The Weight of the Crown - Fred M. White - ebook

The Weight of the Crown ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

The sudden dismissal of Jessie Harcourt in a fashion boutique brought her into shock. It was as if she had an affair with a prince and she forced his to kiss her. This angered her boss, Madame Malmaison. But is everything the way Malmaison says or she want to substitute her?

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Liczba stron: 427

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Contents

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

IX

X

XI

XII

XIII

XIV

XV

XVI

XVII

XVIII

XIX

XX

XXI

XXII

XXIII

XXIV

XXV

XXVI

XXVII

XXVIII

XXIX

XXX

XXXI

XXXII

XXXIII

XXXIV

XXXV

XXXVI

XXXVII

XXXVIII

XXXIX

XL

XLI

XLII

XLIII

XLIV

XLV

XLVI

XLVII

XLVIII

XLIX

I. WITHOUT A FRIEND

The girl stood there fighting hard to keep back the tears from her eyes. The blow had been so swift, so unexpected. And there was the hurt to her pride also.

“Do I understand that I am dismissed, Madame?” Jessie Harcourt asked quietly. “You mean that I am to go at the end of the week?”

The little woman with the faded fair hair and the silly affectation of fashion was understood to say that Miss Harcourt would go at once. The proprietress of the fashionable millinery establishment in Bond-street chose to call herself Madame Malmaison though she was London to the core. Her shrill voice shook a little as she spoke.

“You are a disgrace to the establishment,” she said. “I am sorry you ever came here. It is fortunate for me that Princess Mazaroff took the propel view so far as I am concerned. Your conduct was infamous, outrageous. You go to the Princess to try on hats for her Highness and what happens? You are found in the library engaged in a bold flirtation with her Highness’s son, Prince Boris. Romping together! You suffered him to kiss you. When the Princess came here just now and told me the story, I was–”

“It is a lie,” Jessie burst out passionately. “A cowardly lie on the part of a coward. Why did not that Russian cad tell the truth? He came into the drawing room where I was waiting for the Princess. Don’t interrupt me, I must speak, I tell you.”

Madame Malmaison subsided before the splendid fury of Jessie’s anger. She looked more like a countess than a shop girl as she stood there with her beautiful eyes blazing, the flash of sorrow on her lovely face. Madame Malmaison had always been a little proud of the beauty and grace and sweetness of her fitter-on. Perhaps she felt in her heart of hearts that the girl was telling the truth.

“I hope I am a lady,” Jessie said a little more gently–“at any rate, I try to remember that I was born one. And I am telling the truth–not that it matters much, seeing that you would send us all into the gutter rather than offend a customer like the Princess. That coward said his mother was waiting for me in the library. He would show me the way. Then he caught me in his arms and tried to kiss me. He wanted me to go to some theatre with him to-night. He was too strong for me. I thought I should have died of shame. Then the Princess came in and all the anger was for me. And that coward stood by and shirked the blame; he let it pass that I had actually followed him into the library.”

The girl was telling the truth, it was stamped on every word that she said. Madame Malmaison knew it also, but the hard look on her greedy face did not soften.

“You are wasting my time,” she said. “The Princess naturally prefers her version of the story, and she has demanded your instant dismissal. You must go.”

Jessie said no more. There was proud satisfaction in the fact that she had conquered her tears. She moved back to the splendid showroom with its Persian carpets and Louis Seize furniture as if nothing had happened. She had an idea that Madame Malmaison believed her, and that the latter would be discreet enough to keep the story from the other hands. And Jessie had no friends there. She could not quite bring herself to be friendly with the others. She had not forgotten the days when Colonel Harcourt’s daughter had mixed with the class of people whom she now served. Bitterly Jessie regretted that she had ever taken up this kind of life.

But unhappily there had been no help for it. Careless, easy going Colonel Harcourt had not troubled much about the education of his two girls and when the crash came and he died, they were totally unfitted to cope with the world. The younger girl, Ada was very delicate, and so Jessie had to cast about to make a living for the two. The next six months had been a horror.

It was in sheer desperation that Jessie had offered her services to Madame Malmaison. Here was the ideal fitter-on that that shrewd lady required. She was prepared to give a whole two guineas a week for Jessie’s assistance and the bargain was complete.

“Well, it was all over, anyway, now,” Jessie told herself. She was dismissed and that without a character. It would be in vain for her to apply to other fashionable establishments of the kind unless she was prepared to give some satisfactory reason for leaving Madame Malmaison. Her beauty and grace and charm would count for nothing with rival managers. The bitter, hopeless, weary struggle was going to begin all over again. The two girls were utterly friendless in London. In all the tragedy of life there is nothing more sad and pathetic than that.

Jessie conquered the feeling of despair for the moment. She had all her things to arrange; she had to tell the girl under her that she was leaving for good to-night. She had had a dispute with Madame Malmaison, she explained and she would not return in the morning. Jessie was surprised at the steadiness of her own voice is she gave the explanation. But her cold fingers trembled, and the tears were very heavy in the beautiful eyes. Jessie was praying for six o’clock now.

Mechanically she went about her work. She did not heed or hear the chatter of her companions; she did not see that somebody had handed her a note. Somebody said that there was no answer, and Jessie merely nodded. In the same dull way she opened the letter. She saw that the paper was good; she saw that the envelope bore her name. There was no address on the letter, which Jessie read twice before having the most remote idea of its meaning.

A most extraordinary letter, Jessie decided when at length she had fixed her mind into its usual channel. She read it again in the light of the sunshine. There was no heading, no signature.

“I am writing to ask you a great favour (the letter ran). I should have seen you and explained, but there was no time. If you have any heart and feeling you cannot disregard this appeal. But you will not ignore it, however, because you are as good and kind as you are beautiful. The happiness of a distressed and miserable woman is in your hands. Will you help me?

“But you will help me, I am certain. Come to 17 Gordon Gardens, to-night at half-past 9 o’clock. Come plainly dressed in black, and take care to wear a thick black veil. Say that you are the young person from Forder’s in Piccadilly, and that you have called about the dress. That is all that I ask you to do for the present. Then you will see me, and I can explain matters fully. Dare I mention money in connection with this case? If that tempts you, why the price is your own–500 pounds, 1000 pounds await you it you are bold and resolute.”

There was nothing more; no kind of clue to the identity of the writer. Jessie wondered if it were some mistake; but her name was most plainly written on the envelope. It bad been left by a district messenger boy, so that there was no way of finding out anything. Jessie wondered if she had been made the victim of some cruel hoax. Visions of a decoy rose before her eyes.

And yet there was no mistake about the address. Gordon Gardens was one of the finest and most fashionable squares in the West End of London. Jessie fluttered over the leaves of the London Directory. There was Gordon Gardens right enough–Lady Merehaven. The name was quite familiar to her, though the lady in question was not a customer of Madame Malmaison’s. All this looked very genuine, so also did the letter with the passionate, pleading tone behind the somewhat severe restraint of it all. Jessie had made up her mind.

She would go. Trouble and disappointment had not soured the nobility of her nature. She was ready as ever to hold out a helping hand to those in distress. And she was bold and resolute too. Moreover, as she told herself with a blush, she was not altogether indifferent to the money. Only a few shillings stood between her and Ada and absolute starvation. 500 pounds sounded like a fortune.

“I’ll go,” Jessie told herself. “I’ll see this thing to the bitter end, whatever the adventure may lead to. Unless, of course, it is something wrong or dishonest. But I don’t think that the writer of the letter means that. And perhaps I shall make a friend. God knows I need one.”

The closing hour came, and Jessie went her way. At the corner of New Bond-street a man stood before her, and bowed with an air of suggested politeness. He had the unmistakable air of the life debonaire; he was well dressed, and handsome in a picturesque way. But the mouth under the close-cropped beard was hard and sensual; the eyes had that in them that always fills the heart of a girl with disgust.

“I have been waiting for you,” the man said. “You see, I know your habits. I am afraid you are angry with me.”

“I am not angry with you at all,” Jessie said, coldly. “You are not worth it, Prince Boris. A Man who could play the contemptible cur as you played it this morning–”

“But, ma cherie, what could I do? Madame la Princess, my mother, holds the purse-strings. I am in disfavour the most utter and absolute. If my mother comes to your establishment and says–”

“The Princess has already been. She has told her version of the story. No doubt she heartily believes that she has been told the truth. I have been made out to be a scullery girl romping with the page boy. My word was as nothing against so valuable a client as the Princess. I am discharged without a character.”

Prince Boris stammered something, but the cruel light of triumph in his eyes belied his words. Jessie’s anger flamed up passionately. “Stand aside and let me pass,” she said: “and never dare to address me again. If you do, I will appeal to the first decent man who passes, and say you have grossly insulted me. I have a small consolation in the knowledge that you are not an Englishman.”

The man drew back abashed, perhaps ashamed, for his dark face flushed. He made no attempt to detain Jessie, who passed down the street with her cheeks flaming. She went on at length until she came to one of the smaller byways lending out of Oxford-street, and here, before a shabby-looking house, she stopped and let herself in with a latchkey. In a bare little room at the top of the house a girl was busy painting. She was a smaller edition of Jessie, and more frail and delicate. But the same pluck and spirit were there in Ada Harcourt.

“What a colour!” the younger girl cried. “And yet–Jessie, what has happened? Tell me.”

The story was told–indeed, there was no help for it. Then Jessie produced her mysterious letter. The trouble was forgotten for the time being. The whole thing was so vague and mysterious, and moreover there was the promise of salvation behind it. Ada flung her paint brush aside hastily.

“You will go?” she cried. “With an address like that there can be no danger. I am perfectly certain that that is a genuine letter, Jess, and the writer is in some desperate bitter trouble. We have too many of those troubles of our own to ignore the cry of help from another. And there is the money. It seems a horrible thing, but the money is a sore temptation.”

Jessie nodded thoughtfully. She smiled, too, as she noted Ada’s flushed, eager face.

“I am going,” she said. “I have quite made up my mind to that. I am going if only to keep my mind from dwelling on other things. Besides, that letter appeals to me. It seems to be my duty. And as you say, there is the money to take into consideration. And yet I blush even to think of it.”

Ada rose and walked excitedly about the room. The adventure appealed to her. Usually in the stories it was the men only to whom these exciting incidents happened. And here was a chance for a mere woman to distinguish herself. And Jessie, would do it, too, Ada felt certain. She had all the courage and resolution of her race.

“It’s perfectly splendid!” Ada cried. “I feel that the change of out fortunes is at hand. You are going to make powerful friends, Jessie; we shall come into our own again. And when you have married the prince, I hope you will give me a room under the palace roof to paint in. But you must not start on your adventure without any supper.”

Punctual to the moment Jessie turned into Gordon Gardens. Her heart was beating a little faster now; she half felt inclined to turn back and abandon the enterprise altogether. But then such a course would have been cowardly, and the girl was certainly not that. Besides, there was the ever unceasing grizzly spectre of poverty dangling before Jessie’s eyes. She must go on.

Here was No. 17 at length–a fine, double fronted house, the big doors of which stood open, giving a glimpse of the wealth and luxury beyond. Across the pavement, to her surprise, Jessie noticed that a breadth of crimson cloth had been unrolled. The girl had expected to find the house still and quiet, and here were evidences of social festivities. Inside the hall two big footmen lounged in the vestibule; a row of hats testified to the fact that there were guests here to dinner. A door opened somewhere, and a butler emerged with a tray in his hand.

As the door opened there was a pungent smell of tobacco smoke, followed by a bass roll of laughter. Many people were evidently dining there. Jessie felt that she needed all her courage now.

It was only for a moment that the girl hesitated. She was afraid to trust her own voice: the great lump in her throat refused to be swallowed. Then she walked up the scarlet-covered steps and knocked at the door. One of the big footmen strolled across and asked her her business.

“I am the young person from Forder’s, in Piccadilly,” Jessie said, with a firmness that surprised herself. “I was asked by letter to come here at this hour to-night.”

“Something about a dress?” the footman asked flippantly. “I’ll send and see.”

A moment later and the lady’s maid was inviting Jessie up the stairs. As requested, the girl had dressed herself in black; she wore a black sailor hat with a dark veil. Except in her carriage and the striking lines of her figure, she was the young person of the better class millionaire’s shop to the life. She came at length to a dressing-room, which was evidently about to be used by somebody of importance. The dressing-room was large and most luxuriously fitted; the contents of a silver-mounted dressing-bag were scattered over the table between the big cheval glasses; on a couch a ball dress had been spread out. Jessie began to understand what was going on–there had been a big dinner party, doubtless to be followed presently by an equally big reception. One of the blinds had not been quite drawn, and in the garden beyond Jessie could see hundreds of twinkling fairy lamps. The adventure was beginning to appeal to her now; she was looking forward to it with zeal and eagerness.

“My mistress will come to you in a moment,” the maid said, in the tone of one who speaks to an equal. “Only don’t let her keep you any longer than you can help. The sooner you are done the sooner I shall be able to finish and get out. Good night!”

The maid flitted away without shutting the door. Jessie’s spirits rose as she looked about her. There could be no possible chance of personal danger here. Jessie would have liked to have raised her veil to get a better view of all these lovely things that would appeal to a feminine mind, but she reflected that the black veil had been strongly insisted upon.

A voice came from somewhere, a voice asking somebody also in a whisper to put the lights out. This command was repeated presently in a hurried way, and Jessie realised that the voice was addressing her. Without a minute’s hesitation she crossed over to the door and flicked out the lights. Well, the adventure was beginning now in real earnest, Jessie told herself. The voices whispered something further, and then in the corridor Jessie saw something that rooted her to the spot. In perfect darkness herself, she could look boldly out into the light beyond. She saw the figure of a man half led and half carried between two women–one of them being in evening dress. The man’s face was as white as death. He was either very ill or very near to death, Jessie could see; his eyes were closed, and he dragged his limbs after him like one in the last stage of paralysis. One of the ladies in evening dress was elderly, her hair quite gray; the other was young and handsome, with a commanding presence. On her hair she wore a tiara of diamonds, only usually affected by those of royal blood. She looked every inch a queen, Jessie thought, as with her strong gleaming arms she hurried the stricken man along. And yet there was a furtive air about the pair that Jessie did not understand at all.

The phantom passed away quietly as it had come, like a dream; the trio vanished, and close by somebody was closing a bedroom door gently, as if fearful of being overheard. Jessie rubbed her eyes as if to make sure that the whole thing had not been a delusion. She was still pondering over that strange scene in a modern house, when there came the quick swish of drapery along the corridor, and somebody flashed into the room and closed and locked the door. That somebody was a woman, as the trail of skirts testified, but Jessie rose instantly to the attitude of self.

She had not long to wait, for suddenly the lights flashed up, and a girl in simple evening dress stood there looking at Jessie. There was a placid smile on her face, though her features were very white and quivering.

“How good of you!” she said. “God only knows how good of you. Will you please take off your hat, and I will......? Thank you. Now stand side by side with me before the glass. Is not that strange. Miss Harcourt? Do you see the likeness?”

Jessie gasped. Side by side in the glass she was looking at the very image of herself!

II. A DESPERATE VENTURE

“The likeness is wonderful,” Jessie cried. “How did you find out? Did anybody tell you? But you have not mentioned your own name yet, though you know who I am.”

The other girl smiled. Jessie liked the look of her face. It was a little haughty like her own, but the smile was very sweet, the features resolute and strong just now. Both the girls seemed to feel the strangeness of the situation. It was as if each was actually seeing herself for the first time. Then Jessie’s new friend began to speak.

“It is like this,” she exclaimed. “I am Vera Galloway, and Lady Merehaven is my aunt. As my aunt and my uncle, Lord Merehaven, have no children, they have more or less adopted me. I have been very happy here until quite lately, until the danger came not only to my adopted parents, but to one whom I love better than all the world. I cannot tell you what it is now, I have no time. But the danger to this house and Charles–I mean my lover–is terrible. Fate has made it necessary that I should be quite free for the next few hours, free to escape the eyes of suspicious people, and yet at the same time it is necessary that I should be here. My dear Miss Harcourt, you are going to take my place.”

“My dear Miss Galloway, the thing is impossible,” Jessie cried. “Believe me. I would help you if I could–anything that requires courage or determination. I am so desperately placed that I would do anything for money. But to take your place–”

“Why not? You are a lady, you are accustomed to society. Lord Merehaven you will probably not see all the evening, Lady Merehaven is quite short-sighted. And she never expects me to help to entertain her guests. There will be a mob of people here presently, and there is safety in numbers. A little tact, a little watchful discretion, and the thing is done.”

Vera Galloway spoke rapidly and with a passionate entreaty in her voice. Her beautiful face was very earnest. Jessie felt that she was giving way already.

“I might manage it,” she admitted dubiously. “But how did you come to hear of me?”

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