeness, and looked round. I happened to be watching him, and I saw at once that he recognised them.

Strange to say, the recognition seemed to afford him anything but pleasure; a change passed over his face like a flash of lightning, and although I only just caught it, it made me feel for the moment decidedly uncomfortable. While it lasted the face had not been a pleasant one to look upon. But it was not that alone which troubled me. During the moment that his expression had been transformed, it had given me an odd, disagreeable sense of familiarity.

He was himself again almost immediately—so soon that I could scarcely credit the change—and more than once afterwards I felt inclined to put that evil look and lowering brow down to a trick of my imagination. Even when I had decided to do so, however, I caught myself wondering more than once of whom they had reminded me.

He moved his chair again and went on with his dinner in silence.

“You recognised them?” I ventured to remark,

“Yes,” he answered curtly.

“Would you mind telling me who they are, then?” I persisted. “I feel interested in them.”

He looked up curiously and kept his eyes fixed on me while he answered my question.

“The man is Lord Langerdale, an Irish peer, and the lady with him is his wife.”

“Thank you. The lady’s face reminded me of someone I knew once.”

He removed his eyes and his tone grew lighter. “Indeed! Rather an uncommon type of face, too. She’s a lovely woman still, though she looks delicate.”

I assented silently. Somehow I did not care to discuss her with this stranger.

“Perhaps you noticed,” he went on, after a short pause, “that it was rather a shock to me to see them here?”

“Yes, I did notice that,” I admitted.

He sighed and looked grave for a moment. Then he poured himself out a glass of champagne and drank it deliberately off.

“It was purely a matter of association,” he said, in a low tone. “A somewhat painful incident in my life was connected with that family, although with no present member of it. Pass the bottle, and let us change the subject.”

We talked of other things, and for a time all my former interest in his piquant anecdotes and trenchant remarks was renewed. But while he was gravely considering with a waiter the relative merits of two brands of claret, I found my eyes wandering to the table at our right, in search of the woman whose face had so attracted me. This time my eyes met hers.

Then a strange thing happened. Instead of looking away at once, she kept her eyes steadily fixed upon me and suddenly gave a distinct start. I saw the colour rush into her face and leave it again almost as swiftly; her thin lips were slightly parted, and her whole expression was one of great agitation. I tried to look away, but I could not; I felt somehow forced to return her steady gaze. But when she turned to her husband and touched him on the arm, evidently to direct his attention to me, the spell was broken, and I moved my chair slightly, making some casual remark to my companion which was sufficient to set the ball of conversation rolling again. But one stolen glance a few moments later showed me that both husband and wife were regarding me attentively, and several times afterwards, when I looked over towards their table, I met Lady Langerdale’s eyes, full of a sad, wistful, and withal puzzled expression which I could not read.

As dinner drew towards a close it occurred to me that my vis-à-vis had studiously avoided turning once towards our neighbours. If he desired to escape recognition, however, he was unsuccessful, for just as we were beginning to think of quitting our places, Lord Langerdale left his seat to speak to some acquaintances at the other end of the room, and on his way back he looked straight into my companion’s face. He started slightly, hesitated, and then came slowly up to our table.

“Eugène!” he exclaimed. “By all that’s wonderful, is it really you? Why, we heard that you had become an Oriental, and forsworn the ways and haunts of civilisation.”

He spoke lightly, but it was easy to see that the meeting was a very embarrassing one for both of them.

“I have not been in England long,” was the quiet reply. “Lady Langerdale, I am glad to see, is well.”

“She is fairly well. How strange that we should meet here! Why, it must be twenty years since I have seen you.”

“I have spent but little time in England.”

“I suppose not,” Lord Langerdale answered slowly. “We have heard of you occasionally. Will you come and speak to my wife?”

“I think not,” was the calm reply. “It could only be very painful for both of us. If Lady Langerdale desires it—not unless—I will call upon you at your rooms. But, frankly, I would rather not.”

Lord Langerdale appeared by no means offended, rather a little relieved, and answered sadly: “It is for you to choose. If you can tell her that the past has lost some of its bitterness for you, and—and—”

He hesitated and seemed at a loss how to express himself. My vis-à-vis smiled—a smile of peculiar bitterness it was—and interrupted cynically:

“And that I am a reformed character, I suppose you would say, and have become a respectable member of society! No, no, Lord Langerdale, I am no hypocrite, and I shall never tell her that. A wanderer upon the face of the earth I have been during the best years of my life, and a wanderer I shall always be—adventurer, some people have said. Well, well, let it be so; what matter?”

Lord Langerdale shook his head doubtfully.

“I am sorry to hear you talk so, Eugène; but of one thing you may always be sure—Elsie and I will never be your judges. If you feel that it will reopen old wounds, stop away; but if not, why, come and see us. You have a young friend with you,” he added, turning slightly towards me and speaking a little more earnestly than the occasion seemed to require.

The man whom he called Eugène shook his head.

“I am not so fortunate,” he said stiffly. “I can claim no more than what on the Continent we call a ‘table acquaintance’ with this young gentleman.”

It might have been my fancy, but it seemed to me that Lord Langerdale looked distinctly disappointed. He bowed courteously to me, however, shook hands with his friend and rejoined his wife. My new acquaintance resumed his former position, and, with it, his old nonchalant manner.

“Your pardon,” he said lightly, “for this long digression. And now tell me, mon ami, shall we spend the evening together? You are a stranger in London, you say; I am not,” he added drily. “Come, shall I be your cicerone?”

I really had nothing else to do, so I assented at once.

“Good! Let us finish the bottle to a pleasant evening. But, ah! I forgot. We must be introduced. The English custom demands it, even though we introduce ourselves. Your name is?”

“Morton,” I answered—“Philip Morton. I haven’t a card.”

“Good! Then, Mr. Philip Morton, permit me the honour of introducing to you—myself. I am called de Cartienne—the Count Eugène de Cartienne—but I do not use the title in this country.”

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