By EDGAR WALLACE
THE beauty of Monte Carlo has no exact parallel, unless it be the beauty of the Cape Peninsula in the early spring.
The Marquis of Pelborough had never dreamt of such loveliness as he saw from his bedroom window at the Hôtel de Paris.
The days were sunny, and cool breezes tempered the heat of May. The season was over; many of the villas that dotted the hillside were tenantless, and the more fashionable of the restaurants were shut. Nevertheless, though a few tables had been closed, the Casino was largely patronised, and Chick had been a fascinated spectator of play in which thousands of pounds had changed hands with every turn of the cards.
Gwenda was "resting"; a sore throat and a mild attack of influenza, which had given Chick the first clear understanding of what she meant to him, had compelled her to stop work. The hint which the doctor had thrown out about a more equable climate than that of Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, had been seized upon by Chick
"Like where, doctor?" he asked.
"Oh—er—the South of France, or Torquay," said the man of medicines, who invariably offered these alternatives and left his patients to choose that which was most convenient to their pockets.
Gwenda was all for Torquay; Mrs. Phibbs, who had never been farther abroad than Brussels, supported her as in duty bound, and prayed that Chick would not assent. He neither agreed nor disagreed. One evening he came into the flat and laid a bulging pocket-case on the table.
"I have arranged the passports and the tickets for Monte Carlo," he said masterfully. "The sleeping berths are reserved from Calais, and we leave on Sunday morning."
Gwenda was too weak to argue.
Illness is a great disturber of sleeping routine. Gwenda had dozed through the days and had spent many wakeful and thoughtful hours in the night.
She had been weak with Chick, postponing the inevitable parting from sheer selfishness, she thought. Chick could stand alone now. Was there any time when he could not? Her mind went back to the days when they were fellow-sufferers at a Brockley boarding-house, she an out-of-work actress, he an insurance clerk without the faintest idea that his uncle's petitions to Parliament, that the ancient Marquisate of Pelborough should be revived, would be granted. And then suddenly the title had been revived and inherited by Chick, and she had taken in hand the management of his life.
But had he ever been helpless? She shook her aching head. Chick was surprisingly efficient. She was deluding herself when she thought she was necessary to him, and the association must end. She was firm on that point. Chick was a comparatively rich man now, and it was absurd that he should share humble quarters with the two women who loved him.
Gwenda's brows puckered.
Mrs. Phibbs had been housekeeper, friend, and chaperon, and she adored Chick.
Gwenda loved him, too, but not as Mrs. Phibbs loved him. That lady's attitude was maternal; her interest in the young marquis was centred about his socks and underwear and the state of his digestion. But Gwenda loved him in another way. She deceived herself and yet saw through the deception. She accepted Chick's fait accompli meekly. It was a further excuse for postponing her decision.
She was enchanted with the glories of the Riviera, although she saw it when the spring sweetness of the coast had matured into the exotic glories with which the early summer endows the gardens and terraces of Monte Carlo.
To walk in the garden that faces the Casino, or to sit beneath the wide-spreading fronds of palms, watching the play of the water as the gardener drenched the thirsty ground with his huge hose, to stroll along the terraces facing the blue Mediterranean, or to sit in the cool of the hotel lounge with its luxurious inviting chairs—these experiences were sheer delight. And Chick had hired a motor-car, and they had climbed the mountain road to La Turbie, and explored the ruins of the great tower which Augustus in his pride had caused to rise on the mountain crest.
Gwenda's health showed a remarkable improvement from the moment she arrived. Before a week had passed she felt better than she had ever felt in her life. And with her return to strength she took a more cheerful view of life, and there seemed no urgent necessity for having that talk with Chick.
"I'm going into the gambling place," said Chick one afternoon.
"You mean the Rooms, Chick," said Gwenda. "You mustn't say 'gambling' at Monte Carlo."
Chick scratched his head.
"There are so many things you mustn't do here, Gwenda," he said. "You mustn't wish a man good luck because it brings him bad luck, and you mustn't enter the gam—the Rooms, I mean, with the left foot, and if you spill wine at the table you must dab a little behind your ears. It sounds like superstition to me."
"It probably is," laughed Gwenda. "And, talking of superstition, I am going to put my money on No. 24, because it is my birthday!"
Chick was incoherent in his apologies.
"How could you know that it was my birthday?" she smiled, putting her cool palm over his mouth. "Don't be silly!" She had an exciting afternoon, for No. 24 turned up exactly twenty-four times in two hours.
"And I've won twenty-four thousand francs," she said triumphantly. "I'm a rich woman, Chick, and I'm going to pay you back all I have cost you on this trip."
Chick's refusal was almost painful in its frenzied vehemence.
For him it was a happy day. The chef at the Paris, who was surprised at nothing, received and executed an urgent order to manufacture a birthday cake, and the dinner was served in their private sitting-room.
The cake, surrounded by twenty-four bedroom candles—there were no others procurable at short notice—was a success beyond anticipation, and Chick's heart had been full of happiness and pride, when there had entered to the feast a most undesirable skeleton.
He was a plump, cherubic skeleton, and Chick, after his first feeling of resentment, felt heartily ashamed of himself, for he owed a great deal to the Earl of Mansar.
He was, at any rate, as much of a skeleton to Gwenda, but this Chick did not know. He had only arrived that afternoon, he explained.
"I heard you were dining en famille, and as I regard myself as one of you, I knew you wouldn't mind my coming in."
It pained Chick to say he was glad to see his visitor, but he said it.
"No, thank you," said Lord Mansar, in answer to Gwenda's invitation. "I have dined already. What is the occasion of this festivity? Not your birthday, Chick?"
"It is not my birthday," said Chick quietly, "but Mrs. Maynard's."
It was strange, he thought, how a nice man like Mansar could cast a gloom over his friends and rob a festivity of its seemingly inextinguishable gaiety. They had planned to spend the evening together, but the arrival of their guest left them no alternative but to repair to the inevitable Rooms.
Chick hated the way Mansar and the girl paired off, leaving him to entertain Mrs. Phibbs, which meant leaving him alone, for she had developed a passion for gambling in five-franc pieces. He left that imposing lady at the roulette table and wandered aimlessly into the cercle priv in the trail of Gwenda and her escort.
The rich interior of the private club has a soothing effect upon disturbed nerves, but it failed signally to inspire Chick. Mansar found a chair for the girl at the trente et quarante table, and Chick stood on the outskirts of the crowd, his hands thrust into his pockets, a look of settled gloom upon his face, watching the swift passage of money and counters, and admiring, so far as it was possible for him to admire anything, the amazing dexterity of the black-coated croupier who turned the cards.
He loafed into the refreshment room, ordered a large orangeade (nobody knows the exquisite value of orangeade until he has drunk it at Monte Carlo), and, sitting in an armchair, he allowed himself to brood. Of course he had no right whatever to object to Gwenda's friendship, he told himself, and least of all to her friendship with a man who had not spared himself in securing Chick's advancement.
What distressed him more than anything else was the fact that Gwenda was married, and it was not like Gwenda to encourage the attention of a third party. Chick had a very keen sense of propriety. He was fundamentally good, not in the cant sense in which the word is so often employed, but in the greater essentials. His standard of behaviour was a high one, and the blue of Right and the scarlet of Wrong never merged to produce an admirable violet in his mind. The longer he sat, the deeper grew his gloom, and presently, rising with a jerk, he went to the bar.
"Give me a cocktail, please," he said firmly. He had never done more than put his lips to wine in his life, and he had the illusion that the barman knew this.
But his request created no sensation. There was a great shaking of metal bottles, a dribbling of amber fluid into a long-stemmed glass, the plunge of a cherry, and—
"Five francs," said the bar-keeper.
Chick swallowed something and paid. He held the liquor up to the light, and it seemed good. He smelt it and appreciated its bouquet. He swallowed it down with one gulp and held on to the brass fender before the bar, incapable of speech. For a second he stopped breathing, and then the fire of the unaccustomed potion began to radiate.
"Another," said Chick, when he had got his breath. This time he sipped the alluring preparation and found it excellent. The sting had gone from the fiery liquor. It had a queerly soothing effect which it was difficult to analyse.
His ears felt hot. His face seemed to be burning. He could see his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, and outwardly there was no apparent change. He was surprised.
"That is a nice cocktail, sir," said the barman.
"Personally, I prefer Clover Club," said the friendly man, wiping down the counter mechanically.
"Is there any other kind of cocktail?" asked Chick, in astonishment.
"Good gracious, yes, sir—there are twenty!"
"What was the name of that one you said?"
"Clover Club, sir."
"Gimme one," said Chick breathlessly.
The new cocktail was of a delicate shade of clouded pink, and frothed whitely on the top. Chick decided that he would drink nothing but Clover Club cocktails in the future.
He leant against the bar, because it seemed easier than standing. It was remarkable how genial he felt toward Mansar, how large and generous was his view of his forthcoming marriage to Gwenda. He had decided that they would be married at a very early date, and chuckled at the thought. He knew that Gwenda had to get rid of her husband somehow or other, but he could not be bothered to dispose of that encumbrance in detail. He would just vanish. Pouf! Like that. Chick laughed at the smiling bar-tender.
"Something I thought about," he said.
"I don't think I should have any more cocktails, if I were you, sir," said the bar-tender. "The room is rather hot, and our cocktails are pretty strong."
"That's all right," said Chick.
He planked down a five-franc piece with unnecessary violence and walked steadily back to the Rooms, and the bar-keeper, looking after him, shook his head.
"He can carry it like a gentleman," he said admiringly.
Chick could walk so well that when he came up with Gwenda, who had left the table, she saw nothing wrong in his appearance. She was more than a little agitated, but Chick did not notice this. He noticed nothing except the eccentric movements of the tables, which, for some unknown reason, were swaying gently up and down as though they were floating upon a tempestuous ocean.
"Chick, I want to speak to you very importantly," said the girl.
She took his arm, and they walked out of the Casino together. Even when they were back in their sitting-room she noticed nothing.
"If Lord Mansar doesn't leave Monte Carlo to-morrow, can we go away, Chick?" she asked.
"Certainly, Gwenda," said Chick, looking at her solemnly.
"You see, Chick"—she was not looking at him—"Lord Mansar rather likes me and I like him; but I can't marry—you know that. And I wouldn't marry if I could. You know that, don't you, Chick?"
She raised her eyes to Chick, and he nodded.
"What is the matter, Chick?" she asked.
"Nothing," said Chick loudly.
"Chick," she said, aghast, "you've been drinking!"
"Cocktails!" said Chick impressively. "Clover Club. Not really drunk!"
"Why ever did you do it, Chick?" she wailed, tears in her eyes.
"Miserable," said Chick dolefully. "Very miserable, Gwenda. When you and Mansar get married—bless you!"
He rose, and the sure foundation of his legs held him erect.
"A very good fellow, Mansar," he said and walked carefully to the door.
Before he could open it Gwenda had reached him. She dropped her hands upon his shoulders.
"Look at me, Chick," she said. "Do you think I should marry Lord Mansar?"
"Very nice fellow," murmured Chick.
"Look at me, Chick. Hold up your head. Is that why you drank?"
"Cocktails are not drink," corrected Chick gravely.
She drew a long breath.
"Go to bed, Chick," she said gently. "I never thought I should be glad to see you like this, but I am."
The Marquis of Pelborough did not wake in the morning. He emerged from a condition of painful half-consciousness to a state of even more painful half-deadliness, and the half of him which was dead was the happier.
To say that his head ached would be to misdescribe his sensations. There was a tremendous ache where his head had been, and his eyelids seemed to creak when he opened them. Slowly and cautiously he rose to a sitting position. As he moved, his brain seemed to be a flag that was flapping in the breeze. He sat up and looked around. By the side of his bed was a large bottle of mineral water and a glass. There were also two large lemons which had been cut in half. Moreover, he discovered, when he had quenched his raging thirst and the acid bite of the lemon had restored his sense of taste, that his bath was filled with ice-cold water.
Chick dropped into the bath with a splash and a shiver, turned on the shower, and emerged a few minutes later feeling as near to normal as a thumping, thundering heart would allow him to be. He dressed slowly, facing a very unpleasant situation. He had been drunk. There was no euphemism for his experience. He faced the ghastly fact in the cold light of morning without any illusion whatever.
His first sensation was one of surprise that he had accomplished the feat at the cost of twenty francs. He always thought that drunkenness was most expensive. When he had recovered from his surprise, his mind went with a jerk to Gwenda, and he groaned. He remembered having come back to the hotel with her. Had she cut the lemons for him? He shuddered at the thought. It was six o'clock, and, save for the street cleaners, the serene swish of whose brooms came to him, Monte Carlo was a town of the dead. He stepped out on the balcony and filled his lungs with the fresh morning air.
What would Gwenda think of him? He remembered enough to know that he had not made a fool of himself, but it were better that he were the laughing-stock of Monte Carlo and of all the world than that he should have disappointed Gwenda. "Terrible," murmured Chick, "terrible!"
He shook his head, whence the pain had gone, leaving only a queer sawdust sensation.
A brisk walk toward Cap Martin and back almost completed his cure. Gwenda was at breakfast with Mrs. Phibbs when he went into the sitting-room, and she greeted him with her old smile.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, Gwenda——" he began, but she stopped him.
"It was the heat of the room," said Mrs. Phibbs.
Gwenda turned the conversation in the direction of sea-bathing, and Chick knew that her comments on his behaviour were merely deferred. They proved to be less severe than he had expected.
"I'll never drink again, Gwenda," he said ruefully, and she squeezed the arm that was in hers.
"Chick, this is a very favourable moment for a talk I want with you," she said, as she led the way down the sloping road toward the beach and the bathing huts. "When we get back to London you must set up an establishment of your own. No, no, it has nothing to do with what happened last night," she said, answering his unspoken question. "But, Chick, you can't go on living like this, with Mrs. Phibbs and me. You realise that yourself, don't you?"
"No," said Chick doggedly. "Of course if"—he hesitated—"if you are changing—I mean if you are——" He stopped, at a loss for the right words. "I mean, Gwenda," he said bluntly, "if you are setting up an establishment of your own—why, of course, I understand."
She shook her head.
"I'm not, Chick," she said quietly.
"Then I'm going to stay with you," said Chick, "until——"
"Until when?" she asked, when he paused.
"I don't know," said Chick, shaking his head. "I wish I could ask you lots of questions." He bit his lip, looking thoughtfully at the white road at his feet. "Gwenda, you never talk about your husband."
"No, Chick, I never shall," she answered, avoiding his eye.
"Is he nice, Gwenda?"
She made no reply.
"Do you like him?"
She put her arm in his and urged him forward.
"Wait a moment." Chick disengaged himself gently. "Does Lord Mansar know anything about him?"
"He asked the same questions as you, Chick," she said, "and I gave him the same reply. That is why he has gone home."
"Gosh!" said Chick, awe-stricken. "Did Lord Mansar—has he——"
"Did he want me to marry him, Chick? Yes, he did. And I told him I couldn't and wouldn't."
He gazed at her with his solemn eyes, and then:
"Have you any children, Gwenda?"
This was too much for the girl. Her sense of humour was not proof against a question which had been asked of her twice within twenty-four hours, and she burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Presently she dried her eyes.
"Have you?" he asked again.
"Six," she said solemnly.
"I don't believe you," said Chick.
He wanted to say something, and for once his will failed him. Twice in the course of their stroll he began with a husky—
"Gwenda, I——" only to be tongue-tied.
They sat on the sands and watched a big white yacht with all its main sheet and spinnaker billowing whitely, a dazzling object in the sunlight, and there was a silence between them which was unusual.
Presently Chick asked:
"Gwenda, will you let me see your wedding ring?"
"Why do you want to see it, Chick?"
"I just want to see it," said Chick, with an assumption of carelessness.
8he slipped the golden circlet from her finger and put it in the palm of his hand. There was some writing engraved on the inside.
"May I?" he asked, and again she hesitated.
"Yes, Chick," she said.
The inscription was: "From T. L. M. to J. M."
The letters showed faintly, for the ring had been well worn, and Chick gave it back to her.
"What is your full name, Gwenda?" he asked, and thinking she had not heard him he repeated the question.
"Gwenda Dorothy Maynard," she said.
"But, Gwenda, your brother's name was Maynard, too."
She did not reply. Chick was breathing painfully. He found it almost impossible to keep the quiver from his voice when he spoke, and the nervous hands that played with the sand were trembling.
"Gwenda——" he began for the third time, but he could not say it.
He knew her secret. That was the thought that filled him with joy. Gwenda was not married! The ring was her mother's. And then he remembered that once she had said that a girl on the stage was in a stronger position if people thought she was married and had a man at her call.
He trod on air for the rest of the day, and his heart was singing gaily. And yet, when he tried to speak, his vocal chords seemed to become paralysed. The high confidence which brought him to the edge of confession deserted him basely and left him an abject, stammering fool.
The girl saw and understood. If she had not, she might have made it easier for Chick to loose the flow of his inhibited speech.
They were in the Rooms that night, Gwenda mildly punting in louis, Mrs. Phibbs, a determined female, flanked by two large columns of five-franc counters.
And then Chick had an inspiration. The course he had elected was a desperate one, but the situation was as desperate.
He drew the girl aside.
"Gwenda, will you go up to the sitting-room in half an hour. There is something I want you to know—it may shock you, Gwenda."
She nodded gravely and went back to the table. Chick waited to see whether she was watching him, and then stole stealthily into the refreshment room.
"Good evening, sir," said the barman.
"A Clover Club," hissed Chick, cutting short the pleasantries of the tender—"in fact, two Clover Clubs, please."
He swallowed them hastily, and they seemed to have no effect. He was dumbfounded. Had he so soon acquired the constitution of the seasoned drinker? He was on the point of ordering the third, when he experienced the beginnings of that genial glow and sat down to wait for its full effect. He walked past Gwenda, apparently not noticing her, strode over to the hotel and went up in the lift to his room. He was feeling good and as brave as a lion.
Chick's courage had never been called into question. He was a notorious glutton for punishment, but then Chick had never had the terrifying experience which now awaited him.
"Gwenda," he said, addressing a great dish of violets which occupied the centre of the table, "there is something I wish to ask you."
He felt so confident that he wished she would come in at that moment; but there were still ten minutes before the half-hour expired, and he must content himself with the violets.
"Gwenda," he said, "there is something I have been trying to tell you. I know you are not married, and I know that I am not the kind of fellow that you ought to marry."
This didn't seem quite right, and he started again.
"Gwenda, I've been trying to say something to you all day, and I'm sorry to say I've been compelled to drink two cocktails in order to work up my courage, so please don't let me kiss you!"
She was a long time coming, and he felt unaccountably tired. He strayed into his dark bedroom and lay on the bed.
"Gwenda," he murmured, "I know I'm a rascal to break my word … but, Gwenda …"
He woke up when the chambermaid brought the tea. She was so accustomed to meeting, in the course of her professional duties, gentlemen who were such sticklers for style that they went to bed in evening-dress, that she made no comment.
When Chick had changed and dressed, he went in to breakfast, and Gwenda's attitude was just a little distrait.
Chick drew out his chair and sat down.
"I broke my word to you last night, Gwenda," he said huskily. "I told you——"
"You told me that there was something you wanted me to know, and that it would shock me, Chick," she said, as she poured out his coffee. "Well, I know, and I'm shocked."
"What do you know, Gwenda?" he asked, startled.
"That you snore frightfully," said Gwenda coldly.
The silence that followed was chilling.
"I'm going home to-morrow," said the girl.
Chick wriggled in his chair.
"You broke your word to me about—about the bar," she said, with a catch in her voice.
"Did you see me?" he asked, conscience-stricken.
And she nodded.
"But—but why didn't you stop me?" he stammered.
She shot a glance at him that made Chick wither.
"I didn't dream it would make you sleep, you booby," she said scornfully.