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face - and figure, too - all but the eyes, which were long and
narrow - narrow, perhaps, from a habit of going half closed; and when
they were a little more than half closed they made a straight black line
that turned up very slightly at the outer end with an Oriental effect
which went oddly in that classic face. There is a popular piece of
sculpture now in the Luxembourg Gallery for which this lady "sat" as
model to a great artist. Sculptors from all over the world go there to
dream over its perfect line and contour, and little schoolgirls pretend
not to see it, and middle-aged maiden tourists, with red Baedekers in
their hands, regard it furtively and pass on, and after a while come
back to look again.

The lady was dressed in some very close-clinging material which was not
cloth of gold, but something very like it, only much duller - something
which gleamed when she stirred, but did not glitter - and over her
splendid shoulders was hung an Oriental scarf heavily worked with
metallic gold. She made an amazing and dramatic picture in that golden
room. It was as if she had known just what her surroundings would be and
had dressed expressly for them.

The applause ceased as suddenly as if it had been trained to break off
at a signal, and the lady came forward a little way, smiling a quiet,
assured smile. At each step her knee threw out the golden stuff of her
gown an inch or two, and it flashed suddenly - a dull, subdued flash in
the overhead light - and died and flashed again. A few of the people in
the room knew who the lady was, and they looked at one another with
raised eyebrows and startled faces; but the others stared at her with an
eager admiration, thinking that they had seldom seen anything so
beautiful or so effective. Ste. Marie sat forward on the edge of his
chair. His eyes sparkled, and he gave a little quick sigh of pleasurable
excitement. This was drama, and very good drama, too, and he suspected
that it might at any moment turn into a tragedy.

He saw Captain Stewart, who had been among a group of people half-way
across the room, turn his head to look when the cries and the applause
ceased so suddenly, and he saw the man's face stiffen by swift degrees,
all the joyous, buoyant life gone out of it, until it was yellow and
rigid like a dead man's face; and Ste. Marie, out of his knowledge of
the relations between these two people, nodded, en connaisseur, for he
knew that the man was very badly frightened.

So the host of the evening hung back, staring for what must have seemed
to him a long and terrible time, though in reality it was but an
instant; then he came forward quickly to greet the new-comer, and if his
face was still yellow-white there was nothing in his manner but the
courtesy habitual with him. He took the lady's hand, and she smiled at
him, but her eyes did not smile - they were hard. Ste. Marie, who was the
nearest of the others, heard Captain Stewart say:

"This is an unexpected pleasure, my dearest Olga!"

And to that the lady replied, more loudly: "Yes, I returned to Paris
only to-day. You didn't know, of course. I heard you were entertaining
this evening, and so I came, knowing that I should be welcome."

"Always!" said Captain Stewart - "always more than welcome!"

He nodded to one or two of the men who stood near, and when they
approached presented them. Ste. Marie observed that he used the lady's
true name - she had, at times, found occasion to employ others - and that
he politely called her "Madame Nilssen" instead of "Mademoiselle." But
at that moment the lady caught sight of Ste. Marie, and, crying out his
name in a tone of delighted astonishment, turned away from the other
men, brushing past them as if they had been furniture, and advanced
holding out both her hands in greeting.

"Dear Ste. Marie!" she exclaimed. "Fancy finding you here! I'm so glad!
Oh, I'm so very glad! Take me away from these people! Find a corner
where we can talk. Ah, there is one with a big seat! Allons-y!"

She addressed him for the most part in English, which she spoke
perfectly - as perfectly as she spoke French and German and, presumably,
her native tongue, which must have been Swedish.

They went to the broad, low seat, a sort of hard-cushioned bench, which
stood against one of the walls, and made themselves comfortable there by
the only possible means, which, owing to the width of the thing, was to
sit far back with their feet stuck straight out before them. Captain
Stewart had followed them across the room and showed a strong tendency
to remain. Ste. Marie observed that his eyes were hard and bright and
very alert, and that there were two bright spots of color in his yellow
cheeks. It occurred to Ste. Marie that the man was afraid to leave him
alone with Olga Nilssen, and he smiled to himself, reflecting that the
lady, even if indiscreetly inclined, could tell him nothing - save in
details - that he did not already know. But after a few rather awkward
moments Mile. Nilssen waved an irritated hand.

"Go away!" she said to her host. "Go away to your other guests! I want
to talk to Ste. Marie. We have old times to talk over."

And after hesitating awhile uneasily, Captain Stewart turned back into
the room; but for some time thereafter Ste. Marie was aware that a
vigilant eye was being kept upon them and that their host was by no
means at his ease.

When they were left alone together the girl turned to him and patted his
arm affectionately. She said:

"Ah, but it is very good to see you again, mon cher ami! It has been so
long!" She gave an abrupt frown. "What are you doing here?" she
demanded.

And she said an unkind thing about her fellow-guests. She called them
"canaille." She said:

"Why are you wasting your time among these canaille? This is not a place
for you. Why did you come?"

"I don't know," said Ste. Marie. He was still a little resentful, and he
said so. He said: "I didn't know it was going to be like this. I came
because Stewart went rather out of his way to ask me. I'd known him in a
very different milieu."

"Ah, yes!" she said, reflectively. "Yes, he does go into the world also,
doesn't he? But this is what he likes, you know." Her lips drew back for
an instant, and she said: "He is a pig-dog!"

Ste. Marie looked at her gravely. She had used that offensive name with
a little too much fierceness. Her face had turned for an instant quite
white, and her eyes had flashed out over the room a look that meant a
great deal to any one who knew her as well as Ste. Marie did. He sat
forward and lowered his voice. He said:

"Look here, Olga! I'm going to be very frank for a moment. May I?"

For just an instant the girl drew away from him with suspicion in her
eyes, and something else, alertly defiant. Then she put out her hands to
his arm.

"You may be what you like, dear Ste. Marie," she said, "and say what you
like. I will take it all - and swallow it alive - good as gold. What are
you going to do to me?"

"I've always been fair with you, haven't I?" he urged. "I've had
disagreeable things to say or do, but - you knew always that I liked you
and - where my sympathies were."

"Always! Always, mon cher!" she cried. "I trusted you always in
everything. And there is no one else I trust. No one! No one! - Ste.
Marie!"

"What then?" he asked.

"Ste. Marie," she said, "why did you never fall in love with me, as the
other men did?"

"I wonder!" said he. "I don't know. Upon my word, I really don't know."

He was so serious about it that the girl burst into a shriek of
laughter. And in the end he laughed, too.

"I expect it was because I liked you too well," he said, at last. "But
come! We're forgetting my lecture. Listen to your grandpère Ste. Marie!
I have heard - certain things - rumors - what you will. Perhaps they are
foolish lies, and I hope they are. But if not, if the fear I saw in
Stewart's face when you came here to-night, was - not without cause, let
me beg you to have a care. You're much too savage, my dear child. Don't
be so foolish as to - well, turn comedy into the other thing. In the
first place, it's not worth while, and, in the second place, it recoils
always. Revenge may be sweet. I don't know. But nowadays, with police
courts and all that, it entails much more subsequent annoyance than it
is worth. Be wise, Olga!"

"Some things, Ste. Marie," said the golden lady, "are worth all the
consequences that may follow them."

She watched Captain Stewart across the room, where he stood chatting
with a little group of people, and her beautiful face was as hard as
marble and her eyes were as dark as a stormy night, and her mouth, for
an instant, was almost like an animal's mouth - cruel and relentless.

Ste. Marie saw, and he began to be a bit alarmed in good earnest. In his
warning he had spoken rather more seriously than he felt the occasion
demanded, but he began at last to wonder if the occasion was not in
reality very serious, indeed. He was sure, of course, that Olga Nilssen
had come here on this evening to annoy Captain Stewart in some fashion.
As he put it to himself, she probably meant to "make a row," and he
would not have been in the least surprised if she had made it in the
beginning, upon her very dramatic entrance. Nothing more calamitous than
that had occurred to him. But when he saw the woman's face turned a
little away and gazing fixedly at Captain Stewart, he began to be aware
that there was tragedy very near him - or all the makings of it.

Mlle. Nilssen turned back to him. Her face was still hard, and her eyes
dark and narrowed with their oddly Oriental look. She bent her shoulders
together for an instant and her hands moved slowly in her lap,
stretching out before her in a gesture very like a cat's when it wakes
from sleep and yawns and extends its claws, as if to make sure that they
are still there and ready for use.

"I feel a little like Samson to-night," she said. "I am tired of almost
everything, and I should like very much to pull the world down on top of
me and kill everybody in it - except you, Ste. Marie, dear; except
you! - and be crushed under the ruins!"

"I think," said Ste. Marie, practically - and the speech sounded rather
like one of Hartley's speeches - "I think it was not quite the world that
Samson pulled down, but a temple - or a palace - something of that kind."

"Well," said the golden lady, "this place is rather like a temple - a
Chinese temple, with the pig-dog for high-priest."

Ste. Marie frowned at her.

"What are you going to do?" he demanded, sharply. "What did you come
here to do? Mischief of some kind - bien entendu - but what?"

"Do?" she said, looking at him with her narrowed eyes. "I? Why, what
should I do? Nothing, of course! I merely said I should like to pull the
place down. Of course, I couldn't do that quite literally, now, could I?
No. It is merely a mood. I'm not going to do anything."

"You're not being honest with me," he said.

And at that her expression changed, and she patted his arm again with a
gesture that seemed to beg forgiveness.

"Well, then," she said, "if you must know, maybe I did come here for a
purpose. I want to have it out with our friend Captain Stewart about
something. And Ste. Marie, dear," she pleaded, "please, I think you'd
better go home first. I don't care about these other animals, but I
don't want you dragged into any row of any sort. Please be a sweet Ste.
Marie and go home. Yes?"

"Absolutely, no!" said Ste. Marie. "I shall stay, and I shall try my
utmost to prevent you from doing anything foolish. Understand that! If
you want to have rows with people, Olga, for Heaven's sake don't pick an
occasion like this for the purpose. Have your rows in private!"

"I rather think I enjoy an audience," she said, with a reflective air,
and Ste. Marie laughed aloud because he knew that the naïve speech was
so very true. This lady, with her many good qualities and her bad
ones - not a few, alas! - had an undeniable passion for red fire that had
amused him very much on more than one past occasion.

"Please go home!" she said once more.

But when the man only shook his head, she raised her hands a little way
and dropped them again in her lap, in an odd gesture which seemed to say
that she had done all she could do, and that if anything disagreeable
should happen now, and he should be involved in it, it would be entirely
his fault because she had warned him.

Then quite abruptly a mood of irresponsible gayety seemed to come upon
her. She refused to have anything more to do with serious topics, and
when Ste. Marie attempted to introduce them she laughed in his face. As
she had said in the beginning she wished to do, she harked back to old
days (the earlier stages of what might be termed the Morrison régime),
and it seemed to afford her great delight to recall the happenings of
that epoch. The conversation became a dialogue of reminiscence which
would have been entirely unintelligible to a third person, and was,
indeed, so to Captain Stewart, who once came across the room, made a
feeble effort to attach himself, and presently wandered away again.

They unearthed from the past an exceedingly foolish song all about one
"Little Willie" and a purple monkey climbing up a yellow stick. It was
set to a well-known air from _Don Giovanni_, and when Duval, the basso,
heard them singing it he came up and insisted upon knowing what it was
about. He laughed immoderately over the English words when he was told
what they meant, and made Ste. Marie write them down for him on two
visiting-cards. So they made a trio out of "Little Willie," the great
Duval inventing a bass part quite marvellous in its ingenuity, and they
were compelled to sing it over and over again, until Ste. Marie's
falsetto imitation of a tenor voice cracked and gave out altogether,
since he was by nature barytone, if anything at all.

The other guests had crowded round to hear the extraordinary song, and
when the song was at last finished several of them remained, so that
Ste. Marie saw he was to be allowed an uninterrupted tête-à-tête with
Olga Nilssen no longer. He therefore drifted away, after a few moments,
and went with Duval and one of the other men across the room to look at
some small jade objects - snuff-bottles, bracelets, buckles, and the
like - which were displayed in a cabinet cleverly reconstructed out of a
Japanese shrine. It was perhaps ten minutes later when he looked round
the place and discovered that neither Mlle. Nilssen nor Captain Stewart
was to be seen.

His first thought was of relief, for he said to himself that the two had
sensibly gone into one of the other rooms to "have it out" in peace and
quiet. But following that came the recollection of the woman's face when
she had watched her host across the room. Her words came back to him: "I
feel a little like Samson to-night.... I should like very much to pull
the world down on top of me and kill everybody in it!" Ste. Marie
thought of these things, and he began to be uncomfortable. He found
himself watching the yellow-hung doorway beyond, with its intricate
Chinese carving of trees and rocks and little groups of immortals, and
he found that unconsciously he was listening for something - he did not
know what - above the chatter and laughter of the people in the room. He
endured this for possibly five minutes, and all at once found that he
could endure it no longer. He began to make his way quietly through the
groups of people toward the curtained doorway.

As he went, one of the women near by complained in a loud tone that the
servant had disappeared. She wanted, it seemed, a glass of water, having
already had many glasses of more interesting things. Ste. Marie said he
would get it for her, and went on his way. He had an excuse now.

He found himself in a square, dimly lighted room much smaller than the
other. There was a round table in the centre, so he thought it must be
Stewart's dining-room. At the left a doorway opened into a place where
there were lights, and at the other side was another door closed. From
the room at the left there came a sound of voices, and though they were
not loud, one of them, Mlle. Olga Nilssen's voice, was hard and angry
and not altogether under control. The man would seem to have been
attempting to pacify her, and he would seem not to have been very
successful.

The first words that Ste. Marie was able to distinguish were from the
woman. She said, in a low, fierce tone:

"That is a lie, my friend! That is a lie! I know all about the road to
Clamart, so you needn't lie to me any longer. It's no good."

She paused for just an instant there, and in the pause St. Marie heard
Stewart give a sort of inarticulate exclamation. It seemed to express
anger and it seemed also to express fear. But the woman swept on, and
her voice began to be louder. She said:

"I've given you your chance. You didn't deserve it, but I've given it
you - and you've told me nothing but lies. Well, you'll lie no more. This
ends it."

Upon that Ste. Marie heard a sudden stumbling shuffle of feet and a low,
hoarse cry of utter terror - a cry more animal-like than human. He heard
the cry break off abruptly in something that was like a cough and a
whine together, and he heard the sound of a heavy body falling with a
loose rattle upon the floor.

With the sound of that falling body he had already reached the doorway
and torn aside the heavy portière. It was a sleeping-room he looked
into, a room of medium size with two windows and an ornate bed of the
Empire style set sidewise against the farther wall. There were electric
lights upon imitation candles which were grouped in sconces against the
wall, and these were turned on, so that the room was brightly
illuminated. Midway between the door and the ornate Empire bed Captain
Stewart lay huddled and writhing upon the floor, and Olga Nilssen stood
upright beside him, gazing down upon him quite calmly. In her right
hand, which hung at her side, she held a little flat black automatic
pistol of the type known as Brownings - and they look like toys, but they
are not.

Ste. Marie sprang at her silently and caught her by the arm, twisting
the automatic pistol from her grasp, and the woman made no effort
whatever to resist him. She looked into his face quite frankly and
unmoved, and she shook her head.

"I haven't harmed him," she said. "I was going to, yes - and then
myself - but he didn't give me a chance. He fell down in a fit." She
nodded down toward the man who lay writhing at their feet. "I frightened
him," she said, "and he fell in a fit. He's an epileptic, you know.
Didn't you know that? Oh yes."

Abruptly she turned away shivering, and put up her hands over her face.
And she gave an exclamation of uncontrollable repulsion.

"Ugh!" she cried, "it's horrible! Horrible! I can't bear to look. I saw
him in a fit once before - long ago - and I couldn't bear even to speak to
him for a month. I thought he had been cured. He said - Ah, it's
horrible!"

Ste. Marie had dropped upon his knees beside the fallen man, and Mlle.
Nilssen said, over her shoulder:

"Hold his head up from the floor, if you can bear to. He might hurt it."

It was not an easy thing to do, for Ste. Marie had the natural sense of
repulsion in such matters that most people have, and this man's
appearance, as Olga Nilssen had said, was horrible. The face was drawn
hideously, and in the strong, clear light of the electrics it was a
deathly yellow. The eyes were half closed, and the eyeballs turned up so
that only the whites of them showed between the lids. There was froth
upon the distorted mouth, and it clung to the catlike mustache and to
the shallow, sunken chin beneath. But Ste. Marie exerted all his will
power, and took the jerking, trembling head in his hands, holding it
clear of the floor.

"You'd better call the servant," he said. "There may be something that
can be done."

But the woman answered, without looking:

"No, there's nothing that can be done, I believe, except to keep him
from bruising himself. Stimulants - that sort of thing - do more harm than
good. Could you get him on the bed here?"

"Together we might manage it," said Ste. Marie. "Come and help!"

"I can't!" she cried, nervously. "I can't - touch him. Please, I can't do
it."

"Come!" said the man, in a sharp tone. "It's no time for nerves. I don't
like it, either, but it's got to be done."

The woman began a half-hysterical sobbing, but after a moment she turned
and came with slow feet to where Stewart lay.

Ste. Marie slipped his arms under the man's body and began to raise him
from the floor.

"You needn't help, after all," he said. "He's not heavy."

And, indeed, under his skilfully shaped and padded clothes the man was a
mere waif of a man - as unbelievably slight as if he were the victim of a
wasting disease. Ste. Marie held the body in his arms as if it had been
a child, and carried it across and laid it on the bed; but it was many
months before he forgot the horror of that awful thing shaking and
twitching in his hold, the head thumping hideously upon his shoulder,
the arms and legs beating against him. It was the most difficult task he
had ever had to perform. He laid Captain Stewart upon the bed and
straightened the helpless limbs as best he could.

"I suppose," he said, rising again - "I suppose when the man comes out of
this he'll be frightfully exhausted and drop off to sleep, won't he?
We'll have to - "

He halted abruptly there, and for a single swift instant he felt the
black and rushing sensation of one who is going to faint away. The wall
behind the ornate Empire bed was covered with photographs, some in
frames, others left, as they had been received, upon the large squares
of weird cardboard which are termed "art mounts."

"Come here a moment, quickly!" said Ste. Marie, in a sharp voice.

Mlle. Nilssen's sobs had died down to a silent, spasmodic catching of
the breath, but she was still much unnerved, and she approached the bed
with obvious unwillingness, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.
Ste. Marie pointed to an unframed photograph which was fastened to the
wall by thumb-tacks, and his outstretched hand shook as he pointed.
Beneath them the other man still writhed and tumbled in his epileptic
fit.

"Do you know who that woman is?" demanded Ste. Marie, and his tone was
such that Olga Nilssen turned slowly and stared at him.

"That woman," said she, "is the reason why I wished to pull the world
down upon Charlie Stewart and me to-night. That's who she is."

Ste. Marie gave a sort of cry.

"Who is she?" he insisted. "What is her name? I - have a particularly
important reason for wanting to know. I've got to know."

Mlle. Nilssen shook her head, still staring at him.

"I can't tell you that," said she. "I don't know the name. I only know
that - when he met her, he - I don't know her name, but I know where she
lives and where he goes every day to see her - a house with a big garden
and walled park on the road to Clamart. It's on the edge of the wood,
not far from Fort d'Issy. The Clamart-Vanves-Issy tram runs past the
wall of one side of the park. That's all I know."

Ste. Marie clasped his head with his hands.

"So near to it!" he groaned, "and yet - Ah!" He bent forward suddenly
over the bed and spelled out the name of the photographer which was
pencilled upon the brown cardboard mount. "There's still a chance," he
said, "There's still one chance."

He became aware that the woman was watching him curiously, and nodded to
her.

"It's something you don't know about," he explained. "I've got to find
out who this - girl is. Perhaps the photographer can help me. I used to
know him." All at once his eyes sharpened. "Tell me the simple truth
about something!" said he. "If ever we have been friends, if you owe me
any good office, tell me this: Do you know anything about young Arthur
Benham's disappearance two months ago, or about what has become of him?"

Again the woman shook her head.

"No," said she. "Nothing at all. I hadn't even heard of it. Young Arthur
Benham! I've met him once or twice. I wonder - I wonder Stewart never
spoke to me about his disappearance! That's very odd."

"Yes," said Ste. Marie, absently, "it is." He gave a little sigh. "I
wonder about a good many things," said he.

He glanced down upon the bed before them, and Captain Stewart lay still,
save for a slight twitching of the hands. Once he moved his head
restlessly from side to side and said something incoherent in a weak
murmur.

"He's out of it," said Olga Nilssen. "He'll sleep now, I think. I
suppose we must get rid of those people and then leave him to the care


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Online LibraryJustus Miles FormanJason → online text (page 9 of 23)