The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 4
THE ARRIVAL OF A LADY OF QUALITY
ONE of the delights of dressing by our open windows at this season is to catch the aroma of Mignon’s roasting coffee. This morning it is particularly delicious. The dry smell of the soil that gave it birth is fast merging into that marvellous perfume which makes it immortal. The psychological moment is arriving; in common parlance it is just on the “burn”—another turn and the fire will have its revenge. But Mignon’s vigil has never ceased—into the air it goes, the soft breeze catching and cooling it, and then there pours out, flooding the garden, the flowers, and the roofs, its new aroma and with it its new life.And the memories it calls up—this pungent, fragrant, spicy perfume: memories of the cup I drank in that old posada outside the gate of Valencia and the girl who served it, and the matador who stood by the window and scowled; memories of my own toy copper coffee-pot, with its tiny blue cup and saucer which Luigi, my gondolier, brings and pours himself; memories of the thimblefuls in shallow china cups hardly bigger than an acorn shell, that Yusef, my dragoman, laid beside my easel in the patio of the Pigeon Mosque in Stamboul, when the priests forbade me to paint.
Yes!—a wonderful aroma this which our pretty, joyous Mignon is scattering broadcast over the court-yard, hastening every man’s toilette that he may get down the earlier where Leà is waiting for him with the big cups, the crescents, the pats of freshly churned butter, and the pitcher of milk boiling-hot from Pierre’s fire.
Another of the pleasures of the open window is being able to hear what goes on in the court-yard. To-day the ever-spontaneous and delightful Louis, as usual, is monopolizing all the talk, with Lemois and Mignon for audience, he having insisted on the open garden for his early cup, which the good Leà has brought, her scuffling sabots marking a track across the well-raked gravel. The conversation is at long range—Louis sitting immediately under my window and Lemois, within reach of the kitchen door at the other side of the court, busying himself with his larder spread out on a table.
“Monsieur Lemois! Oh, Monsieur Lemois!” Louis called; “will you be good enough to pay attention! What about eggs?—can I have a couple of soft-boiled?”
“Why, of course you can have eggs! Leà, tell Pierre to——”
“Yes, I know, but will it endanger the life of the chickens inside? After your sermon last night, and Herbert’s penguin yarn, I don’t intend that any living thing shall suffer because of my appetite—not if I can help it.”
Lemois shrugged his shoulders in laughter, and kept on with his work, painting a still-life picture on his table-top—a string of silver onions for high lights and a brace of pheasants with a background of green turnip-tops for darks. To see Lemois spread his marketing thus deliberately on his canvas of a kitchen table is a lesson in color and composition. You get, too, some idea as to why he was able to reproduce in real paint the “Bayeux” tapestry on the walls of the “Gallerie” and arrange the Marmouset as he has done.
My ear next became aware of a certain silence in the direction of the coffee-roaster which had ceased its rhythm—the coffee is roasted fresh every morning. I glanced out and discovered our Mignon standing erect beside her roaster with flushed cheeks and dancing eyes. Next I caught sight of young Gaston, his bronze, weather-beaten face turned toward the girl, his eyes roaming around the court-yard. In his sunburned hand he clutched a letter. He was evidently inquiring of Mignon as to whom he should give it.
“Who’s it for?” shouted Louis, who, as godfather to Mignon’s romance, had also been watching the little comedy in delight. “All private correspondence read by the cruel parent! I am the cruel parent—bring it over here! What!—not for me? Oh!—for the High-Muck-a-Muck.” The shout now came over his left shoulder. “Here’s a letter for you, High-Muck, from Marc, so this piscatorial Romeo announces. Shall I send it up?”
“No—open and read it,” I shouted back.
Louis slit the envelope with his thumb-nail and absorbed its contents.
“Well!—I’ll be— No, I won’t, but Marc ought. What do you think he’s been and gone and done, the idiot!”
“Give it up!”
“Invited a friend of his—a young—the Marquise de la Caux—to dine with us to-night. Says she’s the real thing and the most wonderful woman he knows. Doesn’t that make your hair curl up backward! He’s coming down with her in her motor—be here at seven precisely. A marquise! Well!—if that doesn’t take the cake! I’ll bet she’s Marc’s latest mash!”
Herbert put his head out of an adjoining window. “What’s the matter?”
“Matter! Why that lunatic Marc is going to bring a woman down to dinner—one of those fine things from St. Germain. She’s got a château above Buezval. Marc stayed there last night instead of showing up here.”
“Very glad of it, why not?” called Herbert, drawing in his head.
Lemois, who had heard the entire outbreak, nodded to himself as if in assent, looked at Gaston for a moment, and, without adding a word of any kind, disappeared in the kitchen. What he thought of it all nobody knew.
There was no doubt as to the seriousness of the impending catastrophe. Marc, in his enthusiasm, had lost all sense of propriety, and was about to introduce among us an element we had hitherto avoided. Indeed, one of the enticing comforts at the Inn was its entire freedom from petticoat government of any kind. A woman of quality, raised as she had been, would mean dress-coats and white ties for dinner and the restraint that comes with the mingling of the sexes, and we disliked both—that is, when on our outings.
By this time the news had penetrated to the other rooms, producing various comments. Herbert, with his head again out of the window, advanced the opinion that the hospitality of madame la marquise had been so overwhelming, and her beauty and charm so compelling, that Marc’s only way out was to introduce her among us. Louis kept his nose in the air. Brierley, from the opposite side of the court, indulged in a running fire of good-natured criticism in which Marc was described as the prize imbecile who needed a keeper. As for me, sitting on the window-sill watching the by-plays going on below—especially Louis, who demanded an immediate answer for Gaston—there was nothing left, of course, but a—“Why certainly, Louis, any friend of Marc’s will be most welcome, and say that we dine at seven.”
And yet before the day was over—so subtly does the feminine make its appeal—that despite our assumed disgust, each and every man of us had resolved to do his prettiest to make the distinguished lady’s visit a happy one. As a woman of the world she would, of course, overlook the crudities of our toilettes. And then, as we soon reasoned to ourselves, why shouldn’t our bachelor reunions be enlivened, at least for once, by a charming woman of twenty-five—Marc never bothered himself with any older—who would bring with her all the perfume, dash, and chic of the upper world and whose toilette in contrast with our own dull clothes would be all the more entrancing? This, now that we thought about it, was really the touch the Marmouset needed.
It was funny to see how everybody set to work without a word to his fellow. Herbert made a special raid through the garden and nipped off the choicest October roses—buds mostly—as befitted our guest. Louis, succumbing to the general expectancy, occupied himself in painting the menus on which Watteau cupids swinging from garlands were most pronounced. Brierley, pretending it was for himself, spent half the morning tuning up the spinet with a bed-key, in case this rarest of women could sing, or should want any one else to, while Lemois, with that same dry smile which his face always wears when his mind is occupied with something that amuses him, ordered Pierre to begin at once the preparation of his most famous dish, Poulet Vallée d’Auge, spending the rest of the morning in putting a final polish on his entire George III coffee service—something he never did except for persons, as he remarked, of “exceptional quality.”
Not to be outdone in courtesy I unhooked the great iron key of the wine-cellar from its nail in Pierre’s kitchen, and swinging back the old door on its rusty hinges, drew from among the cobwebs a bottle of Chablis, our heavier Burgundies being, of course, too heating for so dainty a creature. This I carried in my own hands to the Marmouset, preserving its long-time horizontal so as not to arouse a grain of the sediment of years, tucking it at last into a crib of a basket for a short nap, only to be again awakened when my lady’s glass was ready.
When the glad hour arrived and we were drawn up to receive her—every man in his best outfit—best he had—with a rosebud in his button-hole—and she emerged from the darkness and stood in the light of the overhead candles—long, lank Marc bowing and scraping at her side, there escaped from each one of us, all but Lemois, a half-smothered groan which sounded like a faint wail.
What we saw was not a paragon of delicate beauty, nor a vision of surpassing loveliness, but a parallelogram stood up on end, fifty or more years of age, one unbroken perpendicular line from her shoulders to her feet—or rather to a brown velvet, close-fitting skirt that reached to her shoe-tops—which were stout as a man’s and apparently as big. About her shoulders was a reefing jacket, also of brown velvet, fastened with big horn buttons; above this came a loose cherry-red scarf of finest silk in perfect harmony with the brown of the velvet; above this again was a head surmounted by a mass of fluffy, partly gray hair, parted on one side—as Rosa Bonheur wore hers. Then came two brilliant agate eyes, two ruddy cheeks, and a sunny, happy mouth filled with pearl-white teeth.
One smile—and it came with the radiance of a flashlight—and all misgivings vanished. There was no question of her charm, of her refinement, or of her birth. Neither was there any question as to her thorough knowledge of the world.
“I knew you were all down here for a good time,” she began in soft, low, musical tones, when the introductions were over, “and would understand if I came just as I was. I have been hunting all day—tramping the fields with my dogs—and I would not even stop to rearrange my hair. It was so good of you to let me come; and I love this room—its atmosphere is so well bred, and it is never so charming as when the firelight dances about it. Ah, Monsieur Lemois! I see some new things. Where did you get that duck of a sauce-boat?—and another Italian mirror! But then there is no use trying to keep up with you. My agent offered what I thought was three times its value for that bit of Satsuma, and I nearly broke my heart over it—and here it is! You really should be locked up as a public nuisance!”
We turned instinctively toward Lemois, remembering his queer, dry smile when he referred to her coming, but his only reply to her comment was a low bow to the woman of rank, with the customary commonplace, that all of his curios were at her disposal if she would permit him to send them to her, and with this left the room.
“And now where shall I sit?” she bubbled on. “Next to you, I hope, my dear Monsieur Herbert. You do not know me—never heard of me, perhaps—but I know all about you and the wonderful things you have accomplished. And you too, Monsieur Louis. I remember your first success as I do those of most of the young men who have won their medals for twenty years back. And you, Monsieur Brierley—and—can I say it?—Monsieur High-Muck”—and she nodded gayly at me. “And now you will all please give your imagination free rein. Try and remember that I am not a hideous old woman in corduroys and high boots, but a most delightful and bewitching demoiselle; and please remember, too, that I can wear a décolleté gown if I please, only I don’t please, and haven’t pleased for ten years or more.”
Her perfect poise and freedom from all conventionality put us at once at our ease, making us forget she had only been among us a few minutes.
“And how clever you are to have chosen this room for these delightful meetings, of which Monsieur Marc has told me,” she continued, her eyes wandering again over the several objects, while her personality completely dominated everything. “Nobody but Lemois would have brought them all together. What a genius he is! Think of his putting that wooden angel where its golden crown can become an aureole in the candle-light: he has done that since my last visit. And that other one—really the rarest thing he owns—in the dark corner by the fireplace. May I tell you about it before he comes back? It is of the fifteenth century, and is called the ‘Bella Nigra’—the Black Virgin. Look at it, all of you, while I hold the candle. You see the face is black, the legend running, ‘I am beautiful though black because the sun has looked at me so long.’ You notice, too, that she has neither arms nor legs—a symbol of nobility, showing she need neither work nor walk, and the triple crown means that she is Queen of Heaven, Earth, and Sea. Why he pokes her in a dark corner I cannot imagine, except that it is just like him to do the queerest things—and say them too. And yet, he is such a dear—and so funny! You cannot think what funny things he does and says until you watch him as I have. Why is it, Monsieur Brierley, that you have never put him into one of your books—you who write such charming stories of our coast? Only this summer something occurred which I laugh over every time I think of it. The Cabourg races were on and the court-yard outside was packed with people who had come for luncheon before the Prix Lagrange was run. They were making a good deal of noise—a thing the old gentleman hates, especially from loudly dressed women. I was at the next table, sheltered from the others, and was enjoying the curious spectacle—such people always interest me—when I noticed Monsieur Lemois rubbing his hands together, talking to himself, his eyes fixed on the group. I knew one of his storms was brewing, and was wondering what would happen, when I saw him start forward as another uproarious laugh escaped one of the most boisterous.
“‘Mademoiselle,’ he said in his softest and most courteous tone, hat in hand, bowing first to her and then to her male companions; ‘mademoiselle, I love to hear you laugh; I built this place for laughter, but when you laughed so very loud a moment ago my flowers were so ashamed they hung their heads,’ and then he kept on bowing, his hat still in his hand, his face calm, his manner scrupulously polite. Nobody was offended. They seemed to think it was some kind of a compliment; the rebuked woman even turned her head toward the big hydrangeas as if trying to find out how they really felt about it. Oh!—he is too delicious for words.”
And so it went on until before the dinner was over she had captured every man in the room—both by what she said and the way she said it—her eyes flashing like a revolving light, now dim, now brilliant with the thoughts behind them, her white teeth gleaming as she talked. Marc seemed beside himself with pride and happiness. “Never was there such a woman,” he was pouring into Herbert’s ear; “and you should see her pictures and her stables and her gun-room. Really the most extraordinary creature I have ever known! Does just as she pleases—a tramp one day and a duchess the next. And you should watch her at the head of her table in her château—then you will know what a real ‘Grande Dame’ is.”
While the others were crowding about her, Marc eager to anticipate her every wish in the way of cushions, footstools, and the like, I went to find Lemois, who was just outside, his hands laden with a tray of cordials.
“You know her then?”
“Oh, for years,” he whispered back. “I did not tell you, for I wanted to see your surprise and surrender. It is always the same story with her. She does not live here except for a month or so in the autumn, when the small villa on the bluff above Buezval—two miles from here—is opened; a little box of a place filled with costly bric-à-brac. Her great château—the one in which she really lives—is on an estate of some thousands of acres near Rouen, and is stocked with big game—boar and deer. The marquis—and a great gentleman he was—died some twenty years ago. Madame paints, carves ivories, binds books, shoots, fishes, speaks five languages, has lived all over the world and knows everybody worth knowing. No one in her youth was more beautiful, but the figure has gone, as you see—and it is such a pity, for it was superb; only the eyes and the teeth are left—and the smile. That was always her greatest charm, and still is—except her charities, which never cease.”
Her musical voice was still vibrating through the room as I re-entered.
“No, I don’t agree with you, Monsieur Herbert,” she was saying. “It is shameful that we do not keep closer to the usages and requirements of the old régime. In my time a woman would have excited comment who did not wear her finest gown and her choicest jewels in so select a company as this; and often very extraordinary things happened when any one defied the mandate. I remember one very queer instance which I wish I could tell you about—and it resulted in all sorts of dreadful complications. I became so adept a fibber in consequence that I wasn’t able to speak the truth for months afterward—and all because this most charming girl wouldn’t wear a low gown at one of our dinners.”
Herbert beat the air with his hand. “Keep still, everybody—madame la marquise is going to tell us a story.”
“Madame la marquise is going to do nothing of the kind. She has enough sins of her own to answer for without betraying those of this poor girl.”
“Hold up your hands and swear secrecy, every one of you!” cried Louis.
“But who will absolve me from breaking the commandment? You will never have any respect for me again—you remember the rule—all liars shall have their portion—don’t you?”
“If madame will permit me,” said Lemois with a low bow, “I will be her father-confessor, for I alone of all this group know how good she really is.”
“Very well, I take you at your word, Fra Lemois, and to prove how good you are, you shall send me the Satsuma with your compliments, and pick from my collection anything that pleases you. But you must first let me have a cigarette. Wait”—she twisted back her arm and drew a gold case from the side pocket of her jacket—“yes, I have one of my own—one I rolled myself, and I cure my own tobacco too, if you please. No! no more Burgundy” (she had declined my carefully selected Chablis and had drank the heavier wine with the rest of us). “That Romanée Conti I know, and it generally gets into my head, and I don’t like anything in my head except what I put there myself. What did you want me to do? Oh, yes, tell you that story of my youth.
“Well, one day my dear husband received a letter from an English officer, a dear friend of his with whom he had had the closest relations when they were both stationed in Borneo. This letter told us that his daughter, whom, as we knew, had been captured by the Dyaks when she was a child of eight, had been found some three years before by a scouting party and returned to the English agent at the principal seaport, the name of which I forget. Since that time she had been living with a relative, who had sent her to school. She had now completed her education, the letter went on to say, and was on her way back to England to join him, he being an invalided officer on half-pay. Before reaching him he wanted her to see something of the world, particularly of French life, and knew of no one with whom he would be more willing to trust her than ourselves. She was just grown—in her eighteenth year—and, although she had passed seven years of her life among a wild tribe, was still an English girl of prepossessing appearance.
“Well, she came—a beautifully formed, graceful creature, with flashing black eyes, a clear skin, and with a certain barbaric litheness when she moved that always reminded me of a panther, it was so measured, and had such meaning in it. She brought some expensive clothes, but no décolleté dresses of any kind, which surprised me, and when I offered to lend her my own—we were of about the same size—she refused politely but firmly, which surprised me all the more, and went right on wearing her high-necked gowns, which, while good in themselves—for her people were not poor—were not exactly the kind of toilettes my husband and my guests had been accustomed to—certainly not at dinners of twenty.
“At every other function she was superb, and for each one had the proper outfit and of the best make. She rode well, danced well, sang like a bird, could shoot and hunt with any of us, and, with the exception of this curious whim—for her form was faultless—was one of the most delightful creatures who ever stayed with us—and we had had, as you may suppose, a good many. The subjects she avoided were her captivity and the personnel of those with whom she had lived. When pressed she would answer that she had told the story so often she was tired of it; had banished it from her mind and wished everybody else would.
“Then the expected happened. Indeed I had begun to wonder why it had not happened before. A young Frenchman, the only son of one of our oldest families, a man of birth and fortune, fell madly in love with her. The mother was up in arms, and so was the father. She was without title, and, so far as they knew, without fortune in her own right; was English, and the match could not and should not take place.
“How the girl felt about it we could not find out. Sometimes she would see him alone, generally in the dusk of the evening on the lawn, but though she was English, and we had given the full limit of her freedom, she always kept within sight of the veranda. At other times she refused to see him altogether, sending word she was ill, or engaged, or had friends, all of which I found extraordinary. This went on until matters reached a crisis. She knew she must either send him about his business or succumb: this was her problem. His problem was to win her whether or no; if not here, then in England, where he would follow her; and he took no pains to conceal it. His persistence was met by a firm refusal, and finally by a command to leave her alone. The dismissal was given one night after dinner when they were together for a few minutes in the library, after which, so my maid told me, she went to her room and threw herself on her bed in an agony of tears.
“But there is nothing for sheer obstinacy like a Frenchman in love. Indeed he was too far gone to believe a word she said or take no for an answer, and as my grounds were next to his mother’s, and the two families most intimate, he still kept up his visits to the house, where, I must say, he was always welcome, for my husband and I liked him extremely, and he deserved it. His mother, objecting to the marriage, wanted to keep him away. She insisted—all this I heard afterward—that the girl was half savage and looked and moved like one; that she had doubtless been brought up among a lawless tribe who robbed every one around them; that there was no knowing what such a girl had done and would not do, and that she would rather see her son lying dead at her feet—the usual motherly exaggeration—than see him her victim. This brought him at last to his senses, for he came to me one day and wanted me to tell him what I knew of her antecedents as well as the story of her captivity and life with the savages. This was a difficult situation to face, and I at first refused to discuss her private affairs. Then I knew any mystery would only make him the more crazy, and so I told him what I knew, omitting the more intimate details. Strange to say, Frenchman-like, it only maddened him the more—so much so that he again waylaid her and asked her some questions which made her blaze like coals of fire, and again the poor girl went to bed in a flood of tears.
“Then the most puzzling and inexplicable thing happened. I had a very deep topaz of which I was passionately fond—one given me by my dear husband shortly after we were married. I generally kept it in my small jewel case, to which only my maid and I had the key. This night when I opened it the jewel was gone. My maid said she remembered distinctly my putting it, together with the chain, in the box, for my guest was with me at the time and had begged me to wear it because of its rich color, which she always said matched my eyes. At first I said nothing to any one—not even my husband—and waited; then I watched my maid; then my butler, about whom I did not know much, and who was in love with the maid, and might have tempted her to steal it. And, last of all—why I could not tell, and cannot to this day, except for that peculiar pantherlike movement about my guest—I watched the girl herself. But nothing came of it.
“Then I began to talk. I told my husband; I told the young man’s mother, my intimate friend, who told her son, she accusing the girl, of course, without a scintilla of proof; I told my butler, my maid—I told everybody who could in any way help to advertise my loss and the reward I was willing to pay for its recovery. Still nothing resulted and the week passed without a trace of the jewel or the thief.
“One morning just after luncheon, when I was alone in my little boudoir and my husband and the young man were having their coffee and cigarettes on the veranda outside, the girl walked in, made sure that no one was within hearing, and held out her hand. In the palm was my lost topaz.
“‘Here is your jewel,’ she said calmly; ‘I stole it, and now I have brought it back.’
“‘You!’ I gasped. ‘Why?’
“‘To disgust him and make him hate me so that he will never see me again. I love him too much to give myself to him. In my madness I thought of this.’
“‘And you want him to know it!’ I cried out. I could hardly get my breath, the shock was so great.
“‘Yes—here!—NOW!’ She stepped to the door. ‘Monsieur,’ she called, ‘I have something to tell you. I have just brought back her jewel—I stole it! Now come, madame, to my room and I will tell you the rest!’
“I followed her upstairs, leaving the horror-stricken young man dazed and speechless. She shut the door, locked it, and faced me.
“‘I have lied to both of you, madame. I did not steal your jewel; nobody stole it. I found it a few minutes ago under the edge of the rug where it had rolled; you dropped it in my room the night you wore it. In my agony to find some way out I seized on this. It came to me in a flash and I ran downstairs clutching it in my hand, knowing I would be lost if I hesitated a moment. It is over now. He will never see me again!’
“I stood half paralyzed at the situation; she erect before me, her eyes blazing, her figure stretched to the utmost, like an animal in pain.
“‘And you deliberately told him you were a thief!’ I at last managed to stammer out. ‘Why?’
“‘Because it was the only way to escape—it was the only way out. I never want him to think of me in any other light—I want to be dead to him forever! Nothing else would have done; I should have yielded, for I could no longer master my love for him. Look!’
“She was fumbling at her dress, loosening the top buttons close under her chin; then she ripped it clear, exposing her neck and back.
“‘This is what was done to me when I was a child!’
“I leaned forward to see the closer. The poor child was one mass of hideous tattoo from her throat to her stays!
“‘Now you know the whole story,’ she sobbed, her eyes streaming tears; ‘my heart is broken but I am satisfied. I could have stood anything but his loathing.’
“With this she fastened her dress and walked slowly out of the room, her head down, her whole figure one of abject misery.”
Madame leaned forward, picked up her goblet of water, and remarking that walking in the wind always made her thirsty, drained its contents. Then she turned her head to hide her tears.
“A most extraordinary story, madame. Did the young fellow ever speak of the theft?” asked Herbert, the first of her listeners to speak.
“No,” she answered slowly, in the effort to regain her composure, “he loved her too much to hear anything against her. He knew she had stolen it, for he had heard it from her own lips.”
“And you never tried to clear her character?”
“How could I? It was her secret, not mine. To divulge it would have led to her other and more terrible secret, and that I was pledged to keep. She is dead, poor girl, or I would not have told you now.”
“And what did you do, may I ask?” inquired Brierley.
“Nothing, except tell fibs. After she had gone the following morning I excused her to him, of course, on every ground that I could think of. I argued that she had a peculiar nature; that owing to her captivity she had perhaps lost that fine sense of what was her own and what was another’s; that she had many splendid qualities; that she had only yielded to an impulse, just as a Bedouin does who steals an Arab horse and who, on second thought, returns it. That I had forgiven her, and had told her so, and as proof of it had tried, without avail, to make her keep the topaz. Only my husband knew the truth. ‘Let it stay as it is, my dear,’ he said to me; ‘that girl has more knowledge of human nature than I credited her with. Once that young lover of hers had learned the cruel truth he wouldn’t have lived with her another hour.’”
“I think I should have told him,” remarked Louis slowly; the story seemed to have strangely moved him. “If he really loved her he’d have worn green spectacles and taken her as she was—I would. Bad business, this separating lovers.”
“No, you wouldn’t, Louis,” remarked Herbert, “if you’d ever seen her neck. I know something of that tattoo, although mine was voluntary, and only covered a part of my arm. Madame did just right. There are times when one must tell anything but the truth.”
Everybody looked at the speaker in astonishment. Of all men in the world he kept closest to the exact hair-line; indeed, one of Herbert’s peculiarities, as I have said, was his always understating rather than overstating a fact.
“Yes,” he continued, “the only way out is to ‘lie like a gentleman,’ as the saying is, and be done with it. I’ve been through it myself and know. Your story, madame, has brought it all back to me.”
“It’s about a girl, of course,” remarked Louis, flashing a smile around the circle, “and your best girl, of course. Have a drop of cognac, old man,” and he filled Herbert’s tiny glass. “It may help you tell the whole truth before you get through.”
“No,” returned Herbert calmly, pushing the cognac from him, a peculiar tenderness in his voice; “not my best girl, Louis, but a gray-haired woman of sixty—one I shall never forget.”
Madame laid her hand quickly on Herbert’s arm; she had caught the note in his voice.
“Oh! I’m so glad!” she said. “I love stories of old women; I always have. Please go on.”
“If I could have made her young again, madame, you would perhaps have liked my story better.”
“Why? Is it very sad?”
“Yes and no. It is not, I must say, exactly an after-dinner story, and but that it illustrates precisely how difficult it is sometimes to speak the truth, I would not tell it at all. Shall I go on?”
“Yes, please do,” she pleaded, a tremor now in her own voice. It was astonishing how simple and girlish she could be when her sympathies were aroused.
“My gray-haired woman had an only son, a man but a few years younger than myself, a member of my own party, who had died some miles from our camp at Bangala, and it accordingly devolved upon me not only to notify his people of his death, but to forward to them the few trinkets and things he had left behind. As I was so soon to return to London I wrote his people that I would bring them with me.
“He was a fine young fellow, cool-headed, afraid of nothing, and was a great help to me and very popular with every one in the camp. Having been sent out by the company to which I belonged, as were many others during the first years of our stay on the Congo, he had already mastered both the language and the ways of the natives. When a powwow was to be held I always sent him to conduct it if I could not go myself. I did so, too, when he had to teach the natives a lesson—lessons they needed and never forgot, for he was as plucky as he was politic.
“I knew nothing of his people except that he was a Belgian whose mother, Madame Brion, occupied a villa outside of Brussels, where she lived with a married daughter.
“On presenting my card I was shown into a small library where the young woman received me with tender cordiality, and, after closing the door so that we might not be overheard, she gave me an outline of the ordeal I was about to go through. With her eyes brimming tears she told me how her mother had only allowed her son to leave home because of the pressure brought to bear upon her by his uncle, who was interested in the company; how she daily, almost hourly, blamed herself for his death; how, during the years of his absence, she had lived on his letters, and when mine came, telling her of his end, she had sat dazed and paralyzed for hours, the open page in her lap—no word escaping her—no tears—only the dull pain of a grief which seemed to freeze the blood in her veins. Since that time she had counted the days to my coming, that she might hear the details of his last illness and suffering.
“You can imagine how I felt. I have never been able to face a woman when she is broken down with grief, and but that she was expecting me every minute, and had set her heart on my coming, I think I should have been cowardly enough to have left the house.
"When the servant returned, I was conducted up the broad staircase and into a small room hung with wonderful embroideries and pictures and filled with flowers. In one corner on an easel was Brion's portrait in the uniform of an officer, while all about were other portraits—some taken when he was a child, others as a boy—a kind of sanctuary, really, in which the mother worshipped this one idol of her life."
Herbert stopped, drew the tiny glass of cognac toward him, sipped its contents slowly, the tenderness of tone increasing as he went on:
"She greeted me simply and kindly, and led me to a seat on the sofa beside her, where she thanked me for the trouble I had taken, her soft blue eyes fixed on mine, her gentle, high-bred features illumined with her gratitude, her silver-gray hair forming an aureole in the light of the window behind her, as she poured out her heart. Then followed question after question; she wanting every incident, every word he had uttered; what his nursing had been—all the things a mother would want to know. Altogether it was the severest ordeal I had been through since I left home—and I have had some trying ones.
“For three hours I sat there, giving her minute accounts of his illness, his partial recovery, his relapse; what remedies I had used; how he failed after the fourth day; how his delirium had set in, and how at the last he had passed peacefully away. Next I described the funeral, giving a succinct account of the preparations; how we buried him on a little hill near a spring, putting a fence around the grave to keep any one from walking over it. Then came up the question of a small head-stone. This she insisted she would order cut at once and sent out to me—or perhaps one could be made ready so that I might take it with me. All this I promised, of course, even to taking it with me were there time, which, after all, I was able to do, for my steamer was delayed. And so I left her, her hands on my shoulders, her eyes fixed on mine in gratitude for all I had done for her dead son.”
“Oh!—the poor, dear lady!” cried madame la marquise, greatly moved, her hands tight clasped together. “Yes, I believe you—nothing in all your experience could have been as painful!”
Brierley raised his head and looked at Herbert:
“Rather a tight place, old man, awful tight place,” and his voice trembled. “But where does the lie come in? You told her the truth, after all.”
“Told her the truth! I thought you understood. Why I lied straight through! There was no grave—there never had been! Her son and his three black carriers had been trapped by cannibals and eaten.”
Madame started from her chair and clutched Herbert’s hand.
“Oh!—how terrible! No! you could not have told her!—I would never have liked you again if you had told her. Oh! I am so glad you didn’t!”
“There was nothing else to do, madame,” said Herbert thoughtfully, his eyes gazing into space as if the recital had again brought the scene before him.
“Pray God she never found out!” said the marquise under her breath.
“That has always been my consolation, madame. So far as I know she never did find out. She is dead now.”
“And I wish we had never found out either!” groaned Louis. “Why in the world do you want to make goose-flesh crawl all over a fellow! An awful, frightful story. I say, Herbert, if you’ve got any more horrors keep ’em for another night. I move we have a rest. Drag out that spinet, Brierley, and give us some music.”
“No, please don’t!” cried the marquise. “Tell us another. I wish this one of Monsieur Herbert’s was in print, so that I could read it over and over. Think how banal is our fiction; how we are forever digging in the same dry ground, turning up the same trivialities—affairs of the heart, domestic difficulties—thin, tawdry romances of olden times, all the characters masquerading in modern thought—all false and stupid. Oh! how sick I am of it all! But this epic of Monsieur Herbert means the clash of races, the meeting of two civilizations, the world turning back, as it were, to measure swords with that from which it sprung. And think, too, how rare it is to meet a man who in his own life has lived them both—the savage and the civilized. So please, Monsieur Herbert, tell us another—something about the savage himself. You know so many things and you are so human.”
“He doesn’t open his lips, madame, until I get some fresh air!” cried Louis. “Throw back that door, Lemois, and let these hobgoblins out! No more African horrors of any kind! Ladies and gentlemen, you will now hear the distinguished spinetist, Herr Brierley, of Pont du Sable, play one of his soul-stirring melodies! Up with you, Brierley, and take the taste out of our mouths!”