Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Baroness Emmuska Orczy
A TRUE WOMAN
First published in 1911
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
No! No! She was not going to gush! Not even though there was nothing in the room at this moment to stand up afterward before her as dumb witness to a moment’s possible weakness. Less than nothing in fact: space might have spoken and recalled that moment… infinite nothingness might at some future time have brought back the memory of it… but these dumb, impassive objects!… the fountain pen between her fingers! The dull, uninteresting hotel furniture covered in red velvet — an uninviting red that repelled dreaminess and peace! The ormolu clock which had ceased long ago to mark the passage of time, wearied — as it no doubt was, poor thing — by the monotonous burden of a bronze Psyche gazing on her shiny brown charms, in an utterly blank and unreflective bronze mirror, while obviously bemoaning the fracture of one of her smooth bronze thighs! Indeed Louisa might well have given way to that overmastering feeling of excitement before all these things. They would neither see nor hear. They would never deride, for they could never remember.
But a wood fire crackled on the small hearth… and… and those citron-coloured carnations were favourite flowers of his… and his picture did stand on the top of that ugly little Louis Philippe bureau… No! No! it would never do to gush, for these things would see… and, though they might not remember, they would remind.
And Louisa counted herself one of the strong ones of this earth. Just think of her name. Have you ever known a Louisa who gushed? who called herself the happiest woman on earth? who thought of a man — just an ordinary man, mind you — as the best, the handsomest, the truest, the most perfect hero of romance that ever threw a radiance over the entire prosy world of the twentieth century?
Louisas, believe me, do no such things. The Mays and the Floras, the Lady Barbaras and Lady Edithas, look beatific and charming when, clasping their lily-white hands together and raising violet eyes to the patterned ceiling paper above them, they exclaim: “Oh, my hero and my king!”
But Louisas would only look ridiculous if they behaved like that… Louisa Harris, too!… Louisa, the eldest of three sisters, the daughter of a wealthy English gentleman with a fine estate in Kent, an assured position, no troubles, no cares, nothing in her life to make it sad, or sordid or interesting… Louisa Harris and romance!… Why, she was not even pretty. She had neither violet eyes nor hair of ruddy gold. The latter was brown and the former were gray.… How could romance come in the way of gray eyes, and of a girl named Louisa?
Can you conceive, for instance, one of those adorable detrimentals of low degree and empty pocket who have a way of arousing love in the hearts of the beautiful daughters of irascible millionaires, can you conceive such an interesting personage, I say, falling in love with Louisa Harris?
I confess that I cannot. To begin with, dear, kind Squire Harris was not altogether a millionaire, and not at all irascible, and penniless owners of romantic personalities were not on his visiting list.
Therefore Louisa, living a prosy life of luxury, got up every morning, ate a copious breakfast, walked out with the dogs, hunted in the autumn, skated in the winter, did the London season, and played tennis in the summer, just as hundreds and hundreds of other well-born, well-bred English girls of average means, average positions, average education, hunt, dance, and play tennis throughout the length and breadth of this country.
There was no room for romance in such a life, no time for it.… The life itself was so full already — so full of the humdrum of daily rounds, of common tasks, that the heart which beat with such ordinary regularity in the seemingly ordinary breast of a very ordinary girl did so all unconscious of the intense pathos which underlay this very ordinary existence.
Vaguely Louisa knew that somewhere, beyond even the land of dreams, there lay, all unknown, all mysterious, a glorious world of romance: a universe peopled by girlish imaginings, and the sensitive, creating thoughts of poets, by the galloping phantasies of super-excited brains, and the vague longings of ambitious souls: a universe wherein dwelt alike the memories of those who have loved and the hopes of those who suffer. But when she thought of it all, she did so as one who from the arid plain gazes on the cool streams and golden minarets which the fairy Fata Morgana conjures on the horizon far away. She looked on it as all unreal and altogether beyond her ken. She shut her eyes to the beautiful mirage, her heart against its childish yearnings.
Such things did not exist. They were not for her — Louisa Harris. The little kitchenmaid at the court who, on Sunday evenings, went off giggling, her chubby face glowing with pride and the result of recent ablutions, on the arm of Jim the third gardener, knew more about that world of romance than well-bred, well-born young ladies ever dreamed of in their commonplace philosophy.
And Louisa Harris had always shut down the book which spoke of such impossible things, and counted herself one of the strong ones of the earth.
Therefore now, with Luke’s letter in her hand, in which he tells her in a very few words that he loves her beyond anything on earth, and that he only waits the day when he can call her his own, his very own dearly loved wife, why should Louisa — prosy, healthy-minded, healthy-bodied Louisa — suddenly imagine that the whole world is transfigured? — that the hotel room is a kind of ante-chamber to heaven? — that the red velvet, uncompromising chairs are clouds of a roseate hue and that the bronze Psyche with the broken thigh is the elusive fairy who, with Morgana-like wand, hath conjured up this mirage of glorious visions which mayhap would vanish again before long?
She went up to the window and rested her forehead against the cool pane. She might be ever so strong, she could not help her forehead feeling hot and her eyes being full of tears — tears that did not hurt as they fell.
Outside the weather was indeed prosy and commonplace. Rain was coming down in torrents and beating against the newspaper kiosk over the way, on the roofs of tramways and taxi-autos, making the electric light peep dimly through the veil of wet, drowning, by its incessant patter, to which the gusts of a November gale made fitful if loud accompaniment, the shouts of the cochers on their boxes, the rattle of wheels on the stone pavement, even at times the shrill whistle for cabs emanating from the porch of the brilliantly lighted Palace Hotel.
It was close on half-past six by the clock of the Gare du Nord opposite. The express from Ostend had just come in — very late of course, owing to the gale which had delayed the mail boat. Louisa, straining her eyes, watched the excited crowd pouring out of the station in the wake of porters and of piles of luggage, jabbering, shouting, and fussing like an army of irresponsible pigmies: men in blouses, and men in immaculate bowler hats, women wrapped in furs, clinging to gigantic headgear that threatened to leave the safe refuge of an elaborate coiffure or of well fixed gargantuan hatpins, midinettes in fashionable skirts and high-heeled shoes, country women in wool shawls that flapped round their bulky forms like the wings of an overfed bat, all hurrying and jostling one another in a mad endeavour to avoid the onrush of the innumerable taxi-autos which in uncountable numbers wound in and out of the slower moving traffic like the erratic thread of some living, tangled skein.
Just the everyday prosy life of a small but ambitious capital struggling in the midst of an almost overpowering sense of responsibility toward the whole of Europe in view of its recent great Colonial expansion.
Louisa gave an impatient sigh.
Even the strong ones of the earth get wearied of the daily round, the common task at times. She and aunt were due to dine at the British Embassy at eight o’clock; it was only half-past six now and obviously impossible to sit another two hours in this unresponsive hotel room in the company of red velvet chairs and the bronze Psyche.
Aunt, in conjunction with her maid Annette, was busy laying the foundations of an elaborate toilette. Louisa was free to do as she pleased. She got a serviceable ulster and a diminutive hat and sallied forth into the streets. She did not want to think or to dream, nor perhaps did she altogether wish to work off that unusual feeling of excitement which had so unaccountably transformed her ever since Luke’s letter had come.
All she wanted was to be alone, and to come out of herself for awhile. She had been alone all the afternoon, save for that brief half hour when aunt discussed the obvious over a badly brewed cup of tea: it was not that kind of “alone-ness” which Louisa wanted now, but rather the solitude which a crowded street has above all the power to give.
There is a kind of sociability in any room, be it ever so uncompromising in the matter of discomfort, but a crowded street can be unutterably lonely, either cruelly so or kindly as the case may be.
To Louisa Harris, the commonplace society girl, accustomed to tea fights, to dances and to dinner parties, the loneliness of this crowded little city was eminently welcome. With her dark ulster closely buttoned to the throat, the small hat tied under her chin, with everything on her weather-proof and unfashionable, she attracted no notice from the passers-by.
Not one head was turned as, with a long breath of delight, she sallied forth from under the portico of the hotel out into the muddy, busy street; not one glance of curiosity or interest so freely bestowed in the streets of foreign capitals on a solitary female figure, if it be young and comely, followed this very ordinary-looking English miss.
To the crowd she was indifferent. These men and women hurrying along, pushing, jostling, and scurrying knew nothing of Luke, nor that she, Louisa Harris, was the happiest woman on earth.
She turned back toward the Boulevard, meaning to take a brisk walk all along the avenue of trees which makes a circuit round the inner part of the town and which ultimately would lead her back to the Gare du Nord and the Palace Hotel. It was a walk she had often done before: save for one or two busy corners on the way, it would be fairly solitary and peaceful.
Louisa stepped out with an honest British tread, hands buried in the pockets of her serviceable ulster, head bent against the sudden gusts of wind. She did not mind the darkness of the ill-lighted, wide boulevard, and had every intention of covering the two miles in a little more than half an hour.
How the time sped! It seemed as if she had only just left the hotel, and already surely not a quarter of a mile away she could see glimmering the lights of the Place Namur, the half-way point of her walk.
She was in the Boulevard Waterloo where private houses with closed porte-cochères add nothing to the municipal lighting of the thoroughfare.
Trams had been rushing past her in endless succession: but now there was a lull. Close by her a taxi-auto whizzed quickly past and came to a standstill some hundred yards away, near the pavement, and not far from an electric light standard.
Louisa, with vacant eyes attached on that cab, but with her mind fixed on a particular room in a particular house in Grosvenor Square where lived a man of the name of Luke de Mountford, continued her walk. Those same vacant eyes of hers presently saw the chauffeur of the taxi-auto get down from his box and open the door of the cab, and then her absent mind was suddenly brought back from Grosvenor Square, London, to the Boulevard Waterloo in Brussels, by a terrible cry of horror which had broken from that same chauffeur’s lips. Instinctively Louisa hurried on, but, even as she did so, a small crowd which indeed seemed to have sprung from nowhere had already gathered round the vehicle.
Murmurs of “What is it? What is it?” mingled with smothered groans of terror, as curiosity caused one or two of the more bold to peer into the gloomy depths of the cab. Shrill calls brought a couple of gardiens to the spot. In a moment Louisa found herself a unit in an eager, anxious crowd, asking questions, conjecturing, wondering, horror-struck as soon as a plausible and graphic explanation came from those who were in the fore-front and were privileged to see.
“A man — murdered…”
“The chauffeur got down from his box… and looked in… ah, mon Dieu!”
“What did he see?”
“A man… he is quite young… only about twenty years of age.”
“Stabbed through the neck…”
“Right through the neck I tell you… just below the ear. I can see the wound, quite small as if done with a skewer.”
“Allons! Voyons! Voyons!” came the gruff accents from the two portly gardiens who worked vigorously with elbows and even feet to keep the crowd somewhat at bay.
Louisa was on the fringe of the crowd. She could see nothing of course — she did not wish to see that which the chauffeur saw when first he opened the door of his cab — but she stood rooted to the spot, feeling that strange, unexplainable fascination which one always feels, when one of those great life dramas of which one reads so often and so indifferently happens to be enacted within the close range of one’s own perception.
She gleaned a phrase here and there — saw the horror-stricken faces of those who had seen, the placid, bovine expression of the two gardiens, more inured to such sights and calmly taking notes by the light of the electric standard.
“But to think that I drove that rascally murderer in my cab, and put him down safe and sound not ten minutes ago!” came with the adjunct of a loud oath from the irate chauffeur.
“How did it all occur?”
The gardiens tried to stem the flow of the driver’s eloquence; such details should first be given to the police. Voyons! But what were two fat mouchards against twenty stalwart idlers all determined to hear — and then there were the women — they were determined to know more.
Louisa bent her ear to listen. She was just outside the crowd — not a part of it — and there was no really morbid curiosity in her. It was only the call of the imagination which is irresistible on these occasions — the prosy, matter-of-fact, high-bred girl could not, just then, tear herself away from that cab and the tragedy which had been enacted therein, in the mysterious darkness whilst the unconscious driver sped along, ignorant of the gruesome burden which he was dragging to its destination.
“Voilà!” he was saying with many ejaculations and expletives, and a volley of excited gestures. “Outside the Parc near the theatre two bourgeois hailed me, and one of them told me to draw up at the top of the Galerie St. Hubert, which I did. The same one — the one who had told me where to go — got out, clapped the door to and spoke a few words to his friend who had remained inside.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh! I couldn’t hear and I didn’t listen. But after that he told me to drive on to Boulevard Waterloo No. 34 and here I am.”
“You suspected nothing?”
“Nothing, how should I? Two bourgeois get into my cab; I see nothing; I hear nothing. One of them gets out and tells me to drive on farther. How should I think there’s anything wrong?”
“What was the other man like? The one who spoke to you?”
“Ma foi! I don’t know.… It was raining so fast and pitch dark just outside the Parc lights — and he did seem to keep in the shadow — now I come to think of it — and his cap — he wore a cap — was pulled well over his face — and the collar of his coat was up to his nose. It was raining so, I didn’t really see him properly. I saw the other one better — the one who has been murdered.”
But the rotund gardiens had had enough of this. Moreover, they would hear all about it at full length presently. As for the crowd — it had no business to know too much.
They hustled the excited driver back on to his box, and themselves got into the cab beside it — the dead man, stabbed in the neck from ear to ear — the wound quite small as if it had been done with a skewer.
The gardiens ordered the chauffeur to drive to the commissariat, and Louisa turned away with a slight shiver down her spine and her throat choked with the horror of what she had only guessed.
You don’t suppose for a moment, I hope, that a girl like Louisa would allow her mind to dwell on such horrors. Mysterious crimes in strange cities — and in London, too, for a matter of that — are, alas! of far too frequent occurrence to be quite as startling as they should be.
A day or two later, Louisa Harris and her aunt, Lady Ryder, crossed over to England. They had spent five weeks in Italy and one in Brussels, not with a view to dreaming over the beauties of the Italian Lakes, or over the art treasures collected in the museums of Brussels, but because Lady Ryder had had a bronchial catarrh which she could not shake off and so her doctor had ordered her a thorough change. Bellaggio was selected, and Louisa accompanied her. They stayed at the best hotels both in Bellaggio and in Brussels, where Lady Ryder had several friends whom she wished to visit before she went home.
Nothing whatever happened that should not have happened; everything was orderly and well managed; the courier and the maid saw to tickets and to luggage, to hotel rooms and sleeping compartments. It was obviously their mission in life to see that nothing untoward or unexpected happened, but only the obvious.
It was clearly not their fault that Miss Harris had seen a cab in which an unknown man happened to have been murdered.
Louisa, with a view to preventing her aunt from going to sleep after dinner and thereby spoiling her night’s rest, had told her of the incident which she had witnessed in the Boulevard Waterloo, and Lady Ryder was genuinely shocked. She vaguely felt that her niece had done something unladylike and odd, which was so unlike Louisa.
The latter had amused herself by scanning a number of English papers in order to find out what was said in London about that strange crime, which she had almost witnessed — the man stabbed through the neck, from ear to ear, and the wound so small it might have been done with a skewer. But, with characteristic indifference, London paid but little heed to the mysterious dramas of a sister city. A brief account of the gruesome discovery — a figurative shrug of the shoulders as to the incompetence of the Belgian police, who held neither a clue to the perpetrator of the crime nor to the identity of the victim. Just a stranger — an idler. Brussels was full of strangers just now. His nationality? who knows? His individuality? there seemed no one to care. The police were active no doubt, but so far they had discovered nothing.
Two men, the murderer and the murdered, engulfed in that great whirlpool known as humanity, small units of no importance, since no one seemed to care. Interesting to the detective whose duty it was to track the crime to its perpetrator. Interesting to the reporter who could fill a column with accounts of depositions, of questionings, of examinations. Interesting to the after-dinner talker who could expatiate over the moral lessons to be drawn from the conception of such a crime.
But the murdered man goes to his grave unknown: and the murderer wanders Cain-like on the face of the earth — as mysterious, as unknown, as silent as his victim.
Everything went on just as convention — whose mouth-piece for the moment happened to be Lady Ryder — desired; just as Louisa surmised that everything would; the letters of congratulations; the stately visits from and to Lord Radclyffe, Luke’s uncle; the magnificent diamond tiara from the latter; the rope of pearls from Luke; the silver salvers and inkstands and enamel parasol handles from everybody who was anybody in London society.
Louisa’s portrait and that of Luke hastily and cheaply reproduced in the halfpenny dailies, so that she looked like a white negress with a cast in her eye, and he like the mutilated hero of L’Homme Qui Rit; the more elegant half-tone blocks in the sixpenny weeklies under the popular if somewhat hackneyed heading of “The Earl of Radclyffe’s heir and his future bride, Miss Louisa Harris”; it was all there, just as it had been for hundreds of other girls and hundreds of other young men before Louisa had discovered that there was only one man in the whole wide world, and that, beyond the land of diamond tiaras and of society weddings, there was a fairy universe, immense and illimitable, whereon the sun of happiness never set and whither no one dared venture alone, only hand in hand with that other being, the future mate, the pupil and teacher of love, the only one that mattered.
And the wedding was to be in four weeks from this day. The invitations were not out yet, for Louisa, closely pressed by Luke, had only just made up her mind half an hour ago about the date. Strangely enough she had been in no hurry for the wedding day to come. Luke had been so anxious, so crestfallen when she put him off with vague promises, that she herself could not account for this strange reticence within her — so unworthy a level-headed, conventional woman of the world.
But the outer lobby of the fairy universe was surpassingly beautiful, and though the golden gates to the inner halls beyond were ajar and would yield to the slightest pressure of Louisa’s slender fingers, yet she was glad to tarry awhile longer. Were they not hand in hand? What mattered waiting since eternity called beyond those golden gates?
This morning, however, convention — still voiced by Lady Ryder — was more vigorous than was consistent with outward peace. Louisa, worried by aunt, and with the memory of Luke’s expression of misery and disappointment when last night she had again refused to fix the wedding day, chided herself for her silly fancies, and at eleven o’clock set out for a stroll in Battersea Park, her mind made up, her unwonted fit of sentimentality smothered by the louder voice of common-sense.
She and Luke always took their walks abroad in Battersea Park. In the morning hours they were free there from perpetual meetings with undesired company — all outside company being undesirable in the lobby of the fairy universe. Louisa had promised to meet Luke in the tropical garden at half-past eleven. She was always punctual, and he always before his time; she smart and businesslike in her neat, tailor-made gown and close hat which defied wind and rain, he always a little shamefaced when he took her neatly gloved hand in his, as most English young men are apt to be when sentiment for the first time happens to overmaster them.
Today she saw him coming toward her just the same as on other days. He walked just as briskly and held himself as erect as he always did, but the moment that he was near enough for her to see his face she knew that there was something very wrong in the world and with him. Some one from the world of eternity beyond had seen fit to push the golden gates closer together, so that now they would not yield quite so easily to the soft pressure of a woman’s hand.
“What is it, Luke?” she asked very quietly, as soon as her fingers rested safely between his.
“What is what?” he rejoined foolishly and speaking like a child, and with a forced, almost inane-looking, smile on his lips.
“What has happened?” she reiterated more impatiently.
“Nothing,” he replied, “that need worry you, I think. Shall we sit down here? You won’t catch cold?” and he indicated a seat well sheltered against the cold breeze and the impertinent gaze of the passers-by.
“I never catch cold,” said Louisa, smiling in spite of herself at Luke’s funny, awkward ways. “But we won’t sit down. Let us stroll up and down, shall we? You can talk better then, and tell me all about it.”
“There’s not much to tell at present. And no occasion to worry.”
“There’s nothing that worries me so much as your shilly-shallying, Luke, or the thought that you are making futile endeavours to keep something from me,” she retorted almost irritably this time, for, strangely enough, her nerves — she never knew before this that she had any — were slightly on the jar this morning.
“I don’t want to shilly-shally, little girl,” he replied gently, “nor to keep anything from you. There, will you put your hand on my arm? ‘Arry and ‘Arriet, eh? Well! never mind. There’s no one to see.”
He took her hand — that neatly gloved, small hand of hers — and put it under his arm. For one moment it seemed as if he would kiss that tiny and tantalizing place just below the thumb where the pink palm shows in the opening of the glove. Luke was not a demonstrative lover, he was shy and English and abrupt; but this morning — was it the breath of spring in the air, the scent of the Roman hyacinths in that bed over there, or merely the shadow of a tiny cloud on the uniform blue of his life’s horizon that gave a certain rugged softness to his touch, as his hand lingered over that neat glove which nestled securely in among the folds of his coat sleeve?
“Now,” she said simply.
“Have you,” he asked with abrupt irrelevance, “read your paper all through this morning?”
“Not all through. Only the important headlines.”
“And you saw nothing about a claim to a peerage?”
“Well! that’s all about it. A man has sprung up from nowhere in particular, who claims to be my uncle Arthur’s son, and, therefore, heir presumptive to the title and all.”
Luke heaved a deep sigh, as if with this brief if ungrammatical statement, his own heart had been unburdened of a tiresome load.
“Your uncle Arthur?” she repeated somewhat bewildered.
“Yes. You never knew him, did you?”
“No,” she said, “I never knew him, though as a baby I must have seen him. I was only three, I think, when he died. But I never heard that he had been married. I am sure father never knew.”
“Nor did I, nor did Uncle Rad, nor any of us. The whole thing is either a thunderbolt or… an imposture.”
“Tell me,” she said, “a little more clearly, Luke dear, will you? I am feeling quite muddled.” And now it was she who led the way to the isolated seat beneath that group of silver birch, whose baby leaves trembled beneath the rough kiss of the cool April breeze.
They sat down together and on the gravelled path in front of them a robin hopped half shyly, half impertinently, about and gazed with tiny, inquisitive eyes on the doings of these big folk. All around them the twitter of bird throats filled the air with its magic, its hymn to the reawakened earth, and drowned in this pleasing solitude the distant sounds of the busy city that seemed so far away from this secluded nook inhabited by birds and flowers, and by two dwellers in Fata Morgana’s land.
“Tell me first,” said Louisa, in her most prosy, most matter of fact tone of voice, “all that is known about your uncle Arthur.”
“Well, up to now, I individually knew very little about him. He was the next eldest brother to Uncle Rad, and my father was the youngest of all. When Uncle Rad succeeded to the title, Arthur was heir-presumptive of course. But as you know he died — as was supposed unmarried — nineteen years ago, and my poor dear father was killed in the hunting field the following year. I was a mere kid then and the others were babies — orphans the lot of us. My mother died when Edith was born. Uncle Rad was said to be a confirmed bachelor. He took us all to live with him and was father, mother, elder brother, elder sister to us all. Bless him!”
Luke paused abruptly, and Louisa too was silent. Only the song of a thrush soaring upward to the skies called for that blessing which neither of them at that moment could adequately evoke.
“Yes,” said Louisa at last, “I knew all that.”
Lord Radclyffe and his people were all of the same world as herself. She knew all about the present man’s touching affection for the children of his youngest brother, but more especially for Luke on whom he bestowed an amount of love and tender care which would have shamed many a father by its unselfish intensity. That affection was a beautiful trait in an otherwise not very lovable character.
“I daresay,” resumed Luke after a little while, “that I have been badly brought up. I mean in this way, that if — if the whole story is true — if Uncle Arthur did marry and did have a son, then I should have to go and shift for myself and for Jim and Frank and Edith. Of course Uncle Rad would do what he could for us, but I should no longer be his heir — and we couldn’t go on living at Grosvenor Square and…”
“Aren’t you rambling on a little too fast, dear?” said Louisa gently, whilst she beamed with an almost motherly smile — the smile that a woman wears when she means to pacify and to comfort — on the troubled face of the young man.
“Of course I am,” he replied more calmly, “but I can’t help it. For some days now I’ve had a sort of feeling that something was going to happen — that — well, that things weren’t going to go right. And this morning when I got up, I made up my mind that I would tell you.”
“When did you hear first, and from whom?”
“The first thing we heard was last autumn. There came a letter from abroad for Uncle Rad. It hadn’t the private mark on it, so Mr. Warren opened it along with the rest of the correspondence. He showed it to me. The letter was signed Philip de Mountford, and began, ‘My dear uncle.’ I couldn’t make head or tail of it; I thought it all twaddle. You’ve no idea what sort of letters Uncle Rad gets sometimes from every kind of lunatic or scoundrel you can think of, who wants to get something out of him. Well, this letter at first looked to me the same sort of thing. I had never heard of any one who had the right to say ‘dear uncle’ to Uncle Rad — but it had a lot in it about blood being thicker than water and all the rest of it, with a kind of request for justice and talk about the cruelty of Fate. The writer, however, asserted positively that he was the only legitimate son of Mr. Arthur de Mountford, who — this he professed to have only heard recently — was own brother to the earl of Radclyffe. The story which he went on to relate at full length was queer enough in all conscience. I remember every word of it, for it seemed to get right away into my brain, then and there, as if something was being hammered or screwed straight into one of the cells of my memory never really to come out again.”
“And yet when — when we were first engaged,” rejoined Louisa quietly, “you never told me anything about it.”
“I’ll tell you directly how that was. I remembered and then forgot — if you know what I mean — and now it has all come back. At the time I thought the letter of this man who called himself Philip de Mountford nothing but humbug. So did Mr. Warren, and yet he and I talked it over and discussed it between us for ever so long. It all sounded so strange. Uncle Arthur — so this man said who called himself Philip de Mountford — had married in Martinique a half-caste girl named Adeline Petit, who was this same Philip’s mother. He declares that he has all the papers — marriage certificates or whatever they are called — to prove every word he says. He did not want to trouble his uncle much, only now that his mother was dead, he felt all alone in the world and longed for the companionship and affection of his own kith and kin. All he wanted he said, was friendship. Then he went on to say that of course he did not expect his lordship to take his word for all this, he only asked for an opportunity to show his dear uncle all the papers and other proofs which he held that he was in real and sober truth the only legitimate son of Mr. Arthur de Mountford, own brother to his lordship.”
“How old is this man — this Philip de Mountford — supposed to be?”
“Well, he said in that first letter that the marriage took place in the parish church of St. Pierre in Martinique on the 28th of August, 1881; that he himself was born the following year, and christened in the same church under the name of Philip Arthur, and registered as the son of Mr. Arthur Collingwood de Mountford of Ford’s Mount in the county of Northampton, England, and of Adeline de Mountford, née Petit, his wife.”
“Twenty-four years ago,” said Louisa thoughtfully, “and he only claims kinship with Lord Radclyffe now?”
“That’s just,” rejoined Luke, “where the curious part of the story comes in. This Philip de Mountford — I don’t know how else to call him — said in his first letter that his mother never knew that Mr. Arthur de Mountford was anything more than a private English gentleman travelling either for profit or pleasure, but in any case not possessed of either wealth or social position. Between you and me, dear, I suppose that this Adeline Petit was just a half-caste girl, without much knowledge of what goes on in the world, and why she should have married Uncle Arthur I can’t think.”
“If she did marry him, you mean.”
“If she did marry him, as you say,” said Luke with a singular want of conviction, which Louisa was not slow to remark.
“You think that this young man’s story is true then?”
“I don’t know what to think, and that’s the truth.”
“Tell me more,” added Louisa simply.
“Well, this Philip’s story goes on to say that his father — Uncle Arthur — apparently soon tired of his exotic wife, for it seems that two years after the marriage he left Martinique and never returned to it to the day of his death.”
“Pardon,” said Louisa in her prim little way, “my interrupting you: but have any of you — Lord Radclyffe I mean, or any of your friends — any recollection of your uncle Arthur living at Martinique for awhile? Two years seems a long time…”
“As a matter of fact, Uncle Arthur was a bit of a wastrel you know. He never would study for anything. He passed into the navy — very well, too, I believe — but he threw it all up almost as soon as he got his commission, and started roaming about the world. I do know for a fact that once his people had no news of him for about three or four years, and then he turned up one fine day as if he had only been absent for a week’s shooting.”
“When was that?”
“I can’t tell you exactly. I was only a tiny kid at the time, not more than three years old I should say. Yes, I do remember, now I come to think of it, that Uncle Arthur was home the Christmas after my third birthday. I have a distinct recollection of my dad telling me that Uncle Arthur was one of my presents from Father Christmas, and of my thinking what a rotten present it was. Later on in the nursery all of us children were rather frightened of him, and we used to have great discussions as to where this uncle came from. The Christmas present theory was soon exploded, because of some difficulty about Uncle Arthur not having been actually found in a stocking, and his being too big anyway to be hidden in one, so we fell back on Jim’s suggestion that he was the man in the moon come down for a holiday.”
“You,” she said, “had your third birthday in 1883.”
“That was the year, then, that your uncle Arthur came home from his wanderings about the world, during which he had never given any news of himself or his doings to any member of his family.”
“By Jove, Lou, what a splendid examining magistrate you’d make!” was Luke’s unsophisticated comment on Louisa’s last remark.
But she frowned a little at this show of levity, and continued quietly:
“And your uncle, according to this so-called Philip de Mountford, was married in 1881 in Martinique, his son was born in 1882, and he left Martinique in 1883 never to return.”
“Hang it all, Lou!” exclaimed the young man almost roughly, “that is all surmise.”
“I know it is, dear; I was only thinking.”
“That it all tallies so very exactly and that this — this Philip de Mountford seems in any case to know a great deal about your Uncle Arthur, and his movements in the past.”
“There’s no doubt of that; and…”
Luke paused a moment and a curious blush spread over his face. The Englishman’s inborn dislike to talk of certain subjects to his women folk had got hold of him, and he did not know how to proceed.
As usual in such cases the woman — unmoved and businesslike — put an end to his access of shyness.
“The matter is — or may be — too serious, dear, for you to keep any of your thoughts back from me at this juncture.”
“What I meant was,” he said abruptly, “that this Philip might quite well be Uncle Arthur’s son you know; but it doesn’t follow that he has any right to call himself Philip de Mountford, or to think that he is Uncle Rad’s presumptive heir.”
“That will of course depend on his proofs — his papers and so on,” she assented calmly. “Has any one seen them?”
“At the time — it was sometime last November — that he first wrote to Uncle Rad, he had all his papers by him. He wrote from St. Vincent; have I told you that?”
“Well, it was from St. Vincent that he wrote. He had left Martinique, I understand, in 1902, when St. Pierre, if you remember, was totally destroyed by volcanic eruption. It seems that when Uncle Arthur left the French colony for good, he lodged quite a comfortable sum in the local bank at St. Pierre in the name of Mrs. de Mountford. Of course he had no intention of ever going back there, and anyhow he never did, for he died about three years later. The lady went on living her own life quite happily. Apparently she did not hanker much after her faithless husband. I suppose that she never imagined for a moment that he meant to stick to her, and she certainly never bothered her head as to what his connections or friends over in England might be. Amongst her own kith and kin, the half-caste population of a French settlement, she was considered very well off, almost rich. After a very few years of grass-widowhood, she married again, without much scruple or compunction, which proves that she never thought that her English husband would come back to her. And then came the catastrophe.”
“The destruction of St. Pierre. You remember the awful accounts of it. The whole town was destroyed. Every building in the place — the local bank, the church, the presbytery, the post-office — was burned to the ground; everything was devastated for miles around. And thousands perished, of course.”
“Mrs. de Mountford and her son Philip were amongst the very few who escaped. Their cottage was burned to the ground, but she, with all a Frenchwoman’s sense of respect for papers and marks of identification, fought her way back into the house, even when it was tottering above her head, in order to rescue those things which she valued more than her life, the proofs that she was a respectable married woman and that Philip was her lawfully begotten son. Her second husband — I think from reading between the lines that he was a native or at best a half-caste — was one of the many who perished. But Mrs. de Mountford and Philip managed to reach the coast unhurt and to put out to sea in an open boat. They were picked up by a fishing smack from Marie Galante and landed there. It is a small island — French settlement, of course — off Guadeloupe. They had little or no money, and how they lived I don’t know, but they stayed in Marie Galante for some time. Then the mother died, and Philip made his way somehow or other to Roseau in Dominica and thence to St. Vincent.”
“When was that?”
“Last year I suppose.”
“And,” she said, meditating on all that she had heard, “it was in St. Vincent that he first realized who he was — or might be?”
“Well, in a British colony it was bound to happen. Whether somebody put him up to it out there, or whether he merely sucked the information in from nowhere in particular, I can’t say: certain it is that he did soon discover that the name he bore was one of the best known in England, and that his father must, as a matter of fact, have been own brother to the earl of Radclyffe. So he wrote to Uncle Rad.”
Louisa was silent. She was absorbed in thought and for the moment Luke had come to the end of what he had to say — or, rather, of what he meant to say just now. That there was more to come, Louisa well knew. Commonplace women have a way of intuitively getting at the bottom of the thoughts of people for whom they care. Louisa guessed that beneath Luke’s levity and his school-boyish slang — which grew more apparent as the man drew to the end of his narrative — that beneath his outward flippancy there lay a deep substratum of puzzlement and anxiety.
The story as told by Luke sounded crude enough, almost melodramatic, right out of the commonplace range of Louisa’s usual everyday life. Whilst she sat listening to this exotic tale of secret and incongruous marriage and of those earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which had seemed so remote when she had read about them nine years ago in the newspapers, she almost thought that she must be dreaming; that she would wake up presently in her bed at the Langham Hotel where she was staying with aunt, and that she would then dress and have her breakfast and go out to meet Luke, and tell him all about the idiotic dream she had had about an unknown heir to the Earldom of Radclyffe, who was a negro — or almost so — and was born in a country where there were volcanoes and earthquakes.
How far removed from her at this moment did aunt seem, and father, and the twins! Surely they could not be of the same world as this exotic pretender to Uncle Radclyffe’s affection, and to Luke’s hitherto undisputed rights. And as father and aunt and Mabel and Chris were very much alive and very real, then this so-called Philip de Mountford must be a creature of dreams.
“Or else an imposter.”
She had said this aloud, thus breaking in on her own thoughts and his. A feeling of restlessness seized her now. She was cold, too, for the April breeze was biting and had searched out the back of her neck underneath the sable stole and caused her to shiver in the spring sunshine.
“Let us walk,” she said, “a little — shall we?”
They walked up the gravelled walk under the chestnut trees, whereon the leaf buds, luscious looking, with their young green surface delicately tinged with pink, looked over ready to burst into fan-shaped fulness of glory. The well-kept paths, the orderly flower beds, and smoothly trimmed lawns looked all so simple, so obvious beside the strange problem which fate had propounded to these two young people walking up and down side by side — and with just a certain distance between them as if that problem was keeping them apart.
And that intangible reality stood between them, causing in Luke a vague sense of shamefacedness, as if he were guilty toward Louisa, and in her a feeling of irritation against the whole world around her, for having allowed this monstrous thing to happen — this vague shadow on life’s pathway, on the life of the only man who mattered.
People passed them as they walked: the curious, the indifferent: men with bowler hats pulled over frowning brows, boys with caps carelessly thrust at the back of their heads, girls with numbed fingers thrust in worn gloves, tip-tilted noses blue with cold, thin, ill-fitting clothes scarce shielding attenuated shoulders against the keen spring blast.
Just the humdrum, everyday crowd of London: the fighters, the workers, toiling against heavy odds of feeble health, insufficient food, scanty clothing, the poor that no one bothers about, less interesting than the unemployed labourer, less picturesque, less noisy, they passed and had no time to heed the elegantly clad figure wrapped in costly furs, or the young man in perfectly tailored coat, who was even now preparing himself for a fight with destiny, beside which the daily struggle for halfpence would be but a mere skirmish.
Instinctively they knew — these two — the society girl and the easy-going wealthy man — that it was reality with which they would have to deal. That instinct comes with the breath of fate: a warning that her decrees are serious, not to be lightly set aside, but pondered over; that her materialized breath would not be a phantom or a thing to be derided.
Truth or imposture? Which?