Proudly mine host led Mrs. Bailey up the wide staircase into the spacious, airy room which had been prepared for her. "This was the bed-chamber of Madame la Comtesse de Para, the friend of the Empress Eugenie" he said.
The windows of the large, circular room, mirror-lined, and still containing the fantastic, rather showy decorations which dated from the Second Empire, overlooked the broad waters of the lake. Even now, though it was still daylight, certain romantic-natured couples had lit paper lanterns and hung them at the prows of their little sailing-boats.
The scene had a certain fairy-like beauty and stillness.
"Madame will find the Villa du Lac far more lively now" exclaimed M. Polperro cheerfully. "Last week I had only M. le Comte Paul de Virieu—no doubt Madame has heard of his brother-in-law, the Duc d'Eglemont?"
Sylvia smiled. "Yes, he won the Derby, a famous English race," she said; and then, simply because the landlord's love of talking was infectious, "And does the Count own horses, too?" she asked.
"Oh, no, Madame. He loves them, yes, and he is a fine horseman, but Count Paul, alas! has other things that interest and occupy him more than horses!"
After M. Polperro had bowed himself out, Sylvia sat down close to one of the open windows and looked out over the enchanting, and to her English eyes, unusual panorama spread out before her.
Yes, she had done well to come here, to a place of which, no doubt, many of her English friends would have thoroughly disapproved! But, after all, what was wrong about Lacville? Where, for the matter of that, was the harm of playing for money if one could afford to lose it?
Sylvia had hardly ever met so kind or so intelligent a woman as was her new friend, Anna Wolsky: and Anna—she made no secret of it at all—allowed playing for money to be her one absorbing interest in life.
As she thought of the Polish woman Sylvia felt sorry that she and her friend were in different pensions. It would have been so nice to have had her here, in the Villa du Lac. She felt rather lost without Anna, for she had become accustomed to the other's pleasant, stimulating companionship.
M. Polperro had said that dinner was at half-past seven. Sylvia got up from her chair by the window. She moved back into the room and put on a pretty white lace evening dress which she had not worn since she had been in France.
It would have been absurd to have appeared in such a gown in the little dining-room of the Hotel de l'Horloge, which opened into the street; but the Villa du Lac was quite different.
As she saw herself reflected in one of the long mirrors let into the wall, Sylvia blushed and half-smiled. She had suddenly remembered the young man who had behaved, on that first visit of hers to the Villa du Lac, so much more discreetly than had all the other Frenchmen with whom she had been brought in temporary contact. She was familiar, through newspaper paragraphs, with the name of his brother-in-law, the French duke who had won the Derby. The Duc d'Eglemont, that was the racing French duke who had carried off the blue riband of the British Turf—the other name was harder to remember—then it came to her. Count Paul de Virieu. How kind and courteous he had been to her and her friend in the Club. She remembered him very vividly. Yes, though not exactly good-looking, he had fine eyes, and a clever, if not a very happy, face.
And then, on going down the broad, shallow staircase, and so through the large, oval hall into the dining-room, Sylvia Bailey saw that the man of whom she had been thinking was there, sitting very near to where she herself was now told that she was to sit. In the week that had gone by since Sylvia had paid her first visit to Lacville, the Villa had gradually filled up with people eager, like herself, to escape from the heat and dust of Paris, and the pleasant little table by the window had been appropriated by someone else.
When the young Englishwoman came into the dining-room, the Comte de Virieu got up from his chair, and clicking his heels together, bowed low and gravely.
She had never seen a man do that before. And it looked so funny! Sylvia felt inclined to burst out laughing. But all she did was to nod gravely, and the Count, sitting down, took no further apparent notice of her.
There were a good many people in the large room; parties of two, three, and four, talking merrily together, as is the way with French people at their meals. No one was alone save the Comte de Virieu and herself. Sylvia wondered if he felt as lonely as she did.
Towards the end of dinner the host came in and beamed on his guests; then he walked across to where Mrs. Bailey sat by herself. "I hope Madame is satisfied with her dinner," he said pleasantly. "Madame must always tell me if there is anything she does not like."
He called the youngest of the three waitresses. "Felicie! You must look very well after Madame," he said solemnly. "Make her comfortable, attend to her slightest wish"—and then he chuckled—"This is my niece," he said, "a very good girl! She is our adopted daughter. Madame will only have to ask her for anything she wants."
Sylvia felt much happier, and no longer lonely. It was all rather absurd—but it was all very pleasant! She had never met an hotel keeper like little Polperro, one at once so familiar and so inoffensive in manner.
"Thank you so much," she said, "but I am more than comfortable! And after dinner I shall go to the Casino to meet my friend, Madame Wolsky."
After they had finished dinner most of M. Polperro's guests streamed out into the garden; and there coffee was served to them on little round iron tables dotted about on the broad green lawn and sanded paths.
One or two of the ladies spoke a kindly word to Sylvia as they passed by her, but each had a friend or friends, and she was once more feeling lonely and deserted when suddenly Count Paul de Virieu walked across to where she was sitting by herself.
Again he clicked his heels together, and again he bowed low. But already Sylvia was getting used to these strange foreign ways, and she no longer felt inclined to laugh; in fact, she rather liked the young Frenchman's grave, respectful manner.
"If, as I suppose, Madame, seeing that you have come back to Lacville—"
Sylvia looked up with surprise painted on her fair face, for the Count was speaking in English, and it was extremely good, almost perfect English.
"—and you wish to join the Club at the Casino, I hope, Madame, that you will allow me to have the honour of proposing you as a member."
He waited a moment, and then went on: "It is far better for a lady to be introduced by someone who is already a member, than for the affair to be managed"—he slightly lowered his voice—"by an hotel keeper. I am well known to the Casino authorities. I have been a member of the Club for some time—"
He stood still gazing thoughtfully down into her face.
"But I am not yet sure that I shall join the Club," said Sylvia, hesitatingly.
He looked—was it relieved or sorry?
"I beg your pardon, Madame! I misunderstood. I thought you told M. Polperro just now in the dining-room that you were going to the Casino this evening."
Sylvia felt somewhat surprised. It was odd that he should have overheard her words to M. Polperro, amid all the chatter of their fellow-guests.
"Yes, I am going to the Casino," she said frankly, "but only to meet a friend of mine there, the lady with whom I was the other day when you so kindly interfered to save us, or rather to save me, from being ignominiously turned out of the Club." And then she added, a little shyly, "Won't you sit down?"
Again the Comte de Virieu bowed low before her, and then he sat down.
"I fear you will not be allowed to go into the Club this time unless you become a member. They have to be very strict in these matters; to allow a stranger in the Club at all is a legal infraction. The Casino authorities might be fined for doing so."
"How well you speak English!" exclaimed Sylvia, abruptly and irrelevantly.
"I was at school in England," he said, simply, "at a Catholic College called Beaumont, near Windsor; but now I do not go there as often as I should like to do."
And then, scarcely knowing how it came about, Sylvia fell into easy, desultory, almost intimate talk with this entire stranger. But there was something very agreeable in his simple serious manners.
After a while Sylvia suddenly remembered that the Count had thrown his cigarette away before speaking to her.
"Won't you smoke?" she said.
"Are you sure you don't mind, Madame?"
"No, of course I don't mind!" and she was just going to add that her husband had been a great smoker, when some feeling she could not have analysed to herself made her alter her words to "My father smoked all day long—"
The Count got up and went off towards the house. Sylvia supposed he had gone to get his cigarette-case; but a moment later he came back and sat down by her again. And then very soon out came the host's pretty little niece with a shawl over her arm. "I have brought Madame a shawl," said the girl, smiling, "for it's getting a little cold," and Sylvia felt touched. How very kind French people were—how kind and how thoughtful!
It struck half-past eight. Mrs. Bailey and the Comte de Virieu had been talking for quite a long time.
Sylvia jumped up. "I must go now," she cried, a little regretfully. "I promised to meet my friend in the hall of the Casino at half-past eight. She must be there waiting for me, now."
"If you will allow me to do so, I will escort you to the Casino," said the Count.
Sylvia ran upstairs to put on her hat and gloves. On the table which did duty for a dressing-table there was a small nosegay of flowers in a glass of water. It had not been there before she had come down to dinner.
As she put on a large black tulle hat she told herself with a happy smile that Lacville was an enchanting, a delightful place, and that she already felt quite at home here!
The Comte de Virieu was waiting for her in the hall.
"I think I ought to introduce myself to you, Madame," he said solemnly. "My name is Paul de Virieu."
"And mine is Sylvia Bailey," she said, a little breathlessly.
As they were hurrying along the short piece of road which led to the lane in which the Casino of Lacville is situated, the Count said suddenly, "Will you pardon me, Madame, if I take the liberty of saying that you should arrange for your friend to call for you on those evenings that you intend to spend at the Casino? It is not what English people call 'proper' for you to go to the Casino alone, or only accompanied by a stranger—for I, alas! am still a stranger to you."
There was no touch of coquetry or flirtation in the voice in which he said those words. Sylvia blushed violently, but she did not feel annoyed, only queerly touched by his solicitude for—well, she supposed it was for her reputation.
"You see, Madame," he went on soberly, "you look very young—I mean, pardon me, you are very young, and I will confess to you that the first time I saw you I thought you were a 'Miss.' Of course, I saw at once that you were English."
"An English girl would hardly have come all by herself to Lacville!" said Sylvia a little flippantly.
"Oh, Madame, English young ladies do such strange things!"
Sylvia wondered if the Count were not over-particular. Was Lacville the sort of place in which a woman could not walk a few yards by herself? It looked such a happy, innocent sort of spot.
"Perhaps I do not make myself clear," went on Count Paul.
He spoke very quickly, and in a low voice, for they were now approaching the door of the Casino. "Not very long ago a lady had her hand-bag snatched from her within a few yards of the police-station, in the centre of the town. Everyone comes here to make or to lose money—"
"But most of the people look so quiet and respectable," she said smiling.
"That is true, but there are the exceptions. Lacville contains more exceptions than do most places, Madame."
They were now in the hall of the Casino. Yes, there was Anna Wolsky looking eagerly at the great glass doors.
"Anna? Anna? Here I am! I'm so sorry I'm late!"
Sylvia turned to introduce the Comte de Virieu to Madame Wolsky, but he was already bowing stiffly, and before she could speak he walked on, leaving Mrs. Bailey with her friend.
"I see you've already made one acquaintance, Sylvia," said the Polish lady dryly.
"That's the man who was so kind the last time we were here together. He is staying at the Villa du Lac," Sylvia answered, a little guiltily. "His name is Count Paul de Virieu."
"Yes, I am aware of that; I know him by sight quite well," Anna said quickly.
"And he has offered to propose me as a member of the Club if I wish to join," added Sylvia.
"I shall propose you—of course!" exclaimed Anna Wolsky. "But I do not think it is worth worrying about your membership to-night. We can spend the evening downstairs, in the public Salle des Jeux. I should not care to leave you alone there, even on a Monday evening."
"You talk as if I were sugar or salt that would melt!" said Sylvia, a little vexed.
"One has to be very careful in a place like Lacville," said Anna shortly. "There are all sorts of queer people gathered together here on the look-out for an easy way of making money." She turned an affectionate look on her friend. "You are not only very pretty, my dear Sylvia, but you look what the people here probably regard as being of far more consequence, that is, opulent."
"So I am," said Sylvia gaily, "opulent and very, very happy, dear Anna! I am so glad that you brought me here, and first made me acquainted with this delightful place! I am sure Switzerland would not have been half as amusing as Lacville—"
* * * * *
The public gambling room was much quieter and emptier than it had been on the Saturday when Sylvia had first seen it. But all the people playing there, both those sitting at the table and those who stood in serried ranks behind them, looked as if they were engaged on some serious undertaking.
They did not appear, as the casual holiday crowd had done, free from care. There was comparatively little talking among them, and each round of the monotonous game was got through far quicker than had been the case the week before. Money was risked, lost, or gained, with extraordinary swiftness and precision.
A good many of the people there, women as well as men, glanced idly for a moment at the two newcomers, but they soon looked away again, intent on their play.
Sylvia felt keenly interested. She could have stopped and watched the scene for hours without wanting to play herself; but Anna Wolsky soon grew restless, and started playing. Even risking a few francs was better to her than not gambling at all!
"It's an odd thing," she said in a low voice, "but I don't see here any of the people I'm accustomed to see at Monte Carlo. As a rule, whenever one goes to this kind of place one meets people one has seen before. We gamblers are a caste—a sect part!"
"I can't bear to hear you call yourself a gambler," said Sylvia in a low voice.
Anna laughed good-humouredly.
"Believe me, my dear, there is not the difference you apparently think there is between a gambler and the man who has never touched a card."
Anna Wolsky looked round her as she spoke with a searching glance, and then she suddenly exclaimed,
"Yes, I do know someone here after all! That funny-looking couple over there were at Aix-les-Bains all last summer."
"Which people do you mean?" asked Sylvia eagerly.
"Don't you see that long, thin man who is so queerly dressed—and his short, fat wife? A dreadful thing happened to them—a great friend of theirs, a Russian, was drowned in Lac Bourget. It made a great deal of talk in Aix at the time it happened."
Sylvia Bailey looked across the room. She was able to pick out in a moment the people Anna meant, and perhaps because she was in good spirits to-night, she smiled involuntarily at their rather odd appearance.
Standing just behind the croupier—whose task it is to rake in and to deal out the money—was a short, stout, dark woman, dressed in a bright purple gown, and wearing a pale blue bonnet particularly unbecoming to her red, massive face. She was not paying much attention to the play, though now and again she put a five-franc piece onto the green baize. Instead, her eyes were glancing round restlessly this way and that, almost as if she were seeking for someone.
Behind her, in strong contrast to herself, was a tall, thin, lanky man, to Sylvia's English eyes absurdly as well as unsuitably dressed in a grey alpaca suit and a shabby Panama hat. In his hand he held open a small book, in which he noted down all the turns of the game. Unlike his short, stout wife, this tall, thin man seemed quite uninterested in the people about him, and Sylvia could see his lips moving, his brows frowning, as if he were absorbed in some intricate and difficult calculation.
The couple looked different from the people about them; in a word, they did not look French.
"The man—their name is Wachner—only plays on a system," whispered Anna. "He is in fact what I call a System Maniac. That is why he keeps noting down the turns in his little book. That sort of gambler ought never to leave Monte Carlo. It is only at Monte Carlo—that is to say, at Roulette—that such a man ever gets a real chance of winning anything. I should have expected them to belong to the Club, and not to trouble over this kind of play!"
Even as she spoke, Anna slightly inclined her head, and the woman at whom they were both looking smiled broadly, showing her strong white teeth as she did so; and then, as her eyes travelled from Anna Wolsky to Anna's companion, they became intent and questioning.
Madame Wachner, in spite of her unwieldy form, and common, showy clothes, was fond of beautiful things, and especially fond of jewels. She was wondering whether the pearls worn by the lovely young Englishwoman standing opposite were real or sham.
The two friends did not stay very long in the Casino on that first evening. Sylvia drove Anna to the Pension Malfait, and then she came back alone to the Villa du Lac.
* * * * *
Before drawing together the curtains of her bed-room windows, Sylvia Bailey stood for some minutes looking out into the warm moonlit night.
On the dark waters of the lake floated miniature argosies, laden with lovers seeking happiness—ay, and perhaps finding it, too.
The Casino was outlined with fairy lamps; the scene was full of glamour, and of mysterious beauty. More than ever Sylvia was reminded of an exquisite piece of scene painting, and it seemed to her as if she were the heroine of a romantic opera—and the hero, with his ardent eyes and melancholy, intelligent face, was Count Paul de Virieu.
She wondered uneasily why Anna Wolsky had spoken of the Count as she had done—was it with dislike or only contempt?
Long after Sylvia was in bed she could hear the tramping made by the feet of those who were leaving the Casino and hurrying towards the station; but she did not mind the sound. All was so strange, new, and delightful, and she fell asleep and dreamt pleasant dreams.
On waking the next morning, Sylvia Bailey forgot completely for a moment where she was.
She looked round the large, airy room, which was so absolutely unlike the small bed-room she had occupied in the Hotel de l'Horloge, with a sense of bewilderment and surprise.
And then suddenly she remembered! Why of course she was at Lacville; and this delightful, luxurious room had been furnished and arranged for the lady-in-waiting and friend of the Empress Eugenie. The fact gave an added touch of romance to the Hotel du Lac.
A ray of bright sunlight streamed in through the curtains she had pinned together the night before. And her travelling clock told her that it was not yet six. But Sylvia jumped out of bed, and, drawing back the curtains, she looked out, and across the lake.
The now solitary expanse of water seemed to possess a new beauty in the early morning sunlight, and the white Casino, of which the minarets were reflected in its blue depths, might have been a dream palace. Nothing broke the intense stillness but the loud, sweet twittering of the birds in the trees which surrounded the lake.
But soon the spell was broken. When the six strokes of the hour chimed out from the old parish church which forms the centre of the town of Lacville, as if by enchantment there rose sounds of stir both indoors and out.
A woman came out of the lodge of the Villa du Lac, and slowly opened the great steel and gilt gates.
Sylvia heard the rush of bath water, even the queer click-click of a shower bath. M. Polperro evidently insisted on an exceptional standard of cleanliness for his household.
Sylvia felt fresh and well. The languor induced by the heat of Paris had left her. There seemed no reason why she should not get up too, and even go out of doors if so the fancy pleased her.
She had just finished dressing when there came curious sounds from the front of the Villa, and again she went over to her window.
A horse was being walked up and down on the stones of the courtyard in front of the horseshoe stairway which led up to the hall door. It was not yet half-past six. Who could be going to ride at this early hour of the morning?
Soon her unspoken question was answered; for the Comte de Virieu, clad in riding breeches and a black jersey, came out of the house, and close on his heels trotted M. Polperro, already wearing his white chef's cap and apron.
Sylvia could hear his "M'sieur le Comte" this, and "M'sieur le Comte" that, and she smiled a little to herself. The owner of the Hotel du Lac was very proud of his noble guest.
The Comte de Virieu was also laughing and talking; he was more animated than she had yet seen him. Sylvia told herself that he looked very well in his rather odd riding dress.
Waving a gay adieu to mine host, he vaulted into the saddle, and then rode out of the gates, and so sharply to the left.
Sylvia wondered if he were going for a ride in the Forest of Montmorency, which, in her lying guide-book, was mentioned as the principal attraction of Lacville.
There came a knock at the door, and Sylvia, calling out "Come in!" was surprised, and rather amused, to see that it was M. Polperro himself who opened it.
"I have come to ask if Madame has slept well," he observed, "and also to know if she would like an English breakfast? If yes, it shall be laid in the dining-room, unless Madame would rather have it up here."
"I would much rather come downstairs to breakfast," said Sylvia; "but I do not want anything yet, M. Polperro. It will do quite well if I have breakfast at half-past eight or nine."
She unpacked her trunks, and as she put her things away it suddenly struck her that she meant to stay at Lacville for some time. It was an interesting, a new, even a striking experience, this of hers; and though she felt rather lost without Anna Wolsky's constant presence and companionship, she was beginning to find it pleasant to be once more her own mistress.
She sat down and wrote some letters—the sort of letters that can be written or not as the writer feels inclined. Among them was a duty letter to her trustee, Bill Chester, telling him of her change of address, and of her change of plan.
The people with whom she had been going to Switzerland were friends of Bill Chester too, and so it was doubtful now whether he would go abroad at all.
And all the time Sylvia was writing there was at the back of her mind a curious, unacknowledged feeling that she was waiting for something to happen, that there was something pleasant for her to look forward to....
And when at last she went down into the dining-room, and Paul de Virieu came in, Sylvia suddenly realised, with a sense of curious embarrassment, what it was she had been waiting for and looking forward to. It was her meeting with the Comte de Virieu.
"I hope my going out so early did not disturb you," he said, in his excellent English. "I saw you at your window."
Sylvia shook her head, smiling.
"I had already been awake for at least half an hour," she answered.
"I suppose you ride? Most of the Englishwomen I knew as a boy rode, and rode well."
"My father was very anxious I should ride, and as a child I was well taught, but I have not had much opportunity of riding since I grew up."
Sylvia reddened faintly, for she fully expected the Count to ask her if she would ride with him, and she had already made up her mind to say "No," though to say "Yes" would be very pleasant!
But he did nothing of the sort. Even at this early hour of their acquaintance it struck Sylvia how unlike the Comte de Virieu's manner to her was to that of the other young men she knew. While his manner was deferential, even eager, yet there was not a trace of flirtation in it. Also the Count had already altered all Sylvia Bailey's preconceived notions of Frenchmen.
Sylvia had supposed a Frenchman's manner to a woman to be almost invariably familiar, in fact, offensively familiar. She had had the notion that a pretty young woman—it would, of course, have been absurd for her to have denied, even to herself, that she was very pretty—must be careful in her dealing with foreigners, and she believed it to be a fact that a Frenchman always makes love to an attractive stranger, even on the shortest acquaintance!
This morning, and she was a little piqued that it was so, Sylvia had to admit to herself that the Comte de Virieu treated her much as he might have done some old lady in whom he took a respectful interest....
And yet twice during the half-hour her breakfast lasted she looked up to see his blue eyes fixed full on her with an earnest, inquiring gaze, and she realised that it was not at all the kind of gaze Paul de Virieu would have turned on an old lady.
They got up from their respective tables at the same moment. He opened the door for her, and then, after a few minutes, followed her out into the garden.
"Have you yet visited the potager?" he asked, deferentially.
Sylvia looked at him, puzzled. "Potager" was quite a new French word to her.
"I think you call it the kitchen-garden." A smile lit up his face. "The people who built the Villa du Lac a matter of fifty years ago were very fond of gardening. I think it might amuse you to see the potager. Allow me to show it you."
They were now walking side by side. It was a delicious day, and the dew still glistened on the grass and leaves. Sylvia thought it would be very pleasant, and also instructive, to see a French kitchen-garden.
"Strange to say when I was a child I was often at the Villa du Lac, for the then owner was a distant cousin of my mother. He and his kind wife allowed me to come here for my convalescence after a rather serious illness when I was ten years old. My dear mother did not like me to be far from Paris, so I was sent to Lacville."
"What a curious place to send a child to!" exclaimed Sylvia.
"Ah, but Lacville was extremely different from what it is now, Madame. True, there was the lake, where Parisians used to come out each Sunday afternoon to fish and boat in a humble way, and there were a few villas built round the lake. But you must remember that in those prehistoric days there was no Casino! It is the Casino which has transformed Lacville into what we now see."
"Then we have reason to bless the Casino!" cried Sylvia, gaily.
They had now left behind them the wide lawn immediately behind the Villa du Lac, and were walking by a long, high wall. The Count pushed open a narrow door set in an arch in the wall, and Sylvia walked through into one of the largest and most delightful kitchen-gardens she had ever seen.
It was brilliant with colour and scent; the more homely summer flowers filled the borders, while, at each place where four paths met, a round, stone-rimmed basin, filled with water to the brim, gave a sense of pleasant coolness.
The farther end of the walled garden was bounded by a stone orangery, a building dating from the eighteenth century, and full of the stately grace of a vanished epoch.
"What a delightful place!" Sylvia exclaimed. "But this garden must cost M. Polperro a great deal of money to keep up—"
The Comte de Virieu laughed.
"Far from it! Our clever host hires out his potager to a firm of market gardeners, part of the bargain being that they allow him to have as much fruit and vegetables as he requires throughout the year. Why, the potager of the Villa du Lac supplies the whole of Lacville with fruit and flowers! When I was a child I thought this part of the garden paradise, and I spent here my happiest hours."
"It must be very odd for you to come back and stay in the Villa now that it is an hotel."
"At first it seemed very strange," he answered gravely. "But now I have become quite used to the feeling."
They walked on for awhile along one of the narrow flower-bordered paths.
"Would you care to go into the orangery?" he said. "There is not much to see there now, for all the orange-trees are out of doors. Still, it is a quaint, pretty old building."
The orangery of the Villa du Lac was an example of that at once artificial and graceful eighteenth-century architecture which, perhaps because of its mingled formality and delicacy, made so distinguished and attractive a setting to feminine beauty. It remained, the only survival of the dependencies of a chateau sacked and burned in the Great Revolution, more than half a century before the Villa du Lac was built.
The high doors were wide open, and Sylvia walked in. Though all the pot-plants and half-hardy shrubs were sunning themselves in the open-air, the orangery did not look bare, for every inch of the inside walls had been utilised for growing grapes and peaches.
There was a fountain set in the centre of the stone floor, and near the fountain was a circular seat.
"Let us sit down," said Paul de Virieu suddenly. But when Sylvia Bailey sat down he did not come and sit by her, instead he so placed himself that he looked across at her slender, rounded figure, and happy smiling face.
"Are you thinking of staying long at Lacville, Madame?" he asked abruptly.
"I don't know," she answered hesitatingly. "It will depend on my friend Madame Wolsky's plans. If we both like it, I daresay we shall stay three or four weeks."
There fell what seemed to Sylvia a long silence between them. The Frenchman was gazing at her with a puzzled, thoughtful look.
Suddenly he got up, and after taking a turn up and down the orangery, he came and stood before her.
"Mrs. Bailey!" he exclaimed. "Will you permit me to be rather impertinent?"
Sylvia reddened violently. The question took her utterly by surprise. But the Comte de Virieu's next words at once relieved, and yes, it must be admitted, chagrined her.
"I ask you, Madame, to leave Lacville! I ask permission to tell you frankly and plainly that it is not a place to which you ought to have been brought."
He spoke with great emphasis.
Sylvia looked up at him. She was bewildered, and though not exactly offended, rather hurt.
"But why?" she asked plaintively. "Why should I not stay at Lacville?"
"Oh, well, there can be no harm in your staying on a few days if you are desirous of doing so. But Lacville is not a place where I should care for my own sister to come and stay." He went on, speaking much quicker—"Indeed, I will say more! I will tell you that Lacville may seem a paradise to you, but that it is a paradise full of snakes."
"Snakes?" repeated Sylvia slowly. "You mean, of course, human snakes?"
He bowed gravely.
"Every town where reigns the Goddess of play attracts reptiles, Madame, as the sun attracts lizards! It is not the game that does so, or even the love of play in the Goddess's victims; no, it is the love of gold!"
Sylvia noticed that he had grown curiously pale.
"Lacville as a gambling centre counts only next to Monte Carlo. But whereas many people go to Monte Carlo for health, and for various forms of amusement, people only come here in order to play, and to see others play. The Casino, which doubtless appears to you a bright, pretty place, has been the scene and the cause of many a tragedy. Do you know how Paris regards Lacville?" he asked searchingly.
"No—yes," Sylvia hesitated. "You see I never heard of Lacville till about a week ago." Innate honesty compelled her to add, "But I have heard that the Paris trades-people don't like Lacville."
"Let me tell you one thing," the Count spoke with extraordinary seriousness. "Every tradesman in Paris, without a single exception, has signed a petition imploring the Government to suspend the Gambling Concession!"
"What an extraordinary thing!" exclaimed Sylvia, and she was surprised indeed.
"Pardon me, it is not at all extraordinary. A great deal of the money which would otherwise go into the pockets of these tradesmen goes now to enrich the anonymous shareholders of the Casino of Lacville! Of course, Paris hotel-keepers are not in quite the same position as are the other Parisian trades-people. Lacville does not do them much harm, for the place is so near Paris that foreigners, if they go there at all, generally go out for the day. Only the most confirmed gambler cares actually to live at Lacville."
He looked significantly at Sylvia, and she felt a wave of hot colour break over her face.
"Yes, I know what you must be thinking, and it is, indeed, the shameful truth! I, Madame, have the misfortune to be that most miserable and most God-forsaken of living beings, a confirmed gambler."
The Count spoke in a tone of stifled pain, almost anger, and Sylvia gazed up at his stern, sad face with pity and concern filling her kind heart.
"I will tell you my story in a few words," he went on, and then he sat down by her, and began tracing with his stick imaginary patterns on the stone floor.
"I was destined for what I still regard as the most agreeable career in the world—that of diplomacy. You see how I speak English? Well, Madame, I speak German and Spanish equally well. And then, most unhappily for me, my beloved mother died, and I inherited from her a few thousand pounds. I felt very miserable, and I happened to be at the moment idle. A friend persuaded me to go to Monte Carlo. That fortnight, Madame, changed my life—made me what the English call 'an idle good-for-nothing.' Can you wonder that I warn you against staying at Lacville?"
Sylvia was touched, as well as surprised, by his confidences. His words breathed sincerity, and the look of humiliation and pain on his face had deepened. He looked white and drawn.
"It is very kind of you to tell me this, and I am very much obliged to you for your warning," she said in a low tone.
But the Comte de Virieu went on as if he hardly heard her words.
"The lady with whom you first came to Lacville—I mean the Polish lady—is well known to me by sight. For the last three years I have seen her at Monte Carlo in the winter, and at Spa and Aix-les-Bains in the summer. Of course I was not at all surprised to see her turn up here, but I confess, Madame, that I was very much astonished to see with her a"—he hesitated a moment—"a young English lady. You would, perhaps, be offended if I were to tell you exactly what I felt when I saw you at the Casino!"
"I do not suppose I should be offended," said Sylvia softly.
"I felt, Madame, as if I saw a lily growing in a field of high, rank, evil-smelling—nay, perhaps I should say, poisonous—weeds."
"But I cannot go away now!" cried Sylvia. She was really impressed—very uncomfortably impressed—by his earnest words. "It would be most unkind to my friend, Madame Wolsky. Surely, it is possible to stay at Lacville, and even to play a little, without anything very terrible happening?" She looked at him coaxingly, anxiously, as a child might have done.
But Sylvia was not a child; she was a very lovely young woman. Comte Paul de Virieu's heart began to beat.
But, bah! This was absurd! His day of love and love-making lay far, far behind him. He rose and walked towards the door.
In speaking to her as he had forced himself to speak, the Frenchman had done an unselfish and kindly action. Sylvia's gentle and unsophisticated charm had touched him deeply, and so he had given her what he knew to be the best possible advice.
"I am not so foolish as to pretend that the people who come and play in the Casino of Lacville are all confirmed gamblers," he said, slowly. "We French take our pleasures lightly, Madame, and no doubt there is many an excellent Parisian bourgeois who comes here and makes or loses his few francs, and gets no harm from it. But, still, I swore to myself that I would warn you of the danger—"
They went out into the bright sunshine again, and Sylvia somehow felt as if she had made a friend—a real friend—in the Comte de Virieu. It was a curious sensation, and one that gave her more pleasure than she would have cared to own even to herself.
Most of the men she had met since she became a widow treated her as an irresponsible being. Many of them tried to flirt with her for the mere pleasure of flirting with so pretty a woman; others, so she was resentfully aware, had only become really interested in her when they became aware that she had been left by her husband with an income of two thousand pounds a year. She had had several offers of marriage since her widowhood, but not one of the men who had come and said he loved her had confessed as much about himself as this stranger had done.
She was the more touched and interested because the Frenchman's manner was extremely reserved. Even in the short time she had been at the Villa du Lac, Sylvia had realised that though the Count was on speaking terms with most of his fellow-guests, he seemed intimate with none of the people whose happy chatter had filled the dining-room the night before.
Just before going back into the Villa, Sylvia stopped short; she fixed her large ingenuous eyes on the Count's face.
"I want to thank you again," she said diffidently, "for your kindness in giving me this warning. You know we in England have a proverb, 'Forewarned is forearmed.' Well, believe me, I will not forget what you have said, and—and I am grateful for your confidence. Of course, I regard it as quite private."
The Count looked at her for a moment in silence, and then he said very deliberately,
"I am afraid the truth about me is known to all those good enough to concern themselves with my affairs. I am sure, for instance, that your Polish friend is well aware of it! You see before you a man who has lost every penny he owned in the world, who does not know how to work, and who is living on the charity of relations."
Sylvia had never heard such bitter accents issue from human lips before.
"The horse you saw me ride this morning," he went on in a low tone, "is not my horse; it belongs to my brother-in-law. It is sent for me every day because my sister loves me, and she thinks my health will suffer if I do not take exercise. My brother-in-law did not give me the horse, though he is the most generous of human beings, for he feared that if he did I should sell it in order that I might have more money for play."
There was a long, painful pause, then in a lighter tone the Count added, "And now, au revoir, Madame, and forgive me for having thrust my private affairs on your notice! It is not a thing I have been tempted ever to do before with one whom I have the honour of knowing as slightly as I know yourself."
Sylvia went upstairs to her room. She was touched, moved, excited. It was quite a new experience with her to come so really near to any man's heart and conscience.
Life is a secret and a tangled skein, full of loose, almost invisible threads. This curiously intimate, and yet impersonal conversation with one who was not only a stranger, but also a foreigner, made her realise how little we men and women really know of one another. How small was her knowledge, for instance, of Bill Chester—though, to be sure, of him there was perhaps nothing to know. How really little also she knew of Anna Wolsky! They had become friends, and yet Anna had never confided to her any intimate or secret thing about herself. Why, she did not even know Anna's home address!
Sylvia felt that there was now a link which hardly anything could break between herself and this Frenchman, whom she had never seen till a week ago. Even if they never met again after to-day, she would never forget that he had allowed her to see into the core of his sad, embittered heart. He had lifted a corner of the veil which covered his conscience, and he had done this in order that he might save her, a stranger, from what he knew by personal experience to be a terrible fate!
Two hours later Sylvia Bailey was having luncheon with Anna Wolsky in the Pension Malfait.
The two hostelries, hers and Anna's, were in almost absurd contrast the one to the other. At the Villa du Lac everything was spacious, luxurious, and quiet. M. Polperro's clients spent, or so Sylvia supposed, much of their time in their own rooms upstairs, or else in the Casino, while many of them had their own motors, and went out on long excursions. They were cosmopolitans, and among them were a number of Russians.
Here at the Pension Malfait, the clientele was French. All was loud talking, bustle, and laughter. The large house contained several young men who had daily work in Paris. Others, like Madame Wolsky, were at Lacville in order to indulge their passion for play, and quite a number of people came in simply for meals.
Among these last, rather to Sylvia's surprise, were Monsieur and Madame Wachner, the middle-aged couple whom Anna Wolsky had pointed out as having been at Aix-les-Bains the year before, at the same time as she was herself.
The husband and wife were now sitting almost exactly opposite Anna and Sylvia at the narrow table d'hote, and again a broad, sunny smile lit up the older woman's face when she looked across at the two friends.
"We meet again!" she exclaimed in a guttural voice, and then in French, addressing Madame Wolsky, "This is not very much like Aix-les-Bains, is it, Madame?"
Anna shook her head.
"Still it is a pretty place, Lacville, and cheaper than one would think." She leant across the table, and continued in a confidential undertone: "As for us—my husband and I—we have taken a small villa; he has grown so tired of hotels."
"But surely you had a villa at Aix?" said Anna, in a surprised tone.
"Yes, we had a villa there, certainly. But then a very sad affair happened to us—" she sighed. "You may have heard of it?" and she fixed her small, intensely bright eyes inquiringly on Anna.
Anna bent her head.
"Yes, I heard all about it" she said gravely. "You mean about your friend who was drowned in the lake? It must have been a very distressing thing for you and your husband."
"Yes, indeed! He never can bear to speak of it."
And Sylvia, looking over at the man sitting just opposite to herself, saw a look of unease come over his sallow face. He was eating his omelette steadily, looking neither to the right nor to the left.
"Ami Fritz!" cried his wife, turning suddenly to him, and this time she spoke English, "Say, 'How d'you do,' to this lady! You will remember that we used to see 'er at Aix, in the Casino there?"
"Ami Fritz" bowed his head, but remained silent.
"Yes," his wife went on, volubly, "that sad affair made Aix very unpleasant to us! After that we spent the winter in various pensions, and then, instead of going back to Aix, we came 'ere. So far, I am quite satisfied with Lacville."
Though she spoke with a very bad accent and dropped her aitches, her English was quick and colloquial.
"Lacville is a cosy, 'appy place!" she cried, and this time she smiled full at Sylvia, and Sylvia told herself that the woman's face, if very plain, was like a sunflower,—so broad, so kindly, so good-humoured!
When dejeuner was over, the four had coffee together, and the melancholy Monsieur Wachner, who was so curiously unlike his bright, vivacious wife, at last broke into eager talk, for he and Anna Wolsky had begun to discuss different gambling systems. His face lighted up; it was easy to see what interested and stimulated this long, lanky man whose wife addressed him constantly as "Ami Fritz."
"Now 'e is what the English call 'obby-'orse riding," she exclaimed, with a loud laugh. "To see 'im in all 'is glory you should see my Fritz at Monte Carlo!" she was speaking to Sylvia. "There 'as never been a system invented in connection with that devil-game, Roulette, that L'Ami Fritz does not know, and that 'e 'as not—at some time or other—played more to 'is satisfaction than to mine!" But she spoke very good-humouredly. "'E cannot ring many changes on Baccarat, and I do not often allow 'im to play downstairs. No, no, that is too dangerous! That is for children and fools!"
Sylvia was still too ignorant of play to understand the full significance of Madame Wachner's words, but she was vaguely interested, though she could not understand one word of the eager talk between Anna and the man.
"Let us leave them at it!" exclaimed the older woman, suddenly. "It will be much nicer in the garden, Madame, for it is not yet too 'ot for out of doors. By the way, I forgot to tell you my name. That was very rude of me! My name is Wachner—Sophie Wachner, at your service."
"And my name is Bailey—Sylvia Bailey."
"Ah, I thought so—you are a Mees!"
"No," said Sylvia gravely, "I am a widow."
Madame Wachner's face became very serious.
"Ah," she said, sympathetically, "that is sad—very sad for one so young and so beautiful!"
Sylvia smiled. Madame Wachner was certainly a kindly, warm-hearted sort of woman.
They walked out together into the narrow garden, and soon Madame Wachner began to amuse her companion by lively, shrewd talk, and they spent a pleasant half hour pacing up and down.
The Wachners seemed to have travelled a great deal about the world and especially in several of the British Colonies.
It was in New Zealand that Madame Wachner had learnt to speak English: "My 'usband, 'e was in business there," she said vaguely.
"And you?" she asked at last, fixing her piercing eyes on the pretty Englishwoman, and allowing them to travel down till they rested on the milky row of perfectly-matched pearls.
"Oh, this is my first visit to France," answered Sylvia, "and I am enjoying it very much indeed."
"Then you 'ave not gambled for money yet?" observed Madame Wachner. "In England they are too good to gamble!" She spoke sarcastically, but Sylvia did not know that.
"I never in my life played for money till last week, and then I won thirty francs!"
"Ah! Then now surely you will join the Club?"
"Yes," said Sylvia a little awkwardly. "I suppose I shall join the Club. You see, my friend is so fond of play."
"I believe you there!" cried the other, familiarly. "We used to watch Madame Wolsky at Aix—my 'usband and I. It seems so strange that there we never spoke to 'er, and that now we seem to know 'er already so much better than we did in all the weeks we were together at Aix! But there"—she sighed a loud, heaving sigh—"we 'ad a friend—a dear young friend—with us at Aix-les-Bains."
"Yes, I know," said Sylvia, sympathisingly.
"You know?" Madame Wachner looked at her quickly. "What is it that you know, Madame?"
"Madame Wolsky told me about it. Your friend was drowned, was he not? It must have been very sad and dreadful for you and your husband."
"It was terrible!" said Madame Wachner vehemently. "Terrible!"
* * * * *
The hour in the garden sped by very quickly, and Sylvia was rather sorry when it came to be time to start for the Casino.
"Look here!" cried Madame Wachner suddenly. "Why should not L'Ami Fritz escort Madame Wolsky to the Casino while you and I take a pretty drive? I am so tired of that old Casino—and you will be so tired of it soon, too!" she exclaimed in an aside to Sylvia.
Sylvia looked questioningly at Anna.
"Yes, do take a drive, dear. You have plenty of time, for I intend to spend all this afternoon and evening at the Casino," said Madame Wolsky, quickly, in answer to Sylvia's look. "It will do quite well if you come there after you have had your tea. My friend will never go without her afternoon tea;" she turned to Madame Wachner.
"I, too, love afternoon tea!" cried Madame Wachner, in a merry tone. "Then that is settled! You and I will take a drive, and then we will 'ave tea and then go to the Casino."
Mrs. Bailey accompanied her friend upstairs while Anna put on her things and got out her money.
"You will enjoy a drive on this hot day, even with that funny old woman," said Madame Wolsky, affectionately. "And meanwhile I will get your membership card made out for the Club. If you like to do so, you might have a little gamble this evening. But I do not want my sweet English friend to become as fond of play as I am myself"—there crept a sad note into her voice. "However, I do not think there is any fear of that!"
When the two friends came downstairs again, they found Monsieur and Madame Wachner standing close together and speaking in a low voice. As she came nearer to them Sylvia saw that they were so absorbed in each other that they did not see her, and she heard the man saying in a low, angry voice, in French: "There is nothing to be done here at all, Sophie! It is foolish of us to waste our time like this!" And then Madame Wachner answered quickly, "You are always so gloomy, so hopeless! I tell you there is something to be done. Leave it to me!"
Then, suddenly becoming aware that Sylvia was standing beside her, the old woman went on: "My 'usband, Madame, always says there is nothing to be done! You see, 'e is tired of 'is last system, and 'e 'as not yet invented another. But, bah! I say to 'im that no doubt luck will come to-day. 'E may find Madame Wolsky a mascot." She was very red and looked disturbed.
"I 'ave asked them to telephone for an open carriage," Madame Wachner added, in a better-humoured tone. "It will be here in three or four minutes. Shall we drive you first to the Casino?" This question she asked of her husband.
"No," said Monsieur Wachner, harshly, "certainly not! I will walk in any case."
"And I will walk too," said Anna, who had just come up. "There is no need at all for us to take you out of your way. You had better drive at once into the open country, Sylvia."
And so they all started, Madame Wolsky and her tall, gaunt, morose companion, walking, while Sylvia and Madame Wachner drove off in the opposite direction.
The country immediately round Lacville is not pretty; the little open carriage was rather creaky, and the horse was old and tired, and yet Sylvia Bailey enjoyed her drive very much.
Madame Wachner, common-looking, plain, almost grotesque in appearance though she was, possessed that rare human attribute, vitality.
Sometimes she spoke in French, sometimes in English, changing from the one to the other with perfect ease; and honestly pleased at having escaped a long, dull, hot afternoon in the Casino, the older woman set herself to please and amuse Sylvia. She thoroughly succeeded. A clever gossip, she seemed to know a great deal about all sorts of interesting people, and she gave Sylvia an amusing account of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, whose splendid chateau they saw from their little carriage.
Madame Wachner also showed the most sympathetic interest in Sylvia and Sylvia's past life. Soon the Englishwoman found herself telling her new acquaintance a great deal about her childhood and girlhood—something even of her brief, not unhappy, married life. But she shrank back, both mentally and physically, when Madame Wachner carelessly observed, "Ah, but soon you will marry again; no doubt you are already engaged?"
"Oh, no!" Sylvia shook her head.
"But you are young and beautiful. It would be a crime for you not to get married again!" Madame Wachner persisted; and then, "I love beauty," she cried enthusiastically. "You did not see me, Madame, last week, but I saw you, and I said to my 'usband, 'There is a very beautiful person come to Lacville, Fritz!' 'E laughed at me. 'Now you will be satisfied—now you will 'ave something to look at,' 'e says. And it is quite true! When I come back that night I was very sorry to see you not there. But we will meet often now," she concluded pleasantly, "for I suppose, Madame, that you too intend to play?"
That was the second time she had asked the question.
"I shall play a little," said Sylvia, blushing, "but of course I do not want to get into the habit of gambling."
"No, indeed, that would be terrible! And then there are not many who can afford to gamble and to lose their good money." She looked inquiringly at Sylvia. "But, there," she sighed—her fat face became very grave—"it is extraordinary 'ow some people manage to get money—I mean those 'oo are determined to play!"
And then, changing the subject, Madame Wachner suddenly began to tell her new acquaintance all about the tragic death by drowning of her and her husband's friend at Aix-les-Bains the year before. She now spoke in French, but with a peculiar guttural accent.
"I never talk of it before Fritz," she said quickly, "but, of course, we both often think of it still. Oh, it was a terrible thing! We were devoted to this young Russian friend of ours. He and Fritz worked an excellent system together—the best Fritz ever invented—and for a little while they made money. But his terribly sad death broke our luck"—she shook her head ominously.
"How did it happen?" said Sylvia sympathetically.
And then Madame Wachner once again broke into her h-less English.
"They went together in a boat on Lake Bourget—it is a real lake, that lake, not like the little fishpond 'ere. A storm came on, and the boat upset. Fritz did his best to save the unfortunate one, but 'e could not swim. You can imagine my sensations? I was in a summer-'ouse, trembling with fright. Thunder, lightning, rain, storm, all round! Suddenly I see Fritz, pale as death, wet through, totter up the path from the lake. 'Where is Sasha?' I shriek out to 'im. And 'e shake 'is 'ead despairingly—Sasha was in the lake!"
The speaker stared before her with a look of vivid terror on her face. It was almost as if she saw the scene she was describing—nay, as if she saw the pale, dead face of the drowned man. It gave her companion a cold feeling of fear.
"And was it long before they found him?" asked Sylvia in a low tone.
"They never did find 'im," said Madame Wachner, her voice sinking to a whisper. "That was the extraordinary thing—Sasha's body was never found! Many people thought the money 'e 'ad on 'is person weighed 'im down, kept 'im entangled in the weeds at the bottom of the lake. Did not your friend tell you it made talk?"
"Yes," said Sylvia.
"'E 'ad not much money on 'is person," repeated Madame Wachner, "but still there was a good deal more than was found in 'is bed-room. That, of course, was 'anded over to the authorities. They insisted on keeping it."
"But I suppose his family got it in the end?" said Sylvia.
"No. 'E 'ad no family. You see, our friend was a Russian nobleman, but he had also been a Nihilist, so 'e 'ad concealed 'is identity. It was fortunate for us that we 'ad got to know an important person in the police; but for that we might 'ave 'ad much worry"—she shook her head. "They were so much annoyed that poor Sasha 'ad no passport. But, as I said to them—for Fritz quite lost 'is 'ead, and could say nothing—not 'alf, no, not a quarter of the strangers in Aix 'as passports, though, of course, it is a good and useful thing to 'ave one. I suppose, Madame, that you 'ave a passport?"
She stopped short, and looked at Sylvia with that eager, inquiring look which demands an answer even to the most unimportant question.
"A passport?" repeated Sylvia Bailey, surprised. "No, indeed! I've never even seen one. Why should I have a passport?"
"When you are abroad it is always a good thing to 'ave a passport," said Madame Wachner quickly. "You see, it enables you to be identified. It gives your address at 'ome. But I do not think that you can get one now—no, it is a thing that one must get in one's own country, or, at any rate," she corrected herself, "in a country where you 'ave resided a long time."
"What is your country, Madame?" asked Sylvia. "Are you French? I suppose Monsieur Wachner is German?"
Madame Wachner shook her head.
"Oh, 'e would be cross to 'ear that! No, no, Fritz is Viennese—a gay Viennese! As for me, I am"—she waited a moment—"well, Madame, I am what the French call 'une vraie cosmopolite'—oh, yes, I am a true citizeness of the world."
They had been driving a considerable time, and at last the coachman, turning round on his seat, asked where they wished to go next.
"I ask you to come and 'ave tea with me," said Madame Wachner turning to Sylvia. "We are not very far from the Chalet des Muguets, and I 'ave some excellent tea there. We will 'ave a rest, and tell the man to come back for us in one hour. What do you think of that, Madame?"
"It is very kind of you," said Sylvia gratefully; and, indeed, she did think it very kind. It would be pleasant to rest a while in the Wachner's villa and have tea there.
Sylvia was in the mood to enjoy every new experience, however trifling, and she had never been in a French private house.
"Au Chalet des Muguets," called out Madame Wachner to the driver.
He nodded and turned his horse round.
Soon they were making their way along newly-made roads, cut through what had evidently been, not so very long before, a great stretch of forest land.
"The good people of Lacville are in a hurry to make money," observed Madame Wachner in French. "I am told that land here has nearly trebled in value the last few years, though houses are still cheap."
"It seems a pity they should destroy such beautiful woods," said Sylvia regretfully, remembering what the Comte de Virieu had said only that morning.
The other shrugged her shoulders, "I do not care for scenery—no, not at all!" she exclaimed complacently.
The carriage drew up with a jerk before a small white gate set in low, rough, wood palings. Behind the palings lay a large, straggling, and untidy garden, relieved from absolute ugliness by some high forest trees which had been allowed to remain when the house in the centre of the plot of ground was built.
Madame Wachner stepped heavily out of the carriage, and Sylvia followed her, feeling amused and interested. She wondered very much what the inside of the funny little villa she saw before her would be like. In any case, the outside of the Chalet des Muguets was almost ludicrously unlike the English houses to which she was accustomed.
Very strange, quaint, and fantastic looked the one-storey building, standing far higher than any bungalow Sylvia had ever seen, in a lawn of high, rank grass.
The walls of the Chalet des Muguets were painted bright pink, picked out with sham brown beams, which in their turn were broken at intervals by large blue china lozenges, on which were painted the giant branches of lilies-of-the-valley which gave the villa its inappropriate name!
The chocolate-coloured row of shutters were now closed to shut out the heat, for the sun beat down pitilessly on the little house, and the whole place had a curiously deserted, unlived-in appearance.
Sylvia secretly wondered how the Wachners could bear to leave the garden, which might have been made so pretty with a little care, in such a state of neglect and untidiness. Even the path leading up to the side of the house, where jutted out a mean-looking door, was covered with weeds.
But Madame Wachner was evidently very pleased with her temporary home, and quite satisfied with its surroundings.
"It is a pretty 'ouse, is it not?" she asked in English, and smiling broadly. "And only one thousand francs, furnished, for the 'ole season!"
Sylvia quickly made a mental calculation. Forty pounds? Yes, she supposed that was very cheap—for Lacville.
"We come in May, and we may stay till October," said Madame Wachner, still speaking in a satisfied tone. "I made a bargain with a woman from the town. She comes each morning, cooks what I want, and does the 'ousework. Often we 'ave our dejeuner out and dine at 'ome, or we dine close to the Casino—just as we choose. Food is so dear in France, it makes little difference whether we stay at 'ome or not for meals."
They were now close to the chocolate-coloured door of the Chalet, and Madame Wachner, to Sylvia Bailey's surprise and amusement, lifted a corner of the shabby outside mat, and took from under it a key. With it she opened the door. "Walk in," she said familiarly, "and welcome, Madame, to my 'ome!"
Sylvia found herself in a bare little hall, so bare indeed that there was not even a hat and umbrella stand there.
Her hostess walked past her and opened a door which gave into a darkened room.
"This is our dining-room," she said proudly. "Walk in, Madame. It is 'ere we had better 'ave tea, perhaps."
Sylvia followed her. How dark, and how very hot it was in here! She could see absolutely nothing for some moments, for she was blinded by the sudden change from the bright light of the hall to the dim twilight of the closely-shuttered room.
Then gradually she began to see everything—or rather the little there was to be seen—and she felt surprised, and a little disappointed.
The dining-room was more than plainly furnished; it was positively ugly.
The furniture consisted of a round table standing on an unpolished parquet floor, of six cane chairs set against the wall, and of a walnut-wood buffet, on the shelves of which stood no plates, or ornaments of any description. The walls were distempered a reddish-pink colour, and here and there the colour had run in streaky patches.
"Is it not charming?" exclaimed Madame Wachner. "And now I will show you our pretty little salon!"
Sylvia followed her out into the hall, and so to the left into the short passage which ran down the centre of the tiny house.
The drawing-room of the Chalet des Muguets was a little larger than the dining-room, but it was equally bare of anything pretty or even convenient. There was a small sofa, covered with cheap tapestry, and four uncomfortable-looking chairs to match; on the sham marble mantelpiece stood a gilt and glass clock and two chandeliers. There was not a book, not a paper, not a flower.
Both rooms gave Sylvia a strange impression that they were very little lived in. But then, of course, the Wachners were very little at home.
"And now I will get tea," said Madame Wachner triumphantly.
"Will you not let me help you?" asked Sylvia, timidly. "I love making tea—every Englishwoman loves making tea." She had no wish to be left in this dull, ugly little drawing-room by herself.
"Oh, but your pretty dress! Would it not get 'urt in the kitchen?" cried Madame Wachner deprecatingly.
But she allowed Sylvia to follow her into the bright, clean little kitchen, of which the door was just opposite the drawing-room.
"What a charming little cuisine!" cried Sylvia smiling. She was glad to find something that she could honestly praise, and the kitchen was, in truth, the pleasantest place in the house, exquisitely neat, with the brass batterie de cuisine shining and bright. "Your day servant must be an exceptionally clean woman."
"Yes," said Madame Wachner, in a rather dissatisfied tone, "she is well enough. But, oh, those French people, how eager they are for money! Do you suppose that woman ever stays one minute beyond her time? No, indeed!"
Even as she spoke she was pouring water into a little kettle, and lighting a spirit lamp. Then, going to a cupboard, she took out two cups and a cracked china teapot.
Sylvia did her part by cutting some bread and butter, and, as she stood at the white table opposite the kitchen window, she saw that beyond the small piece of garden which lay at the back of the house was a dense chestnut wood, only separated from the Chalet des Muguets by a straggling hedge.
"Does the wood belong to you, too?" she asked.
Madame Wachner shook her head.
"Oh! no," she said, "that is for sale!"
"You must find it very lonely here at night," said Sylvia, musingly, "you do not seem to have any neighbours either to the right or left."
"There is a villa a little way down the road," said Madame Wachner quickly. "But we are not nervous people—and then we 'ave nothing it would be worth anybody's while to steal."
Sylvia reminded herself that the Wachners must surely have a good deal of money in the house if they gambled as much as Anna Wolsky said they did. Her hostess could not keep it all in the little bag which she always carried hung on her wrist.
And then, as if Madame Wachner had seen straight into her mind, the old woman said significantly. "As to our money, I will show you where we keep it. Come into my bed-room; perhaps you will take off your hat there; then we shall be what English people call 'cosy.'"
Madame Wachner led the way again into the short passage, and so into a large bed-room, which looked, like the kitchen, on to the back garden.
After the kitchen, this bed-room struck Sylvia as being the pleasantest room in the Chalet des Muguets, and that although, like the dining-room and drawing-room, it was extraordinarily bare.
There was no chest of drawers, no dressing-table, no cupboard to be seen. Madame Wachner's clothes hung on pegs behind the door, and there was a large brass-bound trunk in a corner of the room.
But the broad, low bed looked very comfortable, and there was a bath-room next door.
Madame Wachner showed her guest the bath-room with great pride.
"This is the 'English comfortable,'" she said, using the quaint phrase the French have invented to express the acme of domestic luxury. "My 'usband will never allow me to take a 'ouse that has no bath-room. 'E is very clean about 'imself"—she spoke as if it was a fact to be proud of, and Sylvia could not help smiling.
"I suppose there are still many French houses without a bath-room," she said.
"Yes," said Madame Wachner quickly, "the French are not a clean people,"—she shook her head scornfully.
"I suppose you keep your money in that box?" said Sylvia, looking at the brass-bound trunk.
"No, indeed! This is where I keep it!"
Madame Wachner suddenly lifted her thin alpaca skirt, and Sylvia, with astonishment, saw that hung round her capacious waist were a number of little wash-leather bags. "My money is all 'ere!" exclaimed Madame Wachner, laughing heartily. "It rests—oh, so cosily—against my petticoat."
They went back into the kitchen. The water was boiling, and Sylvia made the tea, Madame Wachner looking on with eager interest.
"La! La! it will be strong! I only put a pinch for ourselves. And now go into the dining-room, and I will bring the teapot there to you, Madame!"
"No, no," said Sylvia laughing, "why should we not drink our tea here, in this pretty kitchen?"
The other looked at her doubtfully. "Shall we?"
"Yes, of course!" cried Sylvia.
They drew up two rush-bottomed chairs to the table and sat down.
Sylvia thoroughly enjoyed this first taste of Madame Wachner's hospitality. The drive and the great heat had made her feel tired and languid, and the tea did her good.
"I will go and see if the carriage is there," said Madame Wachner at last.
While her hostess was away, Sylvia looked round her with some curiosity.
What an extraordinary mode of life these people had chosen for themselves! If the Wachners were rich enough to gamble, surely they had enough money to live more comfortably than they were now doing? It was clear that they hardly used the dining-room and drawing-room of the little villa at all. When Sylvia had been looking for the butter, she had not been able to help seeing that in the tiny larder there was only a small piece of cheese, a little cold meat, and a couple of eggs on a plate. No wonder Monsieur Wachner had heartily enjoyed the copious, if rather roughly-prepared, meal at the Pension Malfait.
"Yes, the carriage is there," said Madame Wachner bustling back. "And now we must be quick, or L'Ami Fritz will be cross! Do you know that absurd man actually still thinks 'e is master, and yet we 'ave been married—oh, I do not know 'ow many years! But he always loves seeing me even after we 'ave been separated but two hours or so!"
Together they went out, Madame Wachner carefully locking the door and hiding the key where she had found it, under the mat outside.
Sylvia could not help laughing.
"I really wonder you do that," she observed. "Just think how easy it would be for anyone to get into the house!"
"Yes, that is true, but there is nothing to steal. As I tell you, we always carry our money about with us," said Madame Wachner. She added in a serious tone, "and I should advise you to do so too, my dear young friend."
A quarter of an hour's sharp driving brought Sylvia and Madame Wachner to the door of the Casino. They found Madame Wolsky in the hall waiting for them.
"I couldn't think what had happened to you!" she exclaimed in an anxious tone. "But here is your membership card, Sylvia. Now you are free of the Baccarat tables!"
Monsieur Wachner met his wife with a frowning face. He might be pleased to see Madame Wachner, but he showed his pleasure in an odd manner. Soon, however, the secret of his angry look was revealed, for Madame Wachner opened the leather bag hanging from her wrist and took out of it a hundred francs.
"Here, Fritz," she cried, gaily. "You can now begin your play!"
Sylvia Bailey felt very much amused. So poor "Ami Fritz" was not allowed to gamble unless his wife were there to see that he did not go too far. No wonder he had looked impatient and eager, as well as cross! He had been engaged—that was clear—in putting down the turns of the game, and in working out what were no doubt abstruse calculations connected with his system.
The Club was very full, and it was a little difficult at that hour of the late afternoon to get near enough to a table to play comfortably; but a stranger had kindly kept Anna Wolsky's place for her.
"I have been quite lucky," she whispered to Sylvia. "I have made three hundred francs, and now I think I will rest a bit! Slip in here, dear, and I will stand behind you. I do not advise you to risk more than twenty francs the first time; on the other hand, if you feel en veine, if the luck seems persistent—it sometimes is when one first plays with gold—then be bold, and do not hesitate!"
Sylvia, feeling rather bewildered, slipped into her friend's place, and Anna kept close behind her.
With a hand that trembled a little, she put a twenty-franc piece down on the green table. After doing so she looked up, and saw that the Comte de Virieu was standing nearly opposite to her, on the other side of the table.
His eyes were fixed on her, and there was a very kind and indulgent, if sad, smile on his face. As their glances met he leant forward and also put a twenty-franc piece on the green cloth close to where Sylvia's money lay.
The traditional words rang out: "Faites vos jeux, Messieurs, Mesdames! Le jeu est fait! Rien ne va plus!"
And then Sylvia saw her stake and that of the Count doubled. There were now four gold pieces where two had been.
"Leave your money on, and see what happens," whispered Anna. "After all you are only risking twenty francs!"
And Sylvia obediently followed the advice.
Again there came a little pause; once more the words which she had not yet learnt to understand rang out in the croupier's monotonous voice.
She looked round her; there was anxiety and watchful suspense on all the eager faces. The Comte de Virieu alone looked indifferent.
A moment later four gold pieces were added to the four already there.
"You had better take up your winnings, or someone may claim them," muttered Anna anxiously.
"Oh, but I don't like to do that," said Sylvia.
"Of course you must!"
She put out her hand and took up her four gold pieces, leaving those of the Count on the table. Then suddenly she put back the eighty francs on the cloth, and smiled up at him; it was a gay little shame-faced smile. "Please don't be cross with me, kind friend,"—that is what Sylvia's smile seemed to say to Paul de Virieu—"but this is so very exciting!"
He felt stirred to the heart. How sweet, how confidingly simple she looked! And—and how very beautiful. He at once loved and hated to see her there, his new little "amie Anglaise!"
"Are you going to leave the whole of it on this time?" whispered Anna.
"Yes, I think I will. It's rather fun. After all, I'm only risking twenty francs!" whispered back Sylvia.
And once more she won.
"What a pity you didn't start playing with a hundred francs! Think of how rich you would be now," said Anna, with the true gambler's instinct. "But it is clear, child, that you are going to do well this evening, and I shall follow your luck! Take the money off now, however."
Sylvia waited to see what the Count would do. Their eyes asked and answered the same question. He gave an imperceptible nod, and she took up her winnings—eight gold pieces!
It was well that she had done so, for the next deal of the cards favoured the banker.
Then something very surprising happened to Sylvia.
Someone—she thought it was Monsieur Wachner—addressed the croupier whose duty it was to deal out the cards, and said imperiously, "A Madame la main!"
Hardly knowing what she was doing, Sylvia took up the cards which had been pushed towards her. A murmur of satisfaction ran round the table, for there lay what even she had learnt by now was the winning number, a nine of hearts, and the second card was the king of clubs.
Again and again, she turned up winning numbers—the eight and the ace, the five and the four, the six and the three—every combination which brought luck to the table and confusion to the banker.
Eyes full of adoring admiration, aye and gratitude, were turned on the young Englishwoman. Paul de Virieu alone did not look at her. But he followed her play.
"Now put on a hundred francs," said Anna, authoritatively.
Sylvia looked at her, rather surprised by the advice, but she obeyed it. And still the Comte de Virieu followed her lead.
That made her feel dreadfully nervous and excited—it would be so terrible to make him lose too!
Neither of them lost. On the contrary, ten napoleons were added to the double pile of gold.
And then, after that, it seemed as if the whole table were following Sylvia's game.
"That pretty Englishwoman is playing for the first time!"—so the word went round. And they all began backing her luck with feverish haste.
The banker, a good-looking young Frenchman, stared at Sylvia ruefully. Thanks to her, he was being badly punished. Fortunately, he could afford it.
At the end of half an hour, feeling tired and bewildered by her good fortune, Mrs. Bailey got up and moved away from the table, the possessor of L92. The Comte Virieu had won exactly the same amount.
Now everybody looked pleased except the banker. For the first time a smile irradiated Monsieur Wachner's long face.
As for Madame Wachner, she was overjoyed. Catching Sylvia by the hand, she exclaimed, in her curious, woolly French, "I would like to embrace you! But I know that English ladies do not like kissing in public. It is splendid—splendid! Look at all the people you have made happy."
"But how about the poor banker?" asked Sylvia, blushing.
"Oh, 'e is all right. 'E is very rich."
Madame Wolsky, like the Count, had exactly followed her friend's play, but not as soon as he had done. Still, she also had made over L80.
"Two thousand francs!" she cried, joyfully. "That is very good for a beginning. And you?" she turned to Monsieur Wachner.
He hesitated, and looked at his wife deprecatingly.
"L'Ami Fritz," said Madame Wachner, "will play 'is system, Mesdames. However, I am glad to say that to-day he soon gave it up in honour of our friend here. What 'ave you made?" she asked him.
"Only eight hundred francs," he said, his face clouding over. "If you had given me more than that hundred francs, Sophie, I might have made five thousand in the time."
"Bah!" she said. "That does not matter. We must not risk more than a hundred francs a day—you know how often I've told you that, Fritz." She was now speaking in French, very quickly and angrily.
But Sylvia hardly heard. She could not help wondering why the Count had not come up and congratulated her. The thought that she had brought him luck was very pleasant to her.
He had left off playing, and was standing back, near one of the windows. He had not even glanced across to the place where she stood. This aloofness gave Sylvia a curious little feeling of discomfiture. Why, several strangers had come up and cordially thanked her for bringing them such luck.
"Let us come out of this place and 'ave some ices," exclaimed Madame Wachner, suddenly. "When l'Ami Fritz 'as a stroke of luck 'e often treats 'is old wife to an ice."
The four went out of the Casino and across the way to an hotel, which, as Madame Wachner explained to her two new friends, contained the best restaurant in Lacville. The sun was sinking, and, though it was still very hot, there was a pleasant breeze coming up from the lake.
Sylvia felt excited and happy. How wonderful—how marvellous—to make nearly L100 out of a twenty-franc piece! That was what she had done this afternoon.
And then, rather to her surprise, after they had all enjoyed ices and cakes at Madame Wachner's expense, Anna Wolsky and l'Ami Fritz declared they were going back to the Casino.
"I don't mean to play again to-night," said Sylvia, firmly. "I feel dreadfully tired," and the excitement had indeed worn her out. She longed to go back to the Hotel du Lac.
Still, she accompanied the others to the Club, and together with Madame Wachner, she sat down some way from the tables. In a very few minutes they were joined by the other two, who had by now lost quite enough gold pieces to make them both feel angry with themselves, and, what was indeed unfair, with poor Sylvia.
"I'm sure that if you had played again, and if we had followed your play, we should have added to our winnings instead of losing, as we have done," said Anna crossly.
"I'm so sorry," and Sylvia felt really distressed. Anna had never spoken crossly to her before.
"Forgive me!" cried the Polish woman, suddenly softening. "I ought not to have said that to you, dear little friend. No doubt we should all have lost just the same. You know that fortune-teller told me that I should make plenty of money—well, even now I have had a splendid day!"
"Do come back with me and have dinner at the Villa du Lac," said Sylvia eagerly.
They shook hands with the Wachners, and as they walked the short distance from the Casino to the villa, Sylvia told Anna all about her visit to the Chalet des Muguets.
"They seem nice homely people," she said, "and Madame Wachner was really very kind."
"Yes, no doubt; but she is a very strict wife," answered Anna smiling. "The poor man had not one penny piece till she came in, and he got so angry and impatient waiting for her! I really felt inclined to lend him a little money; but I have made it a rule never to lend money in a Casino; it only leads to unpleasantness afterwards."
In the hall of the Villa du Lac the Comte de Virieu was standing reading a paper. He was dressed for dinner, and he bowed distantly as the two ladies came in.
"Why, there is the Comte de Virieu!" exclaimed Anna, in a low, and far from a pleased tone. "I had no idea he was staying here."
"Yes, he is staying here," said Sylvia, blushing uneasily, and quickly she led the way upstairs. It wanted a few minutes to seven.
Anna Wolsky waited till the door of Sylvia's room was shut, and then,
"I cannot help being sorry that you are staying in the same hotel as that man," she said, seriously. "Do not get to know him too well, dear Sylvia. The Count is a worthless individual; he has gambled away two fortunes. And now, instead of working, he is content to live on an allowance made to him by his sister's husband, the Duc d'Eglemont. If I were you, I should keep on very distant terms with him. He is, no doubt, always looking out for a nice rich woman to marry."
Sylvia made no answer. She felt she could not trust herself to speak; and there came over her a feeling of intense satisfaction that Anna Wolsky was not staying here with her at the Villa du Lac.
She also made up her mind that next time she entertained Anna she would do so at the restaurant of which the cooking had been so highly commended by Madame Wachner.
The fact that Madame Wolsky thought so ill of the Comte de Virieu made Sylvia feel uncomfortable all through dinner. But the Count, though he again bowed when the two friends came into the dining-room, did not come over and speak to them, as Sylvia had felt sure he would do this evening.
After dinner he disappeared, and Sylvia took Anna out into the garden. But she did not show her the potager. The old kitchen-garden already held for her associations which she did not wish to spoil or even to disturb.
Madame Wolsky, sipping M. Polperro's excellent coffee, again mentioned the Count.
"I am exceedingly surprised to see him here at Lacville," she said in a musing voice, "I should have expected him to go to a more chic place. He always plays in the winter at Monte Carlo."
Sylvia summoned up courage to protest.
"But, Anna," she exclaimed, "surely the Comte de Virieu is only doing what a great many other people do!"
Anna laughed good-humouredly.
"I see what you mean," she said. "You think it is a case of 'the pot calling the kettle black.' How excellent are your English proverbs, dear Sylvia! But no, it is quite different. Take me. I have an income, and choose to spend it in gambling. I might prefer to have a big house, or perhaps I should say a small house, for I am not a very rich woman. But no, I like play, and I am free to spend my money as I like. The Comte de Virieu is very differently situated! He is, so I've been told, a clever, cultivated man. He ought to be working—doing something for his country's good. And then he is so disagreeable! He makes no friends, no acquaintances. He always looks as if he was doing something of which he was ashamed. He never appears gay or satisfied, not even when he is winning—"
"He does not look as cross as Monsieur Wachner," said Sylvia, smiling.
"Monsieur Wachner is like me," said Anna calmly. "He probably made a fortune in business, and now he and his wife enjoy risking a little money at play. Why should they not?"
"Madame Wachner told me to-day all about their poor friend who was drowned," said Sylvia irrelevantly.
"Ah, yes, that was a sad affair! They were very foolish to become so intimate with him. Why, they actually had him staying with them at the time! You see, they had a villa close to the lake-side. And this young Russian, it appears, was very fond of boating. It was a mysterious affair, because, oddly enough, he had not been out in the town, or even to the Casino, for four days before the accident happened. There was a notion among some people that he had committed suicide, but that, I fancy, was not so. He had won a large sum of money. Some thought the gold weighed down his body in the water—. But that is absurd. It must have been the weeds."
"Madame Wachner told me that quite a lot of money was found in his room," said Sylvia quickly.
"No, that is not true. About four hundred francs were found in his bed-room. That was all. I fancy the police made themselves rather unpleasant to Monsieur Wachner. The Russian Embassy made inquiries, and it seemed so odd to the French authorities that the poor fellow could not be identified. They found no passport, no papers of any sort—"
"Have you a passport?" asked Sylvia. "Madame Wachner asked me if I had one. But I've never even seen a passport!"
"No," said Anna, "I have not got a passport now. I once had one, but I lost it. One does not require such a thing in a civilised country! But a Russian must always have a passport, it is an absolute law in Russia. And the disappearance of that young man's passport was certainly strange—in fact, the whole affair was mysterious."
"It must have been terrible for Monsieur and Madame Wachner," said Sylvia thoughtfully.
"Oh yes, very disagreeable indeed! Luckily he is entirely absorbed in his absurd systems, and she is a very cheerful woman."
"Yes, indeed she is!" Sylvia could not help smiling. "I am glad we have got to know them, Anna. It is rather mournful when one knows no one at all in a place of this kind."
And Anna agreed, indifferently.
And then there began a series of long cloudless days for Sylvia Bailey. For the first time she felt as if she was seeing life, and such seeing was very pleasant to her.
Not in her wildest dreams, during the placid days of her girlhood and brief married life, had she conceived of so interesting and so exhilarating an existence as that which she was now leading! And this was perhaps owing in a measure to the fact that there is, if one may so express it, a spice of naughtiness in life as led at Lacville.
In a mild, a very mild, way Sylvia Bailey had fallen a victim to the Goddess of Play. She soon learned to look forward to the hours she and Anna Wolsky spent each day at the baccarat tables. But, unlike Anna, Sylvia was never tempted to risk a greater sum on that dangerous green cloth than she could comfortably afford to lose, and perhaps just because this was so, on the whole she won money rather than lost it.
A certain change had come over the relations of the two women. They still met daily, if only at the Casino, and they occasionally took a walk or a drive together, but Madame Wolsky—and Sylvia Bailey felt uneasy and growing concern that it was so—now lived for play, and play alone.
Absorbed in the simple yet fateful turns of the game, Anna would remain silent for hours, immersed in calculations, and scarcely aware of what went on round her. She and Monsieur Wachner—"L'Ami Fritz," as even Sylvia had fallen into the way of calling him—seemed scarcely alive unless they were standing or sitting round a baccarat table, putting down or taking up the shining gold pieces which they treated as carelessly as if they were counters.
But it was not the easy, idle, purposeless life she was now leading that brought the pretty English widow that strange, unacknowledged feeling of entire content with life.
What made existence at Lacville so exciting and so exceptionally interesting to Sylvia Bailey was her friendship with Comte Paul de Virieu.
There is in every woman a passion for romance, and in Sylvia this passion had been baulked, not satisfied, by her first marriage.
Bill Chester loved her well and deeply, but he was her lawyer and trustee as well as her lover. He had an honest, straightforward nature, and when with her something always prompted Chester to act the part of candid friend, and the part of candid friend fits in very ill with that of lover. To take but one example of how ill his honesty of purpose served him in the matter, Sylvia had never really forgiven him the "fuss" he had made about her string of pearls.
But with the Comte de Virieu she never quite knew what to be at, and mystery is the food of romance.
At the Villa du Lac the two were almost inseparable, and yet so intelligently and quietly did the Count arrange their frequent meetings—their long walks and talks in the large deserted garden, their pleasant morning saunters through the little town—that no one, or so Sylvia believed, was aware of any special intimacy between them.
Sometimes, as they paced up and down the flower-bordered paths of the old kitchen-garden, or when, tired of walking, they made their way into the orangery and sat down on the circular stone bench by the fountain, Sylvia would remember, deep in her heart, the first time Count Paul had brought her there; and how she had been a little frightened, not perhaps altogether unpleasantly so, by his proximity!
She had feared—but she was now deeply ashamed of having entertained such a thought—that he might suddenly begin making violent love to her, that he might perhaps try to kiss her! Were not all Frenchmen of his type rather gay dogs?
But nothing—nothing of the sort had ever been within measurable distance of happening. On the contrary, he always treated her with scrupulous respect, and he never—and this sometimes piqued Sylvia—made love to her, or attempted to flirt with her. Instead, he talked to her in that intimate, that confiding fashion which a woman finds so attractive in a man when she has reason to believe his confidences are made to her alone.
When Bill Chester asked her not to do something she desired to do, Sylvia felt annoyed and impatient, but when Count Paul, as she had fallen into the way of calling him, made no secret of his wish that she should give up play, Sylvia felt touched and pleased that he should care.
Early in their acquaintance the Count had warned her against making casual friendships in the Gambling Rooms, and he even did not like her knowing—this amused Sylvia—the harmless Wachners.
When he saw her talking to Madame Wachner in the Club, Count Paul would look across the baccarat table and there would come a little frown over his eyes—a frown she alone could see.
And as the days went on, and as their intimacy seemed to grow closer and ever closer, there came across Sylvia a deep wordless wish—and she had never longed for anything so much in her life—to rescue her friend from what he admitted to be his terrible vice of gambling. In this she showed rather a feminine lack of logic, for, while wishing to wean him from his vice, she did not herself give up going to the Casino.
She would have been angry indeed had the truth been whispered to her, the truth that it was not so much her little daily gamble—as Madame Wachner called it—that made Sylvia so faithful an attendant at the Club; it was because when there she was still with Paul de Virieu, she could see and sympathise with him when he was winning, and grieve when he was losing, as alas! he often lost.
When they were not at the Casino the Comte de Virieu very seldom alluded to his play, or to the good or ill fortune which might have befallen him that day. When with her he tried, so much was clear to Sylvia, to forget his passion for gambling.
But this curious friendship of hers with Count Paul only occupied, in a material sense, a small part of Sylvia's daily life at Lacville; and the people with whom she spent most of her time were still Anna Wolsky and Monsieur and Madame Wachner, or perhaps it should be said Madame Wachner.
It was not wonderful that Mrs. Bailey liked the cheerful woman, who was so bright and jovial in manner, and who knew, too, how to flatter so cleverly. When with Madame Wachner Sylvia was made to feel that she was not only very pretty, but also immensely attractive, and just now she was very anxious to think herself both.
* * * * *
Late one afternoon—and they all four always met each afternoon at the Casino—Madame Wachner suddenly invited Sylvia and Anna to come back to supper at the Chalet des Muguets.
Anna was unwilling to accept the kindly invitation. It was clear that she did not wish to waste as much time away from the Casino as going to the Wachners' villa would involve. But, seeing that Sylvia was eager to go, she gave way.
Now on this particular afternoon Sylvia was feeling rather dull, and, as she expressed it to herself, "down on her luck," for the Comte de Virieu had gone into Paris for a few hours.
His sister, the Duchesse d'Eglemont, had come up from the country for a few days, and the great pleasure and delight he had expressed at the thought of seeing her had given the young English widow a little pang of pain. It made her feel how little she counted in his life after all.
And so, for the second time, Sylvia visited the odd, fantastic-looking Chalet des Muguets, and under very pleasant auspices.
This evening the bare dining-room she had thought so ugly wore an air of festivity. There were flowers on the round table and on the buffet, but, to her surprise, a piece of oilcloth now hid the parquet floor. This puzzled Sylvia, as such trifling little matters of fact often puzzle a fresh young mind. Surely the oilcloth had not been there on her last visit to the villa? She remembered clearly the unpolished parquet floor.
Thanks to the hostess and to Sylvia herself, supper was a bright, merry meal. There was a variety of cold meats, some fine fruit, and a plate of dainty pastry.
They all waited on one another, though Madame Wachner insisted on doing most of the work. But L'Ami Fritz, for once looking cheerful and eager, mixed the salad, putting in even more vinegar than oil, as Mrs. Bailey laughingly confessed that she hated olive oil!
After they had eaten their appetising little meal, the host went off into the kitchen where Sylvia had had tea on her first visit to the Chalet, and there he made the most excellent coffee for them all, and even Mrs. Bailey, who was treated as the guest of honour, though she knew that coffee was not good for her, was tempted into taking some.
One thing, however, rather dashed her pleasure in the entertainment.
Madame Wachner, forgetting for once her usual tact, suddenly made a violent attack on the Comte de Virieu.
They were all talking of the habitues of the Casino: "The only one I do not like," she exclaimed, in French, "is that Count—if indeed Count he be? He is so arrogant, so proud, so rude! We have known him for years, have L'Ami Fritz and I, for we are always running across him at Monte Carlo and other places. But no, each time we meet he looks at us as if he was a fish. He does not even nod!"
"When the Comte de Virieu is actually playing, he does not know that other people exist," said Anna Wolsky, slowly.
She had looked across at Sylvia and noticed her English friend's blush and look of embarrassment. "I used to watch him two years ago at Monte Carlo, and I have never seen a man more absorbed in his play."
"That is no excuse!" cried Madame Wachner, scornfully. "Besides, that is only half the truth. He is ashamed of the way he is spending his life, and he hates the people who see him doing it! It is shameful to be so idle. A strong young man doing nothing, living on charity, so they say! And he despises all those who do what he himself is not ashamed to do."
And Sylvia, looking across at her, said to herself with a heavy sigh that this was true. Madame Wachner had summed up Count Paul very accurately.
At last there came the sound of a carriage in the quiet lane outside.
"Fritz! Go and see if that is the carriage I ordered to come here at nine o'clock," said his wife sharply; and then, as he got up silently to obey her, she followed him out into the passage, and Sylvia, who had very quick ears, heard her say, in low, vehement tones, "I work and work and work, but you do nothing! Do try and help me—it is for your sake I am taking all this trouble!"