A Game of Desperation
A GAME OF DESPERATION
BY ANNE WARNER
ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN CECIL CLAY
CADWALLADER leaned far back in his chair, tilting the foot that he was nursing idly to and fro. As he tilted his foot idly, so he twisted his moustache idly—the whole while he looked idly on at the fervent hurry of Botolph's dressing.
Botolph was feverishly anxious to be through and away. His uncle smiled. Once he had known what it was to be anxious and in a hurry, but now—well!—never now. Never now and never again.
Botolph was a handsome boy—it ran in the blood to be handsome. Cadwallader had been a handsome boy himself—some twenty years ago. He had no ill-feeling towards Fate for having dealt him twenty years more than Botolph—he knew with a curious smiling little twist in the left corner of his right eyebrow, that Fate had not been so awfully cruel in what she had altered during those years. A black mustache with a glint of gray, some fine deep lines about the eyes and lips, an ironical gayety, a charming savoir-faire, abandon, laisser aller—well, let Botolph pray for an equally good collection of French words when he should come to be forty—that was all that his uncle wished him.
"D——n it, I shall never be ready!" It was a cry of woe, as the dresser searched in a drawer of gloves and found no pair of delicate pearl gray—only two for the same hand.
Just then the bell rang.
"I'll go," said the uncle, ceasing to tilt his foot and rising slowly to a sense of friendliness in need. It was a boy with a note.
"Give it here!" Botolph exclaimed with a snatch. Then he groaned aloud.
"It's from ——; she'll want something of me, and I haven't a minute to-night."
"Anything I can do, old chap?" The uncle's voice was most impartially calm.
"Oh, if it were only white to turn it over to you!" wailed the boy, laying the note on the chiffonier and searching distractedly for his gloves. "You don't understand, though. It's Mrs. Covert; she's divorced, or married, or something unpleasant. Anyway, she thinks a lot of me, and when she writes I—by George, here's one for the other hand at last."
"Shall you read the note before you go?" Cadwallader asked, remaining standing.
"Of course, I'll have to." He tore it open as he spoke. "It's such a tough case, uncle. You see, I'm so young I don't count, and she's grown to rather—turn—to—" The words died on his lips as his eyes began to follow the written lines.
"Oh, Scott, what shall I do now?" the unhappy youth next cried. "I'm sure I don't know what to do. She—"
"Can't you turn it over to me?" Cadwallader was still standing there beside him. "What's the difficulty?"
"She wants me to drop in about ten o'clock and interrupt whoever's there. I often do that for her. Her mother goes to bed, and they badger her so—" Botolph was now buttoning his gloves.
"Why couldn't I go?" asked the uncle.
"You don't know her," said Botolph, now from the closet, where he was seeking his opera cape, "and besides you're older than she is—she can't bear men older than she is—she—" He was dumb under stress of finding the clasp to the cape.
"I'll engage not to bother her!" said Cadwallader, concealing his amusement admirably. "I'll break up the tête-à-tête and promise to come away and leave her unscathed."
"It's quite a long letter," said Botolph, snapping an opera-hat out to be sure that that particular one worked. "I haven't time to read it all." It was plain to be seen that the flesh was weakening fast. "Of course, I couldn't get away at ten o'clock."
"I'll read the letter," the uncle declared imperturbably. "Of course, no one would expect you to be able to get away at ten o'clock."
"That's her picture in on the easel," said the nephew' "the one that you asked me if it was any one I knew, and I said no. I do hope I'm not doing anything but what's decent."
"Certainly you're not."
"You're sure so?"
"It'll be so good of you, uncle."
"Don't speak of it."
"The address is on the top of the letter."
Botolph was gone! Laurence Cadwallader went to the dresser, took up the letter, returned to the chair which he had vacated five minutes before, and began to read:
"Do you know, my dear boy, I am on the verge of insanity! He is absolutely driving me mad. I begin to fear that it is my Nirvana, or Kama, or Juggernaut Car, and that he is it. Wherever I go I meet him, and when we don't meet by accident, he comes to the house. I have refused him four times, and he doesn't mind a bit. People arc beginning to talk. I am so unhappy. I am so sick of men. And they won't believe it. I am so tired of being made love to, and they won't stop. When I cry they think I do it to lead them on. When I say I never will marry again, it brightens them up and seems positively to spur them on to renewed efforts. I am in a fearful mess to-night. Mamma is ill, and I am sure that he is coming. He always seems to divine when Mamma is ill. I have told Clinton to attend to the fire frequently, but I almost feel sure that he has bribed Clinton, for sometimes he stays out a whole half-hour at a time. You don't know what it is to be alone a whole half-hour at a time with him. I get so blue over having made him so wretched, and so wild over the way he puts in his glass, and so nervous for fear he will ask me to marry him again!
"Oh, can't you come in at ten o'clock and break up the meeting? Come breezily in and kiss me. That will make him see stars, for he's awfully jealous, and maybe he'll go. There is no harm in your kissing me—I could have been your mother if we'd all been Chinese and I'd married young. Do, for pity's sake, come! I tell you I am being driven mad. You are a dear, and I count on you to save me. Don't ask if I'm in, for I'm almost sure that he's bribed Clinton—he coughs before he comes in, just as if he'd been bribed. Don't you consider it awfully low down to bribe my servants to cough in my own house? You don't think he could be bribing Mamma to be ill, too, do you? She has been ill so much lately. Oh, dear, I am getting suspicious of every one. But I trust you. Don't fail me.
"This is a mere line, but I'm always so rushed, you know. Yours,
"P. S.—If Clinton says I am out, say you'll wait. I shan't be out. I am quite positive that he has bribed Clinton. It would be just like him—a man that won't take four no's for one answer.
"You will come—won't you?
"P. P. S.—I am trusting you to come."
Cadwallader felt his moustache to be slipping from his control. There was something irresistibly amusing to him in the epistle, and in the notion of any woman in distress feeling that Botolph had within him the stuff for a rescue. The boy had gone so gaily, callously forth—he—
Cadwallader had strolled into the parlor just here and was staring hard at the picture on the easel. The young villain, to say that it was no one he knew! The uncle felt that he had been most unrighteously deceived. The longer he looked the more vexed at Botolph he grew, for the picture was that of an uncommonly pretty and attractive woman. Perhaps she was twenty-five, perhaps she was thirty, perhaps she was thirty-five—anyhow, the foolish boy in whom she had so blindly trusted had basely deserted her trust, had gladly deserted it, had gone off to the opera, and left the task to him—Cadwallader.
He walked slowly back to the sleeping room as he reflected on the situation, and the latent fires of chivalry and some other fires stirred within him. He had not come to forty with his eyes, and his moustache, and all those fine French words quoted above, without having won out in many a contest where desperation fought hard with determination, and the gender of each noun swayed now this way and now that. As he leisurely noted down the address of the letter, and then with an equal leisure divested himself of his velvet house-coat, he felt all sorts of pleasant thrills of confidence in himself. He drew alternately on either side of his moustache before the mirror, noted the splendid square angle of chin and collar, smiled a little into two well-pleased eyes that smiled back, sought street-gear and began to prepare for the fray.
It was just one hour later that a cab deposited this champion of one woman in distress at Mrs. Theron's door. The house was large and imposing, and appearing very dark from the outside. If the drawing-rooms were lighted, the stuff of which their curtains were made was uncommonly good stuff and most snugly adjusted on either side. The clocks were just striking ten as Cadwallader mounted the steps. He felt a certain secret satisfaction over being so exactly on time as he pressed the bell. What an introduction it would be—his few laughing words as to being a poor apology for his nephew's unavoidable absence. His gloved hand strayed to his moustache once more as he thought of it.
It was a great while before the door opened, so great a while that he was just about to ring again when a rattle of the knob stayed his intention. The next instant a form that he felt positive to be that of the rascally Clinton stood before him, and in the rascal's face he saw amazement slowly overspreading composure.
"Mrs. Theron expects me," said Cadwallader authoritatively, and presented his card as he spoke.
"Askin' yer pardon, sir, Mrs. Theron's hout."
"It's not necessary to say that," he declared; "Mrs. Theron is expecting me at ten o'clock."
The man looked thoroughly startled, and while he hesitated Cadwallader entered the hall.
"My horders was—" began the servant then, but the caller was giving him his coat and hat, and saying:
"There, there, my good fellow. Mrs. Theron wrote a note—"
"But my horders—" began the servant again. However, Cadwallader was well on his way upstairs, reflecting as he went on the vast advantage of savoir-faire, abandon, laisser aller, since here he was, a stranger, entering a lady's drawing-room unannounced, and not in the least uncertain as to what sort of a welcome he should forthwith win for himself.
There were two curtained arches at the bead of the staircase, and some slight sound drew the visitor to enter that which led to the rear room. He parted the draperies and entered, but the room was so large, and the furniture and screens and plants so curiously interspersed and intermingled, that at first he could not see the lay of this new species of land at all.
But again a sound guided him, and he went boldly forward, passed between a palm and a brazier, encircled a sort of fountain of electrically lighted crystal, skirted the edge of a long standard of tattered pennants, and came all of a sudden into the complete light.
Into the complete light in more senses than one.
Before the fire stood a man and a woman. The man was a head the taller and had a clean-cut English face, gray eyes, straight brow, and an aquiline nose. Cadwallader had no way of knowing what his mouth was like, for the very good reason that it was pressed against his companion's, she being securely encircled by his arms and apparently very well content with her situation.
Then the man saw the intruder.
"My word, Kitty!" he said, with a slight start, and Mrs. Theron, turning and seeing Cadwallader, gave a real shriek and cried:
"Why!—it isn't any one I know! And I told Clinton not to let any one in, even if I did know them!"
Cadwallader never knew how he got out of the house, but he got out somehow, and the next day he left town while his promising nephew was still asleep.
Later, Botolph, without making any comment, forwarded him this note:
"You Dear Boy:
"It was so lucky that you did not come, after all. Because the fifth time I accepted him, and it would have been too annoying to have been interrupted. We were a little interrupted, anyway, by a man that Clinton thinks thought we were the next house. It was very awkward, but, of course, we were engaged, so he might have expected it.
"I want you to come to see me, but be sure that you let me know first, for Clinton has the strictest sort of orders now, and I fully intend to discharge him if he makes another blunder. I have suffered so much at his hands that I am really quite out of patience.
"I am so desperately in love that it's altogether beyond belief. I cannot see how I ever refused him four times. To think it was Fate all along! You know I always said so. I fear I am becoming quite a Buddha. I always did like cashmere shawls—they make up into such lovely tea-gowns. But, dear me, you are too young to care about that sort of serious views yet, and, beside, we are going out to drive, and I only have ten minutes for this and my hat. That is why this is only a line. Don't forget to come and see me. Don't forget to let me know first. Don't think it will do to say that you are expected, for Clinton has strict orders not to let in any more people that I expect until long after we are married. Yours, as usual,
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.