Transcribed by David Price, email email@example.com
THE ARROW OF GOLD–A STORY BETWEEN TWO NOTES
The pages which follow have been extracted from a pile of manuscript which was apparently meant for the eye of one woman only. She seems to have been the writer’s childhood’s friend. They had parted as children, or very little more than children. Years passed. Then something recalled to the woman the companion of her young days and she wrote to him: “I have been hearing of you lately. I know where life has brought you. You certainly selected your own road. But to us, left behind, it always looked as if you had struck out into a pathless desert. We always regarded you as a person that must be given up for lost. But you have turned up again; and though we may never see each other, my memory welcomes you and I confess to you I should like to know the incidents on the road which has led you to where you are now.”
And he answers her: “I believe you are the only one now alive who remembers me as a child. I have heard of you from time to time, but I wonder what sort of person you are now. Perhaps if I did know I wouldn’t dare put pen to paper. But I don’t know. I only remember that we were great chums. In fact, I chummed with you even more than with your brothers. But I am like the pigeon that went away in the fable of the Two Pigeons. If I once start to tell you I would want you to feel that you have been there yourself. I may overtax your patience with the story of my life so different from yours, not only in all the facts but altogether in spirit. You may not understand. You may even be shocked. I say all this to myself; but I know I shall succumb! I have a distinct recollection that in the old days, when you were about fifteen, you always could make me do whatever you liked.”
He succumbed. He begins his story for her with the minute narration of this adventure which took about twelve months to develop. In the form in which it is presented here it has been pruned of all allusions to their common past, of all asides, disquisitions, and explanations addressed directly to the friend of his childhood. And even as it is the whole thing is of considerable length. It seems that he had not only a memory but that he also knew how to remember. But as to that opinions may differ.
This, his first great adventure, as he calls it, begins in Marseilles. It ends there, too. Yet it might have happened anywhere. This does not mean that the people concerned could have come together in pure space. The locality had a definite importance. As to the time, it is easily fixed by the events at about the middle years of the seventies, when Don Carlos de Bourbon, encouraged by the general reaction of all Europe against the excesses of communistic Republicanism, made his attempt for the throne of Spain, arms in hand, amongst the hills and gorges of Guipuzcoa. It is perhaps the last instance of a Pretender’s adventure for a Crown that History will have to record with the usual grave moral disapproval tinged by a shamefaced regret for the departing romance. Historians are very much like other people.
However, History has nothing to do with this tale. Neither is the moral justification or condemnation of conduct aimed at here. If anything it is perhaps a little sympathy that the writer expects for his buried youth, as he lives it over again at the end of his insignificant course on this earth. Strange person–yet perhaps not so very different from ourselves.
A few words as to certain facts may be added.
It may seem that he was plunged very abruptly into this long adventure. But from certain passages (suppressed here because mixed up with irrelevant matter) it appears clearly that at the time of the meeting in the cafe, Mills had already gathered, in various quarters, a definite view of the eager youth who had been introduced to him in that ultra-legitimist salon. What Mills had learned represented him as a young gentleman who had arrived furnished with proper credentials and who apparently was doing his best to waste his life in an eccentric fashion, with a bohemian set (one poet, at least, emerged out of it later) on one side, and on the other making friends with the people of the Old Town, pilots, coasters, sailors, workers of all sorts. He pretended rather absurdly to be a seaman himself and was already credited with an ill-defined and vaguely illegal enterprise in the Gulf of Mexico. At once it occurred to Mills that this eccentric youngster was the very person for what the legitimist sympathizers had very much at heart just then: to organize a supply by sea of arms and ammunition to the Carlist detachments in the South. It was precisely to confer on that matter with Dona Rita that Captain Blunt had been despatched from Headquarters.
Mills got in touch with Blunt at once and put the suggestion before him. The Captain thought this the very thing. As a matter of fact, on that evening of Carnival, those two, Mills and Blunt, had been actually looking everywhere for our man. They had decided that he should be drawn into the affair if it could be done. Blunt naturally wanted to see him first. He must have estimated him a promising person, but, from another point of view, not dangerous. Thus lightly was the notorious (and at the same time mysterious) Monsieur George brought into the world; out of the contact of two minds which did not give a single thought to his flesh and blood.
Their purpose explains the intimate tone given to their first conversation and the sudden introduction of Dona Rita’s history. Mills, of course, wanted to hear all about it. As to Captain Blunt–I suspect that, at the time, he was thinking of nothing else. In addition it was Dona Rita who would have to do the persuading; for, after all, such an enterprise with its ugly and desperate risks was not a trifle to put before a man–however young.
It cannot be denied that Mills seems to have acted somewhat unscrupulously. He himself appears to have had some doubt about it, at a given moment, as they were driving to the Prado. But perhaps Mills, with his penetration, understood very well the nature he was dealing with. He might even have envied it. But it’s not my business to excuse Mills. As to him whom we may regard as Mills’ victim it is obvious that he has never harboured a single reproachful thought. For him Mills is not to be criticized. A remarkable instance of the great power of mere individuality over the young.
Certain streets have an atmosphere of their own, a sort of universal fame and the particular affection of their citizens. One of such streets is the Cannebiere, and the jest: “If Paris had a Cannebiere it would be a little Marseilles” is the jocular expression of municipal pride. I, too, I have been under the spell. For me it has been a street leading into the unknown.
There was a part of it where one could see as many as five big cafes in a resplendent row. That evening I strolled into one of them. It was by no means full. It looked deserted, in fact, festal and overlighted, but cheerful. The wonderful street was distinctly cold (it was an evening of carnival), I was very idle, and I was feeling a little lonely. So I went in and sat down.
The carnival time was drawing to an end. Everybody, high and low, was anxious to have the last fling. Companies of masks with linked arms and whooping like red Indians swept the streets in crazy rushes while gusts of cold mistral swayed the gas lights as far as the eye could reach. There was a touch of bedlam in all this.
Perhaps it was that which made me feel lonely, since I was neither masked, nor disguised, nor yelling, nor in any other way in harmony with the bedlam element of life. But I was not sad. I was merely in a state of sobriety. I had just returned from my second West Indies voyage. My eyes were still full of tropical splendour, my memory of my experiences, lawful and lawless, which had their charm and their thrill; for they had startled me a little and had amused me considerably. But they had left me untouched. Indeed they were other men’s adventures, not mine. Except for a little habit of responsibility which I had acquired they had not matured me. I was as young as before. Inconceivably young–still beautifully unthinking–infinitely receptive.
You may believe that I was not thinking of Don Carlos and his fight for a kingdom. Why should I? You don’t want to think of things which you meet every day in the newspapers and in conversation. I had paid some calls since my return and most of my acquaintance were legitimists and intensely interested in the events of the frontier of Spain, for political, religious, or romantic reasons. But I was not interested. Apparently I was not romantic enough. Or was it that I was even more romantic than all those good people? The affair seemed to me commonplace. That man was attending to his business of a Pretender.
On the front page of the illustrated paper I saw lying on a table near me, he looked picturesque enough, seated on a boulder, a big strong man with a square-cut beard, his hands resting on the hilt of a cavalry sabre–and all around him a landscape of savage mountains. He caught my eye on that spiritedly composed woodcut. (There were no inane snapshot-reproductions in those days.) It was the obvious romance for the use of royalists but it arrested my attention.
Just then some masks from outside invaded the cafe, dancing hand in hand in a single file led by a burly man with a cardboard nose. He gambolled in wildly and behind him twenty others perhaps, mostly Pierrots and Pierrettes holding each other by the hand and winding in and out between the chairs and tables: eyes shining in the holes of cardboard faces, breasts panting; but all preserving a mysterious silence.
They were people of the poorer sort (white calico with red spots, costumes), but amongst them there was a girl in a black dress sewn over with gold half moons, very high in the neck and very short in the skirt. Most of the ordinary clients of the cafe didn’t even look up from their games or papers. I, being alone and idle, stared abstractedly. The girl costumed as Night wore a small black velvet mask, what is called in French a “loup.” What made her daintiness join that obviously rough lot I can’t imagine. Her uncovered mouth and chin suggested refined prettiness.
They filed past my table; the Night noticed perhaps my fixed gaze and throwing her body forward out of the wriggling chain shot out at me a slender tongue like a pink dart. I was not prepared for this, not even to the extent of an appreciative “Tres foli,” before she wriggled and hopped away. But having been thus distinguished I could do no less than follow her with my eyes to the door where the chain of hands being broken all the masks were trying to get out at once. Two gentlemen coming in out of the street stood arrested in the crush. The Night (it must have been her idiosyncrasy) put her tongue out at them, too. The taller of the two (he was in evening clothes under a light wide-open overcoat) with great presence of mind chucked her under the chin, giving me the view at the same time of a flash of white teeth in his dark, lean face. The other man was very different; fair, with smooth, ruddy cheeks and burly shoulders. He was wearing a grey suit, obviously bought ready- made, for it seemed too tight for his powerful frame.
That man was not altogether a stranger to me. For the last week or so I had been rather on the look-out for him in all the public places where in a provincial town men may expect to meet each other. I saw him for the first time (wearing that same grey ready- made suit) in a legitimist drawing-room where, clearly, he was an object of interest, especially to the women. I had caught his name as Monsieur Mills. The lady who had introduced me took the earliest opportunity to murmur into my ear: “A relation of Lord X.” (Un proche parent de Lord X.) And then she added, casting up her eyes: “A good friend of the King.” Meaning Don Carlos of course.
I looked at the proche parent; not on account of the parentage but marvelling at his air of ease in that cumbrous body and in such tight clothes, too. But presently the same lady informed me further: “He has come here amongst us un naufrage.”
I became then really interested. I had never seen a shipwrecked person before. All the boyishness in me was aroused. I considered a shipwreck as an unavoidable event sooner or later in my future.
Meantime the man thus distinguished in my eyes glanced quietly about and never spoke unless addressed directly by one of the ladies present. There were more than a dozen people in that drawing-room, mostly women eating fine pastry and talking passionately. It might have been a Carlist committee meeting of a particularly fatuous character. Even my youth and inexperience were aware of that. And I was by a long way the youngest person in the room. That quiet Monsieur Mills intimidated me a little by his age (I suppose he was thirty-five), his massive tranquillity, his clear, watchful eyes. But the temptation was too great–and I addressed him impulsively on the subject of that shipwreck.
He turned his big fair face towards me with surprise in his keen glance, which (as though he had seen through me in an instant and found nothing objectionable) changed subtly into friendliness. On the matter of the shipwreck he did not say much. He only told me that it had not occurred in the Mediterranean, but on the other side of Southern France–in the Bay of Biscay. “But this is hardly the place to enter on a story of that kind,” he observed, looking round at the room with a faint smile as attractive as the rest of his rustic but well-bred personality.
I expressed my regret. I should have liked to hear all about it. To this he said that it was not a secret and that perhaps next time we met. . .
“But where can we meet?” I cried. “I don’t come often to this house, you know.”
“Where? Why on the Cannebiere to be sure. Everybody meets everybody else at least once a day on the pavement opposite the Bourse.”
This was absolutely true. But though I looked for him on each succeeding day he was nowhere to be seen at the usual times. The companions of my idle hours (and all my hours were idle just then) noticed my preoccupation and chaffed me about it in a rather obvious way. They wanted to know whether she, whom I expected to see, was dark or fair; whether that fascination which kept me on tenterhooks of expectation was one of my aristocrats or one of my marine beauties: for they knew I had a footing in both these– shall we say circles? As to themselves they were the bohemian circle, not very wide–half a dozen of us led by a sculptor whom we called Prax for short. My own nick-name was “Young Ulysses.”
I liked it.
But chaff or no chaff they would have been surprised to see me leave them for the burly and sympathetic Mills. I was ready to drop any easy company of equals to approach that interesting man with every mental deference. It was not precisely because of that shipwreck. He attracted and interested me the more because he was not to be seen. The fear that he might have departed suddenly for England–(or for Spain)–caused me a sort of ridiculous depression as though I had missed a unique opportunity. And it was a joyful reaction which emboldened me to signal to him with a raised arm across that cafe.
I was abashed immediately afterwards, when I saw him advance towards my table with his friend. The latter was eminently elegant. He was exactly like one of those figures one can see of a fine May evening in the neighbourhood of the Opera-house in Paris. Very Parisian indeed. And yet he struck me as not so perfectly French as he ought to have been, as if one’s nationality were an accomplishment with varying degrees of excellence. As to Mills, he was perfectly insular. There could be no doubt about him. They were both smiling faintly at me. The burly Mills attended to the introduction: “Captain Blunt.”
We shook hands. The name didn’t tell me much. What surprised me was that Mills should have remembered mine so well. I don’t want to boast of my modesty but it seemed to me that two or three days was more than enough for a man like Mills to forget my very existence. As to the Captain, I was struck on closer view by the perfect correctness of his personality. Clothes, slight figure, clear-cut, thin, sun-tanned face, pose, all this was so good that it was saved from the danger of banality only by the mobile black eyes of a keenness that one doesn’t meet every day in the south of France and still less in Italy. Another thing was that, viewed as an officer in mufti, he did not look sufficiently professional. That imperfection was interesting, too.
You may think that I am subtilizing my impressions on purpose, but you may take it from a man who has lived a rough, a very rough life, that it is the subtleties of personalities, and contacts, and events, that count for interest and memory–and pretty well nothing else. This–you see–is the last evening of that part of my life in which I did not know that woman. These are like the last hours of a previous existence. It isn’t my fault that they are associated with nothing better at the decisive moment than the banal splendours of a gilded cafe and the bedlamite yells of carnival in the street.
We three, however (almost complete strangers to each other), had assumed attitudes of serious amiability round our table. A waiter approached for orders and it was then, in relation to my order for coffee, that the absolutely first thing I learned of Captain Blunt was the fact that he was a sufferer from insomnia. In his immovable way Mills began charging his pipe. I felt extremely embarrassed all at once, but became positively annoyed when I saw our Prax enter the cafe in a sort of mediaeval costume very much like what Faust wears in the third act. I have no doubt it was meant for a purely operatic Faust. A light mantle floated from his shoulders. He strode theatrically up to our table and addressing me as “Young Ulysses” proposed I should go outside on the fields of asphalt and help him gather a few marguerites to decorate a truly infernal supper which was being organized across the road at the Maison Doree–upstairs. With expostulatory shakes of the head and indignant glances I called his attention to the fact that I was not alone. He stepped back a pace as if astonished by the discovery, took off his plumed velvet toque with a low obeisance so that the feathers swept the floor, and swaggered off the stage with his left hand resting on the hilt of the property dagger at his belt.
Meantime the well-connected but rustic Mills had been busy lighting his briar and the distinguished Captain sat smiling to himself. I was horribly vexed and apologized for that intrusion, saying that the fellow was a future great sculptor and perfectly harmless; but he had been swallowing lots of night air which had got into his head apparently.
Mills peered at me with his friendly but awfully searching blue eyes through the cloud of smoke he had wreathed about his big head. The slim, dark Captain’s smile took on an amiable expression. Might he know why I was addressed as “Young Ulysses” by my friend? and immediately he added the remark with urbane playfulness that Ulysses was an astute person. Mills did not give me time for a reply. He struck in: “That old Greek was famed as a wanderer–the first historical seaman.” He waved his pipe vaguely at me.
“Ah! Vraiment!” The polite Captain seemed incredulous and as if weary. “Are you a seaman? In what sense, pray?” We were talking French and he used the term homme de mer.
Again Mills interfered quietly. “In the same sense in which you are a military man.” (Homme de guerre.)
It was then that I heard Captain Blunt produce one of his striking declarations. He had two of them, and this was the first.
“I live by my sword.”
It was said in an extraordinary dandified manner which in conjunction with the matter made me forget my tongue in my head. I could only stare at him. He added more naturally: “2nd Reg. Castille, Cavalry.” Then with marked stress in Spanish, “En las filas legitimas.”
Mills was heard, unmoved, like Jove in his cloud: “He’s on leave here.”
“Of course I don’t shout that fact on the housetops,” the Captain addressed me pointedly, “any more than our friend his shipwreck adventure. We must not strain the toleration of the French authorities too much! It wouldn’t be correct–and not very safe either.”
I became suddenly extremely delighted with my company. A man who “lived by his sword,” before my eyes, close at my elbow! So such people did exist in the world yet! I had not been born too late! And across the table with his air of watchful, unmoved benevolence, enough in itself to arouse one’s interest, there was the man with the story of a shipwreck that mustn’t be shouted on housetops. Why?
I understood very well why, when he told me that he had joined in the Clyde a small steamer chartered by a relative of his, “a very wealthy man,” he observed (probably Lord X, I thought), to carry arms and other supplies to the Carlist army. And it was not a shipwreck in the ordinary sense. Everything went perfectly well to the last moment when suddenly the Numancia (a Republican ironclad) had appeared and chased them ashore on the French coast below Bayonne. In a few words, but with evident appreciation of the adventure, Mills described to us how he swam to the beach clad simply in a money belt and a pair of trousers. Shells were falling all round till a tiny French gunboat came out of Bayonne and shooed the Numancia away out of territorial waters.
He was very amusing and I was fascinated by the mental picture of that tranquil man rolling in the surf and emerging breathless, in the costume you know, on the fair land of France, in the character of a smuggler of war material. However, they had never arrested or expelled him, since he was there before my eyes. But how and why did he get so far from the scene of his sea adventure was an interesting question. And I put it to him with most naive indiscretion which did not shock him visibly. He told me that the ship being only stranded, not sunk, the contraband cargo aboard was doubtless in good condition. The French custom-house men were guarding the wreck. If their vigilance could be–h’m–removed by some means, or even merely reduced, a lot of these rifles and cartridges could be taken off quietly at night by certain Spanish fishing boats. In fact, salved for the Carlists, after all. He thought it could be done. . . .
I said with professional gravity that given a few perfectly quiet nights (rare on that coast) it could certainly be done.
Mr. Mills was not afraid of the elements. It was the highly inconvenient zeal of the French custom-house people that had to be dealt with in some way.
“Heavens!” I cried, astonished. “You can’t bribe the French Customs. This isn’t a South-American republic.”
“Is it a republic?” he murmured, very absorbed in smoking his wooden pipe.
“Well, isn’t it?”
He murmured again, “Oh, so little.” At this I laughed, and a faintly humorous expression passed over Mills’ face. No. Bribes were out of the question, he admitted. But there were many legitimist sympathies in Paris. A proper person could set them in motion and a mere hint from high quarters to the officials on the spot not to worry over-much about that wreck. . . .
What was most amusing was the cool, reasonable tone of this amazing project. Mr. Blunt sat by very detached, his eyes roamed here and there all over the cafe; and it was while looking upward at the pink foot of a fleshy and very much foreshortened goddess of some sort depicted on the ceiling in an enormous composition in the Italian style that he let fall casually the words, “She will manage it for you quite easily.”
“Every Carlist agent in Bayonne assured me of that,” said Mr. Mills. “I would have gone straight to Paris only I was told she had fled here for a rest; tired, discontented. Not a very encouraging report.”
“These flights are well known,” muttered Mr. Blunt. “You shall see her all right.”
“Yes. They told me that you . . . “
I broke in: “You mean to say that you expect a woman to arrange that sort of thing for you?”
“A trifle, for her,” Mr. Blunt remarked indifferently. “At that sort of thing women are best. They have less scruples.”
“More audacity,” interjected Mr. Mills almost in a whisper.
Mr. Blunt kept quiet for a moment, then: “You see,” he addressed me in a most refined tone, “a mere man may suddenly find himself being kicked down the stairs.”
I don’t know why I should have felt shocked by that statement. It could not be because it was untrue. The other did not give me time to offer any remark. He inquired with extreme politeness what did I know of South American republics? I confessed that I knew very little of them. Wandering about the Gulf of Mexico I had a look-in here and there; and amongst others I had a few days in Haiti which was of course unique, being a negro republic. On this Captain Blunt began to talk of negroes at large. He talked of them with knowledge, intelligence, and a sort of contemptuous affection. He generalized, he particularized about the blacks; he told anecdotes. I was interested, a little incredulous, and considerably surprised. What could this man with such a boulevardier exterior that he looked positively like, an exile in a provincial town, and with his drawing-room manner–what could he know of negroes?
Mills, sitting silent with his air of watchful intelligence, seemed to read my thoughts, waved his pipe slightly and explained: “The Captain is from South Carolina.”
“Oh,” I murmured, and then after the slightest of pauses I heard the second of Mr. J. K. Blunt’s declarations.
“Yes,” he said. “Je suis Americain, catholique et gentil-homme,” in a tone contrasting so strongly with the smile, which, as it were, underlined the uttered words, that I was at a loss whether to return the smile in kind or acknowledge the words with a grave little bow. Of course I did neither and there fell on us an odd, equivocal silence. It marked our final abandonment of the French language. I was the one to speak first, proposing that my companions should sup with me, not across the way, which would be riotous with more than one “infernal” supper, but in another much more select establishment in a side street away from the Cannebiere. It flattered my vanity a little to be able to say that I had a corner table always reserved in the Salon des Palmiers, otherwise Salon Blanc, where the atmosphere was legitimist and extremely decorous besides–even in Carnival time. “Nine tenths of the people there,” I said, “would be of your political opinions, if that’s an inducement. Come along. Let’s be festive,” I encouraged them.
I didn’t feel particularly festive. What I wanted was to remain in my company and break an inexplicable feeling of constraint of which I was aware. Mills looked at me steadily with a faint, kind smile.
“No,” said Blunt. “Why should we go there? They will be only turning us out in the small hours, to go home and face insomnia. Can you imagine anything more disgusting?”
He was smiling all the time, but his deep-set eyes did not lend themselves to the expression of whimsical politeness which he tried to achieve. He had another suggestion to offer. Why shouldn’t we adjourn to his rooms? He had there materials for a dish of his own invention for which he was famous all along the line of the Royal Cavalry outposts, and he would cook it for us. There were also a few bottles of some white wine, quite possible, which we could drink out of Venetian cut-glass goblets. A bivouac feast, in fact. And he wouldn’t turn us out in the small hours. Not he. He couldn’t sleep.
Need I say I was fascinated by the idea? Well, yes. But somehow I hesitated and looked towards Mills, so much my senior. He got up without a word. This was decisive; for no obscure premonition, and of something indefinite at that, could stand against the example of his tranquil personality.
The street in which Mr. Blunt lived presented itself to our eyes, narrow, silent, empty, and dark, but with enough gas-lamps in it to disclose its most striking feature: a quantity of flag-poles sticking out above many of its closed portals. It was the street of Consuls and I remarked to Mr. Blunt that coming out in the morning he could survey the flags of all nations almost–except his own. (The U. S. consulate was on the other side of the town.) He mumbled through his teeth that he took good care to keep clear of his own consulate.
“Are you afraid of the consul’s dog?” I asked jocularly. The consul’s dog weighed about a pound and a half and was known to the whole town as exhibited on the consular fore-arm in all places, at all hours, but mainly at the hour of the fashionable promenade on the Prado.
But I felt my jest misplaced when Mills growled low in my ear: “They are all Yankees there.”
I murmured a confused “Of course.”
Books are nothing. I discovered that I had never been aware before that the Civil War in America was not printed matter but a fact only about ten years old. Of course. He was a South Carolinian gentleman. I was a little ashamed of my want of tact. Meantime, looking like the conventional conception of a fashionable reveller, with his opera-hat pushed off his forehead, Captain Blunt was having some slight difficulty with his latch-key; for the house before which we had stopped was not one of those many-storied houses that made up the greater part of the street. It had only one row of windows above the ground floor. Dead walls abutting on to it indicated that it had a garden. Its dark front presented no marked architectural character, and in the flickering light of a street lamp it looked a little as though it had gone down in the world. The greater then was my surprise to enter a hall paved in black and white marble and in its dimness appearing of palatial proportions. Mr. Blunt did not turn up the small solitary gas-jet, but led the way across the black and white pavement past the end of the staircase, past a door of gleaming dark wood with a heavy bronze handle. It gave access to his rooms he said; but he took us straight on to the studio at the end of the passage.
It was rather a small place tacked on in the manner of a lean-to to the garden side of the house. A large lamp was burning brightly there. The floor was of mere flag-stones but the few rugs scattered about though extremely worn were very costly. There was also there a beautiful sofa upholstered in pink figured silk, an enormous divan with many cushions, some splendid arm-chairs of various shapes (but all very shabby), a round table, and in the midst of these fine things a small common iron stove. Somebody must have been attending it lately, for the fire roared and the warmth of the place was very grateful after the bone-searching cold blasts of mistral outside.
Mills without a word flung himself on the divan and, propped on his arm, gazed thoughtfully at a distant corner where in the shadow of a monumental carved wardrobe an articulated dummy without head or hands but with beautifully shaped limbs composed in a shrinking attitude, seemed to be embarrassed by his stare.
As we sat enjoying the bivouac hospitality (the dish was really excellent and our host in a shabby grey jacket still looked the accomplished man-about-town) my eyes kept on straying towards that corner. Blunt noticed this and remarked that I seemed to be attracted by the Empress.
“It’s disagreeable,” I said. “It seems to lurk there like a shy skeleton at the feast. But why do you give the name of Empress to that dummy?”
“Because it sat for days and days in the robes of a Byzantine Empress to a painter. . . I wonder where he discovered these priceless stuffs. . . You knew him, I believe?”
Mills lowered his head slowly, then tossed down his throat some wine out of a Venetian goblet.
“This house is full of costly objects. So are all his other houses, so is his place in Paris–that mysterious Pavilion hidden away in Passy somewhere.”
Mills knew the Pavilion. The wine had, I suppose, loosened his tongue. Blunt, too, lost something of his reserve. From their talk I gathered the notion of an eccentric personality, a man of great wealth, not so much solitary as difficult of access, a collector of fine things, a painter known only to very few people and not at all to the public market. But as meantime I had been emptying my Venetian goblet with a certain regularity (the amount of heat given out by that iron stove was amazing; it parched one’s throat, and the straw-coloured wine didn’t seem much stronger than so much pleasantly flavoured water) the voices and the impressions they conveyed acquired something fantastic to my mind. Suddenly I perceived that Mills was sitting in his shirt-sleeves. I had not noticed him taking off his coat. Blunt had unbuttoned his shabby jacket, exposing a lot of starched shirt-front with the white tie under his dark shaved chin. He had a strange air of insolence–or so it seemed to me. I addressed him much louder than I intended really.
“Did you know that extraordinary man?”
“To know him personally one had to be either very distinguished or very lucky. Mr. Mills here . . .”
“Yes, I have been lucky,” Mills struck in. “It was my cousin who was distinguished. That’s how I managed to enter his house in Paris–it was called the Pavilion–twice.”
“And saw Dona Rita twice, too?” asked Blunt with an indefinite smile and a marked emphasis. Mills was also emphatic in his reply but with a serious face.
“I am not an easy enthusiast where women are concerned, but she was without doubt the most admirable find of his amongst all the priceless items he had accumulated in that house–the most admirable. . . “
“Ah! But, you see, of all the objects there she was the only one that was alive,” pointed out Blunt with the slightest possible flavour of sarcasm.
“Immensely so,” affirmed Mills. “Not because she was restless, indeed she hardly ever moved from that couch between the windows– you know.”
“No. I don’t know. I’ve never been in there,” announced Blunt with that flash of white teeth so strangely without any character of its own that it was merely disturbing.
“But she radiated life,” continued Mills. “She had plenty of it, and it had a quality. My cousin and Henry Allegre had a lot to say to each other and so I was free to talk to her. At the second visit we were like old friends, which was absurd considering that all the chances were that we would never meet again in this world or in the next. I am not meddling with theology but it seems to me that in the Elysian fields she’ll have her place in a very special company.”
All this in a sympathetic voice and in his unmoved manner. Blunt produced another disturbing white flash and muttered:
“I should say mixed.” Then louder: “As for instance . . . “
“As for instance Cleopatra,” answered Mills quietly. He added after a pause: “Who was not exactly pretty.”
“I should have thought rather a La Valliere,” Blunt dropped with an indifference of which one did not know what to make. He may have begun to be bored with the subject. But it may have been put on, for the whole personality was not clearly definable. I, however, was not indifferent. A woman is always an interesting subject and I was thoroughly awake to that interest. Mills pondered for a while with a sort of dispassionate benevolence, at last:
“Yes, Dona Rita as far as I know her is so varied in her simplicity that even that is possible,” he said. “Yes. A romantic resigned La Valliere . . . who had a big mouth.”
I felt moved to make myself heard.
“Did you know La Valliere, too?” I asked impertinently.
Mills only smiled at me. “No. I am not quite so old as that,” he said. “But it’s not very difficult to know facts of that kind about a historical personage. There were some ribald verses made at the time, and Louis XIV was congratulated on the possession–I really don’t remember how it goes–on the possession of:
“. . . de ce bec amoureux
Qui d’une oreille a l’autre va,
Tra la la.
or something of the sort. It needn’t be from ear to ear, but it’s a fact that a big mouth is often a sign of a certain generosity of mind and feeling. Young man, beware of women with small mouths. Beware of the others, too, of course; but a small mouth is a fatal sign. Well, the royalist sympathizers can’t charge Dona Rita with any lack of generosity from what I hear. Why should I judge her? I have known her for, say, six hours altogether. It was enough to feel the seduction of her native intelligence and of her splendid physique. And all that was brought home to me so quickly,” he concluded, “because she had what some Frenchman has called the ‘terrible gift of familiarity’.”
Blunt had been listening moodily. He nodded assent.
“Yes!” Mills’ thoughts were still dwelling in the past. “And when saying good-bye she could put in an instant an immense distance between herself and you. A slight stiffening of that perfect figure, a change of the physiognomy: it was like being dismissed by a person born in the purple. Even if she did offer you her hand–as she did to me–it was as if across a broad river. Trick of manner or a bit of truth peeping out? Perhaps she’s really one of those inaccessible beings. What do you think, Blunt?”
It was a direct question which for some reason (as if my range of sensitiveness had been increased already) displeased or rather disturbed me strangely. Blunt seemed not to have heard it. But after a while he turned to me.
“That thick man,” he said in a tone of perfect urbanity, “is as fine as a needle. All these statements about the seduction and then this final doubt expressed after only two visits which could not have included more than six hours altogether and this some three years ago! But it is Henry Allegre that you should ask this question, Mr. Mills.”
“I haven’t the secret of raising the dead,” answered Mills good humouredly. “And if I had I would hesitate. It would seem such a liberty to take with a person one had known so slightly in life.”
“And yet Henry Allegre is the only person to ask about her, after all this uninterrupted companionship of years, ever since he discovered her; all the time, every breathing moment of it, till, literally, his very last breath. I don’t mean to say she nursed him. He had his confidential man for that. He couldn’t bear women about his person. But then apparently he couldn’t bear this one out of his sight. She’s the only woman who ever sat to him, for he would never suffer a model inside his house. That’s why the ‘Girl in the Hat’ and the ‘Byzantine Empress’ have that family air, though neither of them is really a likeness of Dona Rita. . . You know my mother?”
Mills inclined his body slightly and a fugitive smile vanished from his lips. Blunt’s eyes were fastened on the very centre of his empty plate.
“Then perhaps you know my mother’s artistic and literary associations,” Blunt went on in a subtly changed tone. “My mother has been writing verse since she was a girl of fifteen. She’s still writing verse. She’s still fifteen–a spoiled girl of genius. So she requested one of her poet friends–no less than Versoy himself–to arrange for a visit to Henry Allegre’s house. At first he thought he hadn’t heard aright. You must know that for my mother a man that doesn’t jump out of his skin for any woman’s caprice is not chivalrous. But perhaps you do know? . . .”
Mills shook his head with an amused air. Blunt, who had raised his eyes from his plate to look at him, started afresh with great deliberation.
“She gives no peace to herself or her friends. My mother’s exquisitely absurd. You understand that all these painters, poets, art collectors (and dealers in bric-a-brac, he interjected through his teeth) of my mother are not in my way; but Versoy lives more like a man of the world. One day I met him at the fencing school. He was furious. He asked me to tell my mother that this was the last effort of his chivalry. The jobs she gave him to do were too difficult. But I daresay he had been pleased enough to show the influence he had in that quarter. He knew my mother would tell the world’s wife all about it. He’s a spiteful, gingery little wretch. The top of his head shines like a billiard ball. I believe he polishes it every morning with a cloth. Of course they didn’t get further than the big drawing-room on the first floor, an enormous drawing-room with three pairs of columns in the middle. The double doors on the top of the staircase had been thrown wide open, as if for a visit from royalty. You can picture to yourself my mother, with her white hair done in some 18th century fashion and her sparkling black eyes, penetrating into those splendours attended by a sort of bald-headed, vexed squirrel–and Henry Allegre coming forward to meet them like a severe prince with the face of a tombstone Crusader, big white hands, muffled silken voice, half- shut eyes, as if looking down at them from a balcony. You remember that trick of his, Mills?”
Mills emitted an enormous cloud of smoke out of his distended cheeks.
“I daresay he was furious, too,” Blunt continued dispassionately. “But he was extremely civil. He showed her all the ‘treasures’ in the room, ivories, enamels, miniatures, all sorts of monstrosities from Japan, from India, from Timbuctoo . . . for all I know. . . He pushed his condescension so far as to have the ‘Girl in the Hat’ brought down into the drawing-room–half length, unframed. They put her on a chair for my mother to look at. The ‘Byzantine Empress’ was already there, hung on the end wall–full length, gold frame weighing half a ton. My mother first overwhelms the ‘Master’ with thanks, and then absorbs herself in the adoration of the ‘Girl in the Hat.’ Then she sighs out: ‘It should be called Diaphaneite, if there is such a word. Ah! This is the last expression of modernity!’ She puts up suddenly her face-a-main and looks towards the end wall. ‘And that–Byzantium itself! Who was she, this sullen and beautiful Empress?’
“‘The one I had in my mind was Theodosia!’ Allegre consented to answer. ‘Originally a slave girl–from somewhere.’
“My mother can be marvellously indiscreet when the whim takes her. She finds nothing better to do than to ask the ‘Master’ why he took his inspiration for those two faces from the same model. No doubt she was proud of her discerning eye. It was really clever of her. Allegre, however, looked on it as a colossal impertinence; but he answered in his silkiest tones:
“‘Perhaps it is because I saw in that woman something of the women of all time.’
“My mother might have guessed that she was on thin ice there. She is extremely intelligent. Moreover, she ought to have known. But women can be miraculously dense sometimes. So she exclaims, ‘Then she is a wonder!’ And with some notion of being complimentary goes on to say that only the eyes of the discoverer of so many wonders of art could have discovered something so marvellous in life. I suppose Allegre lost his temper altogether then; or perhaps he only wanted to pay my mother out, for all these ‘Masters’ she had been throwing at his head for the last two hours. He insinuates with the utmost politeness:
“‘As you are honouring my poor collection with a visit you may like to judge for yourself as to the inspiration of these two pictures. She is upstairs changing her dress after our morning ride. But she wouldn’t be very long. She might be a little surprised at first to be called down like this, but with a few words of preparation and purely as a matter of art . . .’
“There were never two people more taken aback. Versoy himself confesses that he dropped his tall hat with a crash. I am a dutiful son, I hope, but I must say I should have liked to have seen the retreat down the great staircase. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
He laughed most undutifully and then his face twitched grimly.
“That implacable brute Allegre followed them down ceremoniously and put my mother into the fiacre at the door with the greatest deference. He didn’t open his lips though, and made a great bow as the fiacre drove away. My mother didn’t recover from her consternation for three days. I lunch with her almost daily and I couldn’t imagine what was the matter. Then one day . . .”
He glanced round the table, jumped up and with a word of excuse left the studio by a small door in a corner. This startled me into the consciousness that I had been as if I had not existed for these two men. With his elbows propped on the table Mills had his hands in front of his face clasping the pipe from which he extracted now and then a puff of smoke, staring stolidly across the room.
I was moved to ask in a whisper:
“Do you know him well?”
“I don’t know what he is driving at,” he answered drily. “But as to his mother she is not as volatile as all that. I suspect it was business. It may have been a deep plot to get a picture out of Allegre for somebody. My cousin as likely as not. Or simply to discover what he had. The Blunts lost all their property and in Paris there are various ways of making a little money, without actually breaking anything. Not even the law. And Mrs. Blunt really had a position once–in the days of the Second Empire–and so. . .”
I listened open-mouthed to these things into which my West-Indian experiences could not have given me an insight. But Mills checked himself and ended in a changed tone.
“It’s not easy to know what she would be at, either, in any given instance. For the rest, spotlessly honourable. A delightful, aristocratic old lady. Only poor.”
A bump at the door silenced him and immediately Mr. John Blunt, Captain of Cavalry in the Army of Legitimity, first-rate cook (as to one dish at least), and generous host, entered clutching the necks of four more bottles between the fingers of his hand.
“I stumbled and nearly smashed the lot,” he remarked casually. But even I, with all my innocence, never for a moment believed he had stumbled accidentally. During the uncorking and the filling up of glasses a profound silence reigned; but neither of us took it seriously–any more than his stumble.
“One day,” he went on again in that curiously flavoured voice of his, “my mother took a heroic decision and made up her mind to get up in the middle of the night. You must understand my mother’s phraseology. It meant that she would be up and dressed by nine o’clock. This time it was not Versoy that was commanded for attendance, but I. You may imagine how delighted I was. . . .”
It was very plain to me that Blunt was addressing himself exclusively to Mills: Mills the mind, even more than Mills the man. It was as if Mills represented something initiated and to be reckoned with. I, of course, could have no such pretensions. If I represented anything it was a perfect freshness of sensations and a refreshing ignorance, not so much of what life may give one (as to that I had some ideas at least) but of what it really contains. I knew very well that I was utterly insignificant in these men’s eyes. Yet my attention was not checked by that knowledge. It’s true they were talking of a woman, but I was yet at the age when this subject by itself is not of overwhelming interest. My imagination would have been more stimulated probably by the adventures and fortunes of a man. What kept my interest from flagging was Mr. Blunt himself. The play of the white gleams of his smile round the suspicion of grimness of his tone fascinated me like a moral incongruity.
So at the age when one sleeps well indeed but does feel sometimes as if the need of sleep were a mere weakness of a distant old age, I kept easily awake; and in my freshness I was kept amused by the contrast of personalities, of the disclosed facts and moral outlook with the rough initiations of my West-Indian experience. And all these things were dominated by a feminine figure which to my imagination had only a floating outline, now invested with the grace of girlhood, now with the prestige of a woman; and indistinct in both these characters. For these two men had SEEN her, while to me she was only being “presented,” elusively, in vanishing words, in the shifting tones of an unfamiliar voice.
She was being presented to me now in the Bois de Boulogne at the early hour of the ultra-fashionable world (so I understood), on a light bay “bit of blood” attended on the off side by that Henry Allegre mounted on a dark brown powerful weight carrier; and on the other by one of Allegre’s acquaintances (the man had no real friends), distinguished frequenters of that mysterious Pavilion. And so that side of the frame in which that woman appeared to one down the perspective of the great Allee was not permanent. That morning when Mr. Blunt had to escort his mother there for the gratification of her irresistible curiosity (of which he highly disapproved) there appeared in succession, at that woman’s or girl’s bridle-hand, a cavalry general in red breeches, on whom she was smiling; a rising politician in a grey suit, who talked to her with great animation but left her side abruptly to join a personage in a red fez and mounted on a white horse; and then, some time afterwards, the vexed Mr. Blunt and his indiscreet mother (though I really couldn’t see where the harm was) had one more chance of a good stare. The third party that time was the Royal Pretender (Allegre had been painting his portrait lately), whose hearty, sonorous laugh was heard long before the mounted trio came riding very slowly abreast of the Blunts. There was colour in the girl’s face. She was not laughing. Her expression was serious and her eyes thoughtfully downcast. Blunt admitted that on that occasion the charm, brilliance, and force of her personality was adequately framed between those magnificently mounted, paladin-like attendants, one older than the other but the two composing together admirably in the different stages of their manhood. Mr. Blunt had never before seen Henry Allegre so close. Allegre was riding nearest to the path on which Blunt was dutifully giving his arm to his mother (they had got out of their fiacre) and wondering if that confounded fellow would have the impudence to take off his hat. But he did not. Perhaps he didn’t notice. Allegre was not a man of wandering glances. There were silver hairs in his beard but he looked as solid as a statue. Less than three months afterwards he was gone.
“What was it?” asked Mills, who had not changed his pose for a very long time.
“Oh, an accident. But he lingered. They were on their way to Corsica. A yearly pilgrimage. Sentimental perhaps. It was to Corsica that he carried her off–I mean first of all.”
There was the slightest contraction of Mr. Blunt’s facial muscles. Very slight; but I, staring at the narrator after the manner of all simple souls, noticed it; the twitch of a pain which surely must have been mental. There was also a suggestion of effort before he went on: “I suppose you know how he got hold of her?” in a tone of ease which was astonishingly ill-assumed for such a worldly, self- controlled, drawing-room person.
Mills changed his attitude to look at him fixedly for a moment. Then he leaned back in his chair and with interest–I don’t mean curiosity, I mean interest: “Does anybody know besides the two parties concerned?” he asked, with something as it were renewed (or was it refreshed?) in his unmoved quietness. “I ask because one has never heard any tales. I remember one evening in a restaurant seeing a man come in with a lady–a beautiful lady–very particularly beautiful, as though she had been stolen out of Mahomet’s paradise. With Dona Rita it can’t be anything as definite as that. But speaking of her in the same strain, I’ve always felt that she looked as though Allegre had caught her in the precincts of some temple . . . in the mountains.”
I was delighted. I had never heard before a woman spoken about in that way, a real live woman that is, not a woman in a book. For this was no poetry and yet it seemed to put her in the category of visions. And I would have lost myself in it if Mr. Blunt had not, most unexpectedly, addressed himself to me.
“I told you that man was as fine as a needle.”
And then to Mills: “Out of a temple? We know what that means.” His dark eyes flashed: “And must it be really in the mountains?” he added.
“Or in a desert,” conceded Mills, “if you prefer that. There have been temples in deserts, you know.”
Blunt had calmed down suddenly and assumed a nonchalant pose.
“As a matter of fact, Henry Allegre caught her very early one morning in his own old garden full of thrushes and other small birds. She was sitting on a stone, a fragment of some old balustrade, with her feet in the damp grass, and reading a tattered book of some kind. She had on a short, black, two-penny frock (une petite robe de deux sous) and there was a hole in one of her stockings. She raised her eyes and saw him looking down at her thoughtfully over that ambrosian beard of his, like Jove at a mortal. They exchanged a good long stare, for at first she was too startled to move; and then he murmured, “Restez donc.” She lowered her eyes again on her book and after a while heard him walk away on the path. Her heart thumped while she listened to the little birds filling the air with their noise. She was not frightened. I am telling you this positively because she has told me the tale herself. What better authority can you have . . .?” Blunt paused.
“That’s true. She’s not the sort of person to lie about her own sensations,” murmured Mills above his clasped hands.
“Nothing can escape his penetration,” Blunt remarked to me with that equivocal urbanity which made me always feel uncomfortable on Mills’ account. “Positively nothing.” He turned to Mills again. “After some minutes of immobility–she told me–she arose from her stone and walked slowly on the track of that apparition. Allegre was nowhere to be seen by that time. Under the gateway of the extremely ugly tenement house, which hides the Pavilion and the garden from the street, the wife of the porter was waiting with her arms akimbo. At once she cried out to Rita: ‘You were caught by our gentleman.’
“As a matter of fact, that old woman, being a friend of Rita’s aunt, allowed the girl to come into the garden whenever Allegre was away. But Allegre’s goings and comings were sudden and unannounced; and that morning, Rita, crossing the narrow, thronged street, had slipped in through the gateway in ignorance of Allegre’s return and unseen by the porter’s wife.
“The child, she was but little more than that then, expressed her regret of having perhaps got the kind porter’s wife into trouble.
“The old woman said with a peculiar smile: ‘Your face is not of the sort that gets other people into trouble. My gentleman wasn’t angry. He says you may come in any morning you like.’
“Rita, without saying anything to this, crossed the street back again to the warehouse full of oranges where she spent most of her waking hours. Her dreaming, empty, idle, thoughtless, unperturbed hours, she calls them. She crossed the street with a hole in her stocking. She had a hole in her stocking not because her uncle and aunt were poor (they had around them never less than eight thousand oranges, mostly in cases) but because she was then careless and untidy and totally unconscious of her personal appearance. She told me herself that she was not even conscious then of her personal existence. She was a mere adjunct in the twilight life of her aunt, a Frenchwoman, and her uncle, the orange merchant, a Basque peasant, to whom her other uncle, the great man of the family, the priest of some parish in the hills near Tolosa, had sent her up at the age of thirteen or thereabouts for safe keeping. She is of peasant stock, you know. This is the true origin of the ‘Girl in the Hat’ and of the ‘Byzantine Empress’ which excited my dear mother so much; of the mysterious girl that the privileged personalities great in art, in letters, in politics, or simply in the world, could see on the big sofa during the gatherings in Allegre’s exclusive Pavilion: the Dona Rita of their respectful addresses, manifest and mysterious, like an object of art from some unknown period; the Dona Rita of the initiated Paris. Dona Rita and nothing more–unique and indefinable.” He stopped with a disagreeable smile.
“And of peasant stock?” I exclaimed in the strangely conscious silence that fell between Mills and Blunt.
“Oh! All these Basques have been ennobled by Don Sanche II,” said Captain Blunt moodily. “You see coats of arms carved over the doorways of the most miserable caserios. As far as that goes she’s Dona Rita right enough whatever else she is or is not in herself or in the eyes of others. In your eyes, for instance, Mills. Eh?”
For a time Mills preserved that conscious silence.
“Why think about it at all?” he murmured coldly at last. “A strange bird is hatched sometimes in a nest in an unaccountable way and then the fate of such a bird is bound to be ill-defined, uncertain, questionable. And so that is how Henry Allegre saw her first? And what happened next?”
“What happened next?” repeated Mr. Blunt, with an affected surprise in his tone. “Is it necessary to ask that question? If you had asked HOW the next happened. . . But as you may imagine she hasn’t told me anything about that. She didn’t,” he continued with polite sarcasm, “enlarge upon the facts. That confounded Allegre, with his impudent assumption of princely airs, must have (I shouldn’t wonder) made the fact of his notice appear as a sort of favour dropped from Olympus. I really can’t tell how the minds and the imaginations of such aunts and uncles are affected by such rare visitations. Mythology may give us a hint. There is the story of Danae, for instance.”
“There is,” remarked Mills calmly, “but I don’t remember any aunt or uncle in that connection.”
“And there are also certain stories of the discovery and acquisition of some unique objects of art. The sly approaches, the astute negotiations, the lying and the circumventing . . . for the love of beauty, you know.”
With his dark face and with the perpetual smiles playing about his grimness, Mr. Blunt appeared to me positively satanic. Mills’ hand was toying absently with an empty glass. Again they had forgotten my existence altogether.
“I don’t know how an object of art would feel,” went on Blunt, in an unexpectedly grating voice, which, however, recovered its tone immediately. “I don’t know. But I do know that Rita herself was not a Danae, never, not at any time of her life. She didn’t mind the holes in her stockings. She wouldn’t mind holes in her stockings now. . . That is if she manages to keep any stockings at all,” he added, with a sort of suppressed fury so funnily unexpected that I would have burst into a laugh if I hadn’t been lost in astonishment of the simplest kind.
“No–really!” There was a flash of interest from the quiet Mills.
“Yes, really,” Blunt nodded and knitted his brows very devilishly indeed. “She may yet be left without a single pair of stockings.”
“The world’s a thief,” declared Mills, with the utmost composure. “It wouldn’t mind robbing a lonely traveller.”
“He is so subtle.” Blunt remembered my existence for the purpose of that remark and as usual it made me very uncomfortable. “Perfectly true. A lonely traveller. They are all in the scramble from the lowest to the highest. Heavens! What a gang! There was even an Archbishop in it.”
“Vous plaisantez,” said Mills, but without any marked show of incredulity.
“I joke very seldom,” Blunt protested earnestly. “That’s why I haven’t mentioned His Majesty–whom God preserve. That would have been an exaggeration. . . However, the end is not yet. We were talking about the beginning. I have heard that some dealers in fine objects, quite mercenary people of course (my mother has an experience in that world), show sometimes an astonishing reluctance to part with some specimens, even at a good price. It must be very funny. It’s just possible that the uncle and the aunt have been rolling in tears on the floor, amongst their oranges, or beating their heads against the walls from rage and despair. But I doubt it. And in any case Allegre is not the sort of person that gets into any vulgar trouble. And it’s just possible that those people stood open-mouthed at all that magnificence. They weren’t poor, you know; therefore it wasn’t incumbent on them to be honest. They are still there in the old respectable warehouse, I understand. They have kept their position in their quartier, I believe. But they didn’t keep their niece. It might have been an act of sacrifice! For I seem to remember hearing that after attending for a while some school round the corner the child had been set to keep the books of that orange business. However it might have been, the first fact in Rita’s and Allegre’s common history is a journey to Italy, and then to Corsica. You know Allegre had a house in Corsica somewhere. She has it now as she has everything he ever had; and that Corsican palace is the portion that will stick the longest to Dona Rita, I imagine. Who would want to buy a place like that? I suppose nobody would take it for a gift. The fellow was having houses built all over the place. This very house where we are sitting belonged to him. Dona Rita has given it to her sister, I understand. Or at any rate the sister runs it. She is my landlady . . .”
“Her sister here!” I exclaimed. “Her sister!”
Blunt turned to me politely, but only for a long mute gaze. His eyes were in deep shadow and it struck me for the first time then that there was something fatal in that man’s aspect as soon as he fell silent. I think the effect was purely physical, but in consequence whatever he said seemed inadequate and as if produced by a commonplace, if uneasy, soul.
“Dona Rita brought her down from her mountains on purpose. She is asleep somewhere in this house, in one of the vacant rooms. She lets them, you know, at extortionate prices, that is, if people will pay them, for she is easily intimidated. You see, she has never seen such an enormous town before in her life, nor yet so many strange people. She has been keeping house for the uncle- priest in some mountain gorge for years and years. It’s extraordinary he should have let her go. There is something mysterious there, some reason or other. It’s either theology or Family. The saintly uncle in his wild parish would know nothing of any other reasons. She wears a rosary at her waist. Directly she had seen some real money she developed a love of it. If you stay with me long enough, and I hope you will (I really can’t sleep), you will see her going out to mass at half-past six; but there is nothing remarkable in her; just a peasant woman of thirty-four or so. A rustic nun. . . .”
I may as well say at once that we didn’t stay as long as that. It was not that morning that I saw for the first time Therese of the whispering lips and downcast eyes slipping out to an early mass from the house of iniquity into the early winter murk of the city of perdition, in a world steeped in sin. No. It was not on that morning that I saw Dona Rita’s incredible sister with her brown, dry face, her gliding motion, and her really nun-like dress, with a black handkerchief enfolding her head tightly, with the two pointed ends hanging down her back. Yes, nun-like enough. And yet not altogether. People would have turned round after her if those dartings out to the half-past six mass hadn’t been the only occasion on which she ventured into the impious streets. She was frightened of the streets, but in a particular way, not as if of a danger but as if of a contamination. Yet she didn’t fly back to her mountains because at bottom she had an indomitable character, a peasant tenacity of purpose, predatory instincts. . . .
No, we didn’t remain long enough with Mr. Blunt to see even as much as her back glide out of the house on her prayerful errand. She was prayerful. She was terrible. Her one-idead peasant mind was as inaccessible as a closed iron safe. She was fatal. . . It’s perfectly ridiculous to confess that they all seem fatal to me now; but writing to you like this in all sincerity I don’t mind appearing ridiculous. I suppose fatality must be expressed, embodied, like other forces of this earth; and if so why not in such people as well as in other more glorious or more frightful figures?
We remained, however, long enough to let Mr. Blunt’s half-hidden acrimony develop itself or prey on itself in further talk about the man Allegre and the girl Rita. Mr. Blunt, still addressing Mills with that story, passed on to what he called the second act, the disclosure, with, what he called, the characteristic Allegre impudence–which surpassed the impudence of kings, millionaires, or tramps, by many degrees–the revelation of Rita’s existence to the world at large. It wasn’t a very large world, but then it was most choicely composed. How is one to describe it shortly? In a sentence it was the world that rides in the morning in the Bois.
In something less than a year and a half from the time he found her sitting on a broken fragment of stone work buried in the grass of his wild garden, full of thrushes, starlings, and other innocent creatures of the air, he had given her amongst other accomplishments the art of sitting admirably on a horse, and directly they returned to Paris he took her out with him for their first morning ride.
“I leave you to judge of the sensation,” continued Mr. Blunt, with a faint grimace, as though the words had an acrid taste in his mouth. “And the consternation,” he added venomously. “Many of those men on that great morning had some one of their womankind with them. But their hats had to go off all the same, especially the hats of the fellows who were under some sort of obligation to Allegre. You would be astonished to hear the names of people, of real personalities in the world, who, not to mince matters, owed money to Allegre. And I don’t mean in the world of art only. In the first rout of the surprise some story of an adopted daughter was set abroad hastily, I believe. You know ‘adopted’ with a peculiar accent on the word–and it was plausible enough. I have been told that at that time she looked extremely youthful by his side, I mean extremely youthful in expression, in the eyes, in the smile. She must have been . . .”
Blunt pulled himself up short, but not so short as not to let the confused murmur of the word “adorable” reach our attentive ears.
The heavy Mills made a slight movement in his chair. The effect on me was more inward, a strange emotion which left me perfectly still; and for the moment of silence Blunt looked more fatal than ever.
“I understand it didn’t last very long,” he addressed us politely again. “And no wonder! The sort of talk she would have heard during that first springtime in Paris would have put an impress on a much less receptive personality; for of course Allegre didn’t close his doors to his friends and this new apparition was not of the sort to make them keep away. After that first morning she always had somebody to ride at her bridle hand. Old Doyen, the sculptor, was the first to approach them. At that age a man may venture on anything. He rides a strange animal like a circus horse. Rita had spotted him out of the corner of her eye as he passed them, putting up his enormous paw in a still more enormous glove, airily, you know, like this” (Blunt waved his hand above his head), “to Allegre. He passes on. All at once he wheels his fantastic animal round and comes trotting after them. With the merest casual ‘Bonjour, Allegre’ he ranges close to her on the other side and addresses her, hat in hand, in that booming voice of his like a deferential roar of the sea very far away. His articulation is not good, and the first words she really made out were ‘I am an old sculptor. . . Of course there is that habit. . . But I can see you through all that. . . ‘
He put his hat on very much on one side. ‘I am a great sculptor of women,’ he declared. ‘I gave up my life to them, poor unfortunate creatures, the most beautiful, the wealthiest, the most loved. . . Two generations of them. . . Just look at me full in the eyes, mon enfant.’
“They stared at each other. Dona Rita confessed to me that the old fellow made her heart beat with such force that she couldn’t manage to smile at him. And she saw his eyes run full of tears. He wiped them simply with the back of his hand and went on booming faintly. ‘Thought so. You are enough to make one cry. I thought my artist’s life was finished, and here you come along from devil knows where with this young friend of mine, who isn’t a bad smearer of canvases–but it’s marble and bronze that you want. . . I shall finish my artist’s life with your face; but I shall want a bit of those shoulders, too. . . You hear, Allegre, I must have a bit of her shoulders, too. I can see through the cloth that they are divine. If they aren’t divine I will eat my hat. Yes, I will do your head and then–nunc dimittis.’
“These were the first words with which the world greeted her, or should I say civilization did; already both her native mountains and the cavern of oranges belonged to a prehistoric age. ‘Why don’t you ask him to come this afternoon?’ Allegre’s voice suggested gently. ‘He knows the way to the house.’
“The old man said with extraordinary fervour, ‘Oh, yes I will,’ pulled up his horse and they went on. She told me that she could feel her heart-beats for a long time. The remote power of that voice, those old eyes full of tears, that noble and ruined face, had affected her extraordinarily she said. But perhaps what affected her was the shadow, the still living shadow of a great passion in the man’s heart.
“Allegre remarked to her calmly: ‘He has been a little mad all his life.'”
Mills lowered the hands holding the extinct and even cold pipe before his big face.
“H’m, shoot an arrow into that old man’s heart like this? But was there anything done?”
“A terra-cotta bust, I believe. Good? I don’t know. I rather think it’s in this house. A lot of things have been sent down from Paris here, when she gave up the Pavilion. When she goes up now she stays in hotels, you know. I imagine it is locked up in one of these things,” went on Blunt, pointing towards the end of the studio where amongst the monumental presses of dark oak lurked the shy dummy which had worn the stiff robes of the Byzantine Empress and the amazing hat of the “Girl,” rakishly. I wondered whether that dummy had travelled from Paris, too, and whether with or without its head. Perhaps that head had been left behind, having rolled into a corner of some empty room in the dismantled Pavilion. I represented it to myself very lonely, without features, like a turnip, with a mere peg sticking out where the neck should have been. And Mr. Blunt was talking on.
“There are treasures behind these locked doors, brocades, old jewels, unframed pictures, bronzes, chinoiseries, Japoneries.”
He growled as much as a man of his accomplished manner and voice could growl. “I don’t suppose she gave away all that to her sister, but I shouldn’t be surprised if that timid rustic didn’t lay a claim to the lot for the love of God and the good of the Church. . .
“And held on with her teeth, too,” he added graphically.
Mills’ face remained grave. Very grave. I was amused at those little venomous outbreaks of the fatal Mr. Blunt. Again I knew myself utterly forgotten. But I didn’t feel dull and I didn’t even feel sleepy. That last strikes me as strange at this distance of time, in regard of my tender years and of the depressing hour which precedes the dawn. We had been drinking that straw-coloured wine, too, I won’t say like water (nobody would have drunk water like that) but, well . . . and the haze of tobacco smoke was like the blue mist of great distances seen in dreams.
Yes, that old sculptor was the first who joined them in the sight of all Paris. It was that old glory that opened the series of companions of those morning rides; a series which extended through three successive Parisian spring-times and comprised a famous physiologist, a fellow who seemed to hint that mankind could be made immortal or at least everlastingly old; a fashionable philosopher and psychologist who used to lecture to enormous audiences of women with his tongue in his cheek (but never permitted himself anything of the kind when talking to Rita); that surly dandy Cabanel (but he only once, from mere vanity), and everybody else at all distinguished including also a celebrated person who turned out later to be a swindler. But he was really a genius. . . All this according to Mr. Blunt, who gave us all those details with a sort of languid zest covering a secret irritation.
“Apart from that, you know,” went on Mr. Blunt, “all she knew of the world of men and women (I mean till Allegre’s death) was what she had seen of it from the saddle two hours every morning during four months of the year or so. Absolutely all, with Allegre self- denyingly on her right hand, with that impenetrable air of guardianship. Don’t touch! He didn’t like his treasures to be touched unless he actually put some unique object into your hands with a sort of triumphant murmur, ‘Look close at that.’ Of course I only have heard all this. I am much too small a person, you understand, to even . . .”
He flashed his white teeth at us most agreeably, but the upper part of his face, the shadowed setting of his eyes, and the slight drawing in of his eyebrows gave a fatal suggestion. I thought suddenly of the definition he applied to himself: “Americain, catholique et gentil-homme” completed by that startling “I live by my sword” uttered in a light drawing-room tone tinged by a flavour of mockery lighter even than air.
He insisted to us that the first and only time he had seen Allegre a little close was that morning in the Bois with his mother. His Majesty (whom God preserve), then not even an active Pretender, flanked the girl, still a girl, on the other side, the usual companion for a month past or so. Allegre had suddenly taken it into his head to paint his portrait. A sort of intimacy had sprung up. Mrs. Blunt’s remark was that of the two striking horsemen Allegre looked the more kingly.
“The son of a confounded millionaire soap-boiler,” commented Mr. Blunt through his clenched teeth. “A man absolutely without parentage. Without a single relation in the world. Just a freak.”
“That explains why he could leave all his fortune to her,” said Mills.
“The will, I believe,” said Mr. Blunt moodily, “was written on a half sheet of paper, with his device of an Assyrian bull at the head. What the devil did he mean by it? Anyway it was the last time that she surveyed the world of men and women from the saddle. Less than three months later. . .”
“Allegre died and. . . ” murmured Mills in an interested manner.
“And she had to dismount,” broke in Mr. Blunt grimly. “Dismount right into the middle of it. Down to the very ground, you understand. I suppose you can guess what that would mean. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She had never been on the ground. She . . . “
“Aha!” said Mills.
“Even eh! eh! if you like,” retorted Mr. Blunt, in an unrefined tone, that made me open my eyes, which were well opened before, still wider.
He turned to me with that horrible trick of his of commenting upon Mills as though that quiet man whom I admired, whom I trusted, and for whom I had already something resembling affection had been as much of a dummy as that other one lurking in the shadows, pitiful and headless in its attitude of alarmed chastity.
“Nothing escapes his penetration. He can perceive a haystack at an enormous distance when he is interested.”
I thought this was going rather too far, even to the borders of vulgarity; but Mills remained untroubled and only reached for his tobacco pouch.
“But that’s nothing to my mother’s interest. She can never see a haystack, therefore she is always so surprised and excited. Of course Dona Rita was not a woman about whom the newspapers insert little paragraphs. But Allegre was the sort of man. A lot came out in print about him and a lot was talked in the world about her; and at once my dear mother perceived a haystack and naturally became unreasonably absorbed in it. I thought her interest would wear out. But it didn’t. She had received a shock and had received an impression by means of that girl. My mother has never been treated with impertinence before, and the aesthetic impression must have been of extraordinary strength. I must suppose that it amounted to a sort of moral revolution, I can’t account for her proceedings in any other way. When Rita turned up in Paris a year and a half after Allegre’s death some shabby journalist (smart creature) hit upon the notion of alluding to her as the heiress of Mr. Allegre. ‘The heiress of Mr. Allegre has taken up her residence again amongst the treasures of art in that Pavilion so well known to the elite of the artistic, scientific, and political world, not to speak of the members of aristocratic and even royal families. . . ‘ You know the sort of thing. It appeared first in the Figaro, I believe. And then at the end a little phrase: ‘She is alone.’ She was in a fair way of becoming a celebrity of a sort. Daily little allusions and that sort of thing. Heaven only knows who stopped it. There was a rush of ‘old friends’ into that garden, enough to scare all the little birds away. I suppose one or several of them, having influence with the press, did it. But the gossip didn’t stop, and the name stuck, too, since it conveyed a very certain and very significant sort of fact, and of course the Venetian episode was talked about in the houses frequented by my mother. It was talked about from a royalist point of view with a kind of respect. It was even said that the inspiration and the resolution of the war going on now over the Pyrenees had come out from that head. . . Some of them talked as if she were the guardian angel of Legitimacy. You know what royalist gush is like.”
Mr. Blunt’s face expressed sarcastic disgust. Mills moved his head the least little bit. Apparently he knew.
“Well, speaking with all possible respect, it seems to have affected my mother’s brain. I was already with the royal army and of course there could be no question of regular postal communications with France. My mother hears or overhears somewhere that the heiress of Mr. Allegre is contemplating a secret journey. All the noble Salons were full of chatter about that secret naturally. So she sits down and pens an autograph: ‘Madame, Informed that you are proceeding to the place on which the hopes of all the right thinking people are fixed, I trust to your womanly sympathy with a mother’s anxious feelings, etc., etc.,’ and ending with a request to take messages to me and bring news of me. . . The coolness of my mother!”
Most unexpectedly Mills was heard murmuring a question which seemed to me very odd.
“I wonder how your mother addressed that note?”
A moment of silence ensued.
“Hardly in the newspaper style, I should think,” retorted Mr. Blunt, with one of his grins that made me doubt the stability of his feelings and the consistency of his outlook in regard to his whole tale. “My mother’s maid took it in a fiacre very late one evening to the Pavilion and brought an answer scrawled on a scrap of paper: ‘Write your messages at once’ and signed with a big capital R. So my mother sat down again to her charming writing desk and the maid made another journey in a fiacre just before midnight; and ten days later or so I got a letter thrust into my hand at the avanzadas just as I was about to start on a night patrol, together with a note asking me to call on the writer so that she might allay my mother’s anxieties by telling her how I looked.
“It was signed R only, but I guessed at once and nearly fell off my horse with surprise.”
“You mean to say that Dona Rita was actually at the Royal Headquarters lately?” exclaimed Mills, with evident surprise. “Why, we–everybody–thought that all this affair was over and done with.”
“Absolutely. Nothing in the world could be more done with than that episode. Of course the rooms in the hotel at Tolosa were retained for her by an order from Royal Headquarters. Two garret- rooms, the place was so full of all sorts of court people; but I can assure you that for the three days she was there she never put her head outside the door. General Mongroviejo called on her officially from the King. A general, not anybody of the household, you see. That’s a distinct shade of the present relation. He stayed just five minutes. Some personage from the Foreign department at Headquarters was closeted for about a couple of hours. That was of course business. Then two officers from the staff came together with some explanations or instructions to her. Then Baron H., a fellow with a pretty wife, who had made so many sacrifices for the cause, raised a great to-do about seeing her and she consented to receive him for a moment. They say he was very much frightened by her arrival, but after the interview went away all smiles. Who else? Yes, the Archbishop came. Half an hour. This is more than is necessary to give a blessing, and I can’t conceive what else he had to give her. But I am sure he got something out of her. Two peasants from the upper valley were sent for by military authorities and she saw them, too. That friar who hangs about the court has been in and out several times. Well, and lastly, I myself. I got leave from the outposts. That was the first time I talked to her. I would have gone that evening back to the regiment, but the friar met me in the corridor and informed me that I would be ordered to escort that most loyal and noble lady back to the French frontier as a personal mission of the highest honour. I was inclined to laugh at him. He himself is a cheery and jovial person and he laughed with me quite readily–but I got the order before dark all right. It was rather a job, as the Alphonsists were attacking the right flank of our whole front and there was some considerable disorder there. I mounted her on a mule and her maid on another. We spent one night in a ruined old tower occupied by some of our infantry and got away at daybreak under the Alphonsist shells. The maid nearly died of fright and one of the troopers with us was wounded. To smuggle her back across the frontier was another job but it wasn’t my job. It wouldn’t have done for her to appear in sight of French frontier posts in the company of Carlist uniforms. She seems to have a fearless streak in her nature. At one time as we were climbing a slope absolutely exposed to artillery fire I asked her on purpose, being provoked by the way she looked about at the scenery, ‘A little emotion, eh?’ And she answered me in a low voice: ‘Oh, yes! I am moved. I used to run about these hills when I was little.’ And note, just then the trooper close behind us had been wounded by a shell fragment. He was swearing awfully and fighting with his horse. The shells were falling around us about two to the minute.
“Luckily the Alphonsist shells are not much better than our own. But women are funny. I was afraid the maid would jump down and clear out amongst the rocks, in which case we should have had to dismount and catch her. But she didn’t do that; she sat perfectly still on her mule and shrieked. Just simply shrieked. Ultimately we came to a curiously shaped rock at the end of a short wooded valley. It was very still there and the sunshine was brilliant. I said to Dona Rita: ‘We will have to part in a few minutes. I understand that my mission ends at this rock.’ And she said: ‘I know this rock well. This is my country.’
“Then she thanked me for bringing her there and presently three peasants appeared, waiting for us, two youths and one shaven old man, with a thin nose like a sword blade and perfectly round eyes, a character well known to the whole Carlist army. The two youths stopped under the trees at a distance, but the old fellow came quite close up and gazed at her, screwing up his eyes as if looking at the sun. Then he raised his arm very slowly and took his red boina off his bald head. I watched her smiling at him all the time. I daresay she knew him as well as she knew the old rock. Very old rock. The rock of ages–and the aged man–landmarks of her youth. Then the mules started walking smartly forward, with the three peasants striding alongside of them, and vanished between the trees. These fellows were most likely sent out by her uncle the Cura.
“It was a peaceful scene, the morning light, the bit of open country framed in steep stony slopes, a high peak or two in the distance, the thin smoke of some invisible caserios, rising straight up here and there. Far away behind us the guns had ceased and the echoes in the gorges had died out. I never knew what peace meant before. . .
“Nor since,” muttered Mr. Blunt after a pause and then went on. “The little stone church of her uncle, the holy man of the family, might have been round the corner of the next spur of the nearest hill. I dismounted to bandage the shoulder of my trooper. It was only a nasty long scratch. While I was busy about it a bell began to ring in the distance. The sound fell deliciously on the ear, clear like the morning light. But it stopped all at once. You know how a distant bell stops suddenly. I never knew before what stillness meant. While I was wondering at it the fellow holding our horses was moved to uplift his voice. He was a Spaniard, not a Basque, and he trolled out in Castilian that song you know,
“‘Oh bells of my native village,
I am going away . . . good-bye!’
He had a good voice. When the last note had floated away I remounted, but there was a charm in the spot, something particular and individual because while we were looking at it before turning our horses’ heads away the singer said: ‘I wonder what is the name of this place,’ and the other man remarked: ‘Why, there is no village here,’ and the first one insisted: ‘No, I mean this spot, this very place.’ The wounded trooper decided that it had no name probably. But he was wrong. It had a name. The hill, or the rock, or the wood, or the whole had a name. I heard of it by chance later. It was–Lastaola.”
A cloud of tobacco smoke from Mills’ pipe drove between my head and the head of Mr. Blunt, who, strange to say, yawned slightly. It seemed to me an obvious affectation on the part of that man of perfect manners, and, moreover, suffering from distressing insomnia.
“This is how we first met and how we first parted,” he said in a weary, indifferent tone. “It’s quite possible that she did see her uncle on the way. It’s perhaps on this occasion that she got her sister to come out of the wilderness. I have no doubt she had a pass from the French Government giving her the completest freedom of action. She must have got it in Paris before leaving.”
Mr. Blunt broke out into worldly, slightly cynical smiles.
“She can get anything she likes in Paris. She could get a whole army over the frontier if she liked. She could get herself admitted into the Foreign Office at one o’clock in the morning if it so pleased her. Doors fly open before the heiress of Mr. Allegre. She has inherited the old friends, the old connections . . . Of course, if she were a toothless old woman . . . But, you see, she isn’t. The ushers in all the ministries bow down to the ground therefore, and voices from the innermost sanctums take on an eager tone when they say, ‘Faites entrer.’ My mother knows something about it. She has followed her career with the greatest attention. And Rita herself is not even surprised. She accomplishes most extraordinary things, as naturally as buying a pair of gloves. People in the shops are very polite and people in the world are like people in the shops. What did she know of the world? She had seen it only from the saddle. Oh, she will get your cargo released for you all right. How will she do it? . . Well, when it’s done–you follow me, Mills?–when it’s done she will hardly know herself.”
“It’s hardly possible that she shouldn’t be aware,” Mills pronounced calmly.
“No, she isn’t an idiot,” admitted Mr. Blunt, in the same matter- of-fact voice. “But she confessed to myself only the other day that she suffered from a sense of unreality. I told her that at any rate she had her own feelings surely. And she said to me: Yes, there was one of them at least about which she had no doubt; and you will never guess what it was. Don’t try. I happen to know, because we are pretty good friends.”
At that moment we all changed our attitude slightly. Mills’ staring eyes moved for a glance towards Blunt, I, who was occupying the divan, raised myself on the cushions a little and Mr. Blunt, with half a turn, put his elbow on the table.
“I asked her what it was. I don’t see,” went on Mr. Blunt, with a perfectly horrible gentleness, “why I should have shown particular consideration to the heiress of Mr. Allegre. I don’t mean to that particular mood of hers. It was the mood of weariness. And so she told me. It’s fear. I will say it once again: Fear. . . .”
He added after a pause, “There can be not the slightest doubt of her courage. But she distinctly uttered the word fear.”
There was under the table the noise of Mills stretching his legs.
“A person of imagination,” he began, “a young, virgin intelligence, steeped for nearly five years in the talk of Allegre’s studio, where every hard truth had been cracked and every belief had been worried into shreds. They were like a lot of intellectual dogs, you know . . .”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Blunt interrupted hastily, “the intellectual personality altogether adrift, a soul without a home . . . but I, who am neither very fine nor very deep, I am convinced that the fear is material.”
“Because she confessed to it being that?” insinuated Mills.
“No, because she didn’t,” contradicted Blunt, with an angry frown and in an extremely suave voice. “In fact, she bit her tongue. And considering what good friends we are (under fire together and all that) I conclude that there is nothing there to boast of. Neither is my friendship, as a matter of fact.”
Mills’ face was the very perfection of indifference. But I who was looking at him, in my innocence, to discover what it all might mean, I had a notion that it was perhaps a shade too perfect.
“My leave is a farce,” Captain Blunt burst out, with a most unexpected exasperation. “As an officer of Don Carlos, I have no more standing than a bandit. I ought to have been interned in those filthy old barracks in Avignon a long time ago. . . Why am I not? Because Dona Rita exists and for no other reason on earth. Of course it’s known that I am about. She has only to whisper over the wires to the Minister of the Interior, ‘Put that bird in a cage for me,’ and the thing would be done without any more formalities than that. . . Sad world this,” he commented in a changed tone. “Nowadays a gentleman who lives by his sword is exposed to that sort of thing.”
It was then for the first time I heard Mr. Mills laugh. It was a deep, pleasant, kindly note, not very loud and altogether free from that quality of derision that spoils so many laughs and gives away the secret hardness of hearts. But neither was it a very joyous laugh.
“But the truth of the matter is that I am ‘en mission,'” continued Captain Blunt. “I have been instructed to settle some things, to set other things going, and, by my instructions, Dona Rita is to be the intermediary for all those objects. And why? Because every bald head in this Republican Government gets pink at the top whenever her dress rustles outside the door. They bow with immense deference when the door opens, but the bow conceals a smirk because of those Venetian days. That confounded Versoy shoved his nose into that business; he says accidentally. He saw them together on the Lido and (those writing fellows are horrible) he wrote what he calls a vignette (I suppose accidentally, too) under that very title. There was in it a Prince and a lady and a big dog. He described how the Prince on landing from the gondola emptied his purse into the hands of a picturesque old beggar, while the lady, a little way off, stood gazing back at Venice with the dog romantically stretched at her feet. One of Versoy’s beautiful prose vignettes in a great daily that has a literary column. But some other papers that didn’t care a cent for literature rehashed the mere fact. And that’s the sort of fact that impresses your political man, especially if the lady is, well, such as she is . . .”
He paused. His dark eyes flashed fatally, away from us, in the direction of the shy dummy; and then he went on with cultivated cynicism.
“So she rushes down here. Overdone, weary, rest for her nerves. Nonsense. I assure you she has no more nerves than I have.”
I don’t know how he meant it, but at that moment, slim and elegant, he seemed a mere bundle of nerves himself, with the flitting expressions on his thin, well-bred face, with the restlessness of his meagre brown hands amongst the objects on the table. With some pipe ash amongst a little spilt wine his forefinger traced a capital R. Then he looked into an empty glass profoundly. I have a notion that I sat there staring and listening like a yokel at a play. Mills’ pipe was lying quite a foot away in front of him, empty, cold. Perhaps he had no more tobacco. Mr. Blunt assumed his dandified air–nervously.
“Of course her movements are commented on in the most exclusive drawing-rooms and also in other places, also exclusive, but where the gossip takes on another tone. There they are probably saying that she has got a ‘coup de coeur’ for some one. Whereas I think she is utterly incapable of that sort of thing. That Venetian affair, the beginning of it and the end of it, was nothing but a coup de tete, and all those activities in which I am involved, as you see (by order of Headquarters, ha, ha, ha!), are nothing but that, all this connection, all this intimacy into which I have dropped . . . Not to speak of my mother, who is delightful, but as irresponsible as one of those crazy princesses that shock their Royal families. . . “
He seemed to bite his tongue and I observed that Mills’ eyes seemed to have grown wider than I had ever seen them before. In that tranquil face it was a great play of feature. “An intimacy,” began Mr. Blunt, with an extremely refined grimness of tone, “an intimacy with the heiress of Mr. Allegre on the part of . . . on my part, well, it isn’t exactly . . . it’s open . . . well, I leave it to you, what does it look like?”
“Is there anybody looking on?” Mills let fall, gently, through his kindly lips.
“Not actually, perhaps, at this moment. But I don’t need to tell a man of the world, like you, that such things cannot remain unseen. And that they are, well, compromising, because of the mere fact of the fortune.”
Mills got on his feet, looked for his jacket and after getting into it made himself heard while he looked for his hat.
“Whereas the woman herself is, so to speak, priceless.”
Mr. Blunt muttered the word “Obviously.”
By then we were all on our feet. The iron stove glowed no longer and the lamp, surrounded by empty bottles and empty glasses, had grown dimmer.
I know that I had a great shiver on getting away from the cushions of the divan.
“We will meet again in a few hours,” said Mr. Blunt.
“Don’t forget to come,” he said, addressing me. “Oh, yes, do. Have no scruples. I am authorized to make invitations.”
He must have noticed my shyness, my surprise, my embarrassment. And indeed I didn’t know what to say.
“I assure you there isn’t anything incorrect in your coming,” he insisted, with the greatest civility. “You will be introduced by two good friends, Mills and myself. Surely you are not afraid of a very charming woman. . . .”
I was not afraid, but my head swam a little and I only looked at him mutely.
“Lunch precisely at midday. Mills will bring you along. I am sorry you two are going. I shall throw myself on the bed for an hour or two, but I am sure I won’t sleep.”
He accompanied us along the passage into the black-and-white hall, where the low gas flame glimmered forlornly. When he opened the front door the cold blast of the mistral rushing down the street of the Consuls made me shiver to the very marrow of my bones.
Mills and I exchanged but a few words as we walked down towards the centre of the town. In the chill tempestuous dawn he strolled along musingly, disregarding the discomfort of the cold, the depressing influence of the hour, the desolation of the empty streets in which the dry dust rose in whirls in front of us, behind us, flew upon us from the side streets. The masks had gone home and our footsteps echoed on the flagstones with unequal sound as of men without purpose, without hope.
“I suppose you will come,” said Mills suddenly.
“I really don’t know,” I said.
“Don’t you? Well, remember I am not trying to persuade you; but I am staying at the Hotel de Louvre and I shall leave there at a quarter to twelve for that lunch. At a quarter to twelve, not a minute later. I suppose you can sleep?”
“Charming age, yours,” said Mills, as we came out on the quays. Already dim figures of the workers moved in the biting dawn and the masted forms of ships were coming out dimly, as far as the eye could reach down the old harbour.
“Well,” Mills began again, “you may oversleep yourself.”
This suggestion was made in a cheerful tone, just as we shook hands at the lower end of the Cannebiere. He looked very burly as he walked away from me. I went on towards my lodgings. My head was very full of confused images, but I was really too tired to think.
Sometimes I wonder yet whether Mills wished me to oversleep myself or not: that is, whether he really took sufficient interest to care. His uniform kindliness of manner made it impossible for me to tell. And I can hardly remember my own feelings. Did I care? The whole recollection of that time of my life has such a peculiar quality that the beginning and the end of it are merged in one sensation of profound emotion, continuous and overpowering, containing the extremes of exultation, full of careless joy and of an invincible sadness–like a day-dream. The sense of all this having been gone through as if in one great rush of imagination is all the stronger in the distance of time, because it had something of that quality even then: of fate unprovoked, of events that didn’t cast any shadow before.
Not that those events were in the least extraordinary. They were, in truth, commonplace. What to my backward glance seems startling and a little awful is their punctualness and inevitability. Mills was punctual. Exactly at a quarter to twelve he appeared under the lofty portal of the Hotel de Louvre, with his fresh face, his ill- fitting grey suit, and enveloped in his own sympathetic atmosphere.
How could I have avoided him? To this day I have a shadowy conviction of his inherent distinction of mind and heart, far beyond any man I have ever met since. He was unavoidable: and of course I never tried to avoid him. The first sight on which his eyes fell was a victoria pulled up before the hotel door, in which I sat with no sentiment I can remember now but that of some slight shyness. He got in without a moment’s hesitation, his friendly glance took me in from head to foot and (such was his peculiar gift) gave me a pleasurable sensation.
After we had gone a little way I couldn’t help saying to him with a bashful laugh: “You know, it seems very extraordinary that I should be driving out with you like this.”
He turned to look at me and in his kind voice:
“You will find everything extremely simple,” he said. “So simple that you will be quite able to hold your own. I suppose you know that the world is selfish, I mean the majority of the people in it, often unconsciously I must admit, and especially people with a mission, with a fixed idea, with some fantastic object in view, or even with only some fantastic illusion. That doesn’t mean that