Copyright
Ethel Watts Mumford Grant.

Whitewash online

. (page 5 of 13)
Online LibraryEthel Watts Mumford GrantWhitewash → online text (page 5 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


are gatherings of the inner circle, few are ad
mitted who are not vouched for, even as your
friend presented you."

" And yet," said Victoria, " I see Miss Trevor
and Miss Berkley are they of the circle? "

" Patrons of ours," Mr. Red loftily allowed.
" Horace must invite Maecenas. My sister dances
at their houses next week."

" And the stout man in the corner? "

" Once again Maecenas ; he is Mr. Gustell, the
publisher. He has brought out a number of us
in book form, both by picture and print. S h,
we must not speak while Herr Balder plays;
nothing so annoys the sensitives."

Silence fell upon the assembly as a stout little
man, with speaking black eyes, seated himself
at the piano, swept the audience with a dreamy
glance, and fixed his gaze suddenly on Victoria.

105



WHITEWASH

He struck a few preliminary chords, got up,
whirled the piano-stool, and began to play
Viennese waltzes of languorous swing.

Victoria, thus selected as object of the serenade,
became embarrassed and uncomfortable, but Mr.
Red was delighted that his companion should be
thus singled out. In defiance of the feelings of
the " sensitives," he whispered :

" It s an open secret that Herr Balder always
dedicates his work to the most beautiful woman
present. You should feel flattered."

It was on Victoria s tongue to call the custom
a piece of impertinence, but she reflected upon the
Romans and their habits and the duties of visitors
at that capital. The humor of it struck her, and
despite her efforts, she smiled, a lapse that had
the effect of doubling the attentions of the genius,
who fairly made love to his keyboard proxy.

At the conclusion of the performance there was
no applause, " Just as there should be no prizes
in such a gathering," Mr. Red explained ; but
from various corners affected souls rushed for
ward to present their appreciations.

The little pianist bowed stiffly, with a gentle,
106



WHITEWASH

fatuous smile on his round face, and turning to
Madame Despard, evidently asked for an intro
duction to Victoria. They both turned toward
her and advanced hand in hand. The hostess,
with a graceful drape of her shawl, giving her
self the lines of an enlarged tanagra, stood before
the divan.

" Miss Claudel, our dear, wonderful Herr
Balder wishes to meet you. Let me introduce two
affinities. Carl," she continued, dreamily, " your
sweet sister Terpsichore has consented to do
Narcissus for us. She has just finished chang
ing her costume. Your mother will play, and
of course you will improvise, so I must tear you
from the society of our new sister."

He leaned over her. " Herr Balder shall not
alone have the honor of offering you his muse;
/ will improvise to you ! "

Victoria controlled a laugh and looked as soul
ful as the circumstances seemed to require.

The poet turned to follow his hostess, and she
encountered a valentine in each of Herr Balder s
round eyes. The suppressed laugh broke out.



107



WHITEWASH

She blushed at her rudeness, and endeavored to
cover it.

" I feel as happy as a girl at her first ball,"
she gurgled.

" And I am as happy as a man in love," he
replied, voicing the valentine.

" Why, I thought a man in love was always
a most unhappy creature? "

" No, not so," he smiled.

Anxious to break the rather awkward thread
of the conversation, she turned toward the room.
" We must be quiet. Mr. Red is going to begin."

The piano now attacked by a stout lady, whose
gown resembled a purple toga, gave forth in
rather mechanical time, the familiar strains from
the "Water Nymph Suite." The 1830 poet
gloomed and glowered, turning his inspired orbs
upon the conscious Victoria.

"Oh, love, it is thy beautiful face I see!"

Mr. Red exclaimed, in liquid tones, half-recita
tion, half-song.

The Japanese curtain parted, the slim girl in
Greek attire reaching to the knee, like the Spartan
1 08



WHITEWASH

girl s running costume made famous by the statue,
gambolled awkwardly in on the tips of her pink
satin ballet slippers.

" Oh, gaze on me ! oh, gaze on me ! "

continued the improvisator. The gleesome sister
executed a colt-like gyration and stood " at pose."

A discreet murmur greeted the picture. Around
the imaginary pool, the more than imaginary
Narcissus cavorted, smiling admiringly at the
polished floor from which the rugs had been rolled
back. The beat of the piano and the cadences
of the poet dwindled in Victoria s ears as the
absurdity of the dance took hold upon her. The
time changed. Mr. Red changed the metre of his
poem and announced " The Anger of the Gods."
The dancer, who had certainly earned it, seemed,
to do her justice, to be in trouble. " Narcissus
transformed to a flower," melodiously warbled
the poet, selecting another attitude, the music re
turning to its opening movement. Narcissus stood
poised on one foot, seemingly unable to place the
other.

" A flower upon its stem," observed Herr
Balder.

109



WHITEWASH

" A stork on one leg," Victoria retorted, in a
whisper.

He looked pained. "Don t you admire it?"

" The music, yes."

" No, the idealization."

" Meaning the acrobatics? I can t say I do."

He sighed. " It is not her best, perhaps. You
should see her do the Rubaiyat! "

Victoria flamed. " The Rubaiyat ! She dares ! "

" A genius always dares."

" Good heavens ! " The gray eyes filled with
resentment. " Anything but that it s sacri
lege!"

The music ceased. A murmur of delight, a
sudden chorus of adulation met the " artists."

"They actually applaud that!" Victoria ex
claimed, in amaze.

" Applaud and pay for the privilege elsewhere.
She gets one hundred and fifty dollars and more
for a dance."

Victoria rubbed her eyes. " I have been away
for some time, I know, and there is nonsense
enough in Europe over such things, but never,
never would have believed it possible here."
no



WHITEWASH

" It is only one phase of our new artistic devel
opment," said Herr Balder, encouragingly. " You
will hear and see many things in this salon that
will doubtless delight you. Miss Fenodo will read
from her poems. I fancy she is more in your
line."

In the buzz of renewed conversation and gen
eral shifting of partners, Mrs. Durham had made
her escape and was coming toward them.

" Isn t she handsome! " exclaimed Herr Balder,
"dear Muse!"

The Muse certainly was handsome. Her girl
ish, slender fairness did not prevent her face from
showing the vigorous intellect behind it, nor the
cynical humor of her eyes, which were the only
old thing about her. She subsided on the divan,
and gazed at her friend with mirthful inquiry.

" Having a good time? "

Victoria nodded. " Yes, but I m a little con
fused. You know Herr Balder ?"

" Oh, dear, yes ; every one in the inner circle
knows his geniusship."

The musician beamed and bowed. " Miss



in



WHITEWASH

Claudel does not seem to admire Miss Red s
interpretations as we do," he murmured.

" Really! " and Mrs. Durham looked with such
innocent reproof at her unenthusiastic friend that
Victoria all but lost her self-control.

" Ah ! " she went on, " she hasn t seen Madame
Despard faint down-stairs backwards. That is
a dream of grace ; it always reminds me of Alice,
who studied drawling and stretching and fainting
in coils.

" I don t believe I know the lady," Herr Balder
remarked.

" Oh, she s Alice Carroll, a friend of our youth
and the delight of our old age. There s quite a
crush to-day. I see Miss Lewis, Miss Manse, and
Mrs. Bonson. When were they admitted ? or are
they just Maecenases ? "

" Is that one of the passwords of the inner
circle? " Victoria inquired ; " and have you made
a verb I Maecenas, thou Msecenasest, and he
Maecenases? "

Mrs. Durham called Victoria s attention to a
couple near them. " There is Mr. Valdeck with
a very smart-looking woman. Probably he s
112



WHITEWASH

showing her Bohemia, as one takes a party
through the slums."

" Why, it s Philippa Ford," Victoria exclaimed.
" Who did you say the man was? "

" Lucius Valdeck, an Austrian or a Pole or
something, travelling for pleasure. He hasn t
been here long; in fact, when I met him he was
just up from New Orleans, and that wasn t more
than let s see three months ago. He has
made his way with wonderful rapidity ; one meets
him everywhere, and he hasn t a title, either."

Victoria drew her heavy brows together in a
frown. " I ve seen him before ; I m sure I have,
but I can t place him."

" Oh, probably ; he s the sort of a person one
would be sure to meet with in society, either
proper or improper."

" I ll ask Philippa about him ; he s somebody,
or she wouldn t bother with him. By the way,
I promised her she should meet you. She admires
your work immensely. I ll call her over."

Philippa, having been introduced to the pre
siding soul, was slowly progressing through the
crowd, while Valdeck presented various notables.



WHITEWASH

He was devoted, almost tender, and did not seem
in the least desirous of masking his infatuation
for his companion. She was looking her best
and knew it. Her blonde hair shone softly under
a velvet hat with curling plume. Her color was
high, her eyes brilliant, she exhaled a perfume
of violets and elegant femininity. In her tri
umphal progress she approached Victoria, who
nodded pleasantly. She at once disengaged her
self from the tentacles of the editor of The Voice,
and having recognized Mrs. Durham, precipitated
herself upon Victoria introductions followed,
and the authoress found herself metaphorically
clasped to the breast of her " constant reader."

Meanwhile, Valdeck having become separated
from Philippa in the latter s dash for the divan,
was looking about eagerly in search of her. The
crowd was so great that the low seat in the corner
was almost constantly obscured from his view,
and it is doubtful whether he would have dis
covered where she was, had he not become con
scious of being stared at by some one. He shifted
uneasily with the uncanny sensation, and looking
in the direction of the annoyance, he caught sight
114




SUDDENLY HIS EYES MET VICTORIA S.



WHITEWASH

of his lady, deep in animated conversation with a
woman in lavender. But she was not looking at
him, it was not she that called his attention. Sud
denly his eyes met Victoria s as she stared in an
evident effort to place him. A vision, clear and
sharp, flashed before his eyes a vision of that
same face, and another as striking, framed in the
darkness of a dormer-window and illuminated
by a candle, suddenly thrust aloft. His heart
stopped beating.

" Auray ! " He almost spoke the word. Out
wardly his calm did not desert him. Changing
his direction, as if he had perceived some one re
quiring his attention, he disappeared into the
adjoining room, where the punch-bowl, ringed
with glasses, called the convivially inclined. He
poured himself a glass, noticing as he did so a
slight tremor in his hand. With wonderful nerve
he steadied himself and drank. " This has got
to be planned for," he thought. " I must keep
out of sight, if possible; if not, it will have to
be brazened out. Oh, the damnable luck of it ! "

A superstitious fear tightened about his heart.
He had always been so amazingly fortunate.

"5



WHITEWASH

Was a turn in that fabled wheel to transform
his car of triumph into the Juggernaut that should
crush him? He plucked out the fear resolutely.
Very probably she had not recognized him. How
ever, she evidently felt that she had seen him
before. From that to recognition was only a
step, one that might or might not be taken, but
one to be prepared for. He glanced rapidly over
his present position. As far as he could judge
it was secure ; his letters of introduction had been
excellent. The warm-hearted Southerners to
whom he had devoted himself on his ocean trip
had more than rewarded his attentions. Nothing
could be proved for months, and all he wanted
was another week or two of his present freedom.

He stopped short. The pin ! the jewel he had
foolishly given Philippa the more securely to bind
her to his interests! It was a part of that very
Auray haul! Again a stab of foreboding smote
him, and he cursed himself.

" That s what I get for letting my foolish
antiquarian respect get the better of my judg
ment," he thought. " It should have been broken
up along with the modern pieces; though it was
116



WHITEWASH

hardly worth five hundred francs aside from its
artistic value. Rose diamonds have no market,
and the emerald, good color, was terribly flawed.
There s only one chance in a million that that
girl may have seen it on the old lady; another
chance in a thousand that she would recall it
sufficiently to identify it. But I must get the
thing from Philippa at any cost," he said, aloud.
" She s wearing it ! " flashed over him. He drank
another glass of punch and sat down. " She has
her sable cape on," he argued; "it s becoming;
she won t take it off unless the place gets insup-
portably hot. Perhaps But allowing she does
show it what then?" He clenched his hand.
" Vanity, pride those are her weaknesses. I
must compromise her so completely that to save
herself she will have to work with me. She s
a fool, and she loves the venturesome, provided
she thinks she won t be caught. She believes she
can manage men, in any and all situations
we ll see. She ll go to dinner if she can give her
aunt a good excuse. She must be dining some
where else. A girl of that kind always has a
friend to use as a blind, either because she s good-

117



WHITEWASH

natured, or because she wants a return in kind.
How am I to get hold of her without running
up against the other girl?" Like Napoleon,
he possessed the faculty of concentrating his
thoughts in the most distracting environments.
With the whole energy of his physical and mental
strength he set himself to frame his plans amid
the hubbub of the afternoon tea. The better
to excuse his absorption he opened his note-book
and became apparently engrossed in jotting down
something from time to time a trick not infre
quent in this circle of idea-mongers.

Meanwhile Philippa was deploying her forces
to surround and capture Mrs. Testly Durham
for her purposed dinner.

"When could she and dearest Victoria come?
It must be soon. What, all the week engaged?
They must set their own date, then such busy
people! Oh, yes, she knew they must be fairly
importuned with invitations but this was dif
ferent; friends from childhood. So glad Vic
toria had at last come home."

" Dear Victoria," who fully appreciated the



118



WHITEWASH

situation, smiled sweetly at Mrs. Durham s strug
gles in the well-known net.

" Let us say next Thursday, then," she finally
put in, with decision.

Mrs. Durham s mouth opened to remind Vic
toria of the Gordon s poster-party, but a dig from
a neatly shod foot turned the reminder to a
cordial acceptance.

Victoria broached her puzzle. " Who is the
man you came in with, Philippa? I ve seen him
somewhere, or else he looks like some one I have
seen, but I can t place him, and my brain is soften
ing from the strain."

Philippa s face brightened, delighted to blow
the trumpet of her protege s prowess. " Mr.
Valdeck. Such a dear. He s quite after your
own heart, so charming, so cultivated, so well-
bred. He belongs to a well-known Polish family,
is wealthy. He is travelling for pleasure under
an incognito, of course, to avoid newspaper re
porters and that sort of thing. Oh, he is a very
serious, retiring sort of fellow in spite of his
social position. The Pointue girls gave him let
ters of introduction one to me, of course -

119



WHITEWASH

Constielo Pointue and I are close friends, you
know. He has been a great success. All of our
set have received him. You must meet him.
Where is he, I wonder? I thought he would
follow me over here. Madame Despard must
have seized on him to entertain some wallflower
- he is so good-natured. Between ourselves," she
added, in her desire to aggrandize her adorer,
" he has an important mission over here ; not
officially, you know, and you mustn t refer to it.
His telling me was quite confidential. *

Mrs. Durham smiled. " You may rest as
sured that Miss Claudel and I will keep the secret
as you would yourself."

" Oh, I m sure of it," Philippa went on, uncon
scious of the speaker s mild irony, " I am an ex
cellent judge of people. I can count my mistakes
on my fingers."

" But all this," Victoria objected, ruefully,
" doesn t help me in the least. I cannot place the
man, and I feel memory nagging at conscious
ness, as if it were connected with something im
portant. Don t you hate that sensation ? "

Mrs. Durham nodded assent.
120



WHITEWASH

A strident " S h sh " from the hostess si
lenced the chatter in the rooms. " Miss Fenodo
will read a few selections from her forthcoming
book of poems," she announced.

A tall, angular woman, clad in a plain serge
walking-suit, rose to her feet and nodded awk
wardly at the gathering. She seemed ill at ease,
and fumbled nervously with several typewritten
papers.

" The Enchanted Mesa, " she read, in an un
certain voice.

Philippa turned a vague eye on Victoria.
"What s a Mesa ?"

" The Enchanted Mesa, explained Mrs.
Durham, " is the name of those curious moun
tains in Arizona or New Mexico it s "

But the lank poetess had struck her gait, as one
sometimes sees a lean, loose-built horse develope
exceeding speed. Hers was real poetry, clear,
terse, forceful, and colored. Amid the trumpery
nonsense of the mock Bohemian salon, it was as
much out of place as a jewel in an ash-heap.
Every line minted clear and gleaming, the rare
golden coin of language.

121



WHITEWASH

An astonished silence followed the reading, but
Victoria startled the audience with a vehement
and reverberating " Bravo ! " The applause broke
out in a decorous wave, but it was plain to be seen
that the shot had passed far over the heads of most
of the listeners, notably the editor of The Voice,
who shrugged his shoulders, as if he had refused
that sort of thing by the ton.

The eyes of the reader naturally turned to the
group on the divan, where Victoria, overcome by
the sudden outburst of her own voice, was blush
ing furiously.

" A Legend of Monterey. " She read the
verses directly to her partisan with a half-apol
ogetic look, as if explaining the need of a mental
support. This time the enthusiasm was more
roused, and Victoria s sincere delight found fuller
backing.

" I m going to speak to her," she announced,
as the woman crumpled her papers and moved
stiffly aside.

" So am I," Mrs. Durham exclaimed. " She s
real."

Philippa, who had a witty epigram all prepared,

122



WHITEWASH

with which to crush the poetess, was annoyed at
the enthusiasm of her companions, but as Mrs.
Durham was a celebrity, and Victoria, as she had
good cause to know, was an unerring picker of
literary winners, she reluctantly pocketed the epi
gram, for use at some other time, and announced
herself on fire to pay tribute to " that really re
markable talent."

The three ladies had risen, when a servant ap
proached Philippa with a folded card.

" Wait for me one moment," she begged, " till I
see what this is."

Two lines in pencil in Valdeck s hand. " Rus
sian consul just come ; must slip off. Join me in
vestibule, please undiscovered."

With a delighted sense of her importance and
the romance of the situation, Philippa blushed
with eagerness and excitement. " I m so sorry ! "
she exclaimed, hurriedly ; " I must go at once.
Do remember Thursday next; I m coming to
call before, of course. Good-bye, Mrs. Durham,
I m so glad to have met you; good-bye. Oh,
Victoria, will you fasten this hook for me, like
a dear?" She leaned forward, holding out the

123



WHITEWASH

soft fur edges of her cape collar, revealing as
she did so the elaborate velvet applique of her
waist and the exquisite beauty of an ancient pin
that nestled at her throat.

Victoria s eyes rested on it for one breathless
second, then her voice spoke strange and sharp as
she fairly jerked out the question : " Where did
you get that ? "

" Goodness ! " thought Philippa, quickly, " I
can t tell her I accepted such a valuable present
from Valdeck can t even excuse it on old
friendship. I m engaged to Morton, I forgot to
tell her but now isn t the time." An imper
ceptible pause covered this calculating. " Why,
Victoria," she said, gently, " what makes you so
savage? It s an old thing of mother s. I found
it not long ago among some letters and keepsakes
of hers. Pretty, isn t it?"

Philippa s voice was full of sentiment and sor
row. To hear her one felt instinctively the desire
to protect this motherless girl, and to pass quickly
from a subject that might cause sad recollections.
Victoria controlled the strong emotion that shook
her.

124



WHITEWASH

" Oh," she said, awkwardly, " it s very hand
some and most unusual."

" I must go," Philippa mourned, and with an
affectionate backward glance, moved toward her
hostess. " Such a charming time, my dear Mrs.
Despard. You must come to my Thursdays. I
hear the Russian consul is here ; do point him out
to me."

"Is he?" queried madame, languidly. "I
don t know, I m sure; some one must have
brought him. Yes, do come again."

" Let s go," said Victoria, shortly, as Philippa
left them, " I want to talk to you ; I want to get
out of this." Mrs. Durham looked astonishment,
but Victoria persisted.

" Let s leave immediately, if you don t mind
that is I m upset."

Mrs. Durham sent a diagnosing glance over
her charge and nodded, her face becoming serious.
" Is anything the matter? " she asked.

" I don t know," answered Victoria, helplessly ;
" I wish I did."

Mrs. Durham promptly linked her arm through
her friend s, and bore her rapidly down the room

125



WHITEWASH

to where the hostess stood talking in the centre
of a little attentive circle.

" We want to extend our thanks to you,"
she said, " for the pleasure and the priv
ilege of hearing such good poetry. We really
have a great deal to say on the subject, but we
have to go."

Victoria tried to tone down the abruptness of
their departure, but was obviously uneasy and
preoccupied. The poetess seemed disappointed.
The sudden natural outburst of Victoria s ad
miration had led her to hope for one of the rare
sympathies she occasionally inspired, and the
pang of loneliness that followed on its non-ful
filment lasted long after " The Enchanted Mesa "
had completely faded from Victoria s mind. Of
such strange stuff is our sensitiveness made.

As the friends left the hubbub of the tea, and
sought the shelter of Mrs. Durham s studio,
neither of them spoke. It was not until the
cigarette had gone out several times and Vic
toria had walked the floor sturdily for some half
mile that the flood-gates were opened. During
the interval Mrs. Durham settled herself in one
126



WHITEWASH

of the huge leather club chairs and watched her
visitor with attention.

" Here goes ! " Victoria broke out suddenly,
flinging herself heavily into the chair opposite.
She plunged into the story of the Auray robbery,
described the Englishman minutely, the countess
and her jewels, the nurse s story and its con
tradictions, the death of the child, the fruitless
efforts of the police, Sonia s constant annoyance
at being called upon to identify arrested persons
bearing no possible resemblance to the criminal,
her own return to America, her meeting with
Valdeck and her difficulty in remembering where
she had seen him crowned by the sudden re
vealing glimpse of the countess s brooch on the
breast of Philippa Ford, and the instant flash
of recollection that, in spite of the change of
hair and the disappearance of the mustache,
showed her the mock O Farrell in Valdeck the
Pole.

Her friend heard her out without interruption,
proof positive of a most unusual female intellect.
When at last Victoria paused, Mrs. Durham
began tearing the edge of a magazine into infini-

127



WHITEWASH

tesimal bits, a habit she frequently indulged in
during moments of concentration.

" First, are you absolutely sure about the pin ? "
she asked, presently, more as an opening wedge
than a question.

" Absolutely. *

"And the man?"

" Still more so if that is possible."

" Miss Ford said it had belonged to her mother.
There might be two such pins in the world."

Victoria shook her head. " And two such
men no! Besides, Philippa is a born liar; it
isn t even second nature with her, it s first nature.
She didn t want me to think she had accepted
such a present from a mere acquaintance; but


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryEthel Watts Mumford GrantWhitewash → online text (page 5 of 13)