LADY RAYTHAM drew aside the long velvet curtains and looked down into Berkeley Square. It was half-past four o'clock on a cheerless February evening. Rain and sleet were falling, and a thin yellow mist added to the gloom of the dying day. An interminable string of cars and taxi-cabs was turning towards Berkeley Street, their shining black roofs reflecting the glare of the overhead lights that had just then hissed and spluttered to life.
She looked blankly towards the desolation of the gardens, a place of bare-limbed trees and shivering shrubs—stared, as though she expected to see some fog wraith take a definite and menacing shape, and give tangible form to the shadows that menaced reason and life.
She was a woman of twenty-eight, straight and slim. Hers was the type of classical beauty which would defy the markings of age for the greater part of a lifetime. A fascinating face—calm, austere, her eyes a cold English grey. You might imagine her the patrician abbess of some great conventual establishment, or a lady of broad manors defending inexorably the stark castle of her lord against the enemy who came in his absence. Analyse her face, feature by feature, put one with the other, and judge her by the standards which profess to measure such things, and brow and chin said "purpose" with unmistakable emphasis.
She was not in her purposeful mood now; rather was she uncertain and irritable, the nearest emotions to fear she knew.
She let the curtains fall back until they overlapped, and walked across to the fireplace, glancing at the tiny clock. The saloon was half lit; the wall sconces were dark, but the big lamp on the table near the settee glowed redly. This room bore evidence of money well but lavishly spent. The greater part of its furnishings would one day reach the museums of millionaire collectors; three pictures that hung upon the apple-green walls were earmarked for the National Gallery.
As she stood looking down into the fire there was a gentle tap at the door, and the butler came in. He was a tall man, rather portly in his way —a man of double chins and an unlined face. He carried a small salver in his hand, a buff oblong in the centre.
Lady Raytham tore open the envelope. It was dated from Constantinople and was from Raytham. She had been expecting the telegram all that afternoon. Raytham, of course, had changed his plans. In that sentence was epitomized his life and career. He was going on to Basra and thence to Bushire, to see the Interstate Oil Wells or the sites of them. He was expensively apologetic for two closely written sheets. If he could not return before April, would she go on to Cannes as she had arranged? He was "awfully sorry"; he must have said that at least four times.
She read it again, folded the pink sheets, and laid them on the table.
The butler was waiting, head slightly bent forward as though to catch her slightest whisper. She did not look at him.
"Thank you, m'lady."
He was opening the door when she spoke.
"Druze, I am expecting the Princess Bellini and possibly Mrs. Gurden. I will have tea when they come."
"Very good, m'lady."
The door closed softly behind; she raised her sombre eyes and looked at the polished wood of it with a curious listening lift of her head, as though she expected to hear something. But the butler was going slowly down the stairs, a quizzical smile in his eyes, his white, plump hands sliding in and over one another. He stopped on the landing to admire the little marble statue of Circe that his lordship had brought from Sicily. It was a habit of his to admire that Circe with the sly eyes and the beckoning finger. And as he looked, his mouth was puckered as though he were whistling.
A sharp rat-tat on the door made him withdraw from his contemplation. He reached the hall as the second footman opened the door.
Two women came in out of the murk; through the open door he had a glimpse of a limousine drawing away.
"Her ladyship is in the drawing-room, your Highness—shall I take your Highness's coat?"
"You can't," said the first and the bigger woman brusquely. "Help Mrs. Gurden out of hers. Why you wear such horrible contraptions I can't understand."
Mrs. Gurden smiled largely.
"Darling, I must wear something. Thank you, Druze."
Druze took the transparent silk coat and handed it to the second footman; the Princess was already stamping up the stairs. She pushed open the door and walked in unannounced, and Lady Raytham, standing by the fire, her head pillowed on her arm, looked up, startled.
"I'm so awfully sorry. Push the light, Anita; the button is by your hand. Well?"
The Princess Anita Bellini struggled unaided out of her tweed coat and threw it over the back of a chair, jerked off her hat with another movement, and tossed it after the coat.
People who saw Anita Bellini for the first time gazed at her in a little awe; there was a certain ruthless strength in every line, every feature. She was something more than fifty and was just under six feet in height.
The masculinity of the powerful face was emphasized by the grey hair cut close in an Eton crop and the rimless monocle which never left her eye. Between her white teeth she gripped a long amber holder, in which a cigarette was burning.
Her speech was direct, abrupt, almost shocking in its frankness.
She jerked the end of the cigarette-holder towards the door.
"Being fussed over by Druze. That woman would ogle a dustman! She's that age. It is a horrible thing to have been pretty once and to have produced certain reactions. You can never believe that the spirit has evaporated."
Jane Raytham smiled.
"They say you were an awfully pretty girl, Nita—" she began.
"They lie," said Princess Anita calmly. "Russells used to retouch my photographs till there was nothing left but the background."
Greta floated in, hands outstretched, her big, red mouth opened ecstatically.
"Darling!" she breathed, and caught both Jane's hands in hers. Anita Bellini's fleshy nose wrinkled in a sneer.
And yet she should have grown accustomed to Mrs. Gurden, for ecstasy was Greta's normal condition. She had that habit of touching people, holding them by the arms, stooping to look up into their faces with her big black eyes that sometimes squinted a little.
She had been pretty, but now her face was long and a little haggard, the face of a woman who was so afraid of missing something that she could not spare the time to sleep. Her lips were heavily carmined, her eyes carefully made up as though she were still expecting a call to return to the chorus from which Anita had rescued her.
"My lovely Jane! Exquisite as usual. That dress—don't tell me! Chenel,?? isn't it?"
"Is it?" Jane Raytham scarcely looked down. "No, I think it is a dress I bought in New York last year."
Greta shook her head speechlessly.
Anita Bellini blew out a smoke ring and tapped off the ash in the fireplace.
"Greta lays it on thick when she lays it at all," she said, and cast a critical eye over her hostess. "You're peaky, Jane. Missing your husband?"
The irony of tone was not lost on Anita.
"Raytham—what is he doing? The man is ill of money and yet won't take a day off making it. Where the—oh, here he is."
Druze wheeled in the tea-waggon.
"Give me a whisky and soda, Druze, or I'll perish."
She drank the contents of the goblet at a gulp and handed back the glass.
Anita fixed her monocle more firmly and lit another cigarette. The door closed behind the butler.
"Druze wears well, Jane. Where did you get him?"
Lady Raytham looked up quickly.
"Does he? I scarcely notice him. He has always been the same so long as I can remember. He was with Lord Everreed before."
"That goes back a few years; I remember him when he was a young man."
The Princess had an unhappy habit of smiling with her mouth closed. It was not very pretty.
"It is funny how age comes—thirty to fifty goes like a flash of lightning."
She changed the subject abruptly and talked about her call of the afternoon.
"I went for bridge and got a string quartette playing every kind of music except one with a tune in it."
"It was lovely!" breathed Greta, her eyes screwed tight in an agony of admiration.
"It was rotten," retorted the grey-haired Anita. "And more rotten because my sister-in-law was there. The woman's narrowness depresses me."
Lady Raytham's eyes had returned to the fire.
"Oh!" she said.
"I asked her what she was going to do about Peter—thank heavens she has a little sense there! Peter has been wiped off the slate. Margaret would not even discuss him. The only person who believes in him is Everreed— but Everreed was always a simpleton. He would never have prosecuted, but the bank forced his hand."
She said this with some satisfaction. She had never liked her nephew, and Peter hated her—hated her gibes at him when he, the son of a wealthy man, had preferred a private secretaryship with that great Parliamentarian, Viscount Everreed, to entering his late father's bank. She had sat in court with a contemptuous smile on her lips when the haggard boy had been sentenced for forging his employer's name to a cheque for five thousand pounds.
The woman by the fire stirred her tea absently.
"He come out? About now, I think. Let me see, he had seven years, and they tell me that these people get a remission of sentence for good conduct—three months in every year. Why, the Lord knows. We pay enormous sums to catch 'em, and as soon as they are safe under lock and key we go tinkering with the lock to get them out."
"Disgraceful!" murmured Greta.
But Jane Raytham did not hear her.
"I wonder what he will do?" she mused. "Life will go pretty hardly for a man like Peter—"
"Rubbish!" Anita snapped the word. "For goodness' sake don't get melancholy about Peter! He has been five years in prison, and at Dartmoor —or wherever he is—they teach men to use their hands to do something besides forge cheques. He will probably make an excellent farm hand."
Lady Raytham shivered.
"Ugh! How awful!"
The Princess smiled.
"Peter Dawlish is just a fool. He belongs to the kind of human that is made for other people's service. If you start worrying about Peter, you'll shed tears over the partridge that comes to your table. I wonder what he thinks about Druze?"
Lady Raytham looked up.
"Do you think he still hates him?"
Anita pursed her large lips.
"Druze was Everreed's butler and cashed the cheque; the next day Peter disappears on his holiday—in reality, on his great adventure. He returns and is arrested, swears he knows nothing about the cheque, and accuses poor Druze of forgery—which doesn't save him from imprisonment."
Lady Raytham said nothing.
"Naturally Peter feels sore—if he still believes Druze was the villain of the piece. There may be trouble—we needn't deceive ourselves."
Her cigarette had gone out. She opened her bag with an impatient tug and searched.
"Matches? Never mind."
There was a letter in the bag; she tore a strip from the top and, bending, lit the paper at the fire.
"Who is Leslie Maughan?"
She was glancing at the signature which footed the letter.
"Leslie Maughan? I don't know him. Why?"
Anita crumpled the paper into a ball.
"Leslie Maughan would like to see me on a personal matter"—Anita invented the stilted and supercilious accent which she supposed the writer of the letter might assume. "And Leslie Maughan will be glad to know what hour will be convenient for me to see him. He is an inventor or a borrower of money or he has an expedition to the Cocos Islands that he would like me to finance. To the devil with Leslie Maughan!"