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18: A Dark Horse

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Author Topic: 18: A Dark Horse  (Read 33 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 11:51:40 pm »

"Le plus grand art d'un habile homme est celui de savoir cacher son habileté."

Later in the day I was ignominiously recalled to London.

"Useless to remain in Southampton. First note has been changed in London," Sander telegraphed to me.

While lunching at the hotel, I learnt from the waiter that the young French lady had received letters causing her to change her plans, and that she had left hurriedly for Dover, the waiter thought.

Sander came to see me the same evening at my club in London.

"There are at least two in it---probably three," he said. "The note was changed at Cook's office, in the purchase of two tourist tickets to Baden-Baden, which can, of course, be resold or used in part only. It was done by an old man---wore a wig, they tell me---but he was genuine; not a young man in disguise, I mean."

If Mr. Sander knew more he did not take me further into his confidence. He was a pale-faced, slight man, having the outward appearance of a city clerk. But the fellow had a keen look, and there was something in the lines of his thin, determined lips that gave one confidence. I saw that he did not reciprocate this feeling. Indeed, I think he rather despised me for a thick-headed country bumpkin.

He glanced around the gorgeously decorated smoking-room of the club with a look half-contemptuous and half-envious, and sat restlessly in the luxurious arm-chair native to club smoking-rooms, as one cultivating a Spartan habit of life.

"It is probable," he said bluntly, "that you are being watched."

"Yes---I know the bailiffs keep their eye on me."

"I suppose you are not going away to shoot or anything like that?"

"I can go to France and look after Madame de Clericy's property," answered I, and the prospect of a change of scene was not unpleasant to me. For, to tell the truth, I was ill at ease at this time, and while in England fell victim to a weak and unmanly longing to be at Hopton. For, however strong a man's will may be, it seems that one woman in his path must have the power to inspire him with such a longing that he cannot free his mind of thoughts of her, nor interest himself in any other part of the world but that which she inhabits. Thus, to a grey-haired man who surely might have been wiser, it was actual misery to be in England and not at Hopton, where Alphonse Giraud was no doubt happy enough in the neighbourhood of the woman we both loved.

"Yes," said Sander to me, after long thought. "Do that. I shall get on better if you are out of England."

The man's air, as I have said, inspired confidence; and I, seeking an excuse to be moving, determined to obey him without delay. Moreover, I was beginning to realise more and more the difficulties of my task, and the remembrance of what had passed at Hopton made failure singularly distasteful.

The Vicomtesse had property in the Morbihan, to which I could penetrate without great risk of arrest. We had heard nothing from the agent in charge of this estate since the outbreak of war, and it seemed probable that the man had volunteered for active service in one of the Breton regiments, raised in all haste at this time.

Writing a note to Madame, I left England the next day, intending to be absent a week or ten days. My journey was uneventful, and needs not to be detailed here.

During the writer's absence in stricken France, Miss Isabella Gayerson, who seemed as restless as himself, suddenly bethought herself to open her London house and fill it with guests. It must be remembered that this lady was an heiress, and, if report be true, more than one needy nobleman offered her a title and that which he called his heart, only to meet with a cold refusal. I who know her so well can fancy that these disinterested gentlemen hesitated to repeat the experiment. It is vanity that too often makes a woman consent at last (though sometimes Love may awake and do it), and I think that Isabella was never vain.

"I have good reason to be without vanity," she once said in my hearing, but I do not know what she meant. The remark, as I remember, was made in answer to Lucille, who happened to say that a woman can dress well without being vain, and laughingly gave Isabella as an example.

Isabella's chief reason in coming to London during the winter was a kind one---namely, to put a temporary end to an imprisonment in the country which was irksome to Lucille. And I make no doubt the two ladies were glad enough to avail themselves of this opportunity of seeing London. God made the country and men the towns, it is said; and I think they made them for the women.

On returning to London I found letters from Madame de Clericy explaining this change of residence, and in the same envelope a note from Isabella (her letters were always kinder than her speech), inviting me to stay in Hyde Park Street.

"We are sufficiently old friends," she wrote, "to allow thus of a general invitation, and if it shares the usual fate of such, the fault will be yours, and not mine."

The letter was awaiting me at the club, and I deemed it allowable to call in response the same afternoon. The news of Lucille's engagement to Alphonse Giraud was ever dangling before my eyes, and I wished to get the announcement swallowed without further suspense.

Alphonse, a perfect squire of dames, was engaged in dispensing thin bread and butter when I entered the room, feeling, as I feel to this day, somewhat out of place and heavy amid the delicate ornaments and flowers of a lady's drawing-room. My reception was not exactly warm, and I was struck by the pallor of Isabella's face, which, however, gave place to a more natural colour before long. Madame alone showed gladness at the sight of me, and held out both her hands in a welcome full of affection. I thought Lucille's black dress very becoming to her slim form.

We talked, of course, of the war, before which all other topics faded into insignificance at that time---and I had but disquieting news from France. The siege had now lasted seven weeks, and none knew what the end might be. The opportunity awaited the Frenchman, but none rose to meet it. France blundered on in the hands of political mediocrities, as she has done ever since.

I gathered that Alphonse was staying in the house, and wondered at the news, considering that Isabella knew him but slightly. It was the Vicomtesse who gave me the information, with one of her quiet glances that might mean much or nothing. For myself, I confess they usually possessed but small significance---men being of a denser (though perhaps deeper) comprehension than women, who catch on the wing a thought that flies past such as myself, and is lost.

I could only conclude that Isabella was seeking the happiness of her new-found friend in thus offering Giraud an opportunity, which he doubtless seized with avidity.

Isabella was kind enough to repeat her invitation, which, however, I declined with Madame's eye upon me and Lucille's back suddenly turned in my direction. Lucille, in truth, was talking to Alphonse, and gaily enough. He had the power of amusing her, in which I was deficient, and she was always merry.

While we were thus engaged, a second visitor was announced, but I did not hear his name. His face was unknown to me---a narrow, foxy face it was---and the man's perfect self-assurance had something offensive in it, as all shams have. I did not care for his manner towards Isabella---which is, however, as I understand, quite ŕ la mode d'aujourd'hui---a sort of careless, patronising admiration, with no touch of respect in it.

He made it quite apparent that he had come to see the young mistress of the house, and no one else, acknowledging the introductions to the remainder of the company with a scant courtesy. He talked to Isabella with a confidential inclination of his body towards her as they sat on low chairs with a small table between them, and it was easy to see that she appreciated the attention of this middle-aged man of the world.

"You see, Miss Gayerson," I heard him say with a bold glance, for he was one of those fine fellows who can look straight enough at a woman, but do not care to meet the eye of a man. "You see, I have taken you at your word. I wonder if you meant me to."

"I always mean what I say," answered Isabella; and I thought she glanced in my direction to see whether I was listening.

"A privilege of your sex---also to mean what you don't say."

At this moment Madame spoke to me, and I heard no more, but we may be sure that his further conversation was of a like intellectual and noteworthy standard. There was something in the man's lowered tone and insinuating manner that made me set him down as a lawyer.

"Do you notice," said Madame to me, "that Lucille is in better spirits?"

"Yes---I notice it with pleasure. Good spirits are for the young---and the old."

"I suppose you are right," said Madame. "Before the business of life begins, and after it is over."

Apropos of business, I gave the Vicomtesse at this time an account of my journey to Audierne, and was able to inform her that I had brought back money with me sufficient for her present wants.

While I was thus talking I heard, through my own speech, that Isabella invited the stranger to dine on the following Thursday.

"I have another engagement," he answered, consulting a small note-book. "But that can be conveniently forgotten."

Isabella seemed to like such exceedingly small social change, for she smiled brightly as he rose to take his leave.

To the Vicomtesse he paid a pretty little compliment in French, anticipating much enjoyment on the following Thursday in improving upon his slight acquaintance. He shook hands with me, his gaze fixed on my necktie. He then bowed to Lucille and Alphonse, who were talking together at the end of the room, and made a self-possessed exit.

"Who is your friend?" I asked Isabella bluntly, when the door was closed.

"A Mr. Devar. Does he interest you?"

There was something in Isabella's tone that betokened a readiness, or perhaps a desire, to fight Mr. Devar's battles. Had I been a woman, or wiser than I have ever proved myself, I should, no doubt, have ignored this challenge instead of promptly meeting it by my answer:

"I cannot say he does."

"You seem to object to him," she said sharply. "Please remember that he is a friend of mine."

"He cannot be one of long standing," I was foolish enough to answer. "For he is not an East Country man, and I never heard of him before."

"As a matter of fact," said Isabella, "I met him at a ball in town last week, and he asked permission to call."

I gave a short laugh, and Isabella looked at me with calm defiance in her eyes. It was, of course, no business of mine, which knowledge probably urged me on to further blunders.

Isabella's mental attitude was a puzzle to me. She was ready enough to supply information respecting Mr. Devar, whose progress towards intimacy had, to say the least of it, been rapid. But she supplied, as I thought, from a small store. She alternately allayed and aroused an anxiety which was natural enough in so old a friend, and to a man who had moved among adventurers nearly all his life. Alfred Gayerson, her brother and my earliest friend, was now in Vienna. Isabella had no one to advise her. She was, I suppose, a forerunner of the advanced young women of to-day, who, with a diminutive knowledge of the world culled from the imaginative writings of females as ignorant, are pleased to consider themselves competent to steer a clean course over the shoals of life.

Isabella had had, as I understood, a certain experience of the ordinary fortune-hunters of society---pleasant enough fellows, no doubt, but lacking self-respect and manhood---and it seemed extraordinary that her eyes should be closed to Mr. Devar's manifold qualifications to the title.

"Perhaps," she said at length, "you also will do us the pleasure of dining with us on Thursday, as you appear to be so deeply interested in Mr. Devar despite your assurances to the contrary."

"I shall be most happy to do so," answered I---ungraciously, I fear---and there arose a sudden light, almost of triumph, to her usually repressed glance.

Alphonse Giraud acceded to my suggestion that he should walk with me towards my club. His manner towards me had been reserved and unnatural, and I wished to get to the bottom of his feeling in respect to one whom he had always treated as a friend. Isabella was the only person to suggest an objection to my proposal, reminding Alphonse, rather pointedly, that he had but time to dress for dinner.

"Well," I said, when we were turning into Piccadilly, "Miste has begun to give us a scent at last."

"It is not so much in Monsieur Miste as in the money that I am interested," answered Giraud, swinging his cane, and looking about him with a simulated interest in his surroundings.

"Ah!"

"Yes; and I am beginning to be convinced that I shall never see either."

"Indeed."

"Let us quit an unpleasant subject," said the Frenchman, after a pause, and in the manner of one seeking to avoid an impending quarrel. "What splendid horses you have in England! See that pair in the victoria? one could not tell them apart. And what action!"

"Yes," I answered, lamely enough; "we have good enough horses."

And before I could return to the subject, which no longer drew us together, but separated us, he dragged out his watch and hurriedly turned back, leaving me with a foolish and inexplicable sense of guilt.

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