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The Pink ShopByFergus Hume
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The Pink Shop
CHAPTER I. IN THE EVENING
CHAPTER II. IN THE MORNING
CHAPTER III. THE LOST BAG
CHAPTER IV. THE INQUEST
CHAPTER V. SIR JOSEPH'S INTENTIONS
CHAPTER VI. AUDREY'S KNIGHT-ERRANT
CHAPTER VII. THE LADY DETECTIVE
CHAPTER VIII. A MYSTERIOUS COMMUNICATION
CHAPTER IX. THE QUESTION OF THE CLOCK
CHAPTER X. A SURPRISE
CHAPTER XI. A STORY OF THE PAST
CHAPTER XII. THE UNKNOWN CUSTOMER
CHAPTER XIII. A BLIND CLUE
CHAPTER XIV. AN AMAZING DISCOVERY
CHAPTER XV. RALPH'S SUSPICION
CHAPTER XVI. A DILEMMA
CHAPTER XVII. WHAT AUDREY OVERHEARD
CHAPTER XVIII. A LEGAL OPINION
CHAPTER XIX. MATRIMONIAL ARRANGEMENTS
CHAPTER XX. A MUSIC HALL ARTIST
CHAPTER XXI. THE MARRIAGE
CHAPTER XXII. THE PHOTOGRAPH
CHAPTER XXIII. ONE PART OF THE TRUTH
CHAPTER XXIV. ANOTHER PART OF THE TRUTH
CHAPTER XXV. REVENGE
CHAPTER XXVI. FINAL EXPLANATIONS
Madame Coralie was a magician. Emulating the dark-browed Medea, she restored the aged to their pristine youth; but her methods were more painless and less thorough than those of the lady from Colchis. That enchantress chopped up the senile who sought her aid, and boiled their fragments in a cauldron, so that they reappeared juvenile to the marrow of their bones; whereas her modern representative dealt only with externals, and painted rather than rebuilt the ruined house of life. Moreover, Medea exercised her arts on men, while Madame Coralie attended exclusively to women.
Numberless elderly dames, both in Society and out of it, owed their surprising looks of youth and beauty to the mistress of the Turkish Shop. It was situated in a mean little lane, leading from the High Street, Kensington, to nowhere in particular; and was, to the faded belles of Mayfair, a veritable fountain of youth, hidden in a shady corner. Ladies entered the shop old, and came out young; they left their broughams ugly, and returned beautiful.
The shop was a pink-painted building which faced the blank walls of other houses on the opposite side of the crooked lane, so that it could not be overlooked by any Peeping Tom. No spy could remark who went into the beauty factory or who came out of it, which was highly convenient, since Madame Coralie's clients conducted their visits with great secrecy for obvious reasons. The remaining dwellings in the lane were inhabited by poor people, who found their time sufficiently occupied in earning a bare livelihood, and who, consequently, paid no attention to the concerns of this particular neighbourhood. The lane formed a short cut between the High Street and the back portions of Kensington Palace, but few people passed through it, preferring to go round by the Gardens. A more central or a more retiring spot for the peculiar business of the shop could scarcely have been found; and this modest seclusion had much to do with Madame Coralie's success. Her customers usually came in broughams, motor or horse, and, as a rule, at nightfall, when few people were about. If the restorative treatment required time—which it frequently did—the comfortable bedrooms on the first floor could be occupied, and generally were, at a high rate of payment. Madame Coralie's clients declared unanimously that she was a true daughter of the horse-leech; but, however loudly they objected to her charges, they rarely refused to pay them. If they did, the miracle of rejuvenation did not transpire.
Those Society ladies who wished to retain or regain their good looks—and they formed a large majority—were well acquainted with that fantastic little shop, although their husbands and lovers and brothers and fathers did not dream of its existence. The police knew, but the police said nothing—partly because Madame Coralie skilfully kept on the right side of the law, and partly for the excellent reason that many of her clients were the wives and daughters, sisters, cousins, and aunts of the men who governed. Madame Coralie was blatantly respectable, and if she did supplement her acknowledged business by telling fortunes, and lending money, and arranging assignations and smothering scandals, she always acted so discreetly that no one in authority could say a word. Vice in this instance aped Virtue by assuming a modest demeanour.
Although coloured a bright pink, the shop really presented a demure appearance, as if unwilling to thrust itself into notice. Clients sometimes suggested that it should be painted as grey as a warship, since that unobtrusive hue was more in keeping with its necessary secrecy; but Madame Coralie held—and not unreasonably—that the flamboyant front was an excellent clue to the whereabouts of her business premises. Any lady told by a friend to go to the pink shop in Walpole Lane had no difficulty in finding her destination. The house, with its glaring tint, looked like a single peony in a colourless winter field, and just hinted sufficient publicity to lure customers into its perfumed seclusion. To womankind it was as a candle to many moths, and they all flocked round it with eagerness. And to do Madame Coralie justice, none of the moths were ever burnt, or even singed—she knew her business too well to risk any catastrophe which might attract the attention of Scotland Yard.
The ground floor of the building, decorated in a picturesque Saracenic fashion, and draped with oddly-patterned Eastern hangings, looked very much like an ordinary drawing-room, though somewhat more artistic and striking. Its polished floor was strewn with Persian praying-mats, while both ceiling and walls were painted in vivid colours with arabesque fancies, interspersed with poetic sentences from the poems of Sadi, Hafiz, and Omar Khayyam, written in flowery Turkish script. Broad divans of pink silk filled in various alcoves, masked by pierced horse-shoe arches of thin white-painted wood. In the centre bubbled a tiny fountain from a basin of snowy marble, and round this were Turkish stools of black wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, convenient to small tables adorned with ivory. The broad, low windows looking out on to the lane were hidden by fluted curtains of pink silk, interwoven with silver thread, and the light filtering through these being somewhat dim, even at noon, artificial illumination was supplied by many Moorish lamps fed with perfumed oil.
The whole shop reeked with scent, so that the atmosphere was heavy, sensuous and stupefying. Stepping through the street door—plain without, and elaborately carved within—Madame Coralie's customers at once left foggy, prosaic England for the allurements of the Near East; and in this secret chamber they found those rich suggestions of the Orient which awakened the latent longing for luxury common to all women.
And the costumes of Madame Coralie and her four assistants were in complete keeping with these surroundings—so characteristic of a Pasha's harem. They wore Turkish trousers, Turkish slippers and jackets, and voluminous Turkish veils; but the mistress alone assumed the yashmak—that well-known Eastern covering for the face, which reveals only the eyes, and accentuates the brilliancy of the same. No one had ever seen Madame Coralie without this concealment, and not even when alone with her quartette of young girls did she lay it aside. Consequently, it is impossible to say what her looks were like. Only two hard, piercing black eyes were visible, and, staring in an unwinking manner above the yashmak, they looked as sinister as those of an octopus. At least, one of Madame's overcharged customers said as much when the bill was presented, and it is probable that she was correct in her description. The fat little woman with the shapeless figure and deft fingers, and the cajoling tongue, belied by the hard eyes, was a veritable octopus, so far as money was concerned. She gathered in everything and gave out nothing. Even her assistants were not paid; for she lodged and boarded them, and taught them her doubtful trade, in lieu of giving wages.
These same assistants—four pretty, fresh and charming girls—were peculiar, to say the least of it. They bore Eastern names, to match their garb and the shop; but only the eldest of them—fancifully called Badoura—was in full possession of the five senses appertaining to humanity. Zobeide was adder-deaf, Peri Banou could not speak, and Parizade's beautiful blue eyes were sightless. Why Madame Coralie should have chosen these defective beings to attend on her customers was a mystery to all. But there was method in the old woman's apparent madness; for each of the trio, lacking a single sense, had more or less developed the remaining ones to unusual perfection. The blind Parizade possessed a marvellously deft touch, and her olfactory nerves were so keen as to cause her positive pain. Dumb Peri Banou had eyes like those of a lynx, and could spy out wrinkles and flaws and spots and grey hairs in a way which no other woman could have done; while Zobeide's deafness was more than compensated by her instinct for colouring complexions, and her faultless judgment in blending and preparing the various herbs, drugs and spices which combined to form those wares Madame Coralie's customers so eagerly purchased.
Badoura overlooked the three girls when Madame was absent, and being in full possession of her senses was extremely clever, diplomatic and managing. She attended mainly to the shop, while Parizade massaged wrinkled faces and kneaded figures into shape. Of the other two girls—Zobeide tinted wan cheeks, burnished drab hair, and pencilled delicate eyebrows, leaving Peri Banou to diagnose fresh cases, to point out defects, make suggestions, and put the final touches to renovated beauty. These four girls, under the able superintendence of Madame, could give a bulky matron the shape of Hebe, and could change the yellow of an unpleasant complexion to the rosy hues of dawn. The weary, worn women who passed through their hands said good-bye to them—with many thanks—as sprightly, blooming girls, with at least ten or twenty years taken from their ages. No wonder Madame Coralie was adored as Medea, and was looked upon by Society dames as their best and dearest friend, with the emphasis on the second adjective.
Madame Coralie boasted that no woman, not even the plainest, need despair while the wonder-shop—as some called it—was in existence; but it must be confessed that she found it sometimes difficult to work the expected miracle. Nature had done her worst with some customers, and no artificial aids could improve them, while others had left the renovative process too late, and there remained only unpromising material out of which to reconstruct the youthful past. Lady Branwin, for instance—really, it was impossible to do anything with Lady Branwin. When she came one June evening at five o'clock to the Turkish Shop, its owner told her so in the rude, bullying manner of a despot, who knows that her victim cannot object. Madame Coralie only assumed her cajoling voice and manner when her customers were insolent in a well-bred way—to the meek, she spoke like the skipper of a tramp with a Dago crew.
"I can't do anything for you," said Madame Coralie, bluntly; "you never had a good figure, or even the makings of one. All the massage and stays and dieting in the world can never improve it into anything decent."
"My complexion isn't so very bad," faltered Lady Branwin, not daring to rebel against this priestess of the toilette mysteries.
"Your what? Leather, my dear; thick, yellow leather, through which the blood can never show. No wash will make any impression on it, so why waste my time and your money?"
Lady Branwin, inwardly furious but outwardly submissive, dropped panting on to the soft divan of the particular alcove wherein this agreeable conversation was taking place. She somewhat resembled the autocrat of Mayfair, being stout and black-eyed, and short in stature. Her face had once been pretty and piquant, but being small and delicate was now sketched, as it were, on superabundant adipose. Her hair was really white with age, but from the use of many dyes had become parti-coloured, and her complexion was sinfully muddy. The sole beauty she possessed were two magnificent Spanish eyes, as large as of Madame Coralie, but scarcely so hard in expression. She was richly arrayed in a dove-coloured silk dress and a loose mantle of brown velvet trimmed with moonlight beads, together with a "Merry Widow" hat, appallingly un-becoming to her tiny features. Also she glittered with many brooches, bracelets, chains, and jewelled buttons, and even dangled a pair of lengthy earrings, after the barbaric fashion of the Albert period. Indeed, Lady Branwin did not look unlike a barbarian, say, an Esquimau, or an Indian squaw, with her yellow face, her squat figure, and her multiplicity of jewellery, although in this last respect she more resembled an Oriental. She breathed hard, and the tears came into her eyes as Madame Coralie continued her very personal remarks. "A sack," said the restorer of youth, "mere sack—a ruin of what you were sixty years ago."
This was too much, and the worm turned. "I am only fifty—you know I am."
"You look like a hundred, and nothing I can do for you will make you look less," was the relentless answer. "You eat and drink and sleep too much, and never take exercise, and your eyes show that you take morphia."
"I don't—it's not true. How dare you say so—how cruel to—"
"Don't waste your breath on me, my dear," advised Madame, coolly. "I am only a shop-keeper, who is honest enough to tell the truth. It's against my own interest, I admit; but why should I give expensive treatment to a woman who can do me no credit?"
"I can pay for the treatment—there is no reason why I shouldn't have it."
"Oh! You can pay, can you? How can I be sure of that?" sneered the other.
"There is no question of being sure," replied Lady Branwin, with dignity, "for my husband, Sir Joseph, is wealthy, as you know. You have only to name your price to have it."
This made an impression on Madame Coralie, who was nothing if not greedy. "My price has gone up since you called last."
"I don't care what the price is."
"Your husband may," snapped Madame Coralie, venomously. "However, that is his affair. I should like to know what you expect me to do?" and she ran her eyes superciliously over her stout customer.
"I want my complexion attended to, and my size reduced, and my—"
"That will do to begin with," interrupted the other, rudely. "That will do to go on with. You will have to stay for a few nights. To-night I am free, and you can have the empty bedroom at the back, on the ground floor. Then I can see what is to be done with you. But I'm afraid," added Madame, with a shrug, "that you are too far gone."
"I'll stay to-night with pleasure—you will do what I want, won't you?" and she looked very directly at the shop-woman.
In her turn Madame Coralie also fastened a penetrating gaze on her customer, and the two pair of black eyes met steadily. "I may, or may not," said the mistress of the Turkish Shop, frowning; "but this is not the place to talk over matters. Let me show you to your bedroom."
"Wait a minute," said Lady Branwin, rising heavily and waddling towards the door. "I must speak to my daughter," and she stepped into the lane.
Here a large and smart motor-car was waiting, which contained a remarkably pretty girl, who certainly had no need to seek Madame Coralie's advice in any way. She was reading a letter, but put it away with a blush when her mother appeared. "Well, mamma," she asked inquiringly, "will Madame Coralie give you the treatment?"
"Yes, she will; and she will charge, as she always does, in an extortionate manner," lamented Lady Branwin. "Give me that red bag, child; it's under the seat. You can drive home now, as I am staying for an hour or so. I may even stay to-night, after Madame Coralie has examined me. You had better call here, on your way to the theatre to-night, and then I shall know for certain if I am to stay."
"But you arranged to go to the theatre also, mamma."
"I can't go, Audrey. Madame Coralie may change her mind, and you know she is the only person who can make me look decent. Ask your father to go."
Audrey tapped her foot petulantly. "You know papa hates going to the theatre, and will grumble all the time."
"Then get Mrs. Mellop to take you," advised her mother, waddling back into the shop; "and don't forget to call, so that I may tell you if I am to remain for the night here. Madame may arrange for me to stay next week; but now I'm in I shan't go out, lest she should refuse to give me the treatment."
When Lady Branwin vanished Audrey shook her pretty head, greatly annoyed, as she did not care very much for Mrs. Mellop. But there was nothing else for her to do, unless Madame Coralie, after examination, refused to permit Lady Branwin to remain for the night. But that could be settled when calling in on her way to the theatre, and then Mrs. Mellop would be with her. There was evidently no escape from Mrs. Mellop, although Audrey would greatly have preferred her mother's company. With a shrug she told the chauffeur to return to the house on Camden Hill, and leant back to adjust the rug over her knees; as she did so, the admiring looks of a young man caught her eye.
He was slim and undersized, puny-limbed and effeminate in a fair-haired, anæmic way, which argued poverty of blood; but being over-dressed, and wearing his straw hat at a rakish tilt, he seemed virile enough to admire a pretty woman when he saw one. In his opinion Audrey deserved his attention, and he bestowed a fascinating leer on her, of which she naturally did not take the slightest notice. The car hummed slowly down the lane, and the young man followed quickly to watch it turn into the High Street; but, for all his pains, he did not catch a second glimpse of its charming occupant.
Meanwhile Madame Coralie conducted Lady Branwin to a bedroom on the ground floor, which looked out on to a lonely court, surrounded by a high brick wall. The shop was left entirely to Zobeide and Peri Banou, and as the first was deaf and the second dumb it would not seem easy for them to converse. But they managed to do so without difficulty, as Peri Banou spoke with her fingers, and, not suffering from Zobeide's defect, could hear her replies without difficulty. She asked a question about Lady Branwin. "She's the wife of Sir Joseph Branwin, the millionaire, who made his money by building seaside towns," answered Zobeide, in the flat tones of the deaf. "As you know, she often comes here to have her looks improved, but until to-day Madame has always refused to help her."
Peri Banou asked another question, and Zobeide nodded. "Oh, yes, she can pay well, but it will cost her a lot before she can be made to look respectable. I say, did you see Madame's husband outside just now?"
Peri Banou laughed, and, smiling very prettily, explained with her fingers that the husband in question had been trying to flirt with the young lady in the motor-car, but without result.
"Lady Branwin's daughter," said Zobeide, stealing to the window and peeping through the pink curtains; "she's a pretty girl and no mistake. But Madame is frightfully jealous, and if she catches her Eddy flirting she'll make it hot for him. He depends entirely on her for his bread-and-butter, you know. Wicked man—he's followed the car. Oh"—she drew back—"here's that tiresome Mrs. Warder, who is never satisfied." And in a few minutes both the girls were attending to a faded, lean woman, who insisted upon having ten years taken from her age, and explained her wants in a querulous voice.
As the hours passed the shop filled with women of all ages and all looks and all positions. There was a babel of voices, and the assistants flew hither and thither like brightly-coloured butterflies. Madame, leaving Lady Branwin to repose in the bedroom, reappeared, and, adopting her cajoling voice, dominated the rattle of tongues, as one who speaks with authority. It was hot enough outside, being a warm June evening, but within, the atmosphere was truly stifling with the glare of the lamps and perfumes of the wares, to say nothing of the fragrant scents used by the customers. One by one they were attended to, and one by one took reluctant leave of that fascinating shop. The four girls began to look weary and fagged, and Badoura with Parizade went upstairs to the room wherein the cosmetics were prepared. Madame Coralie heaved a sigh of relief when the door closed on the last worrying customer—and they all worried—and directed Zobeide and Peri Banou to tidy up the shop.
"It's long past seven," said Madame, with a yawn. "I must return to Lady Branwin, who is to stay for the night."
When she retired the girls made the shop as neat as a new pin, and the time passed very speedily as it always does with the busy. Peri Banou lay down to rest on a divan, but Zobeide, who had to prepare some particular paste required for Lady Branwin's complexion, went up to the still-room. Here she found the effeminate young man who had leered so rakishly at Audrey, and smiled graciously. Eddy Vail—Madame Coralie in private life was Mrs. Vail—knew the finger alphabet and asked her questions.
"Where is my wife?" he demanded anxiously.
Zobeide, noting his eager looks, decided that he wanted money, and laughed. "I think she is with Lady Branwin in the lower back bedroom."
"What, at this time! Why, it's five minutes to eight." And he glanced at the clock over the still-room mantelpiece, again speaking with his fingers.
"I thought it was much later myself," said Zobeide. "Wait for her. I daresay she won't be long. Where are Badoura and Parizade?"
"Behind the curtain," said Vail, with his fingers, and pointing to a figured drapery hanging from the ceiling to the floor, and which ran along a brass rod. "Can't you hear them chattering and laughing?"
Zobeide shot an angry glance at him, as she hated to have any allusion made to her deafness.
She would have said something disagreeable, but that Madame, adjusting her yashmak, entered the room. She looked, so far as could be judged from her eyes, irritated and startled. "I wish Lady Branwin was at the bottom of the sea," she said crossly. "Zobeide, attend to your work. And what do you mean, Eddy, coming up to trouble my girls? You have no right in this room, and I won't have it."
"You never objected before," grumbled Eddy, crossly.
"Then I object now. Go away; I'm busy. Lady Branwin is in the house, and—and others." She hesitated and snapped savagely: "I wish you would go away."
"I want a fiver."
"Then you shan't get it. Come to-morrow, and I'll see what I can do. By the way, I want you to go to Brighton for me."
"I don't mind, if you pay."
"Do I ever object to pay when you go on my business?" asked his wife, crossly, for the heat seemed to have worn her nerves thin.
"What's the business?" asked Eddy, taking out a cigarette.
"I'll tell you to-morrow. Go away now."
"And you'll give me the fiver to-morrow?"
"I'll give you ten pounds."
"Oh, I say, that deserves a kiss. Do remove that beastly yashmak and let me kiss you!"
Madame Coralie pushed him back violently. "Certainly not. I have no time for frivolity. Go away."
The young man looked astonished. "You always liked being kissed before," he remarked sulkily. "Are you going back to Lady Branwin?"
"No. She has had some supper, and will now sleep. I must attend to the paste for her complexion. Zobeide? Go away, Eddy. It's getting late."
"Five minutes after eight," said the young man, and sauntered out of the door. "I'll turn up to-morrow before midday. Good-bye."
Madame Coralie nodded wearily, and stared at the clock on the mantelpiece in a vague way. "Five minutes past eight," she murmured; "well, I thought—"
Her speech was interrupted by a ring at the front door of the shop. Badoura appeared from between the curtains. "Shall I go, Madame?"
"No. It is Miss Branwin. I'll go down myself," and with a tired sigh the stout woman rolled out of the room.
Eddy, apparently, had left the house by the side door at the end of the lower passage, for she saw nothing of him. Shortly she was on the pavement speaking to Audrey, who, clothed in a simple white dress, was waiting with Mrs. Mellop in the car.
"Will mamma stop for the night, Madame?" asked Audrey.
"Yes," replied the woman, adjusting her yashmak carefully. "Lady Branwin will stop for the night."
Audrey was one of the prettiest girls in the world, and beyond question the very prettiest in London. At least, Ralph Shawe said as much, and, although the statement was prejudiced by love, it undoubtedly was true in the main. For what other damsel, as the young man often pointed out, possessed such striking charms as Audrey displayed? Her bronzed and curling hair, her sparkling brown eyes, her transparent complexion, delicately hued as the dawn—these were desirable attributes in the eyes of a lover. Then her small figure—she was really diminutive—had the dainty grace of a gazelle. All Madame Coralie's art could not have created such a buoyant figure, nor could her taste have suggested any improvement in the various frocks which clothed it on various occasions. And those slim hands and feet, that radiant smile, and the general air of youthful gaiety were the envy of the women and the admiration of the men. These declarations sound somewhat too emphatic; but they must be taken as a précis of Ralph Shawe's thoughts. And, being a true lover, what could he do but think in superlatives?
How such a fairy came to be the sole daughter of a prosperous, commonplace pair such as Sir Joseph and his wife certainly were puzzled many people. Only the large quantity of money which they possessed excused their existence in the eyes of most people, although Shawe found another apology for them in the undoubted fact—strange as it may appear—that they were the parents of Audrey.
Certainly Sir Joseph was clever, or he would scarcely have started life with the proverbial penny, to end as the owner of over a million. But Audrey did not even inherit his type of brain, much less his massive looks. His capabilities were of the cunning, business kind, which turn others' needs to their owners' advantage, whereas the talents of Audrey were more artistic and intellectual. She knew nothing of business, but she painted in water-colour with great taste, played the piano with wonderful sympathy and brilliancy, and sang like the sirens of old. Also she could dance like the daughter of Herodias, and if she did not win a head as her reward, she assuredly gained a heart—that of Ralph Shawe, of the Middle Temple, barrister-at-law. Audrey, however, had not that one strong original talent which makes for fame in its particular direction; but she possessed a bundle of small accomplishments, which went to make up a singularly charming personality. She was an angel, said Shawe, and, speaking broadly, he was correct in saying so, for Audrey was as angelical as mere flesh and blood well could be.
The lovers were sauntering in Kensington Gardens when he said this—not for the first time—and the hour was so early that few people were about. Audrey had risen at six o'clock to meet Ralph at seven in the morning near the Round Pond, and save for the handful of working men and office-workmen, who were taking short cuts to their various employments, they had the whole delightful paradise to themselves. The sky was of a turquoise hue, not yet over-warmed by the sun, and both trees and sward looked as though they had been newly washed in the dews of night. At that early hour everything seemed paler and more delicate than in the fierce glare of noonday, and "the silent workings of the dawn"—to use Keats's wonderful expression—were still in progress. A cool, dewy zephyr was breathing across the green expanse, and the leaves of many trees talked joyously. London lay all round, stirring alertly under the faint dun cloud of smoke, but the fragrant Eden of the Gardens preserved its almost primeval calm. And these two walked therein, like a modern Adam and Eve, with a sense that the surrounding loveliness exactly expressed their unspoken feelings.
"I wish we could walk here all day," said Shawe, trying to express the inexpressible, and grudging the swift passing of the golden moments.
"We should only be two in a crowd," replied Audrey, with the more prosaic instinct of women. "Endless people come to the Gardens during the day. If they were sensible they would be here now. I can't understand why the silly things remain in bed when the weather is so perfect."
"Perhaps not one of them has an Audrey to meet."
Miss Branwin laughed gaily. "I daresay every young man has an Audrey of his own, just as every girl has a Ralph."
"Then why aren't they walking here along with us?"
"Ah, they know we wish to be alone, and so have the good sense to stop in bed. And then"—she broke off laughing—"what nonsense we talk!"
"Delicious nonsense, I think. Let us go on talking, as we'll have enough commonsense during the day. Don't you think"—Ralph slipped an eager arm round her slender waist—"that you might—"
She drew back from his approaching lips with a blush, and dexterously twisted away to a safe distance. "Certainly not. Those workmen would see us."
"And envy me," replied Ralph, sentimentally, glancing round meanwhile for some secluded spot. "Don't you think that we might sit under this elm? It's not so open to—to—er—to observation, you know. May I smoke?"
"What, before breakfast?" questioned Audrey, sitting down on the grass.
"I have had my breakfast—that is, so much as I could eat, with you in my thoughts, darling. And you?"
"I had a cup of tea and some thin bread-and-butter. But I shall have my real breakfast when I return home."
"And you will think of me?"
"If," said Audrey, with mischievous gravity, "if it is possible to do two things at one time I shall think of you."
"Darling!" And this time he really kissed her.
Of course, it was all very silly, but extremely delightful, all the same; for love's commonsense is the nonsense of everyday life. A cynic would have considered the conversation of Audrey and Ralph to be drivel; and no doubt it was, to anyone but their very own selves. But only the birds could hear the billing and cooing which went on, until his wooing and her coquetting ended in a long silence, wherein they held each other's hand and, looking eye to eye, sighed at intervals. Yet Audrey was a sensible girl, and Ralph was a rising barrister, winning golden opinions in the Law Courts. If his clients could have seen him now, acting Hercules in the toils of Omphale, he would never have secured another brief.
Shawe was slim and dark-complexioned, with a clear-cut, classical face, eminently suited, with its steady grey eyes and firm lips, to his profession. He was handsome in a severe way, and rarely smiled, perhaps because he saw too persistently and too closely the seamy side of life with which the law has to deal. Only a glance from Audrey could soften his granite looks, and her mere presence changed him into a more companionable being. He loved her more than he did his profession—and that is saying a great deal, for he was ambitious, and had visions of the Woolsack. Many said that he might attain even to that high altitude, as he was admitted on all hands to be brilliantly clever. But just now, while playing in Cupid's garden, he looked and acted like a young man of the ordinary type, because love, which is common to all, had ousted for the moment that genius which is given to few. So he sighed and she sighed, and she looked and he looked; their hands thrilled when in contact, and the birds overhead sang the songs of their hearts, which, being limited by speech, they could not utter. In this manner did they dwell in Arcady and recall one hour of the Golden Age, when gods wooed mortal maids.
"But it's all very well," said Audrey, withdrawing her hand, and breathing a final sigh of silent delight, "time is pressing, and I have to call at Madame Coralie's before I go home."
"Who is Madame Coralie?" asked Shawe, also sighing, as he awakened to the fact that the work-a-day world had need of him.
Audrey laughed. "No mere man can understand who Madame Coralie is, or what she is. But if you will walk with me to Walpole Lane I can show you her shop—not that the shop will explain."
"What kind of goods does she sell?" asked the young barrister, lazily, and admiring the profile of his beloved.
"She sells figures and complexions and false hair and lip-salve, and—"
"Stop! Stop! You surely don't want any of those beastly things?"
"Not yet," said Audrey, significantly; "but I may some day. It is mamma who wants them just now. She has no figure, poor dear, and her complexion is like a frog's skin. I am going to call and ask how she passed the night, and I take you because we have no secrets from one another."
"Is Lady Branwin's presence at this shop a secret?"
"Of course. Mamma wants to be made young and beautiful, so she goes secretly to Madame Coralie. A woman doesn't advertise her need of restoration."
"But I don't quite understand what sort of shop this Madame Coralie keeps?" said Ralph, looking puzzled and contracting his dark brows.
"It's a beauty-factory," explained Audrey, hugging her knees; "women like mamma go there to regain whatever looks they may have had. I shall go also some day, when I am old and scraggy."
"Never, if you are my wife, dear. I want to see you grow old gracefully."
"I don't want to grow old at all; no woman ever does, you stupid thing. As to becoming your wife, I never may be. You know that."
"No, I don't, sweetest." Ralph possessed himself of her frock hem and kissed it fervently. "I know that your father doesn't think I am a good match for you, and that your mother wishes you to marry a title. All the same, I intend to have my own way and make you Mrs. Shawe for a time."
"For a time!" cried Audrey, indignantly. "What do you mean, Ralph?"
"Until you are Lady Shawe, dearest, or perhaps Lady Bleakleigh. That is the Somerset village where I was born," explained Ralph. "My father is the squire. When I get my title—and I shall some day, by sheer dint of brain-power—I shall take that title; then you will be—"
But Audrey was not listening. "Bleakleigh—Bleakleigh," she muttered; "where have I heard that name?"
"From your father," said Shawe, promptly. "He told me one evening, in a moment of expansion after dinner, that he came from Bleakleigh, starting as a farm labourer to end as Sir Joseph Branwin, the millionaire."
"He won't end at that," said Audrey, gravely; "papa is too ambitious. Like yourself, he intends to gain a Peerage, and may some day be Lord Bleakleigh, before you can secure the title."
"Well, it doesn't matter, so long as I secure you."
"You won't, if my parents are to be considered."
"Then why consider them?" asked Ralph, coolly. "I know that they both want you to marry a Duke or an Earl, so as to forward their plans for social advancement; but I don't see why you should be sacrificed in this way."
"Oh, I shan't be sacrificed, I promise you," said Audrey, nodding her small head vigorously; "and when it comes to fighting, I think that mamma will be on my side. She is very fond of me."
"Of course. Aren't both of your parents fond of you?"
"Mamma is, but I don't think papa loves me much. He looks upon me as one of the pawns in the game of life, to be moved that he may win. You must have seen that, from the way in which he has forbidden you the house."
"I think he treated me very badly," said Ralph, flushing. "I went to him and stated frankly that I loved you, explaining my prospects, which are of the best. He behaved like a—well, I can't say—"
"I can," interrupted the girl, rising, with a shrug—"like a pig."
"My dear!" Shawe rose also, and looked somewhat shocked.
"Oh, what is the use of mincing matters?" said Audrey, wearily. "You know, and I know, and everyone else knows, that my father is a rude, blatant, uncouth labourer, just as he was when he left Bleakleigh years ago. He treats my mother shamefully, and shows in every way that he has no love for me. 'Honour thy father' doesn't apply to me, I assure you. I am most unhappy at home."
"I wish we could marry at once," said Ralph, biting his fingers, "and then we could see little or nothing of him; but I am not yet in a position to marry, unfortunately."
"Never mind, darling"—she took his arm, and they strolled across the grass towards the gravelled path—"until you are ready to marry me I shall remain true to you. I shan't marry anyone with a title, unless you become Lord Bleakleigh, of course; and by that time I shall be a client of Madame Coralie's, since you won't be Lord Chancellor for years and years."
"I wish you wouldn't talk of going to this beauty-factory, Audrey," said the young man, irritably; "you know that I prefer you as God made you."
"Now, dearest; but when I am old—"
"I shall love you all the same."
"I hope so," said Audrey, with a little sigh; "but men love good looks in a woman, and when those go love grows cold."
"With mere animal men, but not with one like myself. I love with my heart more than with my eye. Don't class me with your father."
"I wouldn't marry you if I did," she retorted. "It's bad enough to have Sir Joseph Branwin as a father without taking one of his nature as a husband. If you only knew how he has insulted poor mamma about her looks! That is why she has gone to Madame Coralie. But I don't think that anything will do much good, even if poor mamma became as beautiful as Venus. Papa seems to have taken a dislike to her. It makes me very unhappy," ended the girl, with a mournful shake of the head.
Ralph frowned, and considered. He hated to think that Audrey's youthful spirits should be damped by the disagreement between her parents—a disagreement which rose solely from Sir Joseph's animal nature. With all his brain power he was a mere hog of the fields, and good looks in women alone attracted him towards the sex. Shawe knew of Sir Joseph's attentions to various actresses and Society beauties, which had been spoken about openly enough at the clubs; and it was quite likely that, now his purse gave him the power to lure women into liking, if not into love, he was growing weary of his uncomely old wife. There was something very pathetic in the shapeless, homely Lady Branwin seeking to recover her husband's affections by making herself attractive artificially. But he privately agreed with Audrey that it was too late, and even if Lady Branwin became, unnaturally, as beautiful as Venus, he felt certain that Sir Joseph would continue to dislike her. His distaste for his old wife was more than skin deep; of that Ralph felt sure.
"Is Lady Branwin at the shop now?" asked Ralph, when the two passed through the side gate of the Gardens at the back of the Palace, and speaking anything rather than his thoughts, for obvious reasons.
"Yes. She stayed there last night, so that Madame Coralie could decide if she would undertake to give her the necessary treatment. If she does, mamma will have to remain for a week or more. I am calling to ask what is to be done, as papa is in a bad temper because my mother stopped away. He insists that she shall return home."
"I wonder Lady Branwin doesn't get a separation," muttered the barrister, again reflecting on Sir Joseph's attentions to other women.
"If she dared to take legal proceedings papa would turn her into the street without a penny," said Audrey, calmly. "I am under no illusion as to his nature, my dear. But let us get on. I wish to be home as soon as possible to give papa his breakfast. If I am not there, since mamma is still absent, he will make himself so disagreeable."
"He invariably does," said Ralph, grimly; for a single interview with the millionaire had given him an astonishing insight into the man's brutal nature. "Where is this shop, Audrey?"
"Down this lane. Yonder it is, painted pink."
"What a glaring advertisement," remarked Shawe, as they walked quickly down the crooked by-way. "If Madame Coralie paints her customers as she has done her shop, they must all look like blowsy dairymaids. She seems to be doing a good trade this morning."
"There is a crowd," admitted Audrey, with an anxious glance; "but it's odd a crowd should be round the shop at this hour. Madame's clients usually come at night, and very privately."
"I don't think these are customers," said Shawe, as they reached the large assemblage of people which blocked the lane.
The individuals who composed the mob certainly were not the Society customers of Madame Coralie, as they comprised poor men and women of the lowest classes, with here and there a better-dressed person. Policemen were directing the throng and keeping order, but they could not prevent tongues clacking, and there was quite a babel of voices.
"What is the matter?" Audrey asked a red-faced female in rusty black.
"Murder!" said the woman, with relish. "One of them fine ladies who comes here to get painted has been done for."
Audrey grew white and started. "Do you know the name?"
"Ho yes, miss. I heard a policeman say as she was called Lady Branwin."
"Ralph, Ralph!" whispered the girl, and clutched her lover to keep herself from falling. "My mother! Murdered! Oh, Ralph!"
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