Ethel Watts Mumford Grant.

Whitewash online

. (page 8 of 13)
Online LibraryEthel Watts Mumford GrantWhitewash → online text (page 8 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and honor wrought a sudden and subtle change


in Morton s manner. He recalled Philippa s affec
tionate tributes to Victoria, and the first doubt
that had ever dimmed his old and deep affection
settled over his heart. After all, Tory was no
better than the average woman swayed by jeal
ousy, the fundamental fault; he had always
believed her above such pettiness and personal
spite. He was far too loyal in his love to doubt
Philippa for a moment. She stood on the altar
he had built for her, free from all question. The
queen could do no wrong, and since she was un
speakably good and true and honorable, there
was only one other opinion open to him. Vic
toria had been mistaken in the matter of the pin,
or misled by some chance resemblance of design.
As far as the story concerned Valdeck, he was
more than ready to believe it. He had mistrusted
the Pole from the first, and had watched with
ever deepening dislike the mysterious stranger s
advance into the good graces of his lady-love.

Victoria finished her narration and sat silent,
staring out across the bare court to the deserted
trellis and the empty carriage sheds.

Morton was uncomfortable. To have detected



Victoria in a meanness was a severe blow to him ;
he began to realize what an exalted opinion he
had held of her. He had been foolish; women
were women the world over all but Philippa;
his heart warmed at the thought of her.

" Are you sure you cannot be mistaken? " he
asked, at length. " Resemblances are extraordi
nary, you know, and in the matter of the pin,
no sane jury would convict a man because of
such a bit of circumstantial evidence. The same
jeweller might have made many similar pieces.
Why shouldn t Miss Ford s mother have possessed
such a jew r el ? "

Victoria s laugh was short and of the kind
termed nasty. " Because Philippa has been trot
ting Valdeck about with her, evidently for some
months and two and two make four."

" Miss Ford would hardly accept such a present
from any man, and much less from one she hardly

" How little you know Philippa ! " retorted Vic
toria, with cool decision.

" I thought you were friends." The tone of
Morton s voice would have enlightened his hearer


at any other time, but her absorption in her
" case " blinded her for the moment.

" Friends ! " she answered, with an expressive
shrug; "friends what do you call friends?
I ve known her for years granted. She uses
me and thinks I don t know it. So she chooses
to call me her darling, and assumes that my atti
tude is one of adoration. It is not; I have told
her so frequently. She amuses me. In return
for my usefulness, she gives me a certain cynical
satisfaction, an intellectual treat. She is a great
actress of parlor comedy, worthy of the closest
observation. If I were on the stage I would
give years to the study of her method; it is
pure, unalloyed, instinctive genius."

Every word of Victoria s speech carried with
it her own condemnation to Morton s ears. It
hurt him, stabbed him, tortured the fine affection
that he had held so long. He longed to declare
his position and champion his lady s cause, but
his promise held him dumb. He stared unsee
ing at the bare winter landscape before him. A
short hour before it had not seemed unbeautiful,
the pale blue sky, the gray lace-work of bare



branches and the brown, snow-spotted lawns ; the
air had not seemed chill, nor the earth unkind.
Now, it was all unmitigated ugliness.

" I can t advise you, I m afraid," he said,
coldly ; " but I d be careful if I were you. It s
no light matter to bring accusations against man
or woman you have that to learn."

She looked up, hurt that the quick, never-
failing sympathy and understanding, the whole-
souled appropriation of each other s griefs, joys,
and cares that had been a feature of their friend
ship, should fail her now. A quick thought of
her long absence and of possible divergencies of
character flashed over her. Her mobile face
clouded sadly. She felt very shut out and alone.
She, too, realized how much this association and
companionship had meant to her. How she had
idealized and turned to their perfect friendship
as a prop and stay. Her throat ached cruelly.
So it was over, this dream of an earthly friend
ship! Something had deviated them from their
parallel during her three years absence, in spite
of their constant correspondence. They had
grown in different directions. Filled with a
1 80


nameless sadness they sat silent, and in the si
lence the breach widened; they looked at each
other as passengers on passing ships might watch
the breadth of separating waters increase with
each pulse-beat of the engines.

Victoria rose hastily. " It s very late, Mor
ton," she said, with an effort at cheerfulness.
" You have your drive, you say, and I must go
back to the studio. Does your road lead my way,
or do we separate here? "

Morton glanced at his watch. " My horses
are at the driving-club; I ll walk down with

They walked fast and in silence for the most
part, except for such desultory conversation as
their mutual embarrassment seemed to make nec
essary. They parted with their old phrases of
affection, but the hearty freedom had left them,
and both felt it with a shock of loneliness. Vic
toria turned toward her temporary home, and
Morton made his way to the club, where he
ordered his team with such dejection that even
the hostler wondered. While he waited he went
over the interview. He honestly believed that



he looked at the case impersonally, for the bias
lay too deep, was too much a part of himself,
for him to realize its presence. He would not
admit the possibility of anything but the most
angelic sentiments in Philippa. Philosophers
have contended that real Platonic affection be
tween man and woman is impossible, yet he ad
mitted to himself that the utter annihilation of
all his respect for all his other friends could not
grieve him as did this suspicion of meanness in
Victoria. She had always stood to him as a type
of the " big and white," as his college slang
briefly and picturesquely put it. And after all she
was only small and spotted like the rest of the
world. He felt instinctively that he must read
just his valuation of all things.

The stamping of his horses on the wooden
floor roused him, and he went to them with his
usual slaps and sugar, mounted to the seat of
his light runabout and signed his readiness. With
the opening of the sliding-doors the friend van
ished and the lover came. " When half-gods go,
the gods arrive." Victoria the disappointing
fled from his mind and made place for Philippa


the perfect. His heart sang as he pulled up
before the wide, old-fashioned front of the house,
and his smile held all his love and trust enthroned,
as he saw her graceful figure step between the
swinging-doors and descend to meet him.

She looked up into his face with eyes of such
superhuman innocence that his soul went out to
her. And this was the woman Victoria had dared
to accuse of lying, duplicity, veniality, vanity, the
quartet of feminine vices he most detested.
Philippa, the down-trodden angel, appealed to all
the chivalry in him. It was with a new and
protecting tenderness that he assisted her to her
place at his side. Heretofore she had dazzled
and baffled him, now she was his to shield and
comfort, and the joy of it was very keen.

" Well, dear? " she said as they turned toward
the Park.

" Very well, dear," he answered, happily.
"And you?"

" I m tired," she said, her voice full of the
infantile, pathetic quality that so endeared her
to those who did not know her. " Let s see, I
dined out last night, since you had your old



class dinner to go to; and to-day I called on
dear Victoria, and I have just been lunching with
a lot of girls. Awfully stupid I hate girls
affairs, anyway. They are all gossip and back
bite, and I hate it so ! "

Morton, in his thirst of her every look and
movement, very nearly ran down a nurse and
baby-carriage. She laughed indulgently and
merrily. Life was very exciting and full just
now ; she almost forgave him for being engaged
to her.

" What have you been doing all this while?
You haven t accounted for your time yet, you

He touched up the off horse as he answered :
" Class dinner last night, rather good fun ; and
this morning well, just some business that
wouldn t interest you ; and then I took Victoria
out to lunch at the Casino. After that I came
for you."

Philippa divined at once that the " lie " was
in circulation, and she took the bull by the horns.

" I suppose she took occasion to abuse Val-
deck?" she said, tentatively.


Morton was surprised.

" Yes, I intended to speak to you of it. She
told me she had put you on your guard. You
remember I told you, dear, that I hardly thought
him a gentleman."

Philippa flamed. " Between saying a man isn t
a gentleman and accusing him of murder and
burglary there is a long stretch."

" Then you think she is entirely mistaken ? "

Philippa hesitated. " You know how fond I
was of her, and I know how much you thought
of her; yet, Morton, dear, but I can t help it,
I am forced to believe she is doing this thing
out of sheer vindictiveness and personal spite.
It hurts me more than I can tell you to say such
a thing, but I can t help it, it s true." Her
voice quivered, but how satisfying it was to say

Morton s heart stood still. " What makes you
say that ? " he asked. " Just what do you mean ? "

" I can t very well tell you all. She knows
that I guess the truth, and I suppose she will
try and work me into the disgrace she is pre
paring for Valdeck, but I have you, Morton, and



nothing else matters. Tell me, didn t she try to
shake your confidence in me in some way? "

Morton remained silent, and Philippa under

" She told you that story about my " a tear
crept into her blue, childlike eyes " my poor
mother s pin. She told me she knew Valdeck had
given it to me. The very idea ! "

Morton was evidently aghast. " But why on
earth," he exclaimed, " should she do such a

" It s a very delicate subject," she blushed
deeply, " but I have heard it I mustn t tell
you just where, but on good authority, for it
was pretty well known in Paris, there was a love-
affair, and she is furiously jealous even of me,
when she found that I was his friend. She inter
prets every one s feelings for the man by her
own sentiments, and she is bent on ruining him
and me, too, if she can incidentally. She is
circulating a lie, a wicked, cruel lie. She accuses
him of robbery, and by inference, she accuses me
of helping him; I believe that s about what it
amounts to; at any rate, she says I accepted
1 86


presents of jewelry from him. She states that
she recognized my poor mother s pin as part of the
stolen property. It s outrageous ! "

Morton set his lips hard and cut his horses
sharply with his whip. " I don t remember this
pin of yours, Philippa," he said, after a tense
moment, more to say something than to voice any
particular thought.

She colored quickly. " It s gone I don t
know how or where. I had it on yesterday, in
fact it was in the afternoon at a tea that she pre
tended to recognize it. I dined with some friends,
but when I reached home it was gone! "


" Yes, gone, and where, unless Victoria stole
it for some purpose, I don t know."

Morton shrank as if he had been burned.
" Don t say that! " he begged, huskily. " Don t
make this wretched thing any worse than it is."

" You couldn t," Philippa murmured, darkly.
" I never would have believed it of her never.
But some awful change has come over her since
she has been away; she is not the same."

Morton nodded, and drove on in silence.



Rapidly he pieced out the two conversations, one
by the other. Philippa was the unquestioned
soul of honor, consequently it was her story
Victoria s confidences completed, not Victoria s
substantiated by Philippa s comments. He was
inexpressibly saddened. Even the radiant pres
ence of his lady-love failed to rouse him from
the mournful apathy into which he fell. He was
still too loyal to the old affection to talk over
the miserable downfall, even with Philippa. But
something, and that his very darling illusion, had
vanished from his life, and he faced, sadly
enough, what he believed to be a loathsome

The drive was completed in silence on his part,
with chattering small talk on hers. She had
winged her shaft and sent it home, and now
watched its venom spread with a light-hearted
satisfaction worthy of a Lucretia Borgia of psy
chology. She had nothing now to fear from
Victoria, and she was at the same time vindi
cating and serving Valdeck, in whom she con
fided with something of the blind faith that
Morton reposed in her. Properly circulated, in
1 88


ten days the story of Victoria s past would ef
fectually sift among her friends and acquaint
ances, and cut her off silently and surely from
all social life. The wicked slander against Val-
deck would fall of itself, once the spring of vin-
dictiveness was exposed to the public gaze, and
Lucius, noble, generous, patriotic martyr, would
pass over the net that was set for his feet, and
his tormentor be herself involved in the meshes!



A EN days passed eventless to Victoria until
the morning of the eleventh, which was marked
by a letter from Sonia. In this, her friend wrote
affectionately of everything and of every one in
their old circle, and concluded with a request for
information concerning the Auray robbery, she
having been notified to hold herself in readiness to
identify the criminal if caught. The long and
rambling epistle closed with a bit of information
that set Victoria thinking.

" The strange thing is," wrote Sonia, " that
our inky countess has disappeared, so the official,
a very chatty and sociable individual, informed
me. She suspected the maid you remember her
of being in collusion with the thief. Unfor
tunately, this did not dawn on her till the said
Abigail had departed for parts unknown, which
she did shortly after the burial of the child. The


police have been searching for them both, and
are inclined to think that the tragedy unsettled
the poor lady s reason. However, she went sup
plied with a replica photograph of Valdeck from
the rogues gallery here, and plenty of money.
She took no one into her confidence, as far as
my informant knows. Strange, isn t it? I can
vividly imagine that gaunt, black, half-crazed
woman travelling aimlessly over the world in
search of the man who killed her daughter, and
the woman who aided him. A sensational story
from first to last ! And now, it seems, from your
far-off land a new chapter is to be sent out. I
must own I m interested. Be sure to write me
all the news, and don t be surprised if at any
moment the steamer lands on the shores of free
dom your old friend and companion, Sonia Pa-

Victoria re-read the letter, stuck it on her file,
and leaned back, running her hands through her
heavy hair. " So, the maid had at last been
suspected ! " She remembered with vivid clear
ness the scene in the dying child s presence, when
the woman hysterically gave in evidence a descrip-



tion exactly contrary to that of the pretended
Englishman. She recalled in particular the words
referring to the hands, " hairy, rough, and cal
lous, like those of a working man." Valdeck s
hands were long, slim, and gentlemanly. At the
time she had put this discrepancy down to fright,
to the possibility of a second marauder. It now
appeared to her as a wilful desire to mislead,
to throw the pursuers off the scent. Jumping
to her feet, Victoria began the regular pacing
of the room that with her betokened perturbation
of spirit. After all, the black countess s quest
might be in the right direction. Suddenly she
stopped short.

"I m sure of it! I m sure of it!" she ex
claimed, aloud, to the empty room. " That woman
chloroformed herself when she heard the noise
outside in the hall. I remember the cloth over
the gag was loosely tied and very damp. The
gag was a mere blind that doubtless Valdeck
put on, the more readily to exonerate her! I m
sure of it! I have a feeling it is so." Then she
mused more quietly. " How this thing has been
resurrected! Its influence is stretching over my


life again, and I thought I had left it far behind
in little, old-world Brittany. Here it comes up
in modern, commonplace New York. So the
maid was in it with him ? I wonder I didn t think
of it before. If ever the black countess does catch
up with them :

The rattle of a latch-key interrupted her, and
a moment later Mrs. Durham entered, shut the
door behind her, and stood regarding her friend
with a face at once serious and questioning.

" Look here," Victoria began, " I ve just had a
letter "

Mrs. Durham threw herself into her pet leather
chair and raised her veil. The movement was
instinct with gravity. Victoria stopped short in
her sentence and looked curiously at her.

" What is it? " she demanded. " Has Delmon-
ico s burned up, or have the hansom-cabbies gone
out on strike? "

" You won t laugh when I tell you," Mrs.
Durham burst out. " I m sure I don t know how
to tell you, or where to begin but begin I
must. Victoria, I have heard the most awful
stories that are being circulated about you ! "



"About me?" Victoria shrugged her shoul
ders. " People must talk about some one. I
haven t been home long, so naturally they take
it out on me I m new. What do they say?
that I drink absinthe by the quart, or dance the
latest Parisian danse eccentrique on the studio
roof? I m prepared for anything."

" Indeed you are not ! Heavens ! do you sup
pose I d care for any such trifle as that? A
slander of that sort is only a bored and unoccu
pied society s way of paying a compliment, and
I tell you Well, I might as well blurt it out.
They are saying you were mixed up in an abom
inably disgraceful love-affair in Paris ! "

Victoria sprang to her feet and stood bristling
and defiant. "Who says such a thing?" she

" And," continued Mrs. Durham, hotly, ignor
ing the question, " I am told that out of revenge
and jealousy you have endeavored to ruin the
man s character by bringing terrible and un
founded accusations against him ! "

"You re crazy!" Victoria interposed.

" Nothing of the sort."

" Nobody would circulate such nonsense."

" Well, they have."

"Who are they?"

" Three people to-day."

" Do they mention any one, or is this all in
the air?"

" No, they give names."


" Whom do you suppose? Valdeck! "


" Valdeck."

" There s only one person who would "

"Of course "


" Naturally."

" What does it all mean? "

" It s beyond me!

" I recognized your friend s fine Italian hand
at once, but you can t prove it easily. Suppose
she denies saying anything? "

" But why should she do this ? " exclaimed Vic
toria, utterly at sea.

" She is infatuated with him."



" What of it? That s no reason for saying I
ever knew him in Paris."

Mrs. Durham settled herself and compressed
her lips. " Don t you see? She wants to nullify
your story if it should get out. Well, I gave
the ladies who thought I ought to know a piece
of my unvarnished mind for crediting such a
thing or listening to it, for that matter but
not till I had pumped them sufficiently to trace
the information in the direction of your charming
friend. Now, Victoria, dear, we must hunt this
thing down; bring every one face to face with
his neighbor who handed on the gossip. And
when we have sifted everything down, we will
take action."

" But," cried Victoria, bewildered for once,
" I don t see any reason there s no motive.
People don t murder without a motive; why,
then, should they kill a person s character with
out one? "

" I don t know," Mrs. Durham replied. " But
I tell you, my dear, we will find out."

Victoria seized the poker and played havoc



with the fire for a few moments; then she rose
from her crouching position with a spring.

" I m going to interview Philippa this very
afternoon. Will you come with me?"

" Yes," said Mrs. Durham. " You must head
this gossip off at once. You have only your un
supported word at present, but proof can be
readily forthcoming, and Philippa will have to
give the source of her information. If you must
have a slander suit, you can get healthy damages."

" What I want," Victoria broke in, viciously,
" is the privilege of branding the person who
started that rumor with the red-hottest iron in
the city. Damages won t give me any such phys
ical satisfaction ! "

" You re too primeval, my dear," her friend
commented. " But I must confess that perhaps
the whipping-post However, first catch your
scoundrel before you prepare the boiling oil."

Victoria smiled gloatingly. Suddenly she dark
ened. " Do you know, I believe that Philippa has
been persuading but no, he wouldn t believe
such things of me, even if we have diverged."




" Morton. He hasn t been near me for over
a week."

"Well, Philippa knows him, doesn t she?"

" Yes. But he wouldn t believe such stuff if
he heard it. And even if he did, it would make
no difference as far as he is concerned. He would
say I had a right to do as I pleased."

" Oh, with a woman in the case you can t tell,"
Mrs. Durham wisely suggested. " How well
does he know Miss Ford ? "

" I m sure I don t know I ve been away so
long. But " and memory brought up a sudden
picture of his face " he was rather put out
when I dissected her character for his benefit the
last time I saw him. However, we ll clear it
up. Put on your things and come."

She snatched her hat airily and harpooned it
with a hat-pin, while Mrs. Durham proceeded to
a more careful and leisurely toilet.

" I m glad we re going to have it out while
I m still hot and have it all fresh in my mind,"
Mrs. Durham remarked, as they emerged from
the building into the raw air of the outside world.


But Victoria spoke not at all during their hasty
journey to the old Verplank mansion.

As they turned the corner they caught a glimpse
of Morton just disappearing between the storm
doors. Victoria was somewhat taken aback, but
Mrs. Durham laughed.

" All the better, before two witnesses. Now for

They alighted, paid the cabby, and mounted the
steps slowly. Victoria s heart beat hard, for she
heartily hated a scene, while her friend as heartily
rejoiced as she saw a fresh incident for her new
novel rapidly developing in real life. They were
admitted by the butler, who held aside the green
curtains of the reception-room into which they
passed single file.

Morton and Philippa rose from the divan some
what hastily, and Philippa held out her hand with
languid grace and a murmur of " So glad," which
froze on her lips as Victoria deliberately thrust
both hands in her muff, and Mrs. Durham s clear,
light eyes gimleted into her hostess s violet orbs.
She opened the battle without parley.

" Miss Ford, I have come with Miss Claudel,



as a married woman and her close friend, to de
mand of you the meaning of certain lies I have
heard coming unmistakably from you, which con
cern the private character of Miss Claudel."

Philippa s jaw dropped. In spite of her great
self-control, she could not prevent an anxious
glance in the direction of her lover. In a flash
she realized that she had overreached herself.
That in her anxiety to help and shield Valdeck,
she had exposed her own precious person.

Victoria, having the most at stake, was the most
nervous of all, and her pallor was misinterpreted
by Philippa, who, to do her justice, had not the
slightest doubt of the truth of Valdeck s state
ment. She pulled herself together haughtily, ig
noring Mrs. Durham s speech.

" I notice," she said, icily, " that Miss Claudel
has very little to say for herself in this matter.
Doubtless you have dragged her into the inter
view against her wishes. But as Miss Claudel
has been one of my friends, for her sake I will
let what you say pass."

Victoria recovered her power of speech.
" What on earth are you saying, Philippa ? I


don t understand you. You seem to think I have
something to hide ! "

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryEthel Watts Mumford GrantWhitewash → online text (page 8 of 13)