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13: The Shadow Again

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Author Topic: 13: The Shadow Again  (Read 57 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 06:45:07 am »

"Qui ne craint pas la mort craint donc la vie."

As I sat in my study, the sounds of the house gradually ceased, and the quiet of night settled down between its ancient walls. It seemed to me at times that the Vicomte was moving in his own room. I knew, however, that the passage between us was locked on both sides. My old patron had said nothing to me on the subject, but I had found the door bolted and the key removed. I never was the man to intrude upon another's privacy, and respected the Vicomte's somewhat incomprehensible humour at this time.

I scarcely knew at what hour I at last went to bed; but the oil in my lamp was nearly exhausted and the candles had burnt low. Taking up one of these, I went to my bedroom, pausing at the head of the black staircase to listen as one instinctively does in a great silence. The household was asleep. A faint patter broke the stillness; Lucille's dog---a small white shadow in the gloom---came towards me from her bedroom, outside of which he slept. He looked up at me with a restrained jerk of the tail, for we were always friends, and his expression said:

"Anything wrong?"

He glanced back over his shoulder to Lucille's door, as if to intimate that his own charge was, at all events, safe; then he passed me, and pressed his inquiring nose to the threshold of the Vicomte's study door. He was a singular little dog, with a deep sense of responsibility, which he only laid aside in Lucille's presence. In which he resembled his betters. Men are usually at ease of mind in the presence of one woman only. At night I often heard him blowing the dust from his nostrils at the threshold of my door, whither he came to satisfy himself that I was in my room and all well in the house before he sought his own mat.

When I went softly to my bedroom he was still sniffing at the study door.

I must have slept a couple of hours only when my door handle was quietly turned, and, being a light sleeper, I became aware of a presence in the room before a touch was laid upon my shoulder. It was Madame de Clericy.

"Where is my husband?" she asked, and added: "I thought he was sitting up with you."

"No; I have been alone all the evening," answered I, with a quick feeling of uneasiness.

"I do not think that he is in the house at all," said Madame, moving towards the door. "Will you get up and dress? You will find me in the morning-room."

Lighting my candle, this woman of few words left me. The dawn was creeping up over the opposite roof and through the open window; the freshness of the March air made me shiver as I hurried into my clothes. In the morning-room I found Madame de Clericy.

"Mother," Lucille had once said to me, "always rises to the occasion, but the process is not visible."

"Come quietly," said Madame, speaking, as indeed was her habit in regard to myself, with a certain kindness and sympathy---"come quietly; for Lucille is asleep. I have been to see."

She took it for granted that she and I should consider Lucille before all else, and the assumption gave me pleasure. Although she said "Come," she stood aside and allowed me to lead the way. We naturally went first to the study. The door was locked. At the entrance from my own room we were again met by bars.

"Can you break it open?" asked Madame.

"Not without noise. Let us make sure that he is not elsewhere in the house first."

Together we went up and down the old dwelling, and I traversed many corridors and chambers for the first time. We found nothing. It was beginning to get light when we returned to my study.

"Shall I break open the door?" I asked, when I had unbarred the shutters.

"Yes," answered Madame.

The door was a solid one of walnut, and not to be broken open by mere pressure. While I was moving some of the chairs in order to give myself a run, Lucille came into the room. She had hurried on a dressing-gown and her hair was all down her back, but she was much too simple-minded to think that such things mattered at such a moment.

"What is it?" she cried. "What are you doing?"

Madame explained, and the two stood hand in hand while I made ready to burst in upon the mystery that lay behind that closed door.

I took a run, and brought my shoulder to bear just above the lock, wrenching the four screws out of the wood by the force of the blow. I staggered into the dark passage beyond, with a sore shoulder and my heart in my mouth. Madame and Lucille followed. I tried the handle of the door leading from the passage to the Vicomte's study. The key had not been turned.

"I will go in alone," I said, laying a hand on Madame's arm, who gave me a candle and made no attempt to follow me.

After all, the precaution was unnecessary, for the room was empty.

"You may come," I said; and the ladies stood in the dimly lighted chamber. None of us had entered there since the Baron Giraud had come to occupy it in his coffin. The dust was thick on the writing-table. Some flowers, broken from the complimentary wreaths, lay on the floor. The air was heavy. I kicked the withered lilies towards the fireplace, and looked carefully round the room. The furniture was all in order. Madame went to the window and threw it open. A river steamer, moving cautiously in the dawning light, cast its booming note over the housetops towards us. The frog in the fountain---a family friend---was croaking comfortably in the courtyard below us.

"Lucille, my child," said Madame, quietly, "go back to bed. Your father is not in the house. It will explain itself to-morrow."

But the face that Madame turned towards me, when her daughter had reluctantly left us, was not one that looked for a pleasant solution to the mystery. It is said that wherever a man may be cast he makes a little world around him. But it seemed rather that for me a world of hope and fear and interest and suspense was forming itself, despite me, encompassing me about so that I could not escape it.

"I will go out," I said to Madame, and left her abruptly. I had no plan or intention---for where could I seek the Vicomte at that hour---but a great desire came over me to get away from this gloomy house, where trouble seemed to move and live.

The streets were empty. I walked slowly to the quai, and then, turning to the left, approached the palace of the D'Orsays, which stood then, though to-day, in a fine irony, the broken walls alone remain, amid the new glory of republican Paris. I knew I was going in the wrong direction, and at length, with a queer feeling of shame, turned and crossed to the Isle St. Louis.

Of course, the Vicomte had not done away with himself! The idea was absurd. Aged men do not lay violent hands upon themselves. It was different for Pawle, a friend of mine, who had shot himself as he descended the club stairs, a ruined man. Nevertheless, I walked instinctively towards the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and past that building to the little square house---like a roadside railway station---where Paris keeps her nameless dead.

Half guiltily I went in at one door and out by the other. Two men lay on the slates---the lowest of the low---and even the sanctifying hand of death could not allay the conviction that the world must necessarily be the richer for their removal from it. I came away and walked towards the river again. Standing on one of the bridges, I never knew which, I looked down at the slow green water. As I stood a municipal guard passed me with a suspicious glance. The clocks of the city struck six in a solemn jangle of tones. The boats were moving on the river---the great unwieldy barges as big as a ship. The streets were now astir. Paris seemed huge and as populous as an ant-hill. I felt the hopelessness of seeking unaided one who purposely hid himself in its streets.

I went back to the Morgue and made some inquiries of the attendant there. Nay, I did more---for why should a man be coward enough to shut his eyes to patent fact?---I gave my name and address to the courteous official and asked him to send for me should any news come his way. It was plain enough that the Vicomte de Clericy had of late been in such a state of mind that the worst fears must needs be kept in view.

I went back to the Faubourg St. Germain and crept quietly into the house of my patron by the side door, of which he himself had given me the key. Despite my noiseless tread, Madame was waiting for me at the head of the stairs.

"Nothing?" she asked.

"Nothing," replied I, and avoided her persistent eyes. To share an unspoken fear is akin to the knowledge of a common crime.

At nine o'clock I sought John Turner in his apartment in the Avenue D'Antan, almost within a stone's throw of the British Embassy. There are some to whom one naturally turns in time of trouble and perplexity, while the existence of others who are equally important in their own estimation is at such moments forgotten. Our fellows seem to move around us in a circle---some step out of the rank and touch us as they pass---one, if it please God, comes out and stands beside us. John Turner had, I suppose, touched me in passing. He was at breakfast when I was shown into his presence.

"You are looking fresh and well," he said, in his abrupt way, "so I suppose you are engaged in some mischief."

"Not exactly. But what I began in play is continuing in earnest."

"Yes," he said, looking at me with his easy smile while he dropped a piece of sugar into his coffee-cup. "Yes; young men are fond of walking into streams without ascertaining the depth on the farther side."

"I suppose you were young yourself once?" retorted I, bringing forward a chair.

"Yes---but I was always fat. Women always laughed at me behind my back. And, with a woman half the fun is to let you know her intention as she passes. I returned the compliment in my sleeve."

"I do not see what women have to do in this matter," said I.

"No---but I do. How is Mademoiselle this morning? Sit down; have a cup of coffee, and tell me all about her."

I sat down, and related to him the events of the past night. Turner's face was grave enough when I had finished, and I saw him note with some surprise that he had allowed his coffee to get cold.

"I don't like the sound of it," he said. "One never knows with a Frenchman---he is never too old to talk of his mother, or make an ass of himself."

The English banker was of the greatest assistance to me during that most anxious day. But we found no clew, nor discovered any reason for the Vicomte's disappearance. I went back in the evening to the Hôtel Clericy, and there found Madame de Clericy and Lucille awaiting me, with that calmness which is admirable when there is nothing else but waiting to be done.

It was at eight o'clock in the evening that the explanation came, from a source as natural as it was unexpected. A letter was delivered by the postman for Madame de Clericy, who at once recognized her husband's unsteady handwriting. She crossed the room, and stood beside me while she opened the envelope. Lucille, seeing the action, frowned, as I thought. I was still under displeasure---still learning that the better sort of woman will not forgive deception so long as she herself is its motive, as cheap cynics would have us believe.

Madame read the letter with that self-repression which was habitual to her, and made me ever wonder what her youth had been. Lucille and I watched her in silence.

"There," she said, and gave me the letter to pass to Lucille, who received it from my hand without taking her eyes from her mother's face. Then I quitted the room, leaving the two women alone. Madame followed me presently to the study, and there gave me the Vicomte's last letter to read. It was short and breathed of affection.

"Do not seek for me," it ran. "I cannot bear my great misfortunes, and the world will, perhaps, be less cruel to two women who have no protector."

Madame handed me the envelope, which bore the Passy postmark, and I read her thoughts easily enough.

I saw John Turner again that evening, also Alphonse Giraud, who had called at the Hôtel Clericy during the day. With these gentlemen I set off the next morning for Passy, taking passage in one of those little river steamers which we had all seen a thousand times, without thinking of a nearer acquaintance.

"This is gay," cried Alphonse, on whom the sunshine had always an enlivening effect, as we sped along. "This is what you call sport---n'est ce pas? For you are a maritime race, is it not so, Howard?"

"Yes," answered I, "we are a maritime race."

"And figure to yourself this is the first time that I am afloat on anything larger than a ferry-boat."

During our short trip Alphonse fully decided that if his fortune should be recovered he would buy a yacht.

"Do you think you can recover it?" he asked quite wistfully, his mind full of this new scheme, and oblivious to the mournful object of our journey.

At Passy we were received with shrugging shoulders and outspread hands.

No, such an old gentleman had not been seen—but the river was large and deep. If one wanted---mon Dieu!---one could do such a thing easily enough. To drag the river---yes---but that cost money. Ten francs a day for each man. It was hard work out there in the stream. And if one found something---name of a dog---it turned on the stomach.

We arranged that two men should drag the river, and, after a weary day, went back to Paris no wiser than we came.

In this suspense a week passed, while I, unwilling to touch my patron's papers until we had certain news of his death, could render little assistance to Madame de Clericy and Lucille. That the latter resented anything in the nature of advice or suggestion was soon made clear enough to me. Nay! she left no doubt of her distrust, and showed this feeling whenever we exchanged words.

"It is a small thing upon which to condemn a man, Mademoiselle," I said to her one morning when chance left us together. "I told you what I thought to be the truth. Fate ruled that I was after all a poor man---but I have not been proved a liar."

"I do not understand you," she answered, with hard eyes. "You are such a strange mixture of good and bad."

An hour afterwards I received a telegram advising me that the body of the Vicomte de Clericy had been found in the river at Passy.

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