Copyright
Ethel Watts Mumford Grant.

Whitewash online

. (page 12 of 13)
Online LibraryEthel Watts Mumford GrantWhitewash → online text (page 12 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


He got up, and opening the door, called for
Gustave in no pleasant tones.

A prompt " Oui, monsieur, tout de suite, mon
sieur! " came from below, and the waiter sprang
up the steps and stood, all attention.

" Tell madame to send me up a bottle of whis
key," he ordered, shortly, and stepped back.

Gustave obeyed with alacrity, and presently re
turned with the bottle and a corkscrew. " A
siphon? no? A soda? no? bien!" and
he skipped lightly from the lowering presence.

Valdeck poured out a full three fingers and
tossed it down. He was not a drinking man,
and he gagged at the sharp, burning taste. But
his nerve had been taxed to the uttermost, and
the stiff dose barely restored his mental equilib
rium.

The early twilight had already settled down.
The room was mysterious with dusk. Outside,
the world was blue and strange, with squares

273



WHITEWASH

of yellow gaslight marking the illuminated win
dows. On the fences, sleep-sodden cats stretched
and yawned, whisked a velvet paw over a drowsy
face and started out upon the evening s wander
ings. The clothes-lines sagged no longer above
their wind-inflated loads. Now and again a jang
ling piano sent a shower of ill-tuned waltz-notes
on the air, and somewhere in the distance a melan
choly cornet wailed forth the familiar melody of
the " Trompeter von Sakkingen," " Behiit, dich
Gott, es war zu schon gewesen, behiit, dich Gott,
es hat nicht sollen sein."

He shivered and turned once more to the
whiskey-bottle.

Twilight settled into night, while smells of
dinner cookery pervaded everything ; sage, onions,
a whiff of garlic swamped in a nameless vague
sauce piquant aroma. From the restaurant on the
first floor, noise and tumult arose. A busy clatter
of dishes, knives and forks, as the first courses
of the " fifty-cent-dinner, wine-included," were
being served. Then, animal appetites satisfied,
a babel of tongues arose louder and louder as
the California claret began to take effect. Val-
274



WHITEWASH

deck could see it all as plainly as if he were
occupying one of the little white-clothed tables
now being wine-spotted by the hungry horde,
fat, paunchy men, with small, round features and
pig eyes, who wielded dexterous knives, gesticu
lating, enthusiastic, with clothes-brush pompa
dours and bristly moustaches ; elderly and over
flowing matrons, with black lace bonnets and
lavish breastpins, chaperoning slim slips of daugh
ters of marriageable age, mildly and fearfully
regarding a fiance of papa s choosing always
a young man with a crumpled white waistcoat
and a black satin tie, designed to imitate a " cra
vat," and adorned by a gilt safety-pin. Some
times he was blond, sometimes brunette, but the
uniform was invariable. There, too, the inevitable
tenth-rate viveur, with pimpled face, gray hair,
and a lean lecherousness, accompanied by his
tenth-rate concomitant a girl with painted
cheeks, and bandeau tresses surmounted by a
flaring velvet hat of faded plumage the usual
habitues of the French quarter restaurant cafe.
Later there would be petits verres and dominoes
until eleven. Valdeck knew it all to the sickening

275



WHITEWASH

point. He could not help contrasting it with the
surroundings and life in which he had so lately
figured. Brought up as he had been, in the
lavish, careless luxury of his beautiful but no
madic mother, he had from earliest childhood
consorted with men of fashion and women of
that nameless world, where good manners are
by no means unusual, and where luxury is a
necessity. Later, as he grew old enough to be
observing, and also a living remark upon the
age of the lovely Judith Grosifa, he had been
sent away to school in England, till the woeful
day when the master learned of his antecedents
and turned him out. Then two years at a Lycee
in Paris, till at fourteen he found himself an
orphan, with but little to his name, and that
name uncertain. He had known it all in his
life of three and thirty years good and ill,
poverty and riches, ambitions, hopes and fears,
hardly a rung in life s ladder but at some time
had supported him. He was used to changes,
but somehow his gorge rose at his surroundings,
and he longed desperately to be on a level with
that distant image of all good Victoria.
276



WHITEWASH

The thought of Philippa and her green boudoir
intruded. He smiled half in amusement, half
in scorn, and wondered at himself for choosing
so poor a tool. What was it, unless remorseless
Fate, that made him select that shallow, prating
fool? Did he not know the vanity of woman
well enough by this time to comprehend that she
must be envied by some one before she can enjoy
any possession most of all a secret ? He might
have known that Philippa would talk too much,
would overdo the part assigned to her, would trip
and tangle him in his own net.

Truly it was Fate. And Fate had not yet
done with him. He felt it again, that terrible
haunting presence of danger. He shook it from
him, and once more his mind went back to Vic
toria. He would put her right before he dis
appeared from her world and life.

He lit the gas, took out his pencil, and on
the back of an envelope wrote:

" To ALL WHOM IT MAY CONCERN : The story
told by me and circulated by Miss Ford con
cerning the private character of Miss Claudel,

277



WHITEWASH

was a mere fiction, necessary to discredit her
statements against me.

" Lucius VALDECK."

He read it over. He was rather proud of
his English. He could write it fluently even
if his accent in speaking betrayed the foreigner.

A tap at the door startled him. Hastily fold
ing the scrap of paper, he thrust it in his pocket,
and went to the door.

" Who s there? " he demanded, sharply.

" Gustave. Does not monsieur desire dinner? "

Valdeck hesitated. " Yes," he decided. " Bring
me something here anything."

" Bien, monsieur."

The servant knocked at the adjoining room.

" Does madame desire dinner? "

" Yes," answered a woman s voice. " Some
toast and coffee."

" Bien, madame," and Gustave s heavy tread
announced his descent into the region of edibles.

" So," considered Valdeck, " the room next
door is occupied. It is the first time. The voice
is educated. Let us see our neighbor."
278



WHITEWASH

He cautiously slipped to the keyhole, and,
stooping, tried to reconnoitre. No use, the key
hole was closed by something, possibly the key.
At this time everything and everybody boded
danger until otherwise proven. He listened
attentively for any sound, however slight, that
might betray the age, nature, or occupation of
the woman next door. All was silent.

Presently the waiter returned, knocked, and was
admitted. He could hear the soft swish of a silk
petticoat as its owner moved toward the door.
But there was no response to Gustave s voluble
comments. Then the door closed again, and the
knocking was repeated, this time at his own room.
He opened to the summons and watched the
officious little Frenchman as he set down the tray.

" Number 12 was taken, then," Valdeck re
marked, " and who might the lady be? "

" Oh, elderly, elderly," Gustave commented, as
if to allay any hopes on the part of Number 14.
" A woman at least of fifty, and of a silentness,
not to say abruptness. Would it be believed,
she arrived with only two hand-bags, and ap
peared not at all to care what she spent. Had

279



it been, now, the little sisters of Number 10, one
might understand, but this white-haired woman -
and in mourning, and of a deepness ! truly she
wore as much crepe as the funeral pomps

"What s her name?" inquired Valdeck, im
patiently.

" Oh, a Madame Duval. Very ordinary name
from Marseilles very ordinary place. Would
monsieur have cognac with his coffee ? no ?
Would monsieur have the obligeance to put the
tray outside the door when finished ? a thousand
thanks," and Gustave pounded his way down
stairs once more.

Valdeck, left alone, dismissed the thought of
his neighbor, as he took a long drink from the
now half-emptied bottle. His ears were ringing
and his oppression and anxiety lifted a little.
He ate with more relish than he had expected, and
pushing back his chair, lighted a cigarette. Gradu
ally the world receded, the blue rings of smoke
spread and hung gently in the air, his brain was
tranced in a not unpleasant numbness. He was
still conscious that he was menaced in some way,
but he no longer clung to details. Only the face of
280



WHITEWASH

Victoria, haloed in cigarette smoke, looked vividly
down on him. He stretched himself, and yawned.
The liquor drowsed through his veins. He was
very, very tired, and glad to forget his troubles.
He disapproved of drinking, particularly at crucial
moments. It was a very pernicious habit but
after all when one s thoughts were all disa
greeable, why not muddle them ?

The noise had ceased down-stairs. No longer
the clink of china, nor the wrangling of argumen
tative voices, no longer the cheerful shout of Gus-
tave, or Hortense, down the dumb-waiter, " Deux
btxuf a la mode, trois haricots, une demi-tasse."
He fumbled for his watch, and glanced at the time.
Half-past ten. Stumblingly he rose, and made his
way to the window, threw up the sash, and gazed
uncertainly out. Across the way silhouettes came
and went upon the drawn-down shades; further
on he saw the blurred outline of the lady of the
amazing lingerie. The stars overhead shone with
a palpitating, uneven light. But, oh, how good
was the fresh night air upon his face. He glanced
once more at the bed. It was inviting with its
red eider-down pillows he would give up and

281



go to sleep. He undressed recklessly, throwing
his garments, or leaving them where they dropped,
secured his door, took a final swig of whiskey,
and after turning off the gas, tumbled into bed.

The night wore on. The last patron was turned
out, the last bolt fastened. Madame Guisard had
removed all the pins in her edifice of hair and
lace. Gustave had neatly plaited the napkins for
the next day s tables, and Hortense, candle in
hand, had yawned her way to her little attic
cubby-hole.

The outer world, too, had gone to rest. Only
the cats now crawled and fought along the gutters
and on the narrow fence-tops. At intervals the
bells of the little French church rang out the
hour, which the Skye terrier of the lady opposite
heralded with a shrill howl. Even the distant
buzz of the elevated was stilled.

Valdeck slept heavily. The stroke of two still
hung vibrating in the air. when the communicating
door between 12 and 14 opened slowly.

The light burned brightly in the woman s room
and showed her dark form sharply. In her hand
she carried a ring and skeleton keys. She paused
282




"THE LIGHT BURNED BRIGHTLY IN THE WOMAN S ROOM
AND SHOWED HER DARK FORM SHARPLY."



WHITEWASH

a moment, listening, and then silently turned back.
She was small, thin, and clad in mourning-gar
ments that accentuated her peculiarities. Under
heavy brows her great black eyes burned with a
deep, concentrated radiance that seemed to eat
into her face, so consuming they were. Her hair,
once as black as night, was striped with white,
one great strand springing from her left temple
contrasting strangely with the coil at the back
of her head. She moved with a curious uncer
tainty, as though her actions were governed by
unregulated, instantaneous impulses.

On the bureau lay her opened hand-bag, and
upon the marble table-top, sole ornament of the
room, stood a silver figure of St. Anne. The
woman advanced to the statue, knelt with fervent
devotion, crossing herself over and over, mutter
ing and questioning. Suddenly she arose and
stood listening, nodding her head as if in acquies
cence to directions given. A deeper fire glowed
in her eyes. Catching up the silver figure, she
kissed its foot passionately, and then turned to
her hand-bag. From it she took a cloth and a
small bottle, smiling wisely all the while. Stealth-

283



WHITEWASH

ily she crept into the adjoining room, made her
way to the bed, and stood over the unconscious
sleeper.

Valdeck slept on, his usual acute senses drugged
into stupidity.

She leaned over him long, as if to make sure.

" Yes," she murmured, " that is the man! He
is the one who was pointed out to me he is the
one I have followed, and the good St. Anne says
I am right."

Once more she nodded gravely, then, with
swift, mechanical movements, she inundated the
cloth, and clapped it over the upturned face. There
was a short struggle, a gasp, and the sleeper
passed into the blinding, buzzing unconsciousness
of chloroform.

Deliberately the woman went about her work.
She shut down the open window carefully, then,
drawing the blind, she lighted the gas. Coldly,
with no wavering now, she closed the transom
and stuffed the crack beneath the door with the
overcoat, pushing its folds close, that no air might
penetrate. There remained only her own door.
Valdeck s silk handkerchief and muffler were upon
284



WHITEWASH

the table. Taking both, she laid them lengthwise
about the wooden door in such fashion that in
shutting the door the tiny crack would be sealed.

A moan from the bed brought her quickly over.
She bent above Valdeck for a moment, lifted the
cloth, and contemplated the handsome face with
a look of inhuman satisfaction. Again she sat
urated the bandage, laying it back almost ten
derly. The bottle itself she put down upon the
pillow. Raising her hand, she deliberately turned
out the gas, and waited a moment before turning
it on in full.

The room slowly filled with poisonous vapor.
She stood, till her brain was dizzy, watching the
form upon the bed. At last, as if tearing herself
away from some entrancing spectacle, she turned
to her own room, carefully shutting and locking
the door. The last avenue of ventilation was
closed.

The mad countess sat down to listen and
wait.



285



CHAPTER X.

L HILIPPA was humbled in the dust, meta
phorically speaking. Literally she had tried to
throw herself at her aunt s feet in her despair, but
Mrs. Ford, averse to theatricals for home con
sumption, merely remarked that " in tragedy she
preferred Duse and Mrs. Fiske." This heartless-
ness had the effect to precipitate a Niagara of
tears.

Mrs. Ford waited quietly until the paroxysm
passed, to take up the thread of her remarks.

" I suppose you are aware that this disrepu
table affair of yours has been kept from the
papers only by the greatest effort, and by the use
of money and influence. That s why you are in
this house instead of the jail. I m sure I don t
know why I allow you to stay here I m by
far too soft-hearted. You will remember I told
286



WHITEWASH

you I would have nothing to do with your mis
erable case if you saw fit to disobey me."

Philippa groaned and pressed her burning palms
to her aching head. Ever since she had been re
leased, and accompanied to her home by Com
missioner Holes, Mr. Pendle, and her aunt, she
had been in a state of frantic despair, which was
not counterfeit.

" What I want to know is this," the drum-
major went on, " are you going to obey me now ?
I shall give you this one more chance. I will
take you in hand if you promise implicit obe
dience implicit ! you understand ! "

Philippa caught at the straw. " I will, I will
anything everything, I promise ! "

" So you have frequently said, but I have failed
to note the absolute fulfilment of your vows.
Now it s come to this : either you let me run
this thing without question, or you are done for
socially. Of course, you can go to Europe with
an elderly chaperone. Malta is a good place
with your good looks you ought to pick up some
bored baronet with a bank account."

Philippa sat up on the lounge and pushed the

287



WHITEWASH

tumbled hair from her eyes. There were new
lines of suffering in her childish face, a naive
grace, a piteous appeal, that had even softened
the buckrammed, tight-buttoned heart of her aunt,
and drawn from her this last offer of help.

" I give you my solemn word of honor," she
said, " I ll obey you in every particular. I ve
been a fool, and I know it. I m in an awful hole,
and if you ll help me out, I ll I ll there isn t
anything I won t do."

" And if I lay down a plan of action, you ll live
up to it, will you ? "

" I will, oh, I will ! " Philippa wailed.

"It s understood, then, is it? Then let us
go over the ground."

Mrs. Ford rose and made a slow tour of the
room in silence; her gaze snapped from one object
to another, as if this were, in fact, the ground
she was going over. An amused gleam lit her
cold eyes as she noted the familiar sham : the
soulful " sanguines," the masterpieces of Burne-
Jones, Rossetti, and Watts, that adorned the
walls of the room, because its occupant felt
she ought to admire them. The rows of books
288



WHITEWASH

upon the shelves, unappreciated and unread. The
one true note was self-adoration. Photographs
of Philippa were scattered broadcast Philippa
standing, trailing a long-stemmed rose in a well-
posed hand ; Philippa sitting, with her arms
draped over a huge, carved " studio " chair ; Phil
ippa in evening-dress, in walking-dress, in her
riding-habit, with a bulldog, an open book, a
bunch of daisies, a garden-hat, and in four kinds
of fancy dress. Mrs. Ford looked them over
with undisguised scorn.

"How absolutely vain you are!" she said,
slowly.

It was on the tip of her listener s tongue to
remark on " beams and motes," but she gulped
in silence. This was no time for retaliation.
Her position was too insecure.

" But," the drum-major resumed, wrapping the
belaced folds of her dressing-gown about her
ample person, " as I said, let us look at the situa
tion. Two things are paramount : you must own
yourself mistaken about Victoria that will be
easy; and you must do it amply and fully. In
that way you will win the silence of old Morris

289



WHITEWASH

Courncey and Fanshaw concerning your dinner
episode." Her face hardened as she said the
words, " If you will remember, I warned you
that very afternoon to let matters drop between
you and that impostor. But, to continue. You
must release Morton at once. He knows too
much for you to try to hold him. You must be
repentant, humble. You must appeal to his chival
rous nature to save appearances for you. I think
we can withdraw those wretched letters of Val-
deck s from publicity. Then, to the outer world
your attitude must be that of injured angel.
Valdeck interested you in what you thought a
noble charity. You wanted to help your
interest in slum-work is well known " Mrs.
Ford sniffed as she referred to her ward s spas
modic and fashionable zeal for the water-front
and the Bowery. " And now, I have the one
great piece of luck to tell you of the thing that
saves you the only thing that could have saved
you. Valdeck left a confession exonerating Vic
toria, and incidentally you."

Philippa gasped and sat up. " He s escaped



290



WHITEWASH

then, has he? " Involuntarily her face shone with
relief.

" He committed suicide. It was in all the
papers yesterday." Mrs. Ford s back was turned
toward Philippa. She did not see the ghastly
pallor that spread over the girl s face. When
she turned, her charge s head was buried in the
pillows of the sofa, and she went on with her
information. " You are the luckiest creature I
ever heard of. To think of his having the de
cency to put himself out of the way. He turned
on the gas after carefully blocking up all the
chinks of his room, and, I suppose because he
was afraid his nerve would fail him, he chloro
formed himself when he lay down to die. It
seems it happened in some cheap little French
hotel over on Twenty-sixth Street, and it wasn t
found out till early next morning, when the
woman who had occupied the adjoining room
left the house because she claimed the smell of
gas was unendurable.

" After she d paid her bill and gone, the waiter
went up-stairs and found the halls positively as-



291



WHITEWASH

phyxiating. He located the fumes, broke in the
door and there was Valdeck dead ! "

Philippa gasped.

" Dead ! " went on Mrs. Ford. " And in his
pocket was found a slip of paper on which, written
in pencil, was a statement that his accusations
made to you against Victoria were unfounded
and merely made for the purpose of discrediting
the Auray story. It was really superfluous, for
her statement has been fully substantiated, but
I suppose he grew sentimental over his impending
death, or the whiskey, for he had been drinking
heavily during the evening; a bottle nearly three-
quarters empty was found by his bed. Now, you
see, with Valdeck dead, the principal reason for
pursuing the affair has been removed. Of course,
the State will have its case against the woman for
complicity, but as she confessed on hearing of
her accomplice s suicide, and they are in a fair
way to recover all the jewels stolen from New
Orleans, there won t be much of an examination.
Your appearance will be quite nominal and
those letters once returned, there is plenty of
proof forthcoming that you were merely a tool."
292



WHITEWASH

Philippa winced in spite of her prostration.
Then there flashed through her throbbing brain
another thought. His last care had been to exon
erate Victoria no thought of her. But perhaps
he did not wish to drag her name with his to a
dishonored grave. In a tumult of sensations, she
wavered back and forth, now filled with hatred
of Valdeck and his deceptions, now crushed and
broken-hearted over his death. Her will was in
abeyance, and her many-sided mind, uncontrolled,
followed with exaggerated vision the myriad sug
gestions that in normal conditions float half-
formed in the consciousness. She was only
vaguely aware of the drone of her aunt s voice,
as she continued to pour wisdom upon the un
heeding air.

The maid entered presently, with a note for
Philippa. Aroused and brought back to vivid con
sciousness, she glanced at the address in Morton s
clean-cut, characteristic hand.

It was a request, couched in formal terms, for
an interview some time during the day.

Dismissing the maid with a nod, she handed
the missive to her aunt, who glanced over it.

293



WHITEWASH

" Well," she demanded, " when will you see
him?"

Philippa looked up wearily. " Don t you think
you could manage this better?" she suggested.
" Tell him I m too ill to see him. You can say
I m so heart-broken over the unintentional wrong
I did Victoria, you know."

The drum-major nodded. " I think so," she
mused, " I think so. You had better stay in
bed for the next few days, then we ll admit a
few of your friends, and you can tell them that
you must set Victoria right, that it s the only
thing you are living for that you are really too
miserable to see any one, but you must undo the
wrong you have done. Then, of course, I will
deplore your trustfulness, and declaim against
the creature s infamous use of your charitable
nature." The drum-major positively smiled. The
old war-horse of social diplomacy cried ha! ha!
afar off, scenting battle. With a sweep of the
ornate dressing-gown, the lady settled herself
before Philippa s spindle-legged writing-desk, and
drew out a sheet of becrested note-paper. The
arms, crest, and motto " Fidelitas " were simply
294



WHITEWASH

embossed in the heavy, white paper, and also
adorned the flap of the envelope. From the recess
where the creamy piles lay spread, arose a faint
perfume of violets.

With strong, scratching gestures, Mrs. Ford
penned her little note :

" MR. MORTON CONWAY,
" UNIVERSITY CLUB.

" MY DEAR MR. CONWAY : Philippa is, I
fear, very ill. The doctors tell me that unless
she gets some rest she may develop brain-fever.
It is, therefore, impossible for her to answer your
note or receive you in person. For the present
I must be her proxy. If you will call at once,
I should be pleased to tell you the particulars of
her condition and her wishes for the future."

She signed with a decided upward tilt, and
added the date and address reread the epistle
first to herself, then to Philippa, and rang for the
maid. " And now, my dear," she added, rising
and standing before the dressing-table, " I must
dress to see him."

295



WHITEWASH

She contemplated her florid reflection with
dignified satisfaction, picked up the artless Phi-
lippa s powder-puff, and discreetly subdued the
violet-veined tone of her large, well-modelled
Roman nose. She gently rubbed a tinge of mas-
caro upon her already heavy brows, and with a
moistened finger removed the particles of powder
from about her blue, incisive eyes, turning her


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12

Online LibraryEthel Watts Mumford GrantWhitewash → online text (page 12 of 13)