Still, even Sylvia could not but be aware that he was extremely angry, and she herself felt wretchedly uncomfortable. What if Anna Wolsky were all right after all? Would she not blame her for having made such a fuss?
"Everything is quite en regle," M. Malfait said smoothly when the purport of their presence was explained to him in a few curt words by the Commissioner of Police.
"You see, Monsieur le Commissaire, it is quite simple. The lady left us a letter explaining why she was obliged to go away. I do not know why Madame"—he turned to Sylvia—"thought it necessary to go to you? We have been perfectly open about the whole matter. We are respectable people, and have absolutely nothing to hide. Madame Wolsky's boxes are there, in her bed-room; I might have let the room twice over since she left, but no, I prefer to wait, hoping that the lady—the very charming lady—will come back."
"By the way, where is the letter which she left?" said the Commissioner in a business-like voice. "I should like to see that letter."
"Where is the letter?" repeated Monsieur Malfait vaguely. Then in a loud voice, he said, "I will ask my wife for the letter. She looks after the correspondence."
Madame Malfait came forward. She looked even more annoyed than her husband had looked when he had seen by whom Sylvia was accompanied.
"The letter?" she repeated shortly. "Mon Dieu! I do not know where I have put it. But by this time I almost know it by heart. It was a pleasing letter, for it spoke very warmly of our establishment. But where is the letter?" she looked round her, as if she expected to find it suddenly appear.
"Ah! I remember to whom I showed it last! It was to that agreeable friend of Madame Wolsky"—she put an emphasis on the word "agreeable," and stared hard at Sylvia as she did so. "It was to that Madame Wachner I last showed it. Perhaps she put it in her pocket, and forgot to give it me back. I know she said she would like her husband to see it. Monsieur and Madame Wachner often take their meals here. I will ask them if they have the letter."
"Well, at any rate, we had better open Madame Wolsky's trunks; that may give us some clue," said the Commissioner in a weary voice.
And, to Sylvia's confusion and distress, they all then proceeded to the bed-room where she had last seen her friend, and there Monsieur Malfait broke the locks of Anna Wolsky's two large trunks.
But the contents of Anna's trunks taught them nothing. They were only the kind of objects and clothes that a woman who travelled about the world a great deal would naturally take with her. Everything, however, was taken out, turned over, and looked at.
"If your friend possessed a passport," said the police official in a dissatisfied tone, "she has evidently taken it with her. There is nothing of any consequence at all in those boxes. We had better shut them up again, and leave them."
But when they came down again into the hall, he suddenly asked Monsieur Malfait, "Well, where is the letter?" He had evidently forgotten Madame Malfait's involved explanation.
"I will send you the letter to-morrow," said Monsieur Malfait smoothly. "The truth is, we handed it to a lady who was also a friend of Madame Wolsky, and she evidently forgot to give it back to us. We will find out whether she has kept it."
On the way back the Commissioner of Police said gaily,
"It is quite clear that Madame"—he turned and bowed courteously to Sylvia—"knows very little of Lacville, Monsieur le Comte! Why, people are always disappearing from Lacville! My time would indeed be full were I to follow all those who go away in a hurry—not but what I have been only too delighted to do this for Madame and for Monsieur le Comte."
He then bowed to the Count and stared smilingly at Sylvia.
"I am pleased to think," he went on playfully, "that Madame herself is not likely to meet with any unpleasant adventure here, for the Villa du Lac is a most excellent and well-conducted house. Be assured, Madame, that I will find out in the next few hours if your friend has met with an accident in the Paris streets."
He left them at the gate of the Villa.
When the Commissioner had quite disappeared, the Count observed, "Well, we have done what you wished. But it has not had much result, has it?"
Sylvia shook her head disconsolately.
"No, Count Paul. I am afraid I made a mistake in going to the police. The Malfaits are evidently very angry with me! And yet—and yet, you know in England it's the first thing that people do."
Count Paul laughed kindly.
"It is a matter of absolutely no consequence. But you see, you never quite understand, my dear friend, that Lacville is a queer place, and that here, at any rate, the hotel-keepers are rather afraid of the police. I was even glad that the Commissioner did not ask to look over your boxes, and did not exact a passport from you!"
More seriously he added, "But I see that you are dreadfully anxious about Madame Wolsky, and I myself will communicate with the Paris police about the matter. It is, as you say, possible, though not probable, that she met with an accident after leaving you."
A long week went by, and still no news, no explanation of her abrupt departure from Lacville, was received from Anna Wolsky; and the owners of the Pension Malfait were still waiting for instructions as to what was to be done with Madame Wolsky's luggage, and with the various little personal possessions she had left scattered about her room.
As for Sylvia, it sometimes seemed to her as if her Polish friend had been obliterated, suddenly blotted out of existence.
But as time went on she felt more and more pained and discomfited by Anna's strange and heartless behaviour to herself. Whatever the reason for Madame Wolsky's abrupt departure, it would not have taken her a moment to have sent Sylvia Bailey a line—if only to say that she could give no explanation of her extraordinary conduct.
Fortunately there were many things to distract Sylvia's thoughts from Anna Wolsky. She now began each morning with a two hours' ride with Paul de Virieu. She had a graceful seat, and had been well taught; only a little practice, so the Count assured her, was needed to make her into a really good horsewoman, the more so that she was very fearless.
Leaving the flat plain of Lacville far behind them, they would make their way into the Forest of Montmorency, and through to the wide valley, which is so beautiful and so little known to most foreign visitors to Paris.
The Duchesse d'Eglemont had sent her maid to Lacville with the riding habit she was lending Sylvia, and by a word M. Polperro let fall, the Englishwoman realised, with mingled confusion and amusement, that the hotel-keeper supposed her to be an old and intimate friend of Count Paul's sister.
The other people in the hotel began to treat her with marked cordiality.
And so it came to pass that outwardly the Polish lady's disappearance came to be regarded even by Sylvia as having only been a ripple on the pleasant, lazy, agreeable life she, Count Paul, and last, not least, the Wachners, were all leading at Lacville.
In fact, as the days went on, only Mrs. Bailey herself and that kindly couple, Madame Wachner and her silent husband, seemed to remember that Anna had ever been there. During the first days, when Sylvia had been really very anxious and troubled, she had had cause to be grateful to the Wachners for their sympathy; for whereas Paul de Virieu seemed only interested in Anna Wolsky because she, Sylvia, herself was interested, both Madame Wachner and her morose, silent husband showed real concern and distress at the mysterious lack of news.
Whenever Sylvia saw them, and she saw them daily at the Casino, either Madame Wachner or L'Ami Fritz would ask her in an eager, sympathetic voice, "Have you had news of Madame Wolsky?"
And then, when she shook her head sadly, they would express—and especially Madame Wachner would express—increasing concern and surprise at Anna's extraordinary silence.
"If only she had come to us as she arranged to do!" the older woman exclaimed more than once in a regretful tone. "Then, at any rate, we should know something; she would not have concealed her plans from us entirely; we were, if new friends, yet on such kind, intimate terms with the dear soul!"
And now, as had been the case exactly a week ago, Sylvia was resting in her room. She was sitting just as she had then sat, in a chair drawn up close to the window. There had been no ride that morning, for Paul de Virieu had been obliged to go into Paris for the day.
Sylvia felt dull and listless. She had never before experienced that aching longing for the presence of another human being which in our civilised life is disguised under many names, but which in this case, Sylvia herself called by that of "friendship."
Moreover, she had received that morning a letter which had greatly disturbed her. It now lay open on her lap, for she had just read it through again. This letter was quite short, and simply contained the news that Bill Chester, her good friend, sometime lover, and trustee, was going to Switzerland after all, and that he would stop a couple of days in Paris in order to see her.
It was really very nice of Bill to do this, and a month ago Sylvia would have looked forward to seeing him. But now everything was changed, and Sylvia could well have dispensed with Bill Chester's presence.
The thought of Chester at Lacville filled her with unease. When she had left her English home two months ago—it seemed more like two years than two months—she had felt well disposed to the young lawyer, and deep in her inmost heart she had almost brought herself to acknowledge that she might very probably in time become his wife.
She suspected that Chester had been fond of her when she was a girl, at a time when his means would not have justified him in proposing to her, for he was one of those unusual men who think it dishonourable to ask girls to marry them unless they are in a position to keep a wife. She remembered how he had looked—how set and stern his face had become when someone had suddenly told him in her presence of her engagement to George Bailey, the middle-aged man who had been so kind to her, and yet who had counted for so little in her life, though she had given him all she could of love and duty.
Since her widowhood, so she now reminded herself remorsefully, Chester had been extraordinarily good to her, and his devotion had touched her because it was expressed in actions rather than in words, for he was also the unusual type of man, seldom a romantic type, who scorns, however much in love, to take advantage of a fiduciary position to strengthen his own.
The fact that he was her trustee brought them into frequent conflict. Too often Bill was the candid friend instead of the devoted lover. Their only real quarrel—if quarrel it could be called—had been, as we know, over the purchase of her string of pearls. But time, or so Sylvia confidently believed, had proved her to have been right, for her "investment," as she always called it to Bill Chester, had improved in value.
But though she had been right in that comparatively trifling matter, she knew that Chester would certainly disapprove of the kind of life—the idle, purposeless, frivolous life—she was now leading.
Looking out over the lake, which, as it was an exceedingly hot, fine day, was already crowded with boats, Sylvia almost made up her mind to go back into Paris for two or three days.
Bill would think it a very strange thing that she was staying here in Lacville all by herself. But the thought of leaving Lacville just now was very disagreeable to Sylvia.... She wondered uncomfortably what her trustee would think of her friendship with Count Paul de Virieu—with this Frenchman who, when he was not gambling at the Casino, spent every moment of his time with her.
But deep in her heart Sylvia knew well that when Bill Chester was there Paul de Virieu would draw back; only when they were really alone together did he talk eagerly, naturally.
In the dining-room of the Villa he hardly ever spoke to her, and when they were both in the Baccarat-room of the Club he seldom came and stood by her side, though when she looked up she often found his eyes fixed on her with that ardent, absorbed gaze which made her heart beat, and her cheeks flush with mingled joy and pain.
Suddenly, as if her thoughts had brought him there, she saw Count Paul's straight, slim figure turn in from the road through the gates of the Villa.
He glanced up at her window and took off his hat. He looked cool, unruffled, and self-possessed, but her eager eyes saw a change in his face. He looked very grave, and yet oddly happy. Was it possible that he had news at last of Anna Wolsky?
He mounted the stone-steps and disappeared into the house; and Sylvia, getting up, began moving restlessly about her room. She longed to go downstairs, and yet a feminine feeling of delicacy restrained her from doing so.
A great stillness brooded over everything. The heat had sent everyone indoors. M. Polperro, perhaps because of his Southern up-bringing, always took an early afternoon siesta. It looked as if his servants followed his example. The Villa du Lac seemed asleep.
Sylvia went across to the other window, the window overlooking the large, shady garden, and there, glancing down, she saw Count Paul.
"Come into the garden—," he said softly in English; and Sylvia, leaning over the bar of her window, thought he added the word "Maud"—but of course that could not have been so, for her name, as the Count knew well, was Sylvia! And equally of course he always addressed her as "Madame."
"It's so nice and cool up here," she whispered back. "I don't believe it is half so cool in the garden!"
She gazed down into his upturned face with innocent coquetry, pretending—only pretending—to hesitate as to what she would do in answer to his invitation.
But Sylvia Bailey was but an amateur at the Great Game, the game at which only two—only a man and a woman—can play, and yet which is capable of such infinite, such bewilderingly protean variations. So her next move, one which Paul de Virieu, smiling behind his moustache, foresaw—was to turn away from the window.
She ran down the broad shallow staircase very quickly, for it had occurred to her that the Count, taking her at her word, might leave the garden, and, sauntering off to the Casino, lose his money—for whatever he might be in love, Count Paul was exceedingly unlucky at cards! And lately she had begun to think that she was gradually weaning her friend from what she knew to be in his case, whatever it was in hers, and in that of many of the people about them, the terrible vice of gambling.
When, a little breathless, she joined him in the garden, she found that he had already taken two rocking-chairs into a shady corner which was out of sight of the white villa and of its inquisitive windows.
"Something very serious has happened," said Count Paul slowly.
He took both her hands in his and looked down into her face. With surprise and concern she saw that his eyelids were red. Was it possible that Count Paul had been crying? He almost looked as if he had.
The idea of a grown-up man allowing himself to give way to emotion of that sort would have seemed absurd to Sylvia a short time ago, but somehow the thought that Paul de Virieu had shed tears made her feel extraordinarily moved.
"What is the matter?" she asked anxiously. "Has anything happened to your sister?"
"Thank God—no!" he answered hastily. "But something else, something which was to be expected, but which I did not expect, has happened—"
And then, very gravely, and at last releasing her hands, he added, "My kind godmother, the little Marquise you met last week, died last night."
Sylvia felt the sudden sense of surprise, almost of discomfiture, the young always feel in the neighbourhood of death.
"How dreadful! She seemed quite well when we saw her that day—"
She could still hear echoing in her ears the old lady's half-mocking but kindly compliments.
"Ah! but she was very, very old—over ninety! Why, she was supposed to be aged when she became my godmother thirty odd years ago!"
He waited a moment, and then added, quietly, "She has left me in her will two hundred thousand francs."
"Oh, I am glad!"
Sylvia stretched out both hands impulsively, and the Comte de Virieu took first one and then the other and raised them to his lips.
"Eight thousand pounds? Does it seem a fortune to you, Madame?"
"Of course it does!" exclaimed Sylvia.
"It frees me from the necessity of being a pensioner on my brother-in-law," he said slowly, and Sylvia felt a little chill of disappointment. Was that his only pleasure in his legacy?
"You will not play with this money?" she said, in a low voice.
"It is no use my making a promise, especially to you, that I might not be able to keep—"
He got up, and stood looking down at her.
"But I promise that I will not waste or risk this money if I can resist the temptation to do so."
Sylvia smiled, though she felt more inclined to cry.
He seemed stung by her look.
"Do you wish me to give you my word of honour that I will not risk any of this money at the tables?" he asked, almost in a whisper.
Sylvia's heart began to beat. Count Paul had become very pale. There was a curious expression on his face—an expression of revolt, almost of anger.
"Do you exact it?" he repeated, almost violently.
And Sylvia faltered out, "Could you keep your word if I did exact it?"
"Ah, you have learnt to know me too well!"
He walked away, leaving her full of perplexity and pain.
A few moments passed. They seemed very long moments to Sylvia Bailey. Then Count Paul turned and came back.
He sat down, and made a great effort to behave as if nothing unusual or memorable had passed between them.
"And has anything happened here?" he asked. "Is there any news of your vanished friend?"
Sylvia shook her head gravely. The Polish woman's odd, and, to her, inexplicable, conduct still hurt her almost as much as it had done at first.
The Count leant forward, and speaking this time very seriously indeed, he said, in a low voice:—
"I wish to say something to you, and I am now going to speak as frankly as if you were—my sister. You are wrong to waste a moment of your time in regretting Madame Wolsky. She is an unhappy woman, held tightly in the paws of the tiger—Play. That is the truth, my friend! It is a pity you ever met her, and I am glad she went away without doing you any further mischief. It was bad enough of her to have brought you to Lacville, and taught you to gamble. Had she stayed on, she would have tried in time to make you go on with her to Monte Carlo."
He shook his head expressively
Sylvia looked at him with surprise. He had never spoken to her of Anna in this way before. She hesitated, then said a little nervously,
"Tell me, did you ask Madame Wolsky to go away? Please don't mind my asking you this?"
"I ask Madame Wolsky to go away?" he repeated, genuinely surprised. "Such a thought never even crossed my mind. It would have been very impertinent—what English people would call 'cheeky'—of me to do such a thing! You must indeed think me a hypocrite! Have I not shared your surprise and concern at her extraordinary disappearance? And her luggage? If I had wished her to go away, I should not have encouraged her to leave all her luggage behind her!" he spoke with the sarcastic emphasis of which the French are masters.
Sylvia grew very red.
As a matter of fact, it had been Madame Wachner who had suggested that idea to her. Only the day before, when Sylvia had been wondering for the thousandth time where Anna could be, the older woman had exclaimed meaningly, "I should not be surprised if that Count de Virieu persuaded your friend to go away. He wants the field clear for himself."
And then she had seemed to regret her imprudent words, and she had begged Sylvia not to give the Count any hint of her suspicion. Even now Sylvia did not mention Madame Wachner.
"Of course, I don't think you a hypocrite," she said awkwardly, "but you never did like poor Anna, and you were always telling me that Lacville isn't a place where a nice woman ought to stay long. I thought you might have said something of the same kind to Madame Wolsky."
"And do you really suppose," Count Paul spoke with a touch of sharp irony in his voice, "that your friend would have taken my advice? Do you think that Madame Wolsky would look either to the right or the left when the Goddess of Chance beckoned?"—and he waved his hand in the direction where the white Casino lay.
"But the Goddess of Chance did not beckon to her to leave Lacville!" Sylvia exclaimed. "Why, she meant to stay on here till the middle of September—"
"You asked me a very indiscreet question just now"—the Count leant forward, and looked straight into Mrs. Bailey's eyes.
His manner had again altered. He spoke far more authoritatively than he had ever spoken before, and Sylvia, far from resenting this new, possessive attitude, felt thrilled and glad. When Bill Chester spoke as if he had authority over her, it always made her indignant, even angry.
"Did I?" she said nervously.
"Yes! You asked me if I had persuaded Madame Wolsky to leave Lacville. Well, now I ask you, in my turn, whether it has ever occurred to you that the Wachners know more of your Polish friend's departure than they admit? I gathered that impression the only time I talked to your Madame Wachner about the matter. I felt sure she knew more than she would say! Of course, it was only an impression."
"At first Madame Wachner seemed annoyed that I made a fuss about it," she said thoughtfully. "But later she seemed as surprised and sorry as I am myself. Oh, no, Count, I am sure you are wrong—why you forget that Madame Wachner walked up to the Pension Malfait that same evening—I mean the evening of the day Anna left Lacville. In fact, it was Madame Wachner who first found out that Anna had not come home. She went up to her bed-room to look for her."
"Then it was Madame Wachner who found the letter?" observed the Count interrogatively.
"Oh, no, it was not Madame Wachner who found it. Anna's letter was discovered the next morning by the chambermaid in a blotting-book on the writing table. No one had thought of looking there. You see they were all expecting her back that night. Madame Malfait still thinks that poor Anna went to the Casino in the afternoon, and after having lost her money came back to the pension, wrote the letter, and then went out and left for Paris without saying anything about it to anyone!"
"I suppose something of that sort did happen," observed the Comte de Virieu thoughtfully.
"And now," he said, getting up from his chair, "I think I will take a turn at the Casino after all!"
Sylvia's lip quivered, but she was too proud to appeal to him to stay. Still, she felt horribly hurt.
"You see what I am like," he said, in a low, shamed voice. "I wish you had made me give you my word of honour."
She got up. It was cruel, very cruel, of him to say that to her. How amazingly their relation to one another had altered in the last half-hour!
For the moment they were enemies, and it was the enemy in Sylvia that next spoke. "I think I shall go and have tea with the Wachners. They never go to the Casino on Saturday afternoons."
A heavy cloud came over Count Paul's face.
"I can't think what you see to like in that vulgar old couple," he exclaimed irritably. "To me there is something"—he hesitated, seeking for an English word which should exactly express the French word "louche"—"sinister—that is the word I am looking for—there is to me something sinister about the Wachners."
"Sinister?" echoed Sylvia, really surprised. "Why, they seem to me to be the most good-natured, commonplace people in the world, and then they're so fond of one another!"
"I grant you that," he said. "I quite agree that that ugly old woman is very fond of her 'Ami Fritz'—but I do not know if he returns the compliment!"
Sylvia looked pained, nay more, shocked.
"I suppose French husbands only like their wives when they are young and pretty," she said slowly.
"Another of the many injustices you are always heaping on my poor country," the Count protested lightly. "But I confess I deserved it this time! Joking apart, I think 'L'Ami Fritz' is very fond of his"—he hesitated, then ended his sentence with "Old Dutch!"
Sylvia could not help smiling.
"It is too bad of you," she exclaimed, "to talk like that! The Wachners are very nice people, and I won't allow you to say anything against them!"
Somehow they were friends again. His next words proved it.
"I will not say anything against the Wachners this afternoon. In fact, if you will allow me to do so, I will escort you part of the way."
And he was even better than his word, for he went on with Sylvia till they were actually within sight of the little, isolated villa where the Wachners lived.
There, woman-like, she made an effort to persuade him to go in with her.
"Do come," she said urgently. "Madame Wachner would be so pleased! She was saying the other day that you had never been to their house."
But Count Paul smilingly shook his head.
"I have no intention of ever going there," he said deliberately. "You see I do not like them! I suppose—I hope"—he looked again straight into Sylvia Bailey's ingenuous blue eyes—"that the Wachners have never tried to borrow money of you?"
"Never!" she cried, blushing violently. "Never, Count Paul! Your dislike of my poor friends makes you unjust—it really does."
"It does! It does! I beg their pardon and yours. I was foolish, nay, far worse, indiscreet, to ask you this question. I regret I did so. Accept my apology."
She looked at him to see if he was sincere. His face was very grave; and she looked at him with perplexed, unhappy eyes.
"Oh, don't say that!" she said. "Why should you mind saying anything to me?"
But the Comte de Virieu was both vexed and angry with himself.
"It is always folly to interfere in anyone else's affairs," he muttered. "But I have this excuse—I happen to know that last week, or rather ten days ago, the Wachners were in considerable difficulty about money. Then suddenly they seemed to have found plenty, in fact, to be as we say here, 'a flot'; I confess that I foolishly imagined, nay, I almost hoped, that they owed this temporary prosperity to you! But of course I had no business to think about it at all—still less any business to speak to you about the matter. Forgive me, I will not so err again."
And then, with one of his sudden, stiff bows, the Comte de Virieu turned on his heel, leaving Sylvia to make her way alone to the little wooden gate on which were painted the words "Chalet des Muguets."
Sylvia pushed open the little white gate of the Chalet des Muguets and began walking up the path which lay through the neglected, untidy garden.
To eyes accustomed to the exquisitely-kept gardens of an English country town, there was something almost offensive in the sight presented by the high, coarse grass and luxuriant unkemptness of the place, and once more Sylvia wondered how the Wachners could bear to leave the land surrounding their temporary home in such a state.
But the quaint, fantastic-looking, one-storeyed chalet amused and rather interested her, for it was so entirely unlike any other dwelling with which she was acquainted.
To-day a deep, hot calm brooded over the silent house and deserted-looking garden; the chocolate-coloured shutters of the dining-room and the drawing-room were closed, and Sylvia told herself that it would be delightful to pass from the steamy heat outside into the dimly-lighted, sparsely-furnished little "salon," there to have a cup of tea and a pleasant chat with her friends before accompanying them in the cool of the early evening to the Casino.
Sylvia always enjoyed talking to Madame Wachner. She was a little bit ashamed that this was so, for this cosmopolitan woman's conversation was not always quite refined, but she was good-natured and lively, and her talk was invariably amusing. Above all, she knew how to flatter, and after a chat with Madame Wachner Sylvia Bailey always felt pleased both with herself and with the world about her.
There was very little concerning the young Englishwoman's simple, uneventful life with which Madame Wachner was not by now acquainted. She was aware for instance, that Sylvia had no close relations of her own, and that, like Anna Wolsky, Mrs. Bailey knew nobody—she had not even an acquaintance—living in Paris.
This fact had enlisted to a special degree Madame Wachner's interest and liking for the two young widows.
Sylvia rang the primitive bell which hung by the door which alone gave access, apart from the windows, to the Chalet des Muguets.
After some moments the day-servant employed by Madame Wachner opened the door with the curt words, "Monsieur and Madame are in Paris." The woman added, in a rather insolent tone, "They have gone to fetch some money," and her manner said plainly enough, "Yes, my master and mistress—silly fools—have lost their money at the Casino, and now they are gone to get fresh supplies!"
Sylvia felt vexed and disappointed. After what had been to her a very exciting, agitating conversation with Count Paul, she had unconsciously longed for the cheerful, commonplace talk of Madame Wachner.
As she stood there in the bright sunlight the thought of the long, lonely, hot walk back to the Villa du Lac became odious to her.
Why should she not go into the house and rest awhile? The more so that the Wachners would almost certainly return home very soon. They disliked Paris, and never stayed more than a couple of hours on their occasional visits there.
In her careful, rather precise French, she told the servant she would come in and wait.
"I am sure that Madame Wachner would wish me to do so," she said, smiling; and after a rather ungracious pause the woman admitted her into the house, leading the way into the darkened dining-room.
"Do you think it will be long before Madame Wachner comes back?" asked Sylvia.
The woman hesitated—"I cannot tell you that," she mumbled. "They never say when they are going, or when they will be back. They are very odd people!"
She bustled out of the room for a few moments and then came back, holding a big cotton parasol in her hand.
"I do not know if Madame wishes to stay on here by herself? As for me, I must go now, for my work is done. Perhaps when Madame leaves the house she will put the key under the mat."
"Yes, if I leave the house before my friends return home I will certainly do so. But I expect Madame Wachner will be here before long."
Sylvia spoke shortly. She did not like the day-servant's independent, almost rude way of speaking.
"Should the master and mistress come back before Madame has left, will Madame kindly explain that she insisted on coming into the house? I am absolutely forbidden to admit visitors unless Madame Wachner is here to entertain them."
The woman spoke quickly, her eyes fixed expectantly on the lady sitting before her.
Mrs. Bailey suddenly realised, or thought she realised, what that look meant. She took her purse out of her pocket and held out a two-franc piece.
"Certainly," she answered coldly, "I will explain to Madame Wachner that I insisted on coming in to rest."
The woman's manner altered; it became at once familiar and servile. After profusely thanking Sylvia for her "tip," she laid the cotton parasol on the dining-table, put her arms akimbo, and suddenly asked, "Has Madame heard any news of her friend? I mean of the Polish lady?"
"No," Sylvia looked up surprised. "I'm sorry to say that there is still no news of her, but, of course, there will be soon."
She was astonished that the Wachners should have mentioned the matter to this disagreeable, inquisitive person.
"The lady stopped here on her way to the station. She seemed in very high spirits."
"Oh, no, you are quite mistaken," said Sylvia quickly. "Madame Wolsky did not come here at all the day she left Lacville. She was expected, both to tea and to supper, but she did not arrive—"
"Indeed, yes, Madame! I had to come back that afternoon, for I had forgotten to bring in some sugar. The lady was here then, and she was still here when I left the house."
"I assure you that this cannot have been on the day my friend left Lacville," said Mrs. Bailey quickly. "Madame Wolsky left on a Saturday afternoon. As I told you just now, Madame Wachner expected her to supper, but she never came. She went to Paris instead."
The servant looked at her fixedly, and Sylvia's face became what it seldom was—very forbidding in expression. She wished this meddling, familiar woman would go away and leave her alone.
"No doubt Madame knows best! One day is like another to me. I beg Madame's pardon."
The Frenchwoman took up her parasol and laid the house key on the table, then, with a "Bon jour, Madame, et encore merci bien!" she noisily closed the door behind her.
A moment later, Sylvia, with a sense of relief, found herself in sole possession of the Chalet des Muguets.
* * * * *
Even the quietest, the most commonplace house has, as it were, an individuality that sets it apart from other houses. And even those who would deny that proposition must admit that every inhabited dwelling has its own special nationality.
The Chalet des Muguets was typically French and typically suburban; but where it differed from thousands of houses of the same type, dotted round in the countrysides within easy reach of Paris, was that it was let each year to a different set of tenants.
In Sylvia Bailey's eyes the queer little place lacked all the elements which go to make a home; and, sitting there, in that airless, darkened dining-room, she wondered, not for the first time, why the Wachners chose to live in such a comfortless way.
She glanced round her with distaste. Everything was not only cheap, but common and tawdry. Still, the dining-room, like all the other rooms in the chalet, was singularly clean, and almost oppressively neat.
There was the round table at which she and Anna Wolsky had been so kindly entertained, the ugly buffet or sideboard, and in place of the dull parquet floor she remembered on her first visit lay an ugly piece of linoleum, of which the pattern printed on the surface simulated a red and blue marble pavement.
Once more the change puzzled her, perhaps unreasonably.
At last Sylvia got up from the hard cane chair on which she had been sitting.
There had come over her, in the half-darkness, a very peculiar sensation—an odd feeling that there was something alive in the room. She looked down, half expecting to see some small animal crouching under the table, or hiding by the walnut-wood buffet behind her.
But, no; nothing but the round table, and the six chairs stiffly placed against the wall, met her eyes. And yet, still that feeling that there was in the room some sentient creature besides herself persisted.
She opened the door giving into the hall, and walked through the short passage which divided the house into two portions, into the tiny "salon."
Here also the closed shutters gave the room a curious, eerie look of desolate greyness. But Sylvia's eyes, already accustomed to the half-darkness next door, saw everything perfectly.
The little sitting-room looked mean and shabby. There was not a flower, not even a book or a paper, to relieve its prim ugliness. The only ornaments were a gilt clock on the mantelpiece, flanked with two sham Empire candelabra. The shutters were fastened closely, and the room was dreadfully hot and airless.
Once more Sylvia wondered why the Wachners preferred to live in this cheerless way, with a servant who only came for a few hours each day, rather than at an hotel or boarding-house.
And then she reminded herself that, after all, the silent, gaunt man, and his talkative, voluble wife, seemed to be on exceptionally good terms the one with the other. Perhaps they really preferred being alone together than in a more peopled atmosphere.
While moving aimlessly about the room, Sylvia began to feel unaccountably nervous and oppressed. She longed to be away from this still, empty house, and yet it seemed absurd to leave just as the Wachners would be returning home.
After a few more minutes, however, the quietude, and the having absolutely nothing to do with which to wile away the time, affected Sylvia's nerves.
It was, after all, quite possible that the Wachners intended to wait in Paris till the heat of the day was over. In that case they would not be back till seven o'clock.
The best thing she could do would be to leave a note inviting Madame Wachner and L'Ami Fritz to dinner at the Villa du Lac. Count Paul was to be in Paris this evening, so his eyes would not be offended by the sight of the people of whom he so disapproved. Madame Wachner would probably be glad to dine out, the more so that no proper meal seemed to have been prepared by that unpleasant day-servant. Why, the woman had not even laid the cloth for her employers' supper!
Sylvia looked instinctively round for paper and envelopes, but there was no writing-table, not even a pencil and paper, in the little drawing-room. How absurd and annoying!
But, stay—somewhere in the house there must be writing materials.
Treading softly, and yet hearing her footsteps echoing with unpleasant loudness through the empty house, Sylvia Bailey walked past the open door of the little kitchen, and so to the end of the passage.
Then something extraordinary happened.
While in the act of opening the door of Madame Wachner's bed-room, the young Englishwoman stopped and caught her breath. Again she had suddenly experienced that unpleasant, eerie sensation—the sensation that she was not alone. But this time the feeling was far more vivid than it had been in the dining-room.
So strong, so definite was Sylvia's perception of another presence, and this time of a human presence, in the still house, that she turned sharply round—
But all she saw was the empty passage, cut by a shaft of light thrown from the open door of the kitchen, stretching its short length down to the entrance hall.
Making a determined effort over what she could but suppose to be her nerves, she walked through into the Wachners' bed-room.
It was very bare and singularly poorly furnished, at least to English eyes, but it was pleasantly cool after the drawing-room.
She walked across to the window, and, drawing aside the muslin curtains, looked out.
Beyond the patch of shade thrown by the house the sun beat down on a ragged, unkempt lawn, but across the lawn she noticed, much more particularly than she had done on the two former occasions when she had been in the house, that there lay a thick grove of chestnut trees just beyond the grounds of the Chalet des Muguets.
A hedge separated the lawn from the wood, but like everything else in the little property it had been neglected, and there were large gaps in it.
She turned away from the window—
Yes, there, at last, was what she had come into this room to seek! Close to the broad, low bed was a writing-table, or, rather, a deal table, covered with a turkey red cloth, on which lay a large sheet of ink-stained, white blotting-paper.
Flanking the blotting-paper was a pile of Monsieur Wachner's little red books—the books in which he so carefully noted the turns of the game at the Casino, and which served him as the basis of his elaborate gambling "systems."
Sylvia went up to the writing-table, and, bending over it, began looking for some notepaper. But there was nothing of the sort to be seen; neither paper nor envelopes lay on the table.
This was the more absurd, as there were several pens, and an inkpot filled to the brim.
She told herself that the only thing to do was to tear a blank leaf out of one of L'Ami Fritz's note-books, and on it write her message of invitation. If she left the little sheet of paper propped up on the dining-table, the Wachners would be sure to see it.
She took up the newest-looking of the red note-books, and as she opened it she suddenly felt, and for the third time, that there was a living presence close to her—and this time that it was that of Anna Wolsky!
It was an extraordinary sensation—vivid, uncanny, terrifying—the more so that Sylvia Bailey not only believed herself to be alone in the house, but supposed Anna to be far from Lacville....
Fortunately, this unnerving and terrifying impression of an unseen and yet real presence did not endure; and, as she focussed her eyes on the open book she held in her hand, it became fainter and fainter, while she realised, with a keen sense of relief, what it was that had brought the presence of her absent friend so very near to her.
There, actually lying open before her, between two leaves of the little note-book, was a letter signed by Anna Wolsky! It was a short note, in French, apparently an answer to one Madame Wachner had sent reminding her of her engagement. It was odd that the Wachners had said nothing of this note, for it made Anna's conduct seem stranger than ever.
Opposite the page on which lay the little letter, Monsieur Wachner had amused himself by trying to imitate Anna's angular handwriting.
Sylvia tore out one of the blank pages, and then she put the note-book and its enclosure back on the table. She felt vaguely touched by the fact that the Wachners had kept her friend's last letter; they alone, so she reminded herself, had been really sorry and concerned at Anna's sudden departure from the place. They also, like Sylvia herself, had been pained that Madame Wolsky had not cared to say good-bye to them.
She scribbled a few lines on the scrap of paper, and then, quickly making her way to the dining-room, she placed her unconventional invitation on the round table, and went out into the hall.
As she opened the front door of the Chalet des Muguets Sylvia was met by a blast of hot air. She looked out dubiously. She was thoroughly unnerved—as she expressed it to herself, "upset." Feeling as she now felt, walking back through the heat would be intolerable.
For the first time Lacville became utterly distasteful to Sylvia Bailey. She asked herself, with a kind of surprise, of self-rebuke, why she was there—away from her own country and her own people? With a choking sensation in her throat she told herself that it would be very comfortable to see once more the tall, broad figure of Bill Chester, and to hear his good, gruff English voice again.
She stepped out of the house, and put up her white parasol.
It was still dreadfully hot, but to the left, across the lawn, lay the cool depths of the chestnut wood. Why not go over there and rest in the shade?
Hurrying across the scorched grass to the place where there was an opening in the rough hedge, she found herself, a moment later, plunged in the grateful green twilight created by high trees.
It was delightfully quiet and still in the wood, and Sylvia wondered vaguely why the Wachners never took their tea out there. But foreigners are very law-abiding, or so she supposed, and the wood, if a piece of no-man's land, was for sale. Up a path she could see the back of a large board.
It was clear that this pretty bit of woodland would have been turned into villa plots long ago had it been nearer to a road. But it was still a stretch of primeval forest. Here and there, amid the tufts of grass, lay the husks of last autumn's chestnuts.
Sylvia slowly followed the little zigzag way which cut across the wood, and then, desiring to sit down for awhile, she struck off to the right, towards a spot where she saw that the brambles and the undergrowth had been cleared away.
Even here, where in summer the sun never penetrated, the tufts of coarse grass were dried up by the heat. She glanced down; no, there was no fear that the hard, dry ground would stain her pretty cotton frock.
And then, as she sat there, Sylvia gradually became aware that close to her, where the undergrowth began again, the earth had recently been disturbed. Over an irregular patch of about a yard square the sods had been dug up, and then planted again.
The thought passed through her mind that children must have been playing there, and that they had made a rude attempt to destroy their handiwork, or rather to prevent its being noticed, by placing the branch of a tree across the little plot of ground where the earth had been disturbed. It was this broken branch, of which the leaves had shrivelled up, that had first drawn her attention to the fact that someone must have been there, and recently.
Her thoughts wandered off to Bill Chester. He was now actually journeying towards her as fast as boat and train could bring him; in a couple of hours he would be in Paris, and then, perhaps, he would come out to Lacville in time for dinner.
Sylvia had not been able to get a room for him in the Villa du Lac, but she had engaged one in the Pension Malfait—where she had been able to secure the apartment which had been occupied by Anna Wolsky, whose things had only just been moved out of it.
She could not help being sorry that Bill would see Lacville for the first time on a Sunday. She feared that, to his English eyes, the place, especially on that day, would present a peculiarly—well, disreputable appearance!
Sylvia felt jealous for the good fame of Lacville. Out in the open air her spirits had recovered their balance; she told herself that she had been very happy here—singularly, extraordinarily happy....
Of course it was a pity when people lost more money than they could afford at the Casino; but even in England people betted—the poor, so she had been told, risked all their spare pence on horse racing, and the others, those who could afford it, went to Monte Carlo, or stayed at home and played bridge!
After all, where was the difference? But, of course, Bill Chester, with his tiresome, old-fashioned views of life, would think there was a great difference; he would certainly disapprove of the way she was now spending her money....
Something told her, and the thought was not wholly unpleasing to her, that Bill Chester and the Comte de Virieu would not get on well together. She wondered if Count Paul had ever been jealous—if he were capable of jealousy? It would be rather interesting to see if anything or anyone could make him so!
And then her mind travelled on, far, far away, to a picture with which she had been familiar from her girlhood, for it hung in the drawing-room of one of her father's friends at Market Dalling. It was called "The Gambler's Wife." She had always thought it a very pretty and pathetic picture; but she no longer thought it so; in fact, it now appeared to her to be a ridiculous travesty of life. Gamblers were just like other people, neither better nor worse—and often infinitely more lovable than were some other people....
At last Sylvia got up, and slowly made her way out of the wood. She did not go back through the Wachners' garden; instead, she struck off to the left, on to a field path, which finally brought her to the main road.
As she was passing the Pension Malfait the landlady came out to the gate.
"Madame!" she cried out loudly, "I have had news of Madame Wolsky at last! Early this afternoon I had a telegram from her asking me to send her luggage to the cloak-room of the Gare du Nord."
Sylvia felt very glad—glad, and yet once more, perhaps unreasonably, hurt. Then Anna had been in Paris all the time? How odd, how really unkind of her not to have written and relieved the anxiety which she must have known her English friend would be feeling about her!
"I have had Madame Wolsky's room beautifully prepared for the English gentleman," went on Madame Malfait amiably. She was pleased that Mrs. Bailey was giving her a new guest, and it also amused her to observe what prudes Englishwomen could be.
Fancy putting a man who had come all the way from England to see one, in a pension situated at the other end of the town to where one was living oneself!
William Chester, solicitor, and respected citizen of Market Dalling, felt rather taken aback and bewildered as he joined the great stream of people who were pouring out of the large suburban station of Lacville.
He had only arrived in Paris two hours before, and after a hasty dinner at the Gare du Nord he had made inquiries as to his best way of reaching Lacville. And then he was told, to his surprise, that from the very station in which he found himself trains started every few minutes to the spot for which he was bound.
"To-night," added the man of whom he had inquired, "there is a fine fete at Lacville, including fireworks on the lake!"
Chester had imagined Sylvia to be staying in a quiet village or little country town. That was the impression her brief letters to him had conveyed, and he was astonished to hear that Lacville maintained so large and constant a train service.
Sylvia had written that she would engage a room for him at the boarding-house where she was staying; and Chester, who was very tired after his long, hot journey, looked forward to a pleasant little chat with her, followed by a good night's rest.
It was nine o'clock when he got into the Lacville train, and again he was vaguely surprised to see what a large number of people were bound for the place. It was clear that something special must be going on there to-night, and that "the fireworks on the lake" must be on a very splendid scale.
When he arrived at Lacville, he joined the great throng of people, who were laughing and talking, each and all in holiday mood, and hailed an open carriage outside the station. "To the Villa du Lac!" he cried.
The cab could only move slowly through the crowd of walkers, and when it finally emerged out of the narrow streets of the town it stopped a moment, as if the driver wished his English fare to gaze at the beautiful panorama spread out before his eyes.
Dotted over the lake, large and mysterious in the starlit night, floated innumerable tiny crafts, each gaily hung with a string of coloured lanterns. Now and again a red and blue rocket streamed up with a hiss, dissolving in a shower of stars reflected in the still water.
Down to the right a huge building, with towers and minarets flung up against the sky, was outlined in twinkling lights.
The cab moved on, only for a few yards however, and then drove quickly through high gates, and stopped with a jerk in front of a stone staircase.
"It cannot be here," said Chester incredulously to himself. "This looks more like a fine private house than a small country hotel."
"Villa du Lac?" he asked interrogatively, and the cabman said, "Oui, M'sieur."
The Englishman got out of the cab, and ascending the stone steps, rang the bell. The door opened, and a neat young woman stood before him.
"I am come to see Mrs. Bailey," he said in his slow, hesitating French.
There came a torrent of words, of smiles and nods—it seemed to Chester of excuses—in which "Madame Bailey" frequently occurred.
He shook his head, helplessly.
"I will call my uncle!"
The maid turned away; and Chester, with an agreeable feeling of relief that at last his journey was ended, took his bag off the cab, and dismissed the man.
What a delightful, spacious house! Sylvia had not been so very foolish after all.
M. Polperro came forward, bowing and smiling.
"M'sieur is the gentleman Madame Bailey has been expecting?" he said, rubbing his hands. "Oh, how sad she will be that she has already gone to the Casino! But Madame did wait for M'sieur till half-past nine; then she concluded that he must mean to spend the night in Paris."
"Do you mean that Mrs. Bailey has gone out?" asked Chester, surprised and disappointed.
"Yes, M'sieur. Madame has gone out, as she always does in the evening, to the Casino. It is, as M'sieur doubtless knows, the great attraction of our delightful and salubrious Lacville."
Chester had not much sense of humour, but he could not help smiling to himself at the other's pompous words.
"Perhaps you will kindly show me to the room which Mrs. Bailey has engaged for me," he said, "and then I will go out and try and find her."
M. Polperro burst into a torrent of agitated apologies. There was alas! no room for Madame Bailey's friend—in fact the Villa du Lac was so extraordinarily prosperous that there never was a room there from May till October, unless one of the guests left unexpectedly!
But Mr. Chester—was not that his name?—must not be cast down, for Mrs. Bailey had secured a beautiful room for him in another pension, a very inferior pension to the Villa du Lac, but still one in which he would be comfortable.
Chester now felt annoyed, and showed it. The thought of turning out again was not a pleasant one.
But what was this funny little Frenchman saying?
"Oh, if M'sieur had only arrived an hour ago! Madame Bailey was so terribly disappointed not to see M'sieur at dinner! A very nice special dinner was prepared, cooked by myself, in honour of Madame Bailey's little party."
And he went on to tell Chester, who was getting bewildered with the quick, eager talk, that this special dinner had been served at eight o'clock, and that Madame Bailey had entertained two friends that evening.
"You say that Mrs. Bailey is at the Casino?"
"Mais oui, M'sieur!"
It had never occurred to Chester that there would be a Casino in the place where Sylvia was spending the summer. But then everything at Lacville, including the Villa du Lac, was utterly unlike what the English lawyer had expected it to be.
M. Polperro spread out his hands with an eloquent gesture. "I beg of M'sieur," he said, "to allow me to conduct him to the Casino! Madame Bailey will not be here for some time, not perhaps for one hour, perhaps for two hours. I will have the luggage sent on to the Pension Malfait."
Strange—very strange! At home in Market Dalling Sylvia had always been fond of going to bed quite early; yet now, according to the hotel-keeper, she was perhaps going to stay out till one o'clock—till one o'clock on Sunday morning!
M. Polperro led Chester into the stately, long drawing-room; but in a very few moments he reappeared, having taken off his white apron and his chef's cap, and put on a light grey alpaca coat and a soft hat.
As they hurried along the path which skirts the lake, Chester began to feel the charm of the place. It was very gay and delightful—"very French," so the English lawyer told himself. The lake, too, looked beautiful—mysteriously beautiful and fairy-like, in the moonlight.
Soon they turned into a narrow dark lane.
"This is not a grand entrance to our beautiful Casino," said M. Polperro, ruefully, "but no matter, it is lovely once you get inside!" and he chuckled happily.
When in front of the great glass doors, he touched Chester on the arm.
"I wonder whether M'sieur would care to become a member of the Club," he said in a low voice. "I do not press M'sieur to do so! But you see, both Madame Bailey and her friends are members of the Club, and it is almost certain that it is there we shall find them. I fear it is no use our going to the Playing Rooms downstairs."
The Playing Rooms? Sylvia a member of a club? And—for Chester's quick, legal mind had leapt on the fact—of a gambling club?
No, that was incredible.
"I think there must be some mistake," he said distantly. "I do not think that Mrs. Bailey is a member of a club."
M. Polperro looked very much surprised.
"Oh, yes, indeed she is," he answered confidently. "It is only the quite common people who content themselves, M'sieur, with risking a franc and playing the little games. But just as M'sieur likes—" he shrugged his shoulders. "I do not press M'sieur to become a member of the Club."
Without answering, Chester paid the couple of francs admission for himself and his companion, and they walked slowly through the lower rooms, threading their way through the crowd.
"You see, M'sieur, I was right! Madame Bailey is in the Club!"
"Very well. Let us go to the Club," said Chester, impatiently.
He was beginning, or so he thought, to understand. The Club was evidently a quiet, select part of the Casino, with a reading room and so on. Sylvia had probably made friends with some French people in her hotel, and they had persuaded her to join the Club.
He was beginning to throw off his tiredness; the unaccustomed atmosphere in which he found himself amused and interested, even if it rather shocked him.
Ten minutes later he also, thanks to the kind offices of M. Polperro, and by the payment of twenty francs, found himself a member of the Club; free of that inner sanctuary where the devotees of the fickle goddess play with gold instead of silver; and where, as even Chester could see, the people who stood round the table, risking with quiet, calculating eyes their twenty-franc pieces and bank-notes, were of a very different social standing from the merry, careless crowd downstairs.
In the Baccarat Room most of the men were in evening clothes, and the women with them, if to Chester's eyes by no means desirable or reputable-looking companions, were young, pretty, and beautifully dressed.
Still, the English lawyer felt a thrill of disgust at the thought that Sylvia Bailey could possibly be part of such a company.
Baccarat was being played at both tables, but the crowd of players centred rather round one than the other, as is almost always the way.
M. Polperro touched his companion on the arm. "And now, M'sieur," he said briefly, "I will with your permission depart home. I think you will find Madame Bailey at that further table."
Chester shook the owner of the Villa du Lac cordially by the hand. The little man had been really kind and helpful. It was a pity there was no vacant room in his hotel.
He made his way to the further table, and gradually reached a point of vantage where he could see those of the players who were seated round the green cloth.
As is generally the case when really high play is going on, the people who were playing, as also those watching them, were curiously quiet.
And then, with a shock of surprise which sent the blood to his cheeks, Chester suddenly saw that Sylvia Bailey was sitting nearly opposite to where he himself was standing.
There are certain scenes, certain human groupings of individuals, which remain fixed for ever against the screen of memory. Bill Chester will never forget the sight which was presented to him in the Lacville Casino by the particular group on which his tired eyes became focussed with growing amazement and attention.
Sylvia was sitting at the baccarat table next to the man who was acting as Banker. She was evidently absorbed in the fortunes of the game, and she followed the slow falling of the fateful cards with rather feverish intentness.
Her small gloved hands rested on the table, one of them loosely holding a tiny ivory rake; and on a bank-note spread open on the green cloth before her were two neat piles of gold, the one composed of twenty-franc, the other of ten-franc pieces.
Chester, with a strange feeling of fear and anger clutching at his heart, told himself that he had never seen Sylvia look as she looked to-night. She was more than pretty—she was lovely, and above all, alive—vividly alive. There was a bright colour on her cheek, and a soft light shining in her eyes.
The row of pearls which had occasioned the only serious difference which had ever arisen between them, rose and fell softly on the bosom of her black lace dress.
Chester also gradually became aware that his beautiful friend and client formed a centre of attraction to those standing round the gambling-table. Both the men and the women stared at her, some enviously, but more with kindly admiration, for beauty is sure of its tribute in any French audience, and Sylvia Bailey to-night looked radiantly lovely—lovely and yet surely unhappy and ill-at-ease.
Well might she look both in such a place and among such a crew! So the English lawyer angrily told himself.
Now and again she turned and spoke in an eager, intimate fashion to a man sitting next her on her left. This man, oddly enough, was not playing.
Sylvia Bailey's companion was obviously a Frenchman, or so Chester felt sure, for now he found himself concentrating his attention on Mrs. Bailey's neighbour rather than on her. This man, to whom she kept turning and speaking in a low, earnest tone, was slim and fair, and what could be seen of his evening clothes fitted scrupulously well. The Englishman, looking at him with alien, jealous eyes, decided within himself that the Frenchman with whom Sylvia seemed to be on such friendly terms, was a foppish-looking fellow, not at all the sort of man she ought to have "picked up" on her travels.
Suddenly Sylvia raised her head, throwing it back with a graceful gesture, and Chester's eyes travelled on to the person who was standing just behind her, and to whom she had now begun speaking with smiling animation.
This was a woman—short, stout, and swarthy—dressed in a bright purple gown, and wearing a pale blue bonnet which was singularly unbecoming to her red, massive face. Chester rather wondered that such an odd, and yes—such a respectable-looking person could be a member of this gambling club. She reminded him of the stout old housekeeper in a big English country house near Market Dalling.
Sylvia seemed also to include in her talk a man who was standing next the fat woman. He was tall and lanky, absurdly and unsuitably dressed, to the English onlooker, in a white alpaca suit and a shabby Panama hat. In his hand he held a little book, in which he noted down every turn of the game, and it was clear to Chester that, though he listened to Mrs. Bailey with civility, he was quite uninterested in what she was saying.
Very different was the attitude of the woman; she seemed absorbed in Sylvia's remarks, and she leant forward familiarly, throwing all her weight on the back of the chair on which Mrs. Bailey was sitting. Sometimes as she spoke she smiled in a way that showed her large, strong teeth.
Chester thought them both odd, common-looking people. He was surprised that Sylvia knew them—nay more, that she seemed on such friendly terms with them; and he noticed that the Frenchman sitting next to her—the dandyish-looking fellow to whom she had been talking just now—took no part at all in her present conversation. Once, indeed, he looked up and frowned, as if the chatter going on between Mrs. Bailey and her fat friend fretted and disturbed him.
Play had again begun in earnest, and Sylvia turned her attention to the table. Her neighbour whispered something which at once caused her to take up two napoleons and a ten-franc piece from the pile of gold in front of her. Very deliberately she placed the coins within the ruled-off space reserved for the stakes.
Bill Chester, staring across at her, felt as if he were in a nightmare—gazing at something which was not real, and which would vanish if looked at long enough.
Could that lovely young woman, who sat there, looking so much at home, with the little rake in her hand be Sylvia Bailey, the quiet young widow whose perfect propriety of conduct had always earned the praise of those matrons of Market Dalling, whom Chester's own giddier sisters called by the irreverent name of "old cats"? It was fortunate that none of these respectable ladies could see Sylvia now!
To those who regard gambling as justifiable, provided the gambler's means allow of it, even to those who habitually see women indulging in games of chance, there will, of course, be something absurd in the point of view of the solicitor. But to such a man as Bill Chester, the sight of the woman for whom he had always felt a very sincere respect, as well as a far more enduring and jealous affection than he quite realised, sitting there at a public gaming table, was a staggering—nay, a disgusting—spectacle.
He reminded himself angrily that Sylvia had a good income—so good an income that she very seldom spent it all in the course of any one year. Why, therefore, should she wish to increase it?
Above all, how could she bear to mingle with this queer, horrid crowd? Why should she allow herself to be contaminated by breathing the same air as some of the women who were there round her? She and the stout, middle-aged person standing behind her were probably the only "respectable" women in the Club.
And then, it was all so deliberate! Chester had once seen a man whom he greatly respected drunk, and the sight had ever remained with him. But, after all, a man may get drunk by accident—nay, it may almost be said that a man always gets drunk by accident. But, in this matter of risking her money at the baccarat table, Sylvia Bailey knew very well what she was about.
With a thrill of genuine distress the lawyer asked himself whether she had not, in very truth, already become a confirmed gambler. It was with an assured, familiar gesture that Sylvia placed her money on the green cloth, and then with what intelligent knowledge she followed the operations of the Banker!
He watched her when her fifty francs were swept away, and noted the calm manner with which she immediately took five louis from her pile, and pushed them, with her little rake, well on to the table.
But before the dealer of the cards had spoken the fateful words: "Le jeu est fait. Rien ne va plus!" Mrs. Bailey uttered an exclamation under her breath, and hurriedly rose from her chair.
She had suddenly seen Chester—seen his eyes fixed on her with a perplexed, angry look in them, and the look had made her wince.
Forgetting that she still had a stake on the green cloth, she turned away from the table and began making her way round the edge of the circle.
For a moment Chester lost sight of her—there were so many people round the table. He went on staring, hardly knowing what he was doing, at the four pounds she had left on the green cloth.
The cards were quickly dealt, and the fateful, to Chester the incomprehensible, words were quickly uttered. Chester saw that Sylvia, unknowing of the fact, had won—that five louis were added to her original stake. The fair-haired Frenchman in evening dress by whom Mrs. Bailey had been sitting looked round; not seeing her, he himself swept up the stake and slipped the ten louis into his pocket.
"Bill! You here? I had quite given you up! I thought you had missed the train—at any rate, I never thought you would come out to Lacville as late as this."
The bright colour, which was one of Sylvia's chief physical attributes, had faded from her cheeks. She looked pale, and her heart was beating uncomfortably. She would have given almost anything in the world for Bill Chester not to have come down to the Club and caught her like this—"caught" was the expression poor Sylvia used to herself.
"I am so sorry," she went on, breathlessly, "so very sorry! What a wretch you must have thought me! But I have got you such a nice room in a pension where a friend of mine was for a time. I couldn't get you anything at the Villa du Lac. But you can have all your meals with me there. It's such good cooking, and there's a lovely garden, Bill—"
Chester said nothing. He was still looking at her, trying to readjust his old ideas and ideals of Sylvia Bailey to her present environment.
Sylvia suddenly grew very red. After all, Bill Chester was not her keeper! He had no right to look as angry, as—as disgusted as he was now doing.
Then there came to both a welcome diversion.
"Ma jolie Sylvie! Will you not introduce me to your friend?"
Madame Wachner had elbowed her way through the crowd to where Chester and Mrs. Bailey were standing. Her husband lagged a little way behind, his eyes still following the play. Indeed, even as his wife spoke L'Ami Fritz made a note in the little book he held in his hand. When in the Baccarat Room he was absolutely absorbed in the play going on. Nothing could really distract him from it.
Sylvia felt and looked relieved.
"Oh, Bill," she exclaimed, "let me introduce you to Madame Wachner? She has been very kind to me since I came to Lacville."
"I am enchanted to meet you, sir. We 'oped to see you at dinner."
Chester bowed. She had a pleasant voice, this friend of Sylvia's, and she spoke English well, even if she did drop her aitches!
"It is getting rather late"—Chester turned to Sylvia, but he spoke quite pleasantly.
"Yes, we must be going; are you staying on?" Sylvia was addressing the woman she had just introduced to Chester, but her eyes were wandering towards the gambling table. Perhaps she had suddenly remembered her five louis.
Chester smiled a little grimly to himself. He wondered if Sylvia would be surprised to hear that her neighbour, the fair Frenchman to whom she had been talking so familiarly, had "collared" her stakes and her winnings.
"No, indeed! We, too, must be going 'ome. Come, Fritz, it is getting late." The devoted wife spoke rather crossly. They all four turned, and slowly walked down the room.
Sylvia instinctively fell behind, keeping step with Monsieur Wachner, while Chester and Madame Wachner walked in front.
The latter had already taken the measure of the quiet, stolid-looking Englishman. She had seen him long before Sylvia had done so, and had watched him with some attention, guessing almost at once that he must be the man for whom Mrs. Bailey had waited dinner.
"I suppose that this is your first visit to Lacville?" she observed smiling. "Very few of your countrymen come 'ere, sir, but it is an interesting and curious place—more really curious than is Monte Carlo."
She lowered her voice a little, but Chester heard her next words very clearly.
"It is not a proper place for our pretty friend, but—ah! she loves play now! The Polish lady, Madame Wolsky, was also a great lover of baccarat; but now she 'as gone away. And so, when Mrs. Bailey come 'ere, like this, at night, my 'usband and I—we are what you English people call old-fashioned folk—we come, too. Not to play—oh, no, but, you understand, just to look after 'er. She is so innocent, so young, so beautiful!"
Chester looked kindly at Madame Wachner. It was very decent of her—really good-natured and motherly—to take such an interest in poor Sylvia and her delinquencies. Yes, that was the way to take this—this matter which so shocked him. Sylvia Bailey—lovely, wilful, spoilt Sylvia—was a very young woman, and ridiculously innocent, as this old lady truly said.
He, Chester, knew that a great many nice people went to Monte Carlo, and spent sometimes a good deal more money than they could afford at the tables. It was absurd to be angry with Sylvia for doing here what very many other people did in another place. He felt sincerely grateful to this fat, vulgar looking woman for having put the case so clearly.
"It's very good of you to do that," he answered awkwardly; "I mean it's very good of you to accompany Mrs. Bailey to this place," he looked round him with distaste.
They were now downstairs, part of a merry, jostling crowd, which contained, as all such crowds naturally contain, a rather rowdy element. "It certainly is no place for Mrs. Bailey to come to by herself—"
He was going to add something, when Sylvia walked forward.
"Where's Count Paul?" she asked, anxiously, of Madame Wachner. "Surely he did not stay on at the table after we left?"
Madame Wachner shook her head slightly.
"I don't know at all," she said, and then cast a meaning glance at Chester. It was an odd look, and somehow it inspired him with a prejudice against the person, this "Count Paul," of whom Sylvia had just spoken.
"Ah, here he is!" There was relief, nay gladness, ringing in Mrs. Bailey's frank voice.
The Comte de Virieu was pushing his way through the slowly moving crowd. Without looking at the Wachners, he placed ten louis in Sylvia's hand.
"Your last stake was doubled," he said, briefly. "Then that means, does it not, Madame, that you have made thirty-two louis this evening? I congratulate you."
Chester's prejudice grew, unreasonably. "Damn the fellow; then he was honest, after all! But why should he congratulate Mrs. Bailey on having won thirty-two louis?"
He acknowledged Sylvia's introduction of the Count very stiffly, and he was relieved when the other turned on his heel—relieved, and yet puzzled to see how surprised Sylvia seemed to be by his departure. She actually tried to keep the Count from going back to the Club.
"Aren't you coming to the Villa du Lac? It's getting very late," she said, in a tone of deep disappointment.
But he, bowing, answered, "No, Madame; it is impossible." He waited a moment, then muttered, "I have promised to take the Bank in a quarter of an hour."
Sylvia turned away. Tears had sprung to her eyes. But Chester saw nothing of her agitation, and a moment later they were all four out in the kindly darkness.
Even to Chester there was something grateful in the sudden stillness in which he and the three others found themselves on leaving the Casino.
"Not a very safe issue out of a place where people carry about such a lot of money!" he exclaimed, as they made their way up the rough little lane. "One could half-throttle anyone here, and have a very good chance of getting off!"
"Oh, Lacville is a very safe place!" answered Madame Wachner, laughing her jovial laugh. "Still, considering all the money made by the Casino, it is too bad they 'aven't made a more splendid—what do you call it—?"
"—Approach," said L'Ami Fritz, in his deep voice, and Chester turned, rather surprised. It was the first word he had heard Monsieur Wachner utter.
Sylvia was trying hard to forget Count Paul and his broken promise, and to be her natural self.
As they emerged into the better-lighted thoroughfare, where stood a row of carriages, she said, "I will drive with you to the Pension Malfait, Bill."
Madame Wachner officiously struck in, "Do not think of driving your friend to the Pension Malfait, dear friend! We will gladly leave Mr. Chester there. But if 'e does not mind we will walk there; it is too fine a night for driving."
"But how about your luggage?" said Sylvia, anxiously. "Has your luggage gone on to the Pension?"
"Yes," said Chester, shortly. "Your landlord very kindly said he would see to its being sent on."
They were now close to the Villa du Lac. "Of course, I shall expect you to lunch to-morrow," said Sylvia. "Twelve o'clock is the time. You'll want a good rest after your long day."
And then Chester started off with his two strange companions. How very unlike this evening had been to what he had pictured it would be! Years before, as a boy, he had spent a week at a primitive seaside hotel near Dieppe. He had thought Lacville would be like that. He had imagined himself arriving at a quiet, rural, little country inn, and had seen himself kindly, if a little shyly, welcomed by Sylvia. He could almost have laughed at the contrast between the place his fancy had painted and the place he had found, at what he had thought would happen, and at what had happened!
As they trudged along, Chester, glancing to his right, saw that there were still a great many boats floating on the lake. Did Lacville folk never go to bed?
"Yes," said Madame Wachner, quickly divining his thoughts, "some of the people 'ere—why, they stay out on the water all night! Then they catch the early train back to Paris in the morning, and go and work all day. Ah, yes, it is indeed a splendid thing to be young!"
She sighed, a long, sentimental sigh, and looked across, affectionately, at L'Ami Fritz.
"I do not feel my youth to be so very far away," she said. "But then, the people in my dear country are not cynical as are the French!"
Her husband strode forward in gloomy silence, probably thinking over the money he might have made or lost had he played that evening, instead of only noting down the turns of the game.
Madame Wachner babbled on, making conversation for Chester.
She was trying to find out something more about this quiet Englishman. Why had he come to Lacville? How long was he going to stay here? What was his real relation to Sylvia Bailey?
Those were the questions that the pretty English widow's new friend was asking herself, finding answers thereto which were unsatisfactory, because vague and mysterious.
At last she ventured a direct query.
"Are you going to stay long in this beautiful place, Monsieur?"
"I don't know," said Chester shortly. "I don't suppose I shall stay very long. I'm going on to Switzerland. How long I stay will a little bit depend on Mrs. Bailey's plans. I haven't had time to ask her anything yet. What sort of a place is the Villa du Lac?"
He asked the question abruptly; he was already full of dislike and suspicion of everything, though not of everybody, at Lacville. These Wachners were certainly nice, simple people.
"Oh, the Villa du Lac is a very respectable 'ouse," said Madame Wachner cautiously. "It is full of respectable—what do you call them?—dowagers. Oh, you need have no fear for your friend, sir; she is quite safe there. And you know she does not often go to the Casino"—she told the lie with bold deliberation. Some instinct told her that while Chester was at Lacville Sylvia would not go to the Casino as often as she had been in the habit of doing.
There was a pause—and then again Madame Wachner asked the Englishman a question:
"Perhaps you will go on to Switzerland, leaving Mrs. Bailey here, and then come back for her?"
"Perhaps I shall," he said heavily, without really thinking of what he was saying.
They were now walking along broad, shady roads which reminded him of those in a well-kept London suburb. Not a sound issued from any of the houses which stood in gardens on either side, and in the moonlight he saw that they were all closely shuttered. It might almost have been a little township of empty houses.
Again the thought crossed his mind what a dangerous place these lonely roads might be to a man carrying a lot of gold and notes on his person. They had not met a single policeman, or, indeed, anyone, after they had left the side of the lake.
At last Madame Wachner stopped short before a large wooden door.
'"Ere we are!" she said briskly. "I presume they are expecting you, sir? If they are not expecting you, they will probably 'ave all gone to bed. So we will wait, will we not, Ami Fritz, and see this gentleman safe in? If the worst came to the worst, you could come with us to our villa and sleep there the night."
"You are awfully kind!" said Chester heartily—and, indeed, he did feel this entire stranger's kindness exceptional.
How fortunate that Sylvia had come across such a nice, simple, kindly woman in such a queer place as Lacville!
But Madame Wachner's good-natured proposal had never to be seriously considered, for when her vigorous hand found and pulled the bell there came sounds in the courtyard beyond, and a moment later the door swung open.
"Who's there?" cried M. Malfait in a loud voice.
"It is the English gentleman, Mrs. Bailey's friend," said Madame Wachner quickly; and at once the Frenchman's voice softened.
"Ah! we had quite given up M'sieur," he said amiably. "Come in, come in! Yes, the bag has arrived; but people often send their luggage before they come themselves. Just as they sometimes leave their luggage after they themselves have departed!"
Chester was shaking hands cordially with the Wachners.
"Thank you for all your kindness," he said heartily. "I hope we shall meet again soon! I shall certainly be here for some days. Perhaps you will allow me to call on you?"
Once the good-natured couple had walked off arm in arm into the night, the door of the Pension Malfait was locked and barred, and Chester followed his landlord into the long, dark house.
"One has to be careful. There are so many queer characters about," said M. Malfait; and then, "Will M'sieur have something to eat? A little refreshment, a bottle of lemonade, or of pale ale? We have splendid Bass's ale," he said, solicitously.
But the Englishman shook his head, smiling. "Oh, no," he said slowly, in his bad French, "I dined in Paris. All I need now is a good night's rest."
"And that M'sieur will certainly have," said the landlord civilly. "Lacville is famous for its sleep-producing qualities. That is why so many Parisians content themselves with coming here instead of going further afield."
They were walking through the lower part of the house, and then suddenly M. Malfait exclaimed, "I was forgetting the bath-room! I know how important to English gentlemen the bath-room is!"
The pleasant vista of a good hot bath floated before Chester's weary brain and body. Really the house was not as primitive as he had thought it when he had seen the landlord come forward with a candle.
M. Malfait turned round and flung open a door.
"It was an idea of my wife's," he said proudly. "You see, M'sieur, the apartment serves a double purpose—"
And it did! For the odd little room into which Chester was shown by his host served as store cupboard as well as bath-room. It was lined with shelves on which stood serried rows of pots of home-made jam, jars of oil and vinegar, and huge tins of rice, vermicelli, and tapioca, in a corner a round zinc basin—but a basin of Brobdignagian size—stood under a cold water tap.
"The bath is for those of our visitors who do not follow the regular hydropathic treatment for which Lacville is still famous," said the landlord pompously. "But I must ask M'sieur not to fill the bath too full, for it is a great affair to empty it!"
He shut the door carefully, and led the way upstairs.
"Here we are," he whispered at last. "I hope M'sieur will be satisfied. This is a room which was occupied by a charming Polish lady, Madame Wolsky, who was a friend of M'sieur's friend, Madame Bailey. But she left suddenly a week ago, and so we have the room at M'sieur's disposal."
He put the candle down, and bowed himself out of the room.
Chester looked round the large, bare sleeping chamber in which he found himself with the agreeable feeling that his long, hot, exciting day was now at an end.
Yes, it was a pleasant room—bare, and yet furnished with everything essential to comfort. Thus there was a good big, roomy arm-chair, a writing-table, and a clock, of which the hands now pointed to a quarter to one o'clock.
The broad, low bed, pushed back into an alcove as is the French fashion, looked delightfully cool and inviting by the light of his one candle.
When M. Malfait had shown him into the room the window was wide open to the hot, starless night, but the landlord, though he had left the window open, had drawn the thick curtains across it. That was all right; Chester had no wish to be wakened at five in the morning by the sunlight streaming into the room. He meant to have a really long rest. He was too tired to think—too tired to do anything but turn in.
And then an odd thing happened. Chester's brain was so thoroughly awake, he had become so over-excited, that he could not, try as he might, fall asleep.
He lay awake tossing about hour after hour. And then, when at last he did fall into a heavy, troubled slumber, he was disturbed by extraordinary and unpleasant dreams—nightmares in which Sylvia Bailey seemed to play a part.
At last he roused himself and pulled back the curtains from across the window. It was already dawn, but he thought the cool morning air might induce sleep, and for a while, lying on his side away from the light, he did doze lightly.
Quite suddenly he was awakened by the sensation, nay, the knowledge, that there was someone in the room! So vivid was this feeling of unwished-for companionship that he got up and looked in the shadowed recess of the alcove in which stood his bed; but, of course, there was no one there. In fact there would not have been space there for any grown-up person to squeeze into.
He told himself that what he had heard—if he had heard anything—was someone bringing him his coffee and rolls, and that the servant had probably been trying to attract his attention, for, following his prudent custom, he had locked his door the night before.
He unlocked the door and looked out, staring this way and that along the empty passage. But no, in spite of the now-risen sun, it was still early morning; the Pension Malfait was sunk in sleep.
Chester went back to bed. He felt tired, disturbed, uneasy; sleep was out of the question; so he lay back, and with widely-open eyes, began to think of Sylvia Bailey and of the strange events of the night before.
He lived again the long hour he had spent at the Casino. He could almost smell the odd, sweet, stuffy smell of the Baccarat Room, and there rose before him its queer, varied inmates. He visioned distinctly Sylvia Bailey as he had suddenly seen her, sitting before the green cloth, with her money piled up before her, and a look of eager interest and absorption on her face.
There had always been in Sylvia something a little rebellious, a touch of individuality which made her unlike the other women he knew, and which fascinated and attracted him. She was a woman who generally knew her own mind, and who had her own ideas of right and wrong. Lying there, he remembered how determined she had been about those pearls....
Chester's thoughts took a softer turn. How very, very pretty she had looked last evening—more than pretty—lovelier than he had ever seen her. There seemed to be new depths in her blue eyes.
But Chester was shrewd enough to know that Sylvia had felt ashamed to be caught by him gambling—gambling, too, in such very mixed company. Well, she would soon be leaving Lacville! What a pity those friends of hers had given up their Swiss holiday! It would have been so jolly if they could have gone on there together.
He got tired of lying in bed. What a long night, as well as a very short night, it had been! He rose and made his way down to the primitive bath-room. It would be delightful to have any sort of bath, and the huge zinc basin had its points—
As Chester went quickly back to his room, instead of feeling refreshed after his bath, he again experienced the disagreeable sensation that he was not alone. This time he felt as if he were being accompanied by an invisible presence. It was a very extraordinary and a most unpleasant feeling, one which Chester had never experienced before, and it made him afraid—afraid he knew not of what.
Being the manner of man he was, he began to think that he must be ill—that there must be something the matter with his nerves. Had he been at home, in Market Dalling, he would have gone to a doctor without loss of time.
Long afterwards, when people used to speak before him of haunted houses, Bill Chester would remember the Pension Malfait and the extraordinary sensations he had experienced there—sensations the more extraordinary that there was nothing to account for them.
But Chester never told anyone of his experiences, and indeed there was nothing to tell. He never saw anything, he never even heard anything, but now and again, especially when he was lying awake at night and in the early morning, the lawyer felt as if some other entity was struggling to communicate with him and could not do so....
The whole time he was there—and he stayed on at Lacville, as we shall see, rather longer than he at first intended—Chester never felt, when in his room at the Pension Malfait really alone, and sometimes the impression became almost intolerably vivid.
But the longest night, the most haunted night, and Chester's night had indeed been haunted, comes to an end at last. After he had had another bath and a good breakfast he felt a very different man to what he had done three of four hours ago, lying awake in the sinister, companioned atmosphere of his bed-room at the Pension Malfait.
Telling his courteous landlord that he would not be in to luncheon, Chester left the house, and as it was still far too early to seek out Sylvia, he struck out, with the aid of the little pocket-map of the environs of Paris with which he had been careful to provide himself, towards the open country.