A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XXV
A grave scandal was agitating the never very placid surface of Parisian society, and causing an immense sensation in the French metropolis. Men of high standing were involved, and names that had hitherto stood in lofty superiority, were mentioned in connection with one of the most disgraceful revelations that Paris had known in many years. The newspapers might possibly have ignored the affair as much as possible on account of the nauseating nature of the details, but this course could not be pursued. The names of the malefactors were too well known and too prominent. The people demanded that the details be made public, and when the reputable journals maintained a silence upon the matter, they transferred their allegiance to one or two disreputable papers that dealt with scandal without gloves. It was evident that the case must be ventilated, and bowing to the inevitable, each journal took it up. Everybody knows that the French papers are none too nice, so it will be readily understood that happenings bad enough for them to endeavor to suppress must indeed have been bad.
The London papers devoted a great deal of space to the scandal; in fact they seemed to gloat over it, and when it was subsequently hinted that the contagion had spread to the English metropolis, Londoners grew more and more interested each day.
“We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” says Macaulay. “In general, elopements, divorces, and family quarrels pass with little notice. We read the scandal, talk about it for a day, and forget it. But once in six or seven years, our virtue becomes outrageous.”
It seemed as though this “once in six or seven years” had come.
I was in London at the time of which I write, brought from the seclusion into which I had withdrawn, by business connected prosaically with my financial affairs, and requiring my presence. For two years I had been trying to live down the memory of the events that had wrecked my life. I had not seen my husband since the night I had left him to go to the opera. We were still bound by the ties of matrimony. My friends had suggested divorce, but I dreaded the publicity of the courts, and, after all, why should I suffer it? The tie that bound me was not irksome, since he, to whom I was bound, left me to my own resources.
One afternoon, shortly after my arrival in London, I picked up the Daily Telegraph, more in idleness than in curiosity. Of course I had heard about the scandal which seemed to be dragging London and Paris into a cesspool of vice. The journal in question was particularly sensational on the day in question. In spite of myself, I was compelled to read. I had not gone far, before I was startled into painful interest. One of the ringleaders of the evil-doers had been arrested at Newhaven, where he had just landed from Dieppe and Paris. He had made a full confession, and the London police had seized upon it with avidity. He declared that there were many Londoners in Paris at the present time, who wore deeply involved in the matter. The principal of these, he said, was a man who was passing under the assumed name of Delacroix. He was an Englishman whose real name was Dillington.
I uttered a cry as this name, fraught with such bitter recollections for me, was thus brought to my attention. For two years, I had neither heard nor seen it, and now, in cold type, it stood before me. I could not doubt that the Dillington mentioned, was the one who had been instrumental in destroying my happiness. The article went on to say that he was staying at present at a little hostelry known as the Hotel Vaupin, in the Rue Geoffroy-Marie.
I rose with an impulse of overwhelming force upon me. Dillington at the Hotel Vaupin; my husband must be there too. Yes, he was still my husband in the eyes of God and man, and he must be saved while there was yet time. The thought of his danger swept away for the moment all memories of the bitter wrongs I had suffered at his hands. They faded from my mind as though they had not existed. I saw him only as he was that night when he had asked me why I need leave him, and I, impelled by a fatal feminine coquetry, had rushed away, leaving his passionate question unanswered. Perhaps I might have saved him then if—no, it would not bear thinking about. I would go to his assistance at once, flinging all conventionalities to the winds.
I hastily packed a small valise, ordered a hansom, and one hour after I had become acquainted with the Telegraph article, I was on my way to the Charing Cross Station. I was not afraid of meeting anybody, as I had been on a former journey, also taken in the interests of my miserable marriage. I did not care who saw me, and yet, as though to contradict this mental avowal, I gave a sigh of relief as I found the railway carriage, which took me to Folkestone, unoccupied.
I arrived in Paris early the following morning, before the sleepy officials at the Gare du Nord, seemed to have shaken off their slumbers. I had no time to think of putting up at any hotel; speed was a question of life and death with me; so summoning a fiacre, I had my valise put inside, and told the driver to take me to the Hotel Vaupin. He had never heard of it, he said. I started, surprised that a man like Captain Dillington, whose ideas I had always thought were of the most extravagant, could be found at an hotel unknown to a station cab driver. I told the man that the Vaupin was in the Rue Geoffroy Marie, and then it was his turn to stare. I urged him to hurry, and he did so, seemingly under protest. Down the interminable Rue de Lafayette we went. It had just begun its day’s life, and the last of the chiffoniers was seen vanishing as though he could not stand the glare of the morning. Soon we turned into the Rue de Trevise; then, crossing the Rue Richer, we entered the Rue Geoffroy-Marie.
It is a narrow, dirty little street, in the centre of the commerce of Paris. The Hotel Vaupin had a conspicuous gilt sign in front of it; the driver drew up, and opening the door of the carriage, assisted me to alight. I told him to wait for me, as I had no idea of remaining in the semi-squalor of this locality very long. He eyed me suspiciously, and said he would wait, but he would like to be paid for the trip we had already made. Angry, even at this delay, I paid him, and passed at once into the hotel.
The proprietor was a big, burly, flaxen-haired fellow, phlegmatic, yet still a Frenchman. He came to the door to meet me. I hesitated for a moment, and then asked:
“Is M. Delacroix in?”
He looked at me keenly, and did not answer at once. "Does Madame not know?” he asked, haltingly.
“Know what?” I demanded, with a sinking heart.
“M. Delacroix was arrested this morning,” said the proprietor, "at my hotel, too—alas! that I should tell it. He is charged with being involved in these—in these scandals, and—”
He went on in an affably recitative manner, hut I heard no more. What a fool I had been to imagine that the French authorities would ignore the confession that I had read in the Telegraph. They had acted upon it at once. It had probably been known to them before the Telegraph had gone to press.
“Was M. Delacroix alone at this hotel?” I asked breathlessly. The proprietor seemed to be taken aback at my excitement—for a moment only, however.
“M. Delacroix came to this house some weeks ago,” he said. “He was accompanied by a young gentleman, un charmant garçon, who occupied a room adjoining his, and—”
“Go on,” I cried, frantically.
“He is still here.”
“Ah!” This exclamation escaped me; I could not help giving it utterance. “I will go up to his room,” I said, trying to quiet my throbbing pulses. I felt that I could not move. Now that I knew Arthur was here, I hated to see him; to confess, by this interview, that I understood his unhappy life. I made a mighty effort, however, and was ready, when the proprietor told me that the apartment was the first room to the right, on the second floor, to seek it.
I slowly ascended the uneven, miserably carpeted staircase. Not a soul did I meet. If there were any other occupants than Arthur in the hotel, they kept themselves out of sight. I stopped in front of room No. 18. It was the first to the right on the second floor. I knocked at the door, hut received no answer. I listened, but nobody seemed to be behind the thin, cracked door to which a lock and key offered but slight security. I repeated my knocks without the least success, and, at last, I retraced my steps, found the proprietor, and told him that he must be mistaken; that the young Englishman must be out.
“No, he is not out,” said the man vigorously.
“I have stood here all day. I wished to warn him,” hesitatingly, “for—for I liked him. He has not left his room. I can swear to that. Come with me; I think I can make him hear.”
Oppressed by the awful character of the events in which I seemed myself to be involved, I followed him, and again ascended the creaking staircase. The proprietor’s emphatic knock was as unsuccessful as mine. He waited for a minute or two, and then opening the door of the room next to No. 18, which he told me had been occupied by M. Delacroix, he entered that apartment He tried a door inside, connecting the two rooms. It was locked.
There was a strange look upon his face as he came out. “I will break open the door,” he said. The task was not a hard one. An application of his big shoulder to the frail portal; a not very powerful push, and the lock gave way. We stood inside the room. It was darkened. The proprietor went to the window and drew up the shabby blinds. As much light as the close proximity of another house would allow struggled into the room. It was in complete disorder. The bed had not been slept in. The floor was littered with books, newspapers and clothes.
I turned, and in an old chintz-covered armchair by the fire-place, saw my husband. His face was white, his head was bent slightly forward. He looked as though he had fallen asleep in an uncomfortable position.
“Arthur,” I cried, springing forward with a loud cry; but the proprietor, who had been standing by the chair for a minute, came forward and pulled me towards the door.
“He is dead,” he said simply.
In a dazed way I walked up to the chair and coldly glanced at the face, which, white and expressionless, looked to me unlike that which I had known as my husband’s. The proprietor quietly went from the room and left me alone with Arthur. On the mantel-piece my staring eyes saw a small bottle, on which a label marked “laudanum” stood out with fearful clearness. Then I realized it all. With an agonized cry I flung myself into the unresisting arms of my husband. I kissed his cold, dead lips, his face, and the open, unseeing eyes, as I would have kissed him in life, had he willed it so. Ah! he could not ward me off now. He was mine, and I would cherish him forever.
Suddenly I sprang back, a horrible feeling of repulsion creeping over me. Just above Arthur’s head, on the wall, I saw two portraits, placed together in a single frame. One represented my husband, happy and smiling; the other showed the hateful features of Captain Dillington. My grief gave place to a violent, overpowering sense of anger. Tearing the frame from the wall, I threw it roughly to the floor. The glass broke with a crisp, short noise; but with my feet I crushed it into atoms. Then stooping down, I picked up the photographs, and tore them into smallest pieces. In the same frenzied manner, I went to the window, opened it, and gathering up the bits of glass—regardless of the fact that they cut my hands until the blood flowed freely—I flung them with the torn photographs from the window, and looked from it until I saw them scatter in all directions. Then turning away, and without another look at the dead form in the chair, I left the room and the hotel.